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Pieces of an NEYM Mosaic

We have set aside most of our usual business agenda, and are holding instead something we are calling "Meeting to Hear God's Call."

We are hearing a lot of messages about world suffering, economic injustice, environmental destruction.  We hear a lot of despair.

Some of the messages feel rooted in Spirit to me; if others are, it is not in a way that I can discern.  I wrestle with my own anxiety over doing "enough."  I know that I live in a manner that is far more comfortable than 90% of the planet's humans ever will; I know that my lifestyle is unsustainable.  I know that I have not sold all I have and given it to the poor (though I'm also grateful that, as a non-Christian among Friends, that one is not a given for me, but one whose social justice message must prove itself to me on its own terms, not just because Rabbi Yoshua said it back in the wayback.)  (Mind you, it's message is pretty damned compelling.)

I am in the weeds; I am in the tall grass.  So, I suspect, is my meeting.  And we are wrestling not just with the need to walk our talk, but with despair.

*     *     *     *

Will T. rises.  Gives a message about Abraham.  About God talking to this childless nonagenarian with an almost equally ancient wife.  Taking him out under the stars and telling him to look up: if you could count all the stars in the sky, that's how many your descendants will be one day.  God promises this.

The message is about Moses.  About wandering in the desert with the children of Israel, and about the Promise: there's a land.  I'm leading you there.  Just follow me, and you will be in the Kingdom of God.  About God keeping promises, and about the present reality of the Kingdom of God.

I remember my sense, last fall, sitting with Janet and her friends, as her wife Abby lay dying, and amid the grief and the sadness, feeling the love and the commitment we all had to one another and to both of them: my sense that I was, that moment, witnessing the Kingdom of God.

There is never reason to despair.  That promise is kept every day.  Filled with betrayals and pain though the world is, sick unto death though it may be, we are in the Kingdom as soon as we are faithful to where we are being led.

The promise? The Kingdom of God?  That is the place, surely, where we stop ignoring or objectifying the poor, we stop killing the earth, we stop distracting ourselves from loving and forgiving each other with our favorite addictions.

I have a sudden, almost overwhelming sense of what it would be like, to live into that Kingdom, and I'm almost overcome with joy--and with impatience at all the things we allow to interfere with our faithfulness as individuals or as a body.  Every moment I spend not heeding the call of Spirit is a moment I delay the Kingdom; every moment we listen, as a body, to our own wills, however altruistically we think we are motivated, is a moment we are not entering that Kingdom.

I want to weep.  But I no longer want to despair.  And my worship deepens.

*     *     *     *

Note to self: Re: ministry.  Is it possible that despair is one of the signs that a message is not of God?

*     *     *     *

Later on, I have the chance to tell Will how much his ministry meant to me.  I tell him both of my joy in the sense of the immanence of that "place" where we live faithfully in the world into the promise of justice and mercy Spirit gives us, and my deep, deep sadness that we are so good at delaying our entry there.

He reminds me that the Kingdom is present, and that there is a way we cannot delay it.  I share with him the story of being with Janet the night of Abby's death.  He nods.  While my vision of the Kingdom is not necessarily his, it is not too alien to be recognizable. 

*     *     *     *

N, a close friend from my home meeting, is surprised that Will's message spoke to me, both because of its Biblical imagery and on its own terms.  Far more Christian than I am, she found the talk of kingdoms off-putting.  "My God is not a King," she says.  I understand her point.

But I do keep having the sense that the Holy Spirit is a helluva translator.

*     *     *     *

Later, the same meeting as Will's message.  I feel a leading to speak; test it, sit with it.  It recurs.  I stand.

We are using "mike spacers"--both to deal with accoustics in this large, unfriendly space, and to assist the hearing impaired, when we rise with a message, we are asked to wait for one of two microphone bearers to bring us a microphone to speak into.  I wait patiently.

My message feels like a bookend to Will's.  It is not one that is natural to me, but, for the first time I am to give vocal ministry within the yearly meeting, that is good.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

Spirit's promises are kept.

*     *     *     *

I stand.  I wait for the mike runner.  I am handed the mike, recognized, and I breathe in to speak.

