Walking Cheerfully Over the Wetland – Joann Neuroth

I’m visiting “lower Louisiana” at the moment I write this –  where the water from mighty rivers meets the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes creating coastal land and nourishing marshes, redrawing islands and rerouting bayous.  At other times, the Gulf expands its reach inland, eroding what the rivers have deposited, in a continuous Ode to Change.  The marine research facility we toured yesterday says that rising ocean levels subsume a football field’s worth of Louisiana land every hour.  For residents whose ways of life depend on that land – and for all of us who grieve at the Earth’s climate crisis — this is a catastrophe.  From a Creator’s vantage point, though, this is another stanza in the hymn that hallows the history we saw on display at that facility – how four separate river deltas we now consider “land” were laid down successively over geologic eons and continue to be shaped.

Something like that shift in perspective is taking place today inside the School of the Spirit.  Thirty years ago, “A Ministry of Prayer and Learning Devoted to the School of the Spirit” was born.  Our founders were called to invite seekers into the “School of the Spirit,” where the Inner Teacher opens us to contemplative rhythms that enable us to live continually in the depths of Divine Presence.  Over the course of that thirty years, eleven classes have completed our signature program, On Becoming a Spiritual Nurturer; hundreds have attended our Contemplative Retreats; and seventeen individuals are currently engaged in the first offering of our new program, Participating in God’s Power.

In many ways, it has been a good run:  it’s both humbling and exhilarating to see the Inner Teacher comfort, challenge, transform and shape lives in concrete, lasting, and visible ways.  Most of us rarely experience the kind of life-shifts spoken of in early Quaker writings.  But through the School of the Spirit, we have discovered that  they are not only possible, but a normal, predictable result of stepping deliberately into the not-knowing of what School of the Spirit programs teach us to call “liminal” space with the Divine – a time between the “what was” and the “what’s next” in which we invite God to touch our hearts; to show us and help us discover both who we are and who we’re meant to be.

We hear participants describe being called into new livelihoods … or shown new ways of being in ongoing dilemmas … or drawn into radical and transformative forgiveness for a wrong or a loss that had shaped their life to date.  They speak of being given new Light … new courage … new patience … new compassion concrete enough to be noticed by their colleagues at work or by their partner in life.

As they begin to live into their new Light, graduates of the programs have assumed new-to-them leadership roles in the Religious Society of Friends.  These include service in ministry and counsel, spiritual formation, or clerking positions on behalf of an array of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings, authoring pamphlets, clerking FGC Summer Gatherings, and staffing Yearly Meetings.

And yet – in 2020 we begin to feel the water lapping at the edges of that familiar land mass in a number of ways.

  • Our flagship program, On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, has been undersubscribed the last three times we have offered it. Does this mean that we’ve already reached all those for whom this is a good “way in”?  Or are we not effective enough at finding those who resonate with it?
  • Our governing board of directors has shrunk from twelve to five. Does this mean it’s time to dismantle the nonprofit organization that guides the School of the Spirit and begin responsibly winding down our affairs?  Or should we redouble our efforts to locate volunteers who share our passion for encouraging depth in the Religious Society of Friends and who also speak the language of structure and governance and non-profit administration? Or accept this as the right size for the work at hand?
  • Our graduates and supporters are generous, but our fundraising efforts have so far fallen short of being able to offer our gifted teachers enough compensation to release them from other simultaneous employment. Does this mean the transformational work that we so treasure is built on exploitation or limited to those leaders who can bring their own subsidies?  If so, should it in good conscience be laid down?
  • As we more carefully examine the assumptions of white supremacy culture and of ageism, we note that while there have been Friends of Color and young people among our participants, they have had to navigate our classes mostly alone in a sea of older white classmates. Does this mean we should cease operations until we can restructure ourselves in ways that are more inclusive?

