Communing and Consuming

Tomorrow my friend Gregg is speaking about communion.  To our faith community.  That happen to be Quaker.

. . . . .

For those of you who aren’t squirming uncomfortably in your seats, you probably don’t know that Quakers don’t “do” communion.  Why don’t they?  Well, to tell you the truth, a lot of folks probably don’t know.  “It’s just something that isn’t done.”  I recently heard a story about a woman who always cut off the end of a roast before putting it in the oven.  Her daughter asked her why she did that, and the mother said because her mother before her had always done it, but the mother never asked why.  So she did, to which she got the response, “Because my mother did!”  They asked the great-grandmother who said, “Because our pan was too small to fit a whole roast.”  The ladies had been engaging in a tradition that a) meant nothing to them because they didn’t know the reasoning behind it and 2) wasn’t necessary anymore – they had big enough pans now.

So, Quakes don’t “do” communion.  Some would say it is a reaction against resting too heavily on the belief that taking communion ensures salvation:  people abused the practice, so Friends’ reaction was to swing to the other side – abstinence (the best method of birth control, perhaps, but not necessarily the best spiritual-practice reaction).  Others would say it’s because it pales in comparison to the true reality of living in daily, moment-to-moment communion  with the Spirit (Elton Trueblood had some quote about that in one of his pamphlet-thingies I think).  And others?  “Well, we just don’t do communion” can be a very valid explanation to their way of thinking.  Anybody got a knife to cut off the end of this here roast?

I’m auditing a class at the Seminary and this week we were looking at consumerism and the church.  Oy, it makes my head hurt how much the commodification has happened in church culture.  It’s like thinking about the best environmental action/reaction:  either seems to do damage and there is no right answer!

One interesting observation brought up:  since the “Fordism” of America (when people starting working in a factory to create goods for others rather than engaging in the art of craftsmanship to meet their personal needs), people have become more and more dissected – segmented – taken apart.  Just as the work place was analyzed and changed into a manufacturing line, human beings have been analyzed and taken apart into having certain “needs” that must be met by products they can purchase.  Which we all know doesn’t work:  the fires of consumption only grow with each offering, and yet I know I keep piling it on.

As work and individuals have been taken apart, so have religious practices.  Instead of knowing why we do something, engaging in the practices and symbols and liturgy because of a wholistic lifestyle of worship, we take things apart:  a little Celtic labyrinth here, a little Taize chant there, throw in some Quaker silence and postmodern couches/coffee/candles, and call it good!  The practices we choose are to try and meet our needs – but that fire keeps burning brightly.

God speaks symbolically:  I learn so much through the Bible, through the way the world works, through interactions as a parent/friend/wife/person – it’s all through symbol.  To abstain from symbol is to cut off a powerful means of communicating with and worshiping God.

But I understand how the lack of physical symbols is a symbol in itself.  While it was seemingly so meaningful to first gen Quakes, I wonder if the power dissipates with each generation:  as we follow them, we see more of their shoes than where they were headed.

Could a regular practice of discernment bring about that renewal?  A posture of receiving from God the ways He desires to be worshiped, rather than picking and choosing until it “feels right” or “meaningful” to us?  That would take a lot of work and time:  is anyone willing to do that?

My dad’s worship gathering (a Quaker one at that) has bread and juice available for folks to take communion each Sunday.  It’s not the high liturgy of the mainline churches (and I’m sure they’d shutter to know how their symbol has been “dumbed down”), but people have encountered God as they took part of the act.

Instead of asking the question “Why do/don’t we engage in the bread/wine practice of communion at our worship gatherings?” would it not be more productive to ask “What does this act mean, Lord?  What does it mean that we’re so conflicted about it?” and ultimately “What are you calling us to do?”  This wrestling hopefully brings us deeper into communion with God.

I pray that tomorrow my community will wrestle well.

10 thoughts on “Communing and Consuming

  1. Heather

    I admit I have skimmed your entry here, reading at parts.

    It is because I am so happy to find people who think about this stuff.

    I have been excited to be where I am now: church hunting, only because the Friends churches so far are answering the things I have been looking for.

    I feel like a happy kid.

    I will be at North Valley friends tomorrow, and for that reason I read your blog. We will be there for the next 4 weeks, checking it out.

