Buenos dias, Amigos y Amigas! Good morning, Friends!
I have been asked to introduce unprogrammed Quaker worship by sharing with you something of my experience.
I imagine my parents going to Meeting for Worship each Sunday as I was being formed in my mother’s womb. My first excursion as a 6-week-old was to attend Meeting in northwestern Iowa, in my mother’s unprogrammed Conservative tradition. And I reflect now that Meeting has been the greatest constant in my life, aside from a parent’s love. Regardless of where I have lived and travelled, Quaker worship has been a time when I could be emptied and filled, wrestle and rest.
Part of my childhood was spent in a little Guatemalan village, where my brothers and I were the only North American children. It was exciting when Peace Corps volunteers came to visit, and we could have Meeting. My Mayan playmates peeked curiously into the room where we sat, amazed at how we all seemed to fall asleep at a given moment and suddenly woke up again after an hour.
During Quaker boarding school in my teenage years, Meeting was compulsory. Likely I would not have gone if it hadn’t been. I am glad it was. Although my mind was preoccupied with boyfriends and self-image rather than with things of the Spirit, I am quite sure that daily and weekly Meeting helped me navigate the uneasy waters of adolescence.
When I was 20, I left the nurturing Quaker schools, rural and urban Meetings of my childhood and youth in Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado and Kansas to move to Sweden with my new husband. I was welcomed into his Quaker community there, which certainly helped me ease into life in a new country, despite language and cultural differences.
I remember attending Yearly Meeting soon after I moved to Sweden. During worship, a song came to me, sung by my father during my childhood. It was not a well-known song even in the United States. It wanted to be sung, but I struggled with shyness. Then, suddenly, a visitor from the United States stood up and sang that very song. I believe it was the first time I was fully aware of the Spirit moving in worship. Worship had always been a constant in my life, but now a new yearning was awakened in me.
I am blessed to have worked for Friends for 25 years and to have worshipped with Friends in many European countries, in Palestine and Kenya, and now in Peru. Worshipping at Quaker centres like Woodbrooke, Earlham, Swarthmoor Hall has special power, especially for someone who lives
where Quakers are few and far between. It is also special to worship in places where Quakerism is very new and there are few Friends. I visited the only Friend in Iceland, a young man who feels he absolutely needs a Quaker meeting. The local church offers him a space to hold unprogrammed Quaker worship, and some of the clergy have joined him. Estonia is said to be the most secularised country in the world. I visited the capital city of Tallinn, where a tiny group meets for worship. As in other secularised parts of Europe, Quaker worship is a place for people, who are suspicious of organised religion, to satisfy their yearning for Spirit. In other places, where there is a strong religious tradition – be it Protestant or Catholic – Quaker worship is an alternative for people to explore a faith tradition with less ‘wrapping paper around God’, to quote the Swedish Friend Emilia Fogelklou. The little Quaker group in Tbilisi, Georgia, has clothed their faith in action in politically repressive times but also needed to be careful not to attract too much attention. In Barcelona, Switzerland and Finland Friends communicate in three languages. The Quaker group in Budapest uses English as its main language, but hopes to be more open to native Hungarians who do not speak English. In these varying cultural, linguistic, political and theological contexts, Quaker worship based on silence offers deep fellowship, beyond words. It is a place from which the Quaker witness of peace and reconciliation can find its way in troubling times. Worshipping in the quiet oasis of Ramallah Friends Meeting in Palestine was for me perhaps the most powerful illustration of this.
In the 1990s, I served as lay leader in the local Lutheran church, and I learned alot about church liturgy, Christian holidays and the meaning of sacraments. It was a kind of Christian education that I had not been exposed to in my Quaker upbringing. I struggled with my identity as a Christian. If I was one, what kind was I? Did I qualify? Who gets to decide? I was led to seminary studies at Earlham School of Religion, the Quaker seminary in Indiana. Church involvement and seminary studies found me exploring similarities and differences between the church way and the Quaker way. In the silence of Quaker worship, I could go through the elements of the liturgy – praise, confession, reflection on Scripture, prayers of intercession. In an experimental worship for Swedish Friends at an Easter retreat, I offered foot washing in the silence. We experienced being on holy ground. When I celebrated communion in the church, I felt that going forward to the altar, kneeling and receiving bread, wine and blessing, was surprisingly the part of the service that was closest to Quaker worship, and I remembered that our worship is sometimes called ‘Communion in the manner of Friends’. I understood what is meant by sacraments being an outward sign of an inward condition. Once, in an ecumenical service, I was astounded that a period of worship needed to be cancelled because the clergyperson was delayed. I suggested that a period of silent worship might be a possibility.
My identity as a Christian has become central to my Quaker worship. I have also practised aspects of the Zen Buddhist way in Quaker worship. Words of Sufi mystics come to me in the silence. The music of Bach, hymns and spirituals resound within me in the silence. And the large windows at my home Meeting house in the forest offer a constantly changing altarpiece, as Swedish flora and fauna, and the changing seasons, teach me the rhythm and rules of life. A path winds from the Meeting house up into the forest. I have often imagined Jesus walking along that path, coming into our Meeting, and feeling at home there with us.
I enter the silence of worship with a sense of adventure, liberty and eager longing. ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ And I am reminded: the Spirit is already present. ‘Here I am, Lord. Empty me. Cleanse me. Open my heart. Reveal to me the truth of my life, my actions. Fill me with your love and light. Transform me. Guide me, send me.’ Whether I am bathed in God’s light and love or bruised after a wrestling match with unanswerable questions, never have I left an hour of worship in worse shape than when I came.
