This was a report from a Meeting for Discernment held on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 during the QuakerSpring summer gathering held at Stillwater Meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio
A panel of Friends was asked to speak about what they do in worship, how they experience the gathered meeting, and how they prepare for worship as we look for this interaction between humanity and God. This is a summary of their responses.
Micah Bales, Ohio Yearly Meeting
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Don’t you know that you are not your own? You are bought with a price.” In meeting for worship I discover that I am not my own. I belong to a human community gathered in Christ. And, most importantly, I discover that I am Christ’s. When I discover Christ’s presence inside me, I find a seat of consciousness within me where I can stand with Christ and see myself as I really am. He allows me to see my thoughts, my emotions, and all the knots that are inside me. He allows me to know who I really am, that I am with Him and am His.
Frances Taber, Ohio Yearly Meeting
Long before my memory begins, I was expected to go to meeting for worship on First Day and in the middle of the week was expected of me. I don’t think there was anything especially spiritual going on in my mind until I was a teenager. I remember when I was a child sitting beside my mother and looking up into the faces of the Friends who sat on the facing bench, including my grandmother. I tried to pick out the alphabet in the words carved on the back of the bench in front of me, and I mentally redesigned for better efficiency the labyrinth of pipes that made their way roof-ward from the heating stoves in the meeting room. I did pay attention to vocal ministry as it was given, and to vocal prayer.
By the age of 18 I was reading religious writings, although not always making sense of them. The Cloud of Unknowing stirred in me an interest in a spiritual process similar to what today is called “centering prayer.” I often use this in meeting for worship, focusing on being steadily present, available, and consenting to the work of God within oneself, while incorporating vocal messages as they are given by other Friends. As a kindled fire becomes brighter when additional sticks are laid upon it, my sense of the presence of God is increased by the presence of other focused worshipers.
I often find my role to be holding open a space for the work of God in the meeting. I enjoy sitting on the facing bench, where I am enabled to be aware of who is gathering and reaching out in my heart to include other people who are not present. I may hold in God’s presence specific people, but usually not with articulated prayer. As we sit in worship, I am aware of a palpable, deep silence, a Presence in the room like an enveloping, translucent mist. I am aware that the depth of focus of each person in the room affects the gatheredness of each other person and of the group as a body. Vocal messages that come from a deep spiritual place contribute to that sense of centeredness.
Patricia Barber, Baltimore Yearly Meeting
My husband asked me once why, if Quakers are so concerned about the environment, we don’t just all stay home and sit quietly in worship by ourselves. What is so important about meeting for worship?
As we gather, we become the receptacles and channels of the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit flows over and among us, picking up what is in our hearts. Each person present is important, a part of the spiritual community in the room. George Fox said, “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.” Christ’s teaching comes through many forms – in silence, in vocal ministry, in eldering – and each person needs to find how he or she is led.
When I first began to speak during meeting for worship, I just felt compelled to stand and share. I did not realize that I was experiencing a leading from God. The simple feeling that it was important to share what I was thinking bore the hallmarks of an immature seeker. It took me a while to realize what it is to give vocal ministry. I realized that if I was to stand to speak, I was doing something special, that I was to articulate a part of God’s Spirit that was flowing through the meeting.
I then realized that I had to sort out what was me and what was of the Spirit. Ego has a loud, insistent voice and wants to speak. It is a struggle to empty oneself of ego, which supports you to stand up and speak but which can lead you so far astray. There was no one present in my meeting to elder me, but only a lot of pleasant, well-meaning people.
I remember a number of mistakes I made in speaking from what was important to me rather than from the immediate moving of God’s Spirit. Once I stood up and shared about the difficulties I was experiencing in preparing my income tax report. Too late I realized that God has not given me those words to speak. Later I began to memorize poetry, but I had no audience with which to share the poems that meant a lot to me. Although some people enjoyed the poetry that I spoke in meeting for worship, I came to realize that the motivation for reciting those poems was coming from me, not from God.
God led me to see that what God would have me share were the fruits of faithfulness, watchfulness, loving conduct with other people, and listening to the Spirit within me. I was becoming more mature in ministry. As I was speaking during worship rather frequently, someone in my meeting suggested that I be recorded as a minister. I was appalled, but for all the wrong reasons. I feared it would place too much pressure on me to speak at a time when I was still struggling to discern which ministry was Spirit-led and which was not. I realize now that that fear in itself was ego-driven. There was no one to elder me, no one to remind me that the gifts we have for vocal ministry and for eldering are for the service of the meeting and are not our own to use or withhold as we please. God uses the tools that we have, but we are to sharpen them and keep them ready for His service.
