January 12, 2009

Hearts and minds prepared

I recently sat in on a committee meeting that was responding to an overall (and age-old) concern about how to encourage Friends to arrive on time on First Day mornings.

The concern was reframed for the small group of us, and we were asked instead to consider the question:

    How do we change the culture of the meeting that has (unintentionally) made it okay to be loud, talkative, and rushed outside the meetingroom until the very last moment before the doors to the meetingroom are closed?
Well, that wasn't the exact wording of the question, but it gets to the heart of the matter.

Somehow over time, the entry area near the meetingroom, including the hallway and library, has morphed from being a transition space for people to slow themselves down to being the "red zone" where folks better hurry themselves up, all in the name of preparing themselves to enter worship.

The committee considered the popular advice about coming to meeting with "our hearts and minds prepared":
In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared...
--Britain Yearly Meeting 1.02.9
How can Friends be reminded of that advice? What needs to happen so that inward preparation is not just tended to when folks enter the meetinghouse but when they get out of their cars and cross the parking lot, when they leave their house to head to meeting, or when they rise in the morning on First Day?

Is it enough to leave the radio off when driving to meeting? to turn off the television the night before? to ignore the newspaper that's tossed on the stoop at dawn on First Day?

Is it only about removing distractions from the first part of First Day? Can we also be intentional about where we do place our focus as well?

Can we read a snippet of a Quaker pamphlet that morning, or read a verse or two from Scripture, or spend a few moments considering what we are grateful for?

Can we help our children get accustomed to the practice of stopping in their tracks, taking a breath, and being still for even half a beat before grabbing the door's handle and going into the building?

Can we shift our focus away from worrying about getting to meeting "on time" and instead turn our intention to one of arriving at meeting "on purpose"?

It's not about when we arrive, it's about how we arrive.

Not only that, but at what point do we move from focusing on helping ourselves prepare for worship as individuals and turn to recognizing and affirming that we are, in fact, part of a corporate body that is also preparing for worship?


RELATED POST: What if Quaker worship came with instructions?


Martin Kelley said...

I suspect this kind of noisiness is a symptom of a lot of things. Is the worship so centered that people look forward to it? Is the center of their community life communion with the spirit (however named) or is it the social chatter before and after? Dealing with the noise is one reason some meetings read an opening query at the beginning of worship but I tend to think that's not addressing the deeper issue. I suspect the more lasting fix will just be more of that age-old work of shedding the externalities and recentering on the direct spirit (aka the Risen Christ). Do the kids know why they're going to meeting? Do the adults?

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time Quakerism wasn't just one more interest you had among others, but the thing a Friend did with her or his whole life. It was a practice of walking with God step by step all through every day, rather than just taking time off to go to Meeting every Sunday.

If you learned to live with your mind always oriented toward God, there was no need to shift gears mentally (so to speak) as you entered the meetinghouse, or as you got in the car to drive to the meetinghouse, or as you got out of bed on Sunday morning, or whenever your personal deadline was. You were always already in the gear of worship; you were never in any other gear. That was the whole point of the Quaker religious life.

Quite obviously, the uproar of Quakers in a worldly Quaker community arriving at their meeting for worship comes out of the fact that they are in "uproar" gear so much of the week that it takes them a measurable period of time in meeting to settle down and finally shift gears. Christ had something fairly uncompromising to say about this, and it's something I think about a lot, every day, because I'm employed as a salesperson and I'm concerned about my salvation:

"...Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment." (Matthew 12:34b-36)

What did Christ mean by "idle words"? I don't think he meant small talk in a sweeping sort of way; for sometimes we use small talk to open the channels of friendship and love between us, and that is hardly an idle activity.

But sometimes we just babble of things that preoccupy us. Such babbling comes from the fact that our minds are drifting among worldly concerns, instead of being at rest in our True Home. How many of our words are "idle" in that sense?

And to what extent does the uproar at a meetinghouse door come from minds that are adrift in that way, attuned neither to the call of God Our Love or the heart-needs of our neighbor-worshipers?

Here is something Robert Barclay shared. Perhaps it might be helpful to your committee: "It will not be denied but that men ought to be more in the love of God than of any other thing; for we ought to love God above all things. Now it is plain, that men that are taken with love, whether it be of women, or of any other thing, if it hath taken a deep place in the heart, and possess the mind, it will be hard for the man so in love to drive out of his mind the person or thing so loved; yea, in his eating, drinking, and sleeping, his mind will always have a tendency that way; and in business or recreations, however intent he be in it, there will but a very short time be permitted to pass, but the mind will let some ejaculation forth toward its beloved. And albeit such a one must be conversant in those things that the care of this body and such like things call for; yet will he avoid as death itself to do those things that may offend the party so beloved, or cross his design in obtaining the thing so earnestly desired.... Now that men ought to be thus in love with God, and the life to come, none will deny...." (An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Prop. XV §9)

I believe that if we live in the condition Barclay described, we will not come to meeting in an uproar, but in the spirit of tenderness that allows that stillest and smallest of all voices to be heard.

And I believe that that is really the only sort of remedy we should accept! But what do you think?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Marshall that the only acceptable remedy is for Friends to actually live with God on a daily basis. But how is this actually going to happen? A lot of liberal Quakers can't even say the word "God." So the future doesn't look very hopeful.

Anonymous said...

It has been my experience of "hub-bub+ before Meeting tends to be in the mood of individual meditation viv-a-vis group worship. I know a number of individuals who feel Meeting is a time for them as individuals so that it isn't until the individual is "ready" that the Meeting begins.

