Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Ask me again," said the Rabbi

Enneagram Type 5 - The Investigator

Thinkers who tend to withdraw and observe
Enneagram type 5 - The InvestigatorPeople of this personality type essentially fear that they don't have enough inner strength to face life, so they tend to withdraw, to retreat into the safety and security of the mind where they can mentally prepare for their emergence into the world. Fives feel comfortable and at home in the realm of thought. They are generally intelligent, well read and thoughtful and they frequently become experts in the areas that capture their interest. While they are sometimes scientifically oriented, especially with the Six wing, just as many Fives are drawn to the humanities and it is not at all uncommon for Fives to have artistic inclinations. Fives are often a bit eccentric; they feel little need to alter their beliefs to accommodate majority opinion, and they refuse to compromise their freedom to think just as they please. The problem for Fives is that while they are comfortable in the realm of thought, they are frequently a good deal less comfortable when it comes to dealing with their emotions, the demands of a relationship, or the need to find a place for themselves in the world. Fives tend to be shy, nonintrusive, independent and reluctant to ask for the help that others might well be happy to extend to them.


A year ago, I delivered a message at West Hills Friends the Sunday following the 2014 Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions.  I was unusually optimistic, expressing hope that the expulsion that once seemed inevitable might be avoided, and unity restored among people who claim to be people of peace.  A year later, West Hills has been kicked out, and I am processing an indefinite departure from West Hills.  Here's a rough timeline:

In September of 2014, following the loss of Griffin Huber, I applied for membership at West Hills Friends Church.  I'd not intended to ever apply, but in the midst of tragedy, Sarah and I both felt that we were just as affected by sorrow as everyone else, and to refuse to called a member, for me at least, felt like petty stubbornness.  The process, as had always been explained from the pulpit, was that a person applies for membership by notifying the church elders of a desire to become a member.  The person meets with 2 of the elders for a clearness discussion, which centers around 2-3 queries.  The queries don't have right answers, but the discussion about them should make it clear to the applicant and the elders whether the person should be a member.  It's also been said that becoming a member is simply recognizing that a person already is operating as a member.  If the applicant and the elders are clear to move forward, the applicant is brought before the church to be recognized.  People are invited to comment about the person for awhile, and finally an elder asks if everyone is clear to approve the person as a member.  In the time we'd been there (2 years at this point), everyone who applied had become a member.

Sarah and I went through our process separately.  I thought this was important, as our journeys and worldviews are very different, and our interactions within West Hills had been very different as well. I met with 2 elders, went through the queries, and we were all clear that I was already a member of West Hills, and we agreed to move forward.  The elders met as a group, and all were clear that both Sarah and I should be members of the church.

We were scheduled to be brought before the church the Sunday before Christmas.  The Wednesday before, we received an email from one of the elders that opened like this:

Dear Ryan and Sarah,

I’ve got some difficult news-- a member of our meeting has come forward with serious reservations about Ryan’s membership, specifically as you might surmise, around his atheism.   We (the Elders & (pastor)) hear that these concerns are serious enough that they would present a block to reaching unity on approving Ryan’s membership at the rise of meeting this Sunday.  

It is our sense that the most constructive next step is for the Elders to arrange a meeting to hear these concerns in person, and to share our own discernment, and see if that is sufficient to open a way forward.  

One thing I've learned about myself in the last year is that I'm awful at predicting my feelings.  My initial response to the elder was essentially that this was no big deal.  I could be patient, and understood why it might be hard for someone to handle an atheist as a member.  I didn't feel much of anything about the matter until a month later when a listening meeting was scheduled for people to discuss the general topic of membership.  At this meeting, I heard such gems as:

"This is Jesus' clubhouse.  And if you're not cool with this being Jesus' clubhouse, perhaps this isn't the place for you."

"I recently sent (the pastor) an email asking, "Are we even a Christian church anymore?""

"If all it takes to be a member is to be a good person, someone could just join the rotary club."

