The Sociology of Collective Religious Experience

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.

Worship as silent expectant waiting

October 23, 2016 § 6 Comments

We worship in silent expectant waiting.

Silent, because we want to take away any busy-ness or noise that would keep us from hearing that “still small voice” within us.

Expectant, because we know that in the human soul, and in the center of our worship, there is a wellspring of G*d’s love and healing and forgiveness and strength and guidance and inspiration and renewal and creativity; and that, if we turn toward the Light within us, if we attend to the Presence in our midst, then we can expect this divine grace to manifest in holy communion.

And so we wait, not with our thumbs twiddling in some passive quiet, but actively wait as a waiter does, utterly attentive to the needs of those who have come to the divine banquet, ready to serve; we wait as ladies in waiting do, as companions to our Guide, ready to take up any task that may be required of us. This may take the form of vocal ministry; or emerge as acts of love or pastoral care; or as leadings into social witness, in acts that seek to bring G*d’s healing and peace and justice and progress into the world.

* I write the word G*d with an asterisk as a way to bypass the freight that the word often brings with it, in order to connect more directly with my readers. The asterisk stands in for whatever your experience of God is, rather than whatever connotations and associations it might bring from popular use, or even what I myself might mean by the word.

Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement and Worship

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?

Vocal ministry

  • 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:

  1. How do you define a gathered meeting?
  2. How often do you experience a gathered meeting?
  3. How do you know when a meeting is gathered?
  4. 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.

Back to text

Challenges for Large Quaker Meetings

September 9, 2014 § 5 Comments

I moved to Philadelphia in June and while packing my Quaker library I uncovered a paper I didn’t know I had: The Caring Multitude: Is It Possible? Preliminary Reflections on Experience in a Large Quaker Meeting in an Urban Setting, by Dan Seeger. Dan is a fairly well-known Friend who has held several high-level positions with AFSC and was Executive Director of Pendle Hill for a time, among a number of other significant contributions to Quaker culture. His 1965 case before the US Supreme Court, The United States of America vs Daniel A. Seeger, won the right to conscientious objection to military service for secular people who were not claiming religious grounds for their stand.

The Caring Multitude was written in 1979 and was originally meant “to be shared with a small group of Friends concerned with the life of the Monthly Meeting”. I am not at all sure how I ended up with a copy, which is a photocopy of a typewritten manuscript that has someone else’s notes on it.

In this little talking paper, as he calls it, Dan addresses the challenges that large urban meetings face in three crucial areas: pastoral care, meeting for worship, and corporate social outreach. He makes a lot of really interesting points. More than interesting—they are true, to my mind, and very much worth considering, especially by Friends worshipping in large meetings.

Because I don’t have permission to republish his paper, I don’t feel comfortable even quoting it extensively, which I would like to do, but I do want to raise up some of his ideas and add some of my own, and invite my readers to think about them. They are especially pertinent for Friends in large meetings and for those of us who attend regional and yearly meeting sessions that get large.

What do I mean by “large”? I want to leave this definition to the subjective sense of large, rather than giving a number. I think, when you read further, you will have a sense of what I mean. And anyway, some of these dynamics apply even to smaller meetings.

What it’s like to worship in a “large” meeting?

I agree with Dan’s assessment that our way of silent, waiting worship doesn’t really work in large meetings. That it can’t work, in fact. Here’s why (the core insight here is Dan’s; most of the elaboration is mine):

A certain proportion of Friends are likely to feel a genuine call to speak in meeting. Another proportion are likely to speak with less obvious grounding in the Spirit. The more people in the meeting, the more people are likely to speak. When the population gets to a certain point, you get an awful lot of speaking, and, as Hegel first pointed out, at that point, quantitative change precipitates qualitative change.

First, it tends to induce popcorn speaking, a chain reaction of messages that have been prompted more by each other than by the Holy Spirit. Second, the increased number of messages squeezes the intervals between messages, and this squeezing suppresses the ministry of those Friends who feel it’s important to leave a decent interval between messages and who use that interval to properly attend to each offering. Thus the Friends who are most likely to bring a deeper, more seasoned ministry to the meeting are least likely to finish their seasoning or find an appropriate moment in which to deliver it.

