Who's gonna fill their shoes?

George Jones died this last week. Many country music singers said George was the one they admired most. But back in the early 1980s he wrote a song about all the singers he looked up to, called "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"

Who's gonna fill their shoes?
Who's gonna stand up tall?
Who's gonna play the Opry and the Wabash Cannonball?
Who's gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you?
Lord, I wonder, who's gonna fill their shoes?
Last week I thought a lot about leadership. I found a 35 year old report on leadership in the Religious Society of Friends that could have been written last month. Same issues have been going on for at least that long. Lack of trust, lack of shared vision, need for divine guidance and human accountability, unclear relationships between individuals, monthly meetings/churches and larger institutions...

Some of the solutions the report suggested would still be functional. One of the problems with not having enough leadership is that good solutions don’t get implemented.

I've been thinking about that this week, and about the legacy of Rufus Jones, and about Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In, and the idolatry of heroes, and the right balance of a well-lived life.

So Rufus Jones (1863-1948) is one of my heroes. He did so many things in his lifetime. He helped Friends and others to reconcile modern science and religious faith, to remember that Christian faith requires us to be active in the world, not just pious in a sterile meetinghouse, and he worked for peace and reconciliation within the Religious Society of Friends and in the wider world. That story you've heard about the Quakers who went to Germany to try to convince the Gestapo to let the Jews go? Yeah, Rufus Jones was one of them. And he was a great storyteller.

He also tried to rewrite Quaker history to show a direct connection to the mystical tradition in Europe that was not justified. He spoke every. single. time. and at great length in meeting for worship at Haverford College, for which he was mocked by students. In the last week, I've heard people criticize both his emphasis on mysticism without conversion of life and his emphasis on works over the transcendent. And I've heard he was a terrible driver. A man of giant gifts, giant vision and giant mistakes. That's okay, he is still one of my heroes. I think it's a form of idolatry to expect that our heroes must be perfect in every way. But who could possibly fill his shoes?

When I wrote a post in 2010 about all the imminent turnover in Quaker organizations, I wondered, "Will all these institutions survive this once in a lifetime mass shift in leadership? How many will move in new and vibrant directions? Are there too many openings at one time? Are there enough younger Friends who are ready, willing and able to take on new responsibilities? To take on the hard work and hard choices? To commit?" And then I responded, "I continue to reflect on these questions and where I might feel called to serve. I think that some of us need to step up to the plate."  As I look around almost three years later, of the 20 or so organizations I can think of that changed leaders, all of them found adequate applicants. About a quarter of them chose people younger than 50, and almost half chose women.  I've met most of them and I have confidence that they are willing to take on hard work and move in new and vibrant directions. But I can tell you that none of those people feels adequate to fill Rufus Jones's shoes.

Rufus Jones wrote something like 57 books and gave thousands of speeches all over the world. [Including these two that I love: The Vital Cell, 1941, and What Will Get Us Ready? 1944] I can barely write a blogpost once a month. But before I get too caught up in comparing myself to him, I have to remind myself that he had a wife, and a housekeeper, and a driver, and probably a series of typists to help him out. He wasn't cleaning his own bathroom. He probably never changed a diaper. Times have changed and there are limits to how much he can serve as a role model for me

Still, this brings me to considering how I am stepping up to the plate in my world. If you haven't heard one of Sheryl Sandberg's talks or read her book, you can go to her new website, www.LeanIn.org. She is encouraging women to take professional risks, to push for a seat at the table at work and for equality at home, to not give up on their careers just because it's so damn hard when your kids are little. It's controversial, as important conversations are. For me, it helps to articulate it that I have leaned in hard this last couple of years. And I have been supported at home, and in my meetings, and by many Friends. But is it enough? Am I doing enough? Or doing it well enough?

I like to think that I am not aiming to be as famous or influential as Rufus Jones, but I am working on being as faithful to the calling I have, to live up to the Light that I have been given. Leaning in hard can still look undramatic and unheroic. I suspect that Rufus Jones did aim to be dramatic and heroic and that's one of the things that annoyed people. How is that different from singers giving their heart and soul to get to me and you?

Is it wrong to have ambition to be faithful on a large scale?

