February 25, 2009

What if Quaker worship came with instructions?

This past First Day, the monthly meeting held an adult education session that was based on earlier work undertaken by a committee. It was a time for us to share with one another ways in which we prepare ourselves for worship.

To help frame the session, a Friend read a few queries that had been printed in the meeting's newsletter:

How do I prepare for Meeting for Worship?

How can I come to MfW better able to worship?

What is the difference between coming to worship on time and coming prepared?

What makes MfW a shared experience rather than a collection of individual meditations?

How can we shorten the time of “settling in” at the start of a Meeting for Worship?

Have you ever considered coming early to MfW and beginning to worship ten minutes before the official start in order to help anchor the silence?
At some point, the conversation shifted when a relatively new attender said, "I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to be doing during worship. Is there something I'm supposed to be doing in order to help me feel that connection that some of you talk about?"

Soon after that remark, another Friend said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, "Well, I grew up Quaker, and no one ever told me what to do. Wouldn't it be amazing if worship came with instructions?"

The danger of having technical instructions

I have to say, at that point, my own fear and worry came up: I worry that having "instructions" amounts to a depending on a formula that then can become rote; that the instructions might force the experience to look, feel, and be a certain way.

From there, I worry that those same instructions would ultimately disconnect us from the thing we are wanting to accomplish: a shared experience of being covered by the Living Presence.

For me, the life, depth, and vibrancy of Quaker worship is about the experience of discovering waiting worship for ourselves, the experience of letting the Spirit work in us directly simply by being present to it.

The hope of having spiritual instruction

Still, at the thought of "instructions," my own mind jumped to George Fox's Epistle X, though the counsel there refers more specifically what to do when one finds oneself in "trouble." It doesn't necessarily speak to how to engage in corporate worship.

I was thankful, then, for the Friend who briefly mentioned Bill Taber's Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, a pamphlet I read long ago and sadly had pushed aside to make room for other Quaker books and pamphlets.

It was about time I pull that out again, and I'm glad I did.

For one thing, on pages 14-16, Bill Taber enumerates a handful of specific ways that "some people, many people, other people" engage in traditional Quaker worship.

He doesn't say that this is a perfect recipe for how to do worship. In fact, he cautions against interpreting it as such:
All of these suggestions make it sound as if we are doing something, as if it all depends on us. While a few of these techniques may be helpful to some people, especially in their early years of attending Quaker meetings, most people eventually come to realize that as we learn to relax our anxiety to do the right thing, and as we learn what it feels like just to be present, then technique becomes far less important than our desire to be fully present. For some experienced Friends... they simply sit down, allow body and mind to be both relaxed and alert, close or relax their eyes; and they are soon there because they have been there so many times already, and because their desire to be there again is so great.
--p. 16
My revisiting this pamphlet sparks a memory: Is Bill Taber the Friend who spoke and/or wrote about how Quakerism is caught and not taught?

It seems that such a concept comes to bear on the thought of "instruction."

A matter of spiritual translation

Revisiting portions of this pamphlet and working on this post reminded me of a very different conversation I had had with another Friend.

She and I were talking recently about how, when I was studying Spanish--probably in high school--the teacher at some point encouraged the class of advanced Spanish students to stop translating in our heads from Spanish to English (and vice versa). Instead, we were to listen to the Spanish entirely.

Not translate.

Just be with it.

In Spanish.

Some part of me knew what the teacher meant by that. I challenged myself to stop pulling apart the Spanish sentences I was hearing, stop thinking word-by-word of what each corresponding word was in English, and stop re-assembling the English word-by-word back into Spanish.

When I was able to let myself accept the Spanish as it came to me, without "figuring it out," I was able to leave behind the anxiety of vocabulary memorization and patterned verb conjugation. I was able to relax into the experience of understanding Spanish in its complete, connected wholeness.

I think it was a similar shift in my participation in worship during my early years among Friends:
At some point, as new Quakers engaging in corporate waiting worship, we come to a point where we stop trying to connect, we stop trying to worship, and we just are.

We relax into the experience of worship in its complete, connected wholeness.

