September 14, 2007

Waiting to surrender

I'm not sure where I first heard the term "waiting worship" - maybe in a blog post, maybe in Lloyd Lee Wilson's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. I definitely remember the "aha" moment when I heard it, feeling words finally start to capture what my experience of silent worship in Quaker meetings had been.

While there are days when I fear that some people waiting in meeting are waiting for the end of the meeting (as people in churches often seem to wait for the end of the sermon), "waiting worship" describes both a longing for God and an understanding that God, the Light, isn't always just there when we turn around, ready to provide guidance and support. God, the Light, is always there - but we're not always so close.

"What are we waiting for?"

God. Silent contemplation is an opportunity for us to clear ourselves of the barriers we place between ourselves and God, to listen to the Light and let ourselves be lifted.

A recent post by Robin reminded me that this basic message seems to have survived the various changes to Quakerism over the centuries:

It is our job to trust that God will transform us into what or whom we are called to be. It is God's job to do the transforming.

George Fox and James Nayler preached transformation and submission to God, letting God work through us. So did the Quietist Quakers who came after them, and so did 19th-century revivalists like Hannah Whitall Smith, whose The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life inspired Robin's post. I'd suggest that most modern Quakers, whatever the details, still keep a similar thread near the heart of their worship.

Following this path is more difficult than contemplating quietly in meeting - it means letting God lead, a terrifying prospect that puts all we have at risk. (One of Quakerism's wisest aspects, it seems to me, is providing a framework for when we seek the help of others to discern what leadings came from the Light, and which came from the confusion of our own wants and needs.)

Letting God lead seems, however, to be the path to peace, both inward peace and outward peace. Our greatest strength lies in surrendering our strength to God's strength, leading when called to lead, serving when called to serve.

"Giving your life to God," in this context, doesn't necessarily mean becoming a monk or a nun or a priest or a missionary, but rather listening to God, discerning what God wants in your life and following that leading. It might even suggest a path forward with that most challenging bit of scripture, Matthew 5:48:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

"We can't be perfect," people complain; "Why does God have to be so demanding?" And the imperfection of humans seems to be widely accepted, even by George Fox. Where then, can this perfection come from?

From God - if we listen, and follow.

August 11, 2006


I went to the local Presbyterian church this past Sunday with my girlfriend. I sometimes go with her there, and she sometimes comes with me to meeting. (Relations between Quakers and Presbyterians seem to have softened since the 1650s.)

This Sunday was Communion. During the ceremony, the ushers brought the bread and juice to our pews. I declined, though I was eligible according to the requirements stated at the start of the ceremony. I also didn't take it when I was at a Good Friday service earlier this year.

I took Communion once at my grandmother's funeral Mass, and I've regretted that since. (I also went to a Moravian Love Feast but that isn't actually Communion.)

I also avoided Communion once in a spot where I thought it was going to be difficult to avoid it, not really knowing the etiquette of what to do. I was a pallbearer at my great-uncle's funeral, and he'd been a Catholic priest - a thoroughly conservative one, and one of my favorite people. I especially didn't want to take Communion at his funeral, as I hadn't undergone confirmation, confession, or penance, a sacramental path he'd not only participated in but overseen.

His funeral Mass - not in Latin, though I'd had some hopes for seeing that - was conducted by the local bishop, and the church was packed. As a pallbearer, I was in the front row, with seven of my cousins. I was the second in the pew from the center aisle, and as we stood up for Communion I was wondering what I should do. Should I shake my head to the priest? Say I wasn't taking it? I had to get up and out of the pew so the six cousins to my left could take it.

My cousin to the right stood up, got into the aisle, and turned immediately left to go around the pew and back in, never having to say anything. I followed him gratefully, not sure I would have realized that was an option had I been sitting where he was. The next six cousins all took Communion.

This time, the Presbyterians weren't making any taxing demands of me before I was eligible to take Communion - no sacramental penance, no need to be a member. There was no claim of transubstantiation, that the Communion bread and wine are themselves made body and blood by the blessing, and it wasn't my great-uncle's funeral.

Still, I couldn't take it. It's not just that I didn't want to - I couldn't. (I actually did want to share it.)

