December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment
Sometime in the late 1980s, when New York Yearly Meeting was struggling over a revision of its book of discipline, Joshua Brown, who was then pastor of Adirondack Meeting, wrote a short essay on testing new revelation. At the time, the “new revelation” being tested was the move toward marrying same sex couples, though this concern carried the greater weight of challenges to the authority of scripture and, even more deeply, whether we would be a Christ-centered or more universalist community.
As I remember it, Joshua Brown proposed that new leadings should be tested against the testimony of four things: scripture, tradition, natural reasoning and common sense, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit, the sense of the meeting when gathered under the guidance of God’s guiding Spirit.
Some Friends, as you can imagine, questioned whether the Bible deserved its role as a touchstone. This nervousness bled over into questions about the authority of tradition, as well, since, in many ways, the Bible is the foundation of our tradition.
But I have two reasons for reaffirming the value of both the Bible and tradition. First, scripture has always been a fountain of new revelation itself, from the way it inspired George Fox to the way it inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and liberation theology in general. Second, biblical interpretation and the traditions it supports have themselves always been evolving. Think of Margaret Fell’s pamphlet on women’s call to vocal ministry or the critical revisiting of those passages in scripture that seem to prohibit same-sex marriage—the current crisis, whatever it is, and the prophetic voices that rise in response to it prompt deeper engagement with scripture and tradition, and new truths. I capsulate this dynamic by saying that we should hold ourselves responsible for the tradition, but not necessarily responsible to it.
Joshua Brown’s four test framework has stuck in my mind all these decades, obviously, and I keep returning to it. Out of my contemplation, two other tests have presented themselves.
First, I believe we should also test new revelation against the testimony of our prophets, those whom God has called into service as voices of renewal and revelation. For that’s how it works: each new revelation comes to us through some good news first expressed by someone in our midst, just as the revelation of the Light of Christ was brought to England and the world originally by George Fox.
This of course begs the question of how you test the prophet. Here we return to Joshua’s fourth test, the gathered meeting, the Holy Spirit. So this test is not an injunction to heed every new voice or idea, but that we listen to new voices and messages, listen for the feel of Truth, listen to discern the spirit of the message, and submit it, ultimately, to the sense of the gathered meeting.
Which brings me to my second addition to Joshua’s four tests—the testimony of the lives of those Friends who are already living under the guidance of the new revelation. For instance, do the lives of married same-sex couples, or same-sex couples living together in the spirit of marriage as a sacred covenant, manifest love and truth? Not perfection, but the same spirit of shared care, respect, and responsibility that we hope for in married heterosexual couples.
Or, to use the test that Jesus gave us for prophets, we will know them by their fruits.
November 4, 2017 § 5 Comments
Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 9
In a previous post, written quite awhile ago now, I gave the first of four reasons why I think we should name our collective religious experience as the spirit of Christ. That was a negative reason: that the more diverse theologically and the more uncomfortable we have become with our traditional Christian identity, the more diluted our worship has become.
I have more to say about this, about whether our worship really has become more shallow and how theological diversity might have that effect, but it’s not seasoned enough yet. In this post, I want to explore the sociology of our collective religious experience. For collective religious experience is intensely social even while it is ineffably transcendental.
By “collective religious experience”, I mean the gathered meeting, primarily, plus those instances of profound vocal ministry that brings a meeting into divine communion, and the other extraordinary psychic experiences that arise in the practice of the Quaker way. I believe that coherence in our collective understanding, a shared framework for understanding and a shared vocabulary—or lack of it—has a real effect on the quality of our worship.
The group dynamics and psychology of a religious community act both as “drivers” behind its experience and as part of the discernment by which the community seeks to understand the experience that it does have.
The chain of our tradition is long and the links are strong. In Christian scripture, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit (in several places in the gospel of John) and to be present whenever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18). Then, according to the testimony of our forbears, the promise was fulfilled in the experience of the early Friends, beginning 1600 years after those promises and continuing as revelation for another three centuries and more of our history as a people of God. Jesus’ promise and fulfillment established a foundation of faith upon which many Friends have built their religious lives. That faith, and its fulfillment in continuing revelation, fosters what we now call continuing revelation.
But our tradition does not just encourage our collective religious experience; it also explains it. It gives us a framework for understanding our experience and for talking about it, amongst ourselves, to our children, to newcomers. For more than 300 years we have said that we were gathered together in Christ. In fact, the tradition gave us our very identity: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you. . . I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you.” (John 14:14, 15)
Or it used to explain our experience. Until sometime around the middle of the twentieth century. Now, we in the liberal tradition don’t really have an explanation. And I suspect we don’t have the support for such experience that the tradition used to give us, either.
Nothing illustrates how the tradition comes into play after collective transcendental experience more powerfully than the resurrection experiences recounted in Christian scripture, of which there are ten or so accounts, depending on how many stories you consider accounts of the same appearance by different evangelists.
In all but two of the resurrection stories, the people to whom the risen Christ appears do not recognize him or they have their doubts about what’s going on. Some cases are extremely challenging. How, for instance, could Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s closest disciple, fail to recognize him in the garden until he says her name (John’s gospel)? How could those two fellows on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus himself for several hours while talking to him about his own crucifixion and the rumors of his appearances, and still only recognize him after they have arrived at their destination and broken bread together?