We fall into worship, just like that.
To paraphrase Bill Taber, we can take ourselves "there" because we have been "there" so many times before: "There" with the body in worship. "There" with the Living Presence. "There" in holy communion, with the Spirit, in the Living Stream.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

RESOURCES that offer "instructions" on how to "do" Quakerism

Bill Taber's Four Doors to Meeting for Worship

Lloyd Lee Wilson's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order

Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion

Rex Ambler's A Light to Live By

Michael Birkel's Silence and Witness

Howard Brinton's Guide to Quaker Practice

Tom Gates' Members One of Another

Tom Gates' Opening the Scriptures

Quaker Information Center's resources on worship

February 17, 2009

A changed mind about Godly Play

Over the past few months, beginning sometime in the Fall of 2008, the children who are part of the worship group I attend have been having their own experience with the Spirit, and they have been learning about some of the Biblical and Christian roots of our tradition as they do it.

The five children, ages 3-8 or so, are not being talked at. They are not poring over a Children's Bible. They are not being read to, and they are not being forced to sit in worship. They are not even clamoring to go outside as the weather warms up (if you can call 40-45 degrees "warm").

Each First Day, after spending 10-15 minutes in worship with everyone, they are shepherded to another room by an adult, where they calmly gather and sit on a rug, meeting the gentle gaze of the Friendly storyteller who greets each by name.

They all know what's coming: an important story told in a very simple way that they can understand but which won't require them to answer questions or repeat back anything they've heard.

On the occasions that I'm with the children, I'm there only to be present, to get a feel for what the kids are experiencing. There's no disciplining, no telling a child to stop fussing with her shoelace or to sit up straight. It's a loose environment but not a chaotic one.

These young Quakers clearly want to be there, and after the 15 minute story, illustrated with simple props made out of paper, felt, and wood, the storyteller offers a few questions, which are more like statements or even musings:

I wonder what part of the story you like the best.

I wonder if you've ever experienced anything like what the character in the story did.

I wonder what you wonder about the story.
Maybe one or two kids answer; maybe none do.

At the end of the brief but slow wondering time, the storyteller invites them to pick out some art supplies--I wonder what you will work on today--and start their "work."

They are focused and clearly have gone to some deep and wordless place.

Siblings leave each other alone. No one suggests to anyone what colors to use or what shapes to draw. And everyone's work--their own expression of the story, of the Spirit, of their insides--looks completely different.

There are no copycats, not because they are told not to, but because they have been brought to their own Inward Teacher and are able to stay in touch with that Movement.

Once, when I was the storyteller, they were working so long with the art supplies that I briefly interrupted: I wonder who needs a lot more time to finish up. One of the children's arms shot into the air, a worried look on her face. I just nodded in acknowledgment. A few minutes later, she was done and we gathered together for a snack.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I remember when the First Day School Committee brought the recommendation to the worship group that we invest the time, energy, money, and faith in bringing Godly Play* into the lives of our youngest attenders.

I remember the report included a statement from a parent, worried that the spiritual life of the children needed all of our care, attention, and nurture while they were all still young, lest the time go by and we adults would have provided so little...

I remember the gift we realized we had in our midst, that the childcare provider was also trained in the method and curriculum of Godly Play. We easily approved the recommendation that we draw on her gifts and work with her to give this First Day School program a real chance.

I have seen great and wondrous results of such movement of the Spirit through the use of Godly Play and its Quaker counterpart, Faith & Play. Both can be readily adapted for intergenerational settings, just by adding a few introductory explanations to adults.

At first I was skeptical about having props and objects to tell the stories, given that unprogrammed Quakerism is an apophatic tradition, one based on the stripping away of outward symbols and ritual in order to get to the essential heart of the faith: waiting on God.

But I could not deny that Something Was Happening within each child, and as the weeks have gone by, the parents have been telling a bit of what their children have talked about at home, about their experience of having heard the story on First Day.

And I could not deny that Something Has Happened even to the adults.

During this past week's intergenerational Faith & Play session, we heard a story about our Quaker practice of listening for God and how God touches our hearts in a special way when we worship together. (NOTE: The brief quotes that follow are from that story.)

For those adults who were new to Friends, it was a doorway into learning a bit more about Quakerism and how the Spirit "helps us to know how to love, what to do, and who to be."

For the kids, they had a number of examples of how to listen for God "with our whole selves," how we might experience God, and why waiting worship means so much to us.

For me who has no kids and who has been a part of the lives of these children and their families since the worship group got started, I finally had the opportunity to share in a corporate experience of what the children go through when they have a Godly Play session and come back to the room changed in some mysterious way.

Though using this Montessori-inspired approach to religious education requires training for the storyteller** and some arts-and-crafts sessions to get materials together, the spiritual gifts that my own worship group has received make me a believer.