I am not alone in worship. As each child of God enters Meeting, I rejoice. My eyes wander from face to face, resting on those with closed eyes. Friends who I find hard to like can be thoroughly seen and loved in the silence. The hardness in my heart melts away, and they become precious to me. When I am a guest in a new Meeting and know nearly no one, I feel ‘at home’ – even though customs and atmosphere may vary. There is something very special, however, about worshiping with those I know deeply, having shared common work and challenges. I have had some difficult discussions with Friends with theologies very different than mine, and worshiping together after the many and perhaps heated words takes us to that deeper place where we are at one. During worship, tears may be shed, deep sorrows and joys may be shared, prayers of desperation and thanksgiving may be uttered. Babies are welcomed, marriage vows shared and lives remembered. Once, an elderly Friend suffered a minor stroke during Meeting. A few Friends came quickly to her side. The rest of us upheld her calmly in silence. All of life can be contained in the vessel that is a gathered unprogrammed Meeting for worship.
In the silence I can hear a Friend’s breathing change. Quicken. I sense that ministry is on its way. I wait eagerly for the voice of God through my Friend. I rejoice when the words come, although they may not speak to my condition. Sometimes, when I am just about to offer a message, someone else will rise and give that very message – clothed of course in different words. Once, I struggled with a three-stranded piece of ministry that simply would not allow itself to be braided together. To my relief three Friends ministered in turn, each of them expressing one strand of what I felt called to say. Once, I sensed that a dear Friend was on the verge of standing to speak. I was thirsty for the words. Finally, she stood and opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came. She waited for the words to come, opening and closing her mouth, but they did not come. She sat down again, as surprised as I. The message was simply beyond what words could convey. It was one of the most powerful pieces of ministry I have experienced. The hour may be totally silent. One or a few Friends may stand to minister. Whatever happens, the Inward Teacher is always present in us, among us and between us.
Some people from other traditions ask about how teaching is done, when our worship is based mainly on silence and there is not much explicit religious education. I would like to give myself as an example of a child who was fully marinated in generations of the Quaker way but free to come and go, discover her own need for relationship with God. As a leader of Quaker children’s camp, I witnessed how fidgeting little hands gradually calmed in the silence, palms opened and breathing slowed. The silence could be held longer day by day. I remember a newcomer to Meeting who wept silently during worship. Later she told me that watching children come and go, climbing up into father’s lap for a time of quiet and then running out to play, was ministry that touched her more deeply than any spoken message could.
I find brothers and sisters in all the Quaker traditions, in other Christian denominations, in inter-faith and in secular contexts – wherever commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation is found. I remain the most at home in unprogrammed Quaker worship, which I join Friends from the Europe and Middle East Section in offering you.
An hour of unprogrammed worship is not an easy discipline and many – new as well as experienced Friends, old and young alike – sometimes find it difficult to be still or stop their minds from wandering. Some meetings or groups experiment with different forms of semi- programmed or family worship in order to help people ‘centre down’ and find the still small voice within. A tool that is used in many meetings in Europe and even farther afield is the Experiment with Light. This was developed after research into what George Fox may have meant when he talked about steps that helped people to see and stand in the Light. It is a guided meditation that has been found to be inspiring and revealing, both for experienced Friends and as an outreach tool.
We would like to do this Experiment with Light now, with you. The meditation can be worded in different ways to suit the different contexts in which it is done. The words used here reflect what are regarded as Fox’s original steps to finding inner peace. Some of his language will be recognisable, but most of the wording is modern-day. Sue will guide us through the steps and we keep silence during the meditation. After the meditation, we invite you to join us in a period of Open Worship.
Experiment with Light. (Approx. 3-4 minutes for each of the nine steps, 36-40 mins in total).
There are nine steps to the Experiment. I will read each step aloud and allow time between the steps for you to reflect quietly and in stillness on them. A tenth step will lead us into a period of Open Worship.
- Look inside
Sit comfortably. Breathe deeply and slowly. Be quiet. Be still. Become aware of the Light within you. It will show you the way.
- Identify the Light
Turn to the Light. Open yourself to it. See your troubles, trials and temptations. Let the Light shine into all your dark corners and illuminate them.
- Let the Light show you yourself
Mind the pure Light of God within you that shows you your sin, evil, how you have spent your time and how your minds have wandered. As the Light opens you up and exercises your conscience, it will let you see invisible things – things that are clearly seen by that which is invisible in you. Let the Light within you show you what is in your heart. Let the bright Light within wake you up to see where you are. Let the Light search you thoroughly.
- Trace the Light to its source
The Light that lets you see sin and evil is a perfect Light of God. It reveals everything. It is your inner eye. The eye that sees and the ear that hears is of the Lord. Stand in this Light. Let it guide you into out of the darkness to that which is pure, that which is of God.
- Trust the Light to show you the alternative
Stand still in the Light. Let the real truth within you unfold. Do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions and distractions that you are swallowed up in. Look instead at the Light that discovers them, and you will see over them. This is the first step to peace.
- Feel the new life grow
Wait patiently in the Light, as a gardener waits for seeds to germinate. Let the Light break you open to the new life stirring within. Feel its power. Feel it grow. Allow yourself to be changed.
- See other people in the Light
Submit to the Light. It will let you see one another and the unity we share. In this Light there is no self-will, no mastery, no ego. See the people in this room in this Light.
- See the world in the Light
This Light, which is of God, lets you see the world and your place in it from a new perspective.
- Learn to love in the Light
Trust the Light. It will show you how to love yourself. It will show you how to love others. It will show you the way. In the Light walk, and you will shine.
Step 10: There will now be a time of open, unprogrammed worship. If you feel called to speak, please stand and wait for a microphone. A time of reflection between contributions will be helpful. Those of us on stage will signal the close of the worship by shaking hands.
Open Worship – 15-20 mins (the microphone monitors can slow down the pace and the number of contributions by walking slowly to the person wishing to speak)