Good morning, Friends! It’s good to see you all again. My wife and I enjoyed our week of vacation in Vermont. We hadn’t seen our daughter and her husband for over a year. And we just really needed the break – as you know, this fall has been pretty rough.
So, thank you for the break, and thank you all for coming to worship this morning.
Before I left, I said that we were going to spend some time with the Old Testament this fall. It’s good for us to go back to our roots. This morning, I’ve chosen a couple of verses from the prophet Isaiah, the some one who had a vision of God in the Temple, and said, “Here am I! Send me!”
Today’s scripture is later in Isaiah’s career. Maybe 30 or 40 years later. He still has the same fire in his heart. But it’s a different message.
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary,
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.Isaiah 40:28-31
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Then, here is another verse from Isaiah, from the same section:
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:Isaiah 30:15
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength.
If you asked any of the early Quakers what they did at worship, they would have answered without hesitating, “We come together to wait upon the Lord.”
Of course, we do a lot of other things in worship. We enjoy singing. We want to lift up people who are sick or in need in prayer. We think it’s important to hear God speaking to us from the Scriptures. We can talk about issues and concerns and social problems, and those can be a part of our worship.
But for Quakers, the bottom line for worship, the “must-do” part of worship for us, is waiting on the Lord.
Part of the problem is that it’s not always clear what “waiting” really means. Usually, when we wait for things, we expect that they’re going to happen. We wait for a bus, we wait for a plane, we wait for a phone call. And we have a pretty specific idea about what’s going to happen, and how it’s going to take place.
Waiting on God is different. When we wait for a bus, we look at our watch, and if the bus shows up late, or if it doesn’t show up at all, we get pretty irritated.
When we wait for God, there’s a lot less control on our part. God is famous for being ultimately reliable. But God is notorious for running on a different kind of schedule than we do.
God shows up when God wants to. And God shows up in ways we don’t expect. The bus may turn up from a different direction. And it may not be a bus at all. It might be a unicycle. Or a donkey. Or a magic carpet. You never know.
I looked up some other translations of this passage, and they all wrestle with this business of waiting.
The Jerusalem and New International Version say that we hope in the Lord. That would certainly change our understanding of what we do here. We have meetings for hope. We are a people of hope. Hope is our most basic spiritual discipline.
The New English Bible translation says that we look to the Lord. That’s another way of understanding what we do. We spend our time looking. It’s like there’s a kind of inward direction, a kind of inward spiritual compass or magnet which senses that God is near. When we worship, we’re checking our compass, and looking in that direction where our spiritual compass is pointing.
My Spanish is at the beginner’s level, but I checked my Spanish Bible for this passage. It says, “. . .los que Él confián recuperan fuerzas. . .” Those who confide in the Lord recover or recuperate their strength.
Maybe worship has to do with confiding our hearts to God, seeing the Lord as our confidant, the trusted friend to whom we can reveal anything and who gives us strength. When we pray, we can say anything to God. And God can say anything to us. And maybe, after a specially intense session of prayer, we need to recuperate for a bit.
But I still think there’s something worthwhile about this idea of worship as waiting. I don’t think it means we’re all standing around like waiters in a restaurant – though that would suggest that part of our role is to be servants, which is correct.
I don’t think it means that we should be doing all sorts of other things while we’re waiting, just to pass the time. When we worship, we’re not knitting, or reading a magazine, or checking our e-mail.
Quaker worship is waiting with attention, a kind of focused waiting. It’s a kind of energized expectation, a sense of hope, calm, but alive with energy.
I’ve had many friends who practice various kinds of meditation. They feel very drawn to Quaker worship. They talk about the importance of being relaxed, of not letting your muscles be all tight, about letting your mind go free. They talk about the importance of breathing, and various disciplines of breathing they use. I find that very helpful, because prayer is a lot like breath. It’s a kind of inward oxygen, a kind of hidden breath of life.
Prayer brings life and light and energy all the way into us. Instead of those things being on the outside, prayer brings those things inside. Instead of God being far away, prayer brings God within us. It’s as though God wraps around us and fills us inside.
When I was reading through different translations of this passage, I really enjoyed the one by the Jewish Publication Society, which tries extra-hard to translate the Hebrew into English. It says, “Those who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength, as eagles grow new feathers. . .”
That idea really makes my heart happy! See, when birds grow new feathers to take the place of ones which are old or damaged, people back then believed that the birds became young again. I like that idea of prayer and worship being a time when we grow new feathers and gain new strength to fly.
I never like to try to give people specific directions about how to pray. That always seems manipulative to me.
I would like you to be intrigued by all these different understandings of prayer. I hope you’ll try them on for size, and see if one of them fits you, and wear it for a while.
This business of waiting for the Lord is so powerful. And part of the reason is that waiting for the Lord isn’t just something we do by ourselves. In the Quaker understanding, waiting for the Lord is something we do together.
William Penn said: “. . .wait reverently for the coming and opening of the Word of Life, and attend upon it in your ministry and service. . .And be it little, or be it much, it is well, for much is not too much, and the least is enough, if from the motion of God’s spirit. . .”
Isaac Penington said: “There is that near you which will guide you. O, wait for it, and be sure to keep to it. . .”
In Quaker worship, there’s a sense that waiting for God as a group somehow brings us together, and builds invisible bridges or makes invisible connections between us. We move from personal prayer into a sense of group or gathered prayer, from the prayer of the individual to the prayer of the gathered meeting.
We feel the Holy Spirit drawing us together. And when one person speaks, we feel as though God is speaking to and through all of us.
I want to look at our other Scripture reading which we heard this morning, which was also taken from Isaiah.
“Thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.”
That’s important because it expands our understanding and our vocabulary of prayer. Prayer isn’t just waiting. It’s returning. It isn’t always active or busy. Prayer can feel like rest.
It says that the heart of prayer is quietness and confidence. Whatever we feel when we start to pray, when we’re listening to God, we’re drawn in the direction of confidence and quietness.
That’s where our inward compass points us. It points us to confidence and trust. It points us to quietness and rest and restoration. Prayer feels like coming back home.
And it says, “In returning and rest you shall be saved. . .”
There’s a lot of different ideas floating around about salvation. Depending on who you ask, salvation can mean saying a specific prayer, or getting baptized in water, or having someone lay hands on you.
Isaiah has a different idea, and it seems to be an idea which Jesus shared. Being saved means trusting God. It means returning to God. It means laying down our burdens, and resting, not taking on new burdens, and being exhausted. God doesn’t call us to burn out. God calls us to be renewed.
Being saved isn’t like being beaten up. Being saved is like being healed. It’s like being able to see again, or hear again, or walk again. Being saved is like being free. It’s not like being tied down. It’s like getting new feathers, or new wings. God wants us to fly!
That’s a lot of ideas in a very short time. I think we need some time to think about them. And I think we need to spend some time in worship. Let’s wait for the Lord together. And if anyone has fresh ideas or experiences about prayer, please share them.