Lax’s Test

(The following is an article from “Psyche & Spirit, 2008.”  That is the only information I can find on it!  I have searched and searched and haven’t found any other attributions.  If anyone finds any, please let me know.

The question of which voice deserves the most weight is a difficult one for church workers–not only during projects, budgets, etc., but also during the Call deliberation process.  A second point of this article that I think deserves more thought concerns proper dissent:  How can we disagree RESPECTFULLY?  I hope you find this article thought-provoking.)

Robert Lax, poet friend of Thomas Merton, poses this question:  Suppose you were a street musician, a violinist, who has routinely set up next to an apartment building, and three residents threw money out their windows to you wrapped inside of notes.  The first one contained a quarter, and the note said, “When you play, we dance and sing.”  Signed:  a poor family.  The second note contained 50 cents, and said, “I like your playing very much.”  Signed:  a sick old lady.  The last note contained a five dollar bill and said, “Beat it!”

What would you do?  Easy to say hypothetically, but which voices do we actually give most weight to and why?  Sometimes it is tempting to give in to the people who throw their weight around the most, regardless of how the decision impacts others.  There are people in congregations that may not like what you are doing and want you to leave.  How much weight to give them?  Why?  Some people have a kind of formula, that if a certain percentage of a congregation doesn’t give a vote of confidence, they will leave.  The issue there is not that a pastor should require unanimous approval (wouldn’t that be great?)  The question is whether the dissension will grow and cause real damage.  If the violinist keeps on playing, will the detractor cause a commotion?  If so, will the grateful people speak up to stop it?  Is there any pastor that would get a comfortable level of approval? If not, a change might not make sense.

Very few systems teach the art and ethics of dissent to their members.  The Quakers are an exception.  In the Quaker tradition of consensus, people who hold a minority view have learned how to do so responsibly.  On the one hand, they have an obligation to speak up if they feel they are right.  On the other, they are taught to respect the judgment of others.  Everyone, after all, is supposed to be engaged in discerning the movement of the Spirit.  A person with a minority perception must carefully and prayerfully weigh the validity and importance of their view.  It must be very strong to stand in the way of the majority or disrupt their judgment.

So, going back to the challenge Robert Lax poses to us, what would you do if you were the street musician?  Why?  How strongly do you feel about that?  Why do you feel that strongly?


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