This has several bad effects. First, by denying Friends the time of waiting silence necessary to go deep, we don’t go deep. By denying Friends the vocal ministry of some of its most gifted ministers, we disrespect both the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s servants. And by virtually guaranteeing a certain amount of un-gifted ministry, we degrade the quality of the worship.

Furthermore, the situation reinforces the low standards for both corporate behavior and individual ministry that prevail in such a meeting, encouraging more of the behavior that causes the problem. It gives newcomers a false impression of what meeting for worship is for, and it inevitably drives some of them away. I know this from personal experience: one of my sons stopped attending such a meeting because “the same blowhards rise to speak every meeting”. And it drives away seasoned Friends who want a deeper worship experience; but before they go, it leads them into grief and even despair.

And the whole dynamic is a self-reinforcing downward spiral. The more devoid of Spirit the ministry is,

  • the more likely that gifted ministers will either keep quiet (and bring down the spirit of the worship with their despair), or leave;
  • the less likely that avid Spirit-seekers will stay and join;
  • the more bandwidth the blowhards will occupy; and
  • the more likely that gifted ministers will lower their own standards in desperation, and then get even more depressed because of their own perceived unfaithfulness.

Does any of this make sense to you? Is it your experience? Do you serve on a ministry and worship committee, which is charged with nurturing a deep meeting for worship and with protecting the worship from unworshipful influences? Do you have any idea what to do about these problems?

I hope you respond, and, in my next post, I want to try out some ideas for dealing with these problems. Some come from Dan’s paper, and some are my own.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Outreach, Part I

February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

Vigorous Outreach with the Quaker Message—Who We Are

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? : Bringing people to G*d and bringing G*d into the world.

I have been talking in the last number of posts about the first half of the answer to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friend for?, namely, various aspects of “Bringing people to G*d”. Now we turn to the second half of the answer: “Bringing G*d into the world”. I said at the beginning of the discussion of evangelism that evangelism offered a segue from the first part to the second, because evangelism does both.

From evangelism—bringing people to the Christ / awakening people to the Light within them—it is a short step to outreach, to energetically communicating the Quaker message and advertising our presence, in the knowledge that many people would find their spiritual home among us if only they knew who we are and where we are.

Outreach has three components, as I see it:

  1. the message—who we are;
  2. the medium—where we are, how we make our presence known; and
  3. the welcome—what we do in our meetings to present ourselves effectively and attractively, so that visitors want to come back.

This post is about the message.

The message

Before we reach out, we have to know what we’re going to say. And for God’s sake, it has to be more than “there is that of God in everyone” and our testimonies. The basic questions that visitors are likely to bring to us are:

  1. What do Quakers believe?
  2. What’s with this “silent meeting for worship”? and
  3. Are you going to be friendly, are you going to welcome me?

I have written elsewhere that, in a sense, “what do Quakers believe?” is not quite the right question. “What is your spiritual/religious experience?” is the more important question for us—“what canst thou say?” But inquirers still want to know what we believe and it is a legitimate question, an important question. We have to be able to answer it, confidently, succinctly, and with integrity.

Thus every Friend needs an “elevator speech”, a short, clear, ready-to-go presentation of Quakerism that could lead to a more in-depth conversation if there’s time and interest for it. Furthermore, every meeting needs to be prepared in this way, also. And every meeting needs Friends who know the tradition well enough to start answering the next questions that come up, whatever they are, and to inform the content of the meeting’s outreach efforts (and to teach the tradition in religious education programs).

Here’s my elevator speech. Passages in brackets represent additional material that I might add if I have enough time.

The Light. We believe, because we have experienced it ourselves, 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. There is in everyone a presence that can heal us, that can save us from our demons and relieve us of our inner suffering, that can inspire us to acts of kindness, compassion, and creativity, that can lead us to become the people we were meant to be, and 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 a 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 today. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. Because we experience the Light inwardly, we have laid down many of the outward forms that other religions rely on for communion with God.

