Every Friends meeting for worship bears the imprint of the life of Quakerism’s founder, George Fox. The meeting begins as a separation from the struggles and concerns of everyday life. Just as George Fox was drawn in his turbulent late adolescence past his personal concerns into the stillness of deep inner searching, so the meeting itself settles into a time of stillness and searching, a time of waiting on the motions of love to stir among them. As with George Fox this seeking for truth—not the whole truth, but the truth that is given to the particular meeting at a particular time—culminates in a message for the gathered community. Just as George Fox received his message from the Spirit of God that there was one who might speak to his condition, so this same Spirit has visited the gathered meetings of Friends ever since—waiting to speak to our condition, to impart in spoken ministry the message suited to each meeting. But God’s Spirit is not limited to speaking only to what may be perceived as the meeting’s needs, its goals, or its assumed mission. The Spirit, as George Fox knew from a long and varied ministry, is an operational Spirit—a Spirit not only believed in but one that intruded on, interrupted, and eventually directed his life. It is the Spirit he encountered in a visceral way that he knew experimentally. The Spirit has its own agenda, needs, mission, and goals. "God was over all," he would say at the end of many contentious public meetings; that is, despite the lack of complete unity, of full agreement, he sensed God’s invigorating presence.
Once the message has been delivered from the stillness of the searching meeting—once there is a sense that God is over all—the meeting reflects individually and at times corporately on the new attitudes or actions required of the meeting by the Spirit. The message is sought, received, and acted upon. As time passes, if this has become the rhythm of worship the meeting adjusts itself to the life of the Spirit that has become operational among its members. The seed of eternal life honored by Friends begins to emerge. And we become not seed ourselves, cherishing our own growth, but we become good soil for the eternal seed to flourish among us. The meeting begins to live what T.S. Eliot called "the life of significant soil." The inevitable differences in religious and political opinions—notions, George Fox called them—will over time become integrated into the common weekly search for the operational Spirit that centers and directs our lives. Universalist, feminist, mystical, environmentalist, gay, and Christ-minded Friends under the discipline of the weekly corporate search for truth, will find they are given over into the loving Spirit of God, which lies at the heart of each of our limited worldviews. Divisive differences over time begin to enhance rather than hinder the life of God’s presence, which is growing week by week among us.
It’s not a matter of repeating George Fox’s experience or imitating the life of early Friends; it’s a matter of entering into a rhythm of worship that allows the Spirit to operate more and more freely. This is a rhythm that was clearly manifest in the general pattern of his own life. The meeting expects that God will do for people with whom we meet each Sunday what God has done for early Friends—and early Buddhists, Franciscans, and others. We expect, we yearn for, and we yield our wills to the compassionate Spirit that eludes creedal definition, but nonetheless speaks clearly to a waiting and expectant people. If we ask, God will not remain silent. If we seek God’s will for ourselves and our troubled world, we will become part of God’s work in the world. We will join George Fox and Margaret Fell; Mohandas Gandhi and Dorothy Day; Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelly, and Dorothy and Douglas Steere—whose lives were transformed by the operative Spirit of God.
It is not the four individual elements of the rhythm of worship (separation, searching, receiving, assimilating) that are important but the whole process itself. In the first stage we are, for a time, separated from the daily life around us. We move from historian of religions Mircea Eliade’s secular space to a sacred space, a space of stillness and searching for God’s presence, for God’s will. In the stillness we expect God to speak to us, through images, intuitions if need be, and also in articulate verbal ministry—not in every message, but as the meeting learns to wait on authentic ministry the quality of worship intensifies. Members hesitate to voice the unconsidered message; they no longer care who speaks, or whether the messenger is insightful and confident, but only if the message rings true as an authentic reflection of the Spirit’s presence. Does the message bring new life; does it challenge and interrupt our accustomed manner of thought? Is it consistent with earlier messages delivered by respected Friends and other religious figures? Does the message carry its own authority? Does it have a trace of the power of God, who speaks through fallible human beings? Do we listen past the familiar human voices and personalities we’ve come to know so well for the voice of God speaking to us each week in meeting? And finally, once the message has been received it must become part of our lives. It must be assimilated, integrated, and acted upon.
It is the whole process that is vital. If we emphasize only one or two of the four stages we may remain stuck in a stage that emphasizes searching over finding, and drift from one mode of seeking to another without ever encountering the living God, the authoritative inner guide. If we concentrate on the message, the word we have received from God, we may ignore the need for continuing humility and openness to God’s presence. We may come to feel we own or possess the truth and close ourselves off from new leadings. If we remain in the first stage we are mired in own concerns and struggles—we miss the invitation God extends in every period of prayer. And if we jump immediately to the final stage—the implementation of God’s will—we may become action-only oriented and lose touch with the power on whose behalf we would act.
The problems of the world—poverty, injustice, and war—are not only our problems. They are also God’s problems. They are problems to which the Spirit has in the 20th century already responded through the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and others in the great nonviolent and emancipatory movements of our time. There is no danger in listening for God’s will that we will be isolated from the world. The sacred space of the weekly meeting is designed to return us enlivened and confident to take up the common struggle for peace and justice, trusting that God cares about the human family far more than we ever could. In the meeting for worship we find the guidance and energizing love from God to undertake the boldest venture, the humblest task.
By entering into the whole process—separation, stillness and searching, the responding divine word and power, and finally obedience and application—we welcome the Spirit as our cosmic companion. In traditional terms this Spirit is our good shepherd, or with George Fox as the inner teacher, Christ. In contemporary terms, we see the Spirit perhaps as a benevolent doubles partner who may be relied on to play the critical and difficult points. By accepting the various stages in the Spirit’s companioning presence the meeting avoids a one-sided emphasis on any one stage and allows the Spirit to nurture and guide the gathered community.
These reflections come from my experiences at a particular meeting—Middle-town Meeting in Lima, Pennsylvania. Over 30 some years Betty and I have seen the meeting life change. There have been periods of membership expansion, of a thriving First-day school, and periods when a smaller number of us have gathered about the sacred flames of love each Sunday, but adhering to each stage of the rhythm of worship has remained constant. Today for many of us the fire burns more intensely than ever. We have learned to live with the operative Spirit of God, which has over time united diverse individuals with diverse political and religious beliefs into an expectant and still searching, worshiping body. Looking back I marvel that members whose views I once found distracting, even objectionable, I now find touched with an authentic hunger for God. It’s all in the hunger. If we yearn, if we ask, if we are obedient to the little leadings, God will do the rest. God is still over all, still restlessly seeking the gathered community that seeks the Spirit’s will and presence. I pray that we in our individual meetings may respond to this great invitation.