Waiting, worship: reflection from the first week of Advent 2018

12/09/2018 § Leave a comment

 I beg you, brethren, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies (your selves) a l living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your reasonable worship [or “Wordly” worship]; and do not be shaped according to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind towards discovering [demonstrating, testing out] what is God’s intent, good, pleasing, and perfect. Romans 12:1-2.


Advent is about waiting — the experience of longing and expectation for one whom we may barely know, may not recognize at first, may hesitate to give our hearts to:  Are you he that is to come, or look we for another?

Friends always have known that waiting is at the heart of worship in spirit and truth, and that true worship, the place and moment of encounter, is the foundation of the faithfuless in love that we seek.  What are you waiting for, in waiting worship?  Are you, am I, truly waiting?

It is good to ask sometimes whether our waiting, our praying, is profitable, that is, does it keep us moving forward?  Are we changing, in what we do, how we think, how we suffer and rejoice — and even in how we wait?   After all, worship which is a true encounter with the living God was maybe the single most important witness Friends made, at the beginning.

But what is “forward”? Shall we dare to ask each other, tell each other, what is the aim of all our journeying?  After all, as the Cheshire Cat pointed out, your path depends on your destination, and if you have no aim, any way will work:

Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Without reflecting sometimes on where our seeking tends, what all our waiting is for, we are in danger of aimless motion, or maybe even merely rocking in place, forwards and back, working our way ever deeper into our little hollows and ruts.

We long to invite others to join us (don’t we?), and there is much talk about how to get more effective in sharing “the Quaker way,” but what indeed can we testify to, out of our waiting?  “Way” is ambiguous — it can mean a pathway, or a method, a way of being.  Nowadays, Friends seem more comfortable with talking about their method (praxis), rather than their message.

This is not an idea that is alien to our tradition: Friends preached, in the beginning, that their worship worked, transformed people and through them the world, in contrast to “the world’s worship.”  In the end, it is the effects of our practice that give evidence that we have found something to celebrate, stumbled into a feast to which we can joyfully invite others.  Lacking that, we merely have another lukewarm stone to toss against the cold edifice of a disillusioned, fearful people:

A good man or woman should be ashamed before God and themselves if they realize that God is not in us, that that God the Father is not active in us, but it is rather wretched creatures that act within us, living in us and determining our affections. Thus, King David laments in the psalter, “Tears are my food day and night, while all day long people ask me, ‘Where is your God?'” (Ps.41:3)…. [Ekhart, Book of Divine Consolation].

Yet is “method” meaningful without purpose?  Perhaps “purpose” is not quite right — it smacks too much of the tendency, the temptation,  to dictate to God, to make God in our image, and to worship what will serve our own preferences and what is easy to talk about.

Early monastic writers like John Cassian related practice (askesis) to ultimate purpose (skopos) — if you want to reach a certain goal, some paths head there, and others don’t.  If our aim is a transformed mind (will, purpose, outlook), discovered experimentally as we seek to understand God’s will, that is, the shape we can take in the Divine mind, we will need to be uneasy with the easy, and cultivate a desire to encounter what we do not prefer, maybe cannot well imagine.  Yet this does not mean a random search, a trying of all, or a preference for whatever churns us up  (Lo here! Lo there!).   If our God is one God, then the revelations we have received from before, that have been tested in other lives and times, and borne good fruit, give some orientation for our wandering, can help turn our wandering into pilgrimage, and give some bread for the journey.  Old Simeon, grown aged in waiting for an unknown Reconciler, recognized the child he had been waiting for, once he held him in his arms.

Yet we must not be blind to the strangeness of the message, but recognize the challenge within the invitation:

as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised.

And it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world: And if you be faithful daily to offer up your body as a sacrifice, to bring forth His image, name, and power before His enemies, then what He moves you to bring forth shall be your inheritance, and will daily increase with using (James Nayler How sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome)

Our worship, our waiting worship, is our message, in the end, since in true worship we have a true encounter with the Living One, whose freedom and whose lawfulness are united in the gospel of love, the gospel of peace.

If we have encountered it in power (even in its smallest first appearance), we have something to proclaim that is the root, and the pith, and the fruit, of all our other “testimonies” or claims to the world’s attention, because we will in our measure have a real story  (the new same old story, as “birth” is old, but each birth is new) to tell — how we have come to our senses and are being worked into a new shape, by a power whose ways are open to all.

By our worship, we testify to the world that we are willing, willing to listen, to be gathered, to be led, willing even to be transformed. If out of that willingness we can say “Yes!” to God’s ceaseless initiative, then whether or not we are graced by the experience of a gathered meeting, we can say, with Thomas Kelly, “It was a good meeting.”  (Thomas Gates, Worship).

What are you waiting for?  What have you found?  What has found you? 


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