Have you ever gone to meeting for worship hoping to be embraced by God’s presence only to leave disappointed? I have. Over the years I’ve left meeting for worship in a state of discontent a number of times. And I’ve come to see that my lack of preparation for intimacy with God is often at the root of my experience.
How can we prepare ourselves for intimacy with the Ground of Being? There are many ways to do so. Daily practice of prayer, meditation, chanting, or reading scripture can help. Taking time for reflection, repentance, and gratitude can anchor us in the One Presence. Bringing our attention to our longing for God and calling God by names such as “Beloved”—and celebrating God’s love for us, as well—can also open our hearts and our awareness to a greater experience of Reality.
Yet just a few weeks ago, when I entered the meetinghouse with self-righteousness, something more was needed. I spent the hour of worship not in worship or expectant waiting but in reaction to everything that didn’t match my preferences. An adjustment of my inner posture from arrogance to acceptance and humility was needed in order to free myself from the trap of comparing one moment after another to the ideal image of how meeting for worship should be. I failed to give God the reins when I entered the worship room and was unsettled as a result.
Something distracted me, and at once the jailor within me threw the offender in jail. Another thing didn’t match my ideal image because of x, y, or z, and my inner jailer was again reactive. The pattern continued for an hour—and it made for an internally busy hour. By the end of the hour, the jail within me was crowded with many circumstances and people.
When I lead workshops on acceptance, I invite people to share with one another some of the expectations around their own behavior that they carry with them, sometimes unquestioningly. There is always a range of varying expectations in any group. Some expect themselves to be nice to everyone; others expect themselves not to be overbearing or demanding but rather to be listening and beholding; for others, being accepting rather than judgmental is paramount.
Similarly, any group of worshipers might have a range of expectations for how meeting for worship should be. For some, arriving on time might be an expectation that bears great importance; for others, allowing a few minutes for continued listening after vocal ministry might top the list.
In my workshop on acceptance, I ask everyone to consider that it might be possible to practice going through an hour or a day without referencing their list of shoulds and should nots. Feel free to take a moment right now to imagine a web of shoulds and should nots draped over you. Notice how the web constricts your movement a bit here and there—how the natural fluidity and flow of your being might be made brittle. Wouldn’t your world be better if you were to set those webs aside?
After my recent disappointing experience on First Day, I realized that the same practice of letting go can be done with expectations for meeting for worship. When I release the expectation that the sense of God’s presence will be just as profoundly upon me as it was the week before—when I replace the demand with a longing—I set God free—or, more precisely, I set myself free.
I had shown up for meeting for worship with an ideal image, an agenda of sorts. I had decided that I wanted meeting for worship to have a certain tempo, a certain fragrance, a certain flavor. I wanted a hyacinth and I got a rose. And I spent the entire hour with my nose out of joint, telling God I was right about how things should be unfolding.
Later, when reflecting on the time of worship, I asked myself how I might be able to adjust my inner posture from one of entitlement and hubris to one of giving way to God. I didn’t want to spend my life throwing every circumstance and every person in jail. It become clear to me that my preparation for meeting for worship needs to include not only a daily discipline but also the letting go of all my ideal images.
A Course of Love, the sequel to A Course in Miracles, tells us that the ideal image of ourselves that we carry with us “is as much a product of illusion as have been all your worldly goals.” This image is described as “a carrot of fulfillment the ego but dangled before you in the place it called the future. As with all messages of the ego, it but says that who you are is not good enough.”
The same dynamics are at work when I bring with me an ideal image of meeting for worship into the meetinghouse. Just as I may be turning a deaf ear to God’s proclamation that the Inward Light is already within me when I am captured by an ideal image of myself, I am turning a deaf ear to God’s proclamation that meeting for worship is a sacred space for God’s work to be done according to God’s sight when I impose my ideal image on the time of gathering.
Just as I fail to be open to new possibilities and to divine outworkings and divine blueprints when I attach myself to an image of what I should be like, so too am I closed to new possibilities and divinely directed scripts when I want things to go my way during meeting for worship.
Just as I fail to acknowledge God as the One who has the clearest vision of who I am in Truth when I hold tightly to an ideal image of myself, so too do I fail to acknowledge God as the One to whom the time of worship belongs when I enter meeting for worship with beliefs about what would make this hour time well-spent.
The nineteenth-century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.” I am learning to be an empty rice bowl at meeting for worship. I think it’s helping me take off my shoes in reverence.