This has been a year of lessons for me. They have often been painful; they have always been powerful. So this one is going deep, folks.
Still here? All right, then.
The first lesson came from a debate on Facebook. I don’t get in debates on the Internet, but until recently I made an exception for friends, with the higher level of respect. One incident this spring, however, proved me wrong. The debate was on Catholicism and sex, so I was asking for trouble from the start. The limitations of the Facebook medium swiftly became apparent when the person on the other side of the debate misunderstood one of my points entirely, and launched onto a line of argument countering something she thought I had said, rather than what I’d meant. I thought of Woody Allen’s story “The Gossage-Vardabedian Papers,” in which a chess-by-mail match gradually turns into two entirely different games. Miscommunication aside, both my opponents and I were making good points, and I still feel mine are correct. However, as the argument grew more heated—and divergent—I apologized to my opponents and conceded defeat.
Why would I do that, if I was holding my own? Well, I’d had a nagging feeling in the back of my heart for the entire discussion. Something was wrong. Then I realized that I was wrong—not because of bad logic, but because I was in the debate for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t there to advance the truth; I was there because I wanted to win.
That selfsame week, to underscore the point, I was able to help one of my friends. She told me in the morning that she had been wrestling with a particular issue, and I offered to help. She said she’d take me up on that after she was home from work. I went for a walk in a nearby park, seated myself on a picnic table, centered myself, and asked the Light what I should say to her. The answers I got did not immediately untangle her puzzle, but they led her quickly to a breakthrough. She had a moment of pure joy and realization that was a delight to behold.
The lesson was plain: if I were involved for the right reasons, and if I asked the Light what I should say, I could help people. If I were in it for myself, I would wind up in a swamp—no matter how righteous my case.
You’d think I would have learned, but one of the really typical and annoying parts of being human is that we have to be hit with the same lessons over and over again before we truly learn. Moreover, I’d built myself a big problem.
I had been looking forward to the Gathering of Friends General Conference, the world’s largest meeting of liberal unprogrammed Quakers with over a thousand coming together for a week. I had saved up money, gotten a ride, signed up the day that registration opened, and counted down the weeks and days. I was excited to be around so many other Quakers, and I was excited about the workshop I had enrolled in: “Life by Leading,” led by Marge Abbott and Allison Randall, on living according to discernment.
But the real reason I was going was because I thought I was going to fall in love.
I had my reasons. First and foremost there’s my personal history with Quaker shindigs: I met the only girlfriend I’ve had at the New Years’ Gathering of Young Adult Friends. And since I so admire Quaker women—my last five crushes have all been Quakers—FGC, with young adult attendance of over a hundred, seemed like the perfect place to meet someone special. Most crucial of all, however, I thought that God had made me a promise that I would meet my next love this year. I had gotten all kinds of hints and suggestions, from opening my Bible at random and finding a passage about Jacob and Rachel, to a sensation on New Year’s Eve that it was the last New Year’s I would spend alone. So I felt pretty confident that I was going to meet someone soon, and FGC seemed like the best place.
I didn’t tell anyone about this. I knew that anyone I talked to would dismiss the idea, particularly the time limit. So I kept quiet. In particular I didn’t say anything to my mother.
At the workshop at FGC, however, talking things over with strangers, I put a disguised version of my certainty to the test. I mentioned that I had kept it from Mom, and one of the others pointed out that my whole body language shifted when I’d said that. Simply by asking general questions, my workshop partners began to unravel my conviction—and by mid-week, I realized that I had fooled myself. (The fact that my lady had failed to turn up as expected helped to undermine my conviction, too.)
Let me tell you how much of a fool I had been. Since I’d figured whoever I met would live somewhere else in the country, I’d been planning how to conduct a long-distance relationship. I’d been budgeting for air fare and looking at the calendar for suitable long weekends. I’d refused to serve in any serious capacity for New Year’s Gathering, since I might be spending New Year’s in some other part of the country with my lady-love. I’d been ignoring any other possibility of romance from other parts of my life, lying to my friends and to myself about why I was insisting on only dating Quaker women. I’d been preparing, planning, even expecting to move out of Seattle to be with this hypothetical long-distance lover. Every plan factored “her” in, every part of my life was on hold until I “met her,” every prayer I made had something to do with “her.” I had reshaped my life around my certainty that I would soon find “the one,” since I was so sure that my certainty flowed from a divine promise.
Thus, when this hit me on Wednesday at FGC, far from home and surrounded by strangers, it wasn’t just disappointment at not getting to kiss anyone that week that floored me. It was the realization that everything I had planned for the next phase of my life was now totally pointless, and that every message I’d been so sure came from God was now called into question. It shook me to the core.
So I picked myself up and called Mom. I joked to the people I’d come with that I’d traveled two thousand miles just to learn that I had to talk to my mother. Mom agreed that I’d deceived myself, and that God doesn’t work within time limits like that. In short, she said exactly what I’d thought that she’d say and what I hadn’t wanted to hear. I had refused to test a leading because I knew it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, and then accepted the leading as Truth anyway.
The crushing lesson was that I am not as good as I think I am, and that I am not as connected to God as I had thought. Some have called me prophetic, but when it came to my own life, all I had ever prophesied was just a rose-tinted dream. I hadn’t followed good practice, I hadn’t put my “leading” to the test, and I had not, in fact, been hearing God at all.
