Prayer: Notes for a meeting workshop

A few years ago, Dover Quarterly Meeting focused its program on nurturing prayer in our meetings. I prepared this simple guide for the meeting’s use, and it still may be serviceable for a meeting or fellowship group. It is intended to take about one and a half hours, total;  a leader  gives the introduction, and then moderates the 1-hour exercise, keeping the time, and helping Friends keep on track.  Don’t worry that much will be left undone — it is designed to leave participants wanting to go deeper!  It is very flexible:  If you use it, or adapt it, let me know!
— brian

 

Considering prayer together: starting the conversation

A. Introduction and preparatory exercise

 1.  We have expressed an interest in considering prayer together. There are many ways of approaching this topic, and all these approaches have been used over centuries. Therefore, there is nothing new to say — except in answering the question, How does this matter to me, and to my community, in this hour, this time of life, this age of the world?

2. Let us stipulate from the outset that, while some of us are more comfortable with prayer than others, and some have lives more saturated by prayer than others, yet standing as we do on the shores of mystery, and always facing a moment we have never inhabited before, we are all beginners. Experience helps, very much so; but the life we seek to encourage in ourselves and others is very tender and vulnerable, and can be found in unexpected times and places. So we need to learn from each other’s stories.

3. It is important to take seriously, from the beginning, that prayer is not primarily a thing to talk about, but to do. Therefore, in our time together, we should actually do some praying. We can structure some of this, but each of us should be on the lookout for the moment when prayer seizes us, provides us an opportunity — perhaps private, perhaps shared

4. One other postulate: the quality, or shall we say, health, of my prayer life is linked to that of my community. It is not that if I pray well, my community will necessarily do so, or vice versa. Yet the more of us in a community that have a healthy prayer life, the more resources the community has as it faces change, uncertainty, opportunity, or conflict. Moreover, a community in which prayer is active and open can do more for the seeking and praying individual than a community in which the inward life is covered or weak.

5. Prayer and its cultivation require us to be honest: about what we desire, what we can do, what we actually do or have done, what we can’t do or think. The only requirement is a positive response to the great, simple invitation that Christ has issued: Follow me. Come and see. Walk in the Light, which is perilous, unpredictable, and streams with utter reliability from a source of love and truth. To love God with all our faculties is our only commandment, which is inseparable from loving others. Find out what this might mean.

6. Try these on, and see how you respond — and think it possible your answer needs further inquiry:

Prayer for me is:

comfort
rest
heightened attention
a test

often or always interrupted

inward research

a way to see others

a habit

impossible

a way to remember joy

unfamiliar

uninteresting

a goal hard to come at

easy

 

  1. Prayer and the community, part 1. We often do not know if people in our meeting (or even our family) have any kind of prayer life, or what kind it is. It is hard to talk about; and then sometimes it is too easily discussed. It takes care and tenderness to speak from experience, with tenderness, and without posturing high or low. But it requires being, for the moment, available to simplicity.
  2. Prayer and the community, part 2. Prayer is hard to talk about in community, we may feel reluctant, because the conversation may reveal surprising differences or doubts present within or among us. Then we need to remember that prayer works best in honesty and charity: speaking reverently and matter-of-factly about doubt, anger, confusion, or dryness brings these or any other issue in to the right atmosphere for response: holding it in the Light.
  3. Prayer and the community, part 3. How shall we get to the place where we can actually know ourselves to pray in within our community — secretely, or small groups together, or during worship, vocally and silently? We need patience, freedom from fear, mercy, kindness, and the spirit of forgiveness and forgivenness: so we always are in need of some transforming.
  4. Pray as you can, how you can. We are tool-using creatures, so we often need (or benefit from) external means to support inward experience. Recognizing these two truths, one sees that prayer can be scaffolded by many means, including words, but not confined to them. Work, music, location, visual cues, physical activity, sitting posture, words — all of these can help us move towards, or maintain, the inward work. Wordless contemplation, the sheer practice of the Presence, may not be the highest path, though for some it is the sweetest.

Finally, though, these things serve just to help us come to the place from which prayer arises: every act of prayer is an act of seeking. Prayer comes to us, comes to meet us as we seek it, because it arises from God’s seeking us as we seek God, the double search. Prayer is a gift, not an accomplishment.