But I am standing in the clerk's blind spot, and she does not notice me, or that her mike runner has brought me the microphone.  Just I open my eyes to speak, I see that she is starting the handshake that signals rise of meeting.

For a moment, my inward gears clash and grind, caught between the imperatives of delivering a message and the social forms of politeness, and recognizing the form of the end of meeting.

I speak, but I hesitate.  I stammer; my voice is not clear.  While I did not get in the way of the message fully, neither did I get out of its way with perfect faithfulness.

I suppose that does not matter.  I hear Moses had a speech impediment, and vocal ministry is not a performance art.  But that moment of hesitation, between human forms and simple obedience, has made me clumsy.  I don't know how many people heard the message.

I did speak.  The handshakes paused as I spoke, then resumed, and we parted for lunch.

*     *     *     *

Later, I take a long walk with my friend K., and I need to talk about that stumbling message.  At first, she misunderstands me, thinks I am concerned that the message was inappropriate or not faithful.  She assures me that it felt Spirit-led to her.

One of the advantages of being non-Christian: when the Biblical stuff takes hold of me, it's so against my grain, my personal preferences, that I can be at least reasonably sure it is not ego-driven!  It's an odd thing to be grateful for, maybe, but I'm grateful for that.

My point is much more superficial, much more shallow.  I'd never spoken in yearly meeting before.  And the interruption by the handshake--it hurt.  It just hurt.

"Why don't you just give me a nice paper cut, and pour lemon juice in it!?" I complained, in my best Miracle Max voice.  And I spoke about how it felt like being smacked, being stung by a hornet, the way it happened.

At the same time, I'm well aware that my sting is not important, and that no one had intentionally done me any harm or disrespect.  I was just raw, open and vulnerable, the way one is when trying to open to Spirit.  And you know, shit happens.

Shit happened.  I was sitting/standing in a blind spot for the clerk's visual field.  Perfection does not exist among us humans, and there you go.

I begin to appreciate the importance of making a serious study of the art of forgiveness.  Because, short of hiding in your room for a lifetime, you're going to need to forgive a lot of people.  Sometimes including yourself.

What would be worse than rising with vocal ministry, being recognized, and being cut off by the handshake to end meeting?  What is worse than getting a paper cut with lemon juice in it?

Being the clerk who made the error.  Being the person who gave the paper cut and poured the lemon juice, however unwittingly.

We're human.  We're going to play both roles again and again and again.  We're going to need that forgiveness stuff--a lot, I'm pretty sure.


Hystery said…
Perhaps for some, despair is evidence that a message is not authentic. However, for me, connection to the Divine deepens out of my despair. In the existentialist sense of the word, it is my death to my old, well-loved self and the grief that accompanies that, that leaves me open to transformation and communion with the Sacred Presence.
Joanna Hoyt said…
Thanks for this rich post. it's helping me make sense of what I experienced.

I think for me despair is a necessary beginning place--probably because I spend so much of my life's energy on illusions. It might be a semantic thing; despair is the word I use for the dark heavy place where I end up when my false securities get broken up again. I spent a lot of NEYM thinking of this bit from Isaiah (50:10-11:

“Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God. Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.”

So when I speak of despair I guess I mean stading in the dark.

But this might not contradict the insight that despair is a sign that a message is not from Spirit. I think Spirit can speak in a way that shatters illusions and leaves us in the dark. And in a way that brings the dawn. But while I have to go through despair in order to reach a place of faithfulness. it might well be that I need to have come through the darkness back into the light before I speak.

I need to think more about this.
@ Hystery, @ Joanna,
I think it may be that we are using the word despair differently; that eases my mind a bit, because if I'm understanding you both correctly, what you are saying is a thing I can eagerly agree with.

There is, I think, a need to abandon false hopes and delusions before we can hear the Voice that we need to hear. And I think that you are right, Hystery, that grief can be an important gate into that Presence; and that you are also right, Joanna, that we often need to stand in the darkness, not rush to kindle false lights of our own.

