29 November 2012

Do we need Advent?

photo Ian Britton; source
The post below is adapted from a commentary I first posted a year ago. Go to the original post to see interesting comments from Marshall Massey and Michael Snow. I haven't heard from pastoral and programmed-worship Friends concerning the ways they select elements of programming to put into their Quaker worship. 

In fact, I'd still love to hear from anyone who can give me an explanation or defense of (on the one hand) pick-and-choose approaches to Advent programming; or (on the other hand) the authority of the liturgical calendar. I still perceive a dilemma in either case. All programming must grapple with the reality of humans and our all-too-human politics: who programs, who licenses, who performs quality control, and who is left out?

A week before this post on Advent originally appeared, I had presented a draft description of "open worship." One of the comments I received via Facebook was, in part, as follows: I think it is very good. It leaves me wondering why programmed Friends feel they need anything else?

As I was thinking about this comment, I noticed an Internet Monk article, "Why I need Advent." In his explanation of Advent's importance for him, Jeff Dunn quotes Sister Joan Chittister:
Christmas is not meant to be simply a day of celebration; it is meant to be a month of contemplation. But because Advent has been lost somewhere between the Thanksgiving turkey and the pre-Christmas sales, we have lost one of the richest seasons of the year. Unless we can reclaim Advent, the lack of it will show dearly in the way we go through the rest of life itself.
Dunn adds:
I need Advent to tell me why Jesus had to die, and that he was born as a baby in order that he could grow to be a man who would be executed as a criminal.

Yet we have made Advent a time of ribbons and bows when it should be a time of weeping and wailing for our sinfulness. If I do not come to see my hopelessness before the Perfect Judge, with nothing to bring before him to buy even one minute’s pardon, then how can I rejoice with the shepherds that a Savior has been born this day in Bethlehem, the City of David?
I understand this idea of a "month of contemplation" and preparation, so that the celebration of Jesus's birth is not just a self-contained holiday, a disconnected mixture of piety and festivity, but contains within it the full scope of the Gospel story. (I remember Anthony Bloom's powerful words on the Good Friday service, "...Instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy." A more complete excerpt is here, toward the end of the post.) Context grounded in reality is crucial.

Furthermore, this month of contemplation, however well or poorly it is experienced in full depth, has been ratified over centuries by a huge part of the worldwide church. And isn't the church calendar, with its holidays and seasons, simply a larger extension of the acts of worship that we perform on any given Sunday?

Well. Friends don't require Advent observances, but we often have them. Friends don't have a liturgy beyond the inward liturgy of silent worship, but we sometimes incorporate liturgical elements. Is there any consistency at all? I think there is, but in trying to describe it, I'm reduced to political terms: I belong to a church that deliberately lacks a "power vertical." For better or for worse, we Quakers have no hierarchy to carry out a program of interpreting, mandating, licensing, and quality control. Program management happens at the junction of God, the Bible, and the historical and present-day "sense of the meeting." That junction is located at meeting for business, conducted face-to-face by people who (ideally) love God, love each other, and are mutually accountable to each other. If these Friends find no Divine urgency in a practice or ceremony or season or tradition, then we conclude it is not needed, not required of us by God in this time and place, no matter how ancient or beautiful it might be.

The insights resulting from this process are codified for a time in our minutes and books of Christian discipline. This arrangement applies to local congregations and also to the concentric associations around them--quarterly meetings, yearly meetings, Friends United Meeting (or equivalent, if any)--wherever Friends gather for church government on the basis of prayer. Usually, those minutes and books are concerned with the stewardship of the community and its identity. They describe the beliefs, organizational structures, offices, and ethical expectations that give our church coherence. I've rarely if ever seen codifications of what worship should look like, let alone the church calendar.

