Are Friends Tired? More Conversation With YAFS

If you’ve stopped by this blog in the past ten days or so, you may have seen my lament about being invaded by Zombie posts that refused to die, or be deleted.
Zombies

Here they Come! AArrgghh!

A few days ago, when I got some expert help to examine why, it turned out there was some very bad code hacked onto the site, which we hope is now rooted out. A salutary reminder that it’s an internet jungle out there, and hacking our way out was a tough fight. But at the moment, this blog seems to be Zombie and virus-free. (Cross fingers.)

One additional effect of this invasion was that the Comments feature was somehow disabled, and for the past two month, no reader replies ever got through to be moderated and posted.
Thus if you sent a comment and are miffed because it never appeared or was even acknowledged — my apologies, but I was NOT ignoring or shunning you — I never even saw it. ( I believe the Comment feature is now working again.)

And so back to business. One of the last posts was entitled, The Gospel According to YAFS: Are Friends “Tired”?? Plus: Fix It With “The Seven UPs”.

This post was a detailed response to a piece in the Western Friend by YAF Paul Christiansen of Seattle’s Salmon Bay Meeting, “Younger Blood, Older Eyes”. In it I noted a voiced concern about some YAFs feeling left out and shut out by OFFs (”Old Fart Friends,” of which your humble servant is a specimen, but not near Seattle).

In response I recommended a recipe for YAFs (and anyone else so moved) to consider for helping remedy some of the perceived shortcomings of American Quakerdom, 2011 edition. The snappily titled list was called “The Seven UPs,” to wit:

Show Up.

Read Up.

Speak up.

Ante up.

Smarten Up.

Toughen Up. And

Don’t Hurry Up.

For details, consult the previous post.

Anyway, Paul was good enough to answer, by email after the blog comments section didn’t work. And we’ve had a bit of back-and-forth since.
This conversations as meant to be shared, so I’m posting it here, in only slightly edited form. I would have done it sooner, but — well, life and work intervened, as they have a way of doing.
To begin with, Here’s Paul’s initial response to my blog post:

Paul Christiansen wrote:

Chuck,

I feel like there’s a better way of contacting you but I haven’t found it, so I’ll take the roundabout method. Here’s my (2nd try) response to your blog post
responding to my article…

Overall, I appreciate your response, Chuck. However I will note that I never intended this to describe all of Quakerdom, and I’m not even sure if it accurately describes what’s going on in my own North Pacific YM. Hence all the qualifiers in my first sentence. But I talked with a variety of people for about
a year before publishing this, and what you saw is mostly what I heard.

I’m concerned that your “Read Up” leaves a little out. Obviously there’s a huge amount of literature out there, but sometimes I’d like to learn the history of my yearly meeting’s decisions over the last 20 years (the parts that didn’t make it into the minutes!), and sometimes I want to hear what my elders at Eastside [Meeting] have to say, and sometimes I want stories I can use to help teach the generation after me. Handing Barclay or Jones to a five-year-old won’t do much… but we’ve got to tell the five-year-olds something.

Also, the “cause” part wasn’t actually in my article, just the comments over at Western Friend, because it’s not at all fully seasoned. And you’re right, although I’ve lately been considering the interconnection of many causes. (My most recent blog post says more.)

Lastly, you advise us to speak up and toughen up…

A) Does that mean you’re absolving your generation of responsibility?
B) There’s a reason I wrote this article!

Paul

A Welcome opener. Here was my reply:

Hi Paul–

. . . As for your particulars, your points carry more weight for me if they’re qualified, as to time and region, for instance.

And I’m totally with you on your desire to learn more about NPYM than what appears in the minutes. Having done some historical work, I join with the other Quaker historians who have lamented that formal minutes are typically almost useless for real understanding. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the customs of minute-taking for Friends add up to a big disservice in too many cases, not only leaving us I’ll-informed, but actually disempowered.

There’s a piece in Friends Journal for May 2011 (”The Task of the Recording Clerk: Spiritual Exercise and Ministry” – not online) about being a recording clerk, which repeats all these errors, and I need to take it on. Also, I have a book coming out next month that addresses some of these issues from another angle: turns out early Friends were not always such paragons of truth-telling, especially when it came to foundational Quaker history. Some shocking stuff, at least it shocked me.

So what to do when minutes are opaque? I can’t think of a catchphrase for it using “up,” but doing some research (”Study Up”??) and asking lots of questions, especially of older Friends, seems very much in order. I’ve learned a lot from quiet older Friends (older than me, mostly now dead) who were persuaded to talk (sometimes We had to use waterboarding, but it was worth it). I also learned a lot, too late, from long memorial minutes; if you don’t already, I’d urge you to read the ones in both WF and FJ regularly.

