Meeting for worship

REHOBOTH MILLS: In many of the Friends’ Meetings for Worship that I have attended over the past year and a half, punctuality has been observed more in the breach than in fact. Often the worst offenders are members of the Ministry and Counsel Committee, who find themselves trying to conduct business in the hallways rather than turning to the more pressing business of worship. One Meeting I attended has attempted to hold latecomers until fifteen minutes into the worship, the time the children leave for their First-Day school activities, before entering. This greatly helps foster the deep meditation and communion we seek, but the morning I was there, the first speaker denounced this practice and most of the messages reflected this issue. As some of us noted afterward, it was a great Meeting for Business – and perhaps it will be instructive to this particular fellowship, as it is attempting to return to the Quaker practice of a Meeting for Worship for Business. As part of my message that morning, I shared our 21st Advice, which came as a balm over the controversy. Several Friends came up to me afterward and marveled over the concise directness and loving power of the Advice. There is a great difference between the universalist Meetings for Worship I encounter here most First-Day mornings and a Meeting for Worship in the Name of Jesus. The former has great difficulty centering down; many of its messages are of the “I was thinking” or “I was reading last week” nature; and there is a resistance to our free gospel ministry, although I can also report that in every one of those Meetings I have spoken in, I find a few Friends who are hungry for the word of God and for fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of the messages these Meetings need are of a teaching nature – the Christian roots of Quakerism. In contrast, our Conservative Meetings are held in the Name of Jesus. Because of the deep unity we share in Christ, there is an almost instantaneous centering down: the Meeting for Worship begins almost as if someone had turned on a light switch or we all got into a fast elevator headed toward the top floor of some tall skyscraper. Fifth-Day last we shared a similar Meeting here in my apartment, a mid-week Meeting in the Name of Jesus (under the care of York Monthly Meeting). The messages are of a more prophetic nature, and urge us to greater and greater faithfulness to His loving commands. We come together to share testimony and confession as well, to urge one another to ever greater faithfulness in our Lord. We welcome others to share this fullness, this blessing with us: we share its good news through our all Quaker Meetings: there is a hunger for it. Often, I am finding it helpful to arrive a half-hour or so before the appointed hour, to center down early and help “warm up the room,” to pray for the Meeting for Worship and prepare myself for His work.

A question some of us are wrestling with: should we be going where our messages are needed, even though we know many resist us in the effort, or should we go on First-Day to a Meeting where we will find comfort and rest?

JANE’S FALLS: There is great need in these parts for free gospel ministry that builds up our Meetings “in the faith that is Jesus Christ.” But a core of mostly young Friends – some of them affiliated with New Foundations, some united in other, informal bonds of Christian love – is “taking due care to see that the basic principles of Friends’ worship are kept clearly before our members.” I feel great unity with this purpose and am overjoyed to be given such messages to proclaim. A Meeting for Worship in which we fail to acknowledge the presence of God and fail to turn to the Living Christ for our nurture is, for me, lacking Life. This acknowledgement does not have to be spoken; but we know when it is lacking. And I am finding, as I am being moved to speak in various Meetings, that many longtime Friends have never heard that Jesus is our Lord. But they have now. We are seeing everywhere an Invisible Church within our Meetings, one that needs encouragement and nurture, but one that is seeking Him and growing.

SYCAMORE GROVE: With the exception of a few mornings after those Seventh-days when I work at the office until midnight, I have been regular and punctual in my attendance at Meeting for Worship. I have striven to be faithful to the Lord’s service, waiting for His direction and a heightened and renewed awareness of His presence.

Beginning the Meeting hour with silent praise and thanksgiving helps, as does holding up in prayer those who appear in ministry. These days, being frequently given a message to share vocally in the Meeting in what I believe is free gospel ministry, I am finding great need to be especially vigilant in maintaining a waiting spiritual worship. Perhaps this leads me to be too hesitant at times to respond to that calling as promptly as I should.

Traditionally going forth in twos provided Friends with spiritual companionship in this work and allowed each one to keep watch over the other. Because of the temptations of running ahead of one’s leading, of succumbing to temptations, or of doctrinal error, there is great need of the presence of an elder or some other spiritual partner to help keep an ever vigilant faithfulness in that straight and narrow walk. Fortunately, New England has a small, informal group of Christ-centered, generally younger Friends (some of whom would consider themselves “neo-Wilburites”) who share in this concern of Christian watchfulness; they have been helpful in lovingly encouraging, correcting, and rebuking one another, as necessary. Some of these individuals have attended Ohio Yearly Meeting or our Conservative Friends gatherings and feel precious kinship with those they have met. Their shared faith has been a special blessing and nurture.

