22 April 2010

Gathering to meet with God

It has been nearly 36 years since I walked into Ottawa Friends Meeting and worshipped with Friends for the very first time. Having grown up in an atheist family, this was one of my very first experiences of "church," and I dragged along two of my Canadian relatives as security (in other words, to hide behind). It just so happened (!) that these relatives were part of a charismatic congregation that rented space from Ottawa Friends.

Quaker worship:

In some Friends meetings (often labeled
"unprogrammed"), the whole period of
worship is based on silent waiting, during
which anyone present may speak if
prompted to do so by God's inspiration.

Most Friends around the world would fit
into the "programmed" category--
incorporating elements such as a sermon,
a children's message, hymns, and readings.
They may or may not include a period of
silent waiting during which anyone may
contribute as they are inspired.

Some Friends meetings have adopted
forms of baptism or communion as
symbolic observances. Most Friends
prefer to interpret "baptism" and
"communion" as inward realities rather
than outward observances.
Given my background, I felt very strange about being in an explicitly religious place. My mother had made religious language absolutely taboo in our household, along with any references to mortality or morbidity. Surely I would make a complete fool of myself, either from my inherited hyper-critical attitude, or from sheer awkwardness.

The worship itself, on the other hand, was bliss. We simply slipped into the meeting room, sat down ... and were utterly free to contemplate anything in God's creation, mundane or exalted. The simple brochure I'd picked up, "Your first time in a Friends' meeting?", was gently, Godwardly suggestive rather than prescriptive. During the hour, four Friends spoke. I especially remember Joe Metail urging us to bring our needs to the community.

The room itself was achingly simple: chairs arranged in concentric squares around a table on which were copies of the Bible and (the then-named) London Yearly Meeting's Christian Faith and Practice. On the otherwise bare wall was a cross!--quite a rare feature for an unprogrammed meeting, but this was a "found" cross, a cruciform tree branch.

I can't claim that my thoughts were all sparkling and exalted for the full hour, but I vividly remember being profoundly at home, at peace, and very deeply confirmed in my conversion. I was no longer a solo Christian; now I'd gone public, now I'd become part of a new family--one that would in fact help me grow in my conversion. My journey ever since that day has been, at least in part, getting to know that family better. And "to know" means, at the very least, to "worship with."

OK, what do I mean, "worship with"? I mean, not least, being physically present with, doing what it takes to walk, bicycle, drive, get transported to these other members of my family, so that we can, whatever our individual situations, moods and preoccupations, be together to honor God publicly. Even if there are just a couple of others present; or even if the crowd is so big that my presence might not be noticed. Even if I'd rather spend that hour walking in nature all by my precious self; or even if I'm not on good terms with some of those family members. That last point is absolutely part of my experience. As a denominational leader and as a pastor, at times I've had to enter meeting rooms in which I knew I'd be worshipping with people who had wronged me, or whom I'd wronged. Escape, however attractive, was not an option--and I'm incredibly grateful to report that when worship began, I nearly always experienced a powerful and healing reorientation of my wounded perspective.

(This reminds me of a reading--can't remember the source--that was part of the original New Call to Peacemaking materials. In attempting to understand Christian responsibility in the context of world war, we don't try to start with Hitler and somehow move toward God; rather we start with God and move toward Hitler.)

This physical "being-with" has a unifying, transcendent purpose: to be with God, to meet with God. As Anthony Bloom teaches in his wonderful talk "Prayer Is a Meeting" (Russian original here), we cannot have a true meeting with others if we are on guard or hiding behind pretense; and this is just as true as we meet with God. To me, the best of all worlds is meeting with God in the company of others doing the same. This is as true when I'm alert and attentive, as it is when I'm frustrated and tempted to pretend; my individual ebbings and flowings are part of the life of the whole, and so we bear each other up.

I'll never forget when a weighty Friend, John Kaltenbach, got up at Uwchlan Meeting in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and began his message with the words, "It's not my father or my mother, it's me, Lord, standing in the need of prayer. It's not my sister or my brother, it's me, Lord, standing in the need of prayer." At that precise moment I needed to know that even experienced Friends can admit need. Another powerful moment happened at Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, when I noticed that another Friend, a member of the residential community, was weeping--and I knew inwardly right away that it was because of something painful that I had recounted the previous evening.

This essential quality of meeting--that is, meeting with each other to make the time and space for meeting, together, with God--is the essential ground of Quaker worship. Whatever else might happen when we gather, we can't ever forget to give the Holy Spirit the central place in our time together.

What else should happen? In order to keep that space open, to ground ourselves in biblical discernment (yes, there are counterfeit spiritualities energetically marketing themselves, but also wonderful prophets speaking in fresh ways, too!), to nurture anticipation in ourselves, our guests, and our children, and to provide for the varied temperaments and gifts among us, we don't confine ourselves to silent prayer. We often sing and play instruments and teach and preach and greet and announce and contribute money and food.

Different Friends groups make different distinctions as to whether these activities can take place "within" the worship time or not. But I'm not sure that the old traditional division--between the unprogrammed worship on the one hand, with 100% of the worship time devoted to "open" worship, and the programmed meeting on the other, with open worship given from two minutes to twenty (very rarely more) along with hymns, a sermon, and other planned elements--is adequate.

