Last weekend I was invited to speak to Abington (Pa.) Meeting’s First-day school (n.b. proper FJ stylesheet) to talk about vocal ministry in worship. I haven’t been to worship at that meeting for eons and can’t speak to the condition of its ministry, but I do know that vocal ministry can be something of a mystery for unprogrammed Friends. Many of us are “convinced,” coming to the Society as adults and often have a nagging feeling we’re play-acting at being Friends, but I’ve met many life-long Quakers who also wonder about it.
Perhaps as a response to these feelings, we sometimes get rather pedantic that whatever way we’ve first encountered is the Quaker way. The current fashion of vocal ministry in the Philadelphia area is for short messages, often about world events, often confessional in nature. What I wanted to leave Abington with was the radically different ways unprogrammed Friends have worshipped over time and how some of our practices outside worship were developed to help nurture Spirit-led ministry.
(written this a.m. but only posted to limited circles, cut and pasted when I saw the mix-up)
Over on Tape Flags and First Thoughts, Su Penn has a great post called “Still Thinking About My Quaker Meeting & Me.” She writes about a process of self-identity that her meeting recently went through it and the difficulties she had with the process.
I wondered whether this difficulty has become one of our modern-day stages of developing in the ministry. Both Samuel Bownas (read/buy) and Howard Brinton (buy) identified typical stages that Friends growing in the ministry typically go through. Not everyone experiences Su’s rift between their meeting’s identity and a desire for a God-grounded meeting community, but enough of us have that I don’t think it’s the foibles of particular individuals or monthly meetings. Let me tease out one piece: that of individual and group identities. Much of the discussion in the comments of Su’s post have swirled around radically different conceptions of this.
Many modern Friends have become pretty strict individualists. We spend a lot of time talking about “community” but we aren’t practicing it in the way that Friends have understood it–as a “religious society.” The individualism of our age sees it as rude to state a vision of Friends that leaves out any of our members–even the most heterodox. We are only as united as our most far-flung believer (and every decade the sweep gets larger). The myth of our age is that all religious experiences are equal, both within and outside of particular religious societies, and that it’s intolerant to think of differences as anything more than language.
This is why I cast Su’s issues as being those of a minister. There has always been the need for someone to call us back to the faith. Contrary to modern-day popular opinion, this can be done with great love. It is in fact great love (Quaker Jane) to share the good news of the directly-accessible loving Christ, who loves us so much He wants to show us the way to righteous living. This Quaker idea of righteousness has nothing to do with who you sleep with, the gas mileage of your car or even the “correctness” of your theology. Jesus boiled faithfulness down into two commands: love God with all your might (however much that might be) and love your neighbor as yourself.
A “religious society” is not just a “community.” As a religious society we are called to have a vision that is stronger and bolder than the language or understanding of individual members. We are not a perfect community, but we can be made more perfect if we return to God to the fullness we’ve been given. That is why we’ve come together into a religious society.
“What makes us Friends?” Just following the modern testimonies doesn’t put us very squarely in the Friends tradition–SPICE is just a recipe for respectful living. “What makes us Friends?” Just setting the stopwatch to an hour and sitting quietly doesn’t do it–a worship style is a container at best and false idol at worst. “How do we love God?” “How do we love our neighbor?” “What makes us Friends?” These are the questions of ministry. These are the building blocks of outreach.
I’ve seen nascent ministers (“infant ministers” in the phrasing of Samual Bownas) start asking these questions, flare up on inspired blog posts and then taildive as they meet up with the cold-water reality of a local meeting that is unsupportive or inattentive. Many of them have left our religious society. How do we support them? How do we keep them? Our answers will determine whether our meeting are religious societies or communities.
My workshop partner Wess Daniels just posted an update about the upcoming workshop at Pendle Hill. Here’s the start. Click through to the full post to get a taste of what we’re preparing.
Martin Kelley and I will be
weekend retreat at Pendle Hill in just a couple weeks (May 14–16)
and I’m starting to get really excited about it! Martin and I have been
collaborating a lot together over the past few months in preparation for
this weekend and I wanted to share a little more of what we have
planned for those of you who are interested in coming (or still on the
fence). During the weekend we will be encouraging conversations around
building communities, convergent Friends and how this looks in our local
meetings. I wanted to give the description of the weekend, some of the
queries we’ll be touching on, and the outline for the weekend. And of
course, I want to invite all of you interested parties to join us!
