05 January 2006

Worship Seeking Understanding

... is first of all the name of a fascinating collection of essays by John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and published a couple of years ago by Baker Academic.

The recent inspiring series of weblog dialogues on baptism and sacraments in general (for example, at Quaker Renewal, Public Quaker, Nancy's Apology, and implicit in some of the Christmas discussions) brought that phrase, "worship seeking understanding," back to me. I looked in my notes from my visits to Calvin College and their Worship Institute, and found some nice morsels. Most of these are from a gathering of worship leaders from emerging and experimental churches back in August 2004:
  • At the very heart of worship is the enactment of a relationship between a community and its Creator.
  • The movements of worship (illustrated with arrows and hand gestures): Gathering; receiving (from God); speaking (to God); sharing/exhorting (each other).
  • The communication patterns of worship are like the communication patterns of any healthy relationship, in which we all say: I love you. I'm sorry. Why? Say again? Help. Thank you. What can I do? Bless you. (For more, see this page on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Web site, and the many other related pages.)
  • Worship is not for ideas or agendas, it is for leaving our previous preoccupations and engaging in that reality of community/Creator relationship. You can do almost anything you want in worship as long as you can explain it (and in that context).
It is the word "enactment" that makes me pause. In a way, maybe it is "enactment" that George Fox and the early Friends were resisting. They felt that professing Christians were not adequately engaging in that reality; too often, they were just going through the motions.

Is "going through the motions" underrated? Maybe one way of looking at the work of John Witvliet and his Worship Institute colleagues and their counterparts throughout history is that they are "going through the motions" in the very best sense. Each motion (gathering, receiving, expressing) evokes an essential component of worship, and without a public, reliable, communicable, multisensual recounting of those motions, would our community eventually flake away down to a few ancient intuitive introverts with long memories? During the most oppressive periods of official atheism in the Soviet Union, all the church was allowed to do was to celebrate the liturgy (in other words, go through the motions); the liturgy had to carry the message ... and it did.

If we did no enactments, how would our artists participate fully in worship? One of the things I love about the Worship Institute is the way they pay attention to all the resources of culture in helping the worldwide church consider the motions of worship. At Reedwood Friends, children's first public experience of appearing in ministry usually involves participating in a recitation or musical contribution. My colleague Ginger Pyron prepares liturgical dance for her progressive Oakhurst Baptist Church—including one for this coming Sunday of Epiphany, for those of you in the Atlanta area. The Mennonite Church where we worship most Sunday afternoons has beautiful banners in the worship area. And don't even get me started on the power of icons.

One Reedwood Friend whom I respect deeply is quite happy to have a sermon, a collection, and beautiful music in our meeting for worship, but he draws the line at candles. His point: we do not need symbols to get in the way of our communion with God. We do not need artful props to simulate or represent the divine encounter, we need the divine encounter itself, and anything else is vain ornamentation. Meanwhile, others in Northwest Yearly Meeting are busy importing ecumenical and "ancient/future" elements such as labyrinths, chants, and ... you guessed it, candles.

A tangent: years ago, I heard a story at a quarterly meeting in Connecticut: as the embers of a fire were dying down in the fireplace of a meetinghouse, someone in the meeting room stood up and, pointing to the dying fire, shared, in substance, that he felt as if his life was similarly fading. A short time later, someone else stood up, went to the fire, and stirred it back into a lively flame. (If someone reading this knows a more accurate version of this story, please share it!)

When does "going through the motions" cross the line between vital and engaging communication about the community/Creator encounter, and a pale imitation that pretends to do what it can't? Here are some suggestions:
  • When considering any form of "enactment" for a worship setting, ask: how does it engage the participant in the relationship between the community and its Creator? What motion in that relationship does it serve?
  • Does it (pretend to) end with itself, or does it lead to an unscripted, open-ended opportunity for a direct encounter?
  • Does it serve to provide a person with a way of participating in worship that takes his or her special talents into account, thereby perhaps honoring a deep yearning in that person? Conversely, how will we honor the other diverse temperaments in the community, including those who are unreceptive to "talent" in worship? Do we need to reframe our teaching about worship to equip all of us with a more loving attitude?
  • Remember that worship is not an arena for ideas and agendas. If we are making plans for a meeting for worship, is our planning as drenched in prayer and abandonment to God as the worship itself will be? When, during the worship, the Holy Spirit seems to be pointing in a different direction, are we able to change or abandon those earlier plans?
I know I probably say it too often: There's no formula or pattern that excuses us from the need to exercise real-time discernment. Who provides this discernment for the Quaker community in connection with public worship?