And don’t take my questions about “causes” as a complaint. If that needs to be explored and threshed, so be it. I’ve heard similar comments before, and while I may not understand them entirely, that doesn’t mean I dismiss them.

As for absolving my generation from anything, this is where “Read Up” could also come usefully Into play. I’ve spent much of thirty years’ work tackling the manifold screwups of my cohort of Friends. There are 134 issues of my gadfly Quaker newsletter now archived online, which put actual investigative reporting skills to work on the Quakerism of my time, early 1980s thru early 1990s–and never ran out of material. (They’re linked to the blog-look at the link listing in the right column; read ‘em for free.)

A Friendly Letter-Sample

Yes, it was actually on paper!

A couple of books, too: “Without Apology,” on liberal Quakerism generally, and “Quaker Service At The Crossroads,” about AFSC and some of what came home to roost there a couple years ago.
Without apology Cover - 2005

Other work looked further back, at the early days and issues of American liberal Quakerism, by no means uncritically, and a collection, “Shaggy Locks and Birkenstocks.”

One piece there might be particularly relevant, which points to and decries the “Age of Amnesia” that’s reigned among liberal Friends for most of a century, and which too many in your generation seem ready to both perpetuate and cavil about.

Interrogating us geezers is one way out of it, but not to the neglect of the “Read Up” admonition. I strongly suspect that a great deal of what you’re looking for (yes, even much of the inspiration regarding possible causes) is already there and available, but it won’t speak itself from the pages; younger Friends will have to dig it out. That includes what you need to clean up the mess me and mine are leaving behind . . .

Peace,

Chuck

Then Paul came back:

Chuck,

Yes, sorry about the wrong email, but I truly couldn’t find any other!

I’ll definitely do some digging — I majored in history at Earlham, surely I can do some research. And thanks for the tip about the memorial minutes, I’ll start reading those.

I’m concerned, however, that your original post is starting to draw some ire from some Young Adult Friends. If you’d mentioned talking to elders in the “Read Up” section it might be a different story, but I’m already hearing from some in my circle that as it stands, “Read Up” comes across as rather dismissive.

And “Toughen Up” in particular is drawing some flak. I don’t expect Quakerism to be an easy faith. Quite the contrary, it’s probably among the toughest out there. But there is an enormous difference between our faith being an uphill climb and being a wrestling match.

As a teacher, and not long ago as a student, this is how I see it: if a student is struggling with a subject, a teacher can be supportive or leave the kid to flail. The subject remains a challenge regardless, but the approach the teacher takes can make all the difference. And to say, “Go do it on your own” or “Just tough it out” will probably come across as leaving the kid flailing.

I’m sure it was not your intent, and I don’t think it’s serious yet — but there’s a real danger some my age will start to see you as part of the problem.

I do thank you for the tips, and for your conversation; in fact I was a bit stunned and delighted that “a known name” was taking such note.

In Light,

Paul

And my reply:

Hi Paul,

Very interesting, and you said the magic words: “a wrestling match.” However, my take on the phrase is different; I DO expect Quakerism, and serious religion generally, to be a wrestling match. In fact, one of my all-time favorite religious books is “Godwrestling,” by Rabbi Arthur Waskow; and I commend it (the first edition more than the later revision) to your attention. (An Interesting discussion of Waskow’s concept is here.) The impact is laid out in the early part of my book “Without Apology,” and explored further in another, “Wisdom & Your Spiritual Journey.” But I’m happy to talk about it too.

The notion comes from two sources: Genesis Chapter 32, where Jacob wrestles with God all night, fights God to a draw so that God has to cheat to beat him, and extracts a blessing –but the blessing turns out to be a change in name from Jacob to “Israel,” which means “the God-wrestler.” And this name (and its motif) becomes the name, the paradigm and signifier of the people Jacob/Israel fathers, down to our very day. (The implications of the motif is supplemented and expanded by most of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, particularly Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms.)

Jacob Wrestling
Two Generations of Early Friends engaged in “deep discernment”; aka Jacob wrestling God

The other source is my experience, as a Friend and as a person. Life may not be ALL struggle, but an awful lot of it is, especially when it come to the things that matter about religion. That’s how it’s been for me, at any rate. Much more could be said about that, at another time; for a sample, check this link, “A Letter to the Next Director of Quaker House”

And yes, this frame of struggle applies within Quakerism too; one of my complaints about formal minutes is that they are designed to squeeze almost all evidence of this out of the record, which to me is not simply an error, but a sin against future generations of Friends.