Perhaps that helps explain why we haven't codified Advent, but still (the vast majority of Friends worldwide) have elements in our worship beyond bare silence. Those elements are drawn from a variety of sources, among them being
  • the Bible (see, for example, Peter Blood's article, "The Biblical Roots of Quaker Worship")
  • the practices and traditions of the larger Christian church (so, for example, some Friends meetings do in fact celebrate Advent, including having children take turns lighting Advent candles, doing Advent readings, and so on--and some meetings also observe various elements drawn from Lent--but it's not imposed by any body or document)
  • Friends' traditions, most obviously open worship
  • the traditions of that specific congregation (not necessarily fixed!--see this fascinating Friends Journal reflection, "Some Friends will have a Christmas tree")
  • national and ethnic traditions of the local congregation
  • the promptings of the Holy Spirit
  • the dramatic or artistic gifts of individuals in the congregation--incorporated spontaneously or by planning
... and, in the ideal case, these elements are selected for inclusion in the meeting for worship only after prayerful discernment according to the needs and spiritual obedience of the body.

Have I ever seen this ideal process in practice? Yes! In several meetings I've been a part of, the planning of the meeting for worship was itself a very worshipful process. I remember, for example, West Richmond Friends Meeting, Indiana, USA, on the occasions I was a guest speaker there. Since I lived in Richmond, I was able to attend the planning meetings for the meetings for worship at which I'd be speaking. It was always more or less zero-based-budgeting: several elements were likely to happen each time, but nothing was taken for granted--each element was considered before being put on the list. Equally importantly--we knew that the pastor or worship leader was free to alter the list at any time during the worship if it seemed that something else was needed. Any sermon, any hymn selection, and so on, could be changed at the last minute without scandal.

By the way, I've argued before that unprogrammed Friends, whose worship appears to be based on the purity of silent waiting, nevertheless have elements of programming incorporated from tradition. My favorite example is the meeting I attended in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting back in the mid-70's. Most of the worshipping Friends assembled together in the meeting's old schoolhouse, to begin First-day School (the education hour), and then broke up into age groups for their classes. At the end of the hour, they reassembled and walked from the old schoolhouse to the meetinghouse, where they settled into unprogrammed worship. I felt a powerful and beautiful sense of worship during this whole two-hour-plus period, including that procession to the meetinghouse.

And there are unwritten rules in some meetings for the way unprogrammed worship is conducted.
  • Certain topics are unwelcome in vocal ministry. You may not find out which until you innocently cross the line.
  • No speaking should occur during the first half of the meeting. 
  • You should (or should not) stand up to speak. 
  • Speak only once! (Unless, as Goldie Jacoby once did at Ottawa Meeting, you can cite Abraham as precedent for daring to raise your voice yet again. "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more." Genesis 18:32; context.)
  • You can refer to a previous speaker, but you can't engage in refutation, ask questions, or invite debate.
  • Before speaking, allow time for the previous speaker's words to be absorbed by the community. (How long? Depends on the meeting!) 
In many meetings, there's a simple table with a Bible in the center of the worship space, in others not. I'm not commenting here on the rightness of these expectations (except when they are concealed, only to be revealed in the way a violator is cold-shouldered). I'm only pointing out that some degree of programming is probably universal.

I began with the question, why do we programmed Friends feel as if we need something beyond open worship? Maybe I can reframe the question a bit. Unscripted communion with the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to the Quaker reformation of Christian worship, but don't our meetings and churches have the freedom to draw (with discernment!) from the full range of what other Christians find meaningful in loving and hearing God, loving and hearing each other, and loving and hearing the wider community during our worship? Why would we give up that freedom?

Thus ended the original post. If you've known me for a while, you might already realize that I in fact am ready to give up that freedom. I've been part of the programmed Quaker world for most of my adult life, but I still absolutely love waiting worship and would personally be happy without any additional programming.