The purpose of worship is to gather before the Lord, for His service and not our own individual needs. Yet I find that when I miss Meeting, my spirit dives in the week that follows, and I am less likely to be the witness I might otherwise be.

For the past eight months, my personal study of scripture and practice of prayer have not been regular and persistent. Through that lapse, however, I have come to know their necessity and the subtle ways they connect directly to unsuspected aspects of my personal life – a crisis in one can lead to a crisis in the other. In the past few weeks, I have been discovering the need to be more active in many facets of my life. Perhaps much of the Oriental spiritual training in my past and over-emphasis on Quaker humility, Way opening, and so on have permitted me to be far more passive than I should. What I am beginning to learn is an active waiting, prayer in the form of questions, including “What can I do now, Lord,” giving fresh urgency and voice to the unarticulated – an experimental prayer seeking answers, if He will, in addition to holding individuals and situations in the Light or asking for His will. This is opening large sections of scripture to me, revealing an active confrontation with personal doubt, shortcomings, lapses, or major defeats that may ultimately achieve God’s victory.

It is important to be filled with the love and joy of Christ, to live a life that demonstrates qualities that will attract others to the fellowship we cherish. Perhaps then others will be more willing to accept the extended invitation.

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:46-47

WILLOW BROOK: Revisiting my earlier responses to this query has me considering the changes in my life in the three decades since the earliest entry. At the time, I was reeling from a divorce and subsequent broken engagement, exile from a region of the country I loved passionately, and career struggles that led me to redirect my ambitions. The one constant through all of that was Quaker faith, building on my earlier yoga experience. The questions I carried through the period – not just whether I would arrive at a kind of religious community and discipline sustaining my desires but also a hope for suitable marriage and family, along with an unspoken drive for book publication that would free me from the demands of daily journalism – have since been answered, to whatever degree.

I am faithful in attending meeting for worship and have long been central in its ministry. These days, I’m one who also carries a care for those sessions, rather than focusing solely on my own meditation. I am grateful for those mornings when I once again feel the lightness and freedom of my earlier sittings – or would welcome a revived sense of urgency throughout our Meeting, especially when we enter a phase of same old/same old routine. There are stretches, too, when I feel a restlessness settle over me. I anticipate a shift in my own activities, to once again find adequate time for Scripture study and prayer, as well as meditation and Hatha exercise, which would help me regain a comfortable posture.

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For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

Beacon Hill

Set in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood, Friends worship in a house reputed designed by Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Massachusetts State House just a few blocks away. The meetinghouse also includes a group residential program.
Set in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, Friends worship in a house reputed designed by Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Massachusetts State House just a few blocks away. The meetinghouse also includes a group residential program.
Welcome to Boston.
Welcome to Boston.

Query and response

FAITH BASED ON experience – which early Friends sometimes called experimental religion, rather than experiential – demands questions and questioning. Every experiment begins with “what if?” or “how?” or even “why?” and leads into a range of encounters before discoveries can be reported. This is quite different from religious traditions where “blind faith” is expected. The Bible, however, is full of questions, as well as riddles and parables given as answers.

Since historically Quakers eschewed dogma and creed, how were they to maintain a central core of beliefs and practices? How were they to know whether their pursuit of Truth, and their responses to it, were authentic? After the initial outburst, they gathered into communities to worship and decide the conduct of their affairs. Their practice of taking formal minutes began as a public record of their suffering in upholding their faith and then evolved to exercises of maintaining a particular identity and culture.

Remarkably, their solution for shaping their faith came by applying a set of questions, or queries, to be examined month by month through the year. Read in the monthly meeting for worship for the conduct of business, each group of queries would require self-examination first by each Friend and then as it fit the entire congregation. That is, the queries work first to invoke personal reflections. From there, they spread outward, so the faith community can ask what WE, individually and collectively, believe or do or hold – or what we need to do to be more faithful.

In its latest revision of Faith and Practice, or book of discipline, New England Yearly Meeting breaks out some of its sets of queries into those addressed to individuals and those addressed to the Meeting community as a whole. It’s a fresh approach.