As I hinted in a previous posting, "Silences," I worry that an esthetic of perfect silence can sometimes take hold in unprogrammed meetings--in fact, I've seen it happen.  There can be a lot of anxiety and unwritten rules about how soon to speak, how often, how enthusiastically, whether reading is allowed, and so on; also, how much ambient noise can be tolerated, and how much beyond an hour the meeting can be allowed to go! I utterly resist the notion that an unprogrammed Quaker meeting is only suitable for certain cultures and economic groups, but I do believe that pseudo-intellectual or middle-class rigidities can create unintended social walls around what should be among the most open, Spirit-filled, and liberating forms of Christian worship.

Those of us who use hybrid forms of Quaker worship have different temptations to deal with. Wess Daniels puts it very well: "In programmed churches it is really easy for one person to take up all the space in a room, and let’s be honest, often this is the preacher." Worship that truly involves publicly gathering around our most profound hopes and fears, that challenges us to meet in raw truth, can also bring out our deep insecurities. In the unprogrammed meeting, I can give up that amazing collective freedom and simply tend my own inner garden; but in the programmed meeting, we can engage in a tacit group decision to crowd God out with pious behaviors of our own design. Or we can do something new: we can throw away those traditional "programmed" and "unprogrammed" tags and deliberately, prayerfully choose those elements--before, during, and after the "formal" meeting--that teach us, encourage us to await the Holy Spirit, who will lead us into all truth.

I've appreciated Wess Daniels' recent blog postings on unprogrammed (open, silent, waiting) worship among Friends. Here's the list:

The Resurrection and Quaker Communion
Preparing for Unprogrammed Worship in A Programmed (Quaker) Meeting
One Take On the Importance of the Quaker Practice of “Open Worship”

Righteous links:

A Quaker's odyssey to Eastern Orthodoxy (a repeat, but it seemed timely).

This is the first I've heard of a "Robin Hood tax."

A Musing Environment considers cultural influences on how we regard climate change.

Two new books "taking the measure of Barack Obama."

Reports on the International Consultative Conference on Criminal Justice (thanks to Harvard's Hauser Center).

Victor Erofeyev on "The Past, Present, and Future of Katyn."

Ole Frimer and Olav Poulsen--more blues from Denmark:


Anonymous said...

Excellent post and as a leader in a Quaker meeting myself, I resonate with your feelings about how hard it can be at times to worship with those who have wronged us or in my case, to worship with those who have just caused me a lot of angst with their demands and sometimes with their views that to me seem so utterly unChristian. After laboring all week sometimes church is the last place I want to be. And yet, something does happen in worship that invariably pulls me back in.

I also agree with your point about "middle-class rigidities" that "can create unintended social walls". When you're in a body that is so steeped in this mindset, it makes remaining a part of that body even more difficult. And yet I press wondering how long, O Lord, how long?

Mary Ellen said...

Johan, this is a really thoughtful post and worth revisiting with more attention that I can give at the moment. My meeting has three separate worship times, with different cultures: one of the three is often a "popcorn" meeting, while the other two share a tendency to encourage full-scale silence. So - reflecting on what happens in the silence - or what COULD happen if we would let it - needs to be put into the context of each of these groups. One interesting experiment going on now is the formation of small Experiment With Light groups who do a structured approach to getting back into seeking guidance from the Source in silence.

kevin roberts said...

I utterly resist the notion that an unprogrammed Quaker meeting is only suitable for certain cultures and economic groups, but I do believe that pseudo-intellectual or middle-class rigidities can create unintended social walls around what should be among the most open, Spirit-filled, and liberating forms of Christian worship.

I picked out this interesting side comment of yours, Johan. In my experience, the idea that Quakerism itself, and not just worship, is suitable only for certain types of people is most common among those who emphasize it as a spiritual discipline, a Zen-like activity in which shared practice takes priority over shared belief.

My meeting has always emphasized belief over practice. We don't have the educational or middle-class homgeneity that I observe in other branches of Friends. Some of us are well-to-do. Others live in poverty. Some of us have multiple graduate degrees. Others have quite limited educations.

I believe there is a connection.

Johan Maurer said...

Kevin, I've never quite thought about it like that. Thanks!

Mary Ellen, I'm glad to report that "Experiments with Light," based on Rex Ambler's work and originally brought to us by Diana and John Lampen, have been important in our evangelical Quaker meeting's life.

Anon, I've been pulled back 1000x, but occasionally I've had to be honest and speak out of my distress even during meeting for worship.

Nancy said...

Thank you again, Johan, for writing stuff that resonates with what the Spirit has been saying within me. I just returned last night from a very stimulating few days with the QUIP people in Richmond, and sharing the silence in worship was an important part of it. It's the best way I know to recognize the living Jesus in the midst of his people.


Liz Opp said...

A quick note to say hi and to say I'm glad I was pointed here, Johan. I agree that our meetings for worship are enriched when we bring ALL of ourselves to it--our neediness and woundedness as well as our groundedness and generosity of spirit.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up