I have felt myself brought to the Inward Teacher in the same way that a wise word offered by an elder might guide me; and I have witnessed what I believe to be a similar Motion of the Spirit in my fellow worshipers.


UPDATE, thanks to Su and her comment:
The 2009 FGC Gathering includes a week-long workshop on Godly Play. Look at Workshop #20 (2009 roster) for a description; the workshop leader, Michael Gibson, has been one of the co-authors for the Faith & Play materials.

*Unfortunately, I have found that the Godly Play website for the U.S. is nowhere near as inspiring or creative as the curriculum itself, but if you want to read up on Godly Play from a more intellectual perspective, take a look. The U.K.'s website is more engaging, as is the FGC site on Faith & Play, which specifically focuses on Quaker stories and lessons in the manner of Godly Play.

**FGC, in cooperation with Pendle Hill, is offering a weekend teacher's workshop at Pendle Hill, May 15-17, 2009. To download a flyer for Playing in the Light, scroll down towards the bottom of this webpage and click on the link. [NOTE: I imagine the link will not be active or valid after the dates of the workshop.]

February 12, 2009

Progress with the recent survey

First of all, I have more than two dozen Thank Yous to give to the blog readers who have taken the survey about making parts of the Quaker blogosphere available in book form--and the dozens more who have looked at it.

Some initial results

Even though more folks are still filling out the simple 10-question survey, I thought I'd give an update about how things are going with it and some of what's caught my eye thus far.

(I'll likely keep the survey active as long as Survey Monkey allows, but I probably will stop looking at results at the end of the month. After all, I've got to keep things moving!)

For example, there's a really lovely mix of regularly followed blogs that cover the spectrum from evangelical Friends churches to liberal Quaker meetings.

Also, quite a few of the people who have responded to the survey, either in depth or by answering just a few questions, are making themselves available for additional conversation or correspondence with me. I hope to start that follow-up process later this month or in early March.

It looks as though well more than half of the respondents have been following Quaker blogs for longer than two years, which I find very exciting and encouraging! Maybe that result says something about the "staying power" of the conversations we engage in, the yearning some of us have for practicing a rigorous and vibrant faith, and our collective ability to create, sustain, and strengthen the community on- and offline.

Of the various topics that respondents think would be most valuable "when considering the Convergent Friends conversation," these were among the highest ranking ones:

  • Personal story and experience

  • Worship and vocal ministry

  • Centrality of a Divine Principle

  • Corporate vs. individual.

A special invitation to Quaker bloggers

One more thing, especially for past and current Quaker bloggers, that intentionally was left out of the survey:

I would love to know which of your own posts do you continue to think about or return to, either to see what you've said earlier about a certain topic or to link to within comments that you've left elsewhere?

You can email me your thoughts directly, to lizopp AT gmail DOT com. ...How about before March 1st, if deadlines are helpful?

And who knows...? I just might make a personal call to you or send you a message through Facebook or nudge you in some other way to get your input. (If I gave you chocolate or flowers or a gift certificate to QuakerBooks, would that be incentive enough?)


February 5, 2009

What if blog posts were in print...?

NOTE: This is a cross-post from something I put on QuakerQuaker.

In the past few years, Quaker blog writing has made its way into a few Quaker meetings because an interested Friend here or there has printed hard copies of some posts and has offered a discussion group around them.

What if more blog posts were made available in print? What if there were a BOOK of blog posts that a number of us felt were important? What would you like to see in such a publication? Which blog posts do you feel are central to, or otherwise advance the Convergent conversation, the renewal of Quakerism, or both?

The survey takes 10-15 minutes to complete; most of it is multiple choice.

To take the survey, click here.


P.S. I'm wanting to gather input by February 14, 2009--that's around the corner! On the other hand, I have another technique up my sleeve to gather additional ideas. And thanks to the blogger who already responded to my invitation to be a guinea pig!

RELATED POST: I've also written up a brief progress report.

February 3, 2009

Reflections on eldership

This past weekend, I participated in a retreat that focused on eldership within the monthly meeting.

The group all read Margery Larrabee's 2007 pamphlet Spirit-Led Eldering and we had time to share our thoughts about it with one another. We also talked about our own experiences of giving or receiving eldership, what our understanding of eldership is, how it's changed, how other Friends' groups have engaged in it, etc.

Personally, I think there are other writings out there that address eldering and eldership more thoroughly, but Margery's pamphlet is at the very least a piece of contemporary, accessible writing that can get the conversation started.

