I know a lot about liturgy. I also know a thing or two about waiting. I know about silence and darkness, and I know about walking in the Light. My childhood experiences of liturgy were as intriguing as they were predictable. Every Sunday in a little Lutheran church in Flint, Michigan, we recited the words and lyrics and mannerisms of a faithful community of people who knew they were right about things. When I reached adolescence, I began to question if those things were right or not. While God might not be easily replaced, liturgy is nearly impossible to strike from one’s consciousness.
The Lutheran liturgy would come back to me at the oddest times, a sort of embedded cognitive dissonance, which contrasted with the insurrection and anarchy I had chosen to counteract the lies of resurrection and rightness. And though the gods and demons of the cosmos had been relegated to the trash heap of my childhood, childlike attraction to the saving grace of repetition and distraction hung round my neck. I began to drink liturgically, and fight and f— liturgically. I found myself sooner than later burning in a lake of fire lit by the tongues of flame, emblazoning the six-inch antenna pieces I used to smoke crack.
Crack cocaine and drinking produce their own liturgies. Waking up and reciting the promises of the faith: first, that I won’t use today, and second, that I’m gonna kick tomorrow. Living in an abandoned downstairs of a water-damaged Detroit duplex, my wife woke up to go to work every day; my kids went to daycare; and I set about the task. I would tell myself I needed to eat, then would walk upstairs to a back room where the last resident had left mountains of Downbeat magazines. Each one of those bound pages represented ten cents toward my tithe to the gods of Gehenna.
My liturgy went from promising to quit tomorrow and to eat today to ritually organizing the issues of Downbeat into tidy groups of ten until I amassed enough to earn $20 from the used bookstore on Cass Avenue. Following that successful sale, I would entertain the thought of going across the street to Alvin’s Delicatessen before ritually dismissing the idea of lunch until I walked three blocks east to the crack house on Palmer and Brush. I’d make that purchase, followed by a purchase of vodka, a drive home, and then 20 minutes of Valhalla followed by a never-ending liturgy of shame and guilt. Within an hour, everything broke down, and I would be launched back out the door as much as I might be dragged back into the street, ready to rob Peter to pay Paul and get another rock, another drink, and repeat the cycle of being washed in my own blood, contaminated and unclean. I never did eat. I did end out on the street.
I also ended up in mental institutions, sort of like a vacation for addicts, back in Michigan Governor John Engler’s ’80s when community mental healthcare became as effective as a fart in a gentle breeze: just enough to drive away those who believed that welfare care might hold the promise of a new day. Sooner than later, I ended up sleeping in an abandoned hardware store before being put away in an adult foster care home. It was in that home that liturgy renewed itself in my life, at a whole new level of repetitive self-harm, violence, and fear and loathing.
In the same liturgy of theft and drug use, drinking Wild Irish Rose by the gallon, and playing neighborhood basketball for a dollar or two, I would get high to forget my circumstances before my night was interrupted by the sounds of liturgical gunfire, screaming, rape, and anger. And then I learned the nature of liturgy. I saw the liturgies of the church exposed by the liturgies of anger, rage, and hopelessness. The sights and sounds and truth of some god’s world was not the comforting lyricism of repetitive Kyrie eleison, thanking the God of my parents and grandparents for salvation from the plight of others. It was rather my experience of hearing screaming, flesh smacking flesh, and what sounded like a stabbing.
I saw the liturgies of the church exposed by the liturgies of anger, rage, and hopelessness. The sights and sounds and truth of some god’s world was not the comforting lyricism of repetitive Kyrie eleison, thanking the God of my parents and grandparents for salvation from the plight of others.
Perhaps it just sounded like an ending. Something ended. Perhaps for some woman, everything ended. There was no ambulance or siren; no laughing, crying; no “I told you so” in the liturgy of murder, or what I imagined must have been murder. There was nothing but silence. I waited. I received silence. God had nothing to say at that moment of my life; the motherf—er had just left the house. Abraham’s daddy lived in the suburbs, leaving behind altars throughout the city so that the restless could offer sacrifices in a temple destroyed by an ever-present divine Whiteness.
The ritualized drinking continued for some time. In a sort of cosmic joke, the trickster God who guided my vehicles through traffic while I poured drinks from a wet bar in the passenger seat managed to drive me back to church. Or perhaps, pulled me back. My father-in-law had Alzheimer’s disease and at his longtime church would tend toward the kind of disruptive presence that I would have liked to have been. Nobody would take him despite his obvious desire to be pleasing to God, so I would get loaded and drive him to the six-o’clock service. I once again listened to liturgy and storytelling, singing and prayers—most often meaningless yet entertaining and thought-provoking. And my wife’s dad was as entertaining as hell. It all worked out.
