03 November 2011

The Gathered Meeting, part two

The gathering of Russian-speaking Friends, supported by the European and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation, took place two weekends ago in Kremenchuk, Ukraine. Judy and I were both able to be present. Judy reported on a European Friends gathering in Tolna, Hungary, the previous weekend, and (as promised) I led a discussion on Thomas Kelly's "The Gathered Meeting."

My slide show from Kremenchuk. English translations of quotations and queries are below.

In my session, I began by telling the story I mentioned two weeks ago, about how I first encountered this inspiring essay. It also seemed important to acknowledge the chain of relationships that made this essay even more alive for me. At the Friends World Committee triennial in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1976, I was helping Gideon Juma of Pemba Yearly Meeting by pushing his wheelchair around the McMaster University campus. The wheelchair, and my resulting relationship with Gideon Juma, allowed me to be places and see people I might otherwise not have dared approach in my timid status as a recent convert.

For one thing, I attended sessions of the Africa Section caucus and met Friends who remembered me many years later when I began serving Friends United Meeting. Also, various weighty Friends who joyfully greeted Gideon also included me in the fellowship. One of them was Douglas Steere. He gave me his new publication, "On Confirming the Deepest Thing in Another," the substance of which he proceeded to confirm by being very encouraging to me. It was in that booklet that I first read this story:
Thomas Kelly was a colleague of mine in teaching philosophy at Haverford College for almost five years until his sudden death in 1941 at the age of forty-seven. His Testament of Devotion, which is a devotional classic of the flavor of Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God, has been translated into a number of languages and has been widely read. After his own college years in a small mid-western college, he spent the year of 1913-14 at Haverford College, where he came as a graduate student to study under Rufus Jones. He came to Dr. Jones's study during the first week of his time at Haverford, and in the course of their visit, he blurted out, "I want to make my life a miracle." Instead of cutting him down to size or passing this over as a young man's emotional extravagance, Rufus Jones quietly confirmed this longing in Thomas Kelly, and before his life-span was out, he did become a miracle--a miracle that long after his death is still moving many of his readers to confront the one thing needful. 
Rufus Jones confirmed this Godly longing in Thomas Kelly, who in turn passed it on to another Jones -- T. Canby Jones, one of a group of Haverford students who gathered around Thomas Kelly. Canby went on to teach at that same "small mid-western college," Wilmington College, for many years. That's where Judy and I got to know him better during the years we lived in Wilmington and Judy served as the college's director of financial aid. (I was on the Friends World Committee staff in those years--the imprint of my experiences in company with Gideon Juma were long-lasting!)

In 2005, Canby gave a talk at the Friends United Meeting sessions in Iowa. After giving the main part of his message on the peaceable Lamb who gives the victory (previewed here), he reminisced a bit about Thomas Kelly. I especially remember him recalling the moment that he heard about Kelly's death. At that moment, Canby said, he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we can have victory over death.

Here are the excerpts and discussion questions we used at Kremenchuk. The main structure of the essay follows William James's description of mystical experience, considered point by point (emphases added):
The experience is ineffable; it is not completely describable in words. We live through such hours of expanded vision yet never can we communicate to another all that wonder and power and life and re-creation which we knew when swept along in the immediacy of the Divine Presence.

Question: Is it worth describing? When? To whom? Why?

To an absent friend we can only say what Philip said to Nathaniel concerning Jesus, "Come and See." And such must always be the report of any experience of God, by individuals or in groups. "He is wonder and joy, judgement and power. And he is more than all these. Come and see."

* * *

The experience has a knowledge-quality. The covering of God in the gathered meeting carries with it the sense of insight of knowledge. We know Him as we have not known Him before. The secrets of this amazing world have been in some larger degree laid bare. We know life, and the world, and ourselves from within, anew.

Question: Is there knowledge that is "indescribable"? What does knowledge consist of? What is impossible to convey, and what must be conveyed?

We have been re-energized with that Power and re-sensitized by that tenderness to meet the daily world of men [and women] with new pangs and new steadiness.

* * *

It is transient. The sense of Divine covering in a group is rarely sustained more than three-quarters of an hour, or an hour. One can not seize hold upon it and restrain it from fading; or restore it the next Sunday at will. Each such meeting is a gracious gift of the Eternal Goodness, and the eyes of all must wait upon Him who gives us meat in due Season.

Question: How are we to understand the word "gift"? How do we learn to expect and receive a gift, rather than to "earn" it by way of rules and formulas?

* * *

It carries a sense of passivity within it. ... It is as amazing an experience as that of being prayed through, ... Instead of saying "I pray" or "he prays," it becomes better to say "Prayer is taking place."

Question: In our times, is it really possible to stop seeing ourselves as "initiators"? How does culture get in the way, and how (on the other hand) does it empower us? What role does Quaker discipleship play?

* * *

A fifth trait of mystical experience may well be added to James' list—the sense of unity, unity with the Divine Life who has graciously allowed us to touch the hem of His garment, unity with our fellow-worshippers, for He has broken down the middle wall of partition between our separate personalities and has flooded us with a sense of fellowship.

Question: When we experience this unity in a gathered meeting, what remains afterwards? How should this influence our future behavior in the faith community?

* * *

One condition for such a group experience seems to be this: some individuals need already, upon entering the meeting, to be gathered deep in the spirit of worship. There must be some kindled hearts when the meeting begins. In them, and from them, begins the work of worship.

Question: Is this your service? (Did you already know this or are you just beginning to realize it?) How should we support you?

* * *

A second condition concerns the spoken words of the meeting.... Brevity, earnestness sincerity and frequently a lack of polish characterize the best Quaker speaking. The words should rise like a shaggy crag upthrust from the surface of silence, under the pressure of yearning contrition and wonder. But in another sense the words should not rise up like a shaggy crag. They should not break the silence, but continue it.

Let's try enumerating the "categories" of helpful vocal ministry:
● biblical quotations
● personal experience
● calls for attention to concerns, situations, tasks
● vocal prayer
● singing
● what else?

Can such a list really be assembled? How will new attenders know what's appropriate? How will we know what is prophetic?

Julie Ryberg's Cary Lecture at German Yearly Meeting. Julie speaks to the condition of Friends in Europe from personal experience, with three themes: "... what goes on within me when I see the truth about myself and my life. Another is about the dialogue between you and me when we speak the truth about our lives. Yet another is about learning to live the truth in the context of a Quaker community. In each of these aspects, I have experienced a different face of God."

Two fascinating book reviews in Books & Culture: One of them starts out with the question, "Will we, as Earthlings, ever find extraterrestrial life, and what will it mean if we do or don't?" And the other addresses "the patient, cumulative work of consensus science"--particularly in light of (or heat of) carbon cycle arguments.
The calm, straightforward tone of this book, and the huge mass of consensus science on which it is based, are the product of another marvel, the human mind. The patient, cumulative work of thousands of researchers has delivered us a timely warning about our future, a warning that could have been delivered at no other moment in the planet's history. The warning is stark: the carbon cycle, at the root of what we like to think of as the planet's natural cycles, runs on very slow geologic time. Global warming, by contrast, is a fast and furious affair that so far has raised the planet's temperature about a degree Celsius, enough to start the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice and knock many other systems out of kilter.
"Iranian Ballistic Missile Developments: Non-Barking Dog and Dead Monkey." (Thanks to William Sweet at Foreign Policy Blogs.)

With no comment from me: "The Soviet ways are attractive not only to Putin, but to his harshest critics too."

Blues from Moscow: JW Jones and the Jumping Cats.

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