(Part two is here.)

Probably none of this is very helpful in considering the struggles that go on in several yearly meetings over the propriety of the "ordinances" (baptism and communion, for example). As I said on Alice's blog, "Too often the debate degenerates into yet another version of the corrosive tug-of-war between those who argue for a more passionate expression of Christian faith and unity, and those who argue for 'Quakerism' as if the latter were a religion all its own." As a recovering Quaker bureaucrat, I'm happy to take a break from those debates, but grateful that others are participating thoughtfully. (See a relevant exchange in the Evangelism and the Quaker Testimonies forum topic, "Why did the testimonies weaken among Orthodox and Evangelical Friends?")

A beautiful letter from Maxine in Baghdad:
Dearest friends-

First and foremost, Happy New Year to you all! The celebrations have started here today in Baghdad with lots of fireworks and joyous noises in the street. One such noise was a band that went walking by our building. I asked the landlord about that, and he said is a custom here that families or groups of friends put together a band and go door to door, wishing people well and asking for small tokens of money.

My friends are still not home today as we wait for the new year. It's been hard not to be discouraged. But, as often happens, the words of a child brought me new insight. A friend who has been telling her young daughter about the situation e-mailed me a letter in which she made an extraordinary comment. She said, "I hope they keep them long enough to know them like friends."

Know them like friends? Could that possibly happen?

Knowing my colleagues, I think it is. I can well imagine Tom Fox having incredible discussions about faith with his guards. I can imagine Norman telling about his isit to the Radiation Hospital in Baghdad, how he taught radiation medicine in ngland, and how he feels badly that this hospital is struggling to perform such necessary medical care. I can imagine Jim recounting his previous journeys to Iraq and his love of the Iraqi people, especially his good friend Sa'ad who refused to fight in Sadaam's army because he couldn't live with killing people. I can imagine Harmeet talking about this being his first trip to Iraq, and how much he's seen about how difficult the situation even in a such short time.

Yes, I can imagine they've been there long enough now to be friends.

Although I can appreciate the kidnappers may want to keep their new-found friends close at hand, I'm hoping they will see how precious they are and return them to us who treasure them so much.

If I knew where they were I'd get a band together today, walk down the street, knock on the door and instead of asking for money I'd ask for my friends back.

May you be blessed with surprises of peace and joy in this new year-
And this from Peggy Gish, via mennolink:
4 January 2005

IRAQ REFLECTION: Walking ahead in the New Year

by Peggy Gish

The New Year began in Baghdad with firecrackers, flares and even some colorful fireworks, but also with bombs and shooting that killed at least twenty people. Celebrations of this day usually symbolize the hope for new beginnings, new possibilities. Iraqis still have that hope, but it's a struggle to maintain it when the changes in their society and government have resulted in greater insecurity and continued violence.

As part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, I find challenges to my hope when I see the daily pain and hardships of the Iraqi people, as well as the unresolved disappearance of our four colleagues.

Kidnappings, killings, and bombings- whether they are done by the resistance or the state--instill fear in the people. This fear leads to feelings of helplessness and paralysis. It drains the hope that their actions can lead to change. People become afraid to speak out and take action against injustice. We see this in Iraqis, and we find it creeping into our consciousness as well. We, as peacemakers, often feel pressure from others to be more realistic in our work, to see that the world's economic, military and governmental structures are so strong and entrenched that they are truly impossible to change.

We are aware that when we work for change, we can be eliminated any time our work is seen as threatening to those wielding power. Our government's and the world's networks of violence appear overpowering, but we must not be seduced into believing that they are invincible. I continue to believe that the power of truth and love is stronger than all these forces. (I do not mean that there won't be struggle and suffering. It is when the dissent is having a powerful effect and the structures of power feel threatened, that the greatest crackdown on it occurs.)

We are encouraged when we walk alongside Iraqi people who daily take risks addressing injustice and corruption, but we must also make wise and critical decisions. We need to discern how to respond, where to focus our energies, whether this is the time to be more publicly confrontational or whether moving forward must wait. Whatever the decisions, we do not want fear to immobilize us.

This New Year is the time for more of us to become part of movements that expose the real sources of terror and the lies behind lofty reasons given for war and occupation. It is the time to live out alternatives to the dehumanization and emptiness of our society, to build communities of love that more justly share the world's resources. It is time to keep walking ahead, although we feel weak as individuals, and to allow God to work powerfully through our combined efforts. It is time to affirm what we know deep inside, that love and truth are more powerful than any evil force.

Marcia Ball is coming to Portland. Her latest album is a treat!! If anyone in the area wants to join me at the Aladdin Theater on January 18, let me know.


