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Radical Vulnerability Revisited

Allison Kirkegaard
On Secrets (July 2020)
Inward Light

In moving from Claremont to Los Angeles this year, one of the hardest transitions has been to try to get used to the little signs that my new neighbors post in front of their houses: PROTECTED BY XXX SECURITY SYSTEM – ARMED RESPONSE. After ten months, I still flinch each time I see these signs. They weigh on my heart as constant reminders that we don’t quite trust each other, that we’re not quite ready to be in community.

And they weigh especially heavily on my heart because I’ve been fired up about our Quaker call to radical vulnerability ever since the 2018 annual session of Pacific Yearly Meeting. That year, we heard: “Pacific Yearly Meeting is called to be vulnerable to faith. The radical act of faith is required in our relationship to the Divine and in our relationship to our Quaker community. Faithfulness requires obedience to the living Presence and trust to wherever it may lead us, which leaves us vulnerable to our ego, our fear, and the world.”

I long for a world in which we have this trust and embrace this vulnerability, letting go of our urge to protect our houses and selves.

A step I see as being on the way to that world is for Friends to learn to embrace radical vulnerability as whole meetings, rather than just as individuals. We may find inspiration in the stories of George Fox offering himself for a second beating or Mary Dyer allowing herself to be hanged, but in the kin-dom of God on earth, radical vulnerability is not only the work of a few prophetic individuals. It is the work of us all, the very texture of our communities. And so, I call us to imagine: What would it look like for entire meetings to make themselves radically vulnerable?

We may find clues to that query by looking to the past. Three-hundred-fifty years ago, a thirty-six-year-old Friend named Elizabeth Stirredge wrote, “In the year 1670 . . . we went to our meetings at the peril of our lives, and our goods were taken for a prey. . . The priest’s son bought a new sword, and swore he would bathe it in our blood.”

In this time of great hardship, Elizabeth began to see a rift appear in her meeting. When meeting for worship became a weekly ordeal of fines and nailed-up doors and raging crowds of officers with clubs, a portion of Friends who had become used to “ease and liberty” in their spiritual lives decided to “set their wits at work, and consulted together how to meet in private, out of our enemies’ sight.”

A weighty Friend told Elizabeth and others who were still meeting publicly “that if we would come and meet with him, and some others in private, we might sit together in quietness and stillness, and wait upon the Lord, and enjoy the benefit of our meeting, which would be better than standing in the street, to be hurried and thronged together, and hardly any time of stillness to wait upon God.”

Some Friends were persuaded by this logic and went to join the secret meeting. But others, like Elizabeth, were overcome with grief and concern that Friends seemed to “have no more courage, nor zeal, nor love to the Lord and his blessed truth.” This struggle among Friends in Elizabeth’s meeting is the struggle of a meeting birthing a corporate answer to the call of radical vulnerability.

Today our call to radical vulnerability may sound a little different. Sometimes the call will still involve using our bodies in radically vulnerable acts of faith – for example, standing in the way of violence towards protesters – but I think that in modern times, the call to vulnerability most often involves vulnerability of information. Our data-driven modern world tells us that we can be summed up as a package of information, so it is that information that has become the “self” that we must choose to protect or make vulnerable.

A litmus test of our response to this call is how we live out our faith online. With the click of a button, we indicate our readiness to be vulnerable. Do we make our meetings’ social media pages public or private? Do we post links to our virtual meetings on our homepages or hide them away? Do we require passwords to access meeting records? Do we include our directories on our websites?

But these choices are just the tip of the iceberg. They point to deeper formations of trust and distrust, openness and secrecy, faith and doubt. They indicate who are we comfortable with finding our meetings and who we are not. They reflect which parts of meetings we are afraid to show – perhaps our budgets, our demographics, our conflicts. They reveal doubt that what we say in business meeting is truly ministry, worth standing by even when the secular world is watching. They hint at deep fears that the world at large might use our information to steal from us, and that we might not be strong enough to recover corporately from such a theft.

In our humanness, surely, we find it challenging to wholly embrace radical vulnerability. In Elizabeth Stirredge’s time, Friends struggled with their attachment to the verse, “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.” (Matthew 10:23, NKJV) They also struggled with their reluctance to hear continuing revelation flow through a woman. In our time, we face great societal pressure to “set boundaries” and “take care of ourselves” – injunctions that have become secular scripture to our modern culture.

Yet as people of faith, it is our work to live into the tragic gap between where we are and where we are called to be. As we live into that gap, our testimony of integrity requires us to see and acknowledge our hesitations and stumbles. Where we discover submerged distrust blocking our way, we are required to name that distrust. Who are the people on the other end of our distrust? Are they “hackers”? Google employees? Government officials? Then our testimony of equality requires us to examine the patterns in our distrust. In what ways do we trust or distrust people based on their profession, nationality, race, age, gender, wealth?

When we do this work together, we are strengthened as a beloved community. We are able to recognize our shortcomings with grace, hold each other in the Light, and together lean deeper into our calling.

Friends, I long to do this work with you, to listen for and grapple with the ways in which our meetings are called to collective radical vulnerability. Let us all echo Elizabeth Stirredge’s prayer: “Lord, strengthen thy weak ones, and make the little ones as strong as David; give us courage and boldness to stand as faithful witnesses for thy blessed truth.”  ~~~

Allison Kirkegaard, 23, is a member of Claremont Monthly Meeting (PYM), currently worshipping with Santa Monica Monthly Meeting. She serves as a member of Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Communications Committee and as assistant to the clerk of Southern California Quarterly Meeting.

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