But I also remember that incident a few weeks ago when a man burst into our Moscow meeting and said that the place stank of sectarianism. There we were, deep in unprogrammed worship, and I suddenly became conscious of how we might have looked to new and hostile eyes. Were we in a trance? Were we worshipping some kind of idol? Did we claim to have some special knowledge that transcended ordinary reality, gained through secret esoteric disciplines? No, all I want to know is Christ crucified and risen, and nothing else will do, neither "special knowledge" nor ceremony. But how do we explain the simplicity and directness of Quaker worship to an audience already burnt over by the twin scourges of compulsory atheism and a multiplicity of cults, and experiencing the sovereign claims of a semi-official church? This is far from a rhetorical question: it's an occasion for deep conversation. For all its political complications, liturgy offers a regular, reliable, multisensory communication of Gospel truth, ratified by centuries of loving practice. We dare not look down our nose at liturgy if we can't provide access of equal quality and breadth to the household of faith for anyone who needs it.

Yet another interesting space-related item: "Giant black hole in tiny galaxy confounds astronomers." It didn't take me long to get transported here.

Mars Rover Curiosity 
from Mutant Jukebox - Music & Sound on Vimeo.
And within a few minutes, I was also on Mars, thanks to this beautiful video provided by openculture.com....

Meanwhile, back on earth: "The Church of England, Women Bishops, N.T. Wright, and Complementarians."

"Historic Native American class action 'finally has ended'."

In the Laugh or Cry Department this week, "No, it's not Christians' fault Obama won."

Even Canada can learn "Lessons from Oslo." (Thanks to Jane Orion Smith for the reference.)

Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King collaborate to honor Willie Nelson... [Original clip removed; I've cued up the song (50:21) on a video of the full birthday broadcast. You may need to click through to the video on Youtube's site.]


Bill Samuel said...

I am with you that the worshipping community needs to discern what they need in worship at any time. Early Friends stripped most of the typical elements from worship, showing that the Spirit not particular rituals was the key to worship and developing a form of worship which can be incredibly rich and powerful.

It is ironic that what was developed to be free from making forms idols itself became an idol. There are many meetings where they can not agree on much other than the outward form of worship.

Early Friends were reactionary in that they very clearly were strongly motivated by reaction against the way that others practiced religion, but they also had a real vision of a way to truly embrace Christ. The reactionary nature of Quakerism is very evident in some parts of Quakerism today. Many Friends are quite articulate about what they are not, but seem confused about what they are. Waiting worship has been replaced by unprogrammed worship. It is what you are against that counts.

The early rejection of all other expressions of Christianity (expressed strongly by some early Friends, but the tone of others is somewhat different) should be viewed in terms of the particular setting in which Friends developed. It is very easy for this rejectionism to become like the Pharisee in Luke 18 - "God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . ." which Jesus clearly condemned.

In today's very different environment, it behooves Friends to be humble and willing to learn from other parts of the body of Christ. This doesn't mean just wholesale adopting of another way, but openness to including elements of worship that may not be traditionally Quaker.

I find hopeful some trends in Quakerism that I have observed, particularly in the USA. One is that "unprogrammed" Friends have increasingly used other elements, albeit usually being careful not to disturb the idol by making them before or after the period called "meeting for worship." Another is that increasing numbers of pastoral Friends churches seem to have been rediscovering the power of true open worship. Amidst all the Quaker wars, this drawing closer to one another should be held up more.

Roger DW said...

Advent: Friends in the unprogrammed tradition who live in the northern latitudes gather for worship in the context of increasing darkness. It has been happening for a while, but now it's REALLY noticeable, and it's getting colder.
It's also a time to send notes to people you care about, a time to reaffirm the family/community/church. It is festival time and ministry comes out of that.

"Do you come to worship with hearts and minds prepared?" Meetings which take this seriously (and all should) can decide to do some of this preparation together.

YES - Meetings should have an introductory pamphlet that provides the ground rules to visitors, a few phrases to aid in centering, and a description of what else the Meeting does.

The One True Faith: "Be Still; And Know That I AM God." "Come to me all ye who are weary need rest, and I will give you comfort."
Waiting worship is the appropriate response to the resurrection, to a Living God whom we are love with all our hearts, minds, strength and soul.
Roger Dreisbach-Williams

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Bill and Roger, for deepening the conversation.

There's a related topic that I'm gathering the courage to re-address on my blog. (I already mentioned it in a private post on a Russian-language blog.) The topic: can you be a Quaker and a member of another confession simultaneously?