Quaker Worship as Act of Courage

The following meditation on Quaker worship began as vocal ministry offered at Little Falls Friends Meeting in 2008.

The Silent Meeting J Walter West_BW600x144

As I was entering the meetinghouse grounds, I noticed again the sign, “Quakers value truth,” and thought, as I have before, that to put that motto out there is a bold thing for the meeting to do. Whenever I see it, I can’t help but think, “What is truth?”

That question comes to mind from a scene in John’s gospel book, a book in which Jesus personifies the right-ordering wisdom and power of God.1 When Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judaea, Pilate asks him, “Are you not then a king?” Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I have been begotten, and for this I have come into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Turning away, Pilate replies, “What is truth?”

That reminds me of a parabolic scene from another gospel book, Matthew’s, in which Jesus as the apocalyptic figure “the Son of Humanity”2 is the cosmic king before whom all people have been gathered. He divides them into two groups, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”3 To those on his right, he says, “Come, blessed ones, enter into the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you cared for me; I was in prison and you visited me.” And to those on his left, he says, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eonic fire prepared for the adversary and his messengers, for I was hungry and you did not give me food ….” Both groups ask, “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty …?” The divine king’s reply is this: “Whatever you do to my brothers and sisters, those who are the least, that you do to me.” That is the truth to which Jesus testifies, the answer to Pilate’s question.

I see a strong connection between those scenes of judgment and Quaker worship, which must be, in Jesus’ words, “worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24). Worship is a time for setting aside our habitual ways of judging the rightness or wrongness of things, for waiting to hear the voice of that spirit which our tradition identifies as Christ, the divine wisdom and power who inwardly judges our hearts in truth.

We should be prepared to find, then, that worship in spirit and in truth can be a disturbing and disruptive experience. When we allow our inner voices to become quiet, we may hear in our hearts the voice of that Christ who suffers in the least among us, in the forgotten ones. We may begin to discern the divine voice in such sounds as the cries of countless children who need food and shelter and medical care. Becoming yet more still, we may hear the whimpering of those who are too weak to cry, or the silent despair of those who love them and must watch them die. Abiding in worship’s deep silence, our moral certainties suspended in trusting openness to the spirit that was in Jesus, we experience judgment in truth here and now. Our ancestors quaked physically under that convicting power; we at least may find ourselves shaken inwardly.

So it takes courage to enter and remain in the revelatory silence of Quaker worship — instead of squandering the time by, say, centering in ourselves and our tacit assumptions; confirming and expressing our opinions, feelings, and “spiritual experiences”; even straying so far from worship as to make our gathering hard to distinguish from a genteel discussion group.4 It takes courage to silence ourselves, surrender our moral criteria, and open ourselves to the voice of the Son of Humanity, the cries of the least ones carried on the wind of spirit. It takes courage to face the truth about ourselves and our world, to be “of the truth” and therefore hearing his voice, their voices, in our hearts. We have the answer to Pilate’s question, and yet we dare to put a sign out front: “Quakers value truth.” I hope we have the courage to live up to that.

________________

NOTES

Daniel's Vision

Daniel’s Vision

[1] John 18:37. I have learned to use the phrase gospel book instead of simply gospel in recognition of the Quaker insight that if, as Paul wrote, “the gospel is the power of God” (Rom. 1:16) and “Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), then gospel should not be equated to a book. Regarding Jesus as personifying Logos, “the right-ordering power and wisdom of God,” see the beginning (often called the prologue) of John’s book, where the author makes that identification, thereby providing a hermeneutical key for his text.

[2] Matthew 25:3-46. Ho huios tou anthropou, which I have rendered as “the Son of Humanity,” is traditionally translated as “the Son of Man.” The following note is from Blue Letter Bible: “son of man, symbolically denotes the fifth kingdom in Daniel 7:13 and by this term its humanity is indicated in contrast with the barbarity and ferocity of the four preceding kingdoms … typified by the four beasts. In the book of Enoch (2nd Century) it is used of Christ.” The images in Daniel 7 are reflected in early Quaker thought.

[3] The phrase rendered as “separating the sheep from the goats” (aphorizei ta probata apo ton eriphon, in Mt. 25:32) might be creatively translated as “separating the mature stock from the immature”: According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, probaton means “any four footed, tame animal accustomed to graze, small cattle (opp. to large cattle, horses, etc.), most commonly a sheep or a goat; a sheep, and so always in the NT,” and eriphos means “a kid, a young goat.” (However, Strong seems to say that the genitive case, which Matthew uses because the word follows the preposition apo, indicates “goat.”) In that connection, see my discussion of mature Quaker spirituality in “Law, Love, and Liberty.”

[4] I continue to plead for a more traditional understanding of the concept of a “gathered meeting” as the gathering of participants into “worship in spirit and in truth,” a gathering into to the divine spirit of love rather than into mental and verbal activity focused on a particular topic, however meaningful that activity may feel to some.

4 thoughts on “Quaker Worship as Act of Courage

  1. Pingback: Quaker Worship as Act of Courage — The Postmodern Quaker | Ecumenics and Quakers

  2. Pingback: Quaker Worship as Act of Courage — The Postmodern Quaker | Quaccheri cristiani ecumenici per fare il bene

  3. Pingback: Quaker Worship as Act of Courage — The Postmodern Quaker – quaccheri e hutteriti in Italia

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