14 February 2008

Newberg Friends and Quaker scale

I have new admiration for Gregg Koskela. Judy and I gave our sermon three times on one Sunday morning--this past Sunday at Newberg Friends Church--and were exhausted! In all my years circulating among Friends, this was a first for me, but for Gregg this is normal life.

I was curious about how it would feel inside to speak three times from essentially the same burst of inspiration. Would it feel artificial the third time--would the inspiration "wear out"? Since we were speaking essentially without notes (although with the help of a series of slides), would I get confused about whether I'd said a certain important thing during this same sermon, or was I suffering print-through from the previous hour?

In fact, I worried for nothing. What made it possible, and even gave me a sense of urgency, was that in each of those three sessions, we were not delivering an anonymous set piece, but sharing reflections with precisely those people who were worshipping with us during that hour. And each time, we were also preaching to ourselves. You cannot truly preach on "perfect love casts out fear" without preaching directly to yourself.

I also appreciated that we spoke after the period of open worship. That time of waiting was dedicated to the Holy Spirit, not to our sermon. This being a Friends meeting, there was always the possibility that the open worship would pre-empt all our plans. And it gave me a final chance to reflect on the integrity of what we planned to say.

Our intent was to give Friends a sample of the concerns behind our service in Russia--but before we got into that theme, we explained that our service required funding. I used to feel queasy about mentioning money in a meeting for worship. I still feel a standing query each time there's a fundraising component to a message in meeting: "Are you bringing people to the feet of Jesus, so he can teach them himself, or are you off on a distracting tangent?" But I'd be equally unhappy with an untransparent and unearthly pretense that service happens without visible means of support.

Newberg Friends Church is (if I remember correctly) the largest meeting in Northwest Yearly Meeting; it would be impossible to seat the attenders from all three Sunday meetings for worship into the available space for worship. I guess you lose something by dividing up the community to meet at different times, but you'd also lose by tripling the number of people in the room.

The one time I've worshipped in a Quaker megachurch, years ago, I distinctly remember feeling like an invisible and anonymous spectator. The people who brought me seemed to expect that I'd be awed by the size of the place and the confident polish of the worship leadership. (The words "men with microphones" summed up my impression of that experience, words I later repeated to an LA Times reporter researching what had happened to those gentle California Quakers--I wrote about that interview here.) Instead, I was distinctly concerned by how much up-front energy was put into self-congratulation and program promotion, as compared with directing attention to Jesus.

On that same California visit, I also went to East Whittier Friends Church, where I received a very different impression. The same worship songs, the same apparent theology, but the experience was far more intimate, and the worship leadership more horizontal with the rest of us (and not just men). I remember almost bursting into tears from relief. After that meeting for worship, an East Whittier Friend said to me that he wished they were larger and more successful. I didn't minimize his vision, but I did let him know that, on that morning, the size seemed perfect to me. Instead of turning East Whittier into a Gollywood-sized church, we needed many more meetings of East Whittier scale and quality.

Back to the article in the Los Angeles Times ... (go here and scroll to the second item to see the article). It led to a fair amount of Internet-powered discussion nearly ten years ago, and the rise of Quaker blogging has led to an even more fertile conversation, with a lot more mutual forbearance, not to mention convergence! A point that I think I was trying inarticulately to make in 1999 is now being made far more often and more creatively by fellow bloggers: we don't have to choose between evangelistic faithfulness and the specific insights of Friends discipleship.

But Newberg's decision to have three meetings for worship each Sunday shows that we still need to make decisions--sometimes difficult ones. Back when the newspaper particle put Yorba Linda Friends in the spotlight, many Friends from elsewhere reacted with criticism. Bearing our recent weblog conversations about class and elitism in mind, I can't help wondering whether those mega-meetings, in the minds of their critics, should have turned people away deliberately for fear that size and success would spoil them. Did the critics simply assume that Friends leaders in California never worried about the tradeoffs? I know I could never be comfortable in a worship service where, for sheer reasons of scale, I'd barely be able to discern faces on the other side of the room, and significant vocal ministry would almost never rise spontaneously from the body of the meeting. But who am I to make my preferences the principal measure of Quaker authenticity?

The first time I visited Newberg Friends, some years ago, Dick Sartwell was the pastor. As he put it at the time, Newberg Friends Church was not a mega-church, but a meta-church. In some ways it was one church, but in other ways, it housed a variety of smaller congregations, and for that reason it had a free and experimental approach to empowering individual and small-group concerns. Those concerns have ranged from peace and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, to postmodern evangelism by means of the Alpha program, to contemplation and spiritual direction. One Sunday school class "meets the first Sunday of each month to write letters and e-mail to government and other leaders and call them to Christian standards of righteousness and truth." As Dick said, the attitude to those proposing new ministry was "Why not? There's really no such thing as failure."