Nancy A said...

Thank you, Johan! There are so many ways to the Centre. Going through motions, whether old or new, is certainly one of them.

I do get concerned about the effect on Quaker discernment if we lose Quaker practice (such as silent listening in meeting). Something tells me these are a pair that have evolved each to support the other. If we remove the practices and disciplines and look to outward things to replace them, will we still then be able to discern inwardly? Or will we look outwardly for our discernment, as we did for the practices, and then become swayed by powerful voices in our society?

There are many good people going to very fine churches who get their discernment from newscasts, presidential speeches, patriotic fervour, and popular sermonizing. It's not that they're bad people or weak religions, just that they have been taught to look outward for their spiritual messages.

Just a thought...

Johan Maurer said...

My anti-candle friend at Reedwood would agree with you, I think (and so do I).

The space for true encounter with God, for both individual and community, is central to Friends worship, both programmed and unprogrammed. We programmed Friends shift some of that space to settings other than the meeting for worship, although almost every programmed meeting I know, at least in North America, still includes a period of "open worship" in the meeting.

When I write sermons, for example, that is a very prayerful time for me: I open myself to guidance not only for myself, but for the community that will hear those words. During my years as a worker for Friends organizations, I almost always wrote outlines for sermons and speeches rather than complete texts. Something remarkable and unexpected happened to me when I began writing sermons week after week for the same community: I could no longer write outlines. My hand would not stop—whole sentences and paragraphs emerged. I could barely write fast enough. It seemed amazingly similar to my experiences with vocal ministry in unprogrammed worship.

If programmed Friends shift some elements of the discernment process to times and places outside meeting (such as the times of preparation for meeting), unprogrammed Friends do some shifting, too. For example, the teaching and exhortation that takes place during meeting for worship at Reedwood, still happens among many unprogrammed Friends, but usually outside meeting for worship.

One vivid example: While I was going to university in Canada, I spent summers in Pennsylvania and worshipped with Uwchlan Friends (Downingtown). They had First-day school in their little schoolhouse: all the classes met together and listened to a brief message from one of the teachers; then they separated for their classes. At the end, they all walked across to the adjacent meetinghouse for worship. As I look back on it, the same sense of worshipfulness pervaded the first hour, which was defined by custom as NOT being meeting for worship, as pervaded the next hour, the acknowledged meeting for worship. In my mind, now admittedly warped by years of programmed worship, they were really all one big semi-programmed meeting for worship that included a beautiful little ritual walk from one building to the other!

Honesty in the use of the unprogrammed time in any meeting for worship, whether programmed or unprogrammed, is important. I've talked to lots of people who are uncertain about how to use the silence (or how to be in the silence). I've also met my share of silence junkies who are ultra-finicky about children's sounds, the quality of vocal ministry, etc. It's really dangerous to allow a highly developed "aesthetic of silence" to take the place of prophetic spirituality in considering the role of silence in our meetings. The silence is a space for encounter with the Living God, not a blank canvas for us to develop our individual spiritual sophistication.

However, before I get too judgmental ... we do have both introverts and extroverts in our meetings, to risk using these two overly general categorizations. I don't want Quakers as a whole to become people who look outward for their spiritual messages, as you put it, but inevitably some part of our people will do so, and I don't want to exclude them from our community. Their outwardness is not a disaster, as long as there are others in the meeting who are capable of giving authentic expression to messages they get directly from God. As long as there is genuine community, we can have diverse temperaments and maturity levels all worshipping together and making up for each other's blind spots.

In my opinion, all of the above concerns both unprogrammed and programmed meetings. At our best, Quaker pastors do not cultivate dependence on our sermons or influence in the meeting; it is our job, just as it is the job of a Quaker evangelist, to guide the listener to the Inward Light. At our best, all Friends want to have meetings for worship that are Spirit-led. And probably all Friends are also tempted at times to settle for something less, but that "something less" looks different for programmed and unprogrammed Friends. We hide from the Spirit in different ways. Some might choose the culture (cult?) of quakerishness, some might choose the secondhand spirituality of a pulpit leader or Christian celebrity. Some might find their true baptism in the silence, others might hide in it or indulge their egos or daydream. (I've done all of these.)


Anonymous said...

If we focus on the form or symbol, it is easy to get distracted from a focus on God. You can focus on it by including it, or by being rigid about excluding it. One can fall into the idolatry of worshipping the form or symbol rather than God. This can happen with unprogrammed Friends as well as with liturgical folks.