One of the blueprints for Quaker community is the “Epistle from the Elders at Balby” written in 1656 at the very infancy of the Friends movement by a gathering of leaders from Yorkshire and North Midlands, England.
It’s the precursor to Faith and Practice, as it outlines the relationship between individuals and the meeting. If remembered at all today, it’s for its postscript, a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians that warns readers not to treat this as a form to worship and to remain living in the light which is pure and holy. That postscript now starts off most liberal Quaker books of Faith and Practice.
But the Epistle itself is well worth dusting off. It addresses worship, ministry, marriage, and how to deal in meekness and love with those walking “disorderly.” It talks of how to support families and take care of members who were imprisoned or in need. Some of it’s language is a little stilted and there’s some talk of the role of servants that most modern Friend would object to. But overall, it’s a remarkably lucid, practical and relevant document. It’s also short: just over two pages.
One of the things I hear again and again from Friends is the desire for a deeper community of faith. Younger Friends are especially drawn toward the so-called “New Monastic” movement of tight communal living. The Balby Epistle is a glimpse into how an earlier generation of Friends addressed some of these same concerns.
A busy Quaker week. On Tuesday I heard North Carolina Friend Betsy Blake give a talk called “He Lives” at Pendle Hill, the story of how “Jesus has been her rock” to quote from the program description. It was a great talk and very well received.
Betsy is a graduate of the Quaker program at Guilford (so she was a
good followup for Max Carter’s talk this weekend) and she helped
organize the World Gathering of Young Friends a few years ago. The talk was recorded and should be up on the Pendle Hill shortly (I’ll add a link when it is) so I’ll not try to be comprehensive but just share a few of my impressions.
Betsy is the kind of person that can just come under the radar. She starts telling stories, funny and poignant by turn, each one a Betsy story that you take on its own merits. It’s only at the end of the hour that you fully realize she’s been testifying to the presence of Jesus in her life in all this time. Real-life sightings, comforting hands on shoulders family tragedy, intellectual doubts and expanded spiritual connections all come together like different sides of the elephant.
One theme that came up a few times in the question-and-answer section is the feeling of a kind of spiritual tiredness–a fatigue from running the same old debates over and over. It’s an exhaustion that squelches curiosity about other Friends and sometimes moves us to follow the easy path in times of conflict rather than the time-consuming & difficult path that might be the one we need to be on.
The last time I was in the Pendle Hill barn it was to listen to Shane Claiborne. I’m one of those odd people that don’t think he’s a very good speaker for liberal Quakers. He downplays the religious instruction he received as a child to emphasize the progressive spiritual smörgåsbord of his adulthood without ever quite realizing (I think) that this early education gave him the language and vocabulary to ground his current spiritual travels. Those who grow up in liberal Quaker meetings generally start with the dabbling; their challenge is to find a way to go deeper into a specific spiritual practice, something that can’t be done on weekend trips to cool spiritual destinations.
Betsy brought an appreciation for her grounded Christian upbringing that I thought was a more powerful message. She talked about how her mom was raised in a tradition that could talk of darkness. When a family member died and doubt of God naturally followed, her mother was able to remind her that God had healed the beloved sister, only “not in the way we wanted.” Powerful stuff.
The sounds at Pendle Hill were fascinating: the sound of knitting needles was a gentle click-clack through the time. And one annoying speaker rose at one point with an annoying sermonette that I realized was a modern-day version of Quaker singsong (liberal Friend edition), complete with dramatic pauses and over-melodious delivery. Funny to realize it exists in such an unlikely place!
Had a good time with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting high school Friends yesterday, two mini-session on the testimonies in the middle of their end-of-summer gathering. The second session was an attempt at a write-your-own testimonies exercise, fueled by my testimonies-as-wiki idea and grounded by passages from an 1843 Book of Discipline and Thomas Clarkson’s “Portraiture”. My hope was that by reverse-engineering the old testimonies we might get an appreciation for their spiritual focus. The exercise needs a bit of tweaking but I’ll try to fix it up and write it out in case others want to try it with local Friends.
