On Worship

Discoveries don’t come when you’re consciously looking for them. They come when for some reason you’ve let go conscious control. They come in a sudden flash, and you can receive that flash, or you can refuse to. But if you’re willing to receive it, then for that instantaneous moment of time you’re really you, but you’re not conscious in the same way you have to be later on when you look at what you saw in the flash, and then have to work out the equations to prove it.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)


In my first Quaker worship, I’m not evaluating the experience for itself as much as for what it can tell me about Quakers. The whole first hour, nobody talks and that annoys me because I don’t know anything more than I did before I came. I come again the next week and somebody says “there is that of God in everyone,” and I’m sold—I’ve found my spiritual home—but I’m not so sure about this worship thing. An hour’s a very long time for silence. I sit where I can see the clock, and I check it often.


A friend of mine comes to worship with me. Afterwards she says that she liked the meditation, the group mediation, “because that’s basically what it is.” I feel like something’s wrong with that statement, but I can’t articulate it, so I let it go.


I stand up in worship and say a thing. Afterward I’m pretty sure I did it wrong. There’s supposed to be huge feeling around speaking in worship, like you’re compelled to do so, right? I don’t think that’s what I experienced. I don’t have anybody to ask.


More and more often, I stand up and say things, and over time I start to recognize what’s meant by “ministry.” I recognize it on a visceral level, when I’m speaking it and when I’m hearing it. By listening to others at yearly meeting I learn about things like “opening to Spirit” and “channeling energy,” which sounds like a lot of hooey at first but the people talking are people I respect so I take it seriously even when I don’t understand it. There’s a kind of openness that I can feel in my chest and throat, a manifestation in my body of a spiritual truth. I absolutely do not talk about this.


At a yearly meeting function, at lunchtime over a buffet, somebody tells me I’m a prophet and I choke on my root beer. Nobody’s ever defined that word for me in the Quaker sense. This woman says this rather casually and then walks away while eating egg salad. Did she just compare me to Moses and Jeremiah? Because that’s just—I’m not—that doesn’t seem like a thing you say over a buffet.


I’m studying neuroscience for no particular reason and come across a book about alpha waves. I learn that alpha waves are associated with creativity and sudden insight and that they’re induced by profound relaxation—the kind of state brought on by stillness, silence, maybe deep breathing. The more I read, the more I see how Quaker worship stimulates alpha waves. I feel like the neuroscience doesn’t explain away the spiritual experience but deepens my appreciation of it. Why shouldn’t God work with our physiology?


Sometimes worship is boring. I kind of want the mountaintop experience every time, but it’s a discipline. Generally speaking, the less I want to be in worship, the more likely it is that I need to be. On one occasion, I have an experience in worship that manifests as a vision. I see something. It’s not a pleasant something. I post-game the experience with a couple of elders. They help me process. It’s kind of a big deal for me.


The experience of deep, settled worship is the same wherever I am. Sitting with Friends with the intention of listening for God . . . even Friends from other traditions, the ones who sing and pray instead of sitting quietly. We share the intention of listening for God. We share this experience. It’s amazing to me.


At least every week, and often, every day, quiet time—listening to God—and it can be boring or comforting or scary. Or joyful or funny or annoying or challenging. Or healing or exhausting or sad or surprising. And then I get up and write letters and answer emails and tie children’s shoes and ride the subway and, of course, the thing is, you can listen to God then, too.


The Methodist Church a block from home has midweek worship every Wednesday. It’s small and informal and nourishing, so I go when I’m in town. The pastor says, “I’m grateful for the settled spirit you bring. It’s like you just bring in this groundedness, this peace that you carry with you. I guess that must come from being a contemplative for so long.” And I wonder when—how—I became a contemplative, me, who likes spreadsheets and half the time can’t sit still.




This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

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