Quaker-pocalypse: Spiritual Lukewarmness & Spiritual Formation

March 7, 2015 § 8 Comments

Note: My dear readers, I’ve been away for a while—had a knee replaced and have only just been finding the time to focus clearly on this blog. (I am recovering well.) Thanks for your patience.

Also, this post is very long—too long, really, but I didn’t want to chop it up into pieces. So I’ve made it available as a pdf file, since I hope some Friends and meetings might find it useful in that format. Click the following to download Quaker-pocalypse: Spiritual Lukewarmness & Spiritual Formation.

Spiritual lukewarmness

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. (Revelation 3:15)

In my original post on Quaker-pocalypse, I listed among the signs of our decline, the decline of personal and family devotional life, shallowness in the meeting for worship, and a corresponding infrequency of gathered meetings for worship. In a phrase—spiritual lukewarmness: The meeting feels good; nobody is really unhappy. Nobody is really going anywhere, spiritually, either. No one—or too few—are on fire with the holy spirit. Nobody can remember when the last gathered meeting was. Some Friends aren’t really sure what that even means. But members do enjoy a precious sense of contentment that is hard to find in the world. This certainly is sweet.

However, Quaker renewal needs more. Mere contentment leads to continued decline, if only through the attrition brought on by the passing of our elders. Renewal needs a pentecost, an in-breaking of the holy spirit. And a pentecost needs minds and hearts and souls prepared.

Spiritual formation

In my earlier series on What is Quakerism for? I answered that question with a simple statement: to bring people to God and to bring God into the world. In the context of this series on Quaker decline and renewal, I would say that the way to Quaker renewal is not to focus so much on ourselves and on our problems, but rather to get busy bringing people to God, to the holy—helping make people whole—and by healing the hurts of the world.

So how do we bring people to God? How can our meetings help our members and attenders and our children and the people who come to us as seekers find the holy in their lives and become more whole? What more can we do to invite the pentecost?

The first three prerequisites, I believe, are: prayer, worship, and earnest desire for G*d in our lives, our personal lives and our collective lives as meetings. These are non-programmatic. You just do it. And it works. It worked for George Fox and it worked for those Seekers he convinced at Firbank Fell to jump-start our movement. They just earnestly prayed and worshipped.

However, I do think there is a place for “program”, for programs of “spiritual formation”—programs designed to help members and attenders discover the form or path in which to pursue the life of the spirit as a Friend in a way that speaks to their own condition.

We each have our own past and our own past experiences, our own wounds and our own wonderful milestones, and what I will call our own spiritual temperament. Though we each possess the potential for any spiritual path, most of us specialize. Most of us find ourselves focusing on or getting more out of certain aspects of spirituality. The three temperaments that we Friends readily recognize, I suspect, are the spiritualist/mystic, the social concern activist, and the Friend who seeks the communion of community. I think this idea of spiritual temperament deserves more attention than we can give it here, so I plan to return to the topic of religious temperament in a later post.

What I’m getting at is that no one size or shape of spirituality fits all. Ideally, the spiritual nurturers in the meeting would know the members well enough that it would be relatively clear what kinds of resources to put into a given individual’s hands.

But we don’t worship in ideal meetings. Knowing everyone that well in a large meeting is just impossible. Knowing each other even in small meetings takes effort; you have to do it. It takes time, patience, repetition, and some wisdom for us to get past the superficial and come to know each other “in that which is eternal”, as early Friends liked to put it. So programs have their place.

I imagine that if our meetings had lots of members who were clear about their way to God and were doing something about it, our meetings would also become more whole; the decline we experience would reverse, we would attract more people and grow. Though attracting people and growing are not the goals. Wholeness is the goal; the goal is the holy. Our mission is to bring people to God, not get new members.

So let’s get to it. What else could we be doing?

I imagine that if our meetings were offering our members and attenders, our children and our newcomers opportunities for spiritual sharing, learning, and exploration—programs focused on spiritual nurture—we would find ourselves renewed. Let me be more specific. I propose developing “programs” in our meetings for . . .

Sharing—opportunities to share . . .

