Sunday, June 29, 2014

Quaker Fame

"You might say they are going through fame puberty—the awkward stage." Nick Paumgarten
For the past year, I have been going to Quaker events and hiding.  I wrote about this a little after the FGC Gathering last year (where I actually started carrying around a disguise).  I said then that I was having a hard time with my rising level of "Quaker celebrity." It is something that is still a struggle for me.

Few things will throw me off center at a Quaker event faster than when someone knows who I am and I have no idea who they are.  A Friend will introduce me in conversation and the other person's face will light up.  I feel dread because I know they have read something I have written, or heard me speak, or heard about me some other way.  I never know what to do, and any response on my part feels awkward and ungracious.

I read the quote above in the New Yorker a few days ago and it spoke to my condition.  I feel like I have been going through an extended fame puberty.  Fortunately, I have been able to speak about this with some trusted elders over the past few months, and they have given me some good advice:

1.  I need to find ways to acknowledge that God is working through me when I do ministry.  It is especially awkward for me when people compliment me on a message I have given, because I feel strongly that those messages come from God.  At heart, my ministry is to help people experience the presence of God.  When they experience God through me, it can be a powerful and attractive experience.  It is important for me to be clear that I am the conduit, not the source.

2.  If I keep doing this work, this will keep happening.  I think part of the reason that I respond so poorly is because I act like every time I am recognized, it is the first time or totally unexpected.  I need to stop acting that way and start putting together a toolkit for how to respond when this happens.

3.  I need to find a Quaker space that is restorative for me.  A couple people have encouraged me to find somewhere that I can go not as a minister, but to worship and rest.  This may involve sending a message to the organizers in advance about my needs and how I want to participate.

All of this is complicated by the fact that Friends pretend like we don't have celebrities.  It is very hard to claim a level of fame when Quakers want to believe that we are all equal in every way.  But I think it is important to do so for me to be able to grow out of this "fame puberty," and I am going to claim this:

I am a minor celebrity in a small denomination.

How did it make you feel to read that?  Was it funny?  Did it seem like not a big deal?  Or did it make you want to reassure me that, really, I'm not that famous?


  1. I hear you, Ashley. "It is especially awkward for me when people compliment me on a message I have given, because I feel strongly that those messages come from God...When they experience God through me, it can be a powerful and attractive experience."

    Without expending too many brain cells on whether or not my work is as public as your own, I'll just say that I most certainly have had the experience of being praised personally after giving a message or doing some other piece of work for Friends--and it's really hard to cope with, especially right after.

    I like praise: I really do. But the praise I'm hoping to hear is that I have been faithful, and that it was clear that I was faithful.

    I know that sometimes a message can have a really powerful impact on the hearer, and I know that our wider culture teaches us to praise things that move us as if they are performances--to praise those who deliver them as great performers. So sometimes, I can sense how what is really happening with the person who praises me for my message is really that they just had a profound experience, and they're marking it the only way they know how; they've brought it to me in the form of praise because there's no obvious outlet for them to explore what just happened for them.

    What I most need to do in that same moment is to step away from the message, and let it take whatever shape it's meant to in the hearts of its hearers. What I need to do is go be low, and simple, and stay very clear that I'm just ordinary (though, often, the experience of sharing a message is as extraordinary as it gets!).

    One thing I'm trying to do myself is to remember, when I have been powerfully moved by a Friend's spiritual work, not to go all fangirl on them. Even if I find myself in awe of another Friend's faithfulness, I try very hard to hold my head level--to make eye contact as if we were perfectly on a level as peers. Sometimes, I admit, I'm faking it: I can think of times when my real impulse was to kneel and kiss the hem of another Friend's robe. But it seems to me that that is not a kind or a loving action. I try to set those impulses aside, and to remain perfectly ordinary, and to look at them as though I saw them even in that moment as perfectly ordinary, too.

    "I am a minor celebrity in a small denomination." I get it. I've felt it--both among Quakers and among Pagans. And I get how, at one and the same time, it's a ridiculous thing to get worked up over (like saying "I'm huge in Japan!") and also a real impediment to simply and faithfully doing the work that has been put into our hands.


