Last night LizOpp, Robin M and myself hosted our FGC Gathering interest group. The title was "On Fire!: Renewing Quakerism through a Convergence of Friends." All morning long we've had Friends grabbing our arms to tell us how powerful and important it was for them. One well-traveled Friend went so far as to say the spontaneous worship that occurred halfway through was the deepest he's experienced in twenty years of Quakerism. The obvious challenge for us hosts is keeping our egos securely tamed from all this praise.
The work wasn't ours. We simply set the stage. My first impulse is to say we helped create an environment where the Spirit could break into the event, but that's not really it. We tried to create a space where participants would recognize when the Spirit knocked on the door.
|Food for Fire participants.Bloggers at the workshop pose for a goofy attacking-one-another photo.
What happened last night felt similar to what happened in last February's Powell House Food for the Fire workshop. While I took notes and journaled a lot about it I never gave a followup blog post. It was powerful and I needed to digest it. Luckily participants Rob, Amanda and Zach and Claire all shared about it or its themes in the weeks afterwards.
I'd like to share something about the assumptions and preparation that went into these two events. There's no way to create a cookie-cutter agenda to force a deep spiritual high. In fact part of what's needed is to move beyond predictability. Both times I've had a clear sense that a point came when I was no longer facilitating, where Spirit was actively guiding us and participants were actively responding to that process, even eldering us past the control of facilitation.
When I came to Powell House I had a workshop description and a keen interest in the topic. What I didn't bring was an agenda. I'm trying to experiment with not being too prepared.* Early Friends held open meetings and while they often bore concerns and had themes that frequently reoccurred in their ministry. Friends today rely very much on models borrowed from higher education: we have workshops that expect agendas, we give talks that expect pre-printed speeches. These are often the opportunities we get for teaching ministries, yet they are very programmed. The challenge is to figure out how to subvert them to allow for unprogrammed surprise.
At Powell House I spent time before each session walking around the grounds in prayer for guidance on what to do next. I had brainstormed ideas beforehand but my main preparation had been a lot of Quaker reading and prayer in the weeks preceeding the event. I wanted the sessions to connect to the spiritual condition of the participants, as individuals and as a group. There were a few moments I thought I was nuts. For example, walking around before the Powell House Saturday afternoon session it seemed like reading a chapter of Samuel Bownas's Description of the Qualifications would be a good idea, but by mid-afternoon I could see the sleepy faces. We did it anyway and faces and spirit lit up. People wanted to engage with Bownas. As it turns out we read all of chapter three, "Advice to Ministers in a State of Infancy." It was so cool.
The real inbreaking happened a little later. The group was tired, dinner was nearing. I started to recommend we go into a circle to break up. One Friend interrupted, looked at another across the room and said "you have something to say, don't you." The second Friend said yes, then challenged us that we hadn't actually answered our queries at all. The main question was still on the table. "What are we called to do?" There was a release. I knew I was not in control of the workshop anymore. We came into a prayer circle and started to talk about some of this. One Friend said something about naming who it is that call us. A theme came out that it wasn't enough for us to find some sort of personal salvation and comfort in our Quaker meetings: we needed to bring all the world into this if it was to be meaningful. It truly felt like the Holy Spirit was in the room. It wasn't necessarily so comfortable and it somehow seemed like not enough, but it pointed to the work we needed to do afterwards.
Last night, at the FGC interest group, something similar happened. Robin, Liz and I had planned out the first half of the meeting. The most important piece: coming early to sit in prayer and holding it well past the time the interest group was supposed to start. The work of Friends needs to be rooted in worship. We need to be still enough to hear the Holy Spirit. If the medium is the message, our message was about the need to not pack ourselves in with agendas. We started predicatbly enough by asking the fifty-or-so participants to give their names and to name a spiritual practice that gives them joy. We asked for space in between speakers to keep worship at the fore and we were blessed by a self-faciliating group; Friends did hold the spaces in between.
Then the three of us told our stories of starting spiritually-focused blogs and coming to find a fellowship that extended beyond our traditional Quaker branches (hence the term "Convergence of Friends"). I went first and explained that I trying to be careful not to do this to lift myself up. My story is simple and like those of many Friends. I was giving testimony. The idea of testimony rang throughout the evening. Robin's story in particular was very grounded and coming last it took us into the unprogrammed agenda-less time we had left free. Friends rose to give testimony of other "convergent" experiences, for example particpation in the Northwest Women's Theological Conferences, events of the Western branch of the Christian Friends Fellowship.
At some point a woman I didn't know stood up without being recognized and she had a pose of supplication. My first though, "oh no!" Then I noticed another Friend, worshipful in spirit, who pointed her to us. She said she was going to sing a song. "Oh no again!" I thought. But this was the facilitation coming off our shoulders. This was a Friend rising to name what we needed and another Friend pointing that we needed to go this direction. It was like the two Powell House Friends: one recognizing in the other a need to share ministry and being willing to break through "proper" group process. At the interest group the song was powerful, it brought us to a place where we could be low and thankful. We were now spontaneously in worship.
Liz, Robin and I had planned some closing worship but this wasn't the time yet. But it was the time and the suceeding ministry was heartfelt and largely from the Source.
The only funny aside was that we felt we couldn't let the group go on past our 8:45 end time, for the simple reason that childcare ended then and we needed to let parents go. We mentioned this around 8:30 but twenty minutes later the worship was continuing. Just then the cellphone of the Friend giving ministry went off: it was his daughter calling to ask where he was! He turned off the phone but it gave us the excuse to close the meeting and invite an extended meeting to continue outside. This was wonderful as there were a number of other similarly-themed interest groups (one on youth ministries, the other on the World Gathering of Young Friends) and participants from all three groups met outside and continued the sharing for another two hours.
Lessons? Simply to ground workshop events in worship, let the agenda be empty enough for the Spirit to intervene (having backup exercises just in case it doesn't is fine!). I don't think this is a foolproof method. A lot depends on the participants and how willing they are to share in the faciliation and worship. A lot also depends on Friends breaking into the agenda, for both times that was what turned the event from a workshop to a gathered meeting.
* For me the danger is a personal style that has long relied on a last-minute miracles (I was the kind of college student who read all the material through the semester but didn't actually start writing anything until the night before an assignment was due). I don't want my theology to be an excuse for my procrastination and I try to test this regularly.
Lots of folks have been talking about the Gathering and the Monday night interest group:
I'm sure more reaction posts are up there and I'll link to them as I find them. I suspect that in addition to being the biggest group Quaker blogger photo to date (sorry Gregg!), this will end up being the most blogged about Quaker event yet, at least till Wess gathers West Coasters together next month. I counted at least 20 Quaker bloggers at the Gathering.