The “Testimony of Community”

March 16, 2019 § 11 Comments

The testimony of community finds its way onto almost any list of Quaker testimonies these days, especially under the influence of the vexing anagram SPICES.

However: define for me the “testimony of community”. There’s no entry in the books of discipline of either New York Yearly Meeting or Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the two yearly meetings for which I have copies. It doesn’t appear in John Punshon’s pamphlet Testimony and Tradition, nor could I find anything in my own fairly extensive library on such a testimony, though our tradition is rich with discussion of community life.

I recently asked some Friends in my meeting to define it and they just looked at me. And I looked at them. We have no clear definition of this testimony. Nevertheless, they insisted that I include it in a list of our testimonies in a document we’re preparing for our meeting defining what membership means.

Oh, if asked we might come up with something. But it would be just our own ideas, not something clearly and corporately discerned by our meeting, or our yearly meeting.

What does the “testimony of community” mean? Where did this “testimony” come from? How did we come to espouse it without any apparent community discernment?

I suspect a process may be at work similar to the one that has made “that of God in everyone” the putative foundation of all our testimonies: an unselfconscious thought-drift in a culture increasingly impatient with intellectual/theological rigor, or even attention of any serious kind, not to mention care for the testimony of integrity. These ideas arise somehow, somewhere, and then get picked up and disseminated because they sound nice, they meet some need, and they don’t demand much. They apparently don’t require discernment, anyway.

For “that of God”, we know the point source—Rufus Jones. But for the “testimony of community”? Any ideas?

If Lewis Benson is correct about “that of God”, the disseminator of this idea that “that of God in everyone” is the foundation of our testimonies was AFSC. Not surprising, since Rufus Jones was a cofounder of AFSC. I suspect that AFSC may also have given us the testimony of community. It sort of sounds like them—to me, at least—if you know what I mean.

Anyway, I hereby call upon Friends to do some actual discernment, to decide, in our local meetings and our yearly meetings, whether the “testimony of community” really is one of our “testimonies”, and, in the process, tell us what it means. And if we can’t, then I suggest we get rid of it. Maybe that will finally put a spike in the heart of SPICES. I doubt we’d continue with SPIES.

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Worship as the School of the Spirit

January 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

Quaker meeting for worship is a classroom and an exercise room in the school of the Spirit.

In the meeting for worship we learn and we practice how to center down, how to sink down in the Seed, wherein dwells our Guide.

And when that Guide prompts us to speak in meeting for worship, we learn and we practice recognizing the call, and to test the call to discern whether we should speak, and what we should say, and how we should say it, and to remain faithful to our Guide when we do rise to speak.

This spirituality of listening and of discerning and of surrendering in our action is schooling for the Spirit-led life outside of meeting, in the rest of our lives.

Vocal Ministry—What To Do?

January 17, 2019 § 3 Comments

Here are some ideas for how we might work more proactively, and yet tenderly, to improve the quality of our vocal ministry, based on the problems I’ve identified in the past couple of posts.

Facing denial and doubt

I would hold a blind survey of the meeting to establish without any doubt that there really is a problem. How many members are unhappy with the ministry and the worship? How many are staying away because of the worship and ministry? I suspect that the results will be surprising and undeniable. I hope this will lead to a clear call to action.

Meeting agreement

I suggest that the clerk make time on the business agenda to consider and clarify the committee’s charge and to formally declare its faith in the committee to act on its behalf to nurture and protect the worship and ministry. This will force a discussion about what that means.

Worship and Ministry Committees

Appointments. This is sticky. I would ask Nominating Committee to be mindful of the committee’s charge to nurture and elder the vocal ministry when it considers names, choosing people who know our tradition, are seasoned ministers themselves, and are confident in their dedication to the committee’s charge. But of course, Nominating Committee may not be able to approach this problem with clarity either, and for the same reasons that hamstring Worship and Ministry committees.

Religious education

Meetings should sponsor RE programs on worship and vocal ministry. My meeting has a great format for this. The committee decides on topics, then identifies a pamphlet or two that speak to that topic, and chooses a facilitator, hopefully someone with some “expertise” or experience with the subject and with the resources on that subject. But if not, she or he simply reads the pamphlet ahead of time and comes up with a brief summary of highlights for presentation and facilitates a discussion. We advertise these ahead of time and make the pamphlets available ahead of time, both from the library and for sale.

