Walk With Me (#42): Follow the Still, Small Voice

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do

Dear Asha,

I have been very active in my faith community — right up until the world shut down for Covid. Online worship was never going to fill my bucket,though, so I have been without for over a year now. Slowly but surely we are moving towards reopening but the thing is, I have not missed it at all. I missed the people and the community, but not the worship or the responsibility.

I am pretty conflicted about this, especially because my choices 1) Have ramifications on the rest of my family as my partner does not feel the same as I, 2) I really love those folks and feel a sense of obligation to them, and 3) This is indicative of my lifelong struggle with organized religion in general.

Care to talk me through it?

GRO

Dear GRO,

Everything I know about being part of a religious community is based on my lifelong experience as an unprogrammed Quaker, which is a very particular kind of community, but perhaps there are things in what I can say about being part of that community that will be helpful.

For those not in the know about such things, unprogrammed Quakers don’t have pastors or priests or rabbis or, more often than not, any staff at all. This means that everything, from pastoral care to educating new members to hospitality to building maintenance, has to be done voluntarily and collectively by members of the community. Also, Quakers are collective process-oriented, so generally, no single person is given a specific job. Everything is done by committee. There are committees about committees, for god’s sake.

Those committees are full of imperfect humans with varying degrees of history with Quaker process, varying degrees of self-awareness, and, in my experience, a near-universal aversion to conflict or discomfort. It is often exhausting. It is also weirdly exhilarating when it actually works, which it does more often than you might expect.

I left Quakerism for about 12 years in my mid-adulthood, and coming back as a more fully-formed human has been an exercise in learning to offer and accept grace for our imperfect, earnest attempts to be in community together while channeling Spirit into the world. I have learned to be more loving and patient with myself and others, which has deepened my experience of God.

I’ll tell you, though, when I first came back to Quakerism in the midst of a brutal divorce I did not have a single iota of energy to actually participate in the work of the community. Because everything needs to be done collectively, and there is a lot of work to do to keep a community vital, Quakers can be overbearing in their desire to rope newcomers into being part of the collective process, but the level of crisis I was in made me completely impervious to that pressure. Luckily, and unusually, my Meeting was remarkably patient and hands-off with me. For two or three years my kids and I came to Meeting for Worship of a Sunday, slipped in just in time for things to start, and then slipped out again right after the end of worship with barely a conversation had.

Eventually, folks started asking me to join committees, and for at least another year I responded, “I’m sorry, I just can’t.” I was beginning to feel guilty about it at that point. I spent my childhood getting dragged to committee meetings by my mom, being taught that participating in community work was the “price of admission”, so to speak. But, man, I just didn’t have it in me. Never once, to their credit, did anyone in my Meeting join me in piling guilt on my shoulders. When I was finally able to make space in my life and my heart for the work, they were simply grateful for my presence. I cannot tell you how much their tender patience and care helped heal my deeply broken heart.

Despite how transformative and healing my experience has been in my Meeting in recent years, the transition to online worship was more than I could handle. I continued to participate in committee work for the first nine months of quarantine, but I only went to online worship a handful of times. The experience of it made me want to crawl out of my skin, it was so uncomfortable and unsatisfying. Now it’s been at least a year since I went to worship, months since I participated in any community work at all.

I miss the worship, but again I find myself with no extra spoons, as they say, for the responsibility of the community work. I have heard that I could attend in-person worship now, while folks who aren’t yet ready can connect to that experience via Zoom, but I just can’t wrap my heart around it. I don’t know what will happen as we begin to reopen fully, or how I will make my way back.

All of this is to say that I sympathize with your experience of finding religious community during a pandemic unsatisfying. I also understand the burden of responsibility that being part of a community can be, which is hard to take on if you can’t clearly see what you will get out of it to fill your own cup. As hard as it may be if you’ve been, in the past, a very active member of your religious community, I encourage you to make space for the questions you have about what you need spiritually and what you can offer with a grace-filled heart. The answers do not have to be the same answers you’ve had in the past. This pandemic has changed all of us, I think, on some fundamental levels. In those changes may be some opportunity, but only if we allow that change to happen.

It may not be the way you’ve offered yourself in the past, but as things reopen it is absolutely okay for you to continue to participate in community gatherings — potlucks, talent shows, retreats, whatever — without attending worship or participating in making things happen. If you are staying connected to the community in any way then the door is always open for what you’re offering to change and transform. If folks are pressuring you to return to your pre-pandemic levels of participation, allow yourself to say no without guilt. My experience is that most of the guilt in that refusal is coming from you, and not from them. And if there is guilt coming from them, then that is information that should be factored into the evolving internal conversation you’re having about what you need in a religious community. No one, to my mind, needs guilt or shame. God doesn’t live there.

Our spiritual and religious needs are allowed to evolve over the course of our lives. How could they not, if we’re growing and deepening as people? Sometimes our original religious path can accommodate that evolving. Sometimes it can’t.

My dad was a Quaker from his early twenties until his mid to late sixties. At a certain point, two things happened. One, he no longer had the emotional bandwidth for the community work. Two, he had grown up deeply involved in church music and he found that he needed it to fill his spiritual cup. Quakers don’t really do church music, unfortunately. Most of them can barely carry a tune in a bucket. So, my dad left Quaker Meeting and joined a Mennonite church nearby that had the most amazing music program. That church filled him up and held him tenderly in the last years of his life.

When he died his first memorial service was held there and one of the choirs sang for him. Sitting here typing I find myself weeping at the way they joyfully lifted his spirit up and over. They honored an essential part of who he was and how he connected to God in a way that never would have happened in Quaker Meeting. I will be forever grateful for that.

We also held a massive Quaker memorial service for him, and people came from all over to honor him in the simple, open-hearted way that Quakers do because that was also a part of who he was for so long.

We get to be all the things that we are. We get to evolve and transform. We get to be in a lifelong conversation with God that changes, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways. I’m a big proponent of spiritual commitment and discipline, but only if your soul is being fed by it in some kind of way. If there’s no food for your soul at the table you get to find another table.

I understand that accommodating those changes can be hard on a family, especially if the religious community you’ve all shared has been the center of your family life. It was hard in some ways for my mom when my dad moved to the Mennonite church, even though all of us kids were grown by then, so “family” in the nuclear sense wasn’t even part of the equation. Their identity as a couple, however, was wrapped up in being Quaker together, and she had to grapple with him pursuing a separate spiritual and religious identity.

Change is hard, and unavoidable. Part of loving people for the long haul is making space for their inevitable changes. None of us can know how life will go, but we can know that grace, for ourselves and others, is always the best course in the face of what comes. God lives in the space we make for grace.

Ultimately and always, listen to the still, small Voice inside of you. Follow where it leads. Have faith that wherever it takes you is exactly where you need to be, even if it’s not where you expected. Be open to surprise and delight. They are part of the journey, too.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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