For that matter, it is very common in religions for there to be processes of “formation” which include rites of passage, often taking the form of various sorts of ordeals or tests from vision quests by Native Americans to young Mormons going off to spend two years riding bicycles in neckties (now THERE’s an ordeal). One of the great weaknesses of liberal Quakerism, in my view, is our lack of same. (I don’t think the Evangelicals do a lot better, but that’s another story.)
Mormon Missionaries-bikes

Hmm. Is there something here Quakers could learn from??

It begins to appear that for some in the rising group, looking askance at elders may be part of an improvised passage. And if it could be that working up the gumption to beard an often grumpy old man can serve a bit of that function for some, then I will not have lived entirely in vain; if that’s a contemporary form of our religious struggle, so be it. Of course, it could also just reinforce the received habits of passive aggression and conflict avoidance. (Sigh.)

The upshot for me is that if some take “Read Up” as dismissive, well, sit with it a bit, because I’ve no inclination to dial it back. It’s not a substitute for talking; I’ve done plenty of that (e.g., twenty years of week-long workshops at the FGC Gathering), and will do more. But I’m mindful of a shortcoming of talk, which is that it isn’t much use to those who weren’t present to hear it.

And yeah, I am biased toward those who do serious homework. Busted. Guilty. In that sense, I think of full-fledged Quakerism somewhat the way I think of urology or plumbing: when one of them is called on to mess around with my pipes, I want them to know their stuff, and no fooling, which takes time, study and practice.

I’d like to hear more about the misgivings regarding “Toughen Up.” If it’s interpreted as suggesting all younger Friends are a bunch of wimps, that was not my implication. Nor was it a charge to “Shut Up” and “Put Up” with an unsatisfactory status quo. Quite the contrary. I’m all for stirring the pots and upsetting applecarts, and have a track record of that. The point was that doing this for real, rather than for pretend, often involves grit and guts and results not only in the change we want, but also in scars and losses. Yes, even among Friends.

One incident, of which I read a reliable account somewhere, but don’t have documented online: Philadelphia Orthodox YM refused to have any official contact with Philadelphia Hicksite YM until a session in the 1920s, when a prominent Orthodox elder rose and made an impassioned plea that the body repeal this ban. The elder was challenging the entrenched practice of nearly a century, supported most by many of his weightiest peers. Yet as he did so, he was suffering from a terminal illness which was to kill him within the year, a fact known (but not spoken of) by his key listeners.

This “last stand” reversal of his own long history turned enough stone hearts (perhaps only temporarily) to flesh that his request was granted. Need I add that this drama was not reflected in the minutes? (This story has a happy ending; not all do.) Here is a short description of the process.
And a thought about teaching. There are different styles. Mine will be applied in a workshop at the FGC Gathering this summer, and here is an excerpt from the description:

<< High-content: will include Bible, history, and serious thought. Not for those allergic to talk of God or war.
The workshop will be 100% worship, mostly programmed; see Mark 12:28-30.*
Lecture: 60%
Discussion: 40%
Experiential Activities: 0%
Worship/worship-sharing: 100% >>

*NOTE: Mark 12:28-30: 28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

[Emphasis added.] I also explain that in these sessions we will be attempting to worship with our minds, which is why I describe it as 100% worship, mostly programmed.]

It should be evident from this that the workshop is not intended for everyone. In my experience, a large segment of liberal Friends (by no means all of them “young”) gives a wide berth to “high-content,” intellectually serious explorations of their religion. Many are similarly allergic to mention of God, the Bible or conflict in “warlike” terms.

I don’t have much to offer these Friends. So the description is both truth in advertising, and a qualifier: if this isn’t your cup of tea, there are lots of other options. Call it elitist or exclusive or arrogant or whatever; but it’s not biased by generation, and there’s plenty of room for interchange and challenge. (Godwrestling, I hope.) And those who have been at similar ones have mostly found the sessions both unique and highly satisfying.
Chuck Fager at work
Your humble servant at work

But an important footnote: it’s sad that I had to struggle (that word again) long and hard to establish the legitimacy of this “high-content” approach within FGC: there is an anti-intellectualism in its corporate/spiritual culture that is very deeply entrenched (and deeply subversive, I believe, of our ability to meet the needs of serious YAFs among others). And if this style does not appeal to many, well, let it be. (Different strokes for different folks; I don’t like sushi.)

So if << there’s a real danger some my age will start to see you as part of the problem >>, all I can do is laugh and say, “Christ, I certainly HOPE so.” It will be a sign that there’s something in my “legacy” that’s worth deconstructing or improving upon.

Besides, if I’m the worst that YAFs have to overcome, you’ve got it much easier than some think.

Chuck

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