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The Individual and the Meeting
by Martha Paxson Grundy
Part 4 of 4
Another responsibility of the group in regard to its care of the individuals of whom it is constituted is to set expectations of behavior within the group. Each meeting or group develops—either carefully and consciously or unthinkingly—a corporate culture that includes how we treat each other, how we live together, what we do when we hurt each other, disappoint each other, or don’t live up to the expectations of the group.
Individuals, on their part, need to conform to and support a healthy corporate culture. Most importantly, they need to “show up,” to “stay at the table,” to participate rain or shine, steadfastly, reliably. Getting one’s feelings hurt, pouting, and dropping out short circuits the possibility of the Divine Teacher working within the classroom of the meeting’s “school of the Spirit.” Recall the quotation from Patricia Loring that a great deal of the painful work is seeing one’s own faults in the mirror of others’ actions, and with God’s help dealing with the beams in our own eyes.
Each person needs to come with heart and mind prepared to listen humbly to the Divine Presence directly and as it comes through others in the group. This is true in our meetings for worship and when we attend to the business of the meeting. It is also true in our other dealings with each other. This means laying aside our cherished agendas and our own strong sense of how others need to change in order for the problem to be fixed. The dominant culture preaches self-actualization, looking out for number one, getting to yes, and a multitude of variations on the message of self-centeredness and how to reach decisions that get things done to produce the outcome we want. The Religious Society of Friends offers a different world-view, which puts God in the center. Each individual human is beloved and has a special place within the cosmos. But that place is not in the Center.
Our tradition has developed a structure in which the individual and the group are in balance, or in a healthy, creative tension. At times in our history things have gotten out of balance, or the tension has become destructive. In fact the nineteenth and twentieth century history of the Religious Society of Friends might be summed up as the years when we were unable to live with the tension of the violin strings, so that we deliberately cut them. Each group, defining itself in terms of how it was different from the others, grabbed part of the Quaker gestalt. Feeling lonely, it looked outside the Society to others with whom it felt some sympathy, and borrowed bits and pieces that did not always support the wholeness and the original powerful vision and experience of Friends. The consequence has been the branches, each busily adding theologies or practices from outside the tradition, are veering farther and farther apart from each other and from early Friends.
When things are working well within a meeting it can make beautiful music with the creative tension of the various “strings.” An individual may receive fresh or deeper revelation, which is then taken to the group for further discernment. The assumption has been that the larger group, with more hearts tuned faithfully to God, will together be able to discern God’s will more fully than a single individual. But sometimes the group’s hearts are careless and not listening. Nowadays individuals tend to go ahead and do their own thing anyway if the meeting isn’t united in support of their leading or project. But in more balanced times, a John Woolman, for example, waited and labored with his meeting until the whole group came to understand God’s new instructions for Friends. Part of our tradition includes the necessity for individuals to learn to submit willingly to the Greater Wisdom as expressed in the gathered meeting. The individual Friend submits to the discernment of the group when it has come together with hearts and minds humble and open to God, and while gathered in worship experiences unity in God’s presence. There is important work for both the individual bringing a leading, concern, new revelation, or vision, and for each individual who is a part of the group. All must engage in this labor, or our Friends’ balance will be off center.
Frances Taber describes “the classical Quaker understanding that the life of the meeting grows in response to the individual, personal faithfulness to God’s call in the lives of its members.” Rather than the self-centered query offered above, she suggests an alternative: “How can I contribute to the spiritual and/or to the community life of my meeting?”
The larger Religious Society of Friends is badly divided today, and within each branch there is a surprisingly wide (although usually partly invisible) spectrum of beliefs. These differences threaten to weaken us either by acerbic splits or by seeking a bland, safe, irrelevance. Douglas Gwyn describes today’s two ideological poles. One is “fundamentalist universalism” that insists the traditional truths it propounds are absolute and non-negotiable for all people everywhere. Its converse is “universalist fundamentalism” that insists that truth is beyond any group, and anyone claiming to know or impart any categorical formulation of truth is by definition wrong.
But this need not be a reason either to select one of these two unappealing poles each of which claims to uphold truth, or to sink into despair. There is another way. Our Friends tradition has built on the Scriptures and on John’s experience of Christianity, proclaiming that Truth is not a static entity to clutch tightly but is something to be enacted through faithfulness and love. As early Friend Thomas Curtis advised Isaac and Mary Pennington, the only way to know God’s Truth is to do it. Curtis paraphrased John, “He that will know my doctrines must do my commands”. Friends not only experience Truth, they do Truth. We have both a faith and a practice. Together they make Truth visible.
To return to the analogy of the three-legged stool, the stool must be constructed and it must be used. Its value lies not in being a well-constructed theory but in becoming a well-serving piece of furniture. It is not a museum display, or something to cherish because it belonged to great grandmother. It is a kit handed to us, and yet some assembly is required. The Instructor is standing here, ready to help us, and as we get the relationships right—between ourselves and the Divine and ourselves and one another—our witness to the world will take care of itself.
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