[If I just have a little time, I skip the detail about the Light given above and just say: There is a principle in every person, which Friends call the Light of Christ, the Inner Light, the Seed, ‘that of God in everyone’, that can know God directly. Because we experience the Spirit inwardly, we have laid down many of the outward forms that other religions rely on for communion with God.]

The gathered meeting. Moreover, just as each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also the community may be led by that selfsame Holy Spirit. [Ever since the 1650s, when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have known directly and collectively the love and guidance of that same Light and spirit and consciousness of the Christ that dwells within each individual. Therefore, we have no “leaders” over us—we conduct all of our affairs directly under the leadership of the Spirit.]

Continuing revelation. 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 call to change, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, and we have struggled against slavery (though, to our shame, this took a while), even though the Bible seems superficially to condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.]

Let your lives speak. God calls us to live our faith in 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 and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, both as individuals and as a society.

Love. Love is the first motion, the first and last commandment.

Each of these elements can be unpacked to get into our Quaker “distinctives”:

  1. from the Light we can go on to explain openings and leadings, the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, our stand on the sacraments;
  2. from the communal experience of the Spirit we can talk about silent worship, meeting for business in worship and corporate discernment in all its other forms, corporate support of individual ministry, gospel order (Quaker process), our stand on “days and seasons” and other outward liturgical forms;
  3. from continuing revelation we can discuss our relationship with Scripture, our rejection of creeds, the laying down of the outward sacraments, and our experience with new leadings and “the testimonies”;
  4. from the testimonial life we can elaborate on the particular testimonies, our stands of conscience, on ministries of social change and service, and our approach to missions and evangelism.

What is your “elevator speech”? Does your meeting have posters, pamphlets, and people ready that can answer the basic questions of inquirers when they arrive? Does your meeting do anything to project the basic Quaker message beyond its walls? Does your meeting have a website? If so, how does it present the basic Quaker message?

I recommend that every Friend prepare her or his own “elevator speech”, so that when someone asks about us, you are ready with an answer. Just being ready will be impressive; conversely, not being ready might make people wonder.

Likewise, I recommend that every meeting look at its entryway and reevaluate materials that may have been there so long nobody even knows what they are anymore. Posters on the walls, especially: what do they say? Are their messages welcoming? off-putting? full of Quakerese? Would someone new to Friends be able to walk into meeting for worship after looking at your walls and not talking to anyone and know what to expect? And do you have pamphlets in racks waiting for your greeters to put into seekers’ hands? Does your meeting use greeters at all?

But now I am getting into the next post on outreach media—the methods we use to let people know we exist and who we are.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Prayer

December 19, 2013 § 7 Comments

The gift of prayer. 

In my last post about family devotional life, I mentioned prayer, but deferred discussion because it is too big a subject to add to an already long post. And it’s bigger than “family” as a category. As I said then, I believe that a good discussion of prayer will take us to the heart of our religious life.

In his introduction to George Fox’s Journal, William Penn wrote that, as many and as great were Fox’s gifts,

“above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt, or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.”

Today, the gift of prayer—the ability to sweep others in the meeting up into the Presence with the intensity and integrity of our prayer—is almost totally lost among us. At least that’s true of the liberal meetings with which I am acquainted. And I wonder about our programmed meetings. You at least do pray vocally in meeting. But do you program your prayer the way you program everything else? Can programmed prayer dissolve the invisible sheath that holds us away from the presence of G*d? Are those who do feel the spontaneous, spirit-led call to prayer free in that moment to sink to their knees and take the meeting with them?

To whom do we pray? 

Prayer as it is traditionally practiced assumes a Being that is listening, that cares, that answers. That was the assumption behind the practice of prayer in my church and in my family when I was a kid.

However, I suspect that many Friends in the liberal tradition, anyway, just couldn’t with integrity teach their children to pray to a traditionally defined supreme being kind of god. Many of us just do not believe in such a god or have any experience of him (sic). So to whom would we pray?

And if you’re not praying to some entity that could hear your prayer and maybe answer it (or cherish it, if the prayer is not supplicatory), what do you do? I think a lot of us have just stopped praying in the face of this dilemma.