Links: In preparation for last Sunday, Steve Fawver, Newberg's pastor for spiritual formation, asked me to contribute toward some study materials for one of the ministries he serves, the meeting's Listening Life groups. Together we assembled some materials (pdf) based on the East-West dialogue within Christianity. ~/~ How did I miss this? An Internet-based magazine in PDF form, 7th Hour Blues, published an interesting interview with Buddy Guy in its inaugural issue. ~/~ Back to Gregg Koskela: He and I had exactly the same reaction to seeing Michele Obama on television recently; his blog post prompted these additional reflections from Melissa Chapman. ~/~ I was really moved by Susanne Kromberg's reflections on communication and assumptions, "Waking Up to Snow"--and appreciate her words of hope and caution: I’d like to see us use language to build bridges, not as a tool to judge Friends’ worthiness. We already know that words are never enough; I'd also like to continue building a mutually respectful division of labor in our communities among those who use words a lot, and those whose love and service are expressed in other ways. ~/~ Send valentines to the U.S. Congress.

Friday PS on Kenya: Mary Kay Rehard and Patrick Nugent prepared this slide show as a supplement to their public presentations on the aftermath of Kenya's December 2007 elections:

Also see the "Talking Points for Friends" on Mary Kay's Kenya News weblog.

Freddie King somehow merges his piercing electric guitar with a subtle, velvety keyboard. "Ain't nobody's business."


Gregg Koskela said...

We loved having you, Johan. I loved reading your reflections about speaking in three services. I have contemplated this many times, and often come down just where you are.

My favorite times are also my most difficult times: the times when in one service, the Holy Spirit has me lay aside what was prepared, sometimes just to listen to others, sometimes for silence, sometimes to say something different. I love that! But then comes the difficulty: what to do in the next service? Do I try to "re-create" the fluid movement of the Spirit? Do I go back to what was originally prepared? The answer is always found in seeking Christ, and paying attention to those in the room. Just as you wrote.

You'll also be interested to know that we are contemplating a change back to two services, with more time in the middle for community and connection. It would give us more time in the gatherings for others to speak and share their stories, more time for waiting in God's presence. They are, as you say, very difficult questions and decisions, ones that do not occur in a vacuum, but with a lot of history and struggle and prayer and discussion.

We will hold to silence, even in a loud culture. We will hold to peacemaking, and struggle to find ways to talk about it together. We will hold to face to face relationships as much as possible, and refuse to allow that to be an excuse to get out of sharing our faith with those who don't yet have community...which means wrestling always with the new, the different.

Thanks for your reflections!

Bill Samuel said...

I am writing regarding your note about reacting to hearing Michelle Obama speak.

I would hope Quakers would look beyond lofty rhetoric. But it seems not.

Look at what Obama stands for - war, abortion, the death penalty, and conventional establishment positions on everything. If you believe he stands for change, I have some oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you.

Don't be carried away by high flown rhetoric. Even the Devil quotes scripture. Look at Obama's voting record and his campaign positions. They are full of evil.

Vote for Joe Schriner.

Chris M. said...

Johan, you wrote: "Newberg Friends Church was not a mega-church, but a meta-church." You said something similar when we met you and Judy back in 2005 in Newberg. I have thought of that often. I aspire for San Francisco Meeting to be a meta-meeting, in a sense similar to what Dick Sartwell said.

Thanks for a thoughtful reflection, as always.

-- Chris M.

kathy said...

Johan, it was good to have you and Judy speak with us (at NFC) last week. Besides putting a face and voice to this page, it's exciting to hear the enthusiasm behind your work and future in Russia. Thank you for putting up with us three times in a row but please don't give Gregg any more ammunition for a higher raise! :) Thank you too for your contribution to Listening Life - our small group really appreciated your words.

(And I'm kidding about Gregg. He's worth his weight in gold.)

Johan Maurer said...

Kathy, I'm still laughing about your lines (in Life 103), "I want to know why God is so set against people being in their comfort zone. I mean, really." Thanks for your comments!

Bill, it's always good to hear from you. I see that you responded regarding Barack and Joe Schriner on Gregg's blog as well, and I think Gregg replied well. My own response is that Joe Schriner has not done the hard work of earning credibility with me. Like it or not, the two major political parties (and a select few of the minor parties) serve as aggregators of popular influence in this country, and I want to see some evidence of hard work spent in those trenches before I spend much time paying attention to boutique candidates, even if those candidates pose as "average Joes." I do not dismiss thousands of party faithful among the large parties as irrelevant or hacks. Back in 1980, I paid attention to John Anderson because he'd paid his dues before he went independent. Yes, there's unfairness in that mass aggregation process, but only one person at a time can be president; I want to see how the candidate copes with that basic filtering process.

Hello to Gregg and Chris, too. I sure wish I could figure out a way to visit San Francisco again. Has anyone seen an unprogrammed meeting that approaches the "meta" model?

Bill Samuel said...

Johan, I don't think there ought to be an "aggregator" exception to the peace testimony. Sorry to see so many Friends abandon the peace testimony. When the whole idea of living peacefully seems to have fallen on such hard times, it hurts to see you and other Friends to essentially give it up.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill, I'm surprised at the leap you've made, that in declining to support Joe Schriner for president I've given up the peace testimony! Is the peace testimony an absolute requirement to be part of your new church? Is the peace testimony built into the Constitution that governs the role of the president of the USA? If I were emperor of the universe, the president of the USA (if that role were even compatible with the best stewardship of the planet) would be a warmhearted evangelical with a pastoral love for a diverse, multifaith population and a strong sense of seamless-garment discipleship. However, I'm not that emperor. So I use my intelligence and intuition to make the best choice from among the actual options, none of which are perfect, including Joe.