But the form or symbol can also be a way of focusing us on God, just as waiting worship can be. It can help us move beyond the form or symbol into a direct encounter with God. It is then a blessing.

As Johan has suggested, the way one person reaches that deep place is often different than the way another does. It will also vary over time with the same person. The Church where I am now - Cedar Ridge Community Church - directly recognizes that. After the message, the congregation is invited to a time of worship. This is the time when communion with bread and wine is available. But the invitation explicitly says there are a number of ways that one might use the time. Even the communion itself may be partaken in different ways - serve yourself, family/friends serve each other, or taking it from a communion minister. It is also noted that one may choose to worship in silence at one's seat rather than partake of the bread and wine. There is a place to light candles. One can write a prayer out (to be prayed for during the week by intercessors), kneel at the platform or pray with a prayer minister - or go to a friend and pray with them. One can offer a donation prayerfully (no collection plate is passed in the church). One can offer a hug or a word of encouragement to someone. One time, when it fit with the theme of the message, modeling clay was made available for use, and those who used it were invited to bring their creations and lay them near the cross in front.

Doing it this way tends to take it out of the ritualized habit mode. People don't rush, and they do prayerfully whatever they're led to do. Because people do a number of different things, no one feels peer pressure to do a specific something. People focus more on the encounter with God than what helps them to reach the place of openness to the encounter.

I want to be with people who are about genuine encounter with Christ. It is much less important to me what forms or symbols, or lack of them, they use. I have found I can be brought to that encounter with the help of the silence, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, praise music and many other ways. I rejoice in a God that welcomes us and embraces us regardless of the means we find to come close to Him.

Rich in Brooklyn said...


I have come to very much appreciate your blog and your point of view on many points of faith, practice, and witness. In this particular post I am more conscious than usual, however, of how much difference there is between your perspective as a Christian Friend in the programmed meeting tradition and my perspective as a Christian Friend in the unprogrammed meeting tradition. You ask: "If we did no enactments, how would our artists participate fully in worship?" My question from the unprogrammed perspective would be: why should artists participate in worship any differently than anyone else? There is a time and place for us to express ourselves creatively and artistically, but why should the hour of worship be that time or that place?

To put the point more sharply, why not ask: "If we don't plant gardens during worship how can our gardeners participate fully? If we don't make shoes during meeting for worship how can shoemakers participate fully?..." etc. etc.

Robert Barclay and other early Quaker writers spoke as if we could entirely avoid any act of worship that comes from the "creature" rather than the Creator. In this they were perhaps naive. But isn't this still in some sense the goal, even if not perfectly reachable? Isn't it turning away from that goal to deliberately arrange opportunities for individuals with various talents to demonstrate those talents as part of worship?

Thanks for considering these possibly impertinent questions.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans
Brooklyn Quaker

Johan Maurer said...

You're welcome, Rich! Your questions could not be more directly and immediately relevant. Unfortunately, you won't get clear answers from me, because I'm totally torn inside.

I'm not an artist, for one thing, so it is hard for me to answer whether an artist should participate differently. Three centuries ago it was probably a lot easier to tell other people how they should behave, regardless of differences in temperament or gifting, especially in situations that everyone regarded as exalted. And if those who didn't fit perfectly needed to belong or were led to belong, they put up with the restrictions.

It's also possible that there was in some ways more freedom then, rather than less. More spontaneous singing, tears, ecstatic expressions, genuine prophecy. Perhaps also more fakery than we suppose now.

I love worshipping in the original Quaker context of unplanned waiting on the Holy Spirit, within the context of being a biblical people continuing to live the biblical story. If the silence is simply a place for personal, autonomous spiritual exploration where the teaching voice of the church is marginalized, I don't recognize that as sufficiently similar to the founding impulses of Friends to defend it as somehow more purely Quaker. The fact that some Friends whom I cherish found their way to us through that door precisely because it didn't irritate their initial christophobia or bibliophobia is not a good enough reason for me to accept eclecticism with a quaker deodorant. How many people have we repelled because we lost our way?

OK, back to your questions. Another approach is to ask where the impulse to participate is coming from. If an artist is led to participate in meeting for worship through artistic expression, who are we to say that this leading is illegitimate? However, the drift that has occurred is probably not due to novel leadings in a sealed context, it is probably due to the influence of non-Quaker spiritualities, especially from Protestantism. Friends evaluated and criticized these influences at the very time they were being experienced. But were individual meetings sufficiently conscious of the need to evaluate each novelty based on their authenticity as Spirit-led expressions rather than as symbolic or proxy "enactments"? I don't think so, based on my own experience of the sorry state of eldership in many meetings.

