What Happens in Meeting

By Chris McLaughlin

If you haven’t been in a silent meeting for worship in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, you might wonder what it’s like. It’s never the same, the silence, the witness, this Quaker jazz. But here’s one person’s First Day.

January 26, 2020

The children are restless today. They can’t settle in. Neither can I: my head is roiling.

Sounds during silent worship don’t bother me as they used to. Silence isn’t the message: it’s the medium in which we hear. So I listen to what rises: sounds of weight transferring, food digesting; shoes scraping or squeaking in friction with parquet; the sudden shifting ice. What do they have to say? My job’s to wonder.

An image arises, a heart with ears. A square tile in bold colors, in the style of Friend Jessica Laub,  the figure freely drawn and strongly outlined.

My job’s to be a heart with ears.

There’s no mouth there, I note, and so the thinkings must not be meant for speaking aloud during Meeting. Sometimes it’s hard to know if ruminations are for sharing or are for you alone. Heart, ears, no mouth. I’ll take that as a sign to be silent.

The children leave. Our more confined adult shiftings almost cease. Some of us begin to breathe in unison. I can’t name what orchestrates us. Some can. It’s numinous, though: all of it.

From the silence Mary speaks to tell how one of us walked alone in silent witness before Milwaukee ICE offices last week, a Jericho Walk of solidarity with the New Sanctuary Movement on a particularly cold day. Afterward in her car, by herself but perhaps not alone, she prayed for the families entering there, and especially for a mother with children in hand and a baby in her arms.

May these walls come down; may these terrible walls come down.

Where one stands in opposition, there is hope for us all, I think.

And where two or more are gathered, there am I, Jesus said: that’s church. Or at least that’s what I think I remember from my Lutheran-girl catechism. Church, congregation, community: this organism we become together, something different from and greater than even the sum of our alonely parts.

The words not meant to be spoken today don’t let go. A church, reports say, asked its older members to stop attending so it can change, become young again. It’s shocking but you wonder how many churches wish they could do the same. Ours doesn’t dream that way, but we know there sometimes is tension between the needs of the old and those of the new.

The reports aren’t quite right though they have gained traction. Grove United Methodist Church in Minnesota, one of two campuses of the same church, will shut down for a time before it reboots. And the 30 members who have come each Sunday, making their own sermons and singing their old hymns, will have to find a new way to be part of the church when it reopens hoping to draw younger people.

Poor old Grove Methodists. I understand why they feel forsaken. Having church taken from you and delivered back in a shiny new package seems a loss after you have been used to making church yourself.

At the same time, a small church that appeals to the style of only one generation (and that one an older one) will die in 5 years, one Methodist expert says in an article in Slate. It feels true.

The children return. They still can’t settle, and as I hold the hand of one fairy sprite, she dances, her body begging me and her father to dance too. We don’t, though we feel her delight. Later, other children begin to climb the walls, or at least the chairs stacked there. We must call them down, though perhaps we are a little sorry to be the ones who have to call others down.

We don’t have a hierarchy telling us we must grow, telling us how to do it. But we hear it in the cacophony around us as well as in the silence we hold. The world needs what we have and we need to share it.  How do we change to hold what we can’t yet see or understand while we preserve what we know is worth preserving? Such a lovely conundrum.

I’m going with the hearts with ears thing for now. Of course, now that I’m about to stop telling, I’ll need you to start. Especially if you are newer, shinier and in the busier part of life.

And next time a child urges me to dance, I hope I will.