Saturday, December 03, 2005

An Incident At Meeting for Worship

Something occurred at 15th Street Meeting last Sunday that I would like to take note of, not because it was especially remarkable, but because it may be a small sign of something that has shifted in the Religious Society of Friends over the last few decades.

The Meeting seemed to me a very deep and peaceful one. There were four messages: One was from a young woman who spoke, among other things, about the importance of being open to 'the other', two were about Jesus and the kind of life He calls us to, and one was more generally about peace.

After Meeting, a visiting Friend from England came up to see me. He may have spoken to me because I was one of those to give ministry, or perhaps because I also made the announcements after Meeting on behalf of the Ministry and Worship Committee. He was very polite and civil and even deferential, and he asked me if it was OK if he said something critical. Of course I said that it was. He then suggested, rather gingerly, that he thought it was better not to give messages about Jesus in Meeting for Worship. He said that he thought that Quakerism ought to be "spirit-centered not Christ-centered." I replied that I personally wouldn't want to drive a wedge between "the spirit" and Christ.

He said that it was too bad all of the ministry that day came from middle-aged men (acknowledging himself to also be in that category). I reminded him that one had come from a young woman.

He said he had "heard" (I didnt' ask him where) that ministry in 15th Street had become increasingly Christ-centered and he was sorry to see that it was so. I wish I had mentioned that if he had come on a different week he might have heard a more pantheistic message or a message about divine femininity but I didn't have the presence of mind. I also didn't mention that only two of the four messages concerned Jesus explicitly (I think he had the impression that all of them did, which would have come as quite a surprise to at least one of the speakers).

What is the "shift" I referred to above? Twenty years ago, if someone had come up to me to suggest toning down the Jesus talk I think I might have felt very intimidated. This kind of advice might well have come from some of the elders of the meeting and it probably would not have been at all hesitant in tone, but very confident. The Christian understanding of what Quakerism is was very much on the defensive in liberal unprogrammed meetings.

Even without private feedback after Meeting in those days, any message about Jesus would almost automatically have been followed during the Meeting itself by a "balancing" message emphasizing our creedlessness just so no one would get the "wrong" idea. Today it has seemingly become a normal occurrence to mention Christ in Meeting. I think that's a wonderful development.

At the same time, I am sorry that our visiting Friend felt uncomfortable. I know how lonely it can feel when the Religious Society one loves comes to feel inhospitable for one's preferred way of expressing one's faith. I hope that 15th Street Meeting is not nearly as inhospitable to non-Christian spirituality as he seemed to fear. I think that if he attended regularly he would find Friends willing to listen to any ministry that seems guided by the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether they find it to be theologically impeccable.

I wonder if Friends in other meetings have any comparable experiences?

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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14 Comments:

Blogger Lorcan said...

Amazing how some people hear with their own light, eh? I am sure I am the one Richard says would be surprised, who gave a message... and I AM! I am a "Christian" as concervative Hicksites are, but certainly not "Jesus centric..." I suppose you would say. If I remember right, I was also quoting the Gosple of St. Thomas... not very mainstream in many circles... but in fact, I was impressed at the unity in messages from Friends who translate that same small voice in all of us, often, differently. My my my.

Important, however Friends. Please go to my blog (click on the blue letters my name is headed with) and read the post by Chuck Fager, a friend of Tom Fox, the Quaker who needs our help at once.
Richard, I hope you will excuse the thread drift in the face of this terrible emergency.
Please Friends, do what you can to save our Friends in the CPT in Iraq.

Thyne
lor

9:12 PM, December 03, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Lorcan's "thread drift" is welcome. The letter from Chuck Fager that he directs you to will in turn direct you to http://www.freethecaptivesnow.org
which I have already mentioned in a previous post and which I very warml endorse.

9:29 AM, December 04, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:50 AM, December 04, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Larry posted the following to my nearly defunct blog "Broolyn Quaker's Reading Log". Since his original intent was to post it here, I've taken the liberty of copying it over for him.
(By the way, I wonder if others have been having problems with the word verification feature?)
- - Rich

Rich, I tried to post this comment on your other blog, but the word verification procedure seemed to be hung up:

Rich, I could write volumes about that, but I will content myself with one experience, fairly early in Quaker career, let's say about 1985:

There was a large gathering at the meeting for worship at the Annual Baltimore Meeting: the house was filled with many in the balconies.

A young woman rose and made a simple witness about her love for Jesus. Almost immediately an elderly man in the balcony rose to say something like "I wish you hadn't said that... I know it's just a difference of semantics, etc. etc."

I felt so offended. After the meeting I found the young woman and told her how glad I was hear the name of the Lord raised in a Quaker meeting, and got a hug for that.

Strange, but I become much more evangelical as a Quaker than I had been for years as a professional religionist.

10:04 AM, December 04, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Folks... the word verification issue was common for most of yesterday on all blogs. smenita ... same word on all, and it would not let thee post. Seems to be cleared. I had a wonderful talk today with Chuck Fager's daughter on a similar topic - Quaker Christianity and the uniqueness of our universalism as openess to God in others... she going to be quite a light in our community.

