Sunday, November 12, 2006

Speaking and Listening

A few weeks ago, during Meeting for Worship at Atlanta Friends, a Friend rose and spoke at some length using very Christian language. This is not new, in that this particular Friend usually speaks this way. This time, however, another Friend spoke about using a language that others can hear, and it felt to me like she was referring to the first Friend's choice of words. It appears to me that many Friends in my meeting tend to stick with words like "Light" and "Spirit" and tend to shy away from saying "God" or "Jesus" and rarely use the name "Christ". I have some difficulties with this, especially with what I perceive as a bias against Christian language - that people who best express themselves with a Christian vocabulary must instead hide behind more vague terms. What I find particularly distressing is that the usual reason for this is that many people are refugees from spiritually abusive churches and find Christian language uncomfortable. By avoiding this language, we reinforce the idea that it is bad, instead of showing that it isn't the language that is bad but the way it has been used by others. While it seems that much of the focus is on how we speak, I believe we should instead be looking at how we listen.

The wife of a friend of mine is a native Spanish speaker, and she once found herself working with a couple of Italian engineers. She did not speak Italian, and they did not speak Spanish, but the languages are quite similar, and they discovered that if they each spoke their native languages, the other was able to understand well enough for them to work. It was much easier for them to find words in the vocabulary they knew, rather than to try to find fitting words in a language that they had only a little familiarity with. They were able to rely on the common ancestry of their languages to be able to hear what each other was trying to say. If our words in Meeting for Worship all come from that single divine source (hey, I can dream), why can we not listen and hear Christ's voice through those words. Why should we ask people to instead translate into language that may not express what God wants them to express?

The second chapter of Acts describes the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and filled the apostles, and they spoke in other languages (i.e. they spoke in tongues). The remarkable thing is that those in the crowd heard the words in their own language. The Holy Spirit, the Inner Light , or whatever you wish to call it, helped those in the crowd to hear, just as it helped the apostles to speak. Can we not allow that Spirit to do the same thing in us today, and to truly hear and "feel where the words come from"?


  1. Perhaps this is a matter that could profitably be taken to Atlanta Friends Meeting for Business -- requesting that the meeting hold a series of classes for its members and attenders on How to Speak and How to Listen in Meeting for Worship. With an emphasis on How to Listen.

  2. Mark,

    It seems that your Ministy and Worship committee is the place to start. If you get involved (nudge) you might just observe which Friends approach individuals to speak to them about sensitive matters. When they do you just might observe that one or two of them seem to do this especially well. Those people are in fact elders even if nobody names them as such.

  3. Mark,
    I think the problem you mentioned is a rather common one in Quaker meetings--unfortunatily.
    There are those of us--myself included--who like to use Christian references and terminology when speaking about what God has spoken to my heart. But yet we sometimes don't say what we want to say for fear of making non-Christian Quakers uncomfortable. I know that some people in my meeting fled abusive fundamentalist churches and don't like explicit Christian language.
    But yet, if I can't say what God has placed in my heart what good does it do? Now I really don't have a problem with saying "Inner Light" instead of "Jesus" but why do I have to hold back on what I really want to say? I really wish we were all comfortable just saying what God wants us to say and not worry so much about "offending" someone. And, like you said, isn't it better for someone who fled an abusive church to know that there is another way of looking at Christianity? That there is a Christianity that emphasizes love, mercy and forgiveness instead of judgement, narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness.

  4. Not surprisingly I disagree, somewhat, with Marshall. Where no elders have yet be recognized meetings need to do what needs to be done. So creating a Ministry and Oversight committee out of whichever Friends are willing to serve is often what needs to be done. In North Carolina conservative that is what has to happen in many of our monthly meetings since the traditional practices are hard to maintain. But does naming elders serve a purpose? It does indeed. Stories abound of people taking it upon themselves to elder someone and doing it badly. In fact your story seems to be an example of something deciding to "elder" a Friend for using Christian language. And I would guess that this Friend who decided to do this "eldering" considered himself a seasoned Friend. It is very clear to me that some people are especially discerning of what to say and how to say it when it comes to gently guiding people and others, while they may be able to discern the truth about their own leadings, are not able to see clearly in these matters. When the community as a whole tries to use its power of discernment to figure out who elders well it throws a spotlight on what good eldering looks like.

