On the Significance of Benches

In the final worship at a recent session of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), I found myself reflecting on the keynote presenter’s tender words of gratitude for the benches on which more than a hundred of us sat, aware of the generations of Friends who had sat upon them for decades before us, in waiting worship, seeking to be brought into the arms of the Divine.

During these Iowa sessions, I’d had to submit to sharing a bench with at least three Friends, and often shared the bench with four or even five. I never had a bench to myself for more than a minute, and I could not fidget as readily as I can when I am sitting in a chair. At first I was spiritually claustrophobic—how could I worship with someone sitting so close to me? I wanted more elbow room so I could be alone with my worship! Eventually I made do with the Friends sitting on either side of me and yielded to the reason we were there: to worship together.

The benches were hard, even beneath the hand-sewn foam cushion that ran the length of each, but they provided me with some comfort and a peculiar sense of being connected with the Friends with whom I shared a bench for the hour.

In a covenantal religious society, the Divine, rather than the pressure to conform, instructs us. Among Friends, our gratification delayed, waiting until led to act, unprogrammed time in our day and in our week, faithfulness, being present to one another, and wrestling with issues large and small—all these elements of the Quaker faith community are part of the salve to heal wounds and spiritual deficits we seldom understand.

In the United States, society trumpets the power of the individual and all that we have at our fingertips. I can join the tens of thousands of others in Minneapolis who jump into their cars to go to work, to exercise, or to attend committee meetings. I can come home and flip on the television, prepare my own supper while my partner eats what she wants, and then retire to the computer, read some Quaker weblogs, listen to Mozart while she listens to Michael Franti in another room. With caller ID, I can decide whether or not to talk to my mother, who will likely ask when I spoke with my grandmother last. I can find an issue that irks me, draw up a poster with a few choice words, and attend a rally or vigil. I can speak out because the First Amendment says I can. And I can practice religion in the way I want because the Bill of Rights says I can.

In contrast, Quaker society and tradition calls us away from our individual lives so that we might worship, labor, play, and be nourished in a gathered community. Significant decisions are made through the discernment of the gathered community, not by a privileged and well-paid few; and a decision to take action may be held over from month to month, so that together we may test and season our understandings of how the Light is leading us.

In worship, despite the personal desire to push on, listening and waiting together can amplify the still, small voice in a way that disconnected individuals, tempted by our own freedoms and separated from a corporate body that yearns to move together, might not be able to hear. At times we are compelled to be present not only with other Friends but also with friends and strangers beyond the walls of the meetinghouse, to lift one another—any "other"—up with a tender hand.

I remember a time, on a quiet but busy road during rush hour, when a minivan and a bike scraped each other enough to disrupt traffic. As I drove past, I saw on the roadside the driver and the biker point fingers, trade angry looks, and exchange words. I wanted to pass them by like the drivers did in the oncoming traffic, but I was compelled to stop. I asked if they were all right, and I acknowledged the surprise they each must have felt when they were aware, too late, of each other’s presence in their respective paths.

At first, they looked at me as if I had just walked into their bedroom during an intimate embrace. Eventually, each of them took a big breath, checked for scrapes and bruised egos, shared their phone numbers, and apologized for yelling at each other. They were beginning to express care for one another. When we each got back to our own vehicles and parted ways, I wondered, were we too eager to forget about what had happened so we could return to our independent, insulated lives?

I’ve been keeping a small dry-erase board on my desk, where I write the names of F/friends with whom I wish to keep in touch, or who need a helping hand. At the top is the word I use to organize the list: "Community." I still must discipline myself to reach out to them and carve out some time to sit or talk with them. I’ve been trained to focus on me, me, me, and I am frustrated and easily lulled by the U.S. anthems of individualism and instant gratification.

It occurs to me that I must apply this same discipline to meeting for worship, since the same isolating forces are at work there, too. In other meetinghouses where I have worshiped, there are more often chairs than benches for worshipers. But during those few days at Iowa Conservative’s midyear meeting, I sank into the Seed and felt the unity of being yoked together on that bench.

Sharing a bench brought home for me the necessity to join other Friends in the act of corporate waiting worship. I hungered to keep to and share in that unspoken agreement. The temptation, though, was to pressure myself to be extra quiet, to be extra un-fidgety, like forcing myself not to think of a pink elephant and then only being able to think of one.

I felt a Life and a Power that seemed to unite Friends at the midyear meeting, and I attribute it to the sense of our having being joined together in our love of the Spirit and in our love of one another. There seemed to be an unspoken, common understanding that our individual freedoms took a back seat to God’s call and to our involvement within the Quaker community. The bench became a symbol of that covenantal yoke for me. Our joy came from being yoked to one another, learning from each other, and sharing in the work of helping a group of individuals be joined together as a faith community.

Is it too easy for us as modern Friends to slip into chairs that can be moved slightly this way or that, in rooms that are large enough to accommodate not just our worshipers but all of our supersized personal space? Is there a discipline we can practice to keep society’s freedoms an arm’s length away and allow ourselves the treasure of knowing one another inside and outside of worship, in that which is Eternal?

Liz Oppenheimer

Liz Oppenheimer is a member of Twin Cities (Minn.) Meeting, and also worships with Laughing Waters (Minn.) Worship Group. When not overwhelmed with committee work, Liz writes and maintains the blog The Good Raised Up (http://thegoodraisedup.blogspot.com). She holds a concern for "how we Friends convey our faith to each other and to newcomers, as well as how we sustain our identity as Friends."