Naked Worship

Quaker worship. One hour of silence. No hymns. No sermon. No prayers. No creeds. Just silence.

Occasionally someone shares a vocal ministry, perhaps a reading from Scripture or Advices and Queries, a Quaker devotional book. Quakers are encouraged to keep their vocal ministries brief and personal, no sermonizing. Sometimes we will go for several meetings with the only vocal ministry being my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter giggling or beckoning at something.

We have been attending our local Quaker meeting fairly regularly for the past five months. How has my faith journey led me to this place, seated in silence for one hour, seeking the Light of God’s truth without the aid of a minister, worship leader, or liturgy?

I come from a typical evangelical Christian background. The only thing unusual about it was that I was never really tied to any particular denomination. There probably isn’t a major strand of traditional Christianity that I haven’t had some experience with, one exception being the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers). I had been a distant admirer of Quakers, but until five months ago, I wasn’t quite ready for the one hour of silence.

The reasons are complicated and probably not completely relevant to this story, but I had reached a point in my faith where Sunday morning worship services had become somewhat stale. I was mostly bored and annoyed. The sermons were sounding redundant, and the songs were sounding indiscernible, and I just wasn’t encountering God. If this is not your personal experience with traditional Christianity, bear with me; it hadn’t been mine either for the most part in my previous 33 years of attending church.

The problem wasn’t necessarily with the worship services or churches we attended and visited. To put it briefly, God was leading us to Quakerism. For a long time, I have admired Quakers for their tireless work for peace. I admired their love for all people, regardless of religion, gender, or sexuality. I admired their desire for simplicity. But until I was desperate enough for God that I was willing to sit in silence for an hour among strangers, I would remain a distant admirer.

Before I go on, I should point out that there is quite a wide range of Quaker expressions, and I can’t really tell you much about other groups outside the UK. We attend an unprogrammed meeting, meaning it is silent and has no minister. That is not always the case though it seems to be the norm in the UK.

I am not entirely sure what I expected Quakerism to be like when I first attended meeting. I must admit that I liked the idea of not having to hear a sermon and not having to sing hymns written in keys that only some songbirds can comfortably master. Our local meeting has no real hierarchical structure or formal leadership, and this was also rather attractive to me.

The one sticking point for me was that Quaker beliefs seemed so nebulous. Although rooted in Christianity, many Quakers welcome the teachings of other religions as well. While I have a great deal of respect for other religions, I am often barely comfortable with my own and wasn’t sure I wanted to pile on dozens more. I suppose I imagined a bunch of people sitting around thinking about whatever they wanted for an hour and feeling really good about how tolerant and open-minded they all were.

The reality is quite different. Quakers choose to keep their religious practices and beliefs simple—follow Christ. If a Buddhist proverb teaches about the value of forgiveness, or a verse from the Koran talks about working toward peace, such teachings are welcome. Quakers value simplicity, so their list of beliefs and values is pretty short and clear—love, peace, forgiveness,

I assumed Quakerism would be easy. Because of the lack of noise, there would be nothing to annoy or anger me. Because of the lack of hierarchy, there would be no abuse of power. Because of the lack of creeds, there would be no guilt.

What I found instead is that Quakerism is hard, really hard. The lack of noise leaves me naked before God, all my thoughts and feelings exposed to the Light of truth. The lack of hierarchy leaves me with no one to blame for my frustrations and outrage except myself. The lack of creeds forces me to seek God for truth instead of trying to find a song lyric or Bible verse to make me feel better about my faith.

Quaker daily practice and worship are tied together. The second item in the Advices and Queries states this clearly:
Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.
As God strips my faith down to its essentials, seemingly simple advice like this becomes quite challenging.

There is a practical reason for Quakers’ intertwining of daily life and worship: those things that fill my daily life also fill my thoughts during worship. I thought silent worship would mean that I would no longer be annoyed by distractions, but they are still there. Now I only have myself to blame for them; I can’t get upset with a pastor or praise team.

If I sit in meeting for worship for thirty minutes only thinking about work or comic books, it becomes pretty clear what the focus of my life and worship really is. Quakers recognize these distractions are a normal part of worship and warn against allowing them to become sources of guilt and despair, but with my soul laid bare in silence, I cannot hide the fact that my life is not often “under the ordering of the spirit of Christ.”

During these times of distraction, I often turn to the Bible or the Advices for a way to focus. The Advices are particularly tricky because of their simple truth and straightforward questions. A typical item in the Advices will start with questions like, “Are you always honest? Do you cherish your friendships? Do you cultivate peace in all your relationships?” My simplest answer: “No.”

In the past I rarely had to admit such a simple truth. If I wasn’t loving my neighbor, I could compensate by going to church more often. Church activities gave me countless ways to build up my spiritual ego: I could be a star Sunday school student or attend a mission trip to Mexico. After 33 years I had gotten pretty good at being a Christian without really needing to be like Christ.

The simplicity of Quakerism is the most challenging part. It means I have little opportunity for ego building and must focus only on being like Christ in the most basic ways—loving God and my neighbor, serving those in need, forgiving those who wrong me. The problem is that these aren’t really all that basic. They are really hard.

I kind of just wish I could keep being angry at the person who wronged me earlier in the week and feel better about it on Sunday morning by singing “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” really loudly with my eyes closed to show I really mean it. When my faith is stripped of all the nonessentials, it doesn’t really seem like much at all. And when I feel small and naked before God, all I can do is stand in helpless awe, an act of true worship.

Here is the bare truth. I expected that Quakerism would possibly put me on a path towards a spiritual enlightenment that would transcend Christianity, a religion I thought I was beginning to outgrow. Instead it has showed me how much Christ I lack. It has stripped me of my robes and crowns and left me exposed to the light of truth. I hope that light will shine in me and through me with greater intensity now that I have one less place to hide.

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