25 August 2005

The Quaker voice

Robin M. starts out a weblog post with this provocative question: "Why is it that so many Quakers start to talk really slow and deep-voiced, like they were suffering some grave illness, when they want to sound inspired in vocal ministry? Do we think it is somehow more fitting or more suitable to sound like we are in pain when we talk about God?"

Robin's essay, and the responses, led me to think about an old concern among Friends and other Pentecost-rooted fellowships: What are the marks of authentic collaboration between human beings and the Holy Spirit?

When I read Robin's thoughts, I'd just finished reading the latest issue of Christianity Today. It included an article, "Victory Lap," on Billy Graham's latest (last?) crusade in New York City. (Unfortunately, this article isn't online yet; watch this space.) Author Tony Carnes recalls Graham's first New York City crusade, back in 1957, a "marathon" that "started in Madison Square Garden in the early summer and ended with a monster rally in Times Square during Labor Day weekend 16 weeks later." A bit further on, Carnes continues:
Many older Christians, raised on a different style of revivalism, remember how Graham's 1957 crusade impressed them. Bob Johansson, founder and principal of the thriving Evangel School in Queens, watched with some skepticism as Graham eschewed emotionalism. "I was raised in the charismatic stuff," the educator said. So, he didn't expect much to happen at Graham's relatively tame rallies. "At the altar call, Graham leaned back with his arms crossed." Johansson remembers thinking, Oh, God, he is just standing there. This is going to be a disaster. Yet, hundreds of people walked past Johansson to the altar. "I just started to weep. Then, I really knew that God works by the Spirit."
In several parts of the world, not just the USA, the dignified Quakers and the restless Quakers are once again struggling over the issue of "freedom in the Spirit" vs long-standing cautions against emotionalism and manipulation. It's an issue that split second-generation African Friends and continues to cause stress in both Africa and Latin America. The issue is understood differently in different places: articulate, liberal, urban Friends may not recognize that they are under any sort of bondage whatsoever, but let someone speak in tongues or speak twice in the same meeting for worship (setting aside theological allergies for a moment) and the limits of freedom may appear.

One doesn't even have to open one's mouth: the late Fred Boots, a very experienced and well-traveled Evangelical Friend (who used to sell copies of Elias Hicks's journal at Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region book tables, but that's another story), told of the cold shoulder he and his wife received at one unprogrammed meeting simply for being dressed too well.

One of my own relatives, most of whose experiences had been in unprogrammed Friends but who was a member of a pastoral meeting, visited a meeting in the Philadelphia area. After she introduced herself as a Friend from Richmond, Indiana, a local Friend hastened to explain to the others that "That's a very different kind of Friend."

On the other hand, a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friend, Dorothy Reichardt, once gave a Bible study at a conference attended by one of liberal Friends' most persistent evangelical critics, who admitted afterwards that he had no idea that there were Philadelphia YM Friends who loved the Bible.

The struggle isn't necessarily between authentic and counterfeit spirituality; it may sometimes be between two counterfeits, in fact between two forms of control. One group cherishes the appearance of orthodoxy and having "the life"—so sure that God will show up on cue (or so determined to have God show up on cue) that emotionalism to the point of manipulativeness is a huge temptation. The other group is so cerebral and individualistic, or perhaps so fond of the esthetic dimension of the well-formed meeting for worship, that a grounded self-abandonment to the Spirit is unlikely. Actually, of course, I'm setting up these two groups for discussion purposes; surely there's nobody at these theoretical extremes.

By "grounded self-abandonment," I mean a complete willingness to surrender to God in the moment, but from a place of being rooted in Scripture and community, rather than being diverted by self-indulgence and exhibitionism. I feel absolutely unqualified to speak about this as an expert, but I can testify to a quiet ecstasy that takes over when I enter meeting for worship, whether programmed or unprogrammed; and that is my way of experiencing what this abandonment might be like. For someone else, that zone of abandonment might not be quiet, or it might not be ecstatic, but I'm sure it is not based either on an anxiously orthodox formula or on some esthetic of attenuated spirituality with a double gloss of progressive politics and antiquarian patina.

