The Gathered Meeting—A call to ministry?

May 31, 2013 § 11 Comments

Over the past several posts, and over the past several weeks, I have quite unexpectedly become obsessed with the gathered meeting. I have discovered that, for me at least, the gathered meeting is the quintessential Quaker experience—and the essential Quaker experience. Not only does it embody all that we have to offer the world and to our members and attenders, it also is really the essence of Quaker religion—direct communion with the divine, both for the individuals present and for the gathered body as a whole.

With all the other stuff I’ve been saying, it seems I may have been working my way to the realization that I am called to a ministry of—ignition, I guess I’ll call it, a ministry of speaking, teaching, and traveling in the service of the gathered meeting—helping Friends develop a spiritual practice of listening and deepening that will prepare them to bring a full bucket to the gathering, and helping meetings develop spiritual nurture programs and religious education programs that would prepare those meetings to be gathered.

Who cares, really, whether it is the Christ who gathers our meetings? I don’t think he cares whether we recognize him or not. What matters is that we find ourselves in the Presence, that we truly are transformed, as individuals and as communities, that we feel the joy of unity of purpose, that we are open to God’s opening, that we revel in the overflowing of the Spirit, within us and among us.

Who cares what the metaphysics behind the gathered meeting is? I mean I’m interested. I’m really interested. But that feeling is nothing compared to the feeling of being gathered itself! What I really care about is what concrete things we can do to make the gathered meeting more likely in our meetings—like showing up to meeting on time and sitting close together, two simple, mundane things that seem to really make a difference.

I am thirsty—spiritually hungry and thirsty. Most of the world is hungry and thirsty for the presence of God in their lives. But I have drunk from the well. And I know where the well is. Right here inside my chest; right here in this meeting room. 

In the center of our worship is a well that goes deep down to the Source itself. And each of us comes with a bucket. We come for the water of life, but we come with a bucket. The bucket is our attention, and our intention. The bucket is our preparedness and dedication. The bucket is a mind and a body seasoned in the practice of silence and attentive waiting. Our bucket is our faith—our knowledge—that direct communion with the divine is not only possible, but our heritage and birthright as Friends.

So I can bring my bucket, hopefully a large and tight and seasoned bucket, to the well of living water waiting in my own devotional practice and in the Quaker meeting for worship. I can lower it down and know that it will come back up filled to the brim. 

But this is the wrong image, really. I do not have a bucket so much as I am a siphon. If I drop my mindsoul into the well of living water and my mindsoul is already primed, already holding at least a little Spirit, then when I draw upon that inexhaustible well, the Spirit will begin pouring out and it will seek to fill all present with its cool refreshment, until it has floated all that is buoyant within us, until its light has illuminated all darkness.

But it doesn’t just happen. I must prepare. I must rededicate myself to my own spiritual seasoning, so that I do come to meeting already primed. And I must help to prepare my meeting. I have never experienced a gathered meeting in my meeting. I know that many of our members and attenders have not either. Some do not even know what I’m talking about.

But my meeting has one of the two essential prerequisites—love. We really care for each other. We have great joy in each other’s beings. All we need is a little faith and knowledge that this glory is waiting for us, and a critical mass of Friends whose own inner lives are deep enough to reach the well with some regularity.

For this is our great gift to the world—direct experience of God. And writing about the gathered meeting has given me a mission—to evangelize this gift and to work to make it a much more common occurrence.



§ 11 Responses to The Gathered Meeting—A call to ministry?

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Here’s the crux of the problem (from Pennington and Dallmann): “Most men, that have felt anything of God, cannot but desire his life and power; but most fly the cross, wherein it hath chosen to appear; and so they can never meet with it, but are still complaining for the want of it.”

    In this matter, as in many others, there are no shortcuts!

  • Christine Greenland says:

    Steve, Thank you… Over a decade ago, I worked with a Friends school faculty about what was expected in worship… The faculty were very diverse in religious experiences… There were Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews, a Hindu, UCC, a few Friends and a Swedenborgian…

    The workshop was designed to meet teachers where they were, to acknowledge and respect their experiences and practice with the goal of them assisting their students in understanding. We did a similar workshop for parents later.

    What happened next was a miracle… We had set aside a relatively short time (20-30 minutes) for worship — Over an hour passed; no one wanted to break meeting, including the head of school. We’d gone much deeper than being gathered… It was if we were all covered by a Presence beyond what any of us had experienced before.

    • This is really a wonderful story, Christine. Thanks. It speaks to my belief, based on similar experiences outside Quakerism and even the broader Christian tradition, that the gathered meeting is really a universal experience, that the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries of religious ideology.

      The first time I experienced a gathered meeting in which I really got what was happening was on the Farm, the hippie commune started by Stephen Gaskin and his students (among whom I included myself). Stephen had borrowed the Quaker style of worshiip for his community, though he always preceeded it with a session of changing OM, and then he worked it. He went from person to person, doing eye contact, I think—I was too far away to really know what he was doing. But I could feel from way in the back. And then suddenly there was this physical and spiritual wave that poured out through the body from him. As people were hit by that wave they quaked. Straight for us came that wave and when it hit, we quaked to, and I was filled with an unutterable joy. The wave passed through us and past us out farther into the worshipping group, which was several hundred people. Moments passed, and moments more. Then Stephen said, “That was the Holy Spirit!”

