Have you experience of being squashed? I don’t mean a ‘cosy’ journey on the tube at rush hour, one of the few places you can have your head in someone’s armpit for ten minutes without even a ‘hello’. I mean, have you ever made a suggestion or had an idea that was, in the nicest possible way, roundly stamped on?
In most Quaker communities there will be well-established members and, hopefully, relative newcomers. With relative age and experience comes a certain degree of power and authority. Where power is concerned, we can choose to use it wisely, or abuse it. Unfortunately, we can often abuse it unthinkingly, with smiles on our faces. I have seen this happen in Quaker communities, with more seasoned Friends pulling younger or less experienced Friends to heel.
Several years ago, I took a course in Applied Christian Studies called Workshop. These weekends left me bursting with ideas. There were so many things to chew over and discuss. I was catapulted back to my meeting with a real fervor and thirst for religious depth. I must have been very annoying! Sadly, my memory is of being met by a wall of gentle disinterest. One particular conversation stands out – I suggested that we could eat together as a community more regularly and an elder exclaimed ‘I couldn’t possibly do more than I’m already doing!’ Squashed!
My meeting recently had a very successful discussion on our collective ministry. A strong theme that emerged was a desire for greater visibility within the local community. My partner announced his group’s suggestion of having an a-frame notice board outside the meeting house. No sooner had the meeting finished than an elderly and well-established member of the meeting came up to him, telling him very bluntly that no such thing was needed. Squashed! My partner, who had only just started coming to meeting regularly, held his ground well. He’s under no illusion that my meeting is any less (and I use this term in an affectionate way) bonkers than his previous church, and he has not let this deter him. How would a less resilient person have responded? Would this have deterred them from making suggestions in the future?
One of the ideas that stayed with me from Workshop is that the energy of a community comes from children and newcomers. The elders of the community are there not to control, but to protect and nurture. Children and newcomers should not be patronized or humored, they should be listened to and encouraged. Of course, zeal and enthusiasm may yield unworkable or inappropriate ideas, but in my experience listening and tender questioning, perhaps in the manner of a Meeting for Clearness, allows the individual to realise this for themselves. The quick squash may satisfy our desire for order and control, but it only leads to the stifling of the Spirit. Children and newcomers are not there to be controlled or molded in our own image (proselytized). Age and experience can easily embitter us and sap our creative strength. Jesus says “Behold, I am making all things new!” [Rev 21:5]. Creation is a key aspect of God. We are called to embody God’s creative Spirit. Our job is not preservation but renewal. We are not curating a museum but messily making the art works ourselves.
How are the contributions of children and newcomers received in your community? With a gentle laugh, a pat on the head, and your agenda firmly holding sway? Or with a humble, wise and listening heart, and the expectation of challenge and change?