 

B. A 1-hour activity on prayer

  1. Settle into silence. Move towards prayerfulness (however you understand that), and call to mind how you pray and don’t. What helps do you use? What hinders prayer for you? (± 5 min)
  2. Briefly describe this to one or more persons sitting near you, and after a space, listen carefully to their description(s). Pause. When you tell about your experience, how does it make you feel? When you hear another’s, how does it make you feel? What questions arise now?  (±15 min.)
  3. Center again.  Out of the silence, tell your companion(s) what evidence you have about the prayer life in your meeting (in worship, at meeting activities, in homes, or in private).   Do people talk about it, refer to it, read about it, call each other to it, do it visibly? (± 15 min.)
  4. Reflect and discuss:  Is there anyone in your meeting concerned to encourage prayer? How do they do it?
  5. What could be helped in your meeting by a strengthened prayer life?
  6. (last 10 minutes) During the closing silence, ask: what might be a next step for myself? What might I try to encourage in my meeting? How might other meetings, or other Friends, help me or us move forward? Keep it simple, and keep it sweet. If you feel free to, put it into words to the rest of the group, and make yourself accountable for the next little step.

 

A few items to read and discuss as part of further work. 

Heard, Gerald. Ten questions on prayer. PHP 58

Hole, Helen. Prayer, the cornerstone PHP 123

Penington, Isaac. Letters.

Snell, Beatrice S. A joint and visible fellowship. PHP 140

Steere, Douglas: Dimensions of prayer.

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Library: Penn’s “Rise and Progress”

Here is another Library installment: Penn’s Rise and Progress.
Originally written as an introduction to Fox’s Journal, this essay has been reprinted many times since the 1690s as a separate booklet. In recent years, Friends United Press has kept some version of it in print (my own copy is pretty beat up by now), but FUP’s website is under construction or inoperative.  Print on demand copies are also available.  I’ve added a public domain copy of the text to my library for your use.

There are three reasons that, in my opinion, make this text worth reading for just about any Friend.

First, of course, is the affectionate and lively portrait Penn gives of George Fox.  As historians (such as Larry Ingle) make clear, there are many reasons to criticize Fox, and be skeptical of his version of some events.  However, he was beloved by many in his day, and had a tremendous impact on his time.  Penn, a younger man, from a higher class and more education, give us a glimpse of what made him so appealing, and so inspiring to many of his contemporaries.

Second, Penn’s is an account of the Quaker movement as he experienced it, and heard about it from his elders.  When first I read this piece, I was struck by how Penn situates the Quaker movement, with all its peculiarities, in the broadest possible sweep of history.

Third, Penn writes with real insight about the nature of Quaker ministry, including its educative, pastoral, and prophetic roles with the Quaker world, and beyond, in publishing Truth to the world at large.  He exhorts his brother and sister ministers to keep close to their first love, the life of God in all:

…first, as to you my beloved and much honoured brethren in Christ, that are in the exercise of the ministry: O! feel life in your ministry. Let life be your commission, your well-spring and treasury on all such occasions; else, you well know, there can be no begetting to God: since nothing can quicken or make people alive to God, but the life of God; and it must be a ministry in and from life, that enlivens any people to God.

But then he goes on to remind them that they have a role in noticing and answering that divine life not only in “official” settings, e.g. meetings for worship, but also in all other facets of people’s lives, where that sense of Presence has healing and consoling power, as well as educative and challenging:

I beseech you, that you would not think it sufficient to declare the word of life in their assemblies, however edifying and comfortable such opportunities may be to you and them: but, as was the practice of the man of God [Fox] before mentioned, in great measure, when among us, inquire the state of the several churches you visit; who among them are afflicted or sick, who are tempted, and if any are unfaithful or obstinate; and endeavour to issue those things in the wisdom and power of God, which will be a glorious crown upon your ministry. As that prepares your way in the hearts of the people… so it gives you credit with them to do them good by your advice in other respects; the afflicted will be comforted by you, the tempted strengthened, the sick refreshed, the unfaithful convicted and restored, and such as are obstinate, softened and fitted for reconciliation; which is clinching the nail, and applying and fastening the general testimony, by this particular care of the several branches of it, in reference to them more immediately concerned in it.

After all, “prophecy” can bring consolation and hope, as well as denunciation, warning, or reproof — and perhaps even more so, because the aim of prophecy is a faithful people, and many people’s faithfulness is weaker than they’d like because of the travails and confusions of day to day living.

In the edition I have posted, Penn’s essay is about 37 pages long, written in Penn’s most winning style.  In many ways William Penn the author feels more accessible than Fox, Fell, Pennington, or Barclay— the parts of him that hint at the emerging Enlightenment lend his writing a grace that  also makes him an effective spokesperson for his elders, whose world view is more alien to the modern mind.

