14 December 2006

More on 'worship seeking understanding'

Some time ago, I used the title of John Witvliet's book, Worship Seeking Understanding, as the name of a post on worship and sacraments. That post arose from good conversations on several Quaker blogs concerning sacraments.

Now Nancy's Apology and Rob's Consider the Lilies, on the same day, described new initiatives of gathering for worship. They've caused me to return to a subject I love thinking about: the relationship between worship and hope.

First of all, I want to recap Witvliet's suggestion that worship consists at least of these four basic movements: Gathering; receiving (from God); speaking (to God); sharing/exhorting (each other). I think that any attempt at organized worship immediately faces an ancient dilemma: How do you do these things so that there is enough structure to communicate with all ages, temperaments, and learning styles, while not letting the structure become the object of worship? Have I ever seen examples where that balance was maintained? This is important to me: when structure takes over, we no longer need or expect miracles, fire, ... hope. Undue focus on structure is like relying on canned miracles. I don't want canned religion, no matter how reliably it's delivered; selfishly, hungrily, I want live hope for myself, that this experience of being alive and a witness in these times counts for something. But I want this hope not just for myself; if it doesn't apply to that day laborer waiting on a Baghdad street corner, risking life and limb for a chance to feed his children, it doesn't really apply to me, either.

So where is that liminal place where I get to hear hope, and where I will be equipped to make that hope portable, where I help provide clear access for others to hear it and a bold call to carry it beyond the modest little company of beloved idealists who gather to be honest with God and each other about hope and despair?

Here are some fragments of my own experience of seeing that balance--structure that respects the realities of human communication, and a wild hope that Jesus is getting ready to use us to keep his promises to the hopeless.
  • In my very first couple of years as a Friend, I was part of a midweek Bible study at Ottawa Meeting, 30 years ago or more, where with help from Anne Thomas and Deborah Haight, where no question was too elementary or too impious, but where a prayerful simplicity warded off both cerebral tangents and cynicism. I still have the black leather New English Bible in which my marginal notes remind me of the joy and excitement of that little weekly group.
  • In the 90's, our family visited Traverse City's Friends of the Light Meeting every fall for several years. There the children were welcome to lie on their stomachs, drawing and coloring on their papers on the floor, while adults gathered around them in seats, and Joe Kelly welcomed everyone with simple and quiet words. In no particular order, we would sing from a Zondervan chorus book; share reflections from our week; listen to Joe reflect on a Bible passage with humor and references to the lives of the others there, and without rhetorical flourishes; speak from the silence that followed; and often end with Laurie Klein's simple chorus, "I love you, Lord." Joe's concern was to reveal the unconditional love of Jesus to his diverse congregation, some of whom had wrestled with (or were wrestling with) addictions and homelessness, and with the belief that they were not worthy to step into a "church." We spoke to each other in normal tones of voice; laughed and cried freely. I remember one person coming and going in roller skates, which were left on during meeting; pets came in with their human companions.
  • My first experience of Elektrostal Meeting in Russia, in 1994, reminded me of that Ottawa Bible study. The ten or twelve of us gathered in a college classroom around a large table for about half an hour of Bible study. Then we stopped talking and listening to each other, and started listening together for the Holy Spirit. It reminded me of Jesus' caution to those who just stay at the level of words, of theory and human agenda: "You search the Scriptures diligently, supposing that in them you will find eternal life, but refuse to come to me, the one the Scriptures point to who can give you that life." I don't believe that anyone would recommend worshipping around a seminar table, but there it seemed so natural to turn from study to worship, right where we were already sitting.
Maybe we can achieve the perfect balance of structure and hope for a season, but I don't think it is a stable thing--or to put it another way, I don't think that stability is our chief aim. One reason I dream of having both programmed and unprogrammed meetings in local partnerships is because I would love for the dialogue between these Friends to be at a grassroots level, not just at conferences and seminaries; and I would love to give people a range of choices, and to make it possible for them to change their choice from time to time. And from both major variations, and the creative hybrids that their dialogues generate, I see new church planters arising, restless to make the message of hope ever more portable, asking God to show them the places where Friends might have a special and strategic role in proclaiming hope.

None of this is going to happen if we don't stick our necks out. I'm grateful to those of you (and those in my examples) who've already done so.

(Part three is here.)

Righteous links:

Thanks to Northwest Yearly Meeting superintendent Colin Saxton for circulating N.T. Wright's talk, "Where is God in the war on terror?"

Brennan Manning was back at George Fox University this past fall; the University's Journal carried Tamara Cissna's interview with him, entitled "Outrageous Grace."

Speaking of outrageous grace, "Ex-hostages in Iraq opt for forgiveness."

Wait, there's more! Swords into Plowshares: A former soldier of Christ offers the church a new metaphor for evangelism.


David Carl said...


I am the clerk of an unprogrammed meeting. It has also occurred to me that it would be beneficial to have a programmed meeting in our town for synergistic reasons, as well as to provide a place for potential Friends who might not be temperamentally suited for or otherwise interested in unprogrammed worship.

I haven't given this too much consideration, but your posts on the subject have piqued my interest. I'm wondering - where would one start? Could you write to, FUM, say, and suggest that they "plant a church" in a particular city?

Dave Carl

Johan Maurer said...

When I was at FUM, we would occasionally get suggestions such as this. Of course our first step would be to probe whether the inquirer was actually the person who might be best suited to be the "planter." There's no pool of people that I know of who are ready and waiting to plant a church, but throughout the formal and informal networks of Friends, we become aware of people who have this leading. I guess I'd work the whole network: local meetings and churches, yearly meetings, the wider associations (FUM, FGC, Friends World Committee, EFI, etc.). Just don't overlook the possibility that you're the one who is being led.

Friends General Conference used to have a booklet called "A New Friends Meeting," but I don't see it in their current online catalog. Probably a lot of the information is on this page. The FGC material presupposes an unprogrammed meeting, but a lot of these practical steps are correct for any new group. My idea of an ideal church planter is someone who cares more to serve the actual needs of people than to impose a predefined set of patterns on them.

It's been some years since I've been more than peripherally involved with FUM, but the advantage we had was deep experience of both programmed and unprogrammed ways of being Friends. I'm sure that they'd be pretty eager to be supportive. But it is equally possible that major support --in terms of undergirding prayer as well as practical suggestions--would also come from informal networks, such as the people who read these Friendly blogs.


David Carl said...


A belated thanks for your response. I remembered asking this but had trouble finding the thread and dropped it until now. Google to the rescue!