Trust is the basic testimony behind authentic Quaker collaboration with the Holy Spirit: trust that we are loved infinitely, trust that God will truly lead us individually and corporately (even in meeting for worship!), and trust that our community will walk with us as we learn how to minister. Are our meetings trustworthy in this matter? Can we talk tenderly with those who are either genuinely gifted in vocal ministry (and perhaps a bit frightened by it) or who are tempted to overestimate themselves in this area?

Preparing for sad anniversaries: September 11, 2001; September 1, 2004.

I no longer have conflicting feelings about anniversary observances of the attacks and deaths associated with September 11, 2001. In a spirit of bearing one another's burdens, I am totally willing to participate in genuine mourning of the deaths that took place on that date, and comfort for the consequent wounds carried by the survivors. I am no longer willing to do anything to encourage the cult of pseudo-patriotic self-pity that was born a few terrible hours after those attacks.

The USA suffered that day in a way that many other countries have, far more often and at proportionally a larger scale—even at times because of our government's indifference or outright connivance. The suffering of our citizens, residents, and visitors on September 11 should help sensitize us to the the violence that is so constant in many other places. (I'm not even addressing the issue of the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq that our self-pity is directly linked to.) Instead, nearly four years of ugly chest-thumping and Patriot Acting has threatened to make the USA smaller, meaner, greyer, certainly more fractured.

Something similar seems to have happened in Russia as a result of the Beslan tragedy, a year ago on the first day of school, 2004. It's hard to know whether a more generous outpouring of sympathy in Russia's direction, on our part and the world's part, after that harrowing and murderous ordeal, would have changed anything. But the politicians, ours and theirs, seemed content to harvest the tragedy for their own "war on terror" rhetorical spoils, and today Russia's political culture strikes me as more brittle and vindictive. One small demonstration: the expulsion of ABC News for broadcasting an interview with terrorist Shamil Basaev.

We in the USA may pay an economic as well as spiritual price for our understandable but severely miscalibrated and wickedly exploited post-9/11 outrage. In his recent book The Flight of the Creative Class, Richard Florida writes:
Why would talented foreigners avoid the United States? In part because other countries are simply doing a better, more aggressive job of recruiting them. But having talked to hundreds of talented professionals in a half-dozen countries over the past year, I'm convinced that the biggest reason has to do with the changed political and policy landscape in Washington. In the 1990s, the federal government focused on expanding America's human capital and interconnectedness to the world--crafting international trade agreements, investing in cutting edge R&D, subsidizing higher education and public access to the Internet, and encouraging immigration. But in recent years, the government's attention and resources have shifted to older sectors of the economy, with tariff protection and subsidies to extractive industries. Meanwhile, Washington has stunned scientists across the world with its disregard for consensus scientific views when those views conflict with the interests of favored sectors (as has been the case with the issue of global climate change). Most of all, in the wake of 9/11, Washington has inspired the fury of the world, especially of its educated classes, with its "my way or the highway" foreign policy. In effect, for the first time in our history, we're saying to highly mobile and very finicky global talent, "You don't belong here."


Anonymous said...

The goal should not to be controlling about what happens during worship. We ought to be extremely suspicious of rules, written or unwritten, and careful how we phrase general guidelines so they do not tend to restrict freedom in the Spirit.

I know many Friends moved to express themselves in worship in ways outside the norm who repressed it for fear of the reaction. This is a shame.

Our relationship with Christ should be a powerful one of love. Strong feelings of love often result in physical manifestations. And the Truth may convict us, causing us to sob, which apparently was not uncommon among early Friends.

If there is not an ordinance on the bread and wine, there is definitely not an ordinance that we sit quietly and soberly when we worship. But Quakers often seem to act like that is an ordinance.

Perhaps there is movement towards more openness to the Spirit. At last year's School of the Spirit Retreat on Prophetic Ministry, there were charismatic manifestations such as speaking in toungues and weeping in worship.

Anonymous said...

I keep wanting to write some worthy comment, but I just get stuck re-reading this over and over again.

From my whiny little post to this.


Thank you.

Johan Maurer said...

Robin! I am profoundly grateful for your asking your provocative question. It really opened some doors for me, aside from the stream of interesting comments it provoked in your own weblog.

Bill, thanks for your comment as well. There's a Friend in North Carolina YM (Conservative) who has written thoughtfully about some of these matters; I should see if I can get permission to post or link to some of her writings.