March 3, 2005

Come to the Banquet!

Here's a comment I posted on Ruthie-Annie's blog about what my worship experience has been recently in the worship group I attend. As usual, it's very hard to capture the mystical, spiritual dimension of an experience. Is it any surprise that the English language is so limited in describing that which is Eternal? Some might even desire that words be left alone and that the experience itself provide the language for each worshipper.

Given my concern that we share a living, meaningful Quakerism with others so that its Life and Power can continue to be nourished and cultivated, I will err on the side of being explicit--open--about the experiences I have in worship and among Friends. That said, Meeting for Worship is not the core of my Quakerism, though this post might be interpreted as that. The core of my Quakerism (as I understand my Quakerism at this point) is the desire to understand and be obedient to the Guidance of the Spirit, to seek that understanding and pursue that obedience among a covenant community, to listen to and listen for the Inward Teacher.

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The "What do you (Quakers) do in the silence?" is a question that I always have to draw a deep breath around. (Like just now. Seriously.)

I am currently part of a newly formed, yet unnamed worship group in Minnesota. We've been worshipping together for 2 years. [UPDATE: Go to the website for this now-named worship group.] One thing we have in common that differs greatly from one of the nearby large monthly meetings is that we each have a belief in and an experiential knowledge of Something Divine. And we are experiencing a sort of spiritual intimacy: we share openly our desire to know the Spirit, to seek the Spirit's Guidance for us, to tell one another when and how the Spirit has shown up for us in our lives, and to tell each other when we are feeling dry and distant from the Spirit.

When we come together for worship, given our shared belief in the Divine, there is a mutual, reciprocal trust that we are, in fact, doing the same thing:

We are being still so that we may listen more clearly to that which God is wanting to tell us, show us, sing to us, whisper to us... We have come to the Banquet, ready to be fed by the Bread of Life and then some!

There is such unity in our practice and in our belief--that God is still speaking to us--that many times in our short 2 years, when worship was broken, during a period of quiet reflection, a number of us have spoken of our inward tenderness, our sense of connectedness and our experience of the Divine Mystery. And often our experiences are confirmed when we hear one another speak of the sense of the Presence in our midst that we ourselves experienced...

As for what I do in worship...? Sometimes I catch myself "trying" to listen inwardly to the Shepherd. But the trying gets in the way, much like when learning a new language, if I focus on translating word by word, I miss the concept that is encased in the message. But if I relax and simply absorb the whole message, something deep within me makes all the connections I need, and Voila! I understand what is being said, despite the fact that I did not translate it word by word.

So in worship, when I realize I am trying to listen instead of actively resting as a way into listening, then I am able to return to a relaxed receptive state. I find that I often feel my lower back moves against the back of the chair as I do so. I end up imagining or even sensing that God is standing behind me, arms thrown around my shoulders, and I lean, I lean into those Everlasting Arms...

Other times, especially recently, I have come to understand that in unprogrammed Quaker worship, there is an invitation for us all to be at the Holy Spirit's Table, the Banquet, and we are there as guests, and we are there to listen to our Dinner Host when the time comes. We will need to pay attention, and at the time when God speaks, we will all lean in to listen more carefully, and occasionally we will nudge one another and smile at one another when we recognize that God is speaking to our mutual condition; and when it is over, we will go home full, having been Well Fed by our time Together with the Spirit.

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Sadly for me, in a meeting in which there is great spiritual variety, I have experienced no sense of that corporate connection or gatheredness, and I find I mostly end up focusing on my own thoughts, my own world. Occasionally I can imagine God circling us all together, but that then interferes with my ability to Rest in God and Listen.

The image I have in less centered meetings for worship is that, around the Banquet Table, the dinner guests are each doing different things: some are reading; some are knitting with the radio on in the background; some are having whispered conversations with one another... And I picture myself throwing down my chair and saying, "Hey! There is something Magnificent being shared with us here, and I can't Listen or Hear with so much activity going on!"

My fear of being so "radical" usually quells that impulse pretty quickly, though. smile

As I empty myself into this piece, I feel I have articulated a number of things that have been turning over and over inside myself. I am grateful for and humbled by my fellow Quaker bloggers, and I'll be adding Ruthie-Annie to my links.



Martin Kelley said...

About two months ago I worshipped at a Meeting I've only been to once or twice before. I centered down--which was wonderful, it's always a gift. But I realized the worship wasn't "covered." I quietly started looking around the room and could see that the worshippers were all doing their own thing. There were people reading, there were people obviously doing some sort of quiet Buddhist chants, a few looked like they were doing a week-in-review in their heads. At one point I felt as if perhaps I was being given some vocal ministry to share, but as I looked around the room I felt like I would only be interrupting everyone's private meditation. It felt sad, actually. If that were the only Meeting nearby I think I'd be tempted to just stay at home First Day mornings (I do too much as it is).