My letter was published in Al Jazeera today... let's pray something somewhere helps.
Thyne
lor

8:19 PM, December 04, 2005  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Rich,
Very telling that the visitor had completely tuned out a young female voice in ministry... Along with non-Christian messages were given.

Somewhere along the line, I've read advice for traveling ministers not to seek any information about a meeting they're traveling to, so they are able to see it with open hearts. I would hazard a good guess that any ministry you gave would have been simultaneously spirit- and Christ-centered. Interesting story, certainly, a good caution against pre-judgements, whichever ones we bring to worship.
In Friendship, Martin the Quaker Ranter

9:09 PM, December 04, 2005  
Blogger Contemplative Activist said...

How strange - my impression of 15th street was that it was rather "un-Jesusy" for the most part - not in a good way or a bad way - just that there was certainly a mix of people who drew a great deal of wisdom from the life & teachings of Jesus and others who didn't.

Ah well - listen with an open heart I guess :)

CA

7:05 AM, December 05, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to all for their comments.

It feels as if the "point" of this story - as I perceived it - is not quite the same as what others are highlighting. What I thought was most striking about our visitor's comment is not what he said but that the point of view he expressed is now pretty unusual. It is not very common in our meetings today, as it appeared to me to be 20 or 30 years ago, to be distressed by messages about Jesus.

The visiting Friend thought there was more Christ-centered ministry than there really was. But he is probably right that there is more such ministry today than there would have been in much of the twentieth century.

That, at least, is my perception. Have other Friends noticed this change?
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

11:19 AM, December 05, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's further evidence of the broken-ness of the world that Friends would put down an expression of Christian faith.

But the fellow you describe was evidently, himself, broken by some prior encounter with an abuse of Christ's message; and he had enough awareness to see Christ being used as a weapon of oppression all around him, today.

As long Jesus is used by some as a weapon, Friends who express their faith in similar terms will always encounter resistance.

-- Mitch

11:55 AM, December 05, 2005  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

The very first time I ever spoke during worship in a British meeting, I expressed frustration at my frequent experiences in the USA (mid-1970's) of being chewed out in one meeting for being too Christian and in another meeting for being too inclusive.

The next person who spoke seemed to be a weighty ancient (probably about my current age!!). He said, "Welcome to Friends. You're in just the right place."

I still remember how healing it was to hear that. I choose not to interpret it that we always have to give hyper-balanced and nuanced ministry. I hope my relationship with Jesus isn't "nuanced." But in the context of this posting, that old memory reminds me that our public communication of faith takes place ideally in the context of dialogue, in which we take the time to understand the perspective of other participants; in other words, first and foremost, we listen.

PS: Yes, yesterday's "word verification" facility was messed up. Even today, I'm finding that I sometimes have to go through it twice to post.

PS #2: Somehow, everything we do these days has the four CPT captives in the background. "Pray without ceasing."

2:01 PM, December 05, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

I don't think there is more or less in the way of messages today... one reads in the 1830s of husband and wife teams where the wife on the elders bench would time her break of the meeting to give her husband the last word... interminable meetings, I remember as a young fellow, the downstairs meeting, the predicessor of the 9:30 meeting was started to be a silent ... completly silent... don't you dare speak... meeting. Things stay pretty much the same, and we keep moving towards something... keep moving and be happy folks.
Cheers, thyne
lor

4:36 PM, December 05, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Welcome to Johan Maurer. I don't think Johan has commented on Brooklyn Quaker before. I heard Johan speak at New York Yearly Meeting some years ago and was very favorably impressed with his message.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

5:54 PM, December 05, 2005  
Blogger Paul L said...

Rich -- I don't know that our meetings have changed all that much, but it sounds like you have. And good for you.

When I hear about people like the British Friend who spoke to you, I sometimes feel that they are like unmarried persons who don't understand why others get married and adore their spouse. They seem to make a virture of non-commitment in the name of what Samuel Caldwell has called psuedo-universalism. "Your love life should be woman centered, not Marybeth centered," they might say to me.

It's like they've arisen above it all to see that we are all one, that every god is as good as any other god and can't we see that, too? They are thus flabbergasted (or frustrated) by people who have come back from that lofty sense of detached bliss and plunged right into the fray, making and keeping commitments to spouse, church, community, vocation.

I'm glad you were able to receive his criticism with love and forebearance. And that you have a place like this blog where you can share the experience with others who may understand.

4:08 PM, December 07, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Paul:

The funny thing is that a few had gotten together a few years back, and dicussed not trying to convince each other in messages. That, if we find a message seeks to teach the others in the meeting about our Quaker tradition in expressing God, rather than the message in that still small voice, which does not divide the meeting, but unites us in the unity underpinning our words... that should be a clue in our discerment.

Also, I apreciate your approval of the way Richard accepted the comment... however I should tell you... Richard knocked him down and pinned his arm behind his back until he yelled uncle.

only kidding...

:)
lor

8:39 AM, December 08, 2005  

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