The answer is in the breaking of bread, that is, in the communal meal inaugurated at the Last Supper. We know that this meal was the central practice of Jesus’ movement. Jesus’s followers would gather at someone’s house, share a meal, hear catechetical teaching, pray and worship together, and distribute food and resources to the poor among them (Acts 2:42).
Here’s my point: Some of Jesus’ followers were having visions of Jesus after his death, but the meaning of those visions had to be worked out collectively over time, and this took place in the context of the “daily bread”, the daily meal. Put another way, Jesus did not come to these friends and disciples with his name tag on. It wasn’t obvious what they were experiencing. They had to discern together what was happening to them.
The resurrection experiences of the disciples are directly pertinent to my suggestion that we name the spirit of Christ as the center of our gathering. Even at the very roots of our religious tradition, doubt and confusion prevailed, and community discernment was needed to arrive at a conclusion.
Likewise, in our gathered meetings today, it is not immediately apparent what is going on; it is only obvious that something is going on. In the past, our collective discernment has concluded that we were being gathered in the spirit of Christ.
Now, however, the bathwater, the deep and rich tradition in which we have been steeped for three hundred and fifty years, has been thrown out the window. Is it any wonder that we now we look around and find that the baby is gone, also, that we wonder why we so seldom experience the gathered meeting?
Now, doubt, confusion, and most egregiously, disinterest dominate our collective (lack of) discernment about what is happening in the gathered meeting. When it happens, the worship has a center or we wouldn’t be gathered, but we have no way to articulate what that center is. We have no framework, no vocabulary with which to speak to each other, or to our children, or to newcomers about what we have experienced. As a result, we don’t speak about it much. Furthermore, we have no context, no cohesive religious ecosystem for nurturing the experience.
Now, as I’ve said in earlier posts, I myself have no direct experience of Jesus Christ at the center of the gathered meeting. In this I am like a lot of Friends in the liberal tradition. But I am not really talking about Jesus Christ as conventional Christianity understands him, that is, as a spiritual entity who was the Jesus of Christian scripture, who was crucified, dead, and buried and rose again according to the creed. I am speaking of the spirit of Christ—that mysterious experience of awakening, joy, comfort, and renewal that the two men on the road to Emmaus experienced—after they had been taught who had come into their midst.
My name for that spirit in which we are gathered in our collective religious experience as Friends is the spirit of Christ. For me, the relation of that spirit to the man who walked the roads of Galilee is a matter for speculation rather than one of direct revelation. And that’s enough for me, though I love the study, thought, and imagination that such speculation requires.
For me, the spirit of Christ is more than just a placeholder for whatever might be going on in our collective religious experience, though it is that. It is another link, made of faith, in the chain of our tradition, one that I refuse to break simply because I am still on the road to Emmaus and have not yet broken bread with Jesus as the Christ.
December 10, 2015 § 4 Comments
We all have a sense of sacred space. Many of our meetinghouses hold an aura, even when they are empty, a sense of presence that draws us toward stillness and toward our center. A meetinghouse doesn’t even have to be old or historic to do this. It just needs deep worship. The Quaker space that has radiated the strongest sense of the sacred to me is the meeting room at Pendle Hill, which isn’t that old, I don’t think, though the barn it’s in might be.
This aura, this palpable, sensible sacredness of a space is invested. We invest a space with the sense of the sacred through worship. We draw up living water of the spirit from the well at the center of our worship, it infuses us with G*d’s presence, and we radiate that out to the rest of the worshipers—and out into the room. When the drawing and the radiating reaches critical mass, the Presence in our midst becomes sensible in the gathered meeting.
Perhaps our auras are the medium for this communion. Perhaps the room retains a memory of it. Perhaps it becomes a vessel to contain the collective aura of communion as a kind of standing wave.
Whatever the metaphysical mechanisms, we know something is really happening when the meeting is gathered in worship, and we know that some meeting rooms communicate something of this depth of spirit.
But some places are holy in themselves. Some places have been invested by G*d G*d’s self, if you will.
The Black Hills are holy
The Lakota people have considered the Black Hills to be holy for centuries. They have sent their young people to vision quest there. In their traditional days, they wintered in its skirts in small camps, but otherwise left Paha Sapa mostly alone. And they defended it with their lives against the European-American invaders when, first, gold was discovered there, and later, uranium.
I am not clear how they came to feel this way about the Black Hills. Based on their other sacred stories, however, some spirit of the land probably told them so. I suspect they explained it to themselves with a story of “divine” revelation.
This kind of divine revelation takes place in a process completely different than when the Bible tells you so. Such a revelation takes place shamanistically. That is, it emerges from direct, unmediated experience of the divine manifesting in creation, manifesting to the human through vision and narrative. Someone had a vision and the story entered their tradition.
But the holiness of the Black Hills is not just a story from a revelation. The Black Hills are the source of recharge for the Lakota aquifer, the primary underground storage facility for water in the northern Great Plains. Poison the Black Hills with mining waste and you poison the water for a vast region of the continent. Poison the Black Hills with uranium and you destroy a vast source of water for untold generations, not just seven. An earth-keeping people with a sacred relation to the land would protect such a place against desecration—against de-sacral-ization.