  5. Mark,

    What a beautiful insight into the Spirit's descent in Acts 2. "Each heard in their own tongue." When I hear Buddhists or Hindus talking about their experience of the Holy, there is something that resonates with me. I know through their words that they have experienced the same Light as I have.

    For me, my experience of God can only be told in the language of Christianity. That is what I know. That is the language with with I was reared. It is in the pages of the Bible that I see the move of God, the stories (midrash) that give light to my understanding of the Holy.

    As a gay man, I could be one of those folks who could not bear to hear Christian language because of the hurt inflicted by the church and by Christians. And, indeed Mark, there was LOTS of hurtful things I heard and felt growing up in an evangelical home. Heck, I remember being beat up (thus the crooked nose) by the same members of my youth group with which I prayed and worshipped at church camp because I was a bit effiminate.

    But you grow up, you learn to forgive and you learn that it was not Jesus, but those whose veiw of Jesus was filitered through right wing extremism that did hurtful things. And why should I be different than any other Christian who attempts to follow the teachings of Jesus? Followers of the Lamb have been persecuted throughout history for many reasons..."blessed are the meek...blessed are the merciful...blessed are the pure of heart...blessed are the peacemakers." And, sadly, at times I have been the persecutor as well.

    When I was convinced that this Way was a Path I could walk which would connect me with God, I was thrilled by everything I read in early Quaker writings about our faith. I had no idea that many who are active in the Society of Friends found that Path repugnant and offensive.

    On my better days, I realize that God can reach folks where they are and bring them to healing and to the ability to hear from the Living Christ. On less than good days, I am frustrated that Friends will follow any path save that of the Path we have inherited from our spiritual forebearers. On these days, I wonder that even though "each one heard in their own tongue" at what point do we become a tower of Babel where there is no common tongue which serves to unite us as a Beloved Community. And on those days I wonder at what point God will destroy our tower and raise up a new Community to be Christ's Bride.

    Above all, I long for the day when what John saw comes to pass: "Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they'll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age."

    Sorry for being so wordy (how unQuakerly) but your post really touched me and spoke to my condition. Thanks f/Friend. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to seeing you and Ceal again.


  6. RichardM writes, "When the community as a whole tries to use its power of discernment to figure out who elders well it throws a spotlight on what good eldering looks like."

    I am very comfortable with the idea of the community as a whole using its powers of discernment to throw a spotlight on what good eldering looks like. But there is no need to get personal about it; it can be done without any talk about "who elders well" in the meeting and who does not.

    And I am not at all comfortable with the community trying to make public judgments about "who elders well" as a way of handling some poor sod who just thought she/he was answering a problem minister. There are better and less personally judgmental ways of dealing with such behavior.

    From the story as Mark originally told it, the problem speaker -- the person who took exception to the first person's Christian language -- did not pull the first person aside and speak to her/him privately, but rather, presented her/his disagreement publicly during meeting for worship. So this second person thought that she/he was actually speaking ministry.

    The issue before us in this story, therefore, is not an attempt at eldering in any normal sense of the word, but poor speaking and poor listening in the context of meeting for worship. To try to handle it in the meeting community as an eldering issue, rather than a speaking-and-listening-in-meeting-for-worship issue, would very likely confuse many members of the community.

  7. Howdy Marshall. Looks like Eldering continues.

    I want to say, eldering someone publically on the floor of Meeting for worship does happen -- and I have seen it done by members of our Ministry and Counsel (M&C I presume is the Canuck version of your M&O). I think generally doing so is a mistake for all the reasons already noted. It also tends to fan flames of discord rather than dowse them.

    I suspect it comes form opur hang ups with authority. Nobody acn tell you what to believe -- so you say it in the relative safety of Meeting and disguise it as an FYI.