Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill, and this is A Quaker's View. In this column, I'd like to take a Quaker's view of worship.
First off, worship is a verb. To be more specific, it is an active verb. Worship is something we do.
So, if worship is something we do, shouldn't we strive to do it better? After all, if we cook Thai food, play golf or draw space ships, we might strive to do these things better. If worship is a skill that we can learn, then let's learn it well.
On the other hand, laughter is something we do, too - and striving to "improve" our laughter is a strange ambition, indeed! No one sits in front of a mirror hoping to perfect the proper technique for knee-slapping. Unless you're hoping for an Oscar, it's unlikely you will devote much time to the technique of your laughter. Nor are you likely to infuse your tears with an ever greater pathos.
Worship is something we do, yes. But is it a skill for us to master? Or is it more like an expression that flows from us naturally – the way spontaneous giggles or tears might flow from us?
Most discussions about worship seem to proceed from the assumption that we need to improve our technique. Depending on who you ask, music should be loud or quiet, buoyant or grave, innovative or traditional. Likewise, the sermon should meet certain standards. While people might not agree on the details, they seem to agree that these details are crucial. In perfecting the components of worship, people hope to worship "better."
As Friends, we should be suspicious of this assumption. Our tradition teaches us that fine tuning outward forms seldom leads to a deep, inward encounter with the living Christ. Focusing on the outward components of worship (instead of on the inward work of God's Spirit) is like trying to fix a stalled car with a new coat of paint.
The first Friends gathered in God's presence. That was it! Their worship flowed from a sense of God's presence. By recognizing the present Christ, worship flowed from them like tears or laughter.
God is not some capricious being to be summoned by the proper performance of our religious rituals. The initiative belongs to God. It is God who seeks us. It is God who draws us to worship. Once we connect with God, worship should flow from us as naturally as water flows down hill.
As "programmed Friends," we supposedly employ certain practices because they help us focus on God's presence. It's important to remind ourselves that these "tools" are not worship. There is nothing sacred or eternal about the tools we use. We can freely adopt them, modify them or discard them based upon whether or not we find them useful.
Seen from this perspective, the details of our musical style or the format of our sermon (et al) are probably no more than a matter of taste. The "stuff we do" in worship probably says more about our culture than it does about God.
At the heart of Quaker worship is our communion with Christ's Spirit. Our eyes should not be on matters of technique or format, but upon Christ alone.
As we encounter Christ, we will worship in spirit and power. Those around us – even those who might prefer a different style – will be drawn towards Christ in the wake of our authentic worship.
Here are some random thoughts on worship:
Being authentic requires more vulnerability than following proper technique. Opening our hearts to Christ leaves us more exposed than standing up or sitting down on cue. If we value authenticity in worship, then we should work to help people feel safe. Demonstrating our respect for one another builds an atmosphere of trust. If we are truly committed to one another, then people can risk exposing their hearts without fear of rejection.
People need time to center themselves. If meetings for worship are a whirling blur of sensory input, people may feel exhausted or entertained rather than centered.
People need to feel like active participants in worship. If worship is someone else's responsibility, then some people will never take the responsibility of centering themselves.
Just because something was helpful in the past doesn't mean it deserves a permanent place in your meetings for worship. Be open to something new!