  • our personal spiritual experiences, especially the ones that have been formative for us, in open discussion groups, in worship sharing, or whatever; and opportunities to share
  • our personal spiritual practice—what we do at home, if anything, in our personal devotional life; what we do during our time in meeting for worship; what vocal ministry means to us, and how we test our messages before speaking in meeting.

Learning—religious education programs on . . .

  • Quaker ministry—programs on its faith and practice.
  • Quaker spirituality—study groups that focus on spiritual classics and Quaker classics, biographies and journals, and Quaker faith and practice in the areas of personal spirituality.
  • Quaker corporate religious life—programs on traditional gospel order, the gathered meeting, Quaker dialog, clearness committees, corporate discernment, meeting for worship and vocal ministry, meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting, the Advices & Queries, clerking and recording . . . etc.—the full, rich panoply of our peculiar and amazing shared tradition, but with, among other areas, a focus on the unique aspects of Quaker collective spirituality, the spiritual life of the meeting.

Experiencing—hands-on workshops or other opportunities to explore the life of the spirit more directly, as in . . .

  • Experiment with Light—many Friends are finding the groups using Rex Ambler’s reconstruction of early Quaker spirituality very rewarding. He’s written several books.
  • Traditional spiritual disciplines—especially, prayer, meditation, study, simplicity, solitude, and service, which seem especially suited to Friends practice (but see also Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for good stuff on fasting, confession, spiritual guidance (more about this in a moment), and celebration; Foster was a Friend, after all). That is, study groups using written resources and workshops led by people who have experience in these disciplines, aimed at giving members and attenders exposure to a decent range of spiritual techniques, so that each person might find something that works for them.
  • Deepening techniques, from self-hypnosis, yoga (including both meditation techniques and breathing exercises), and especially, centering prayer, since it comes from the Christian tradition, is very easy and very effective, and very compatible with Quaker practice. I recognize that, as Thomas Kelly put it in “The Gathered Meeting”, all that is needed for the authentic religious life is to genuinely turn toward the Light; no special techniques are required for that. However, there is no denying that deepening techniques do enrich the life of the spirit, and a little bit of training—or even just some reading—go a long way toward equipping the faithful with a kind of fast track to the depths within them.
  • Healing circles—Does your meeting have any doctors, social workers, or therapists, people who clearly possess the gift of healing, and who have channeled their gifts through the traditional Western healing arts? Or people who practice alternative healing modalities? Or people who just feel called to pastoral care and healing work in general? How can you nurture their gifts as gifts of the spirit? Also, I know from personal experience that healing circles, however they are conducted, can channel healing energy to sometimes miraculous effect, even when the participants do not necessarily feel they have a special gift.
  • Proactive Quaker eldership. By this I mean the traditional Quaker calling of some Friends to a ministry of raising up ministers. Some Friends (all Friends, potentially, and any Friend now and again) have a gift for recognizing and nurturing the gifts of others. The person in your meeting who realizes Friend Sally would probably get a lot out of a certain Quaker classic, or who urges someone who is holding back to speak in meeting, or who suggests a certain conference to Friend John . . .  or whatever. Is your meeting recognizing and nurturing its elders, in addition to its ministers? Just as strong nonprofits will have a committee dedicated to building up its board of trustees, finding people to serve who have legal or accounting expertise, for instance, so every Quaker meeting should be proactively building up its capacity for spiritual nurture. You can do this with . . .
  • Spiritual nurture programs like that which the School of the Spirit and some yearly meetings now offer. In many ways, we live now in a golden age of spiritual nurture among Friends, because there are so many places and resources for it. Meetings should do everything in their power to help members take these courses, which often require real commitment in terms of time, money, and meeting participation. The reward to the meeting of even one person deepening their spiritual life through such an experience is hard to overestimate.
  • Spiritual direction and spiritual friends. Resident students at Pendle Hill meet with an advisor once a week and I found this mentoring program extremely rewarding when I was there. The formal pairing of mentor and student for “spiritual direction” is fairly common in many religious traditions and in some seminaries, but far less so among Friends. We have turned instead to spiritual friendships, which are oriented more toward mutual sharing and caring than toward some “vertical” “direction”. Still, spiritual direction as a “movement” has been growing in popularity, I think, and becoming more accessible and ecumenical, if you will, less tied to institutions and traditional definitions. However we do it, our meetings should be encouraging those members who clearly have a thirst for more to get together for mutual encouragement. I imagine this might often work best in the wider network of a quarterly or regional meeting, especially if your own meeting is rather small; more on this at the end.
  • Conferences and workshops. The Quaker world is rich these days with conferences, workshops, and consultations that can deepen your spiritual life. Meetings should advertise these opportunities and help our members and attenders and children take advantage of them. I have mentioned Pendle Hill, which is outside of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. There are also Quaker conference centers in northern New York State, Indiana, California, western Massachusetts, and probably other places I’m not aware of. Yearly Meetings and even local meetings sponsor these events, or have staff that can offer them locally. If not, yearly meeting worship and ministry committees, if they exist, could do the same. Friends General Conference has a lot of resources, not least the annual Gathering.
  • Traveling Friends. Do you have a leading to enrich the spiritual lives of Friends or meetings? Is there someone in your meeting who clearly has such a leading—or at least a gift in this area—who has not yet thought of it as a prompting to travel with it to other meetings? Sometimes all that is needed for such a leading to mature is a little nudge, a little encouragement from someone they trust, a simple question: “Hast thee thought of traveling with this gift you have?”

