February 10, 2011

Other tidbits and reflections from Margery Post Abbott workshop

In many ways, this post is a continuation of my previous post, about the workshop on Taking up the Cross, offered by Margery Post Abbott. I'm not sure how organized I'll make these pieces, but I believe they are worth sharing, even if rough form.

What is it to be a Friend?

This question is what Marge started us with, speaking out of the opening worship. Here is some of what she offered, to set the tone:

1. It involves an attitude of waiting and attending: This form of waiting is waiting for something to happen, as well as being ready to serve, as in waiting tables.

2. To know Christ inwardly, we need to take up the Cross and live into the Kingdom of God.

3. We seek the Truth by turning inward: By engaging in times of retirement as individuals, and by engaging in times of worship as a community.

When these three things happen, they can build a broken and tender community that will allow for the in-breaking of the Spirit.

Love... and the paradox of the Cross

Within the Cross is an intersection of horrible suffering and infinite love. Marge's companion in ministry, Ken Jacobsen, spent some time talking about Love and its relationship with the Cross:

The Cross is the consequence of taking up the way of Love.
I took this to mean that when we take up the Cross, we are tested to love one another beyond what we ever believed we would be asked to do. At one point, Ken added this:
Love may lead us into some horrible places, but that same Love will also sustain us and lift us up.
Later, the group returned to the theme of love and noted a few other things:
  • The fact that we try to love brings us closer to doing just that.
  • When something rises up in us to resist the Love that is offered, and because God is Love, we must be willing to lay aside our ego and instead follow God's will.
  • Love is transcendent. Even death cannot stop Love's transcendent nature, and the Love of those who have passed away can reach across death's threshold and be among us.

Taking up the Cross and our relationship with God

At one point, someone raised the question, "What's the difference between having a relationship with God and taking up the Cross?" My own reflections in response to that question are these:
  • There are lots of different ways to be in relationship with God. Taking up the Cross is a specific experience that we hadn't expected or, for many of us, hadn't been told about and certainly don't ask for.
  • The experience of being pierced by the Light might also be connected with taking up the Cross. It's not about being shown something that we hadn't been ready to see or know before: It's more about recognizing that to deny God's call brings us more pain than being faithful to the call itself.
  • When we take up the Cross, we rely more heavily on the Guide to lead us through the difficulty. It may be days, weeks, or years later before we can understand what that trial was about, but if we have carried it out in love and humility, knowing we have been faithful despite the burning pain, our relationship with God will have been deepened.

The Cross as symbol?

At one point later in the day, a Friend challenged all of us to consider that the Cross is a symbol and that "Quakers don't do symbols."

It's true that unprogrammed Friends engage in a form of worship that focuses on the stripping away of outward symbols. We don't establish alters, use incense, ring bells, or even sing hymns to prepare ourselves. Rather, we are to leave the matters of the world behind as we approach our place of worship, opening our hearts and minds to the Spirit.

The danger of having outward symbols is that a symbol and even the story around it can become an idol, and we can mistakenly begin to worship the symbol rather than the Living Presence to which that symbol points.

It's often hard for me in the moment to find the words I want to say, but reflecting on this piece brings me back to this element of Quakerism:
    Quakers embody and internalize all sorts of outward symbols inwardly.
There is the element of communion, when we are gathered together in the Spirit. ...The experience of baptism, when we feel anointed and blessed by the Holy. ...And the symbol of the Light itself, which is described in detail--not to encourage idolatry of it but to help us understand how it functions as a Living and Loving Principle.

The Christian story and the Quaker tradition

During the workshop, we were reminded that even Christ wasn't an outward symbol for early Friends. They believed and experienced the Living Christ as real and immediate.

For all of our wrestling with our modern version of Quaker tradition, theology, and spirituality, I think it was Marge who made this point:
Early Friends didn't have a tradition to wrestle with! But modern Friends wrestle with what we understand to be the Quaker tradition.
Early Friends encountered the Christian story in a new way, forgoing both the established tradition and the recognized authority--the Church--of their time.

Today's Friends also wrestle with what we perceive to be authority, establishment, and tradition. We don't care for being put into boxes or identified by labels, let alone being told what to do and how to do it. Maybe it's because so many Quakers are White or because we are American or because we are primarily middle class that we have to take something that is given to us and re-make it, rejecting and casting out some elements while reshaping and even elaborating on others.

But I unite with what Ken Jacobsen stated, and I'm paraphrasing here: To retain its vitality, the Quaker tradition must be transformed into our lives.


P.S. I hope to wind up this series of posts with a shorter one about spiritual accompaniment and the joy that comes from faithfulness.



My own reflection on Taking up the Cross
Some thoughts about spiritual accompaniment and joy out of faithfulness


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. One of your observations reminds me of a concern I've had about our Society, particularly its unprogrammed branches. You mention that the first generation of Friends did not have a tradition to wrestle with; instead, they had a set of shared experiences of the Holy Spirit. Lately, I find myself envying them for this reason. I wonder if some Quaker habits and folkways have ossified over the centuries into a series of forms and rituals offering the merely the gratification of group identity. As I've been thinking about this I've been reading around in the writings of Joseph John Gurney (someone typically maligned by unprogrammed Friends), and I've found myself very sympathetic to what I think is his vision of Quakerism, which he held to be (and I'm working from memory here) "not the system so elaborately wrought by Barclay . . . but the religion of the New Testament, without compromise." He of course received a lot of criticism for saying things like this, but I wonder how much of it was unfair. Early Friends did not have our allergy to the New Testament and felt that all of their doctrine had its support. I thus find it odd that, in most theological conversations I've had with Friends, our instinct is sometimes to justify our conclusions from Fox rather than the text he would have regarded as supremely authoritative in matters of the Spirit even if it was not in any way a substitute for the inward work of the Spirit. Are we getting our priorities mixed up? (I know some would say that this happened years ago with the Hicksite movement, but there are plenty of people who attend Liberal meetings but consider themselves outwardly Christian, and for them this might very well be a pertinent question.)

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Some nice reflections here. I personally appreciated the observation that “The fact that we try to love brings us closer to doing just that.” This is at odds with the theology of quietism that dominated Quakerism so long — but I happen to believe it is true.

On the other hand, one quarrel: “Quakers don’t do symbols”? What about the Lamb’s War, that image so beloved of early Friends? Is the person you quote saying that this was a literal lamb? A literal war?

(See the cat? See the cradle?)

Anonymous said...

I was wondering in what way the observation "The fact that we try to love brings us closer to doing just that" would conflict with quietism. I find no contradiction between the two as I understand them.

I was just discussing symbols the other day and the fact that the day I became Christian I began to wear a cross. I found myself led to that, or that my impetus to do so was accepted. I fully recognize that Friends don't as a group wear them or encourage them. I also realize though, that early Friends were implicitly Christian in an explicitly (if even only nominally) Christian environment. There was no need or usefulness to them in wearing a cross or using any Christian symbols.

Today I find my experience is very different. I find myself a new Christian among Quakers who are frequently anti-Christian (at least in my area) and in a secular and often anti-Christian environment. For me to wear the cross publicly was in many ways to also "bear the cross".

I cannot say that I will wear it forever or always. At some point I may no longer feel a need or be led to lay it aside. If it proves to be a hindrance or distraction it will go. Certainly I don't attribute to it any powers or that it somehow makes or proves me a Christian (or a better one). I know too many unrepentantly sinning cross-wearers to ever think that.

Having visited an unprogrammed Meeting where there was constant scrutiny and worry "lest we fall into rituals" I can state that the avoidance of icons and ritual can itself become a distraction, an icon or even an idol.