Worship as Offering and Listening
November 8, 2019 § 2 Comments
In Listening Spirituality, Vol II, Patricia Loring defines worship as collectively offering ourselves to God and listening for God’s Word. This definition works well for me and I want to explore it a little.
By “offering ourselves” I would mean both offering our individual selves and offering our collective self as a worshiping community.
Offering our individual selves. Quaker worship gives us an opportunity to focus on this offering of our selves to God; or, if God language does not work for you, worship is an opportunity to focus on our alignment with the forces that work within us for positive transformation, however we might experience them or conceive them.
Offering our selves to God is committing ourselves to the work of inner transformation, to the work of becoming better people, more loving and kind, more attentive and sensitive, more honest and self-aware, more open to inspiration and creativity; committing ourselves to becoming more whole as a person, to becoming our true and better selves.
As a religious society, we have an advocate in this project. For some of us, this “advocate”, this help with realizing our true and better selves, feels like a presence, a spiritual sentience, a companion of spirit whom we could name and with whom we can have a relationship. For others of us, we know at least that there are moments in the work when breakthroughs, or release, or insight, or strength, or some kind of inner change takes place as grace, as unexpected, sometimes even undeserved, inrushing of positive energy and transformation—but its source remains a mystery.
We have another advocate, as well—each other. More on this in a moment.
Offering our collective self. The same things are true for a gathered body of worshippers. The community offers itself up for transformation. This is most obvious in the meeting for business in worship, when we offer our decisions to God’s wish for us; or, if God language doesn’t work for you, we seek to follow the movement of the spirit amongst us, guiding us, until we are collectively certain about where we are to go.
This process is mysterious. Mostly it works through individuals, through individual spoken ministry as we settle deeper and deeper into a discerning consciousness. I believe there are other forces at work, as well, ways in which human consciousness responds to small signals in the group—body language, facial expressions, tones of voice and other aural clues, the character of the silences between messages—which communicate feelings and leanings subliminally, rather than content, substance, or ideas outwardly.
And then there is Spirit. Collective Quaker discernment has a third dimension beyond outward spoken word and the subtle human signals. Something transcendental moves among us when we truly are in worship. This partakes of true mystery. It transcends the sensible and the subliminal; it operates in the realm of the psychical. It transcends our ability to name it or understand it, but not our ability to feel it or to follow it.
The same dynamics—the same Spirit—is at work in the regular meeting for worship. With our vocal ministry we serve each other’s transformation. With the small signals of our sitting together we communicate a host of more subtle feelings for each other that build community and nurture the individual spirit. And in the gathered meeting, we find ourselves present to each other in a spirit transcendental and we sense some movement, some presence, some something behind or within our joy and energy and knowledge. The experience strengthens our faith and cements our sense of blessed community.
We could name it God, or Christ, or just the Spirit, but for almost all of us almost all of the time, we are just assigning meaning to something we don’t really understand but which we know is really happening. Sometimes some of us claim to know with certainty the identity of our gathering spirit, and those persons may be right. However, the rest of us cannot with integrity share their certainty, except on faith. But we can and do share a certainty about its effect on the body, its intention, if you will, the direction of our discernment.
Listening. The other half of worship-as-offering is worship-as-listening. We “listen”, not with our ears but with our souls, for a response to the offering. We offer because we believe in the response, because our experience shows us that, in reciprocation to our offering there is an answering.
If, as individuals, we align ourselves with the forces that work within us for transformation (and also “forces” without us—other people, circumstances, “coincidences”, books, the Book, a whole host of vehicles outside ourselves for answering our cry for wholeness), we are indeed transformed. Usually in little ways, but not always; sometimes in overwhelming ways.
So we are listening for these answers to our offering. And then when we “hear” the answer, we offer ourselves again—we submit to the forces of positive change. And I say “submit” deliberately, because almost always, change comes at a cost. We must give something up of ourselves; we must let go of something we are attached to. We don’t like change; it takes an act of sacrifice, of inner submission in faith that it will be worth it.
And it is worth it. We offer ourselves, in faith. We receive an answer, an offer back. We offer ourselves, in faith again, to this answer. And then we find what we have sought.
And so it is with the worshipping body. We offer ourselves to God, to Christ, to the Spirit, however we might name that Transcendent Mystery that guides us to Truth. We listen for that still small voice within us. With vocal ministry we listen, not for this Friend or that Friend’s word or wisdom, but for the Word of Wisdom speaking through them in their vocal ministry.
In the silence we open ourselves also to the subliminal. We have taken away as much of the noise as we can with silent, waiting worship, so that we can hear the true signal, however small it might be.
And we “listen” psychically for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We barely know how to do this. Even if we are trained in some form of mindfulness or meditation, there is some faculty beyond technique that operates with only our intention—our offering—as its handle, mysteriously, transcendentally. Let’s call it the spirit’s ear, with which we hear the answer to our offer.