So, what does it mean to gather together in worship? I have heard others comment they are aware of God’s presence when they are alone, but thrash about in meeting or find it dry. I cannot answer for them, but a simple exercise during a session on prayer (where we were asked to trace out a lifeline showing our closeness to God and another showing our relation to our meeting/church) made clear to me that the meeting for worship is essential to my knowledge and experience of the Spirit. Engagement with others draws me out of my self, teaches me compassion and places me squarely in the reality of human existence. The gathering of others around me, and my opening to them, is one central aspect of my encounter with the Source.
Images of the Holy
When I am alone, God’s presence is there for me at moments totally unexpected. The longing in me reaches out to the world around, to the trees and stars. The Holy is around me and fills the world, or perhaps a twig highlighted, twisting against the snow. God’s presence fills the world if we will only take time to see it.
In worship, one day I was unexpectedly open to the east wind howling through the skylight with its single panes of glass–the wind that usually makes my skin crawl and the blood in my head ache. Carried in the presence of others, I fell into the wind and rode it like the red-tailed hawk. On the wind I was secure. I felt it lift beneath me, let it blow me beyond the limits of my self. In this wild safety I knew the breath of God exhaling, giving me the choice of free wing or tumbled withdrawal. God offers wholeness, holiness to each of us. We can act with a rich creative freedom grounded in all that is Holy, spreading compassion freely and joyfully.
When I am alone, God has pierced my heart with all the sharpness of the icicles hanging from the mountain eaves. A sharpness that is yet smooth and melts, melding the torn tissue into a renewed vessel ready to receive the joy that is there in sharing my life with those around me. And ready to receive as well their pain into this odd hollow in my heart. There, my being knows how to absorb pain without the reflex of slinging more out in return. A life centered in God demands that I revisit the past pains, turmoil, and wrongs I have known, and that I forgive myself and others with the compassion that God has shown me.
In another meetinghouse I am filled with the sense of glorious banners unfurled from the rafters. Blue and gold silk tossed high above our heads celebrating a renewed sense of being right in God and the reality of touching others’ hearts. As I reach out to others this glory encompasses me. In worship the celebration has been so tangible I want to shout out, “Can’t you see them there? Don’t you see God’s hand here in mine?” Worship includes great celebration for the whole of life and praise to the Creator of all life.
On the back step, the hot sun soaked into the garden rocks brings me into consciousness of my own wrong-turning and refusal to believe. I scream out my resistance to the simplicity of the Way. I cannot accept the strangeness of it all and the difficulty of saying yes. There is so much fear or hurt or anger in each of us, forces that make it almost impossible to taste the love and freedom God offers to us. Even when we see it and want to accept it, these fears and pains make turning towards God all too often a slow, difficult process.
The vocal ministry during worship the Sunday after my father died distressed my friend and struck her as “popcorn” ministry. That same ministry changed my life. The hymn of yearning for return from exile–the coming of Immanuel–the woman’s simple story of learning of God at a stoplight, the old man’s rambling that so reassured me in my own fears and failings, all these disconnected bits formed in me a whole. The messages cut through my tears and echoed off the arms of God that comforted me so. When we are open to the Inward Light, we are changed in ways we cannot anticipate. When the Seed that is of God grows within us, it requires careful cultivation, water, feeding, and nurture. And it requires cycles of daylight and night–sun, rain, dryness, and moisture–to fulfill its promise.
Alone, I have known the certainty of God’s action in my life. The knowledge penetrates my bones like so much cold concrete wrapping me forever. It empties out the presumptions that long governed me. It reams out a place in my soul where compassion and grace can find a hold. When we are not oriented towards the Holy, it is easy to be preoccupied with money or success, blame or our own personal comfort. Turning towards the Light, we learn that these no longer need control us, that the past has its own place and we can move forward afresh.
In the presence of others I become aware of motion and a great journey. In turning all my heart towards care for others I find clues to the Way, to this strange path that I am on. I learn in vivid clarity of moving through the darkness, of windows penetrating the walls of my existence and great openings giving space for inner refuse to pour out. As others care for me, in their concern I come to be aware of the brilliance of potential, of sparks of new life. We come to know God in our relationships with others. We learn new ways of being with others and loving them through the love that comes from God.
Even in my thrashing in meeting, those days when all I can do is rethink my schedule or check who is present so I can talk committee business as soon as we rise; those days when there is no stillness to my quiet, no worship in my silence, the voices in me are reminded that mine are not the only needs. This is a place where I am forced to stop a while and sit with others who may irritate me by their very presence–an irritation that keeps me tied to more than self. God acts in surprising ways. It is not ours to say what is and is not holy.
As we share in worship from the odd corners of our hearts, I am aware of the glasses offering wine to taste the communion present in this group. There are a multiplicity of shapes and colors to these glasses and to the wine they carry that echoes the variety of who we are and how we know each other. In worship we can know we are part of one body, the body that is God. In worship we can celebrate the tremendous paradox of our diversity and our unity.
Alone, I stepped off the cliff. With others I took flight. Alone I am reamed out, the rough outer coating seared from my heart. In company, I learn to taste compassion, know something of how that might fill the new void in me and then pour forth. All that I know of the Divine is nothing if it does not change my life and touch each person I meet.
Separate from others, God is abstract and my journey has no form. Together, there is vivid color and shape and image that speak of this Holy Companion and the nature of the way I seek to know.