Historically, the queries were the major item on the agenda of the monthly meeting for business. The meeting would draft a summary of the spoken responses and forward that to the quarterly meeting (a district gathering of monthly meetings, conducted four times a year), where all the summaries of the constituent meetings would be read aloud and another summary prepared. The yearly meeting (a regional gathering held once a year) would then do the same with the quarterly meeting reports.

The result was that Friends “lived under discipline.” Not only did they use the distinctive “thee and thou” Plain speech and unadorned dress in Quaker gray, they also conformed to a culture that largely precluded the fine arts, learning for its own sake, violence and inequality, and so on.

Addressing the queries – and a set of associated advices – came to embody a season of the Holy Spirit for Friends. On a larger scale, each yearly meeting would revise its queries periodically, with the result representing the seasons of Quaker evolution in its various strands as well. For instance, we no longer have questions addressing hats or sleeping through meeting for worship. If they seem quaint today, they also acknowledge differences – and responding to them can provoke sharp insights. None of us is threatened with imprisonment for failing to show deference for “superiors,” and we feel no requirement to attend meeting for worship, much less when we’re drowsy. So what are the contemporary equivalents?

Friends are not alone in using questions to deepen religious practice. Zen Buddhists, for instance, are renowned for their set of koans – seemingly unanswerable riddles a student must wrestle with, having a reply for his teacher at regular appointments until one response finally passes, and another koan is assigned.

Teachers, of course, use questions – and tests – to further learning.

According to the 1977 Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), the Queries and Advices “provide a means for maintaining a general oversight of the membership pertaining to our Christian life and conduct. It remains this Yearly Meeting’s heartfelt desire that good order and unity may be maintained among us….The attention of each member of the Society should be drawn at regular intervals to individual self-examination. To aid the members in this exercise, a series of both Queries and Advices is provided to impress upon the minds of us all various principles and testimonies which should guide our daily lives.”

While I had experienced this as part of Winona Meeting in Ohio, the practice took a turn later when I was sojourning at a distance away and my nearest meetings merely read the month’s query for general, silent reflection. No summary was drafted. Another Ohio Friend suggested that those of us living away from our home meetings sit down and partake in the exercise of responding and then mail our written answers to our home meeting. Although intending to take up this practice, I procrastinated and Winona received nothing. Later, my clerk’s invitation arrived, gently urging me to join in the exercise.

Many of the upcoming responses on this blog will be drawn from that exercise. They are not meant to be definitive, but they do reflect some of my seasons when I was closer to Friends still using Plain Quaker expression and dress. The language, often openly Christian and Scriptural, may come as a jolt to many Friends, who would answer these more universally. Another round of answers here is drawn from a later Friends’ circle that experimented with drafting written summaries, and I include it to suggest what happens when individual responses come together in mutual challenge and summary. Also included are observations from my current situation, seen through the lenses of remarriage and serving as clerk of the meeting. Within those parameters and conditions, the following responses – taken from four or five rounds over two decades – demonstrate seasons of growth and change.

There’s a reason for not including the queries themselves here. While the first responses are derived from Ohio’s queries, the later years come from New England’s. There may also be influences from other yearly meetings during the middle years, when I was reading widely regarding the practice. While the original had only nine months of responses, following Ohio’s model, I have removed the monthly reference and broken out some of the responses into separate sections; in addition, Ohio addressed a separate set of six groups of queries to the ministers and elders, and I include a sample of replies to that round.

Today, many Friends Meetings have a practice of drafting an annual State of Society (or State of the Meeting) Report, examining our strengths and weaknesses. I would prefer that we instead return to the practice of sending a written summary of our query answers, though the effort would require much more attention – and savvy Friends do find ways to cushion candid examination of prickly issues.

Curiously, only after years of familiarity with this custom did I notice a remarkable way in which our queries set us apart from other denominations. None of the queries themselves ask what we believe. Rather, the focus is on what we do. Action, that is, speaks louder than words. Our beliefs are revealed in our daily lives – the radical understanding of the word witness in Quaker usage.

As I revisit my earlier responses, I find myself sometimes cringing at the strident tone in some of these reflections. I leave them undiluted, a side of the deep desire and passion for an all-embracing faith community notwithstanding. I also see how wordy many of them are, in contrast to the brevity of today – not that my goals are as ambitious.

Please note that many of the locations in my responses have been given fictional names to allow for greater confidentiality here. In addition, not every location where I lived over the course of this project is included in each response; some of these, too, are the product of my being assigned to draft the group response from workshops that tackled the given query.

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For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.