The Black Hills are holy, not just because some medicine person says so, but because G*d the Creator—or the creative processes of planetary geophysical evolution, if you will—invested the Black Hills with an all-important earth-keeping role. And that same Creator invested the Lakota people with the same earth-keeping role through direct divine revelation.
This is spiritual ecology. This is a sacred relationship between a community and its landbase. This is what I yearn for in my own religious community, that we Quakers are so in tune with our place, with its creatures and its features, with its processes and its ecosystems, that we receive revelation about our earth-keeping role.
How do we as Friends develop this kind of relationship with the places we inhabit? Next, I want to compare the indigenous path of the shaman with the European way of earth science.
July 17, 2015 § 1 Comment
What can we say?
. . . when seekers ask what Quakers believe? Here is one version of the answers I’ve been working on.
An “elevator speech”:
We believe that there is in everyone a Light—
- a light in the conscience that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do;
- a light that can heal us, that can strengthen us to live better lives, that can release us from our demons, make us more whole, relieve us of suffering, and lead us to redemption;
- a light that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity;
- a light that can lead us to the deepest fulfillment and the “peace that passes all understanding” and into acts of kindness, service, and witness;
- a light that can help transform us into the people we were meant to be;
- a light that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community.
We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as Jesus Christ himself, as the Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future.
In this Light, through this Light, God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. In this Christ-spirit we are sometimes gathered in our worship into a joy-filled ttanscendental communion with God and with each other.
That’s my “elevator speech,” a quick answer to a deep question. But of course, we can say a lot more than this. So here is a more fully developed presentation of Quaker “beliefs”.
Six Quaker essentials
The Light. We believe that there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, “that of God”) that can know God directly and that yearns for this intimate communion.
- Because we experience the Light inwardly, we do not practice many of the outward forms that other religious communities practice; we do not rely on outward sacraments for God’s grace.
- Because the Light is universal, we believe that all people are equal in God’s sight and this informs how we treat them.
- Because we all have access to the Light, we have no professional clergy that are thought of as intermediaries between God and the individual worshiper. But we have not laid down the clergy itself; rather, we have no laypeople, for all of us are potential ministers. We believe that God can and does call each one of us into service or ministry directly and in various ways, most commonly, to speak from the Spirit in our meetings for worship. And for this, we need no special education or ceremonial ordination, but only attention to the promptings of the Spirit and a willingness to be faithful to the call.
- This, in fact, is the essence of Quaker spirituality: to be open always to God’s guidance and to listen always for God’s call into service, and to answer the call faithfully when it comes.
The gathered meeting. Ever since the 1650s when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have felt that the same Light and Spirit that dwells within each individual also loves and guides us as a community.
- Just as we believe that each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also we believe that the same Holy Spirit leads the worshipping community.
- Thus many of our meetings hold our worship in waiting, expectant silence, turning our full attention toward God and leaving off any outward liturgical forms like the Bible readings, collective prayer, hymn singing, and prepared sermons that are featured in most religious services. We worship in utter simplicity in order not to crowd out God’s direct voice or drown out the still, small voice within each of us.
- However, many Quaker meetings hold “programmed” worship that is more like other protestant churches, with hymn singing, Bible readings, prepared collective prayer,s and sermons. These meetings feel that these outward forms help the meeting commune with God.
- We also conduct the business of the meeting in meetings for worship under the direct leadership of the Holly Spirit, having no professional human leadership or hierarchies. We have a number of distinctive community tools to discern God’s wish for us.
Continuing revelation. We believe that direct communion with God means that God is still teaching God’s people.
- God’s revelation did not end with the Bible; rather God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.
- Thus, in answer to God’s continuing revelation over the centuries, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, we have struggled against slavery, and, in some yearly meetings, we fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into our fellowship, even though the Bible seems to some on the surface to condemn homosexuality, condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.
- And we remain open to new light, expecting that God will intend further changes for us in the future.
“Let your lives speak.” We believe that God calls us to live our inner faith in outward practice, to live our lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened within us, leading us to alleviate suffering, injustice, and oppression, and to amend their causes. As a movement, we have come to unity on a number of stands of conscience, which we call our “testimonies,” and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, as individuals, as a faith community, and as a society.
Love. We believe that “love is the first motion,” as we say, the commandment by which we should live our lives—that we should love God, love our fellow human beings, and love the creation we share with all other living things.
Direct experience. While “What do you believe?” is an important question, one that deserves a clear and straightforward answer, Friends often focus on a rather different question, one posed by George Fox in the 1600s and from which I derive the title for this little series on Quaker beliefs:
- “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
- In other words, even though we do have a distinctive set of beliefs, Friends try to focus more on experience than on doctrine. For us, the essential question is: what is your experience of God? And we seek to ground our religious lives on what we have ourselves experienced, rather than on the inherited experience of others, however valuable that tradition might be.
Each of these core beliefs can be unpacked further to get into all of the other beliefs and practices that distinguish Friends, which I have only just touched upon here. That’s for a subsequent post.