I don’t speak during worship as often now. I have learned that I need to lead a life of intentionality and deep seriousness, knowing that I am imperfect and will still make mistakes. I spend a lot of time during meeting for worship trying to step into that stream of God’s Spirit as it flows around me and all of us. If something washes up on the banks near me, I sit with it and ask God, “Is this for me or is it for me to share aloud with everyone here?” If I speak too soon, I may prevent someone else from speaking a true message. Breaking the silence is serious business. One can be personal, but speaking as if in therapy is not fine, nor is articulation of one’s own enthusiasm or political rage. Those topics and others arising from oneself are better left to discussion on other occasions.
Kathleen Wooten, New England Yearly Meeting
We were each asked to speak from our own experience about how we prepare for and experience meeting for worship. I prepare by paying attention to how I am. Interestingly, I was prepared for being on this panel before I knew about it by a searching conversation I had recently had with another QuakerSpring attender.
I have been exploring what gifts of eldership lie within me. I have been a Friend for about four years. When I first sat down in meeting for worship, I felt like I had come home. Now when I sit with my eyes closed in meeting, I can feel the room, and often it seems that I need to keep focused on the room. Sometimes I feel something like energy. Then it drains away and someone stands up and speaks. Now I know Whose work that is. I can feel if a meeting is gathered. I have sometimes felt gatheredness in a secular meeting, when the sense of God’s Spirit was deep and real, with spaces between messages that came from a deep place.
We do have spiritual struggles in meeting for worship, but we do not talk much about it. Perhaps that is because we do not have a suitable vocabulary. I do not mean the kind of struggles that precede or accompany mental illness, for the struggles I have in meeting are often good ones. Until a few weeks ago, I had never spoken in meeting. Then I got kicked to my feet. I said one sentence, which I remember, and a few other things and then sat down, drained. Recently I have found some people who can talk about it with me. Talking about those experiences in worship frees me up and enables me to continue to grow spiritually, but I still have to learn by doing, supported by other people.
Questions, comments, and replies
For Fran: Can you say more about how you find The Cloud of Unknowing useful? Ans: I find it useful in providing a structure for private, contemplative prayer and a model for an approach to reaching out to God in meeting for worship.
The “gathered meeting”. What are the distinctions between meeting for worship and a gathered meeting? “Gathered meeting” refers to a unique and special experience in meeting for worship. It is profound, intense, deep, and sweet, with everyone gathered together in, through, and by the Spirit of Christ. “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” invokes that gathering. In describing the move into gatheredness, one Friend said, “All of a sudden the bottom dropped out of our meeting for worship and we were gathered together.” He continued, “The point of gatheredness is not how it feels, but being transformed by Christ. There are many gifts, but there is one Spirit that activates them. There are many linguistic frameworks, but one Lord. It is important to know who that Lord is.”
Speaking in meeting for worship. We must be careful not to stand up to speak in meeting on the basis of our feelings. I need to remember to determine whether God is asking me to deliver this message or whether I am motivated by my feelings. Emotions can very easily lead you astray.
What does one do when one gets a message that has a kernel of truth embedded in a tapestry of other thoughts? Answer: Wait for real clarity and give the kernel with only the essential supporting explanation.
When a meeting for worship gets off course. There is a lot of mystery embedded in our understanding of worship and our individual parts in worship. Being led to rise and speak has a physical component for me. When a meeting gets off track, I go to the place in my physical body where Christ is and invite the Presence of God back into the meeting.
What else should we do to help when a meeting gets off course – in a specific meeting? Over the long haul? What everyone in the room is doing during meeting for worship is important. Praying “underneath” the group helps. I need to learn better how to gauge when my message is over, and to then sit down.
Sometimes a Friend will stand up and say nothing when a message has been upsetting or when a few friends are debating with each other. Does that help?
Intervention when a meeting is not going well can come from a vocal message or vocal prayer. It seems to help a lot to address God (in prayer) rather than addressing the body.
What about intellectual and therapy-related messages? Do we need orientation materials for newcomers to help them get their bearings?
Bill Taber’s Pendle Hill pamphlet Four Doors to Worship has been useful for many people.
Orientation materials are fine up to a point, but ultimately giving a message that is spiritually encouraging for the body depends on rightly sensing God’s immediate motion to speak. We need to differentiate between God’s time and our own sense of time. God has a lot more time than we do.
In a sustained period of dryness and emptiness in our meeting, we realized that we were all tired and not preparing or praying beforehand.
Transformation through meeting for worship. I’d like to get back to the idea of transformation. How transformed are we after meeting for worship? What are the consequences of silent worship? How are we transformed, and why do we sit on these benches?
Worship is an integral part of my relationship with God. Transformation happens as part of a continuous cycle. Transformation may be as slow as a snail, or it may happen in a burst of fireworks, but it is deeper and more complete when I have taken the time frequently throughout the week to sit and be with God.