April 2, 2008

Two experiences of Meeting for Worship

As part of the ongoing discernment process of the worship group about where we might affiliate, we have begun a study of comparative readings between Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends. (Both of these branches worship in the unprogrammed manner of Friends.)

We're currently focused on parallel parts of Iowa Conservative's 1974 Book of Discipline and Northern Yearly Meeting's approved chapters of its first-ever Faith & Practice. This past week, we looked briefly at the sections on Meeting for Worship.

Though a number of us felt the two sections were "compatible," I myself noticed what for me are small-but-significant differences. Iowa's section mentions the Bible and refers to the Holy Spirit. There is also a brief explanation about the lack of outward sacraments:

The absence of outward rites and sacraments in Friends' worship is a result of our emphasis on the reality of the inward experience. Direct communion with God and the baptism of the Holy Spirit make the observance of rites unnecessary and even a hindrance to spiritual experience for some.
NYM's chapter, on the other hand, makes no mention of Scripture or the lack of ritual, possibly allowing for (or explaining?) the greater theological diversity among NYM Friends.

To NYM's credit, though, I appreciate the part within NYM's chapter on worship about vocal ministry:
Our Meetings for Worship go beyond private reverie. It is our experience that wherever two or more of us are gathered in expectant listening, the Spirit is in our midst. The quest for Truth among us is shared in community.
When I have experienced a gathered or covered meeting, it has felt to me like the worshipers have in fact "gone beyond private reverie" and have come into a sweetness and depth that is made all the more rich by the sense of having been yoked together in corporate worship and with the grace of the Presence...

But of course, reading about Meeting for Worship and experiencing it are two very different things, and no branch of Friends is immune from ever having a Meeting for Worship that feels disjointed.

What's timely about reading and reflecting on these passages about meeting for worship is that this past weekend, on two separate occasions, I experienced both a gathered meeting and a disjointed meeting.

On Saturday, a few of us went to the home of an aging Friend who can no longer get to the meetinghouse for worship. I would have expected us to fall into worship easily and deeply, uniting around our common fFriend, around a quiet celebration of being together. Instead, three of us fell asleep (or nearly so) and I had a hard time feeling connected or joined with the others in the Spirit. Maybe it was just too nice of a day to be inside; maybe it was just that I, and possibly others, couldn't transcend our "private reverie"...

The very next morning, though, I attended the earlier meeting for worship at the monthly meeting. Usually the group of worshipers numbers around thirty, with many more Friends going to the later worship, but this particular First Day morning, we numbered nearly fifty!

Over the last few weeks, many of us in the early MfW have been witnessing the decline of a beloved fFriend who, with his wife, has been attending meeting for many, many years but has consciously never pursued membership. This particular First Day, the fFriend was not there: we had received word that he had passed early on Saturday morning.

The thirty or so regular attenders, along with the additional twenty other worshipers, appeared to settle quickly and deeply into the silence. It was as if we were journeying together, continuing to accompany such a dear fFriend and his dear family, all the while being held and comforted by the Living Presence among us.

Away from the meeting, a Friend had recently remarked that as a worship community, we were united in our witnessing of the passing of a life. We were joined in our grief and we were truly holding one another up...

In that deep place, there had been more than a sense of individuals worshiping together, but a true sense of corporate worship, a movement that transcended each of our potential "private reveries" and instead united us, wordlessly, one unto another and all of us unto the Comforter.

When the Holy Spirit is felt by so many, what more can we do than take a few deep breaths and lean into the grace to accept every moment for what it is...



Allison said...

I feel like this post itself transferred that sense of corporate worship because I could feel the emotion through it.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks, Allison.