Last week I was on Pine Ridge, SD as part of a Workcamp. Our work focused on preparing grounds on a point overlooking the Badlands for a Sundance Ceremony. Sundance Ceremonies are the most sacred of ceremonies – four days of praying, fasting, singing, dancing, sweating and piercing by Sundancers (all of whom have native/indigenous ancestry) surrounded by an extended adopted family that spiritually supports the dancers while also supporting each other through community. For those of us who were there as part of the Workcamp - 7 teens and 3 adults - it was an incredible honor to be entrusted with helping to prepare for this sacred ceremony. We helped rebuild the dance arbor, build new sweat lodges, clean the grounds, and dug a pit for an outhouse that had fallen over.
I left the group on Sunday (kicking and screaming, I must say) to join Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Annual Sessions. I had been asked to lead a retreat for Friends, and had developed a theme of “Simplicity, Truth and truths.” For me, the motivation for this was my belief that has been validated by experiences that when we truly engage in the world in the spirit of deep appreciative listening and staying open despite discomfort, some incredible things can happen. For me, this is what it means to be a Friend - to joyfully seek that of God in all. To do this to any large degree takes discipline and commitment – the ability to hold true to one’s convictions, not be intimidated by others, and at the same time truly honor others as sacred beings (“seeking that of God”). During the retreat, I know I stepped on some toes and sacred cows as I questioned how well we Friends are at doing this, and going so far as challenging us that we are stuck holding on to social and political ideologies more than our core truth. As an example, I noted that Friends cannot easily say what Quakers believe, but in Quaker circles people often and easily state what “others” believe (including Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Tea Partiers and Republicans). In my pushing some of these issues, there was at times a tension that rose in the room as people were uncomfortable with being challenged, avoiding conflict and pain.
This has had me thinking about annual rites and traditions, and their purpose. The Sundance Ceremony – one full of sacrifice, pain, spirit – is done selflessly and completely on faith. The people who participate give greatly of themselves, and are challenged every day to make it happen. Even among the Workcampers, we were sleeping in the elements, using the outhouses, working outside in hot conditions, and being challenged both physically and emotionally, intentionally as well as inadvertently, as we were called to look out for each other and take leaps of faith that our works matter. We became a community and became a part of a larger community. Deep and meaningful conversations took place at the most unexpected times about humanity (ours as well as others), about compassion and judgment in our lives and the world, and how we can support each other simply by letting the experience of deepening relationships unfold. These were conversations that could not be planned for, but are deeply meaningful and transformative. To me, it is Quakerism in action – letting our lives speak. The irony is that all the teens attend a Friends school, but could say little about what going to a Quaker school means other than that the Testimonies are on the wall. However, as our week together progressed, through our work and talk, I think there was a deepening of the sense of Quakerism through our words and actions.
But among Friends, I sometimes observe that our gatherings ask little of us. All our meals are prepared; we mostly stay in rooms (but for a smattering of tents) and can easily get out of the elements. No doubt there is great information, networking and sharing that happens at these gatherings, but I wonder if we are not missing out on opportunities for even deeper spiritual growth and outward connections by avoiding challenging ourselves on our faith, our beliefs, and how we interact with one another. The message of my Workshop was that kindness – the authentic kindness that I experienced when I did the AIDSRides in the late 1990’s when thousands of us took to the road for long, painful bike rides while intentionally supporting and cheering each other rather than focusing on our own pain, the authentic kindness that truly welcomes the stranger - can really transform and revolutionize relationships, and it is the simplicity of intellect and emotion that opens us to truly and joyfully seeking that of God in all. I question whether we as Friends are very good at this these days as we have developed great attachments to issues over the past few decades. In challenging us, maybe we can support each other in being better at it. But if we are afraid to challenge each other at our gatherings on what we believe and in the ways we do and do not live in accordance of those beliefs, can we really be any good at (and do we even have a leg to stand on) in challenging others on these very same things?
The Sundance ceremony taught me about how faith, prayer, challenge and sacrifice prepares and propels the participants (and the world) for another cycle around the sun. Can we likewise learn to be uncomfortable at our annual gatherings as Friends? The fellowship and sharing of information is important, but if we are to also challenge ourselves to a deeper radical connection to our core truths – the kind that revolutionizes and transforms, we have to be willing to be made uncomfortable. I’m not suggesting we adapt any traditions or practices, but am suggesting that we be more willing to feel a bit more heat around our faiths and practices so that we can more deeply embrace the things that really matter. The heat and fatigue in South Dakota wore away our facades as we got to know more deeply the spirit in and around us; can our Annual Gatherings help to do this as well? If we remain solely in our physical and emotional comfort zones, I suspect this may be harder than it needs to be.