The invite came when the program coordinator googled “quaker testimonies” and found the video below (loose transcript is here):
Raye: Ohio Yearly Meeting holds our yearly meeting in Barnesville Ohio–some people know us as those Barnesville folks. We have an electronic Outreach Committee and that includes the oversight and ministry associated with our website. We spend time thinking about how to open up to people who might be interested in Friends’ ways and might want to know more about us whether or not they’ve ever read the Journal of George Fox. We’re trying to expand our witness, if you will.
One of the questions that has come up in this electronic outreach group is: what types of communication or video are useful for someone to get to know us but also respectful of the fact that we do worship and that worship is a spiritually intimate time. We’re trying to bridge and deal with respecting the worshippers, the Friends themselves, to not put on a performance and yet to try to communicate what it is that is edifying in practice and worship.
Martin: How do you give newcomers a taste of Quakers without directing it too much? If you just have that silent empty box it’s hard for newcomers to know what should be filling that box.
Raye: One of the things Friends have done for hundreds of years is to publish, to keep journals and to share that. But that’s not all there is to the Friends experience. There are those quiet times and those moments of ministry that we believe are Spirit-inspired. Many of us wish we could give people a little taste of that because that doesn’t show up in a lot of published writings. That spontaneous and timely, and at times prophetic, witness that we see in our Meetings. We have considered digital video as a way to do that.
Martin: I love the video possibilities here. Video can be a way of reaching out to more people.
Raye: It’s not just anything that can be written. Certainly the writings that have been published are very helpful in getting some sort of a glimmer of where we have been, or in some cases where we are headed or where we are. But there is nothing like that experience of being with Friends in meeting. It doesn’t always happen but there are these moments called a covered meeting or a gathered meeting where everybody seems to be in the same place spiritually and when seems to be messages and gifts coming through people. That’s difficult to get across.
We’re hoping that with video we can discuss these kinds of things after the fact. We don’t want to turn it into a spectator sport or performance.
Martin: Authenticity is a key part of the Quaker message. You’re not practicing what you’re going to say for First Day or Sunday. You’re sitting there and waiting for that immediate spirit to come upon you.
Raye: We don’t know when that will happen. There are meetings where everybody is very quiet, where there’s a sense of that spirit and unity but it may be an outwardly quiet meeting. I have been in meetings where someone stood up and began to sing their message or a psalm or someone had a wonderful sermon that was perfect for the moment. These things happen but we don’t know when they will.
On a recent evening I met up with Gathering in Light Wess, who was in Philadelphia for a Quaker-sponsored peace conference. Over the next few hours, six of us went out for a great dinner, Wess and I tested some testimonies,
and a revolving group of Friends ended up around a table in the
conference’s hotel lobby talking late into the night (the links are
Wess’ reviews, these days you can reverse stalk him through his Yelp
Of all of the many people I spoke with, only one had any kind of
featured role at the conference. Without exception my conversation
partners were fascinating and insightful about the issues that had
brought them to Philadelphia, yet I sensed a pervading sense of missed
opportunity: hundreds of lives rearranged and thousands of air miles
flown mostly to listen to others talk. I spent my long commute home
wondering what it would have been like to have spent the weekend in the
hotel lobby recording ten minute Youtube interviews with as many
conference participants as I could. We would have ended up with a
snapshot of faith-based peace organizing circa 2009.
Next weekend I’ll be burning up more of the ozone layer by flying to California to co-lead a workshop with Wess and Robin M. (details at ConvergentFriends.org,
I’m sure we can squeeze more people in!) The participant list looks
fabulous. I don’t know everyone but there’s at least half a dozen
people coming who I would be thrilled to take workshops from. I really
don’t want to spend the weekend hearing myself talk! I also know there
are plenty of people who can’t come because of commitments and costs.
There’s all sorts of mad things we could try (Ustream video or live
blogging via Twitter, anyone?), wacky wacky stuff that would distract
us from whatever message the Inward Christ might be trying to give us.
But behind all this is a real questions about why and how we should
gather together as Friends. As the banking system tanks, as the environment
strains, as communications costs drop and we find ourselves in a curious new economy, what challenges and opportunities open up?