Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Conference

The conference I attended was the Friends Association for Higher Education conference, held jointly this year with the Friends Council on Education at George School, in Newtown, Pennsylvania. (Avid readers of this blog may recall that I also attended the FAHE conference last year, and posted about it here and here.)

In addition to the usual presenting and attending of workshops, catching up with old friends, and meeting new friends, the event for me was meaningful in other ways as well. Most especially, my work on the Executive Committee has resulted in the further development of my new leading, which involves how to help concerned scholars to work together more effectively to address the world’s problems. To my surprise, the other members of the Executive Committee liked my ideas so much that they decided not merely to accept my concern as a project of FAHE, but to adopt this theme for next year’s conference: Scholars for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability. (Next year’s conference will be June 14-17 at Earlham College.) This moves my concern forward more fully than I expected at this stage. I find this very exciting.

It is new for me to launch an idea that others take up so quickly and enthusiastically. Most of my work thus far has been solo work; to the extent that I have participated in group efforts, it is usually others who have guided those initiatives. Part of the reason my new leading has been initially scary for me is that its success absolutely depends upon others getting involved: others whose lives are already busy and complex. And I am basically a shy introvert with very little experience trying to inspire and motivate groups of people to new kinds of action. And yet, I feel really drawn to learn how to do this.

Part of what was amazing about the conference was that two different people on two different occasions talked about how one mark of a genuine leading is that it almost always demands something new from the person who has the leading. The first person who told that to me was a trusted friend. I found a quiet moment to share with him the fears and anxieties that were emerging for me: “As this unfolds, I don’t know what this will ask of me, and whether I will be ready!”

He told me that it is almost always the case that genuine leadings do require more from us than we may initially feel prepared for. And he also reminded me of John Woolman’s Barbados leading. “You only have to take it a step at a time, and discern each step along the way, being prepared even to stop and let others take over if that is how you should feel called. Sometimes a leading just is to put forth the initial vision that gets something going. Other times the leading does require you to stay involved. You can’t know all of this up front. All you have to do is try your best to be faithful at each given moment.”

Then he asked me what were my immediate next steps, and as I talked, strength, calm, and clarity returned. The shaking in my voice faded away, and a quiet authority began to settle in as I reviewed the path of the leading thus far and outlined the shape and future direction of the leading as I saw it at the moment. It was really amazing to feel a confidence come forth from some place in my soul much deeper than the anxiety.

(I must pause to say here that I am so fortunate to have found the Quakers. To be able to find friends like this! To be able to have this kind of conversation with someone! To be in the presence of others who let the spirit in to every conversation, and every decision! So many people on this planet have no idea that such community is possible.)

Ok, back to the story: The next affirmation was the following day in Meeting for Worship. Just when I was regressing to my anxieties (sparked by worrying now about the long car journey home, and letting that specific worry mushroom into a full-blown existential crisis), a young woman who teaches at a Friends School rose in Meeting for Worship to minister about how leadings don’t meet us where we are comfortable and confident in our most highly developed skills. Instead, they challenge us at our points of weakness, calling forth from us the development of new skills. At this point, I began to dissolve into tears, feeling melted down by God’s love.

Then one more person ministered. She was one of two Native American women visiting our conference to share reflections on parallels between Native American philosophy of education and Quaker philosophy of education. She spoke movingly about what this conference had meant to her. She had not known much about the Quakers before, and was astounded at what she had learned and experienced among us. Describing what she would tell her grandmother about the conference, if her grandmother were still alive, she concluded with, “And the Quakers saw us for who we are, and did not try to make us be other than who we are.”

I was not the only one in tears by the end. My tears were a vision of all the Concerned Peoples of the world finding each other and coming together to mend and heal this broken world. I saw tender care to a wounded planet, and I saw the loving stitching together of the torn fabric of human relationships.

Finally, I’d like to share a dream I had the first night of the conference. In the dream, I was sitting at front during a drumming concert, and I (along with a few others) was facing the audience as I sat and listened. The drumming was loud. Initially kind of exciting, it quickly wore on me. I was feeling beaten down by it, and I started to bend over, sinking lower and lower in my seat. Even though I knew I was “supposed to” put up a good front and not betray my distress, the drumming was feeling increasingly like an assault. Finally, I even had to cover my ears. Just when I thought I really couldn’t stand it anymore, it stopped. Instead of applause, there was a stunned silence, because the entire audience had been witness to my distress. Finally, the audience began to stir and filter out. A good friend of mine came over to me and said, “We have to talk.” Then I overheard people nearby. One explained to the others, “Yes, one time at one of these concerts, a student died. Another time, a teacher died.” And suddenly I realized that my response marked me as someone special, with a special kind of sensitivity like that student, and that teacher. But I had not died. Even the drummers themselves seemed relieved. They had to drum their beat which tells the story of all that is harsh and violent in the world, and they were as distressed as anyone else when it would turn out that there was someone in the audience sensitive enough to take all of this on and be destroyed by it. The fact that I had survived despite taking on the full horror of the experience was a ray of hope. This was why my wise friend wanted to talk with me. “Do you realize what this means? You are a sensitive, but you did not die. Do you realize what this means?!

When I woke up, I sensed that the dream was not really just about me, but about all of us who are sensitive, who face the world’s brokenness fully, and who care enough to want to make a difference despite the challenges and suffering this kind of work will require. The power of redemption is real, and it is manifest in such people. To move forward in spite of fear, to refuse to shy away from the possibility of pain, is the highest affirmation of life and love, and carries with it transformative power. This is the power that mends and heals the world. There is hope.