May 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
In my first post on Quaker-pocalypse and Advancement, I said that, to advance Quakerism we needed three things: a vital religious life, a message, and vehicles for outreach. The first item under a vital religious life was worship. Here are some queries designed for meetings to assess how they are doing with worship, to plum what is the experience of people who come into your worship—newcomers, attenders, and members.
The gathered meeting
- The one solid indicator of a vital worship life, of worship that offers “true communion with God”, is an occasional gathered meeting for worship. When was the last time your meeting was gathered in the Spirit? What are the chances that someone who comes to your meeting a few times over a few months would experience a gathered meeting? Do you talk about the gathered meeting, especially with attenders who may not yet have experienced one?
Attitudes toward worship
- Do you know what the members of your meeting think of your meeting’s worship and its vocal ministry? Would you consider conducting an anonymous survey to determine how your members and attenders feel? Would your meeting act if you found out that a meaningful percentage of Friends were unsatisfied with some aspect of the worship?
- Ministry and the Spirit. Do you think your meeting’s vocal ministry is mostly spirit-led? Does your meeting do anything to explain the conventions around vocal ministry to attenders and new members, or are they left to figure it out for themselves? Does your meeting offer members opportunities to share their experience of vocal ministry, or to learn about vocal ministry?
- Calling. Does your meeting have people who seem to be called to vocal ministry? Not just Friends who speak quite often, but Friends for whom this seems to be a calling, who take the calling seriously, and whose ministry is pretty consistently spiritually deep and edifying? Is your meeting recognizing their gifts? Is your meeting engaged with these Friends, offering them support for their ministry, if they want it?
- Christian vocal ministry. Are Christian, biblical, and even gospel ministry welcome in your meeting? Are they common? If not (in either case), why not? Do you agree that we are a Christian religion, even if many or even most of the members are not Christians in their own experience?
- Authority and mandate. Does someone in your meeting (your ministry committee?) have clear authority and a clear mandate to protect your worship from inappropriate behavior? Are you and they clear about what “inappropriate behavior” deserves attention? Do these Friends feel equipped to act with some confidence when needed?
- Noise. Do Friends socialize right outside the meeting room door up to and even past the beginning time for meeting? Can you reroute the conversation to some other location?
- Tardiness. Do Friends consistently enter the meeting room late? How late? Have you considered holding latecomers at the door and then letting them in together? Would that feel even more disruptive?
- Seating. Did you know that the most effective way to foster a gathered meeting, after loving one another, is to sit close together? * And that the most effective way to obstruct a gathered meeting, after letting conflict go unaddressed, is to sit far apart? Does your meeting room allow Friends to sit far away from each other? Would you consider reconfiguring the meeting room so that Friends are near each other when they worship? (I personally believe that the human aura is the primary medium for the psychic sharing that one experiences in a gathered meeting for worship; pure conjecture, of course.)
- Afterthoughts. Do you have “afterthoughts” after meeting and, if so, have you reconsidered their usefulness recently? I personally suspect that afterthoughts distort the vocal ministry, but I think it’s basically impossible to know how they distort it. The fact that afterthoughts might have some unknown feedback effect on the ministry is reason enough to discontinue the practice, in my opinion.
- Announcements. Have you considered moving announcements to the social room and social time after meeting for worship, especially if you are a large meeting with many announcements? My meeting actually has a small PA system for this in the social room, so that it’s easy to interrupt conversation and do the announcements.
* These ideas come from a State of the Meeting Report of New York Yearly Meeting some time in the early 1990s. The Yearly Meeting sends queries to the local meetings for them to use in writing their state of the meeting reports, and the state of the meeting reports are used to write the Yearly Meeting’s State of the Society Report. The queries that year had to do with the gathered meeting:
- How do you define a gathered meeting?
- How often do you experience a gathered meeting?
- How do you know when a meeting is gathered?
- What fosters a gathered meeting and what hinders a gathered meeting?
The most often occurring answers to number four were sitting close together and sitting far apart.
December 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
One morning during the time I was writing Good News for the Poor: The Economics of Redemption in the Common-wealth of God, while I was in the shower thinking about the Last Supper, it dawned on me that there was only one loaf of bread for the meal, and that that single loaf carried a kind of sacramental truth that I had never perceived before, a significance that was both spiritual and economic.
Normally, each of the disciples would have had his own loaf of bread. Diners in Jesus’ world would tear pieces off of their loaf and use them as pincers to pick pieces of meat and vegetables out of the common dish. You can see this at work in the parable of the man with a night visitor who goes to his neighbor to ask for three loaves of bread (Luke 11:5-10), one for his visitor, one for himself, and one for . . . Elijah? his wife? The story doesn’t say; that is not its point.
The fact that Jesus and his disciples had only one loaf at the Last Supper—which clearly was going to be an important meal—meant either that Jesus and his disciples were very poor, which we know in fact they were—we have several stories in which they were going hungry and only a “miracle” intervened; or they were doing without in radical solidarity with the poor—they were poor in the spirit. Or both.