But to me, despair is about abandoning true hope, not just the false hopes we use to lull ourselves into comfort. Having no hope, I see many people slouch into attitudes of ironic detachment from the wrongs we do in the world, or into a kind of armor of cynicism that teaches them there's nothing to be done. Or it teaches us to live in fear, approaching the universe as if it were an angry god, and throwing desperate actions into the world as if we were throwing volcano virgins into the lava--hopeless sacrifices and meaningless actions, just to keep us busy, just to convince us we can placate a justly angry god.

It's a helluva place from which to approach mending the world! And I thought I heard some of those tones in some of the messages I heard in Sessions, and that grieved me and made me wonder if I was wrong, if I shouldn't be committing myself to blind action after blind action. Is this what God wants? I found myself wondering.

I don't think it is, though. Will T's message spoke to me, and reaffirmed for me that God is ready this very second to lead us forward, if we can manage to be willing rather than self-willed, listening rather than shouting in our fear.

After ten years as a Quaker, I still don't see any way that human beings can ever create a world without war. I have no idea how to shape a world of peace.

Instead, my peace testimony is rooted on an understanding that I don't have to know how to do it; I can leave that to God to figure out, and just follow where She leads us. Not that that's easy, exactly, but it is a thought that gives me great hope: trust, really.

What I mean by despair is letting go of that trust. And I think that happens when we think we are responsible for doing Spirit's part in healing the world.

(Hooray! Officious and compulsive Fixer that I am, I am incredibly grateful to know that it actually is not my job to fix everything!)

But you are both right--to get to that place of real hope, real trust, you sometimes have to stand in some very dark places indeed, before you stop feeling like it's your job to do it all on your own. Or at least, so it is for me.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Cat.
Anonymous said…
Thomas Kelly wrote (as quoted by Catherine Whitmire in "Plain Living"):

"The last fruit of holy obedience is the simplicity of the trusting child, the simplicity of the children of God. It is the simplicity which lies beyond complexity. It is the naivete which is the yonder side of sophistication. It is the beginning of spiritual maturity, which comes after the awkward age of religious busyness for the Community of God - yet how many are caught and arrested in development, within this adolescent development of the soul's growth! The mark of this simplified life is radiant joy... Knowing sorrow to the depths it does not agonize and fret and strain, but in serene, unhurried calm it walks in time with the joy and assurance of Eternity".

I am not a Christian, so the part about Eternity has a somewhat different meaning for me than I imagine it had for Thomas Kelly, but that last sentence really resonated with me nonetheless. We need to do the work that we are called to do... but we also need to trust that when our work is done properly, by faithfully following our own measure of the Light, we need not despair. Small though my efforts may be in relation to the needs of the world, I can be filled with a joyful peace and calm... even though "knowing sorrow to its depths".

Thank you for this post, Cat.

Joanna Hoyt said…
Cat, I think I see what you mean now. I have sometimes concluded that God is not taking care of some situation and therefore I have to do something, anything, about it, now, or what goes wrong (because it's almost certain to go wrong anyway) will be my fault...a very unhelpful place to speak or act from. The volcano-virgin principle, I guess, though I'd never thought to name it so livelily before. I think despair is the word I use for the state in which I end up after one of these attempts has obviously miscarried, when I'm smacked back up against the realization that I can't do what needs to be done.

I don't seem to be temperamentally capable of ironic detachment/cynicism. If I was that would probably require a whole new set of tests and spiritual practices. So far if I just stop manufacturing false hopes I do find myself, after a longer or shorter dark time, sinking back to the root, to the true hope.
"The Holy Spirit is a helluva translator." Now *that's* a quote to keep written down and handy, esp. for those whose practice crosses traditions. Awesome.

Cat, I'm so accustomed to your thoughtful composed prose, it was hard to imagine the scenario where you felt uncertain in speaking. But having recently had my own feelings hurt badly from an unlikely source, I relate to being in that space of surprise and throbbing disappointment.

Thanks for this. I just wrote an entry a couple of days ago about the virtue of Hope, and the particularly Christian lineage of that specific virtue (although I've since found it cited as an ancient Roman public virtue, the only non-Christian tradition I've seen it in yet). I concluded that combatting despair requires being open to the Infinite Possibility of the Unknown. Maybe monotheisms have an easier time relating to the Divine as ineffable vastness that way.

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