Thursday, September 23, 2010

How I Ended Up Leading a Semi-Programmed Worship

Atlanta Friends Meeting started a mid-week worship late last year, and as part of it, every month or so, we have a semi-programmed worship. When it was brought to the Ministry and Worship committee, I had some objections. I felt that we had some difficulties with unprogrammed worship, and I doubted that a semi-programmed worship would get the intentionality to the Spirit that it requires. And to be honest, I had some prejudices against it, as being inferior to unprogrammed worship.

While I didn't particularly approve of the semi-programmed worship, I didn't feel strongly enough to stand in the way. I decided instead just not to go. That didn't last, however. Ceal volunteered to do a reading for the first one, and since I was leaving for School of the Spirit the next day, I didn't want to be apart from her that evening, so I went. I didn't enjoy it. As I look back on it, I think my negative attitude towards it really colored my perception and got in the way. I brought this difficulty to my Koinoneia Group at School of the Spirit, and they helped me try looking at things a little more broadly.

Over the summer, I led the bible study at North Carolina Yearly Meeting - Conservative, and it was really wonderful. It felt very Spirit-led, in a deeper way than I have experienced in leading workshops.

I also found myself reading the bible much more often. I spent a lot of time reading Paul - over and over. I found many challenges - passages confronting ideas I held, and also finding the Spirit rising within me, and often filling me with a feeling of the need to preach the gospel (to bring the "power of God" to people).

I began to wrestle with my opinion of semi-programmed worship, in light of my experience with leading the bible study, and began to question my feelings that a semi-programmed worship was less Spirit-led. I eventually came to the point where I volunteered to actually lead one of the semi-programmed worships. I came to think of it as more of a talk followed by open worship. I still maintain the importance of unprogrammed worship, and our listening to God speak to and through us. But I am also seeing gifts I have in speaking and teaching that can be manifested outside of an unprogrammed worship.

At my fifth School of the Spirit residency, I managed to get some time to talk with Frank Massey, who is now a pastor for Jamestown Friends Meeting. I wanted to understand how he and his meeting work to follow the leadings of the Spirit. We had some discussion about preparation for speaking, and also some discussion about my thoughts on evangelism. Frank also recommended, wisely, that I not do an "altar call". (No, I wasn't considering it). When I asked about writing out the whole sermon ahead of time, Frank told me that because he has a lot to do when he gets to the meetinghouse, he typically needs to have it written down, although he still listens to what God wants him to do or say.

When it came to planning, I wanted to be open. I asked Ceal to help in the discernment of any music or readings. Nothing arose for us music-wise, but Ceal felt that the 23rd Psalm from the New Jerusalem Bible would be good. We opened with some period of silence, then Ceal read the psalm, then more silence, then I spoke, then we had about 30 minutes of open worship. No one spoke in the open worship and it felt very deep. I will continue to discern whether I am led to do another one.

Here is the text as I had it written out, I did add some bits as I spoke, but not much:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matt 11:28-30 (NRSV)

We often think of Jesus as a teacher, and we focus on his wise sayings and parables. But there are other times when he speaks for God, and tells us about our relationship with God, and I believe this is one of those passages.

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens
I have read different interpretations about what burdens Jesus might have been referring to here. Some people think that it refers to the burden of the Law and the weight of keeping all the rules and commandments. Others think that it referred to the rule of the Roman government. That would also fit with the image of the yoke, which was often associated with governments.

There is a timelessness to this passage, though. It speaks to people in every age, because we are always carrying burdens.

So, what are our burdens today? What wearies us?

I find our modern culture to be a great source of weariness. Our senses are constantly bombarded by sights and sounds, by ideas, stories, tragedies, bickering. Even in those times when we can keep ourselves afloat in this stream of senses, we find burdens in the state of our world - with the great disparity between rich and poor, the way our planet is abused, the way others suffer while we live comfortably.

Of course we have everyday burdens, too, that are a part of living in a human community. Emotional burdens, physical burdens, obligations.

I will give you rest
God, speaking through Jesus here, is offering us rest from those burdens. One of the things that is most important to me about the Quaker life is that we are all about experiencing God every day, in practical ways. So, if we say "God will give you rest", it is something real that we can experience.