I believe we need to be more clear of the importance of being lifted by those on either side (apologies to Whittier) and therefore it is the 2 or 3 gathered that need to be considered in providing support for their worship as much as my joining in the communion with a community.

( I feel that my words are often misunderstood and that I am not really adding to an interaction but bringing up tangental if not inappropriate confusing ideas. I apologize if that is the case. I will try to improve by continuing attempts to communicate.)

RichardM said...


Generally, simple answers are best. You've identified something that is out of gospel order and you wonder how to make the meeting aware of this. Well, I guess someone should just say it. If someone generally does a brief welcome/announcements at the close of meeting then perhaps they should start "Ministry and Counsel has expressed a concern that ..." And not worry about preparing the exact words to be said but rather depend on God to give the right words for that living moment.

nemo said...

In re: Marshall's Barclay quote.
Are we a community of the beloved?Does the love of God we have translate to love of the Meeting? Is coming to Meeting an act of love or of duty?

Unknown said...

Do we feel the hush of God as we approach the meetinghouse? Have we spent time during the week in contemplation or prayer? Without a daily spiritual discipline, the meeting for worship may become simply another activity on the schedule. Why have we come to worship together? That is the deepest question to ask ourselves.

Hystery said...

I appreciate comments about preparation for worship. As a preacher's kid, I understood the worship service was not merely something that happened. I saw the research, reading, care, and preparation that preceded Dad's walk down the aisle and I was astonished that anyone would disrespect his efforts by showing up late. As a teacher, I carefully prepare for my classes but I see that my students' learning outcomes depend greatly on their own preparation. Did they just show up or did they come ready to hear me and to respond with their own thoughts and questions?

In my new home among Friends, I see that each of us is a minister. Each of us is a teacher. One does not just "show up." It is rude to our brother and sister worshipers. But I don't want to equate walking in late to meeting as being like a student coming in late to class or as a parishioner coming in late to the sermon. Perhaps, for Friends, coming in late to meeting is more like the teacher coming in late to class. It is like the minister neglecting her own ministry.

Liz Opp said...

Many thanks to you all for your responses and thoughtful, heartfelt musings.

Martin -

Good question about whether the adults (not just the kids) understand why we come to meeting. And if we can't articulate to one another why we go to worship, then there is something else to be concerned about.

Marshall -

The Barclay quote is very stirring.

I continue to find in you, as in a few others, a great resource of Quaker history and Quaker authors. Quotes like this renew my curiosity of what more there is to learn about today's Quakerism by drawing on and looking at the words of early Friends.

Thank you!

Anonymous -

While it may be that "a lot of liberal Quakers can't even say the word 'God,'" that doesn't mean that that of the Light in me cannot answer or call out that of the Light in these Friends.

At another committee meeting, shortly after this one, I found myself reluctant to speak about "covenant community." When I lay aside my own hesitation and instead spoke faithfully to what I had been given, including the use of that phrase, I found that most of the Friends gathered there truly appreciated hearing those words. One Friend in particular said it's helping her look more intentionally at how Quakerism isn't like the rest of the world.

In addition, I occasionally must ask myself if I am idolizing the word "God." To what extent can I myself let go of that word and instead look at the behaviors and manners of others: do they act out of a spirit of Love...?

Tom Smith -

"...it is the 2 or 3 gathered that need to be considered in providing support for their worship..."

There is something that rings true for me about this, that something MORE happens when we are yoked together in the same work--in this case, joining together and opening ourselves to the Loving Principle in worship.

Thanks for writing.

RichardM -

Thanks for the counsel. Plainly spoken and appropriate to the occasion, too.

For transparency's sake, it isn't M&C that has this concern, so it may not fall to M&C to lift it up in this manner... But the spirit of your counsel hits the mark.

Nemo and Maurine -

Good, very good queries! Our meeting prints queries like this from time to time and I hope I can draw from these. Please reply if you are able!

Hystery -

Truth be told, I certainly have come late to my share of meetings for worship. I don't make it a habit (I don't think I do, anyway), and I often recognize that I would rather be late and join in the corporate experience of worship than miss it altogether.

Wherever we find ourselves as we walk in the Light, the Teacher is always there; there is no such thing as that particular Teacher coming to class late! (But I get your point.)

I would like to say that whether or not I am late to worship, I feel that I continue to "show up to class." And yet, my lateness certainly may disrupt the worship that has already settled in the meetingroom, and I do my best to be sensitive to that aspect of worship as well, without beating up on myself.

Thanks again, everyone.


Paul L said...

Liz -- While I do not disagree that Friends could prepare much better for worship, I think you're missing a much more prosaic reason for the commotion in the hallway before meeting: poor design. The hallway is noisy and busy because it was designed to be.

Both of the main doors into the meetinghouse dump people into the hall onto which all three doors to the meeting room open. Some are going north, others south, and when they meet there's going to be rough water no matter how prepared or reverent they are, especially in the never-ending-winter months here in Minnesota that also requires cross current traffic to the poorly-placed cloak room.

To see how design can alleviate (if not eliminate) the problem, just go across town to Minneapolis Meeting. That meetinghouse is designed so that the traffic can be directed away from the doors to the meetingroom and there's ample space for meeting and greeting Friends outside the meetingroom proper without disturbing the peace and quiet of those already in worship. Not that it's perfect, but it's better.

As you say, we can all do better to prepare for worship -- perhaps it's even more important to do so where the building is designed to create turbulence -- and I don't disagree with any of it.