Quips about eldering

There were a number of statements and reflections shared that held my attention, or things that I offered that others later referred to. Here's a list of those bits and pieces, some of which are touched on in Margery's writing as well.

  • Healthy eldership seems less visible than the admonishing sort of eldership.

  • People who are stung by a Friend's approach make that form of eldership visible, which gives eldering a bad name.

  • Eldering seems to work best when the intention of caring for the well-being of the relationship and for the well-being of the person being approached is made clear.

  • Eldering must be done with care so as not to squash a gift or a prophetic call that a person may be growing into.

  • There is a need for humility and keeping low when we provide eldership.

  • Eldering isn't the same as confrontation.

  • We may not be aware of being eldered when it's done well.

  • Eldering may be done well but it may not be received well.

  • Eldering often happens simply by being available to one another.

  • There are consequences of not eldering, of not setting necessary limits.

  • Eldering can be done either with the intention of caring or from a place of criticizing.

Additional reflections about eldering

In retrospect, I was sad that we didn't take the time to consider eldering in its historical sense, such as how Marshall Massey once addressed the topic. As a Liberal meeting, it seems we are consistently focused on how we do things today and give little attention or little weight to exploring some of the historical grounding of today's practices.

That said, I appreciated hearing from Friends how they themselves have experienced both supportive, encouraging eldership as well as the more painful episodes of being scolded or admonished.

These stories and some of the tangents we took during the weekend raised other questions and helped me consider a few other possibilities about eldering:

  • How does eldering differ from being a busy-body? Are the expectations about how we engage in one another's lives as Quakers different from how we engage in one another's lives in the wider world? How do we make those expectations, about how we "insert" ourselves into one another's lives as part of being a covenant community, more explicit? What if not everyone agrees to such mutual or reciprocal "insertion" into our lives?

  • Discernment is needed when considering what behavior pushes one's individual "button" and what behavior is disruptive to the corporate body and its worship, such that it should be addressed.

  • A committee meeting, business session, or other interaction in Meeting seems to go better when we pay attention to how things are going for everyone involved and for the sense of the Presence, the quality of Love, among us. How can we train ourselves to attend to the needs of the Meeting and to each other? How can we train ourselves to attend to increasing the amount and quality of Love among us?

  • Eldering looks, sounds, and feels different when it is carried out situationally or incidentally as compared to when it is carried out relationally. When we provide eldering in response to a situation or to an incident, the eldering can often be perceived as correction and is often short lived. When we provide eldering as part of an ongoing relationship, the eldering can be perceived as both challenging and supportive, nurturing and a calling-out. Is there a way to make more visible these ongoing relational forms of eldership?

  • There is a creative tension between the eldering function that speaks to protecting the traditions and practices of historical Quakerism and the inbreaking and testing of new Light as the result of continuing revelation. But if this part of the eldering function is completely dismissed "because we don't live as early Friends did and that was then, this is now," then how do we hold ourselves responsible for considering if there is new Light that is being offered and not just engaging in our "business as usual" and enjoying our own best thinking?

Most surprising

The most surprising moment of the weekend for me was when I paraphrased a few statements that Margery had made. I asked how others responded to her assertion that elders help Friends grow into a greater measure of faithfulness and help Friends come into "alignment with the Spirit out of which good order comes." (p. 31)

To my surprise, a couple of Friends spoke about their concern of how presumptuous that statement was, that anyone could judge another's measure of faithfulness.

I don't know why I should be surprised, given my history within the meeting and my Conservative bent to understanding certain Quaker principles. But I was also surprised and saddened that others remained silent: As Friends, aren't we advised to help one another "mind the Light" and "stay close to the Root"?

One last thought

While finishing up this post, I pulled out a pamphlet by Bill and Fran Taber, Building the Life of the Meeting. In it, they have a few pages dedicated to eldership and the spiritual nurture of the meeting. Here's an excerpt:
First I want to hold up the least visible part of the work of nurturing the faith. This is the work traditionally given to elders... [This] work is less conspicuous and less easy to define; perhaps this is one reason we have had trouble knowing what it is and how to go about it or how to grow it...

We need such persons in our meetings, persons who have "the wisdom born of long experience as focused by the heart's love..."
pp. 13, 14
Yes, I think to myself: Love is the first motion. Keep low and love; keep low and love.


NOTE: An earlier post, Eldering Then and Now, includes a number of links to posts written by other bloggers.