Instead, we “hold in the Light”. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it seems a bit weak. It feels weak to me because it has nothing to do with relationship—it is very abstract. On the other hand, simply addressing a divine being in the traditional way also seems a bit weak. Both do something to align the soul inwardly toward something we’re saying is divine. But both are too often just a vague exercise of the imagination—a form without power.

In my experience, prayer is effective in direct proportion to how focused it is, both in the mind and in the heart. The 19th century Indian master Ramakrishna used to hold his disciples underwater in the Ganges until they were about to drown. Then he would haul them up and say, “As badly as you wanted air just then, that’s how badly you need to want God.”

Well, that’s a bit extreme. But you get the idea.

This gets to the heart of the issue for Liberal Friends: just who—or what—is God for us? What is worship if there is no supreme being, or at least, no distinct identifiable spiritual entity capable of relationship with us? What is prayer without some one to address, rather than some thing—or nothing at all?

My own prayer journey.

My own journey in this area is quite heterodox; but maybe not so uncommon, in its broad strokes.

As I said in my last post, my mother prayed with my brother and me at bedtime when we were little. I wish I remember when she stopped doing that. I do remember that she would ask us to remember to pray during what I guess was a kind of transition stage when we got a little older and she wasn’t doing it with us. The prayer was a stock family favorite that actually made me somewhat nervous: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lord my soul to take.” You can guess the part that caused some anxiety. Also, of course, our family prayed together before every meal, also a stock family favorite: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”

My parents took for granted a traditional theistic God to whom you could pray quite naturally and they believed that he (sic) was paying attention, not just to our prayers, but to everything we did. However, when I went to college during the height of the ‘60s, a bunch of factors combined to undo this simple faith for me. I replaced prayer with meditation, for which I learned several methods, and with other practices that worked better for me than conventional prayer. I still practice them.

And then I reconnected with theism in a new way in a mystical experience in the mid-1980s and I recovered prayer as direct address to an identifiable Spirit (just not the traditional Christian God; I choose to call this being an angel, but that just begs the question of what I mean by “angel”, and that’s a discussion for another time). More recently I find myself praying sometimes to Christ, to what I think of as the Christ-spirit (but that, of course, begs the question of what do I mean by “Christ-spirit”).

The real breakthrough came only last year, in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of New York Yearly Meeting during its Summer Sessions. I finally found the address—the “to whom” that I might pray:
    Our Father who art in Heaven,
    our Mother who art in Earth,
    our Holy Spirit who art in all things living
        and in each one of us,
    we thank you for your transcendental revelations, and
    for your abundant beauty and providence, and
    for your abiding presence and
        the truth that you have awakened within us.
    We ask that you guide our steps and
        illuminate our minds,
    that you sustain and heal our bodies, and
    that you bring our hearts into lasting loving kindness.
    We pray this in the spirit of honest yearning,
    in the confidence of your revealing, and
    with the humble commitment to be faithful to your call.

So my own prayer life keeps evolving.

Recovering the gift of prayer.

From this sometimes intense and unexpected path, I have learned the following: Prayer life evolves. All you have to do is start where you are and practice. And there are ways to focus one’s spiritual attention that are deeply satisfying other than the traditional simple address to a spiritual being. On the other hand (in my experience), “spiritual beings” do exist, Christ included, and spiritual life conducted in the context of relationship with such a being is even more satisfying.

I was going to say here that you can’t just make it up, but upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s true. What I mean is that I believe it can be enough to just start with whatever you can do, practice it, and see where it goes. The sustained inward alignment works like meditation works. At a certain point, a standing wave gets established in your consciousness and you move to a new level; something deeper starts happening. Eventually, you can feel called into prayer, maybe even into relationship.

A multitude of forms await those who seek a vital prayer life, and the key is just to start, however lame it feels, and see what happens.

Finally, as I’ve said in other contexts, I think consciousness is the key. Whatever you do, doing it from a centered consciousness makes it better. It’s not necessary, of course not. But it is better—deeper, more consistent, more rewarding, more fulfilling. So learning a deepening technique and combining it with prayer really helps.

