2 Maccabees 6:1-17 – The king sends an “old man from Athens to compel the Jews to abandon their ancestral customs and live no longer by the laws of God; and to profane the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus” (6:1) -- to compel the Jews to accept Hellenization.
The Temples in Jerusalem and Samaria are filled with idols and the “altar of sacrifice was loaded with victims proscribed by the laws as unclean” (6:5). There is a monthly celebration of the Seleucid king’s birthday and people are forced to “wear ivy wreaths and walk in the Dionysiac procession” (6:7) when there was a feast for the god Dionysus.
A decree goes out “ordering the execution of those who would not voluntarily conform to Greek customs. So it became clear that disaster was imminent” (6:9). Two women are “charged with having circumcised their children” (6:10). They are “paraded publicly round the town, with their babies hung at their breasts, and then hurled over the city wall” (6:10).
“Other people who had assembled in the caves to keep the [Sabbath] without attracting attention were denounced to Philip [the Phrygian – officer in charge of the town] and all burned together, since their consciences would not allow them to defend themselves, out of respect for the holiness of the day” (6:11).
Then the author says, “I urge anyone who may read this book not to be dismayed at these calamities, but to reflect that such visitations are not intended to destroy our race but to discipline it.” (6: 12).
The silence of the Meeting for Worship is something that has come down through the years in the “unprogrammed” tradition that is mostly followed in the Eastern United States, and it remains what it always was, a place where you can encounter Christ. But people bring to the Meeting the expectations and theologies they have. If you bring to it an expectation of meeting Christ, you will meet him there. If you come expecting something less, that is what you will encounter. Meetings today seldom expect to encounter what early Friends expected, so the ministry you hear is very different.
The feeling of being called to give vocal ministry is a very powerful experience. As I became regular in my attendance at Meeting for Worship and grew in my understanding of what I was going and expecting, I found myself called more and more to speak. The feeling was always the same—the burdened feeling, the feeling in my throat, the beating of my heart. These experiences understood in the light of Friends’ theology were very special to me—like brushing the hem of Christ’s garment inwardly.
By all accounts, the early Meetings of Friends were rich in spoken ministry—inspired prayer, teaching, and encouragement. But there were also times when Friends spoke and “outran” the Spirit. Being attentive meant learning when you were not being called. If you were not being moved by God to speak, you were supposed to remain silent, even if what you had to say seemed very interesting or wise to you. Friends were eloquent in describing and exhorting each other to self-restraint and attentiveness, as I have pointed out in the 1656 advice quoted above. The experience of being called to vocal ministry is not self-inflating. Fare from generating pride, the idea that you might be “God’s mouth” in some small way generates a deep humility:
“. . . stand still in quietness and meekness, that the still voice you may hear, which till you come down within, you cannot hear. . . . So be low and still, if you will hear his voice, and wait to hear that speak that separates between the precious and the vile, now that which you must wait in is near you, yes, in you” (Howgill, Early Quaker Writings, Barbour and Roberts, eds, 176).
Worship was and continues to be the starting point of all Quaker spirituality, but listening and waiting in Meeting was and is not the end—even vocal ministry is not. The end or point of learning to listen for his voice was life in Christ. The discipline of hearing and obeying practiced in worship needed to be carried out of the Meeting for Worship into one’s daily life, into one’s activities in the world. Early Quakers were not contemplatives. They were simple laymen and women—married mostly, often rudely educated and active in every kind of human work. They lived in a tumultuous society at a tumultuous time in history. They traveled, preached, went to jail, challenged entrenched social customs, and tested the limits of religious orthodoxy. A generation later, a certain withdrawal from the world would become part of the Quaker way of life, but even in that more quietistic time, Friends never would withdraw from the daily routines of family, business, and ordinary human life. Also, the silence and inner stillness were never meant to bring one into any kind of contemplative state. They were meant to keep you in the life and power of Christ wherever you were.
The writings of early Friends are filled with words and phrases that evoke the waiting atmosphere of Meeting: “be still and silent”, “stand single to the Lord”, keep “the mind stayed upon the Lord”, and others. But these phrases, which can be plucked from Quaker writings like ripe fruit, rarely refer to Meeting for Worship, but rather to the general hustle and bustle of everyday life. Life was not to be divided into an hour or two of attentiveness to God each week followed by hours and hours of preoccupation with human affairs.