Guest Post: Amy Baker on What Really Happens at a Quaker Meeting for Worship?

My 300th post is a guest post by Amy Baker. This was published in the San Francisco Friends School newsletter, Circle Back, and is reprinted here with Amy's permission. Besides it being a good article, I'm tickled that she picked up my FAQQ meme! -- Chris Mohr

FAQQ: Frequently Asked Quaker Question:
What Really Happens at a Meeting for Worship?

By Amy Baker, San Francisco Monthly Meeting & Quaker Life Committee member

“What do you mean, there’s no priest?” my mother said, baffled, as I explained how the Meeting for Worship would proceed at my wedding. She had been unfailingly supportive as I adopted this faith, but for someone steeped in pre-Vatican II Catholic traditions, the concept of silent worship (unguided!) was a stretch.

There aren’t many places where we sit in silence, in our world. You might see an audience sitting in silence during a performance, and you might see a random collection of individuals sitting in silence in a library or a park, but how often do you experience a deliberate, collective silence? It’s hard to explain how different it is, and how powerful it can be, to sit in silence together with others.

The Quaker faith was founded on the principal that every person can have a direct relationship with God, without the intercession and interpretation of clergy. The Meeting for Worship is designed not just as a gathering of like minded worshipers, but as a place to meet with God in your mind. Each one of us can experience that “still, inner voice” that guides us, if only we set aside the time to reflect in silence. Even then, Meeting for Worship is different from solitary prayer. Friends seek connection to one another as they collectively discern the path forward.

I once heard ministry that described the silence like a painter’s canvas--even if the whole meeting is silent, it’s got boundaries and a certain richness to it. And when those present spontaneously stand and deliver a personal message, grounded in their own experience but related to some spiritual issue they have been working through in their mind, more color and depth is added to the canvas.

I have not found a service of worship where so much is left to the worshiper as it is in a Friends meeting. There are none of the usual cues, and it is up to the individual to tune in, quiet their mind, and direct their own spiritual experience. Some meetings I go through the entire time without ever clearing my mind of clutter I came in with. Other times I feel completely open, both to insights that percolate up and to messages I hear from fellow worshipers.

One aspect of Meeting for Worship I particularly like is its inclusiveness, in that it respects a wide diversity of religious backgrounds in a way that affirms the importance of all faiths. As foreign as it must have been for my mother to experience a Quaker Meeting, it didn’t detract from her own religion and I find that even the biggest religious skeptics I encounter can see the appeal in it.

If you have ever been curious to join a Meeting for Worship, as practiced by the San Francisco Monthly Meeting, please join other members of the SF Friends School community on Sunday, February 7th at 11am. Meeting for Worship lasts an hour, and afterward there will be a potluck meal to share, whether you bring a pot or not. The Meeting House is at 65 9th Street, between Mission & Market.

There is a short intro session at 10:40 if you want to learn more about the underpinnings of this form of worship, and there is supervision for children who choose not to stay in the Meeting after the first 15 minutes. There is also a caregiver in the nursery for babies and toddlers.

Collectively, we would love to see you there!
“I’ve been to meeting for worship at the SF Meeting House a couple of times over the years. It’s a great chance to learn more about Quakerism and to see if we adults can sit as quietly as our kids do during Meeting at school. The communally contemplative meeting room is a wonderful place to take time out from our ever hectic lives, think about what’s most important in our lives and hear inspired thoughts from others.”
-- SFFS Parent


Affirmation from meeting for business today

Today San Francisco Meeting's monthly meeting for worship with a concern for business, the first in 2010, went rather smoothly.

We heard about the internship program two members run for at-risk, low-income teens at their art gallery (a fine example of multiracial, cross-class organizing!), approved two new members, approved the 2010 budget, and heard the latest about a possible service project we're discerning whether or not to take up, among other things. The report on the gallery was particularly moving, as another Friend spoke about a recent performance he had attended, where the youth performed monologues they had created. He also talked about how the youth just adore Anne and Tony, the Friends who run the gallery and the program. He was fighting back tears as he said this, and as a former criminal defense attorney, he isn't prone to doing that often.

Business meeting was over in a bit less than two hours, I think, and in any case, it felt relatively short for the amount of business we conducted.

This is in sharp contrast to last month, when we had extensive conversation about the budget and didn't approve it; discussed the service project, and approved submitting an application to work with a service partner but were not ready to approve actually participating if we are accepted; and reviewed whether the minutes from the month before had appropriately recorded a difficult issue that month. It lasted over three hours, closer to three and a half, and was probably the longest one I've clerked in a bit over two and a half years of clerking.

Yet the meeting never descended to argumentation or bitterness. It was just long, and rather draining.

With today's meeting as a frame of reference, it now seems to me that last month we were plowing fertile, if perhaps fallow, ground. We had to break up the clods and ready the soil for the seeds. And so today the sprouts were appearing.

A first-time visitor from a small Friends meeting in Australia, who has moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for the next year or so, stayed for meeting for business. At the end, during "Affirmations, Joys, and Concerns," he said he had found our meeting for business to be spiritually grounded. I was grateful to him for saying so, and to San Francisco Friends for providing the evidence that prompted him to notice.

God, thank you for your many blessings!