Penn’s reflections on ministry and its role in a vital religious movement are well worth revisiting from time to time, and for any and all of the three “themes” I have raised up, the Rise and Progress would be a very suitable text for group study, whether in an informal group, or as part of the work of your Meeting on Ministry and Counsel.

Climate talk, action, and proclamation

So far this year, climate change news has been just bad, and getting worse. The general rule is, whatever’s been predicted, it’s happening — anywhere from a few years to a few decades earlier than the models projected.
Anyone who’s paying attention feels the weight of this.. Every few days, I hear something that makes me have to sit and feel for the Center for a while, so that I am not holding it in my own strength. Many of us are doing something, but is there something more? And some of us are not sure what to do next. I suggest proclamation; let me explain.
Talking about climate change is actually pretty important. People are such social creatures that “conventional wisdom” matters a lot. If something is not discussed, it’s easy to pretend it’s not there. If something is voiced, then it can be worked with in the familiar ways — argument, brainstorming, organizing, etc. Sociologists have done interesting studies that show that apathy and silence about big issues are collaborative constructions that the whole community helps put in place. Breaking through the silence matters.
Studies of climate attitudes have shown that when climate change is in the news, not as a controversy, but as a part of news stories, people take it more seriously. That’s why it’s so important that TV meteorologists are now mostly on board with the science: people are hearing about the fact of climate change from yet another source, generally taken to be trustworthy (if fallible), and one of the most common faces of science.
This in turn is important because other studies have shown that the majority of people in this country don’t realize that essentially all climate scientists acknowledge the reality and scope of climate change, and are deeply alarmed about it. A recent study demonstrated that when people were given that information, they changed their attitudes about climate change.
Similar research shows that no more than 40% of people report talking with any of their peers, family, colleagues, about climate change recently or at all. People are not talking about it, not nearly enough.
Why is talk so important? Because political will is shaped by conventional wisdom and perceived threats. Learning enough to say that you feel action is important, and why you think so, is thus a really important step forward. Look around you, and make sure that you talk about climate change, and if you are surrounded by like-minded people, then think about who you don’t usually talk with , and find ways to raise the issue with them.
This doesn’t sound like much, but creating buzz is indispensable, if we are going to build the political will to support, nay force, action to mitigate the worst effects of the climate change now under way. Once you’ve found a way to talk about it, you can then up your game — taking more action, talking more loudly, or in new places, or to new people, pointing out new implications.
And frankly, Friends, we need to practice, exert our wills, to do this and to also do the despair-work, the apathy-work, the fear-work that this issue raises. It’s here that the spiritual challenges really lie — not in loving Mother Nature more, but in confronting a massive transition to a more chaotic and challenging world, with scary political and social implications, and an overturning of many many certainties we have held to. So our spiritual disciplines are confronting a real challenge. What Gospel is there for our times? How, in concrete detail, will we live in the Power that is over all? What easy assertions must we recognize and let go of?
But where ever we confront the real, and find the taproot of peace and faithfulness, of Light and Life that overcomes darkness and death, then we need to learn to tell about what we’ve found, in the ways and to the people that we are led among. Have you felt despair, but found a way to climb out of it? Have you found anger surging, or fear, and done some work to get atop it, with God’s help? Have you found in all this wrestling with powers and principalities a living connection to the Logos, the creative, desirous, delighting, multitudinous Wisdom of God – been taken by surprise by it, or found it filling you after you have wandered long, stripped and empty-handed? Then tell that, too! Have we not fasted too long from the right words, and gorged on unchallenging silence, perhaps out of fear of the “world” as opposed to the fear of the Lord?

We need to hear from each other — and “we” increasingly means everyone, all our brothers and sisters. A Christian, said Maltby Babcock, should be absolutely fearless, always in trouble, and absurdly happy — but it doesn’t come by wishing, we need to go through the work. , Try all the spirits that we find inhabiting us, and hold fast to the good, in hopes “to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself,” whose “crown is meekness and life is everlasting love unfeigned. ” Then, desire earnestly to share what we have found, heart to heart — not information, but stories of pilgrimage, search, and discovery. Proclaim what’s happened to you, what you’ve learned, how it hurt or daunted you, how you’ve been led so far to respond constructively, how your story is rooted in the love of God and neighbor. “Spare no tongue nor pen” !