I'd like to say it was a leading, but I think it may only be a first tiny step toward wherever I'm being led - a blocking that doesn't yet have a positive direction.

I'm well-aware that early Quakers abandoned the sacraments as outward ordinances. There seems to have been some discussion about whether taking communion was actually a bad thing or simply meaningless. Nancy Bieber writes in her Pendle Hill Pamphlet Communion for a Quaker:

Quakers, from their beginnings in seventeenth-century Britain, have eschewed the outer acts. Early Friends dealt with the Catholic, Anglican, and non-Conformist sacraments of their day by declaring them simply no longer necessary. We live, George Fox said, in a time of new covenant when the old forms are no longer needed. The living Christ is already present and within us.

In 1676, Robert Barclay wrote in his classic Apology that "we are certain that the day has dawned in which God has risen and dismissed all those ceremonies and rites. He is to be worshipped only in Spirit." While Barclay urged tolerance to those who still "indulged" in Communion, his contemporary, Isaac Penington, advised friends to "keep steadfast in that holy testimony to keep from outward and dead knowledge, and out of dead practices and worships after man's own conceivings into an inward principle, and into worship in spirit and truth." (9-10)

I share Bieber's conclusion that "the sacramental experiences of communion in our daily lives bring us into real community and a deep unity with others... into Christ-service, into a compassionate being for others," and I think that experience also happens in meeting at times.

Communion at meeting has also been an issue in the more recent past, as Walter Williams notes in The Rich Heritage of Quakerism:

One of the vexing questions which had to be faced during this period of change stemmed from the free mingling of Friends with members of other Christian communions. In some Friends meetings the question was soon arising: "Should not Friends, as others, observe the outward ordinance of water baptism and the Lord's supper?"... Understandably, many other Friends felt uneasy at such disavowal of the historic position of Friends in this regard. (203)

I'd be startled at the introduction of any of these "ordinances" into Quakerism, and couldn't encourage them. I'm more wondering about visiting other churches. I love the symbolism of communion and the way it seems to draw communities together, but share early Quakers' doubts about its religious significance.

Reflecting on communion seems like a good path for a while.

(Incidentally, I find the word "ordinance" much stranger than "sacrament", despite its efforts to be a less dramatic word. I also wonder if Quakerism's treatment of these as inward blessings returns some religious mystery to them, power that disappeared when many of the reformers declared the Eucharist to be a remembrance in food and drink, not body and blood.)

Update, 5/29/2007: I took communion yesterday at my wife's Lutheran church, the church in which we had held a second wedding ceremony the day before. It was Pentecost Monday, and the pastor held a longer period of silence than usual, during which I felt strongly led to take communion this time. I seem to take it once every 18 years, approximately. Hmmm....

June 22, 2006


This sounds rather different from the modern Quaker meetings I've attended:

"Convincement," the term the Children [Quakers] used for conversion, meant to be overcome, and their meetings were gatherings of those who had been overtaken and gripped by God's Spirit. With no obvious leader, the group met in silence to await the promptings of the ever-present Christ. Almost anything was possible: shaking, quaking, rolling, even stripping. Sometimes nothing of moment was said or done, but an attender might still be touched by the power that seemed collected in the group.

One Friend described such a meeting at Grayrigg in Westmorland where a troubled young girl left, sat on the ground, and then cried out in agony, "O Lord make me clean." Such incidents revealed the Lord's presence to the person convinced but also spoke to others, leading them to sense their own needs. At other times, as at Malton in early 1653, nearly two hundred came together and were so moved that, to quote a visitor who was there, "almost all of the room was shaken." An evangelist explained how people leaving a steeplehouse were astonished to see the Children "trembling and crying" in their meeting.

Sometimes three or four who were strong in the truth would appoint a "threshing meeting" to winnow those ready to be convinced from among the heathen. Here, sparked by the presence of opponents, the scene was often more turbulent. At one such meeting a Ranter challenged Fox, who bluntly responded, "Repent you swine and beast." (First Among Friends, 59-60, paragraph breaks added)

Perhaps convincement comes more quietly now? I can't find good reason why it should.