One of the most awkward and alienating experience’s of a newcomer, is that confusing moment when open worship begins. It seems like everyone “powers down” and the sudden stillness is unnerving at best. Some of this has to do with the fact that we live in culture that thrives on sensory overload, but this is only part of the picture. Most of the problem is that we Quakers do not spend a lot of time continuing to teach about the mystical moment that is referred to as “open worship.” It is unfortunate that often this experience is guided by little more than a small handout or a PowerPoint slide. I want to follow up last month’s article by fleshing out a little of the personal practice of open worship. It is hard to put words to this sort of experience, but I will put myself out there and attempt to, even at the risk of sounding a bit crazy.
Robert Barclay (the great Quaker theologian) wrote, “For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.” Like Barclay, I knew something special was going on here, I just couldn’t understand exactly what. As a person who came from the outside, I too eventually found my own way on the path of contemplation. The first step in beginning this journey comes from a true belief that the God of the Universe is still speaking, and that “contact” is possible. The second step really, then, is the belief that these utterances of the Spirit might actually find their way out your mouth. As Christians, we believe that God even spoke through a donkey once (Num. 22:30), so compared to that, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Somewhere, in the middle of these two essential Friends beliefs is that tricky little part about listening. And somewhere also along the way, we find the grace to humbly obey when God nudges us to use our voice.
Our problem often lies in a restless spirit. Like a parent, trying to have a conversation with another adult while our child competes for our attention, so it is with trying to listen to God in the midst of our anxiety and fear filled minds. As we seek to “be still and know” that God is God (Ps. 46:10), we have to admit that “stillness” requires a lot of work. I want to attempt to put words to this experience as I have known it, in a humble attempt to show the way to those who are not as familiar with contemplative practices. I have far from “mastered” this way of worship, nor should everyone’s experiences exactly mirror mine. The truth is God speaks to each one of us a little bit different, we all hear Him in our own way. This is just a little bit of my way…
As we begin open worship we first begin “pruning” our minds of the distractions until a kind of emptiness comes. This is not the kind of hollow emptiness that comes from merely ignoring other people; it is an emptiness that comes with a strong desire to be filled with something better, some One better. Robert Barclay also writes, “As our worship consisted not in words so neither in silences as silence, but in a holy dependence of the mind upon God; from which dependence silence necessarily follows in the first place until words can be brought forth which are from God’s spirit.” I too, find this growing awareness Barclay describes of yielding myself to God. My will begins shrinking and begins to fade a little. As we wade down into the silence, rather than have a growing feeling that we are “alone in a crowd,” instead, what I often find is actually a greater awareness of those around me. Quakers often spoke about feeling “gathered” together as a people, and a feeling of being one in Christ eventually prevails. It is at this time that God’s presence seems most intense, yet at the same time feels very understated, natural. The feeling of Presence grows and a sort of intimacy with God comes.
At times this puts me in a place where I am either no longer very aware of my physical body, or it can have the opposite effect and I become even more in tune with it. At times, I completely lose track of time, and at other times, I become very aware of how precious time is and how it is fleeting. In this comfortable place of wordlessness, I often feel as though I am a piece of clay in God’s hands; as though I am being formed and stretched and changed. In Ecclesiastes 3:11 the Bible speaks of God putting eternity into our hearts despite our true ability to understand it, and that is just the sort of feeling that accompanies these nudges. This settling into the silence, as Friends often speak of it, is called “centering down.” It is in a spiritual way, something akin to reaching out to God’s hand and giving it a squeeze, and waiting for God to squeeze it back.
God’s voice has never come to me as an audible sound. Sometimes a memory pops into my mind, and I realize I have need for forgiveness from sin, or an old memory teaches me something brand new about God’s love for me. At other times, a few words or phrases of Scripture begin to speak once again, directly at my heart. I would hardly call myself a person who receives visions, but at times, a few images come here or there brilliantly flashing into my mind. Sometimes, they seem to be wound into a narrative, and at other times, it is something much more mysterious. Some might think that what I am talking about here is just a wandering mind, but that is not what I am trying to convey, but this is not mere ADD at play. It is very much an unmediated mystical experience with the very presence of God. In all of these expressions—something—a silent communication of sorts, seems as though it rises directly out of my soul. It comes from somewhere down deep; somewhere within me that the Spirit speaks.
Not every open worship time has a message for me. In fact, I admit that often the distractions win out, or that feeling of gathering doesn’t come. At times some of us are more in tune than others, and if enough of us are out of tune with God’s Spirit, seeking God in this way seems to yield even less fruit than usual. I admit, at times during the perpetual state of exhaustion that is parenthood, I have nodded off in silent prayer. Yet at other times, I have watched in amazement as the people of God humbly wait in silent expectation. I have felt moved to share something someone else refused to. I have seen how various Sunday morning leadings seem to connect in a very timely and unified way, like a mystical tapestry of witness to the Spirit’s presence among us.
Discerning a leading to vocal ministry is not always easy, though sometimes it is (I will write more about this later). When I feel as though I have received a message, it seems to come in a couple categories. The first category is the category of “personal.” At times God seems to communicate His grace or encouragement to me in a way that is purely personal. This often takes a form something like that of a Biblical proverb, or the anthem of a freedom to claim. I find these expressions of God’s love for me to be a welcome presence, but these are not something for anyone else. It is often something very specific, something just for me, or at times, just my family.
At other times, though, God seems to nudge me a bit harder. There is a sense that the message God has given me is for his gathered people, and that category is “corporate.” Like Jeremiah 20:9, I feel there is something of a fire shut up in my bones. If I fight with God, and resist being obedient in sharing the message, it becomes quite taxing; an experience filled with anxiety and restlessness. Generally, I do not feel as though I know exactly what words will come out of my mouth as I share the message. Like the early church of Mathew 10, I feel very much dependant on the Spirit for what I will say. Generally, it is an exhortation that arises, but sometimes the message has a more prophetic edge…like addressing a corporate sin that God is using me to confront. It takes a lot of trust to be used this way.
Most times, the end of open worship comes seemingly far too soon. There is usually a slight sense of regret that comes when the end draws near. There is the disorientation that comes from changing my focus back to what it was on before open worship; to being more conscious of my surroundings and myself. The shared moment is broken, but God’s presence is now once again manifested within in its usual, personal, way. This does not feel like “hanging up on God,” it is more like, “it is now back to just me and God” again.
I have tried to put words to my experience and in some ways have found words to be utterly useless in describing the mystical, growing awareness of the presence of God in open worship. I hope this attempt will push you toward, at the very least, a reflection about your own experience waiting on the Lord. If all of this sounds completely foreign to you, I challenge you to stretch yourself a bit further during Sunday morning “open worship” at our meeting. Like any other discipline in life, spiritual disciples never give us the feeling we have arrived. There is always further to grow in our relationship with God. As we seek to grow in this together as a community, let it push us both to humility and unity before God and each other.