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“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1–2)
My First Meeting for Worship
I had the most remarkable experience the first time I stepped over the threshold of a meetinghouse. The room was quiet, and I knew that I was supposed to sit in silence. I sat down and closed my eyes. For a while, I fidgeted and tried to make myself comfortable on the bench. After what seemed like a long time, I felt a feeling of peace and calmness within myself—a sense of well-being, that everything was as it should be. It then became clear in my mind that sitting in silence in the meetinghouse was a metaphor for turning inward, away from the strife of the everyday world and toward the peace that I had found within.
Since that day over a dozen years ago, I have worshiped in the manner of Friends in a myriad of locations. These locations can and have influenced my inner experience, and my ability to cultivate an inner dwelling place. I have often thought about my first meeting for worship and about how my experience coincides with Jesus’s words recorded in Luke 17: “the kingdom of God is within you” (though I prefer to see it as a kindom of heaven where we are each other’s kin). What I have found is that my Quaker space is not an external space, nor an internal space, but rather an eternal space.
Early Morning Worship
It’s a few minutes before 7:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in January. It is mostly dark. I can still see some stars. The air is cold and crisp, and I can see my own breath when I exhale. I enter the warmth of the meetinghouse and take a seat on a bench. As I close my eyes, a handful of friends join me. We have been meeting together for years sitting in silent, waiting worship for an hour or so as the sun slowly rises. The darkness becomes light as the sunbeams casually make their way around the room with the rising sun. The meeting ends, we shake hands, and pleasantries are exchanged in hushed tones. As we gather our things and leave the meetinghouse, we step out of the darkness and into the light.
I would come to cherish this ritual of entering the meetinghouse in darkness and leaving it in light. Experiencing the external dawn while in worship was a way of experiencing an internal dawning within myself. I gradually came to recognize that my own darkness will end and the light will return, only to be followed by more darkness, and then, of course, more light. I developed an appreciation for the cyclical nature of the world, of my life, and of the Spirit. Watching the sun rise week after week while sitting in the same spot gave me an appreciation for the change of seasons as well. Sometimes I was bundled warmly. Sometimes the windows would be open and birds would be singing. Sometimes it rained. Sometimes it snowed. Sometimes a storm raged outside. Sometimes a storm raged in me. And sometimes the leaves gently floated down to the ground. I have always cherished the changing of the seasons. However, watching them year after year from the same viewpoint imparted upon me a spiritual appreciation for sitting still and watching the world change around me from this peaceful, internal space.
Twilight Meeting for Worship
I am sitting under a huge oak tree on the crest of a hill. This oak tree has been here a very long time. It’s trunk and branches are thick and strong. Maybe this tree is hundreds of years old. It feels that old. I have hiked here with some friends. Our goal was to hike to a spot where no human-made object can be seen, and to worship together as the sun sets. There are no buildings or cars or roads to be seen in any direction, only meadows and rolling, grassy hills. Everything is so green. As we settle into worship, the crickets start their evening song, the sky starts changing hues, and the stars begin to twinkle. I take off my shoes and feel the earth with my feet, gently caressing her with my toes. The bugs are out tonight, but I don’t mind. I feel peaceful and content.
Sitting in silence and observing nature while the sun sets is a vastly different experience than sitting in a meetinghouse as the sun rises. It reminds me that there is value in turning down the light. There is also beauty in turning up the darkness, and I can find peace and contentment there as well. Darkness is a part of life. There is nothing to fear here. Instead, I have learned that there is a cyclical nature to lightness and darkness, and this idea brings me great comfort. In a similar way, I have my own period of internal darkness and internal lightness. We live in a culture that does not honor the darkness or shadow side of life, but instead hyper-focuses on lightness and the happy side of life. Yet both are valid, and in fact it seems to me that both are essential parts of life. The seed that grew this magnificent oak tree started in the darkness of the earth. The life within the seed began its journey by growing in that darkness before it broke the surface of the earth and sent a tentative and tender green shoot stretching toward the sun. In similar way, I notice my own tender shoots of new growth emerging from my darkest places.
Easter Sunrise Worship
It is very early on a damp, misty morning. It is drizzling and cold. I am sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a burial ground, surrounded by rows and rows of low headstones encased in a stone wall. This is Easter morning sunrise worship. I am thinking about life and death, and I suppose that is exactly the point: to hold meeting for worship in a graveyard on the day that Jesus rose from the dead.