      Wow. I will never forget. And never stop thirsting for more.

  • barbarakay1 says:

    siphon: YES

  • Larry Ingle says:

    I also appreciate this series, but for the last couple of days, I’ve been focusing on what Ben Pink Dandelion refers to as “Liberal” Quakers–and adjective I seldom apply to others much less myself–in his _Introduction to Quakerism_ and _The Quakers: A Short Introduction_.

    He has a long section in which he implicitly criticizes “Liberal” Quakers for their concentration on silence in meeting, a section that helps explain why I don’t much care for theology, because, frankly, I don’t get very much of it. Naive me, I would have thought that concentrating on hearing God’s voice in meeting or church is pretty central to what any Quaker, regardless of adjective, ought to be doing, and what Steve Davison has been doing in this series.

    Anyone one to discuss this matter?

    • elrelr says:

      In response to your query for a discussion on not caring for theology as a Friend, a comment from Quaker J. William Frost, “The Dry Bones of Quaker Theology,” published in Church History, December, 1970: “In spite of the frequency of disputes in the early years, Friends were repeatedly exhorted to refrain from needless theological quarrels. The dry bones of Quaker doctrine were not the essence of what the Friend was to emphasize. The test of Christianity was the pilgrimage through the world, the cultivation of the inward seed. After engaging in theology, the Quaker, like Candide, ultimately turned from speculation to cultivating the seeds in his own garden.”

      • Patricia Dallmann says:

        In the last sentence of this excerpt, Frost implies that Quaker theology was speculation. Early Friends were opposed to speculation, but they were not opposed to theology, a theology derived from and expressive of their inward discovery and knowledge of God. Theology was their intellectual phalanx for fighting the Lamb’s War.

        The Quakers theologically opposed the Protestants in three areas: 1) that sin could be overcome in this life and thus perfection known; 2) that Church leadership was to be found in the living Christ, not in humans; and 3) that the Church was a people who were responsive and obedient to Christ within: the Church was not a mixed multitude.

        The first Quakers were not engaging in speculation; they were asserting what they’d found experientially.

      • Emily says:

        I don’t see Frost as ever implying that Quaker theology was “speculation,” but I have the benefit of reading Frost’s entire article. Experience and speculation are not mutually exclusive. As Frost stated at the beginning of the quoted excerpt, “Quaker theology began with, was structured by, and concluded with the inward light of Christ. All of these words were essential,” and as he discusses throughout the article this was what Quakers were experiencing. Friends, being curious, were inclined to speculate on the nature of their experiences. What was the inner light? Was it Christ Himself? Was there some special organ within the human body designed to receive the light, separate from the rest of the self and immune from being soiled?
        Quakers were one of many groups of dissenting Protestants in the 17th century (although enemies called them Catholics), and Quakers never intended to set up a separate sect of Protestants–they wanted to convert everyone. Since Quakers all came from other Protestant ideologies they borrowed and adapted continually from them–including the idea of speaking up in church, which was not unique to Quakers. The basis of all Protestant theology, including the Quaker theology, is that you do not need the intermediary of the Church to realize God.

  • Vonn New says:

    Steve, once again you have captured the heart of what I have also experienced. Thank you for this series. I appreciate your honesty in speaking of those unspeakable things.

    One thing I’ve been experimenting with for years is using the senses, rather than any cognitive process, as a doorway to enter into that gathered state. For me, the verbal mind is very much connected to my ego. Focusing on the senses gives me a way to fade my verbal thinking into the background and helps me let go of my notions. During still, expectant waiting, I might be listening to ambient sounds, feeling my breath as it enters and leaves my body, cycling a rhythm in my imagination, feeling my fingertips, watching the shadows play across the meetinghouse floor, or some focus that helps me let go of my internal dialog and move into being more present to the moment.


  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    The value in using the narrative, imagery, and language of our tradition lies in enabling us to communicate concisely about the invisible power of God. If we rely on vague ideas to direct our action, we can flounder and avoid Life until our time has passed.

    Where the Life is found and what needs to be done to obtain it is clearly and concisely identified by early Friends, the following by Penington:

    “Most men, that have felt anything of God, cannot but desire his life and power; but most fly the cross, wherein it hath chosen to appear; and so they can never meet with it, but are still complaining for the want of it.”

    Not the historical but the inward, invisible cross is what these Friends held forth. A nice description of what that is can be found a few paragraphs later in the same piece:

    “He that distrusts himself, feels his own nothingness, finds no power to do any thing God requireth, and yet also fears to stay behind the light of God’s Spirit, in any thing it requires, and so finds a putting on forwards in the faith; in him the power delights to appear (Works. II, 293).”

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