Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Something to Talk About

I survived speaking at University Friends Meeting's adult religious education class and now I am wondering whether it is better when I am the only one who knows how much I don't fit in or when lots of other people do too.

The topic was "Cross Generation Sharing: Three Friends from different generations share their experiences of how the Quakerism has influenced and helped them in the challenges of their life." I, of course, was representing the younger generation of Friends.

Which was my first problem. I do not feel representative of Young Adult Friends, except as an example of how different we all are. To begin with, the Young Adult Friends group in Seattle includes people ages 18-35, which is a huge range. We have some members who are just starting college and others who are married and having kids.

I also do not feel especially representative of University Friends Meeting because of my membership at Freedom Friends Church. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that both of these meetings are part of the Religious Society of Friends, they are so different.

I tried to express all of this in the panel. I started with the story of how I became a Quaker, then described worship at Freedom Friends, and how much culture shock I felt when I came to University Friends.

I also said that I had realized, in preparing for the panel, that I hadn't planned to say anything about God. I found this very troubling because God is such a huge part of my life, and because I sometimes feel like I can't talk about God at University Friends. I ended by saying that I wished people at University Friends would talk about God more.

I would say that statement got more of a reaction than anything else I said.

To be clear, it's not that I want everyone to believe the same things that I do. I just want to be able to talk about what we believe. I think it can be easy for unprogrammed Friends to let the silence seep into everything we do together and avoid any real conversations about what is happening in our spiritual lives.

If we don't talk about what we believe, it is easy to assume that everyone is having the same experience, or thinks the same things. I also think that some Friends are so worried about offending others that they just stay away from controversial language and topics altogether.

In reading through the Bible, I have finally made it to Psalms. I am having fun reading these chapters that I heard and read so many times as a child, and it is especially entertaining to read several of them at a time. I love how one will end with
Show your strength, God, so no one can miss it. We are singing out the good news!
(Psalm 21:13), and the next will begin with
God, God . . . my God! Why did you dump me miles from nowhere? Doubled up with pain, I call to God all the day long. No answer. Nothing. I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.
(Psalm 22:1-2).

These Psalms really are like my prayers. One day I am on top of the world and strongly feel God's presence, and the next, I feel like I am wandering blind. I feel that way about being a Quaker toosome days I feel such a sense of community and like I am where I am supposed to be, at other times, I just feel frustrated and alienated.

I don't know whether the adult religious education class would want me to talk again, but I have to give them crediteven when it was clear that I was making them uncomfortable, everyone was really trying to be supportive of me. I appreciate Friends' willingness to have me as part of their community even if I sometimes seem a little too evangelical to quite fit in.


  1. Dear Ashley

    Your post really rang a bell with me - especially the part about wanting to be able to talk about what we believe.

    My experience of unprogrammed Friends in the UK has often been of people avoiding real conversations about our spiritual lives - although there are always honourable exceptions! And so often fear of offending keeps us silent.

    Thanks for putting some of my thoughts into words for me!

  2. Keep it up Ashley. You are right where you are supposed to be, doing right what you are supposed to do.
    I miss you and will miss seeing you on Saturday. Blessings and Peace to you.

  3. Way to go Ashley! I really appreciate what you were able to share with UFM.
    Of course I come from an evangelical background - but what speaks to me is not the specifics of "talking about God", but talking about our beliefs. There does often seem to be a fear of offending others or assuming what others believe. We do need to talk about our faith more (and God too). =)

  4. Gawd, what a horrid panel topic. Why pick people based on their ages? I talk a lot about generational issues but age is only one piece of our spiritual identity. Could anyone really "represent" their age cohort?

    Well, I'm glad you got to speak and happy to hear that you resisted the temptation to simply "fit in." I've met many Friends who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy cloaking what they believe. I'll never forget a small group break-out at a retreat for a urban liberal meeting much like University Friends, where person after person admitted they felt like they weren't "real" Friends and were always trying to fit in. These were the leaders of the meeting yet they felt they had to hide their true selves to "pass" in the meeting. I left the retreat scratching my head, wondering who the "real" Friends of the meeting were if they weren't.

    I suspect that if all the people with strong beliefs just got over their worries about fitting in, and simply started sharing their faith more openly and honestly you'd find a lot more God talk. It sounds like you did good work modeling that!

  5. Thanks for all the comments! It's great to hear from all of you.

    Gil - I think "Quaker nice" (i.e. avoiding saying anything that could be construed as offensive) is a common experience in unprogrammed Friends. I am glad to hear that you also want to talk about deeper spiritual topics.

    Alivia - I miss you too and I will miss seeing you this weekend, but I hope you have a great trip.

    Aimee - I have been thinking about you a lot this week. I hope things are going better.

    When I wrote this I was also thinking about some of the YAF conversations we had -- it seems like the combination of liberal and evangelical Friends in the YAF group helped us clarify what we believe and not assume we are all on the same page.

    Martin - I think one of the reasons for the age-based topic is that folks at UFM have realized they do not hear from the under-50 set very often and they are trying to figure out how to change that.

    It is sad to see Friends hiding what they believe, especially if it is because they think they have to in order to be a part of the community. That is one the things I like so much about QuakerQuaker -- there are so many perspectives represented there, but we are still all Friends.

  6. Ashley,

    Coming late to the comments here, but this so echoes some of my own experience that I couldn't resist. As one of the very few Friends who stuck around Meeting through my twenties, I got really burned out on "speaking for the young people." Though I felt a little guilty at the time, in retrospect I'm very glad I challenged Friends to think of me as a person, not a demographic (however graceless I might have been about it.) Friends are indeed well-intentioned when they make an effort to seek "representation" from Friends under fifty, but I feel the real challenge for them (and ultimately for all of us!) is to quit trying to find out what younger Friends think, feel and believe by sticking them on panels, and to instead engage in deep, personal sharing with Friends of *all* ages.

    You may have heard from Sarah H about the panel at WQM this weekend re: The Future of Friends. There were two grey-hairs (they described themselves thusly) and then myself and Sarah. It was a fairly good exchange, I felt, and Sarah was great about speaking freely of her own spiritual journey. I told Friends of my travels among the three unprogrammed YMs this summer, and how striking it was to hear a universal hunger among Young Friends for deep spiritual nurture and fellowship.

    The story I keep telling is of sitting in a plenary session at Intermountain YM during the first reading of the IMYM epistle. It was all going as these things normally do, dotting i's and crossing t's, when a young adult Friend stood, shaking, in tears, and literally cried out for Friends to speak of the spiritual grounding for their social action in the epistle. The response at the time was a combination of stunned silence and confusion, but there has since been an ongoing conversation between IMYM YFs, the clerk, and the annual gathering planning committee.

    In other words, thank you, and keep it up, and you're in good company. :)

  7. Hi Kathy,

    It is nice to hear from someone who has made it to the other side of the YAF divide! I think that talking about my experiences has helped Friends at UFM to see me as a person instead of a demographic. At least they are starting to notice when someone recommends me as a token YAF instead of as myself.

    I agree that YAFs are looking for spiritual nurture, and I would go so far as to say that we are looking for elders---Friends who know us well and really challenge and support us as we try to make our way.

    I am also glad to hear that Sarah H did so well at WQM. I heard her speak at the last women's conference and she was excellent.

    Thanks for the comment!



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