Okay, but . . .

Many meetings will not have the resources to do a lot of the things I’ve described above. They may be too small, or just too lacking in the human resources required. I see two solutions for this problem.

The first is to make it a collective project. My old meeting is doing this with great success, I think. Don’t have somebody who really knows about meditation, or vocal ministry. Ask for a couple of people to volunteer to do some studying. Go to quakerbooks.org and do a search for your topic. Rifle through your meeting’s library—if it doesn’t have what you need, order it. Then, when they are ready, have a gathering and share. Keep doing this and in a while, everybody who attends these gatherings will know more and the Friends who took on the study will know quite a lot.

The second solution is to bring in outside resources. Somebody in your quarter or your yearly meeting probably has the knowledge and experience you are looking for. Finding them might be a little difficult, but every quarter or yearly meeting has some Friends who are natural networkers, who seem to know everybody and to know what’s going on. Those Friends will be easier to find and they might be able to point you in the right direction.

To get practical about all this, here is a condensed version of programs that meetings might try to deepen the spiritual lives of their members, attenders, and children and youth.

Spiritual Nurture Meeting Checklist

Sharing

  • Simple gatherings in which you invite a Friend to share their spiritual journey, or their spiritual practice. or
  • in which, in worship sharing format, groups of you can share these things.

Learning

  • Religious education programs on
    • spiritual gifts
    • Quaker ministry
    • Quaker spirituality
    • Quaker corporate religious life

Experiencing

  • Experiment with Light groups
  • Workshops on
  • traditional spiritual disciplines
  • deepening techniques
  • Healing circles
  • Recognize and encourage your elders, and point those appointed to your worship and ministry committee in the direction of more proactive eldership, in the positive sense of spiritual nurture
  • Help members attend spiritual nurture programs and conferences
  • Encourage spiritual friendships
  • Seek out traveling Friends, both within your own meeting (they may only be potential travelers) and those who might travel to you
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What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Families

December 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

Providing religious education for children and supportive religious community for families.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face, as we all know. Lots of meetings are too small to have any families and so they are not likely to attract new families who are searching for a religious home, especially for their kids. Too often, meetings don’t have any adults who are not themselves parents to teach First Day School, and as a result, the parents too often end up teaching their own kids. If they are new, they often don’t know enough Quakerism to feel confident to teach it. And of course, they would prefer to be in meeting for worship.

The only solution, really, is for the meeting to make an up-front commitment to provide First Day School no matter what, staffed by Friends who are not those kids’ parents. And then, if you don’t already have one, be prepared to start a First Day School as soon as a family arrives—that First Day. (Or, if you have the money, you could hire a teacher, as my meeting has done this year for the middle schoolers.)

The big obstacles to staffing a First Day School are: too few Friends willing to give up meeting for worship, too few Friends with the temperament and/or experience needed for dealing with children, and a perceived lack of curriculum—lack of confidence in what you could teach.