You do acknowledge that artists should have times and places to express themselves creatively, but "why should the hour of worship be that time and place?" Here's where I find myself really divided inside. On the one hand, I do agree that Friends worship is where creaturely impulses should be set aside in favor of creating the public space for a direct encounter with the Creator.

On the other hand, theologians of worship outside Friends all seem to agree that worship includes not just receiving from God, but giving to God, expressing themselves Godwards, and this impulse can be so urgent that if we don't do it, the very stones will cry out. In other words, we are not just trumpets FOR God, but trumpets TO God. If the only public expression that is permitted in worship is that which can be done by voice, this seems a truncated set of choices for making that expression. Of course there will always be limitations; presumably, if we continue to meet in facilities of the kind we normally have, we can't garden or make shoes during meeting for worship, even if we had some otherwise credible way of turning those activities into expressions of public worship. (I'm talking only about public worship, now, not private worship in the home or workplace or recreation.)

I then turn to the subject of what arenas are appropriate for public expressions of praise or prophecy that are outside the hour of worship (or 75 minutes in Reedwood's case). If the community gathers for a display of paintings or a concert, and the Holy Spirit perceptibly covers that event, then we have a spontaneous meeting for worship, I suppose. (This isn't a polemical point, I'm just thinking out loud.)

Back to my point in the original post: We can never substitute formulas or folkways for real-time discernment. I know that at Reedwood, the elders do pay attention to the danger of stroking egos rather than empowering authentic praise in worship. Even so, when I was on the ministry team at Reedwood, I was always frustrated by how cluttered the meeting for worship became with non-worship agendas. (Of course our worship would seem stripped-down to any non-Friend.)



PS: Concerning programmed vs unprogrammed: I developed my own classification of Friends meetings some years ago. It's a theoretical classification, admittedly for purposes of argument. Some meetings are suffocating, others are ventilated. Both kinds are found both in the programmed world and in the unprogrammed world.

Anonymous said...

Recently during worship at Reedwood, a different Friend contended that we don't use candles because Friends don't believe in symbols. At that very moment I found myself staring at a fake decorative Christmas candle (the kind with a light bulb for a flame). I turned to grin at my wife, but she was too absorbed in coloring the bulletin cover with a pencil. It was an image of a candle. I tried not to giggle.

So let me get this straight...we can use facsimiles and images of a symbol, but symbols themselves are forbidden.
A semiologist would have a field day with this...

But seriously, if we want to avoid use of symbols in worship, aren't words symbols, too? Why would oration be the one and only medium that God would have us use to worship our Creator? Other forms of creative expression should be considered. There is always the risk of elevating the artist, yes, but we all know how easy it is to elevate the person who speaks in worship, programmed or not. No matter whether it's speaking, praying, prophesying, or giving alms, we must beware of practicing our piety in meetings for worship "in order to be seen."

Gardeners can participate fully, not by planting gardens but by bringing flowers to place in worship. If they are arranged and placed without too much fanfare, flowers point to the Creator, not the gardener. Cobblers can participate fully--probably not by displaying shoes in worship, because shoes are not a medium that points to God--but they can glorify God outside of the meeting for worship, by giving shoes to the poor.

Programmed Friends can acknowlege that some creative expressions are appropriate for worship without opening the meeting to everything. I would beg for less rules and more discernment in this area.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Bill and Alan. (Alan: It's so nice not to be the only Reedwood person in this space!)

Overcompensation is a frequent reality in the cycle of innovation-institutionalization-decay-disillusionment-renewal/revolution. Often our corrections become enshrined as new traditions that ultimately decay. So G Fox and his contemporaries railed against hireling priests at a time when those priests were sometimes (NOT always) hack patronage appointments. Their valid objections became frozen among some Friends into a blanket prohibition against ministry on Sundays in worship (although not on weekdays in an office, as with yearly meeting staff, AFSC, etc.), even though the larger sociopolitical context has changed radically.

Similarly, early Friends' objections to formal ceremonies, superstitiously interpreted symbols, and 'going through the motions' have, more recently, sometimes become a wet blanket on genuinely inspired expressions, instead of a liberating insight.

Early Friends' missionaries in East Africa were often scrupulous about seeking converts who would only choose to become Friends on the basis of a thoughtful decision. Therefore they deliberately avoided appeals to emotion or enthusiasm. Their specific cautions (which at least in part reflected controversies back home in North America) sometimes became transformed into a rigid avoidance of expressions of praise, prohibitions against clapping, etc. These prohibitions, where they still exist, now alienate and discourage some Friends without serving their original goals.