Last Sunday I sat in a circle of 25 persons who had gathered to discuss a matter that really challenged us. We held deep and clashing opinions about how to spend the group’s money! Going around the circle, we took turns speaking as we each earnestly tried to explain the hopes and concerns that contributed to our differing positions.
I belong to a Friends Meeting, a local congregation of Quakers. We have sometimes been labeled ‘peculiar’ for our form of worship – sitting in silence until someone is led by the Spirit to offer a spoken message. But Quakers have an additional peculiarity that is less known. When our organization needs to make a decision, we will never vote on it. Nor do we have a leader who imposes a decision. So how do we find our way forward?
We find our way by listening to each other, by listening for God’s guidance for our Quaker community. Only through careful listening can we hear the wisdom and truth each person has to offer. We need each individual contribution to help us find our way into harmony with God’s ways. When we conclude that a specific decision is “Spirit-led”, we call it coming to unity.
Last Sunday was an unusual Friendly event. We engaged in a special listening exercise because we were stuck. We had not come to unity, and we needed more time than our usual business meeting provided for speaking, listening, and reflecting together. The options for using our money were all good ones, but we as a community couldn’t agree on a choice. Traditionally, this kind of listening session has been called “threshing.” Farmers of earlier times threshed wheat to sort out the good grains. We needed to listen to each other until we’d uncovered the kernels of truth, and blown away the chaff.
After two hours of going around the circle, speaking of our hopes and explaining how we felt, we were all tired. But something had shifted. We’d practiced patient, loving listening. We’d come together prepared to wrestle with a troublesome issue, and the result was that we’d learned to know each other better.
In those hours, we spoke of deeply felt disappointments, of childhood traumas, of the experiences and foundational beliefs that shaped our lives. We said how much we loved and trusted each other in spite of our differences. Being vulnerable is never easy, but there was enough trust in this gathering, enough love in this listening to share deeply and speak openly. Some spoke passionately about the option they espoused, but no one decried the other possibilities as wrong. Speaking from our hearts freed us to listen with our hearts.
It would be nice to name the final decision here, but it won’t be made until our business meeting next month. I know, however, that reaching a decision is not the only consideration. How the decision is made is tremendously important, too. Does the decision-making process hurt the community or does it draw people closer and strengthen their bonds?
Whatever decision is finally made regarding the money, I know the community has become stronger. We are a group of people who have come together seeking to live out God’s love more fully. We have learned from each other, and we have grown more deeply committed to our shared spiritual journey.
I have been part of this Friendly community for forty years. There have, of course, been other challenges and tough decisions through the years. Quakerly differences can be strongly expressed and stubbornly adhered to. As I reflect on those years, however, I know that my journey within this community has profoundly strengthened my ability to love. In a spiritual community, we rub against each other until we are finely polished and reflect the Divine Light, –and are light for others.