This little opening gave me shivers. It was thrilling. I could hardly wait to tell someone—only there was no one to tell just then. And even when I finally did have someone to share the experience with, it lost a lot in the telling. I couldn’t really share the joy I had had in that moment, even though I still carried much of that joy with me.
For the feelings I had that morning are still with me, still quite vivid when I think about the moment, the opening, the meaning of the thing, the way it laid another stone on the foundation of my understanding of the economics of redemption. Even right now as I write, I am seeing a new thing about that one loaf of bread, how it fulfilled the prophetic promise of the Jubilee that Jesus declared at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4. And right now, the joy is back! But again I am alone, at my desk, on a cloudy morning in the city of Philadelphia. You, my reader, are still in the future, and perhaps somewhere on the other side of the world. I really cannot share this joy with you as I would wish to.
This is the way with the joy of openings, and even of leadings and calls to ministry, to a large degree. These experiences are inward, they are personal, even solitary.
Not so with the gathered meeting for worship. The unique and beautiful thing about the gathered meeting for worship is that you share the joy with others.
I talked about this in my series on the gathered meeting, that the signature characteristic of the gathered meeting is joy:
Each of these aspects of the gathered meeting—energy, presence, and knowledge—inspire joy. The psychic and physical thrill are joyous. The sense of presence—of each other’s presence and the deeper something extra—gladden the heart, awakening a unique kind of love for each other and for G*d. And the knowledge, too, is deeply satisfying—to know that you have found something holy, that is, whole-making, however ineffable, or that, in doing G*d’s business, you share in the community’s communion of unity.
I experienced the gathered meeting most recently, after a long spell without, at New York Yearly Meeting’s Summer Sessions this year in July. We had labored through several business sessions over an important set of recommendations for establishing a new direction for the Yearly Meeting that would be more focused on local Friends and local meetings. It got nasty. There were tears, there were accusations and distrust and fear. The committee responsible for the recommendations went back to work and returned with revisions. And suddenly, there we were in the presence of the Holy Spirit. As one Friend after another spoke in unity with the new vision, joy spread like sunlight over a lake at dawn. There were tears. As we left the meetingroom, there were smiles and hugs; there was love all around.
This was not just a shared joy, by which I mean the way you feel when someone you love shares their joy with you, so that you feel some of it, too. This was collective joy. For the unique gift of the gathered meeting is that we feel the joy together in that moment, each of us directly, and we know that others are feeling just as we do ourselves, and we know that they know that we too are feeling this joy, and we know that they know that we know that they know. Oh, what joy this is!
For all the joy I have known in the practice of the Quaker way as an individual, none in my experience matches the collective joy I have known in the gathered meeting.
August 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have been away from this blog for a while, mainly because I attended New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions, held July 20–26 at Silver Bay YMCA in Silver Bay, New York, on the shores of Lake George. Because I’m staff (I’m the Yearly Meeting’s communications director), I have been extremely busy preparing for, attending, and following through on the Sessions.
The gathered body of New York Yearly Meeting was truly gathered in the Spirit this year at its Summer Sessions.
This took place during a called meeting for business in worship on Friday afternoon, July 25, a meeting called to further consider the report and recommendations of the Yearly Meeting’s Priorities Working Group (PWG), which the Working Group had expressed in a written Statement of Leadings and Priorities (see also an interpretive document for the Statement). After earlier business sessions in which the body was markedly NOT in unity with the Working Group’s recommendations, the Working Group brought a revised version of the Priorities section of the Statement to the called meeting and, one after another, Friends rose to express how pleased they were with the new version and we gradually realized that we had been transformed in love. Rejoicing filled our hearts. We were renewed in our faith that love for each other and faith in the Spirit that guides us and trust in our process could bring us into joyful unity.
The Priorities Working Group (PWG) had been convened in 2011 to visit local meetings and worship groups around the Yearly Meeting to listen to local Friends’ concerns about, and desires for, the Yearly Meeting organization, and to discern from these visits the priorities of local Friends and local meetings as they should apply to the Yearly Meeting organization’s work and budget. In this context, the Yearly Meeting organization comprises the Yearly Meeting committees and the Friends under appointment to those committees, the apparatus for conducting Yearly Meeting Sessions (Fall, Spring, and Summer), and the Yearly Meeting’s staff and institutions.
The event that precipitated the convening of the Working Group was the Yearly Meeting organization’s extreme difficulty in approving a budget in 2009. The main issue underlying that precipitating event is a long-standing disconnect between local Friends and local meetings from the Yearly Meeting organization in general, and from its budget process, in particular. The Priorities Working Group was New York Yearly Meeting’s sixth formal attempt to address these issues since the early 1990s.
The initial Statement of Leadings and Priorities included six Priorities, general vision statements distilled from PWG’s extensive visitation, and intended to express the priorities that local Friends and local meetings hoped would guide the work of the Yearly Meeting organization and its budget. Each Priority had a paragraph elaborating on the Priority. After the Priorities section, there followed a short section on accountability and two sections of “Leadings”, actions they were recommending for implementing the Priorities, one set for the coming year and another for the coming five years. The Priorities were as follows:
“We, the Body of Friends gathered through our New York Yearly Meeting, recognize as a priority for the Yearly Meeting . . .