Sharing

I think holding sessions for the meeting in which Friends share their experience of their own vocal ministry helps. Queries might include: How do you know you should share a message? What are your tests? Do you feel a calling to vocal ministry? Where do your messages seem to come from? Whom do you seek to serve with your ministry? What has influenced your approach to vocal ministry—writings, people, experience? Have you ever been eldered and what was that like?

How to elder

Here’s how I would approach one of these delicate conversations with someone about their ministry:

[if they speak fairly frequently] [Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I have noticed that you speak fairly often in meeting for worship and I wondered whether you felt you might have a calling to vocal ministry. Have you ever thought about that?

[if yes] Would you like any kind of support? Books or pamphlets to read, or just a chance to have a longer conversation about how it feels and where you think it comes from and where it might be going?

[if no] Well, what do you think? Does the idea awaken anything in you? Do you think it’s possible to have such a calling? Would you like to have a longer conversation about it? Or anyway, would you like any kind of support? Books or …

[if “I’m not sure what you mean.”] Well, some sense of a source of your messages, or a sense of mission or purpose, or that some themes keep coming up for you, or some other need you might feel to speak. [follow on from there]

The point here is not to bring up the contents of their messages at all, or that anyone is uncomfortable with their ministry, but to focus rather on their potential gift for ministry (for we all have—or at least we claim that we all have—potential gifts in ministry), on their own spiritual life and path, and on an offer to nurture their gifts.

The conversation with someone who does not speak often might be somewhat different. For one thing, if they don’t speak often, then given time, their ministry might mature on its own, so one might just leave it alone for a while. But if their messages, however few, are a real problem, then maybe something like this:

[Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I would like to know more about what vocal ministry means to you. Where it comes from. How it feels. How you decide that you should share a message. [I might add that, “Sometimes I find myself reacting negatively to your message and I don’t want to. I know from personal experience that messages that have bothered other people have had a profound and positive affect on me, that you never know when a message is really going to speak to someone’s condition, all unexpectedly. So I suspect that my problem is just one of understanding.]

Here the point for me is to keep it about my reaction—as a potential problem—and about understanding rather than criticism.

Vocal Ministry and Worship and Ministry Committees

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

In my last post I said that “our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons.” Here’s what I think those reasons are.

First, the committee rarely feels that it has the backing of the meeting as a whole, that it knows what the meeting wants. This is because the meeting never does know what kind of eldership culture it wants. Our meetings do not have a clear agreement about what constitutes Spirit-led ministry or how the committee should protect the worship. For protecting the worship and ministry is one of the charges of our worship and ministry committees. But it’s hard to expect the committee to act when it has no clear mandate from the meting and might fear that some in the meeting will be upset by its actions.

Then, there’s Quaker process. The committee has to come to unity about its approach and it only takes one member of the committee to make that impossible or at least very difficult. If it’s difficult, especially if the committee must labor a lot through meeting after meeting, exhaustion sets in. And meanwhile, there are other things to do, setting up the schedule for clerking worship, etc.

So the third problem is the makeup of the committee. Nominating committees always struggle with filling committee slots anyway, and this one can be especially hard. It’s hard to find Friends who really know the Quaker traditions of worship and ministry, who are gifted or even called vocal ministers themselves, and who are willing to serve. And inevitably, at least one person on the committee seems to think the ministry is more or less just fine, anyway. They may even be part of the problem themselves.

But one attribute may be even more important and it is certainly harder to find—confidence, decisiveness, even boldness, a temperament capable of acting in spite of the fear of over-stepping.

For this is perhaps the biggest problem. We are afraid to elder, and rightfully so. We are afraid to hurt someone. We are afraid to cross some line that, as individuals, we can rarely see with confidence, let alone share with confidence with a bunch of other Friends. Many of us have been hurt by some eldering experience ourselves. We know how it feels.

And we’re not sure how it’s to be done. How do you approach someone whose ministry is perfectly acceptable to some unknown but perhaps fairly large percentage of the meeting to tell them to get with the Spirit?

This brings us to the final problem. We are not a covenant community. We don’t see membership in the meeting as an agreement about our mutual accountability in the life of the Spirit. Put in concrete terms, we don’t say to applicants in our clearness committees for membership that we look forward to their gifts in ministry unfolding over time, that we plan to help that unfolding however we can, and that we hope (expect?) that it’s okay that we can have a direct conversation about their ministry as it unfolds, including even some questions when it seems they’ve “stepped through the traces”, as Friends used to say in the elder days—gotten tangled up in one’s relationship with the Guide.