Larry Clayton said...

Liz, we all have different experiences of worship, and it's great to share them as you have done here.

Re silence: I was deeply into silence long before I became a Quaker, and still find silence in solitude more meaningful. For me the Quaker experience has always been a social one: we are here to be with one another, to hear God and to witness in various ways: to confess, to listen, to intercede for, to rejoice in, to learn to love, which is not always easy.

I'm in two groups: one made up of 7 or 8; we know one another itimately, more like family worship. The other is a large group with people from many different backgrounds, many different levels of faith. Here we are trying to become one as the first group is, but it's much harder. We know so little about one another.

Once a "weighty" member in a state of worry and anxiety was bothered by a rank outsider who came occasionaly, sat on the back row and read his Bible. The turning of pages bothered the first member; she went back and asked him to stop. Needless to say we've never seen him again.

Did God send him to us? Might we have helped him over a period of time?

In the big meeting much is happening that may ruffle our spirits, but maybe, if we can wait and intercede and listen, God's purposes will be served.

God bless you real good (as we sometimes say in the south.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz and all,

Way to testify, Friend! As a member of the same, small worship group, I felt grateful to see you express your experience of the divine and our worship group with boldness and clarity.

As I see it, out worship group is discerning how we are called to welcome unity and how we are called to welcome diversity. I believe that our worship group is developing an intimate shared commitment and practice to loving and following God with traditional Quaker practice.

I believe that a strong sense of shared religious purpose can make welcoming other forms of diversity easier. If we are bound by a shared commitment to faithfulness to God, and bound by a commitment to do that with each other in expectant Quaker worship, I have faith that differences of spiritual experience, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and personality can be welcomed with more confidence. For religious groups that lack much shared religious focus and commitment, I think that it can be easy to allow cultural and social similarities to be our primary bind. For instance, many liberal Quakers in the U.S. listen to National Public Radio and are politically liberal—and it seems to me that these type of similarities sometimes bind groups of Friends together more than shared focus towards the divine. In my experience, this can feel quite culturally exclusive if you don’t share those cultural identities.

I don’t mean to say that welcoming cultural diversity is easy for our worship group or any group with a strong sense of shared religious purpose and practice. Our worship group is culturally similar in many ways, and I think God is asking us to stretch beyond ourselves in ways we aren’t rushing to. However, I do not believe that avoiding common theology and religious practice is the best way to welcome diversity.

I have experienced interfaith worship that is very gathered in God’s presence. At the same time, I need a base of shared religious practice to ground me. I don’t want my core religious community to welcome any belief or practice. I need discipline and accountability that can only come when my spiritual community chooses a shared language, framework, and practice for going deep into the divine. Within this framework, I want to welcome anyone to join us. I do this in very imperfect ways, and I pray for divine assistance to open up to both the radical inclusiveness and unwavering focus of Jesus.


Liz Opp said...

Beppe and Martin, thanks for stopping by! I sense that there are a number of Friends who are striving to articulate what does and doesn't work for us in Meeting for Worship, as well as what it is we do (or don't do) as we come together in the silence.

Ruthie, I am delighted to hear about your experience of worship and how the variety of belief supports and sustains you. I think at some point in my journey among Friends, I was not aware of what was going on in worship: I was more focused on calming my busy mind and settling into the fact that no one was "talking at me" about beliefs, rituals, and religious holidays that were empty and powerless for me.

My experience of myself and of my Quaker development is that as I learned more about Quakerism and had deeper conversations with Friends who spoke to my condition, I began to experience the open worship differently... and perhaps I began to understand that there were times when I felt grounded and peaceful and connected to the larger body, and there were times when I didn't. So I learned and experimented; learned and experimented; observed and experimented some more.

I need these reminders, though, that each of us is nourished by different things: "Many paths, one journey." It sounds like you are as delighted for me and my worship experience, Ruthie, and I am for you and your experience.

Liz Opp said...

Larry, I appreciate the questions you raise and the observations you make. For one thing, the one Friend who was unsettled by another who was reading... Just how do we approach one another when our spiritual practices, especially during corporate worship, impact one another? What do we do when one Friend, such as myself, has a concern and desire that we listen together for the Spirit in that time, while another Friend uses that time for personal reflection and spiritual nourishment in a form that differs from that of the first Friend?

In the past year, I have been reminded numerous times that John Woolman did not just start speaking for Friends out of the blue about freeing those they held as slaves. He did not spontaneously decide to go meet with Native Americans about their ways. He first became aware of a feeling of Love ("Love was the first motion...); then awaited a leading to speak; and then waited for an opening to do so.