We don’t know whether George Fox used some “technique” or whether Jesus did, to find their center, to find the Presence that dwells there. We like to romanticize such prophetic figures and think of them as utterly self-taught, but that is rarely true. Jesus had John the Baptist; was there some schooling in the spirit done? (Of course, traditional theology holds that Jesus was himself already God, so he was always in the Presence; he was in fact the Presence itself. Yet he still prayed to his Father. A topic for another post.)

However, both men possessed a charism of great depth. Clearly they both lived in the Life in some powerful, natural way. I’m not in their league. I use deepening techniques because they work for me.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spirituality vs Religion

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.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Worship

December 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

A reminder that the original post with the outline of my answers to the question “What is the Religious Society of Friends for?” can be found here.

Note on versions of the survey. After I first published this survey, some Friends with more experience in designing surveys suggested changes and I realized from a comment to this post that I would like to include a section surveying Friends’ own spiritual practice. So I have created a new version of the survey with these changes. But I have not changed the original survey because some people have already been taking it as it was originally published. Here’s the new version of the survey.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for: worship . . .

Give members the experience of direct communion with G*d that is our promise, by fostering deep silence, spirit-prompted vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting.

Many people find that their spiritual lives do not require community. But for Friends, the communal life of the spirit provides an indispensable context for their individual spiritual lives. And for us Quakers, the Quaker way of worship is the bridge between our individual spirituality and our communal religious life.

For, just as the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the soul of personal Quaker spiritual life, the meeting for worship is the very soul of communal Quaker religious life. And in the meeting for worship, the two fulfill each other. The worshippers bring their vocal ministry to the community in the meeting for worship and, when the ministry is deep and spirit-led, it leads the community into the depths of collective communion with G*d.

Thus the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to foster worship “in spirit and in truth”, as the gospel of John puts it. And the purpose of the meeting is to do whatever it can to help its members and attenders find that Well, the wellspring within themselves and the Well at the center of the community’s worship together. The goal of the meeting for worship is to align itself with that Christ-consciousness, to sink into its arms, to rejoice in its embrace, and to follow its truth into peace and reconciliation, into new prophetic revelation, and into the world outside the meetinghouse doors.

Virtually all of us agree, I suspect, about how important the meeting for worship is, both for us as individuals and for the meeting as a whole. Yet I know a lot of Friends who are unsatisfied with at least some aspects of their meeting’s worship, who yearn for more spirit-led vocal ministry, in particular, and for the meeting to be gathered in the Spirit more often. It’s pretty common to hear Friends complain about the quality of their meeting’s worship. So what can we do about it? How do we foster “deep silence, spirit-prompted vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting”?

I’ve written elsewhere about the gathered meeting, how important I think it is, how to nurture it, how it is the fulfillment of the promise of Quakerism: that it is possible to commune collectively and directly with G*d when the meeting is gathered. But the gathered meeting, the deepest communion, does not just happen by itself—well, yes, it can come as unexpected grace. But it depends to a large degree on the depth of the silence and on the quality of the vocal ministry. The gathered meeting is much more likely to occur when the meeting commits itself to providing certain essential forms of support:

  • religious education that teaches the faith and practices of Quaker worship, vocal ministry, and eldering, so that everyone knows what they are doing when they gather to worship;
  • spiritual formation efforts that help the members find the spiritual practices that work for them as individuals, so that everyone knows how to seek the depths in their own way and with confidence; and
  • spiritual nurture efforts that help Friends mature in their practice;
  • a meeting space that is comfortable, welcoming, and conducive to centering;
  • a fellowship that is infused with love and emotional maturity, in great enough measure to transform conflict and to absorb or transform the inevitable occasional disturbances to worship; and
  • elders, Friends who have the spiritual depth, wisdom, and authority to take responsibility for nurturing and protecting the worship.

This last is controversial for some Friends, but I consider it very important.

Every meeting has a committee that is charged with the care and nurture of the meeting for worship and its ministry. Ideally, this committee comprises Friends who know our traditions regarding worship, whose experience of deep silence, spirit-led vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting prepares them to be spiritual nurturers, and who can act to protect and deepen the worship with the full encouragement of the meeting.

