Over the past weekend, something came to my attention that seemed worth sharing with the two of you who read this blog. My major concern is a simple way to deepen the hour of worship by taking a brief time to prepare ourselves before the Lord.
On the nature of worship
I have recently visited several meetings outside of my yearly meeting. Some have times of sharing in the hour immediately before their worship. I felt that this sharing time tainted the worship and undermined its potential.
To some degree, the root of the issue is one's approach to the time of worship. It seems increasingly common for people to see worship as a time to express themselves. This approach creates a ministry that begins with sharing a personal experience and continues with a discussion of what this meant to them as an individual. It is also increasingly acceptable to decide beforehand what one will say or sing. Time of absorption between messages in meetings is becoming increasingly shorter. I don't intend this post to condemn what others are doing, but I feel a real sense that something of incredible value is not being appreciated and may be lost. The traditional approach to worship, which Friends of all kinds followed until the 1870s, has important benefits.
Self expression has its place, such as in the time of afterthoughts or the fellowship afterward. It is fine to share things of value coming from the news media, an important conversation during the past week, or some other kind of interaction - but let everything have its proper place.
The ancient Quaker approach to worship is one of the greatest contributions of Friends to spirituality. It is a time for us to approach the Divine together, to have the communion with Him that enriches thy soul and energizes thee for the coming week, and to see what Christ Jesus chooses to share with us. This may sound flippant, but it is not. When we approach the Throne of Grace with a deep and abiding sense of awe and solemnity, special things happen. We are not there to entertain God or ourselves - we are there for Him to teach us. Worship is not a time of "waiting for my turn" to talk.
When we set aside the ego for this deeper worship, we experience what early Friends experienced. Messages from the Lord have value for the group as a whole, as we learn together how to walk worthy of our high calling.
Accounts from the 1600s mention a phenomenon that still occurs in Ohio (and perhaps elsewhere, though I haven't heard anyone else talk about this). Sometimes, "Friend A" will have a leading to speak in ministry, but while that Friend is discerning the rightness of sharing the message, "Friend B" will stand and say the same thing. Records from the 1600s indicate that on many occasions, listeners would know 5-10 seconds beforehand what George Fox was about to say. These confirmations are one kind of God's fingerprints on the message.
For any of these deep experiences to take place, however, we have to come to worship fresh and with a sense that it is possible that the Lord has something special for us.
The hour of preparation
The time immediately preceding worship is very important. It is a time to cleanse our minds. We normally do this as the Lord draws us in during the early part of worship, but if we take time beforehand for cleansing, that gives us more time in deep communion.
I have seen many times when a person's mind was exercised in the hour before worship, and the person undermined the experience for others by expressing the venom. All kinds of things detract from one's state of mind. It could be a conversation, particularly if someone needs to share a hurt that was caused by another. It could be a study time in which someone felt there was not a chance to contribute something of importance. These and other things take away from the time of worship.
Which is what leads to the value of considering a time of preparation for worship. Consider the value of thy arriving for worship 15-30 minutes early, making sure that the room is ready for worship, and taking a seat. Try to remove all exercise and unease in thy mind to make thee as fresh as possible to experience communion and receive any direction that the Light of Christ Jesus might have for thee. Arriving early provides thee with time for the Lord to cleanse anything that needs to be set aside temporarily or removed altogether. Taking a seat early also sets an example that others need to speak softly if at all.
A time of preparation has many benefits. Many ministers in Ohio Yearly Meeting take quite a while in discernment of a particular message. They have a long-standing care to weed out the leadings that come from an overactive mind because they earnestly hope to minimize what Ruth Pitman called the "taste of the pipes" in On the Vocal Ministry. The effect of this is that the first half of a meeting is silent while the latter half may have several messages. Clustering all messages into the second 30 minutes means that they have to be short in order to allow time for absorption. For example, if three messages are given in 30 minutes, they would average 7-8 minutes at most.
However, if the ministers arrive (for example) 15 minutes early, and still have 30 minutes of cleansing and discernment, that shifts the character of the meeting because the time when most messages are given is increased from 30 minutes to 45. Ministers are less under the weight of keeping messages shorter and have the potential for deeper messages that often take more time. Three messages in 45 minutes would average 12 minutes each, providing the potential for twice the length per message.
While having a time for preparation is not likely to become a kind of "pre-meeting" in the way that afterthoughts have become a "post-meeting," it has some weight and potential to leaven our worship and make it more meaningful for thee and others.
Note of clarification: Over the past weekend, I attended the gathering of Christian Friends at Powell House. While the realizations of this blog posting came into focus for me at that gathering, the underlying concerns were not based on anything that happened at the gathering.