Following this meeting, my emotions caught up with what my mind already knew.  This was not going to work out.  You can only clumsily try to fit a square peg in a round hole for so long.  Eventually it becomes obvious that one of these things is not like the other.

My anger about the situation wasn't so much that someone had an issue with atheists.  This is common.  Fundamentalism isn't reserved solely for actual fundamentalists.  I knew this already.  What got me the most was that someone was allowed to exert control over me anonymously.  I wasn't told who was objecting to my membership.  They didn't have to face me, or know anything about how it might affect me.  They got to complain without their name being known, then walk away.

(It's an unfortunate irony:  People had enough information to block my membership because I did what everyone is constantly asked to do.  I participated.  I spoke.  Had I never given a message, or been open about my ideas, I'd be a member right now, just like the other atheists who are members at West Hills.)

I stayed home for a few Sundays.  The elders and pastors bent over backwards to apologize for how things went, and did their best to make me feel wanted.  Eventually one of them told me enough information that I could figure out who was blocking my membership.  I don't know if that made it easier, but it was nice to know.  It wasn't anyone close to me.  Wasn't even anyone I'd ever had a conversation with.  Still, Quakers speak as a group.  If they decide something, they do it with consensus.  If they decide not to do something, like approve someone as a member, they also do that as a group, even if it's only a handful of people holding up the majority.  This allows individuals to exercise an extraordinary amount of power over others.

For the last six months, I've waffled a lot.  Some Sundays it seems like it would hurt more to show up somewhere unpleasant than stay home, so I stay home.  Other Sundays I go because I miss people, and that's the best place to see them simultaneously.  Either way, the trust is gone.  The feeling of "I'm affected as much as everyone else" has been replaced with "I'm the only person in the last 10 years to have their membership blocked."  That very few people knew about any of this didn't help.  I've chosen not to speak about it publicly.  I don't know how.  There are people who are quite content to share their pain out loud, and eat up the attention this brings.  I'm not one of those people.  It's uncomfortable, and requires vulnerability, and I suck at both of those things.

Last week, Northwest Yearly Meeting decided to "release" West Hills from the yearly meeting.  Some people felt like a freed hostage.  But most felt some level of pain and rejection.  As usual, at first, I felt nothing.  I've been emotionally detached from West Hills for so long that I don't identify as one of them.  This didn't feel like personal rejection.

As people began to express their feelings about being kicked out, my feelings started to surface also.  But they haven't been feelings about NWYM.  They've been feelings about membership rejection, and the loss of a trusted community.  These people get to grieve their loss together.  I had to deal with mine alone.  I understand their pain, but in a way, I resent it.  The group that rejected me has been rejected.  While this isn't really what happened (the first part, anyway), it's how it feels.  And it's hard to listen to.  The membership process is still the same.  It can still be used to bludgeon someone else.  The gatekeepers can still gatekeep, and nobody knows they're doing it

I showed up to Quakerism looking for a way to quit being so afraid of death, and for my kids to be given the chance to ask God questions in an LGBT affirming place.  That first part of that mission has been quite successful.  Sarah will continue the second part.  In the process, for awhile, I found a community of people that felt like they were my people.  Eventually it became clear that they aren't.  After all, Quakers think God is guiding the group decision making.  With that as a central tenant, I was naive to think that as someone who doesn't think anyone is guiding anything, it would be possible to have both worldviews in the same church indefinitely. I'm persuaded that we have little to no control over our thoughts.  Faith is a kind of thought over which I have no control.  But to the faithful, thoughts matter more than anything else.  To be faithless among people who need their faith more than they need people does not seem like a good match.