All this is sobering.  But as our familiar territory starts seeming less solid and more marsh-like, at the same time we look around and see rich, new delta ground appearing in other places:

  • In 2017 we worked in partnership with a team of ministers to develop a program that addresses the spiritual scar tissue that each of us carries, allowing for more courageous faithfulness in response to leadings experienced while in the Divine Presence. Our collaboration led to the Fall 2019 launch of a new year-long program that includes four residencies on long weekends and video conferences.  The residencies are designed to uncover barriers that keep each of us from full obedience to God’s call, and to develop the resilience, wisdom and insight to deal with those barriers.  Participating in God’s Power is now in its inaugural season, and we have an upwelling sense that we were faithful and well used in helping birth it.
  • Our Contemplative Retreats program – which until recently held retreats in only three locations annually – is We now offer retreats in New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina.  Interest and attendance are increasing, and returning participants report that this has become a regular source of refreshment and retirement for them.  We are mentoring several new retreat leaders who will broaden the number of locations where we can offer contemplative retreats.  This feels to us like a genuine, lively call to service.

One would think that our ministry would have a head start at knowing how to reflect, live and thrive in the midst of such unknowing and change – feeling both rising and sinking land under our feet.  After all, at the heart of our depth work is this concept of liminal space, where we must let go of any expectation that the past will continue if we are to be open to the possibility of a fresh and responsive future.

We’d love to claim to be adept at this, but frankly, moving toward discernment as an organization is certainly no easier – and in some ways may be even harder – than finding our way individually.  As we commit ourselves to living toward God’s purpose without knowing yet what it will be, we have to acknowledge that we’re not in charge … that we may look foolish … that we might err and need to back up and start again.  None of those are things a governing board would willingly embrace.

But today THIS Quaker organization finds itself in a transitional wetland between where we’ve been and where we’re called to go; exactly the place where we team up with Life and the Creator of Life.  And this shifting, but rich, soil is the only ground we have any business building on.  So we’re consciously developing the muscles we need to traverse unknown terrain beside our Inner Guide.  Here is what we know so far about this ongoing process:

1) It might involve the grief of losing something treasured. We have suspended announcement of a new offering of On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, while we take a Sabbath year to listen for Divine guidance.  All five current board members have had their lives transformed in various ways by the Spiritual Nurturer program.  We’re anguished at the possibility of no longer offering that opportunity to others.  And we cling in subtle and sneaky ways:  even while considering alternative formats, we measure them mentally against “what works” in our experience.  Perhaps, like a clerk who recuses herself and asks someone else to clerk an issue when she is too close to hold impartial space, we are not the ones who should be shepherding this discernment.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, we are the ones God has at hand.  Acknowledging the grief is a step toward letting it flow through us rather than damming up a reservoir where God may intend a valley.

2) It requires not knowing, and a willingness to feel foolish.  We found the team of ministers who are now teaching Participating in God’s Power through a solicitation in Friends Journal.  Our first draft of that solicitation was smoother and sounded more competent.  But the one we eventually published said essentially, “We’re looking for people God is calling to some kind of ministry who would like to collaborate with us to develop it.  Anything goes.”  It felt pretty goofy at the time.  Could we not even define what we were looking for?  But we found unity that we were not led to a particular program direction; rather, we hoped to find ministers on fire, then discern together whether we affirmed their call as genuine and if so support the development of that ministry.  Only then could we recognize whether the proposed program fit within our charism or should be taken elsewhere.  Way opened, and in retrospect we feel we were rightly led.

3) It probably means not getting it perfect the first time.  I once had an office mate who hung a poster that said, “Risk taking is inherently failure prone.  Otherwise it would be called sure-thing taking.”  And even though listening well – to God, to other voices, to our Inner Teacher (See Tip 5 below) – can point us in a sound direction, there will remain lots of risks and judgment calls in the execution of our emerging leading.  Faithfulness will likely include course corrections and do-overs. We hope to make them as cheerfully as possible.  It helps to remind ourselves that expectations of perfection are illusory and barriers to continuous revelation.

