18 January 2007

Worship seeking more understanding

I've decided that the best way to confront my inner curmudgeon is, when I find myself getting irritated and judgmental, to ask myself, "Aren't you of (at least) two minds about this yourself?" Or to put it another way, I shouldn't pretend that my settled views on a subject have been settled all that long!

To take an old example, it sometimes irritates me to hear George Fox taken out of context in support of views that he wouldn't have agreed with, as in the citation of "that of God in everyone" as the supposed core of Friends faith. (Here's Lewis Benson's take on this phrase.) The problem with getting too judgmental about this now is that, when I correctly demand that the words be read in context, I can forget how important, how liberating Fox's insight was to me when I was a young Christian and brand-new Quaker. If I can just take the time to remember that early excitement, and suppress my more recent sourness, then I can tenderly link those beautiful words to another important Foxian soundbite: "Christ has come to teach his people himself." Although "that of God in everyone" is misused in the service of modern Quaker liberalism, the theology behind it (which is the same theology that's behind "Christ has come...") was as creatively disruptive to the conventional Christianity of his time as our Quaker faith and practice should be creatively disruptive to the conventionalities of our time--and with the same liberating effect.

Can I apply that same patience and honesty to my puzzles about worship? This line of thought was kicked up by my recent Web rabbit-trails, the inevitable chasing down of tantalizing blog essays that happens every time I visit emerging-church and evangelical-rebel sites like theooze.com. Today I went to an outdated link on last month's conference on "The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future." It turned out to be a call to "... Evangelicals to recover the conviction that God’s story shapes the mission of the Church to bear witness to God’s Kingdom and to inform the spiritual foundations of civilization"--in part by letting that "story" be the primary shaper of worship.

Although I sympathized with the Call's familiar critiques of theory-centered, performance-centered, and ego-centered worship, I found myself getting prickly as I was confronted by its stern imperatives for worship: "to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God’s saving acts." In other words, liturgy and lectionary (and, unbidden, my judgmental inner voice kicks in: icons, candles, incense, majestic and dignified gestures, and eventually, the ancient squabbles over who is entitled and licensed to stage-manage these procedures for our vicarious benefit, and who exercises quality control).

Okay, to be perfectly honest, when I attend worship in a Russian Orthodox church, my tears can flow freely in the presence of these elements. And also: I cherish my experiences of helping host Taizé services at Reedwood Friends Church. And there are icons on my desk and two more behind me.

Even so, if it were up to me, worship would be outwardly pure and austere. In my fantasies, the community gathers in subdued joy, simply and reverently sits and waits on the Holy Spirit, responds with sincerity and mutual forbearance to the Spirit's inward and outward manifestations and our often fumbling attempts to be faithful, and at some ripe moment recognizes that meeting for worship is over. Before or after that adventurous hour (using the word "hour" loosely), we also gather for "education"--to help each other understand the issues of being a biblically-informed group of disciples who want our practice to match our faith, and who want to design processes of access for children and newcomers to be in possession of all the information, and all the models, that we have drawn upon for our encounters with God.

At our regular meetings for church governance, we would, as a community, prayerfully agree on what additional elements might be added to the worship period to serve our primary hunger to entrust our worship to the Holy Spirit. Will we reserve a space for our pastor or another person to provide reflections on the Bible or discipleship or implications of faith, or to invite the rest of us into a deeper commitment to Christ? Will we invite musicians and song leaders to contribute to the worship time, giving a few minutes of sheer joy to those who yearn to express their love of God and God's people with abandon, and perhaps nudging those of us who might otherwise stay too cerebral in worship? Will we dedicate some time to the collection of offerings, reminding ourselves that stewardship is part of the earthy reality of discipleship? Might someone be designated to speak directly to the children during worship?

As we add or subtract these elements, are we mindful of the overall balance of programming--does it still assume the primacy of the Holy Spirit, does it honor Christ as the head of the church, or are we tempted to take over for fear the Spirit will leave us high and dry? Or has our community become a place where it's not safe to ask that basic question, and it's better to confine ourselves to "planning worship" by shifting attractive segments on an all-too-human collage?

