North Valley Friends Church is a programmed Quaker meeting, part of Northwest Yearly Meeting. Yet, along with many meetings in the evangelical branch of the Quaker movement, we have both unprogrammed and programmed services. And in both types of meetings, we try to give precedence to the living Word (Jesus our Teacher, present among us), while also carefully considering the written Word.
I especially love the early unprogrammed meeting. The 20 or so of us who gather have become family. The facilitator for the morning (a task that rotates among us) passes out the “gathering word,” reads it aloud twice, and we then enter into silence. The word is usually a short portion of Scripture, but is sometimes a quote from Fox, Barclay, Woolman or another worthy Quaker.
The gathering word quiets our spirits, and literally gathers us around a central point of light. In the following silence we let the written word settle us in the presence of the living Word. A strong sense of community moves us forward. We are the people of God, listening together, waiting for our Lord to speak.
Sometimes the whole meeting proceeds in silence. Usually, after about 40 minutes, one or two people reflect on the gathering word (or on something else they sense the Spirit saying). We end in prayer. And then stand around talking for as long as we can. There are times I leave the meeting amazed by what I’ve learned, warmed by being part of the family.
I realize I’m describing this in ideal terms. In actuality, sometime I fight sleep the whole time. Other times I wrestle with reigning in my fertile imagination. But little by little, I think I’m learning how to do this. Letting go of guilt feelings when I don’t do so well helps. Having the gathering word to hang onto also helps me focus.
This past Sunday, the gathering word came from John 13:12-17: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
Toward the end of the meeting, three people spoke out of the silence. Arthur remembered a foot washing ceremony in Alaska Yearly Meeting. Eskimo leaders of the meeting washed the feet of the Caucasian visitors, thanking them for bringing the gospel to Alaska years ago. It was profoundly meaningful to Arthur. Bill spoke from the context of the history of religion about the continuing temptations of leaders to operate from a base of power rather than service. He noted the enduring effect of the image of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
My reflection came from personal experience. I was especially struck by Jesus’ simple acceptance of his role: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am.” My experience as an introvert cast in the role of teacher of Latin American leaders (mostly men) contrasts to Jesus’ example. I can do the servant stuff that goes with teaching, but I have trouble seeing myself positively as teacher. Yet Jesus says, “I have set you an example.” The integration of servant and leader, and the simple acceptance of both roles spoke to me. Sometimes a personal message is meant to be shared with the group, and this was one of those times.
We ended the meeting with a time of prayer for Alaskan Quakers. It was good.
The fragrance of our time together and the encouragement received continues with me throughout the week.