What would it really be like if someone rose from one of these graves, I wondered. These people buried here—what did they worry about? What were their cares or concerns, their joys and celebrations? I suppose I will never know, and perhaps I don’t need to. What I do know is that worshiping here, in this spot and on this day, has had a profound impact on me. This life is fleeting and passes so very quickly. How will I spend my days? What concerns do I carry? And what will I do about them? The answer today seems to be the same as it ever was: to be still an instant, turn my attention away from the external and toward the internal space where the kindom of heaven dwells in me. No matter what my concerns or worries are, no matter what strife I sense in myself or others, there is an internal dwelling place that I can return to again and again.
Worship at Occupy Philadelphia
I am sitting on a concrete bench surrounded by so many new faces. We are a rather ragged and eclectic group of people sitting in a circle, a level below the street. Above us, people look down from the railing, pointing to us like we are animals in a zoo. I feel somewhat like a creature on display, objectified by observers. Unlike twilight worship, we are smack in the center of human structures, sights, and sounds. The bright blue sky and the strutting pigeons are the only visible signs of nature. The sounds of the city drown out messages. Someone begins to play a song on a guitar. The music connects us and draws us together. People clap and sway along with the music, and I feel not only united to these people, but bound together with a sacredness that astounds me.
Most people at worship during Occupy Philadelphia were not Quakers. This was the first experience of Quaker worship for many of them. It was hard to hear the messages as their content was muffled by the sounds of the city. But Spirit was at work here. Songs were raised. Voices were lifted. Silence was embraced. Authority was questioned. And people were transformed. I am reminded that Jesus did not stay in the synagogues. Rather, he was out on the streets walking, talking, eating, teaching, and camping. Worship during Occupy made me wonder why we wait for people to come to a meetinghouse to worship when we can hold worship anywhere. And not only can we hold worship anywhere, perhaps we should.
There is a knock on the door. I open it and welcome friends into my home. There are bags and bowls and plates of food. Tonight we will worship in the manner of friends in my living room. This is a very intimate and personal experience of worship, one that draws us together week after week. We gather around my glass coffee table as I light two candles. The flames crackle and dance in their reflection, mirroring themselves on the surface of the glass. I settle into silence, aware of the rhythms of friends around the circle. I sense a bond between us that welcomes the Divine within our midst.
Worshiping with a small group of friends each week has been a blessing for me. Unlike early morning worship where I sat in the same spot for years and watched the world change around me, this worship experience was the complete opposite. Each week I was in a different home, and although the external space was full of diversity, I began to sense an internal space that was consistent. And while on an external level, I welcomed others into my home, on an internal level I was being welcomed home. I learned experientially that the kindom of God is within me, and that this sacred place within welcomed me as an honored guest. I came to rely upon the certainty of my internal place, and that it welcomes me, wants to be in relationship with me, and is actively cultivating that relationship. What a blessing to feel the tug of the Spirit asking me to dwell with it in an intimate and holy way.
The clock softly clicks and I open my eyes. It is noon and I have been sitting here in silence for nearly two and a half hours. We will break meeting sometime in the next 45 minutes or so, when the Spirit lets us know that worship has adjourned. I have been in a deep place this morning that I call “the zone.” It is difficult to describe in words. People have written or spoken of that still, small place within, or the Light within, or the peace that passes understanding. Today I feel these things in extended worship, but also something much more delicious: a quiet and tranquil mind. For over a decade now, I have shifted my awareness from an external space and turned inward to an internal space. But this is so much more. It is an eternal space, a sacred dwelling space, a holy communion with the Divine.
Extended worship for me is like a slice of heaven. It is an opportunity for me to spend what feels like a luxurious amount of time where I can cultivate my relationship with the Divine. Each time I worship, I try to come with wholly (and holy) empty hands unto God: to have an intention of emptying myself and getting out of my own head so that I can listen—really listen—to that spark of the Divine in me. I have the sense of an eternal dwelling place, just below the surface of my consciousness, where I am welcomed into a holy relationship with God.
While the outward manifestations of where I have worshiped have taken many forms, my inward experience is significantly more important. Exploring a variety of external places to worship enables my internal experience to change and grow over time, and provides new lenses for me to view my internal experience. As I turned from an external space to an internal space, I found within me a sacred dwelling space. This sacred dwelling space is an eternal space, an inner sanctuary where the Spirit nudges me into holy relationship and calls me home. Dare I say I have truly found the kindom of heaven itself, if only for a little while?