Thursday, May 23, 2013

A bowl filling with water

I had a lovely lunch the other day with Bob Schmitt, who has for some time been involved in Quaker circles around the topic of "eldering." Now, I've mostly heard this in terms of imposing discipline: lovingly reproving or correcting someone you believe to be headed off the rails. In a liberal context of people-can-believe-what-they-want-to-believe, it's kind of a touchy subject: one person's batpoop-crazy is another's touched-by-the-noodly-appendage.

What I had not understood, and what I got to understand in a fairly brief discussion at the end of our visit, was that among many Friends (early Friends and presently mostly Conservative Friends), "elders" are not just the disciplinarians. They are specifically a sort of yin to the yang of ministry (or maybe I got that backwards). Quakers do "record" or officially recognize ministers, who then may travel to speak and witness. Historically, traveling ministers were usually accompanied by an elder, whose job was specifically to "hold" that ministry in prayer, to offer a kind of grounding to the potentially wild electrical field generated by powerful ministry (I'm speaking metaphorically here—just want to be sure that's clear).

I find this sense of a counterbalance to ministry very intriguing. It goes along with the idea of discernment, which I've long found one of the most useful parts of Friends' practice: you aren't supposed to just follow every harebrained scheme you think God's tossed at you, but to be deliberate in following the fiery finger of command, to try and approach closer a grounded certainty that you are in fact being asked to do what you think you are being asked.

In meeting a few months ago, I asked (silently) what we were doing there, and the image that popped almost instantly into my mind was of a shallow bowl, designed to hold water. Our job was to support and pay attention to this bowl, into what would be poured what was needed. OK then, I thought. A week or two later, at a very raw-emotion-filled meeting, I found myself doing what I had heard of other Friends doing, really concentrating on listening to the whole, both said and unsaid. And it was a lot like holding that bowl. Apparently this is what is meant by "eldering" by "holding the meeting." Go figure.

For most of my time as a Quaker, I've been very focused on ministry: I speak in meeting, probably more than I ought. I'm interested in what people do and how they do it in a way that ministers to others and to the world, and I've thought of that for a long time as what being a Friend is largely about. And I've been frustrated by something just... off about how Friends, in particular liberal Friends, approach what it means to be a Quaker. Never been able to put a handle on it, but I think this is it: we are chronically out of balance between ministry and eldering.

It's like a gaggle of kids who have been sent out to fetch the water. Everyone wants to pull the pump-handle, and it gets so that people think "getting the water" means manning the pump. But what about the people holding the bucket to receive that water?