August 19, 2018 § 7 Comments
Worship, at least in the traditional understanding, is all about service—giving God what God wants/requires.
You can tell what a community thinks God wants by looking at their worship service. For most Christian communities, that means prayer, praise, (some) thanksgiving, repentance, teaching and exhortation regarding the rest of God’s will, reassurances on God’s behalf (even to the point of absolution), and leadership from those upon whom God has presumably conferred authority.
Looking at the Quaker meeting for worship, we could infer that God wants:
- silence; that is, a radical simplicity of form that removes all outward interference from . . . what?
- expectant waiting (though this is not outwardly very apparent); that is, filling this silence, this absence of interference, with attention to . . . what?
- and ministry, a word which means service.
The silence removes interference from the world’s distractions and those promptings, both outward and inward, that might carry us away from . . . what? From the Spirit. It is the Spirit to which we are giving our attention with our expectant waiting. It is the Holy Spirit that we are trying to make room for with our silence. It is God whom we serve with our vocal ministry.
In theory, of course. All of this is the ideal.
All of this is also a legacy that we have inherited. And we haven’t thought very searchingly about it.
So let’s ask more primary questions: What does God want? And how do we know what God wants. (Let’s leave aside for a moment all that’s implied by saying “God” in the first place.)
I think early Friends looked to two places to find out what God wants: to scripture and to the direct revelation of Christ’s spirit. From scripture (John 4:24) they got: God is spirit and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. From direct revelation: “In truth” apparently meant totally in spirit, that is, without anything else but our inward and collective spiritual attention—no outward forms.
The silence was designed to make room for the direct revelation of spirit. They were waiting for that presence in their midst. And they were serving Christ as conduits of his revelation through vocal ministry when the presence came as expected.
But now let’s return to what I meant by “God” above. To the degree that we have let go of a God who might want something from us, we have jettisoned the essential ingredient of worship as service. Now whom—or what—do we serve with our worship, with our expectant waiting, our spiritual attention, our vocal ministry? If we are not in relationship with a God who wants or requires something from us, as persons or, especially, as a community, does it makes sense to even talk about ministry, that is, service, in our approach to worship?
Some Friends might answer that now we serve each other and, by extension, the community, and it serves us. Maybe in fact, that is what we’ve been doing all along. That God no longer has anything to do with it—it’s just us.
If that were true, it would mean that we haven’t asked ourselves some important questions about what we’re doing in worship. We’re just going along with these legacy forms of silent worship and vocal ministry the way the Church of England was going along with its legacy forms in the 17th century, without reexamining the basic premises of our worship. If all we’re doing now is serving each other (or nothing at all), then maybe some other worship form would serve us better.
But then I wouldn’t be interested in being a Friend. I want some thing more. I want something transcendental, that is, trans-personal, greater than the sum of our individual selves. I want the gathered meeting, that is, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit.
And because I have in fact experienced that presence, I know there is something to be served, even if it’s not “God”, not a remote being who might want something from us, but still a Mystery Reality behind that experience of gathering. For want of better words, a spirit, in truth.