Among my concerns for contemporary Friends is that the further we stray from knowing one another deeply "in that which is Eternal," the easier it is to speak too soon, to misunderstand or misinterpret a person's intention to have a tender exchange, to break community out of hurt feelings, to give power to our grudges...

For example, in my humanness the other day, a well-meaning remark I made to a Friend who was tired and concerned about her skills as recording clerk was poorly timed. The Friend with whom I spoke heard my words of support as criticism because she was in a tender place and I was too full of my own agenda--to tell her that I feel as though she is doing well with her gift of recording. Some of the responsibility falls to me, to be more attentive (what clerk likes to be "rushed" at the end of a long day of attending to business?!); some of the responsibility falls to the Friend with whom I spoke, and I am grateful she had the capacity to stay in her truth and say, "This feels like criticism. What are you saying?"

She could have instead told herself inwardly that I was criticizing her, written me off, and decided to avoid me from here-on-out. We happen to have enough of a relationship, though, and share enough of a mutual understanding of what it means to be in a faith community together, that we navigated that soft, muddy terrain and learned a bit more about each other's heart in the process.

Feeling love toward another is not always enough. Having a leading is not always enough. Having an opportunity to speak or act is not always enough. But when all three are in place, perhaps that is Right Order in which to move forward in our obedience to God's promptings.

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And hello to Michael! I am amazed at how the more grounded I am in my own connection to God (with no personal belief in Jesus as Divine), the more open I am to supporing and nurturing your connection to Jesus.

That's the the paradox that I learned about through hearing the personal stories of the Jewish Israelis, Muslim-Arab Israelis, and Christian Israelis who live in the Middle Eastern town of Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam. A Jewish Israeli man just out of Israel's army, and an Arab Israeli man who was at the time the mayor of that village, visited the Twin Cities and spoke about many things, including their mutual experience of being able to respect each other's religion.

This deep respect for their religious differences, along with the deep mutual commitment to live peacefully in this "Oasis of Peace," allows them to join in celebrating the holidays of the other person's faith--because they encourage each other to continue practicing their own faith without fear of having to blend with one another or of having to worship in private.

What I am experiencing, similar to what you are saying, Michael, is that the more grounded I am in my Quakerism, the more able I am to be open to how others worship. I am less threatened that I will have to give something up that I cherish... Though there's no way to know how I or we as a worship group might be tested when, for example, an non-theist Friend wishes to join us.

Thanks for visiting!


Anonymous said...

Liz: I'm so glad you're doing this blog; it helps make up for the lack of other opportunities we've had to discuss things like this.

I was most struck by your analogy of worshiping being like learning a new language. I think it fits a lot of what we're experiencing.

The earliest Friends spoke the same religious language, not only among themselves, but with English society in general. Their critiques of the organized church struck home because they were judging the church on its own terms. It wasn't "Christianity is wrong"; it was "You aren't Christian, not because WE say so, but because the God you profess to believe says so."

While they were also inspired by the Living God (as we must be), their lexicon for communicating this message was the Bible, almost universally known (in the broad narrative, at least) throughout England. They found it so rich, so comprehensive that it contained all of the concepts necessary to communicate spiritual truths, at least among other Christians: Creation. Sin and Evil. Grace and Redemption. Eternal Life. Justice. How to pray. The place of Suffering. Complex ethical dilemmas. etc. (To say nothing of having a lot to say about sex, drugs, and violence. . . .)

To these concepts, Friends derived and added their own language and concepts -- Inward Teacher; holy obedience; covered meeting; etc. -- which had precise meanings to those who used them, especially in the context of the Biblical foundation.

Today, there are very few -- especially among Western Friends, and especially among FGC/liberal Friends -- who know either biblical or Quaker language well enough to learn from it or communicate with it. What they do share is the language of materialist, secular, liberal, political Westerners.

Primarily because it is materialist -- i.e., disbelief in the existence of a supernatural realm of reality -- this language is incapable of providing genuine, sustainable guidance and comfort over the long haul.

This is obviously my opinion, but I think it's true. This is why there is so much growth in the so-called evangelical churches today: they offer a reality that promises transcendence of the bankrupt, soul-less materialism of the modern age.

So too are people are seeking out Friends: precisely because they think (or hope) that we do speak the divine language that it has sustained us for three centuries now, they want to learn it.

Consequently, if meeting for worship is understood to be a time when God visits and communicates with his People collectively at the deepest levels, few who experience it have the tools to understand it. The best most can do is translate what is happening into language they understand, which will most likely liberal, secular, political, psychological language, sprinkled with religiousy-sounding words whenever possible, or with whatever religious language they learned at their mother's knee. It will be unlikely that this translation will be shared by many others in the meeting, however.