If we have not broached this matter of mutual support and accountability regarding ministry in the clearness committee, it’s doubly hard to bring it up later, with no foundation on which to stand. We seem to be just coming in with the warship and dropping a bomb.

We need agreements: That, as individuals, we want nurture and support for our unfolding gifts in ministry and that we want correction when our ministry needs work. That, as a committee, protecting the worship and engaging with our ministers is our proper role. That, as a meeting, we need—we insist on—ministry that comes from the Spirit, and that we trust the committee to foster and protect it.

So this exercise in the last couple of posts has brought up some ideas about what to do. On to those in the next post.

Vocal Ministry—Some Questions Toward a Profile

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

I know I keep coming back to our problems with vocal ministry, but it really weighs heavily on my soul.

I can’t tell how widespread the problem is, but I fear that many of our meetings are in a crisis regarding their vocal ministry. I know mine is. Friends have stopped attending meeting for worship because the vocal ministry drives them nuts. I’ve done this twice myself in the past few months.

I don’t yet have any answers to this problem, but I do have some questions, and I’m hoping that airing these questions out loud, as it were, here in this blog, might unlock something, in myself and/or in my readers. I am praying for a breakthrough.

With the questions that follow, I hope to profile the problem.

What? What is happening?

Lots of worship sharing. Some harangues. Personal opinions, basically stand-up blog posts. Appeals for help. Demands for attention. Musings and anecdotes from the speaker’s past week. Hand-wringing about the state of our society and especially of our politics. A dearth of the Spirit and of the spirit of service.

When?

A lot. Cascades of shallow, jarring, or merely personal messages filling the hour, especially the twenty or so minutes before the children come in ten minutes before rise of meeting. But also, unnervingly often, in the first twenty minutes, before we’ve had a good chance to settle and while the latecomers are still trickling in.

How?

In loud, commanding voices. In voices so soft that even the only moderately hearing-impaired like me can’t hear it. Mostly quite confident; not much humility.

Who?

Lots of relative newcomers. Some more seasoned Friends. Rarely from our most seasoned elders.

Why?

I suspect that some of the relative newcomers simply have not yet been fully baptized in the Spirit. Also, they have learned what’s appropriate ministry by osmosis and that means that the current predominance of weak vocal ministry in the meeting makes it look like that’s what’s appropriate. It’s an unvirtuous circle, a feedback loop.

The disquiet that this culture creates in the more seasoned members and the sheer frequency of messages work together to suppress the ministry we might get from more seasoned Friends, so we hear fewer models of more Spirit-led ministry. It’s a feedback loop.

Some people seem desperate for a platform, for the sense of having been heard, for being known in a deeper way than is available in the rest of their lives.

And finally, our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons. I want to get deeper into this last problem in my next post.

Sin as missing the mark—NOT

December 21, 2018 § 6 Comments

I have often heard liberal Friends downplay the importance of sin by pointing out that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means to miss the mark, a miscalculation, as in an archer missing the target. That always seemed off to me.

Then recently, while reading D. J. Conacher’s Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary, I ran across this in a footnote (p. 43, note 19):

“Bremer Hamartia p 47 points out that there is also (ie, in addition to the uses emphasizing miscalculation of some kind) ‘widespread use of hamart-words to decry serious offenses. From Homer onwards (… Od. 13.214) they are found denoting evil deeds for which divine revenge is expected or accomplished …'”

 

Holding in the Light

December 13, 2018 § 2 Comments

Liberal Friends have replaced prayer with the practice of “holding people in the light”. Maybe in their minds, the Light has a capital “L”, a kind of stand-in for the deity that is the object of prayer as conventionally practice.

I believe in the power of “holding people in the light”. But I also believe, based on my own experience, that just an inward lip service to the idea of holding in the light is not likely to be enough to effect the desired result. I believe that holding people in the light has become (maybe always was) an outward form without much real power.

Yes, it’s actually an “inward” form in that we do it in our heads. But I call it outward because it’s virtually empty. It’s a verbal and inward ritual. We do not give it the kind of attention it needs or deserves. We say it. We do some kind of inward wish-thing for just a moment. And then we move on.

I’m describing the practice in the context of meeting for worship or some other collective gatherings. I realize that individuals may bring this practice into their personal devotional life with more substantive attention.

