In the season of Epiphany, an Episcopal priest asks, Do our communities create safe spaces where members can confess the particular ways in which they are broken and fall short of Jesus Christ’s calling, ask for help and be assured that they are not alone? If not, can we really call ourselves the church?
The middle-aged man stood up.
“I’d like you to hold my daughter in the Light.”
The congregation listened expectantly. It was noon on a weekday at the Quaker Meeting House in Westminster, London, one block from Charing Cross Road. Saddened by the steep decline in the number of bookshops along that famous street since my last visit a decade before, I had been delighted to find the meeting house by accident on my way to lunch.
For years, I have attended Quaker worship whenever I can. I love the poetic language of my own Anglican tradition, but I often wish our worship included more meditative silence. The Friends’ practice of listening silently for the Spirit while allowing space for individual testimony feeds my soul.
Now, I waited with my fellow worshippers to hear more about this man’s concern for his daughter.
“She’s 18, just about to finish high school,” he said. “She has only one school project left to complete, and how well she does on that will determine which college she gets into.
“Last night, she went out with friends and came home blind drunk at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was awake -- of course, since she hadn’t come home on time -- but I didn’t go downstairs to talk to her. I was too afraid of what I might say.”
Heads nodded around the room, recognizing his pain and remembering our own similar struggles. As a visitor from the United States, I reminded myself that the drinking age in Britain is 18. But obviously, the man’s point wasn’t the legality of his daughter’s actions.
“This morning, I was ranting to my wife about our daughter’s behavior,” he said. “How she doesn’t seem to care about this project or her future, how I just don’t know what to do with her and so forth. And my wife looked at me and said, ‘Dear, you’re a Quaker. Why don’t you try holding her in the Light?’”
Not a Quaker herself, the Friend’s wife had called him back to one of the oldest practices of his faith. She was using Quaker language to suggest that he commend their daughter to God’s loving presence instead of fretting about how to fix her.
Her husband knew she was right. And he knew he couldn’t follow her suggestion alone.
“I am so angry with my daughter right now that I’m having a hard time holding her in the Light,” he told us. “So I’m asking all of you, please, to do it for me.”
As the man sat down, heads again nodded, and quiet murmurs of assurance could be heard around the room.
After a few minutes of silence, a white-haired woman some 20 or 30 years older than the concerned father stood up.
“I have raised five sons,” she said. “I was so often at my wits’ end with them that I didn’t hold them in the Light -- I threw them into the Light!”
After our chuckles died away, she continued.
“If I hadn’t been surrounded by Friends, we never would have made it through those years,” she said. “So I will hold your daughter in the Light. And you, and your wife, too.”
That exchange stayed with me, and that family remained in my prayers, long after I left the meeting house. I was struck by the older woman’s testimony, impressed with the theological and pastoral riches within her playfully forceful description of a nonviolent act. Gently and clearly, she expressed her fellowship with a parent in whose struggle she recognized her own. She resisted any temptation to advise, judge or fix. And she affirmed God’s love for everyone involved.
Like any human community, the Westminster Friends Meeting has its patches of brokenness. Fortunately, their tradition offers a way to bring that brokenness into their worship, to offer it to God in the presence of the community and to pray together for healing, whatever form it may take.
Many churches could benefit from asking how we might do the same. Do we take time during worship for parishioners -- and visitors -- to ask for the support they need, and for others to offer it? If such practices are not part of our worship, where can we make room for them? When needs are expressed during open prayer times, do members and clergy follow up? Do our communities create safe spaces where members can confess the particular ways in which they are broken and fall short of Jesus Christ’s calling, ask for help and be assured that they are not alone? If not, can we really call ourselves the church?
My tradition takes time for confession and absolution in almost every worship service, and time is always available for intercessions and thanksgivings to be offered out loud. But as a highly liturgical church, we’re always in danger of praying by rote.
Often, we hardly draw breath between the call to confession, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor,” and the prayer, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you.” No time is left to collect our thoughts; no moment is offered to simply be still before the Lord. Are we praying or simply repeating familiar phrases? What might happen if we left more space between the words to see what insights and nudges of the Spirit might bubble up into the silence?
In some other traditions, worship leaders may pray extemporaneously and allow time for others to speak, even shout. Yet more often than not, every member of the congregation knows what is safe to say and what cannot be spoken aloud. Where are the spaces for worshippers’ hearts to be unburdened, where seemingly unspeakable truths can finally be voiced out loud, where shame and fear can be met with sympathy and acceptance?
In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the Light in whose presence we see light. And we’re invited to ask, How can our communities lead each other to the Light, hold each other in the Light and offer others the light of our experiences of God?
It starts with vulnerability and attentiveness. It takes courage to create spaces where it’s safe to risk confessing our limits and asking for the help we all need. But in those spaces, if we’re encouraged to pay compassionate attention to each other, we will very likely find companions who feel safe enough to admit they’ve also been down the road we’re walking. And together, we may see clearly enough to keep journeying.