Shortly after the listening meetings at West Hills, my small group of elders talked about moving forward with my membership.  They seemed mildly surprised when I told them I was no longer interested.  With West Hills having been kicked out of NWYM, and with the elders and pastoral staff having no appetite to appeal that decision, I'm hopeful that people will understand why after all of this, continuing at West Hills seems like a poor decision.  I've waffled too much already, and am likely to tell people different things about how I'm doing depending on the day they ask me.  I don't think I can get clarity if I'm begging the question by continuing to show up.  I'm giving myself the rest of the year to do other things with my time.  I've got a lot more hiking to do and books to read.  I'm hopeful that the time away will confirm that I'm making the right decision in walking away, or give me the perspective I need to try again.

Some day, I want to feel like this:


  1. It's sad that you no longer have a community. And can't share that experience with your wife.

    My question to you is: How could you have expected that a community based in God as it's central focus would accept as a member one who states there is no god?

    Wouldn't that be like wanting to become a member of the Sierra Club, but claiming environmentalism is wrong, doesn't exist?

    I'm glad that you have found a type of atheism which is positive.

    My own experience of most atheists since becoming convinced that Christianity can't be true has been drastically negative.
    Heck, even if I ever to think God isn't, I still wouldn't be an atheist.

    But I will keep reading your blog. Maybe you will explain the type of atheism that you came into that is positive.

  2. Ryan... I love and support you regardless of what you decide to do regarding your membership at West Hills Friends. And I know, intimately, what it is like to wonder if you are really welcome there, and to have experiences that create doubts.

    You know how I feel about atheists, both as someone who is married to one, and who has been an atheist myself in the past. I do not believe that faith in God is needed to bring about good things in the world, nor do I believe that faith is needed for that good to last beyond death in a meaningful way. My value as a person does not change depending on whether I believe or not, and neither does yours. The love you share now is passed on to others, on and on in an endless ripple. That is a wonderful thing, both on a personal level and on a world level - I hate to think of what would happen if love depended on faith.

    I did not expect to find God in my life again at all. I am determined that what has been a happy surprise for me will not become judgement against those who are on a different path - perhaps the very path that I was content with, or that Dave is content with, or that millions of people in this world are content with.

    I do believe that those who said what they said about "Jesus's clubhouse" or who asked questions about whether West Hills is "still a Christian church" or claimed that rotary club membership is a comparable option for those without faith - these statements were made based upon fear and problems that are THEIR problems. I think it smacks of insecurity in themselves, insecurity in their ability to maintain their individual identities within a group, fear of change, and fear of the Other.

    Here's the thing... I understand their fear, too. I even understand the fear of discussing fear, because vulnerability sucks. What I think is getting lost in group meetings, and what needs to be recognized, is that their fears and the fears of someone who is not in the majority group (in other words, the fears of the powerful vs those who are not in power) are not equivalent, nor should the fears of the majority necessarily be expressed in the presence of those who would suffer the consequences of those fears.

    I hope that any fears over allowing me to be a member will not be figured out in my presence, because then I have to bear the suffering of being held hostage to their fear, but they will not be bearing my suffering in return. I think that is what happened to you - you knew someone rejected you, as far as you knew they never understood what that meant for you, and you had to bear that on your own. I continue to be angry that it happened that way, and I was eldered rather severely when I expressed that anger. My concerns were passed on to the elders and were lost to the ether as their own rejection from NWYM came to the forefront - like you said, an event that seems to have obvious parallels to more intimate, in-house matters. Parallels that nobody seems to notice, as they lament their own fate of not being welcome in a larger family of community.

    I, for one, believe that God's love is expansive enough to include everyone. EVERYONE. Atheist, believer, and everyone else. And although Quakers claim that scripture is not dead, but rather subject to the interpretations that come through personal experiences of the divine - it’s even biblical to accept those with different levels of faith. See Romans Chapter 14, 1-3: "Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them."

  3. (Not sure if this will be duplicate...)