But how many meetings have the people they need to fulfill these responsibilities? And how many meetings actually encourage their elders to act on behalf of the worship, to be proactive about deepening it and protecting it?

Virtually every local meeting that I know is rather timid about this, at best. At worst, meetings are actually and actively allergic to any suggestion that something could or should be done proactively to protect or deepen the worship, never mind that someone should act toward these goals. In my experience, very many meetings are more or less paralyzed by a combination of factors and conditions that make action on behalf of deeper worship difficult. These include:

  • diversity of attitudes about proactive attention to worship and vocal ministry, in the meeting at large and also among those serving on the worship committee itself;
  • attachment to the status quo and resistance to change;
  • misplaced fear of leadership;
  • resistance to discipline as somehow unQuakerly;
  • strong personalities, especially when these Friends are either ignorant of or ingore-ant of Quaker tradition, or when they let their past wounds and their current baggage color their behavior;
  • a misplaced fear of hurting Friends’ feelings; and
  • the suppression of ministry, most often directed (in liberal meetings) toward Christians and ministry that is Christ-centered, evangelizing, biblical, or even just theistic; but sometimes also directed toward prophetic witness; ironically, this suppression often manifests as intolerance in the name of tolerance and exclusion on behalf of inclusiveness and diversity, out of a feeling that the ministry being suppressed is itself exclusionary or intolerant.

Also paradoxically and ironically, Friends often resist proactive attempts to protect or deepen the worship and the vocal ministry precisely because they fear that it will suppress the ministry they already have. God forbid that we should suggest that the messages we get are not spirit-led or not spirit-led enough. That would surely shut down those Friends who do speak, if not drive them away, and then where would we be?

It’s a problem. Even if meetings did not have to deal with the paralyzing factors I’ve described above, it would still be hard to know what to do. How do you try to deepen the worship without implying that it’s not deep enough, which seems tantamount to implying that the worshippers are not deep enough? Even though that may be true.

The only people who would want to hear such criticism would be those who desperately yearn for deeper worship, who know that deeper worship depends on them, and who know that they are not, in fact, deep enough, that they do need to dedicate themselves more faithfully to their own devotional practice. Well, that’s my condition, anyway.

The only way forward through these difficulties, it seems to me, is to have some open and frank conversations about our experience of worship, to get a reading on how well the status quo is serving everyone’s spiritual needs, as a prelude to talking about how to improve—or whether we can try to improve it at all.

Because it’s such a sensitive issue, it might work best to conduct an anonymous survey to start with, and commission some group or committee to gather the results and present a report. Ask some pointed questions and find out what the members and attenders actually think about their meeting for worship without putting them at risk.

If a significant portion of Friends are unhappy with the worship, it would be good to know. If they are unhappy, it would be good to know why. It would be good to know how many Friends are willing to tackle the problems, if they exist. And it would be good to know how many Friends are satisfied with the status quo, who don’t think there is a problem to tackle, who would resent any intrusion into a worship that works for them. After learning where we are, maybe we could have a good conversation about what to do next.

To this end, I have devised such a survey. It includes the questions to which I would like to know the answers. Please let me know what you think. Have I missed some questions that you think need to be asked?

I anticipate that even suggesting using such a survey will trigger some of the responses I’ve outlined. It is tantamount to suggesting that there is a problem with the worship, which some Friends are likely to resist. But what if we know that we are not alone in wanting deeper worship, that other people in the meeting feel as we do? Then we know there is, in fact, a problem. So there we are. It’s harder if we think we are virtually alone in our unhappiness. But maybe we aren’t alone? A survey like this is a way to find out.

These are just queries, after all. We use queries all the time to examine the quality of our religious lives. The only difference here is that these are a bit more pointed than the general ones we have in our books of discipline. But they have the same basic purpose.

If you bring this survey to your meeting, would you please let me know how it goes? I also would like to survey my own readers. Would you be willing? You can either download a Word doc of the survey, fill it out, and email it to me at, or you can click here to go to a web page that has a survey form. Filling out and submitting this form sends your answers directly to my database of answers.

And thanks!

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