I admit that I've provided an idealized fantasy, although I've experienced parts of it at one or another of the many Friends meetings I've attended. In real life, we have to negotiate between our ideals (listed variously!) and the realities of custom and expectation and cultural patterns. Most Reedwood Friends are willing to sing a line in a praise song about "lifting our hands" but won't actually lift their hands! At Ministerios Restauración I'll lift my hands before we ever get to that line. The point is, I love the plainness of Friends traditional waiting worship because the rich texture is supplied by expectation, by the drama of the Divine encounter, and by the discipline of what my Quaker "godmother" Deborah Haight called the inward liturgy. But isn't that just me? How can I justify universalizing my preferences and looking askance at the spiritual delicatessens offered by the emerging church and the ancient-future folks?
(Sidetrack: You might justifiably point out that both ancient and contemporary worship practices have included periods of silence, and that some of the most eloquent explanations of the role of silence have come from outside Friends. But I'm not talking about silence as a discipline or element of worship. Friends don't worship silence; unprogrammed waiting is a foundation, not a module or an enhancement; its purpose is to anchor all our worship on the leadership of the Spirit. Even when we can't honestly say that we've "felt" the leadership of the Spirit directly, we benefit from our faithfulness and from our unwillingness to cover up that perceived absence. We programmed Friends with our slightly more elaborate worship patterns, are ideally not pre-empting God's leadership, but that's true only if our "additions" are based on corporate discernment. It's no fair shoehorning the open worship into a stuffed program as a nice Quaker ornament or a gesture to appease the traditionalists--or, worse yet, as a meditative device to reinforce the three points of the sermon.)
The awkward truth is that Friends have been practicing variations on the minimalist approach for three and a half centuries, and we've either not dared believe that it would serve the larger world of believers, or that larger world has voted with its feet against our approach. Globally, we can't even scrape together the population of Dayton, Ohio, to attend worship on our model (and far fewer if we only include the most minimal version, unprogrammed worship). It would be wicked for me to suggest that everyone else is voting for form over the possibility of genuine, Divine encounter. Therefore, judgmentalism becometh me not.

Still, I love our clean approach! At the same time, I am very grateful that the ancient-future folks, the emerging churches, and the spotlight they've shown on the issues of integrity in worship might now give us a new chance to offer our approach to the ecumenical conversation. As for my curmudgeonlike tendencies, I admit that when I visited one of the bloggers who commented on that conference, David Fitch, and rabbit-trailed over to his own church, I was most intrigued. Somehow, most of my petty finickiness was held in check--although you'll probably be able to guess what gave me a slight blip, here less than elsewhere. Clicking around the church's site, I saw a lot of neoquakerism (I promise never to use that word again!) including this lovely statement on being church: "At Life on the Vine we are a family committed to each other and to Jesus, the Head of our household. When we assemble for worship, his message is preached, his Spirit is present, and his people are restored, healed, and gradually conformed into his likeness. We invite you to participate, test the spirits, and allow the Holy Spirit to form your life."

The title of this post, "Worship seeking more understanding," is a reference to a book I've mentioned before, Worship Seeking Understanding by John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, a gem of a resource on thinking about integrity in worship--and, in fact, this week's first righteous link. (While you're there, look at their interesting item on Epiphany in missional churches. Do I get any points for "attend[ing] to the Christian year"?)

PS: To sum up one of my critiques of ancient/future worship discussions: I want to resist the false dichotomy that might be set up between liturgical and narcissistic, implying that the only way to get out of consumerist and individualistic worship is to wheel in a liturgical model, or, in some markets, an attractive boutique selection of models. The Spirit-rich minimalism of Friends worship ought to be a third way, but let's be honest: How much individualism and inner-flashlight Quakerism (thanks, Ruth Pitman) has crept under the pious cover of unprogrammed worship?

(Part four is here.) (Part one.) (Part two.)

More righteous links:

Bill Moyers continues to provide amazing fuel for prophetic discussions: starting with the Christmas story, his "parable for our times" challenges the destructive recalibration of the words "liberal" and "conservative."

More prophetic fuel, on Iraq, in two national newspapers: Robert Kaiser writes on "Trapped by hubris, again," and John Burns reports that "U.S. and Iraqis are wrangling over war plans." The single scariest line of the latter article, in the face of the Bush escalation: "'This is an enemy that will trade space for time,' one officer said." Apparently, our side is willing to trade wounded and dead bodies for time.

Once again, Martin King's remarkable April 4, 1967 speech (see my comments of two years ago) got lots of attention around the King holiday this year. Here's an example from norwegianity.com. I think it is impossible to overexpose King's words in our present moral leadership vacuum.

If you're free Wednesday evenings, starting January 31, and can get to Reedwood Friends Church, join us for the latest session of our Center for Christian Studies. Larry Shelton will be leading a class on "Christ and Covenant Community." The 6:30 class is free, and is preceded by a reasonably-priced simple meal at 5:30. For more information, write to Carole Spencer, cspencer (at) georgefox.edu.

