Separated Worship

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The previous seven months have been tumultuous and have ushered in drastic changes. Worship has changed. At the monthly meeting I attend, we have developed two teams: one team to wrestle with video conferencing and the other to establish safe parameters for in-person worship. At one point, a member of the video conferencing team asked aloud the same question I had been pondering since the doors of the meetinghouse closed in March: What is worship?

When the pandemic arrived in our lives, change became a daily visitor. Change is something that most people resist with all their might. In-person worship could not happen without risk of infecting others, contracting the horrendous illness, and possible death. Every media outlet provided its take on the requirements for protecting against infection. The situation was—and continues to be—serious, and must include Spirit while making what are potentially life-and-death decisions. Quakers take nothing lightly and desire to be led by Spirit when taking actions.

At my Friends meeting, members and attenders strongly desired to meet at least weekly for worship. Initially, there was a phone conference call for the 11:00 a.m. worship. That quickly transformed into an online video conferencing option, which let individuals use video or call in, remaining safe and healthy. Still others “met” from their homes during the scheduled 8:00 a.m. worship time and used no technology whatsoever: no phone or Internet. Afterward, the 8:00 a.m. group would be in touch with each other through text messages, emails, or phone calls to close the meeting, and to feel the personal connection with one another in having worshiped together.

For me, worship happens when I minimize the physical, earthly distractions and sit in centering silence to wait on Spirit.

In the early stages of video conferencing, there were times during worship I questioned whether I was actually worshiping. The same question surfaced in conversations with other Friends. Most of us worshiped alone, unaccompanied by another person. We couldn’t shake hands at the close of worship, our Quaker tradition. There were some people who had a weak Internet signal (or none at all) and still others who were frustrated with learning something brand new.

Some people who could not always get a ride to meeting expressed gratitude for the technology, and others were glad to avoid driving long distances, sometimes in thick traffic. The spectrum between gratitude and despair was wide, complicated, and diverse.

Being in the presence of another worshiping person was a strong cry across the spectrum, but what that meant varied. Was I in the presence of another worshiping person when I was seeing their video on my computer screen? A strangled and moaning cry of “No!” could be sensed when speaking to one particular Friend. Fortunately, my experience was more positive. I actually felt the meeting was gathered at least twice in the months since starting online worship. That is a special experience at any time.

For me, worship happens when I minimize the physical, earthly distractions and sit in centering silence to wait on Spirit. There are many terms for what each of us experiences of that which is larger or supreme. Words are signposts and cannot begin to describe the essence of what we wait on. The terms that I have used for the Divine include God, Supreme Being, Spirit, the Divine, the Light, Creative Forces, the Christ, and Natural Law. For this article, I use the word “Spirit.”

Quakers understand that there is direct, divine revelation from Spirit available to each and every one of us today—at this time, whatever our condition. How that is accomplished depends on each individual; however, sitting in silent centering waiting worship seems to work best for many. The purpose is to listen with your whole being to that which is felt on a spiritual basis. Spirit teaches and transforms us if we can center ourselves to sense its message and ministry. I’ve never seen writing on the wall or heard an actual audible voice, but I have felt or sensed a full sentence once and have had impressions of messages at other times. The Spirit-centered experiences that an individual has are unique to the individual.

Unprogrammed Quaker worshipers typically sit for an hour in silence, waiting on Spirit to inform us. Every time Quakers get together, it is worship. We are asking Spirit to enlighten, teach, and transform us. When Quakers read from the Christian biblical canon in Matthew 18:20 where Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” it confirms that communion with Spirit (Jesus) happens when we set our minds and hearts to that purpose. It is possible for each of us to hear more clearly Spirit’s “still, small voice,” as found in 1 Kings 19:12 in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Usually, Quakers who are gathering for a committee meeting start with a moment of silence. That moment is also worship. The people present call on Spirit to be an integral part of the business at hand. Individuals can set aside moments for Spirit in their daily lives or while working or playing. Spirit is with us always, but sometimes we are distracted and need these moments to center, be silent, and listen.

In worship we specifically set aside all else and wait on Spirit to commune with us. It is a time like no other time. It can feel nourishing, supportive, and instructive, or it can feel like we’ve been chastised, rebuked, and corrected. Spirit supports our condition and challenges us to be the best people we can be. We bring Spirit out into the world, to be Spirit’s love in the world. We are quite literally meeting for the purpose of worship. The building, garden, forest, city, or location doesn’t matter: worship can happen at any time and in any place.

Spirit led me to understand that anytime I sat down for silent, centering worship, someone somewhere was likely also worshiping at that very moment. I was in unity with Spirit and with others, even if I did not know about their practices or where they might be.

There have been times when I have not been able to quiet my mind to listen or sense the presence of Spirit. At those times, I was aware that others who were worshiping were worshiping for me. Since then, I’ve sensed times when I am also worshiping for someone else who needs that extra support. I may not even know who that person is. We are in unity as we worship and can be a gathered community that sustains and supports each other in whatever condition we find ourselves.

Prior to the pandemic, a Friend shared how she and her husband worshiped for several years during which they were often traveling. On First Days (Sundays), they would find themselves in various parts of the world, and would worship with their Friends meeting at the same time their meeting worshiped. Sometimes five time zones separated them from their Friends meeting. The two of them would sit in silent, expectant centering worship on a beach, lawn, or porch, and commune with their dear Friends many miles away.

The remarkable part of the story is that most of the Friends at the meeting had no idea that they were being spiritually joined by two Friends who were far away. I pondered the idea of worshiping with others without their knowledge and how these two Friends were—unbeknownst to us—worshiping with us. Spirit led me to understand that anytime I sat down for silent, centering worship, someone somewhere was likely also worshiping at that very moment. I was in unity with Spirit and with others, even if I did not know about their practices or where they might be. What a joyful revelation!

Certainly, questions around worship can only be answered by each individual person, each Friend. However, quieting our minds and opening ourselves to listen for or sense the presence of Spirit is at the core of worship. Our very lives can be a worshipful experience if we bring or allow Spirit to enter in, guide, direct, and nurture us.

My hope is that each of us can worship as often as possible in ways that support our spiritual growth and allow us to be inspired by Spirit who guides us to live and act in alignment with Spirit.

Ellen McBride

Ellen McBride, a member of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting, is the recording clerk and member of the meeting’s Path Forward Committee. Ellen is retired and enjoys writing with the meeting’s Friends Writing Together group. Contact her at [email protected].

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