Let me begin with a true confession. I am a member of the board of elders of Northwest Yearly Meeting. Just a week ago we “released” West Hills Friends Church to follow the way they’ve discerned that God has been leading them, in acknowledgement that NWYM can’t tolerate this level of diversity, at this point in time, without breaking apart.
I am also a blogger and, as such, enjoy being a member of the wider community of Friends. But this month (I’m writing on the last day of July) is the first in which I have not been able to write a single blog or, more seriously, a single poem. The agony preceding, in the midst of, and following our decision has drained the words. Before yearly meeting, I found that the only way I could pray was, “Lord, have mercy.” And in the first four days following the announcement, all I could pray was, “I’m so sorry.” Over and over and over.
Eventually I sensed the voice of God—and definitely heard the voice of my husband—saying, “Enough, Nancy. You’re forgiven. Stop saying, ‘I’m sorry.’”
I want to acknowledge the other voices, the voices of care and compassion that have reached out to West Hills Friends. And to me. Many people from my own congregation, North Valley Friends, divided on the issues of human sexuality, have approached me with concern and love, even while they are agonizing over the decision.
I especially want to acknowledge the attitude of WHF. Throughout the two-year process we’ve recently gone through, and during and after yearly meeting, believers from this congregation have been so gracious and respectful. That continues, in spite of the grief and pain. I’ve had emails from individuals at WHF this week, asking if I’m alright, expressing concern and encouraging me. One said, “Yes! Of course we’re still friends!”
Soon after the decision was released, I was invited to a meeting of young adults of NWYM, those who were especially concerned (read, “outraged,” or “anguished”) by the decision. They included many members of my congregation, extended family members, and young people who were MKs when I served as a missionary in Bolivia. They also included several members of WHF. Most of these came up to hug me at the close of the meeting.
Back to West Hills, I think that if I were still in my idealistic little girl stage of life, I would look to these sisters and brothers and think to myself, “That’s how I want to be when I grow up.”
I also want to acknowledge my fellow and sister members of the board of elders. We went into yearly meeting week mindful of the differing perspectives we represented, matching the whole gamut of positions in the wider yearly meeting. But throughout the week we managed to proceed with love and respect for each other. And we did indeed come to a new place. We found we could not find fault with WHF for not “being in compliance” with a section of Faith & Practice that the yearly meeting no longer holds in consensus. We realized that we had a deeper level of theological discernment ahead of us. And we also sensed the pain of the whole yearly meeting, coming from both sides of the issue, and our sense of the possible results of any decision. We came to the language of “releasing” WHF out of our growing respect for the way these brothers and sisters were moving forward, our desire for their spiritual prosperity and our hope for a future reconnection. Individual members of the board grieved our decision for different reasons, but we all grieved.
I realize that what I write here may meet with cynicism. I’ll take it as it comes and probably keep silent. (That’s a prediction, not a promise.) I do find hope in the movement of young adults and others to appeal the elders’ decision. This brings more people into the discernment process and perhaps will lead to a better way forward, although getting there will continue to be hard.
While I’m more inclined to short blogs, and this one has already leaped the bounds of that ideal, I want to reflect on a section of Scripture that is guiding me as I reflect on the deeper issues of human sexuality. Some time ago I ran across several parallel passages in the book of Isaiah that amazed and delighted me. I love biblical contradictions that in time tell me I’ve gotten their name wrong. Not “contradiction” they insist. Our name is “paradox.” So, here it is.
In Isaiah 46:9, the word of the Lord comes through the prophet to tell the people of Israel, “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” The passage goes on. And in many other places throughout the Scriptures, God encourages us to value the old ways, the holy traditions and understandings that have been faithfully handed down to us, as we also remember God’s loving acts toward God’s people in the past.
Here’s the parallel passage, a few chapters distant, but coming from the same historical context. Hear the word of the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wilderness” (43:18-19).
So which is it? Are we facing the threat of straying from the ancient path of God, giving in to ungodly pressures from our surrounding context? (This often has happened in the history of the Christian church.) Or is the Spirit of God showing us something new, something that includes new light on the meanings behind the Scriptures? (This often has happened in the history of the Christian church.)
I find myself right-smacky-dab (as my Grandma would have phrased it) in the middle. I hear truth from both sides. I did get a word from the Lord recently that I feel is sound and real. I asked God to show me which way was true (remember or forget?), and I sensed the Spirit saying, “I’m not going to tell you as an individual; I will reveal this mystery to the gathered body.” But I have no sense of how long this revelation with take. I’m sure God can speak faster than the speed of light, but we’re not always so quick at hearing.
I do have the advantage of my personality type. I’m a poet. I love mystery and am highly tolerant of ambiguity. I can wait my way through pain. But not without the hope of an answer. One of my pastors reminded me this week of a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke (already underlined in my own copy of his book), writing to a “young poet”:
“…I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”
The only part of that I find issue with is the injunction not to search now. We don’t dare stop searching. Only God can help us live the answers.
In the meantime, I would encourage all of us to drop the language of “villains” and “victims.” We can turn the “meantime” into a kinder time by the way we treat each other and talk about each other.
Here are some prayer requests for the larger body of Quakers, ways to hold NWYM in the light:
--Pray for the LGBTQ people in our midst, as others have pleaded, that they can understand they are not being rejected once again.
--Pray for a way for us to stay together and do the hard word of discernment required of us.
--Pray that we can, even now, reach out with compassion and be Friends of Jesus right where we are—and anywhere else in the world God sends us.