Here's an interesting, brief article in English, "Are there Protestants in Russian civilization?", on the Web site of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.

Last Saturday, The Roadhouse Podcast celebrated its 100th edition. Congratulations to Tony Steidler-Dennison! However, my favorite recent show was #98. Given the price of CD's and the scarcity of blues broadcasting (with all due thankfulness to KMHD-FM), without Tony's podcasts I think I'd satisfy my blues cravings almost exclusively with the tried-and-true names of the past. Tony gives his listeners risk-free exposure to some of the best of new (often independent) blues artists, along with some contributions from the more established performers. Keep at it, Tony.

Speaking of blues, Friend Derek Lamson has a new Web site with links to an MP3 file of his song "One Cool Cup of Water." On one of our Wednesday evenings at Reedwood, last August, I recorded a few of Derek's songs. So, while he may be in Burundi today, he can also be on your computer screen:


forrest said...

"That of God" if we're just being sentimental is simply inadequate; it doesn't matter what Fox meant by it. One doesn't know what "that of God" in other people should mean until he knows "that of God in himself."

And that is what we have to offer. Good traditions, yes, a beautiful form of worship like and unlike other beautiful forms of worship, with more room for God to speak freely than in other forms (though with less permission for God to sing and dance among us.)

So when can all of God's people be prophets? A form is a form is a form; one form or another may fit a body better but that's the content we need to fill it with, in essence!

A service might move us all to weeping without touching what we really need: for the Earth to be full of the knowledge of God.

We come together because we're supposed to have something to share with one another; it "isn't good for the man to be alone" like an Eveless Adam--but do enough of us know what we truly need, and do enough of us have the appetite to receive it?

"I found them all drunk; there was no-one athirst among them. When they shake off their wine, then they will repent."

Johan Maurer said...

I'll have to think about this. If I consider the statement that "we come together because we're supposed to have something to share with one another...." What do we mean by "share"? Can we stretch it to cover situations when I have nothing to share but my emptiness?

One side of me rebels against the notion that we come together out of some kind of obligation, rather than coming together in order to live more completely--in order to be what we are: essentially, herd animals.

The other side says, "What's wrong with obligation?--especially an obligation that's a consequence of a voluntarily chosen affiliation, such as a faith community? It is an obligation to meet with our faith-family brothers and sisters, and my personal feelings at the moment don't enter into it.

I was listening to a fascinating discussion after meeting for worship this morning at Reedwood. One guy was saying, "I'm dreaming of the day when we'll have 300 in worship." The other guy: "I don't worry about numbers, I just want us to be on fire!" The first guy says, "When I came, I was the opposite of 'on fire.' I dragged myself in, just wanting a bit of relief. I want people to come in even if they're clueless and just at the end of their rope. The fire will come later." Of course, they're both right; but the church that is "on fire" in a way that attracts thirsty, wounded, shamed people as well as the happy grazers, is a church that is out of bondage. It doesn't have to look a particular way, it certainly doesn't have to match anyone's model of being exciting, but it needs to know who its Lord is, and that the body of believers has authority to claim its territory (however they're led to define that!) and confront all oppression.

forrest said...

>What do we mean by "share"? Can we stretch it to >cover situations when I have nothing to share but >my emptiness?

Of course! That emptiness is also your faith that God will somehow make good your lack. And it provides an opening for whoever is better attuned at the time, a task that can strengthen his faith and understanding by putting it to use. Emptiness is a gift for Fullness & vice versa.

I like the Jewish understanding of a commandment as an obligation that is given to us for our own good. As in "Man was not made for the Sabbath."

I enjoy ways of showing worship that overcome us with awe and beauty and excitement; I'd like to do more of that. But in practice I prefer a format of worshipful discussion; because I see the object as finding God together, serving as instruments for Christ to teach us through each other. A good thought, hoarded in one curious mind, is not wasted--but it isn't the same as what God can do with it in a group of people.

Algis said...

I am strongly moved by both of you, Friends -- I can only attest, coming from a very ritualistic, heavy with aesthetics Catholic tradition, that nowhere before I was able to feel and be touched so profoundly by what I believe is Working of the Spirit than when I met and worshiped with Friends. English included!

Numbers indeed do not mean much -- I would not like the Society of Friends to 'compete' for numbers with any other Christian or whatever group. Quality of everyday-transformation and of Hope is what matters.

I am most grateful to G-d our Lord for finding the Society!

forrest said: "But in practice I prefer a format of worshipful discussion" -- thou speakst my mind, Friend, thank thee!