- the development of programs to teach and share our spiritual skills with each other, and to help meetings to revitalize themselves;
- the development of programs to help sustain our monthly meetings financially and to increase membership;
- the pursuit of greater contact and spiritual relationship among Friends;
- assisting Meetings with developing First Day School curricula, building skills for working with our teens, helping rejuvenate First Day Schools, and providing support for parents of young children;
- the responsibility to be an active voice for Friends’ faith, values, ministry and witness in the world;
- the responsibility to hold itself accountable to the above priorities, ensuring their faithful fruition.”
The paragraph introducing the five-year vision for the Priorities provided what I felt was a truly inspiring general vision for the Yearly Meeting:
In approving this Statement of Leadings and Priorities, we commit to focus the energy and resources of our Yearly Meeting for the coming five years on achieving a vision of growing and vital monthly meetings [that] are open and loving communities, effective in their outreach, active in the world, and skillful in nurturing the spiritual lives of Friends of all ages. We envision a yearly meeting structure [that] is devoted to furthering this vision, is an effective focal point for organizing our collective work in the world, and [that] communicates that work broadly. We envision a yearly meeting structure [that] is accountable to these priorities, transparent in its finances and integrally connected to the monthly meetings it represents and supports. We envision a yearly meeting where there will no longer be “yearly meeting Friends” and “monthly meeting Friends,” but rather one, whole yearly meeting devoted to faithfully living out the leadings of the Spirit. We reaffirm our commitment to utilize these Leading and Priorities in “preparing budgets, staff work plans, and other services and initiatives of the Yearly Meeting and its committees and constituent parts.”
Initially, we were only to consider the Priorities section plus the accountability section that directly followed it, and not the one-year and five-year recommendations for implementation.
As general statements of intent, the Priorities seem pretty straightforward to me. Yes, I had quibbles, but it was clear what their general intent was and the details are always a problem. So I was ready to approve them straight off. I felt differently about the accountability section, which I believe was fraught with real problems, and I had serious questions about the Leadings for implementation, as well.
When the document was presented on the floor of the meeting, it was presented in its entirety, and many members of the gathered body were very disturbed by many aspects of it. While the clerk had asked that we consider only the six Priorities and the accompanying accountability section, Friends soon lost track of those instructions and began to focus on the Leadings, the recommendations for implementation.
Fear drove most of this ministry. In particular, I believe that many Friends rightly sensed—but could not necessarily have clearly articulated—that, if approved, the accountability recommendations would mean the end of the Yearly Meeting’s committee structure as it now stands, and thus, apparently, the end of ministries they hold dear. Additionally, many Friends felt that even the Priorities had left out some key constituencies in the Yearly Meeting and some key aspects of meeting life. Most of this discontent focused on youth and young adults, and on our witness life.
During several sessions, held both in small groups and in plenary, Friends became more and more dissatisfied. At the end of Thursday’s meeting for business in worship, with only two more business sessions left, and one of them the celebration of our Junior Yearly Meeting program with all the kids and a final reading of the Epistle to consider, the clerk called a called meeting for Friday afternoon and the Priorities Working Group was directed to bring us a new draft of the Priorities to consider.
PWG changed little of the original draft of the priorities. They shortened the elaborating paragraphs while developing them a little more, and they restated the Priorities on youth and witness, as follows:
We . . . recognize as a Priority for the Yearly Meeting . . .
- the nurturing of our children, youth, and young adults;
- the responsibility to be an active voice for Friends’ faith, values, ministry and witness in the world, and to support Friends active witness.
This was enough. Probably the many informal conversations held offline and the ministry during the earlier sessions in support of the Priorities helped Friends focus more clearly on the Priorities and hear the intentions behind them. Furthermore, we considered the new draft without the accountability section, which was easily the scariest and most problematic part of the original document. I suspect that the accountability section would have presented a stop to many Friends’ approval, mine included.
But Friends approved the direction envisioned in the Priorities for the Yearly Meeting organization and the broader Yearly Meeting proper, with an ease and a sense of joy that testified to the faithfulness of both the Working Group and the gathered body, and to the guiding presence of a Spirit of Love and Truth.
This was a bit different than most of the gathered meetings I have experienced during meetings for business in worship. In most others, the gathered body has experienced some remarkable, even dramatic turning point, usually brought on by some powerful vocal ministry. You can feel the lightning strike; you can watch the winds of the Spirit billow the meeting’s sails into a rich, taut pulling toward a new direction, you can feel the ship surge into this new current.
By contrast, this gathering built gradually. As one Friend after another rose to support the Priorities, our expectation of gusts and waves of dissatisfaction slowly dissolved. The more we began to expect messages of support instead, the more peaceful the room became. After a while, we knew that we had arrived at the farther shore. We knew—perhaps with some residual anxiety, I’ll admit, for we could clearly see some storm clouds in the distance—we knew that we were ready to try a minute of approval. And approve we did.
From the safety of that little harbor, we acknowledged that we still have a long journey before us. And we are likely to revisit our complaints with both the new process for accountability to the Priorities that the Working Group develops, with the details of how we will implement them, and with the implications for the whole Yearly Meeting organization that real accountability entails.
