(Note: although the Conference is over now, and I sit in reflection at home, internet was too iffy to allow for real-time posting. So I will put these up one by one, and feel free to pretend they were up a week ago!)
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Each day is so full it seems an entire world into itself. Already there is a routine, of light entering and leaving the world, of meals, of sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon, of the ebb and flow of people and their energy. I begin to recognize more faces, remember more names. I am learning other cultures, other customs, other words – and sharing in the delight that comes from the inquiry, the simple shock of meeting such differences. It is not a negative shock; rather, a kind of wonder, at the wideness and variety of the world. For many it is their first time meeting anyone outside of their home culture or country, and still we handle each other gently, with awe and tenderness at our differences, delight and laughter at our similarities.
In the morning we have a section of worship led in the style of one of the geographic sections of FWCC – today, it happened to be my home section, the English-speaking Section of the Americas. We were led in prayer and song, and sat in open silent worship. The main message of worship was given, much to my delight, by a speaker whose power and utter openness to god I had already experienced during my time at Pendle Hill. As it was before when I heard him, I remember little of the speech – so much of it sank beyond my memory as words and simply into my core. The few parts I do remember were of the story of the prophet Elijah. Elijah was faithful to god, but began to run too far ahead of the spirit, not trusting in god to do the work. He was eventually forced to flee town and wandered alone in the desert. At last he fell on the ground before god, alone, under a single tree, and begged god to take his life. But he was not alone; god came to him and said, “What are you doing here?” Elijah’s response was, “I was zealous for you, Lord!” And there was the error – for god does not require us to be zealous for god, to work hard for god. God only requires that we listen in faith, and act in faith, in surrender. The work is god’s, not ours.
The other part of the message stands out as a single sentence: “If we are to carry living water, our vessels must be made clean.”
Living water. Clean vessels. Zealous for god. These caught me, arrested me. What does it mean to be zealous for god? How are we taking too much into our own hands? What does it mean to live in surrender? What is the living water? And how are our vessels to be cleaned?
I was able to attend my home group today; yesterday I had arrived too late to participate. Our home group was a small – perhaps ten or twelve – group of people whose purpose was to get to know each other in a smaller setting, share worship and reflections on the theme, and generally support each other through the conference. Our group focused on introductions, and allowing each person to respond to two questions: the first, the most interesting place we had ever been, and the second, finishing the sentence, “The kingdom of god is like…” There were as many answers as people, all heartfelt, all providing glimpses into the richness of our lives, and all drawing us together.
In the afternoon I chose to attend a thread group I had missed the day before, Quaker History and Diversity. It was a lecture of the history of early Friends, starting with the origins of Quakerism in England. After a brief break, I entered my second thread group once more, on the topic of Sexual Brokenness. Our numbers had swelled from yesterday, perhaps half again as many people – and the day before we had around 35. Once again our facilitator set the space by reminding us to listen tenderly and carefully to all, enjoining us to listen in ‘holy indifference.’ I loved the phrase – an indifference that comes not from uncaring but from caring deeply, striving to see the light in all, listening for the loving intentions even if the words shocked us or grated against our beings. We began with a list of things we considered to be sexual brokenness, and then moved on to answering the question, “How can Friends be called by god to act towards sexual brokenness?”
As it did yesterday, the topic brought out a range of difficult emotions in everybody, myself included. Though I will not list specifics, to preserve privacy and respect, the range of experiences took my breath away. And even though there were clear disagreements, it was equally clear that everyone was dedicated to understanding – understanding the other perspective, listening as openly as they could, reserving judgment. For when the words grate against your soul, that is the time when we must listen hardest – and I believe that we all did. I left the meeting with an overwhelming sense of hope.
The last main event of the evening was a gathering of Young Friends, which took place after dinner when we all squeezed into a classroom on campus. Here was affirmed to range and diversity of places, meetings and practices that we represented, as we each reported on activities of Young Friends in our various regions. Each speaker also spoke with respectful intervals for our two translators, making Spanish-speaking and French-speaking Friends a part of our conversation as well.
When I was growing up, it was difficult to find Quakers my age – and now to be in a room full of them from all over the world filled me with a wild joy and hope. Even after the main body left, a smaller group of us swapped songs from our various meetings and cultures, each of us learning something new, each of us sharing something dear.
My answer in my home group earlier, to finish the sentence, “The kingdom of god is like…” was, “The kingdom of god is like a song. Though we do not know the words we recognize the melody, and we remember it even if we have not heard it for years. It speaks to us even if its tongue is not ours, and when we hear it, how can we keep from singing?”
Today, I could not keep from singing.