    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Cat! You do get it, and there are so many things I want to respond to.

      One is that I think the comparison with performers is important. I have found that Friends who are performers in other areas tend to be better at responding to fan-like behavior. I find that interesting and I think I may have things to learn from them.

      I agree about the need to get away after giving a message. There have been several times when I have known that people needed a place to process what happened during worship, but I was not the person to process that with them. I am grateful for Quaker meetings and events that have named elders/listeners/pastoral care teams for that purpose.

    2. I'm another among the many Friends who are uncomfortable with compliments on my ministry. In responding, I need to consider the source. If the person is clearly a newcomer, I sometimes say "thank you" without discussing it, rather than perhaps offending or hurting them by explaining why I can't really accept such praise. If it is someone whom I know, someone who has been among Friends for a while, I may try to explain and ask them to help me avoid the temptation to take personal credit, but sometimes after speaking in meeting I am too drained to engage. I most appreciate being told "you were faithful" or "that message spoke to my condition" or some other acknowledgement that my discernment in rising to speak was not erroneous. The same dynamic applies to other forms of ministry as well.

    3. Thank you for your comment, Susan. I had a conversation about this very thing with an elder a few months ago, and we agreed that not every moment is a teachable moment. It can be a vulnerable thing for someone to approach a person who has given a message, and it is important to acknowledge that and discern what the appropriate response should be.

    4. Cat and Susan speak to my experience as well. The one small thing I would add is that I sometimes will ask "in the message I was given, what spoke to you?" That helps keep the focus on the message, not on me, and on the person who has shared that the message was important to them. I have often been surprised, learned something, and had relationships deepen by the responses to that question. Sometimes the response becomes a continuation of the message. Asking this question, engages us together in listening to and deepening our relationship with Spirit, and with each other, and removes any "fame" issues entirely.

    5. That is a good question, Mary. I wonder about the passive voice, though. Would you feel comfortable asking, "in the message Spirit gave me, what spoke to you?"

  2. I love it: "in the message I was given, what spoke to you?" That makes a good deal of sense--because, if I'm right, what the person is really seeking for is a way of articulating their own revelation from the ministry received. (Not to mention that it's another way of answering those questions of whether our discernment to speak--or to write, for those of us who are writers--was correct. I agree with Susan that I'm always hungry for that reassurance!)

    I can think of messages I've heard that have changed my life. If I hadn't had my blog to confide in, I wonder how I would have coped with that? And not everyone is comfortable communicating the deepest movements of our souls to the World Wide Web, strangely enough. *grin*

    Ashley, I like the shift to active voice, and I like making it clear that ministry is at least an attempt to faithfully render something that comes from Spirit--and therefore, isn't a performance. It's a form of Quaker education that can be hard to pass along... I wonder if I'm uncomfortable doing so (and I am) because there is something in being a Liberal Friend that makes us coy about acknowledging being personally touched by Spirit. It's like saying that I've been blessed--a thing I often feel, but seldom voice, for fear it comes across as a boast, as implying I'm more worthy of being blessed than the person next to me.

    I'm reminded of that Quaker joke, about the person who gives vocal ministry who is approached after meeting by another Friend, who proceeds to compliment the minister on their message.

    The minister listens politely, but then interrupts, explaining that the message was not his own, but came from God.

    "Oh, well, Friend," says the second Quaker, "I'm not sure I'd say it was _that_ good!"

    I think that joke weighs on me fairly heavily. There's a fine line between giving credit where it belongs and boasting of my own faithfulness--or so it seems, in those squirm-making moments... I suspect you may know what I mean, though hopefully you find it less difficult to speak of God giving messages (or blessings).

    1. I don't think it had ever occurred to me to think that if God is blessing me, that means God is not blessing someone else. For me, saying I am blessed is another way of saying that I am grateful, and I have so much to be grateful for! One of my favorite Dar Williams songs is "The Blessings"---a reminder to be grateful even for the really hard stuff.