While something may be better than nothing, this fact dampens the depth of the experience, and we lose many seekers who should be able to find what they're looking for, and risk alienating others (like you) who want more than they've found.

But I don't think it likely that the reality or meaning of the Friends' worship experience will spring spontaneously into one's mind or heart without some context, some matrix able to receive it already there.

I think we need to begin again to build that context by practicing the language with each other. Talk more; read and study together; teach each other. We need to become much more literate in theology (or spiritual language -- I'm not sure which I really mean) and in Friends' history so that we have the common vocabulary, grammar, and stories necessary to interpret our experiences to ourselves and to the world.

You are experiencing this in a small group, and having come to Friends through a small-meeting, that makes a lot of sense to me.

But whether a meeting is large or small, a context outside of the silent worship experience is necessary (or, at least, helpful).

The response to the 7-week Quakerism 101 class we just held (40 participants) convinced me that people -- newcomers as well as long-seasoned Friends -- are hungry to know that Quakers have been about, how we got where we are, who we are today, where we're going.

What made it work was the right balance between teaching content(Quaker history, practice & doctrines) and participation. The content provided the context in which the participation made sense and gave Friends the tools with which to interpret and communicate about their spitirual lives.

First Day Schools could also contribute by teaching the great Biblical narratives from the earliest ages, supplemented by the Quaker place in those narrative for late elementary and middle school Friends. Then, we can have the world religions / Christian ethics discussion for older teens who are now equipped for it.

To this, I think that music, hymns, and sacred songs can also provide a common language, images, and stories that Friends can use to interpret their worship experience. (I used to love it when you and Jeanne & others sang in the meeting room before worship.)

In the context of your language metaphor, Liz, I see these efforts as basic language lessons. Drills, grammar, vocabulary study, literature, etc. to form the matrix. Then, alternating with immersion in worship, Friends can stop translating word-by-word and experience the a-ha of authentic comprehension as you describe. But without the drills and the basic vocabulary of spiritual discourse, I fear that most will never be able to arrive at that place.

Finally, I want to affirm a point Michael made: "a strong sense of shared religious purpose can make welcoming other forms of diversity easier." The stronger a church is at its center, the more it can encompass in its orbit. I sometimes fear that our meetings are all electrons with no nucleus, which means that the electrons won't hold for long. (So much for mixing metaphors. . . .)

Sorry for going so long. I again commend you and the other Q-bloggers for furthering communication.

Liz Opp said...

Welcome, Paul! Nice of you to drop by and add so many wonderful insights to this post.

Of course, I want to respond to some of what you offer, such as:

This is why there is so much growth in the so-called evangelical churches today: they offer a reality that promises transcendence of the bankrupt, soul-less materialism of the modern age. So too are people are seeking out Friends: precisely because they think (or hope) that we do speak the divine language that it has sustained us for three centuries now, they want to learn it.I actually think folks are attending evangelical churches so they have a place where they feel they can belong, and these churches come closest to reflecting their beliefs. And I think other folks are drawn to contemporary liberal Friends because of (1) feeling tired of the "empty forms" they've encountered in the religion of their upbringing; or (2) the peace-and-social justice element, or (3) the need to have a place where they feel they can belong. smile. In the end, it probably doesn't matter just why people come; it just matters that people come!

Elsewhere I have written about the hope that Friends can be more explicit about our Quaker experience, our faith, our practice, and it certainly is likely to be one of the key parts of the upcoming workshop at the Gathering: How do we experience the Presence? What do we mean when we speak about the process of discernment? How do we know we have a leading and how do we test it? Why is consensus not consensus when it comes to Quaker business practices? Those sorts of questions.

I have heard good things about the Q101 course just completed at monthly meeting, and I am glad for the turnout. It sounds to me like there really was the right mix of experience, sharing, and instruction.

And to clarify about my Quaker journey, I first found Friends at Haverford Meeting (PA) as a college student, which perhaps had 30 people at First Day MfW, many of whom were students or professors. Then I came to Milwaukee Friends, which had 60-70 people at MfW--a number I would not consider small.

But much of my recent growth and understanding of Quakers and the deepening of my Quakerism has come from serving as a yearly meeting representative to the Central Committee of Friends General Conference--and I have called Central Committee "one of the best kept secrets" among Quakers as a result of my experience. [I'll have to plan to dig up the piece I wrote about it and post it later.]

Clearly, you and I have much more to talk about. Perhaps Way will open for us to share more than an hour of silence and open worship on First Day. Thanks for taking the time to write.


Anonymous said...

(Actually, I meant the I had come to Friends through a small meeting; I knew you came via Haverford & Milwaukee.)