Not so Quiet

today's UPI Column

Be Still and Know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

So There I was…

Sitting in a very noisy Quaker meeting.

For some of us this is unusual. Quakers are known for having a big taste for quiet. We practice a listening spirituality. Whatever else we do, the core of our worship is supposed to be listening to the present Christ and if we are given a message for the community we are supposed to speak it. Because we have been around for 350 years with no centralized church government, the practice of this has become extremely divergent. African Friends sing, loudly and long, often dance, and then listen to the present Christ discerned by the designated preacher, some American meetings also follow this practice. At the other extreme you will find British meetings that will actually boast about how many decades it has been since anyone spoke in meeting – they have elevated the listening process, and appear to have forgotten the purpose of the listening. There is an urban American meeting that in the mid-1800’s would go out on Sunday morning and put straw over the cobblestones of the street so as to muffle the hoof beats of passing horses. Some of us like quiet just that much. The vast majority of Quaker meetings and churches include some quantity of sitting still, being quiet, and listening. It is not always easy. It is counter-cultural. It makes many people uncomfortable.

It’s not rock and roll, but we like it.

The meeting I usually attend is a Quaker hybrid. We sing a little. We pray out loud a bit. Then we settle down, and shut up. Someone usually receives a message to speak, often several someones. The messages are usually right on target. We like the peace that we get between the messages. Most of the people in the room are new Quakers; they are acquiring a taste for the silence.

One morning recently two strangers walked in. A mother and an early teenage son. The son looked around. He looked panic stricken. He turned to his mom and said loudly. “Oh NO! Not Church! Don’t want church!” The boy had autism. I greeted the mother and she said to me “This may not work, we may not be able to stay.” I said, “Please try, you are welcome here. Your son is welcome here.”

Our room is pretty small. We sit facing each other in concentric semi-circles. There isn’t really anyplace to hide. The mother took her son and sat on what constitutes the backbench. The boy was not happy. He did not want to stay. The mother tried several tricks to get him to settle. He vocalized, every few seconds, for the next hour.

We sang. The boy declared “No sad songs!”

We prayed. The boy said “No. No No. No church!”

We settled into silence. The boy moaned, clucked, muttered and talked.
“Don’t wanna be quiet!” he called out.

After a few minutes, some other vocal ministry arose. It was sweet. It was true. It was just what Jesus would have said. It didn’t directly address the situation, it addressed the needs of the meeting. The boy said “Good one!” and proceeded to yip.

After a few more minutes, a scripture passage was raised. The boy crowed.

I experienced what some Quakers call ‘gathering’ it is a deepening of the silence. A kind of mystical feeling of the bottom dropping out of the meeting. A transcendence. A visceral experience of the presence of God. It was a gathered non-silence.

The time passed swiftly.

The meeting rose. Friends greeted the mother and the boy. The mother attempted to apologize. No one was having any of that. We knew that we had experience a first rate Quaker meeting. We know that the purpose of meeting is not to escape from the world to a place quiet enough to listen, but to learn to listen well enough that we can listen anywhere, under any conditions. It had been a good and rewarding morning’s practicum. We were grateful. There was not a single kvetcher, not a single grumbler, not then, not later.

One of those present was a new attender, a new Christian, a new Quaker. She is a transgendered woman. She has lots of tattoos. She was checking us out, watchful. She had been burned by church people. She walked up to me after meeting and said “Well, hmm. I guess you really mean it. I guess everyone really is welcome, wow. Walking the talk, hmm.”

God told the psalmist, Be still and know that I am God. Quakers like that verse. Many think the stillness referred to means silence. It does not. The Hebrew verb means to relax, let go, stop trying so hard, release. In order to see God, you have to stop striving, stop relying on your own strength. You have to give up your notions of how things should be. You have to let go of preferences and pet peeves. You have to open yourself up to the uncomfortable.

Then God shows up.

Lovely, just lovely. I must come back and worship with you soon. You don't DO church, you ARE church.
Good one!
Dear Peggy,
I love your description of your worship, "We sing a little. We pray out loud a bit. Then we settle down, and shut up."

The story of the mother and her nearly teenage son, and the transgendered woman, speaks of inclusion and the present Christ.

Judy Brutz, Commit To Blessing
What Peterson said!

-- Chris M.

I stumbled on your entry through QuakerQuaker, and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate it, especially the way you ended the entry-

"Many think the stillness referred to means silence. It does not. The Hebrew verb means to relax, let go, stop trying so hard, release. In order to see God, you have to stop striving, stop relying on your own strength."

This spoke volumes to me. Thank you :)
Thanks, Peggy. I appreciate your reminder that being still isn't always (often?) being silent. I need to work on that one...being still in the not-silent moments.
I liked this a lot.

I am personally struggling with learning to pray out loud a bit. Like to invoke a blessing on a meal or a gathering. Do you have any advice, tips, suggested readings?
Amen sister!
I very much appreciated your post, Peggy. I appreciated your explanation of what stillness really means. Sometimes Quakers worship the silence instead of the one who supposedly they're being silent in order to hear better.

It is about attentiveness to God. The value of silence is only in helping to put aside some of the distractions that interfere with our hearing God's voice. But some of the distractions can not be put aside that way, and can in fact be amplified if we are trusting the silence too much. Distractions like our tendency to judge people by outward behavior, blinding us to that of God within them.

Our faith communities need to be undergirded by the kind of love and vision that God has that transcends our notions of "good order" and lets our barriers toward those who are different fall down.

In our church, we had someone come to the community with autism. He has been told in another church that he isn't welcome there. He had so many bad experiences with churches that he felt it necessary to call our Church before coming to ask if he would be welcome! What a sad commentary on the state of the institutional church. Here is someone who is passionate about Christ, and churches don't want him because he doesn't fit their safe, "normal" mold. He says he has tried a number of churches since he converted to being a follower of Christ, and this is the first healthy community he has been in.
This was beautiful, thank you
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