Not long ago, one of the young interns at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) posted a kind of letter of concern to the FCNL interns’ collective blog site, Of Peace and Politics.
Jay’s concern was that the FCNL annual meeting had turned out more like a secular organization’s business meeting than like a Friends meeting for business. The focus of most of the participants, Jay wrote, “did not seem particularly centered”. He added, “The number of “I” statements was rather surprising. Many people were pushing their pet issues, and trying to attach them to the priorities document.”
And Jay wrote that, as the meeting discussed FCNL’s list of priorities, “The question that was asked [by the clerks of the meeting] was, ‘we’ll now open the floor to Friends’ comments, questions and concerns.’ But we’re not looking for individual Friends’ comments or concerns unless those concerns rise to a level of conscience, are we? We’re looking for what Friends are led to do in the next two years with regards to our federal government.” (Emphasis mine.)
Two other Friends wrote in to say that they agreed with Jay’s impressions of the meeting.
Now, from my standpoint as a traditional Friend, these matters are serious indeed.
We qualify as Friends to the degree that we live up to Christ’s charge in John 15:14: “You are my friends if you do whatsoever I tell you.” If we’re not listening to Christ — if we’re all caught up in our own pet issues and opinions, our own heads, as Jay felt was the case with most of the visible and audible Friends at the FCNL meeting — if we’re not willing to lay aside those things, as I laid aside my own pet environmental issues on my walk last summer, so that Christ may instruct and lead us in the way he chooses — how can we do whatsoever he tells us?
And if we don’t do whatsoever he tells us, then we are purely not entitled to the good name of Friends.
All these matters came back to me again this morning. My local monthly meeting was gathered to consider some language that might possibly be used to describe, in the next edition of our discipline, how we Iowa (Conservative) Friends practice meeting for worship.
I hadn’t seen the proposed language previously. It was all new to me! But as I looked the language over, a sense grew within me that something needful was missing.
And after some thought, I began to think that what was missing in the language, was directly connected to what was missing at that FCNL meeting.
Philadelphia: Quäkerkirche. Wood engraving from Ernst von Hesse Wartegg, Nord-Amerika, seine Stadt und Naturwunder, das Land und seine Bewohner in Schilderung (Leipzig: 1888). General Collections, Library of Congress.
The language before us, described our Quaker worship process as one in which we “quiet our senses and center down” so as to “approach the spiritual center of the Meeting” and “sense a greater nearness to the divine source of all truth and reality”.
As far as it goes, this is good language, no question. But it fails to remind us of how worship can and must connect to the divine imperative in our hearts — the imperative that, as we soon discover, overwhelms all our own pet projects, all our own hopes and fears and ideas, indeed overwhelms us altogether, and thereby transforms us: from self-led activists to willing servants, and from individualists to members of the team.
Friends lined up to speak at the microphone at the 2006 FCNL annual meeting. Notice the many differences in group dynamics from the scene in the woodcut above. This photo is reproduced from Jay’s essay on the FCNL interns’ web site.
The language of the Discipline Revision Committee portrayed what we do as “silent worship”. But what transforms us is not silence; it’s practice in waiting upon the Lord.
The very act of waiting, as a waiter waits on a customer, or a courtier on a king, is practice in setting aside one’s own ideas and opinions and learning to serve. Six months of hour-long waiting worship twice a week is the sort of intensive training in setting aside one’s self and learning to serve, that can change a person visibly. Six months of hour-long sitting in silence twice a week, seeking for truth and reality, may never once take a person beyond thinking that he knows the truth better than anyone else around him.
I was moved to share with my meeting a quotation from the writings of our old Friend Isaac Penington, which is the one of the oldest systematic descriptions of how Friends practice meeting for worship that I know:
…This is the manner of their worship. They are to wait upon the Lord, to meet in the silence of flesh, and to watch for the stirrings of his life, and the breakings forth of his power amongst them. And in the breakings forth of that power they may pray, speak, exhort, rebuke, sing, or mourn, &c., according as the Spirit teaches, requires, and gives utterance.
But if the Spirit do not require to speak, and give to utter, then every one is to sit still in his place (in his heavenly place I mean), feeling his own measure, feeding thereupon, receiving therefrom, into his spirit, what the Lord giveth. Now, in this is edifying, pure edifying, precious edifying; his soul who thus waits, is hereby particularly edified by the Spirit of the Lord at every meeting.
And then also there is the life of the whole felt in every vessel that is turned to its measure: insomuch as the warmth of life in each vessel doth not only warm the particular, but they are like a heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, insomuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigor of life flows into all.
And if any be burthened, tempted, buffeted by Satan, bowed down, overborne, languishing, afflicted, distressed, &c., the estate of such is felt in Spirit, and secret cries, or open (as the Lord pleaseth), ascend up to the Lord for them, and they many times find ease and relief, in a few words spoken, or without words, if it be the season of their help and relief with the Lord.
For absolutely silent meetings, wherein there is a resolution not to speak, we know not; but we wait upon the Lord, either to feel him in words, or in silence of spirit without words, as he pleaseth.— Penington, A Further Testimony to Truth Revived Out of the Ruins of
the Apostasy… (published posthumously in 1680)
I would ask you, friends and readers, to consider several parts of this passage especially.
To begin with, I would ask you to notice how Penington calls us specifically to “watch for the stirrings of his life, and the breakings forth of his power amongst them.” This helps us better understand what early Friends meant by “waiting”.
I would ask you to notice how Penington says that these breakings forth of God’s power lead us to speak, pray, exhort, rebuke, etc., “according as the Spirit teaches, requires, and gives utterance.” This helps us focus on what early Friends meant by the Spirit: it is not just a feel-good thing, but a source of imperatives in our lives. The Spirit is such that, when we listen to it, we feel, this is what I/we must do to restore goodness and kindness in this situation, or, this is what I/we must do to inspire one another, or simply, this is what I/we must do to love one another, to make one another feel cared for, as God also loves us and makes us feel cared for.
And finally, I would ask you to notice and think about Penington’s metaphor of the living coals. I’m sure, if any of you have ever cooked over a wood or charcoal fire, you know that a single stick or lump of coal will cool and burn out before it is completely consumed, but two or more sticks or lumps will reflect heat back and forth and keep each other burning, and a heap of coals will reduce itself completely to ash. This is what meeting for worship does for us — and if it fails to do it for us, it fails because we are too self-absorbed to reflect the love back and forth between us and so keep one another burning.
Meeting for business is simply meeting for worship with a fistful of collective petitions to present to the King. Properly practiced, it differs from meeting for worship in no other way.
And meeting for worship, similarly, is just meeting for business deprived of the collective petitions. It may still have individual petitions — matters that individual worshipers lay before the king in prayer. But no group petitions. And that’s really the only difference.
Thus it is silly to call meeting for business, “meeting for worship for business”, as if the meeting for worship were something more basic than the meeting for business. They are both equally un-basic. What’s basic is waiting on the King.
Meeting for business is waiting upon the King with collective petitions to lay before Him; meeting for worship may be no more than waiting on the King’s pleasure. But either way, the “stirrings of his life and breakings forth of his power”, which Penington refers to, might be compared to royal nods and gestures that the good courtier, waiting, rejoices in his heart to see, and leaps to obey.
If we understand that, and put it into practice, then problems with business meetings that don’t feel like business meetings, simply will not arise.
But what this means is that we have to get into the habit of teaching one another, and teaching the newcomers in our midst, how to practice waiting on the Lord.
I don’t yet know how we might do that in the next edition of our yearly meeting discipline. But it’s something my little meeting has agreed to think about.