Moreover, now the local Friends and the local meetings themselves have an important role to play. This is not just a vision for the Yearly Meeting organization. If this is what the local meetings want, they have to welcome and support the ministries—the leadings, whatever they are—that these Priorities generate for implementation. And they have to pay for it.
Local Friends have long complained that they have no input in the numbers in the budget, that they ship money off to the Yearly Meeting organization without knowing what that money does and without getting meaningful services from the Yearly Meeting organization in return. Now, if the Yearly Meeting organization begins developing the kinds of programs envisioned in the Priorities, as local meetings have asked, the local meetings better recognize that and pay for it.
And for its part, the YM organization has much more work to do.
It has to come up with a structure and process for holding itself accountable that Friends can accept—and Friends have to accept some discipline and let go of some fear. We do need an accountability structure of some kind.
And it is true that many of the YM organization’s committees do not do much to serve the needs of local Friends. Many of the ministries they pursue are worthwhile and in many cases Spirit-led, but they do not really serve local Friends or these Priorities very directly. What will be the fate of these ministries and their committees under the new priorities?
Finally, the gathered body did not find fault with the Leadings offered by the Priorities Working Group for the first year and the next five years so much as they found things that were missing. They felt that the Leadings did not reflect all of the voices in the Yearly Meeting. They therefore felt that those voices had not been heard. So the Working Group will have to revisit its notes from its visits and its discernment and recover those missing voices. They will need to bring us a fuller vision for implementation.
I do not doubt their faithfulness, so they will do their best. I guess I am a little less certain of the wider body of “Yearly Meeting Friends”, as we call ourselves, those Friends who regularly attend Sessions and are often under appointment to the Yearly Meeting committees that are being asked to completely re-envision their charge in light of the Priorities from local Friends. But we answered G*d’s call this July, so I am full of hope for the future.
And I have faith in the Spirit that Jesus promised to send to us in the gospel of John, for we have just been visited most wondrously. As long as we remain in love and commit to real worship, we can expect that promise to be fulfilled again.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . . The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. . . . I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 14:15-17, 26; 15:15)
December 13, 2013 § 9 Comments
Religion as Corporate Spirituality
My one-line answer to the question, What is Quakerism for? is: bringing people to G*d and bringing G*d into the world. “Bringing people to G*d” has two parts: personal spirituality and communal spirituality.
The last post’s discussion of worship provides a segue from personal spirituality to communal spirituality—that is, to religion.
Several years ago I was a Friendly Adult Presence in a youth conference sponsored by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and in one of the exercises, the young people were asked to sort themselves out by whether they had a spiritual life or not and whether they practiced a religion. The vast majority said yes to spirituality and no to religion. This made me feel bad.
I suspect that quite a few adult Friends have similar feelings. They are much more comfortable talking about spirituality and not so comfortable talking about their “religion”. For many Friends, I suspect, “religion” conjures traditional belief in a “God”, a supreme being, maybe even the trinity of Christianity, whom the community worships, and aspects of this traditional definition of religion just don’t work for them. Many, like me, I suspect, have no direct experience of such a God. Many may have had negative experiences of traditional worship of such a God. And thus many may be uncomfortable with “worship” when defined as adoration, praise, and supplication of such a God.
And then there’s Jesus and the intensely Christ-centered legacy of our own Quaker tradition. For many Friends, “religion” is relationship with him, placing him at the center of our individual lives and at the center of our life as a community. And again, for many Friends, this just is not their experience.
I’ve written about my own struggles with this question quite a lot—how confounding I usually find it to belong to what I believe is a Christian religious community and not be a Christian myself. As is happening right this second, every time I get to a certain depth in exploring Quakerism, in this blog and in my other writing, I find myself trying to identify who Jesus Christ is for me, and what Quakerism means without experience of him. And I mean experience of him, not belief in him; I have the belief, but not the experience. It is one of the central questions of my religious life. I believe it is perhaps the central question for modern Liberal Quakerism in general. I’m still working on it.
In the meantime, I keep beavering away at other questions while skirting this elephant in the room. Why? Because I feel led to, is the basic answer. But also in the hope that circling this central question will eventually lead to some answers. And finally, because I know I am not alone. I feel that I am exploring the issues I write about alongside many other nonChristian Friends, and I hope to be useful to others in their search.
So I do have a nonChristian definition of “religion” and “worship”. And I have a concern to bridge the gap between “spirituality” and “religion”, which I see as a misperception. I do not want a religion that is little more than a society for practicing individual spiritualities together. I have done that and it is not enough for me. The reason it’s not enough is that I have had collective spiritual experience, experience shared with others of something deep and profound. I have had religious experience. So my definition of religion starts with a definition of spirituality.
By “spirituality” I mean the faith and the practices through which we as individuals seek to open ourselves to the Light within us—to the presence, motion, guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and redemption of the ChristSpirit acting in us—and the ways in which we try to follow its guidance in our lives.
“Religion” I define as the faith and the practices through which the community seeks to commune with the Mystery Reality that lies behind and beyond the Light within each of us as individuals, that lies between us or among us as a community, and that becomes real for us in the mystery of the gathered meeting for worship.