I went to North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Annual Session with this sitting on my shoulders. I had accepted that I was not as competent as I thought, but I still had a lot of jobs to do as Young Adult Friends clerk. So I went. One of the efforts I make as clerk is to get to all the plenary sessions. Over several of these business meetings I watched the assembled people of NPYM digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole. Several committees were seeking guidance, or new committees were being proposed, on “communication,” “structure,” and so on. At one point a Friend stood and commented that we had just approved the second or third ad hoc committee to work on the same rather nebulous problem. People kept saying what NPYM was for, or then answering with a contradicting idea, and I never once heard them mention God. Process ground to a halt. I kept looking around, waiting for someone to speak of the Spirit, wondering if truly nobody else had noticed that this branch of the Religious Society of Friends was no longer being terribly Religious… or Friendly.
Then Dorsey Green stood and said, roughly paraphrased, “Something’s wrong here. I can’t put my finger on what, but something’s wrong.”
That’s when I knew I had to speak. So I stood and waited for the clerk to recognize me, shaking in my sneakers. It took ages for him to get around to me, and by the time he did, I was practically vibrating to pieces. I managed to get out my message: “NPYM has one job: to follow the will of the Spirit. Maybe the reason we feel so lost is that we’re nowhere near that will.” And then, without really thinking about it, I added: “As to the problems of communication and structure: I have no idea what do do. But for finding the will of the Spirit, I’d say we should start with some quiet.”
One of the next speakers was Becca Mulholly-Renk, one of our Friends in Residence. Becca said that she was an outsider, but that if it were up to her, we’d rearrange the chairs, form a circle, and enter worship. The clerk thanked her and attempted to move on to the next item of business.
Then Kathy Hyzy stood up. She didn’t wait for the clerk to recognize her; she didn’t wait for the microphone runners to reach her. She simply roared. “Friends, we are not finished!” she hollered into the shocked room. “Paul was right! Becca was right! We cannot move on!”
At that point it all broke loose. The clerk lost control of the meeting, and our meeting for business was suddenly a meeting for worship. The words flowed out of person after person: because our process had become so painful, they’d started to think that they wouldn’t ever come back to an annual session. It was a confessional session, as we owned up to the pain and unease we’d been feeling. And once we began to give the problem voice, we weren’t able to stop. The plenary had been well over time to begin with, and our passion—and I mean that in the original sense: passion is Latin for pain—was rolling on unceasing.
Eventually Patty Lyman stood up and held the silence. (I call it “Pulling an Ashley Wilcox.”) Everyone waited for her to speak, and then settled into silence as they figured out what she was up to. Patty held the silence for a good long while, and then said, “Perhaps we should trust the clerk and the committees to do their jobs.” She brought the flood of feeling to an end and handed the meeting back to the clerk, allowing us to escape our tumultuous emotions. The outbreak was exactly what needed to happen, but it had done its work, and to go further would be wasted breath and wasted time. The clerk swiftly adjourned the meeting.
Afterward there was much hugging and some crying. Becca and Kathy and I thanked each other. (I made sure to thank Dorsey and Patty afterward, too.) Someone came up and told me that I might well have kept him a Quaker. Another Friend said she hoped I’d “lanced the boil.” Friend after Friend thanked me for heeding the call of the Spirit. We don’t have any idea what, if anything, will change. We know that we have been walking in darkness, but we also know that we can, in fact, still see the Light.
Because it was the Spirit who spoke through me. I still hesitate to say that, but I have to admit it, considering that a dozen weighty Friends have told me so, and considering what flowed forth from the meeting after Kathy turned us loose, and considering that I, totally at home with public speaking, was a quivering wreck by the time the mic finally got to my hands. Friends, I was Quaking in the presence of the Lord.
So the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I traveled two thousand miles to learn that I had tricked myself, that I had set up my own desires in the place that only God should be. My confidence was so shaken that I could not trust anything I’d ever been given to say… and then the Spirit hurled a message into my heart, stronger than any I’ve ever felt, burning so hot that I had to give it or explode, a message that (with help) stopped an entire Yearly Meeting in its tracks.
And thus I have learned two lessons.
First: there is nothing so dangerous to a Quaker as the desire to be right. Wanting to be right has led me far astray this year. On the one hand I corrupted my arguments; on the other, I managed to pretend an elaborate fantasy was the will of God. Who knows where I would be headed if I hadn’t recognized that?
Second: the second-most dangerous thing to a Quaker is staying silent when the Light truly speaks. For I’ve helped a lot of people this year by speaking the words I’ve been given, and their suffering would have gone on without my words. (It may yet go on anyway, of course…)
This summer the Spirit took my dreams, broke them over the Holy Knee, scattered the fragments to the wind, then gave me something real. I have been shaken and chastened. I don’t claim to be much better than I was. I still find myself arguing in my head, readying “just the right argument” to flatten all opposition. I still find myself burning with self-righteous certainty that I am right. But I am learning, bit by bit, that there is only one way for a Quaker to be right: by sitting in the worshipful silence and waiting, until the right words are given to us to speak… and then to speak what we are given, no less and no more.