Imagine yourself among a group of Quaker families a century ago. They have gathered on a warm summer evening for a shared meal. The children are running around on the lawn as their mothers arrange food on a long table on the porch. After the meal, they do what people did a century ago–the adults sit together and talk, sharing the news, while the children continue playing as dusk falls.
Then, gradually the talking slows and stops. Without intending it, the group simply grows quiet, and sits in silence together. The Friends recognize this is worship, this is an opportunity, an opening to God. Perhaps someone speaks from the silence; perhaps not. At some point, people begin to stir in their chairs and look at each other. “Yes,” their eyes say, “we moved unexpectedly into worship.”
Today Quakers don’t use the word opportunity in the same way, and they don’t usually enter into silent worship on social occasions. That doesn’t mean, however, that spiritual opportunities are missing from Quaker lives or from any of our lives.
A spiritual opportunity is an opening, an invitation from God that sneaks up on us. It’s not planned or pre-programmed. There is something surprising and unexpected about the experience. Something deep within us shifts. We may not even name it as ‘holy,’ but we know something has happened, something that is beyond our understanding.
When a spiritual opportunity comes to us, we are confronted anew by the mystery of God’s presence around us and within us, both fresh and familiar. We may be subtly quieted and comforted. We may feel a challenge to new growth in our lives, an invitation to stretch ourselves. Always, the spiritual opportunity comes bearing love, strengthening us to give love to others.
A month ago I was standing in the middle of a huge Iowa cornfield that stretched out almost to the horizon. I had gathered with other family members to visit the place where my brother-in-law Dale tragically died when his single-engine airplane crashed and burned. (See God Done Good post.) We were trying to understand, if we could, what went wrong.
While the accident site helped us understand a little how it happened, what was truly important was the unexpected opportunity that appeared. As we walked through the knee-high corn stalks to the blackened circle where few stalks appeared, we began seeing small fragments on the ground. A two inch square of blue metal, a long curved wire, a blackened metal coil, and some shards of glass. We slowed our steps and spoke in low voices. Tears came. This, here, was where it happened. We picked up pieces tenderly; we held them reverently and silently.
Here, where our feet were planted in rich Iowa dirt, the Sacred Presence surprised us with a far deeper experience than we had expected. We were on holy ground. My daughter Diana Bieber Locke wrote about it later in a poem addressing her uncle Dale:
We gather together what is left for us to gather These things you touched. . . We are here, I tell you With every thing we find and hold and bless We are here We are holding your hand We are washing your feet We are smoothing your hair We are closing your eyes We are saying I love you We are here
We felt a close presence, a giving and receiving of love, and we were comforted. Such unanticipated Spirit-given experiences come as they will, and we simply receive them. In the cornfield, we had no ritual of worship, no spoken prayer to honor the sacred space, but we acknowledged it with every slowed step and quiet voice. The unexpected gift of an opportunity created a temple in the middle of a cornfield, a sacramental opening out of scraps of metal and glass. In the midst of grief and painful love, God was present.
Early Quakers entered into silent worship while sitting around talking about everyday matters. We went to the field to solve a puzzle, and we experienced the Mystery beyond knowing. We were indeed blessed.