I still had next to nothing to do with gods or religion or belief or faith. When my wife’s first child was born, our daughter Emma, Jenn decided she was returning to church. She had grown up in the church of her father and had no negative associations with the gods of Whiteness and suburban self-righteousness. I was appalled that she would submit our daughter to notions of being purified through a washing machine with the cleansing, detergent-like qualities of the blood of a poltergeist.
Because anti-religion should be every bit as much of a family endeavor as religion, we agreed to be a family. We went to Quaker worship.
First, we had to find it. We called the local peace organization who gave us an address of a parking lot on Madison in Grand Rapids. Not only was there a parking lot where the address should have been, but there was also not a single car in the parking lot. Nobody waiting for anything, let alone the Spirit, or us.
A few weeks later we were at a gathering of folks at a friend’s house and were talking about the nonexistent Quakers and our attempts to find one somewhere. A friend spoke up. “I’m a Quaker,” he said, and then declined to make cosmic sense of the misdirecting individual who led us on the gray-goose chase weeks earlier. Rather, he gave us the correct location and time for meeting. We arrived for worship the following morning.
In that first experience of waiting, waiting in silence, I knew far differently from most Friends in that meeting what waiting was about. Murder? Life? Anger and rage and hopelessness—what comes next after the darkness comes. I’ve known too many folks who never saw light again. They never walked again. They never breathed, prayed, sang, or contemplated what comes next when one is released, just for an hour, from liturgical violence and hopelessness.
So many Friends speak of peacemaking and nonviolence. The God that I now have faith in, that God known in Jesus of Nazareth, commands us to nonviolence, peacemaking, and truth-telling. I have tried to learn as much as I can about the Friends of the past, those ancient and primitive children of the Light known by the world as Quakers. They started out like I did. They had a chip on their shoulder, a tendency toward anti-authoritarianism, truth-telling, and the experience of gross state-sponsored violence against the poor and marginalized. Many of those early Friends were not pacifists, including George Fox, but rather came to embrace nonviolence when it looked as though violence might be used as a charge against them. Faced with continuing persecution for their beliefs, and new charges of treason against the crown, Friends decided to lay down their carnal weapons until the American Revolution came around.
It has been said that the waiting worship version of the Religious Society almost faded away as American exceptionalism pulled too many of us out into the street to do combat for things such as the freedom to manipulate our own markets and exploit our own poor, maintain our own slaves, and kill the Huns good and dead in defense of all that God wants for us. It has been suggested by some Friends and observers that one reason progressive expressions of the Religious Society exist is because of the antiwar liberals who found a safe place to explore quiet waiting in the 1950s.
Liturgical silence values the silence over any potential exhortation to act; to actively mourn and intentionally experience the pain of murder while acting on behalf of peace in a manner that will leave us unprotected. Friends in waiting worship must overcome our desire for stability and sensibility, and act on righteous anger in a present absence of sacrificial and empathetic action with both the murdered and murderers.
Silence simply became awkward for most Americans after Elvis, I suppose, and Quakers had long since decided that the liturgies of the American Way were better for church growth than waiting to see how murder turns out.
I know how it turns out. I am waiting for a long length of time for the God of Abraham and Sarah to deliver the message that, after murder or state execution, the theme of resurrection replaces rage and anger with hope and a liturgy of living, as though resurrection is true, even if it is unreasonable or most certainly irrational.
It is murder on our watch, Friends, and we might begin listening, waiting to hear those sounds of suffering rather than waiting for somebody to speak in the Spirit, reminding us that our spirituality and liturgical silence is producing little more than a relaxing feeling of self-satisfaction.
Perhaps, if the Religious Society is hoping to experience a resurrection of progressive Quakerism, it might be more attentive to the very fact of violence; brokenness; and indeed, the sin of our own complicity in corporate sin. Privilege has become the idol of many Friends, and it remains demonic even when such privilege is directed toward producing “more positive outcomes” in a world dominated by murder. It is murder on our watch, Friends, and we might begin listening, waiting to hear those sounds of suffering rather than waiting for somebody to speak in the Spirit, reminding us that our spirituality and liturgical silence is producing little more than a relaxing feeling of self-satisfaction. We are, after all, liberals holding the world in the Light, and that is our calling.
Murder will interrupt us, and we will not wait to experience the aftermath. We only run, refusing to embrace those who are murdered, and who murder. Silence, in fact, may be our opiate. Self-righteousness may be our methamphetamine and cocaine. And the finest weed likely keeps us just how we like ourselves: bound to a liturgy of hope without action, and the privilege of not suffering.