    Daniel--a better analogy is someone who doesn't believe in anthropogenic climate change, but who is intensely concerned about pollution, conservation and sustainable energy on their own merits. If they aren't going to make an issue about carbon emissions, and they appreciate that other environmentalists find a lot of motivation from their convictions about the dangers of carbon emissions, why wouldn't the Sierra Club be grateful for their support of time, energy and money? Assuming they want to, you know, actually succeed at the work they feel called to do in the world.

    Ryan--we've talked about these issues a lot, so I know you're aware that I think you have a rightful place with the Quakers as much as anybody, and more than many. The people who are responsible for being responsible didn't meet their obligations to you, in my opinion. One thing I may not have said before is how truly self-centered and short-sighted anyone is being who fears you would change the nature of their worshipping community. If you are willing to entrust your own children to that community as it is, you're not going to care about changing things on account of adults you don't especially know.

  4. Ryan, I am sad to hear that this was your experience with the membership process. I stand ready to lend an ear should you ever want to process with another Friend who is practiced at listening and who knows a few things about rejection and not fitting in. I hope way will yet open, perhaps in some way that isn't yet visible.

  5. My Friend, I am aghast that this happened to you. It saddens me deeply to know that you have been so wounded by those you held in trust. Please forgive them for they know not what they do. Rest assured that you are loved and respected by many in the community, myself included. To my eyes you are far more Christian than many Christians I know.

  6. (I am the Dave that Amy refers to above, and who is very happily one of her husbands.)

    Ryan: I hope that a universe of hiking and books does good things for your mental state. I know it's done good things for mine in the past.

    Daniel writes:

    " My question to you is: How could you have expected that a community based in God as it's central focus would accept as a member one who states there is no god?
    Wouldn't that be like wanting to become a member of the Sierra Club, but claiming environmentalism is wrong, doesn't exist? "

    Mark's suggested change to this analogy is a good one, and I think more accurate than the above. Speaking solely for myself, and not other atheists, I would say that my own changes would be slightly different, and more like this:

    Someone might want to become a member of the Sierra Club because they like being around other people who like being outdoors, who enjoy being together as a community with some sense of common purpose, and who consistently do constructive and beneficial things during club meetings and activities. They might then also share in many of those activities, so they are giving to the community as well.

    Suppose that most of the other Sierra Club people frame their own day-to-day activities through their concept of "environmentalism". Whatever "environmentalism" is, it always involves something that isn't exactly how this new member goes about doing things. It might be a difference of belief or action -- it doesn't really matter. That person might ultimately reject the label "environmentalist" if the differences are large enough, even if their day-to-day experiences in that community aren't obviously different from the other people's.

    But all the while, this person who rejects "environmentalism" as personally non-applicable might still find value in the other aspects of the community, and give back to the community, as I already described. Furthermore, in the specific case of a church or other religious community, don't forget that the community also recognizes major life events -- births, deaths, marriages, comings-of-age -- while also giving support for the everyday joys and sorrows that life throws our way. So imagine that Sierra Club -- at this point, maybe it's Sierra Church -- doesn't just do hiking trips and trail building and political advocacy, it also provides support for all of those emotionally-laden life events.

    In my case, I've never had any life experiences, however awe-inspiring or emotionally transcendent, that have answered very well to what people call "God", even by fairly liberal definitions of "God". So I don't find "God" to be a meaningful way to interpret or describe those experiences. Despite all that, the experiences still exist. They have been emotionally significant -- "spiritual", if you like -- as much as any religious person's experiences. Life's joys and sorrows still exist. Wanting (or even needing) to share the joy of a birth or a new partner, or the grief of a death, still exists. Wanting (or, again, even needing) to get out and do community work that is personally meaningful and fulfilling still exists. I can understand why someone who also doesn't believe in God, might still want to join -- and even feel they could genuinely belong in -- a community that has many devout believers, if it addresses and validates all those experiences.

  7. Ryan, I for one would love to see you reconsider going forward with membership at WHF because you were already a valuable true member of that body and I think that the vast majority of people there would support your membership if given the chance at a meeting held to discuss it.