Well, at meeting on Sunday, I asked God that question. (One of the things I forever appreciate about unprogrammed Quaker meetings is the opportunity to bring my inarticulate mess to God in prayer. I don't have it all figured out, and that's okay. I can just hold my swirling questions in the Light. And sometimes there's an answer. Not a booming voice from beyond the ceiling, but a quiet knowing of something new.) And the answer went like this, "So what are you doing for those who will come after you?" Huh? I'm the one who is looking for role models, and instead I'm being asked to be one. Not by any actual younger people, mind you, just by God. Darn. Now what?

Rufus Jones, for all his foibles, was strongly committed to encouraging and supporting younger generations, and they loved him for it. The two speeches I cited above were both given to Young Adult Friends, at their invitation, when he was about 80 years old. Perhaps I can aspire to be like him in this regard and let go of the temptation to try to be like him in other ways.

I can still give my heart and soul for the Religious Society of Friends. Thy will, Lord, not mine.

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Blogger Brigid said...

I am a Saint Rufus Jones fan. One of my heroes along with Saint Rufus is Saint Thomas Kelly - if Friends had saints. Rufus was so clear in his thoughts and writing and yet had deep sadness in his life. As for Thomas, how lovely and how simple. One test I try to use for what I do, what actions I am engaged in is - if this that I am doing was multiplied by being done by a thousand others would it be valid and really worth something. This yardstick gives consequence to small deeds and shows the true measure of many so that they can be discontinued. That I think is all that is required in the "following after" stakes. Quakers have a practice of laying down concerns yet seeing them taking up again by others at a later time because they are considered valuable or elevant. I think this a marvellous practice. I also believe that if something is God's work he will provide what is needed - people and purse.

4/30/2013 9:02 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Brigid,

That is a helpful yardstick - a few weeks ago I was also trying to sort between Conflicting Concerns

I think that the emphasis on saints is unhelpful when we start to think that because people are good at some things, that they ought to be our role models over all, and my observation is that is unrealistic for leaders in any field. I think this is connected to the historical conflict between Greek and Hebrew definitions of perfection in the Bible, and to our contemporary issues around sports heroes or politicians.

5/01/2013 8:59 AM  
Anonymous Paula said...

You wrote:

"I am working on being as faithful to the calling I have, to live up to the Light that I have been given."

There. Throw away the rest. ...unless God has told you to worry about the rest, has told you to follow the lead of another person, which I highly doubt God has done.

5/01/2013 1:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine said...

This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for a few days now. One of the things that drew me to Quakerism is that I feel inspired by Quakers. Quakerism has an unusual number of seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things, and I find them more useful as role models than the towering figures of the past, not because I want to do those precise things but because they are constant reminders that it is possible to do what one is called to do even when it is big and scary and seems impossible. So even though you probably don't remember me (I attended SF meeting for a few months right before you moved), you're a role model for me, for taking on something so huge, as is Chris for supporting you. So are all the people who protest every week for causes they believe in, or who give up air travel because of their concern for the environment, or who work in prisons, or any number of other things. If I am ever led in such a way, I believe I will be able to be faithful to it in large part because of the example of those around me who have been faithful to leadings of their own.

5/05/2013 5:03 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, Paula, that is both true and still so hard to discern that it might be easier if God did say, just follow that guy...

Catherine, over the years, I think SF Meeting in particular has had "an unusual number of seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things," some of whom have moved on to other places now, but I am "able to be faithful to [my calling] in large part because of the example of those around me who have been faithful to leadings of their own." The Thursday night study group, who are both open to newcomers and deep in their own community, was hugely influential in my learning to be a Quaker. (It's hard to know for sure if I remember you, I have known a few Catherines in my life, does your last name start with V?)

5/05/2013 5:41 PM  
Blogger Catherine said...

Yes, it does start with a V, so you're probably remembering the right Catherine. I've since moved to Boston, so I'm not longer at SF Meeting, but I did find it to be a remarkable community for the short time I was there.

5/10/2013 2:48 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

A much better edited version of this essay appears as the Forward in the new book edited by Kathy Hyzy, An Inner Strength: Quakers and Leadership published by Western Friend and available through QuakerBooks.com.

9/05/2013 12:28 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

A new link to the QuakerBooks page where you could buy the book, which is still worth reading.

An Inner Strength

4/24/2017 9:26 PM  

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