For the Light, the kingdom of heaven, is not only within us; it is also among us, as Jesus put it. It is the presence in the midst. It is the motion of love between us. It is the guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and reconciliation of the Spirit acting through us as individuals and among us at the center of our worship and our fellowship. The presence within us and the presence in our midst—these are the same. This is our faith, born of our experience in the gathered meeting for worship.
Thus I define “religion” as the spiritual life, the faith and spiritual practices, of a community, the things a religious community does to renew its communion with the Divine.
This begs the question (again) of just what we mean by “the Divine”, which is one of Liberal Quakerism’s placeholders for whatever it is we are experiencing, when we don’t think it’s the traditional triune Christian God. I have dealt with this problem by using “G*d”, letting the asterisk stand in for whatever your experience is. Speaking this way, however—speaking around a more explicit naming of God—just throws us back into individualism, casting ourselves again as a society of individuals practicing our own spiritualities, rather than defining ourselves as an integral community with a clear focus for our worship.
The only thing that belies this individualist reality, the only hope in all this mess, it seems to me, is to be found in the gathered meeting. As I have written earlier, the gathered meeting seems not to care about name tags. I have felt a meeting become gathered in spite of its theological confusion and diversity. I once felt a meeting gathered because of its diversity, reaching exquisitely joyous unity as the result of deep wrestling with the plurality of our experience.
Anyway, I hope that thinking of religion as the shared spiritual practice of a community encourages some Friends to warm up to the idea of Quakerism as a religion. And I, at least, find great encouragement in the fact that this practice now and again delivers genuine fulfillment—both spiritual fulfillment; that is, individual fulfillment, joy, healing, and inspiration; and religious fulfillment, a corporate experience of the presence in our midst, of love and the healing of conflict, of inspiration and prompting to corporate witness, and of unity and joy in the knowing of each other in that place where words come from.
If only it happened more often.
May 31, 2013 § 11 Comments
Over the past several posts, and over the past several weeks, I have quite unexpectedly become obsessed with the gathered meeting. I have discovered that, for me at least, the gathered meeting is the quintessential Quaker experience—and the essential Quaker experience. Not only does it embody all that we have to offer the world and to our members and attenders, it also is really the essence of Quaker religion—direct communion with the divine, both for the individuals present and for the gathered body as a whole.
With all the other stuff I’ve been saying, it seems I may have been working my way to the realization that I am called to a ministry of—ignition, I guess I’ll call it, a ministry of speaking, teaching, and traveling in the service of the gathered meeting—helping Friends develop a spiritual practice of listening and deepening that will prepare them to bring a full bucket to the gathering, and helping meetings develop spiritual nurture programs and religious education programs that would prepare those meetings to be gathered.
Who cares, really, whether it is the Christ who gathers our meetings? I don’t think he cares whether we recognize him or not. What matters is that we find ourselves in the Presence, that we truly are transformed, as individuals and as communities, that we feel the joy of unity of purpose, that we are open to God’s opening, that we revel in the overflowing of the Spirit, within us and among us.
Who cares what the metaphysics behind the gathered meeting is? I mean I’m interested. I’m really interested. But that feeling is nothing compared to the feeling of being gathered itself! What I really care about is what concrete things we can do to make the gathered meeting more likely in our meetings—like showing up to meeting on time and sitting close together, two simple, mundane things that seem to really make a difference.
I am thirsty—spiritually hungry and thirsty. Most of the world is hungry and thirsty for the presence of God in their lives. But I have drunk from the well. And I know where the well is. Right here inside my chest; right here in this meeting room.
In the center of our worship is a well that goes deep down to the Source itself. And each of us comes with a bucket. We come for the water of life, but we come with a bucket. The bucket is our attention, and our intention. The bucket is our preparedness and dedication. The bucket is a mind and a body seasoned in the practice of silence and attentive waiting. Our bucket is our faith—our knowledge—that direct communion with the divine is not only possible, but our heritage and birthright as Friends.
So I can bring my bucket, hopefully a large and tight and seasoned bucket, to the well of living water waiting in my own devotional practice and in the Quaker meeting for worship. I can lower it down and know that it will come back up filled to the brim.
But this is the wrong image, really. I do not have a bucket so much as I am a siphon. If I drop my mindsoul into the well of living water and my mindsoul is already primed, already holding at least a little Spirit, then when I draw upon that inexhaustible well, the Spirit will begin pouring out and it will seek to fill all present with its cool refreshment, until it has floated all that is buoyant within us, until its light has illuminated all darkness.
But it doesn’t just happen. I must prepare. I must rededicate myself to my own spiritual seasoning, so that I do come to meeting already primed. And I must help to prepare my meeting. I have never experienced a gathered meeting in my meeting. I know that many of our members and attenders have not either. Some do not even know what I’m talking about.
But my meeting has one of the two essential prerequisites—love. We really care for each other. We have great joy in each other’s beings. All we need is a little faith and knowledge that this glory is waiting for us, and a critical mass of Friends whose own inner lives are deep enough to reach the well with some regularity.
For this is our great gift to the world—direct experience of God. And writing about the gathered meeting has given me a mission—to evangelize this gift and to work to make it a much more common occurrence.