Not much you can do about the first two except pray. For the third, though, there really is no excuse. There is a lot of curricular material out there, and for all ages. So much in fact that combing through it all is its own obstacle.

I really like what my meeting’s RE committee has done. Quite a few Friends, both parents and teachers, took the Faith & Play/Godly Play training, available from Friends General Conference. This gave them an approach, confidence, a strong sense of First Day School community, and content. They developed a two-year framework for covering the Quaker essentials, timing topics when possible with the Queries we read every second First Day in both meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship. And they meet regularly to map out the details for the next few months, both in terms of content and teachers. They include Bible study in every lesson.

This is ideal, to me: it is Quaker religious education, rich in Quaker content. It includes the biblical foundation for our faith. And it is strategic: after two years, these kids have touched all the Quaker bases at their level of understanding, and then they go through it again at their new level. This approach raises competent, confident young Friends.

Way too many meetings shy away from Quaker and especially biblical content. I understand. I myself, with some help from at least one other parent, prevented my then-meeting’s First Day School from teaching the Bible. When those kids became young adult Friends, they came back to us and complained that they hadn’t learned anything and that we were lucky they were still around. And a lot of those kids aren’t still around, my own kids included.

I was so wrong to do that. And my meeting should not have let me do it. We owe it to our children to give them a real foundation for their religious lives. And we have such a fantastic foundation to give them! They may let it go. They may actively reject it or rebel against it. Fine. But they will know who we are and they will know who they are, if they leave. And when they stay, they will know what they are doing as Friends.

The all-too-common alternative to teaching real content is to teach “Quaker values”. This usually means the testimonies, plus the unspoken social attitudes common in Quaker circles, taught through example, osmosis and behavior control: liberal political leanings, tolerance, embracing “diversity”, making nice and avoiding conflict, using passive aggression when you really are in conflict, and the other affects of white middle-class culture. Too harsh? Maybe.

Still, it is the case that Liberal Quakerism increasingly defines itself in terms of “Quaker process” and “Quaker values”, rather than in terms of content, the rich legacy of our tradition.

A few years ago, after being laid off during the Great Recession, I thought I would like to volunteer as a guest resource in local Quaker schools. And here in the Philadelphia region, there are a lot of Quaker schools, most of them under the care of some meeting.

I visited the websites of literally dozens of Quaker schools looking to identify their religion faculty to contact. There were none. Out all those schools, only two had religion faculty, and only one or two more seemed to include religion or Quakerism in their curriculum in any way. I couldn’t believe it.

We hear their ads on NPR all the time, and they all tout their (Quaker) values as essential to their model of education, though they usually leave “Quaker” inside the parentheses. And I bet they do a good job of teaching these wonderful values. But where is the Quakerism? And don’t tell me that most of their students aren’t Quakers. That doesn’t stop the Catholics.

This simply reflects the way Liberal Quakerism in general is progressively abandoning its content for its values. Well, we can’t do anything about those schools. But we can make sure that we teach Quakerism, its values and its content, to our own children.

We should be teaching them something else, too, something that I feel is even more important than our faith and practice. We should help them find their own spiritual path. We should help them to recognize spiritual experience when it happens to them. We should not just teach them about the Light within them, but help them discover it for themselves.

For the youngest ones, this will mostly mean, I think, leading them to the Light in the conscience, that voice inside them that alerts them to wrong action, that prompts them toward love and peacefulness and reconciliation, rather than toward anger and resentment. This is “values” instruction”, but not as a list of outward principles to live by, but as the movement of the Spirit within their hearts toward love.

For the older ones, especially around middle school, we can go deeper. My first conscious religious experiences happened in seventh grade. Looking back, I see that I was groping at least by sixth grade, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Our role should be to help kids recognize G*d at work in their lives and in their hearts and souls.

As with virtually any instruction, nothing works better than stories. And we have so many great stories to share. First there are all those stories in the Bible, especially the prophets, first-hand accounts of hearing and answering the call of God. And the story of Joseph the patriarch—all about family, conflict, and reconciliation.

And then we have our own Quaker prophets: George Fox, John Woolman, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Bayard Rustin, Larry Apsy, Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree, John Bellers, William Penn . . . the list just goes on and on. Stories of real people waking up to the Light within them.

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