    I was really surprised that Friends didn’t do communion. or baptism. I thought, there is a way around baptism, because I very much like this ritual and it is well supported in scripture, but communion, well I would be sad to see that go. But I think mainly because the churches I have attended before leave so little or no time for silence, that communion is the only time when the congregation is just seeking the Lord in prayer. For our family, communion is just important, meaningful and I would hate for it to go. But, because there is silence in Quaker services, I think that time would be the sameas any communion.

    I just saw the name on the previous post, and I was so happy with his message last Sunday as well. Praising God that he has led me in this direction.

  2. craig

    Thanks Aj, you’ve hit on a really big philosophical point for me. it is so true that communication occurs through symbols. Words are metaphors and symbols, as are parables, signs, and drama. To remove these from congregational life, in the long run is like cutting off your nose to spite your face; or, like spending a nickel to save a penny. It just can’t support itself in the long run. I think contemporary Quakerism has hit an epistemological wall on this one: without symbols, how do we know spiritually and theologically anything? We have to become individualized since lacking shared symbols, we lack communication and community. Our choices are narrowed to individualism, gnosticism, or empiricism.

    Great fuel for further conversation!

  3. Abbie

    AJ! You so totally hit the nail on the head with this one….HOW AWESOME that I just happen to check your blog this Sunday morning.
    John and I have REALLY been looking forward to this Communion sermon all week because all through our marriage, in trying different churches, communion was something I really struggled with doing because, well, it just wasn’t something I ever did growing up! I’ll be honest in saying my lack of knowledge about it really keeps me from participating. I don’t want to engage in something half-heartedly. I want to really understand it, and embrace it WHOLE HEARTEDLY. That has been something hard for John to understand, since he grew up with this as a normal Sunday practice. How excited I am to hear what Greg has to say about it today! Thank you for laying the dirt down ahead of time and getting my mind prepared for it!

  4. Callid Keefe-Perry

    A few things I’d add to this lovely little discussion that may forward things somewhat:

    1) Chapter 6 of John Punshon’s book, Encounter with Silence, is titled “Symbols and Images,” and he explicitly grapples with the symbolic meaning of silence.

    2) I am a firm believer in one of the tenents of Communication Theory: You can’t not communicate. Aj, you write that, “To abstain from symbol is to cut off a powerful means of communicating with and worshiping God.”

    Above, Craig writes that, “without symbols, how do we know spiritually and theologically anything?”

    I question the possibility of EVER abstaining from symbols. Aj points to this with the comment that, “the lack of physical symbols is a symbol in itself,” however it is worth being explicit about: we understand the world by placing meaning on things. In the landmark text, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote that it was through narrative that individuals ordered experience and constructed reality. I think this is doubly true in the field of theological experience.

    3) I have found that religious/theological problems pertaining to “either/or” duality are usually ripe for the picking in terms of insight. In particular, I have found that our cultural normative default of fixed, logical, scientific, Western thought often impairs my ability to enter into a deep immersion in the Divine. God simply doesn’t play by our rules, and when we try to impose our educated critique on the movement of the Spirit, we get funny results. Conversely, when we accept that mystery is part of the mystic, prophetic path, we can more readily allow fluid definitions and continually revealing aspects of truth. For those interested, my pet project at theopoetics.net directly addresses these issues.

  5. Aj Post author

    Thank you for continuing the discussion. It is challenging to think about symbols, lack thereof, sacraments, worship, isn’t it? But it all points me to God. And if my posture is right, that of receiving, I have to believe that God will nudge as to what practice He desires or which means of communication would be best for us at the time.

  6. Mary Linda

    I was raised Baptist, born into the church. I was “saved” at six, baptized at 12. I can tell you how empty rituals like communion were for me. The songs, the prayers, the stand-up-sit-down of church service and then the once a month grape juice and crackers meant absolutely nothing to me; they were simply a momentary diversion from the eternal failure (and often boredom) of Sunday morning to help me “find” God.

    I am thankful for the honesty of Friends Meetings for Worship, the lack of empty ritual. In Friends Meeting, I have to be engaged. A couple of times since I began attending Friends Meeting a decade ago, I’ve been in situations in which I had the opportunity to participate in communion. Because it was something I considered seriously and choose to partake in, I found it moving and meaningful. I don’t know if I ever would have come to feel that way if it were an activity I partook in on a monthly basis as part of the routine. I fully understand eschewing ritual which quickly can become proscribed and meaningless.

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  9. Pingback: I understand how the lack of physical symbols is a symbol in itself. While it was seemingly so meaningful to first gen Qs, I wonder if the power dissipates with each generation: as we follow them, we see more of their shoes than where they were headed. -

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