One afternoon this past summer, I found myself feeling worn down. I started to do what I usually do when I feel that way, which is to flop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and turn off my brain. But it occurred to me that day that I should try "resting in the Lord". Instead of turning on the TV, or surfing the Internet, I just sat quietly. I realized later that that this was a way of trusting God that I had not been willing to do before.

We can also find rest by entrusting our worries and burdens to God. For me, this feels almost like a physical process. It is as if I can feel myself releasing things that I am holding on to, and instead grasping towards God. One of the things we encounter in our silent waiting upon God is a welling up of love and peace, and it is something that can make our burdens feel lighter. It is as if, as the Spirit rises within us, our burdens begin to float. They don't necessarily float away, but we find they become lighter.

The burden of concern for our world, and the people in it, seems to be particularly heavy for Friends. I wonder, though, if we believe that God wants to heal the world, and will guide us in what needs to be done, can we not find some relief from these burdens by trusting in that guidance?

Take my yoke
Most of us being city folk, we don't have much experience these days with yokes, or farm animals. The yoke is something that is fitted around the necks of a pair of animals to allow them to share a load. Jesus is talking about sharing the load with us -- that God doesn't want us to work alone. I believe that being yoked with God means that we are constantly operating under the guidance of that Spirit within us.

Yokes are typically fitted, so that they don't chafe or injure the animal, and make it easier for the animal to do its work. I believe that for us, our yoke fits when we do the things that the Spirit is calling us to do. When we wear another's yoke, it may not fit us as well, it may chafe, it may wear us down. Paul writes about the Body of Christ, and how each member has a specific purpose. Not everyone can be the eye, or the ear. Everyone has a specific purpose, and none is more important than any other. I think this is another way of saying that each of us has a yoke fitted especially for us.

Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart
Part of taking on this yoke is to learn gentleness and humility. To work with our yoke, we must be sensitive to where God wants us to go, and not insist on our own way. We must also do our work in a gentle way, not trampling and pushing in a particular direction.

My yoke is easy and my burden light
It can be difficult living the life we are called to live in our present day. Many of us have had experiences of work that we felt was necessary, but felt extra burdensome. For me, one of those experiences was in doing prison visitation. In the last few months, I have realized that it was a burden I could no longer carry, that the yoke was not fitted properly. There are other things, though, that may require much work, but feel so natural that we might not notice how much work it is. Working with the teens for the past seven years has not seemed so burdensome. Yes, it can be tiring, but not wearying.

When we are properly yoked, God lays on us burdens that we can handle. And God, being yoked together with us, helps us carry that load.

Come to me
This passage started with the words "Come to me". When I was a teenager, our youth choir sang a song taken from this passage. The song started and ended with "Come to me".

This passage starts with us coming to God, to learn how to listen, and to become yoked to God with a yoke that is specially fitted for us. We come to God to do the work, and when the work is done, we come to God to rest.

No complications. Just a simple "Come to me".

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Onward Christian Soldiers

As I mentioned before, I led the bible study at the NCYM-C annual sessions this year, on the topic of the spiritual armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20).

When I first brought this topic to my care committee, one member had some reservations. This person felt that the somewhat romanticized image of a soldier was no longer useful for comparison in an age of drones, smart bombs, and what Roger Waters calls "the bravery of being out of range". While I had it in my notes to invite Friends to consider whether the images Paul presents are still applicable, I never felt a time during the bible study where we should discuss it.

On my drive back from School of the Spirit, down I-85 from Durham to Atlanta, I noticed a billboard for the U.S. Marine Corps, featuring a picture of a soldier and the message "Dedicated to a Life of Honor." It came to me that I thought that it was an apt description of the Christian life, at least if by "honor" we mean "integrity". As I continued my drive, I saw two other variations on this billboard. One read "Devoted to a Life of Courage", and "Committed to Something Greater Than Themselves". These two reinforced the image I was getting of the Christian Soldier. Perhaps it isn't the hardware that makes the image work in our time, but rather the image of total devotion to that Spirit within us, calling us to a life of integrity, and to a life that confronts evil (spiritual forces, not flesh and blood) in ways that require great courage.