My own experience with prayer—and especially with holding in the light—is deeply influenced by my experience with Silva Mind Control, and that experience involved holding someone in the light. Mind Control is a pop-psych, pseudo-scientific self help program that was somewhat popular in the 1970s. It has an unfortunately sinister-sounding name but it is actually quite effective. Half of the program is dedicated to various self-help techniques, many of which are focused on personal health, and half is dedicated to techniques for spiritual healing. I taught Silva Mind Control for several years in the early 1970s, mainly because I witnessed, and I myself performed, spiritual healing so extraordinary as to seem miraculous using its techniques.

As a teacher, I used to lead meetings of Mind Control graduates in which healing circles were a regular feature. They sometimes worked. Not all the time, not even very often. But sometimes.

So I know from personal experience that spiritual healing at a distance, both by individuals and by groups, is real.

Focused and healing prayer

Mind Control’s healing exercises—both the individual techniques and the group work— have three components that I believe really make a difference in actually healing people:

  1. intention and emotion to supply healing energy,
  2. centering to deepen consciousness and tap the energy, and
  3. visualization to focus the energy.

It’s all about energy. The group visualization usually used light as the primary image vehicle, and many practitioners, myself included, use light in our personal work, as well.

Thus I believe in the power of “holding people in the light”, as I said But I also believe in the power of these other components. To move beyond the outward form of holding in the light, to increase one’s chances of an actual positive outcome from the practice, I suggest the following, based on my experience:

  1. Supplying the energy. One needs to settle into the emotions involved, to connect meaningfully with one’s caring for the person or situation. This generates energy.
  2. Tapping the energy. To tap the energy, one needs to center down. One needs to take some time and, preferably, use an effective centering technique. I believe that an altered state of consciousness improves your chances for “successful” prayer by an order of magnitude. Sometimes grace happens, a gift born out of simple intention and attention. But not very often. “Success” is rare enough even when you’re doing all the things I’m suggesting here. That’s my experience, anyway.
  3. Focusing the energy. Finally, developing and using a set of psychic prayer tools seems to really help with focused prayer, and especially with healing prayer. In Mind Control, this includes having “imaginary” allies to turn to for help, specific ways to visualize focusing your energy—tools, as it were—and practice, especially at visualization in general and visualizing the body in particular. Mind Control spends two whole sessions just teaching anatomy and visualizing organs and systems of the body; this works.

So a “prayer” session works like this: You center down using whatever technique works for you. You greet your allies, if you have them. You gather your tools. You visualize the person you’re working on, and then follow your instincts. Openness rather than forcefulness is the key. The “force” comes from the love, the caring. But the healing comes through rather than from.

Wait in silent expectation until the problem you’re addressing presents itself somehow in your imagination. This can take many forms: pulsing somewhere, discoloration, enlargement—some irregularity in the way the person’s body or organs appear or feel to your imagination.

Then do whatever comes to mind. Maybe you’ll use one of your “tools”. Maybe you’ll ask for your ally’s help. Maybe something else will occur to you. Again, openness rather than forcefulness is the key.

Does this not sound rather Quakerly in spirit, if not in form, that is, in the form of techniques and “tools”?

Healing Circles

Mind Control healing circles work like this: You sit close together in a circle and join hands, left hand up and right hand down. You visualize energy—light—cycling through the circle from left to right, pouring out of yourself into the person on your right and pouring into you from the person on your left. When the facilitator feels the energy is up and running, she asks everyone to visualize it rising in a kind of cone, slowly, until it peaks at a point of convergence above the group in the center. Once this feels solid, then you send it to the person for whom you’re “praying”, whether they are at a distance, or someone sitting in the center of the circle.

Granted, this isn’t something that a group of Friends gathered for meeting for worship would do, unless maybe it’s a rather small meeting. But some meetings do have gatherings or meetings for healing, where this approach might be something to experiment with.

For some Friends, such an approach might feel too technical—too “technique-al”. It might seem like another outward form. It might feel ritualized. Can’t really argue with that. I stopped teaching Mind Control because I eventually felt like my life was too full of tools and I wanted to touch my experience with my bare hands again. But I was teaching it, and using it all the time. Now, it’s as natural feeling as meeting for worship itself, and it’s confined primarily to my daily practice. Like everything else, it becomes easy and natural with practice.

I hope some readers find this useful.