      I also have a hard time directly invoking God when Friends thank me for vocal ministry. I think part of it is that I don't want to use God as a bludgeon or a way to stop the conversation, and that is often how it feels if I do. It's something I am continuing to work on.

  3. Growing up in Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), I have learned how to show appreciation for a Friend's ministry/message. I have found that, at least in my home yearly meeting, it is necessary to acknowledge their faithfulness and acknowledge God rather than man as the source. Putting the focus on how God worked through them and how God is working in me rather than focusing on what they did seems to also help.

    1. Thanks for this perspective, Lilicita. It makes sense that some yearly meetings would have more of a culture than others of acknowledging that messages come from God.

  4. I'm sure we've had this discussion, Ashley, when you were attending UFM. At any rate i've had it with so many people over the years there that it surprises me if you were never part of it. Early on in attending Quaker worship, i was worried about how to respond to ministry that spoke to my condition. Because my first meeting seemed pre-planned to address my needs, i felt sure that the higher power was involved in providing the messages --as long as the ministers were listening and faithful, which seemed out of any one's control. I observed how some who spoke were truly guided, some had just a nut of Truth and some seemed only to be sharing their human thoughts. These last might be interesting, but did not come from the Power. I remember asking an elder how they discerned which was which and whether those who spoke understood this. I was confused by his response that it didn't matter, we took the straw and chaff with the grain, because it was out of our hands. He also observed after 50 years in meetings that what some one thought was totally inspired was found useless by some fine Quakers and vice versa. That confused me most of all: isn't the Truth true for every one? My only response was occasionally to give a word of encouragement: Thanks for sharing your ministry.

    . When i first found myself being used to give messages, i was very resistant because i was not clear on how to be sure that it wasn't just my own creative imagination, my meeting for thinking, or indeed a gift of the Spirit. I soon found that if i was booted out of my chair, had a clear message to share (angelon) and the words seemed to flow out of me but not FROM me, it was a trustworthy leading. And immediately i was uncomfortable with kudos and even gratitude because it was clear to me that it was not MY message; it was not of my doing or my choice. It was then that several elderly, more Conservative Friends informed me that the only encouragement for a true minister was traditionally: Thee was (well) used, Friend. or Thank thee for being faithful. I found both of those comments appropriate and have used them when true ever since.

  5. . Over the years as my vocal ministry has grown much less frequent and i found myself more often in the thinking, eldering role, i've revisted this concern. I find that there are times when i get clear to speak and it's before i've been levitated from my seat, or i pull a message together in a summary at the end, and people thank me or try to compliment me for adding these things from my skill rather than from revelation. My only comment is to respond: Thank the One who gives the gift. I don't know if anyone has been put off by such an impolite reply.

    . But Cat raises an issue that does speak to me: our being 'coy' or shy about admitting Spirit's role in our life and religious actions. I am bothered by so many liberal Friends attempts to humanize, secularize, scientize the spiritual life and ignore that the Eternal Spirit of Love, the Creating One, the Truth isn't just our needs and self-expression.

    . Still we do have to make some human choices: to be present in the meeting, to do what it takes to get centered, to focus in listening and let go of the ego and its monkey-chatter, to query the leading and to act when discerning its value… It IS a co-creation of the Divine and the human; its form is spoken in our words and our voices and tinged with our affect.

    . In the last 10+ years i have moved as strongly as i've been led, to facilitate more faithful ministry, more recognition and encouragement for those trying to grow into ministry, more understanding of the need and role of appreciative elders, building an ecology of prophetic and inspired vocal ministry in our worship. Also learning to discern and nurture ministry other than ministry in worship. Until our meetings become clear that it is a decision we as a people, and especially the leaders, oversight and elders, can consciously make and must commit to, i fear we will treacle out into more and more nice thoughts and less and less messages from the Divine. I also worry that we need to be as mindful and faithful of the other spiritual ministries of clerking, eldering and pastoral counseling, as well as encouraging leadership and taking on offices…

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Pablo. Yes, the same Spirit that moves us to speak is the one that guides us in clerking, eldering, and pastoral care.


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