4) It means waiting in patience.  How long?  “Till Light arises out of darkness and leads thee.”  This requires that we don’t pounce on the first landing spot we glimpse among the reeds and cattails.  At a Pendle Hill Wisdom School last May, co-leader Cynthia Bourgeault (an Episcopal priest) offered her growing appreciation of Quakers, whose early writings convey experiential familiarity with the early Christian wisdom tradition she is helping to reanimate.  Quakers, she suggested, are capable of being the kindling God needs to ignite transformative fire in the world.  This is, she thinks, precisely because our practice requires us to stand still … and then when the first insight or idea appears, stand still some more until we feel ourselves firmly on Ground sacred enough to trust even if it feels marshy.  “Do not think, but submit … and THEN power comes in,“ George Fox tells us.  We think that goes for organizations too.

5) It means we have to listen up.  Genuine newness will come from voices we haven’t yet heard.  They may be inner, as we pray together that the Light will “show and discover” those barriers and levees we have used to artificially arrange the marsh to our own satisfaction.  We are pretty sure they might also be outer – messages from others not yet in our hearing range who carry pieces of Divine wisdom that we need.  We’re trying in particular to tend to openings that seem paradoxical or counter-intuitive, since that’s where the new ground may be rising from the sea.  We want to be willing to zoom in toward respectful struggle and conflict rather than shy away since we know that birth comes through struggle and truth is often hammered out in collaboration with others who offer significantly differing premises.

Surprising and energizing new possibilities have already opened up, as we shift away from stewarding and sustaining the past and toward co-creating the future under the direction of the Lord of Land and Sea:

  • What if a different iteration of “spiritual nurture” has been gestating these last few years – one that is as responsive to today’s Religious Society of Friends as our current model was thirty years ago?
  • What if it involved working with monthly meetings as a whole that want to develop their corporate spiritual formation?
  • What kinds of collaboration with the many Yearly Meeting spiritual formation efforts underway might be generative?
  • What if we eldered and supported geographic clusters of “beloved community” that joined online for the learning and prayer that has proved so powerful?
  • What if we offered a gather-in space for young adults who tell us their spiritual seeking is not tied to a single location, but that they need to find one another across distances and form the connections that can be sustained online?
  • What if we designed spiritually grounded reflection opportunities for Friends engaged in particular callings – unsettling Quaker whiteness, for example, or environmental activism?
  • What can the School of the Spirit programs now in ascendency – Contemplative Retreats and Participating in God’s Power – teach us at their evolving edges as we work on the systems through which we incubate and sustain ministries and work with them to sense their own inner growth and fallow time cycles.

We must also live into the messiness and struggle inherent in slogging through the mud of unknowing.  Living in liminal space is a lot more humbling and scarier than it sounds.  Tensions rise when one of us gets hold of a piece of paradoxical newness that collides with a treasured certainty held by another.

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4 thoughts on “Walking Cheerfully Over the Wetland – Joann Neuroth”

  1. The wording of this message reflects deep reflection. Awareness of challenge inherent in change is seen in the statement, “Tensions rise when one of us gets hold of a piece of paradoxical newness that collides with a treasured certainty held by another.”
    Such awareness will serve you well on this journey.

    1. Thanks, Cynthia. You’re right, and of course the challenge is holding onto that awareness while in the throes of “collision.” Hold us in the Light for that!

  2. I’ve long wondered whether SOTS should be broader than just Quakers. When I’ve brought it up, it’s seemed like folks thought that made sense to explore. Yet SOTS proceeds in language that seems to imply it’s a Quaker-only thing. Is that because it seems most comfortable when the folks running it seem to be currently all Quakers, or is that actually the call? Perhaps there is a broader audience for what SOTS brings?

    1. Great questions. We do talk about it … and then there seems to be so much familiar work left to do with Quakers. But I love the “critical friend” nudge to ask whether it is actually the call. We’ll sit with that.

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