The Well at the Center

October 7, 2018 § 2 Comments

There is at the center of the meeting for worship a well, a spiritual well, a well of living water, as Jesus referred to it in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in the gospel of John.

We come to the well, to meeting for worship, for spiritual refreshment. We come with a cup, as it were, made of our attention, our intention, made of ears open and hearts yearning to hear and be filled.

While there, some of us may find that we are called to be the server. With our vocal ministry, we are called to lower our bucket into the depths, to raise up this living water, and to ladle it out.

The deeper we lower the bucket, the cooler the water, the richer the savor, the deeper the refreshment.


Vocal Ministry: The Importance of Being Called, of Having a Caller

September 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

In my previous post I emphasized the differences in how we approach our vocal ministry, both as individuals and as a meeting, between having a sense of calling, or not, between having a sense of a caller and not, and how one thinks of ministry as service. But I was being a bit disingenuous and even doctrinaire, and/or hypocritical. Because of my own experience.

I do feel a clear calling to vocal ministry. But I do not have a clear sense of a caller. But that’s not quite accurate either.

The thing that is clear for me is the sense of a call to vocal ministry. And this makes me take my vocal ministry very seriously. But I imagine that’s how almost all Friends feel about their vocal ministry—they, too, take it seriously. Ministry that I, in my judgmentalism, find shallow or unsatisfactory probably in the moment feels at least appropriate, maybe even deep, to the speaker. In the moment, when we rise to speak, I suspect that my ministry and that of almost all other Friends, feels Spirit-led, however we experience that.

What a sense of calling affects, in my experience, is how you carry the ministry the rest of the time. How important it is to prepare in the morning before coming to the meetinghouse. How important it is to carry the ministry in one’s personal devotional life. How important it is to understand and respect the Quaker faith and practice of ministry.

As for a sense of a caller, I do suspect that feeling called by Christ must load the ministry with a real weight of responsibility. However, this does not just add weight; in my experience, being called by Christ also adds content and direction. A direct relationship with Christ almost guarantees a new level of engagement, even reverence, for Scripture, and often brings Scripture into the ministry. It also tends to encourage gospel ministry, that is, ministry that proclaims Christ as the good news. At least that’s what I observe in the Christ-centered Friends I know who clearly have such a call.

I do not have such a relationship. I am quite versant in Scripture and often do bring it into my ministry, but I never bring gospel ministry to my meeting. I have not been called to do that.

On the other hand, I have had several quite extraordinary transcendental experiences of Jesus behind vocal ministry, as it were—apparitions of him behind someone who just then rises to speak—and one involuntary call to pray to him on my knees out loud in a meeting for worship. Which, believe me, was really weird and soul-shaking. Thus, when someone speaks in meeting, I now imagine Jesus standing beside them. This is how I hold our ministers as they speak.

More importantly, I pray to Jesus for my own ministry during meeting for worship. This seems to align me inwardly in a way I find helpful. That’s why I think it makes a difference in your ministry when you have a sense of a caller—even though I don’t really feel called by Jesus.

But maybe I am and I just don’t know it. But that’s not very helpful; I’m not even sure what that might mean. So my prayer is based on faith and an inward experience of alignment.

On the other hand, I do have a clear sense of a caller when it comes to my written ministry. This comes from a formative experience in a sweat lodge ceremony with a spiritual entity that I will call for want of a better label an angel. In this case, I think of angels as elemental spirits—devas—that have been awakened to relationship with humans.

I experience this “angel” as a muse. Ever since that experience, my writing life, my inner life, my spiritual life, have all been, in some ways, one life. I find myself writing about what’s coming up in my spiritual life, and I find my spiritual life being redefined, renewed, moved forward, by my writing.

So I do know the feeling of being called by a distinct caller. Mine even has a name. But does Fire in the Earth call me to vocal ministry? That’s never been made clear. I think so, actually, but thinking that is another act, or alignment, of faith. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s pure speculation that I nevertheless give some weight.

Working all this out has given me, all unexpectedly, a new appreciation for faith. I am by temperament, an empirical mystic. I try to stick to what I have actually experienced, or at least to what I see real, tangible evidence for. These experiences of Jesus in meeting are all subjective and unverifiable, and personal, though not without support in lots of religious and spiritual traditions. But, empirically—that is, in my experience—it does seem to improve my mystical life to incorporate these alignments toward Jesus and Fire in the Earth in my spiritual practice based just on faith, on speculation to which I confer some authority.

Vocal Ministry: Who Calls? Whom Do We Serve?

September 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

Quakers are fond of saying that, when we let go of paid professional religious leadership, we did not get rid of the clergy, we got rid of the laity—that each of us is a minister. Or more accurately, that each of us is a potential minister. We become a minister when we answer the call to ministry, to service. For “minister” means servant and “ministry” means service.

For centuries, it has been the presumption that the calling to Quaker ministry comes from Jesus Christ and that it is him whom we serve.

Today, at least in the liberal branch, we no longer presume in this way. Some of us feel called by the spirit of Christ and serve the spirit of Christ with our ministry. Many of us—probably most of us—would not say that.

Yet the questions remain: By whom or by what, are we called? And whom do we serve? Or do we feel called, at all? Do we think of vocal ministry as service, in the first place?

The answers matter. They affect how seriously we take our vocal ministry (and our other ministries), and how we carry our ministry. And they affect how our meeting relates to our ministry.

When you believe you are called by Christ—or by God, however you might experience “God”—and that you are speaking the word of the Lord (however you might experience that), well, that’s serious business. You welcome help, oversight, discipline. Getting it wrong is bad news. And the meeting feels a similar responsibility.

On the other hand, if you think you are called by the Inner Light, or by “the Spirit”, this relative vagueness, this lack of personal relationship, confers upon your ministry a fair amount of latitude, in terms of both style and content.

And if you don’t think of vocal ministry as a calling at all; if you do not experience any caller at all, but only the kind of impulse to heartfelt sharing that characterizes worship sharing, then this latitude expands by an order of magnitude.

Without a caller, whom does one serve? If in our ministry we are not surrendering our will to God, to some Source that runs through our self along a different axis than that which defines the self, then we are left to serve—what? Each other? The meeting? Both are worthy of our service.

The problem is that when the message is defined by the self, the self attaches a tether to the message, a kind of friction that can hinder the spirit of service. The self wants to serve—itself. When it gets the upper hand, it might even undo the spirit of service altogether. We might not even think to ask ourselves before we rise to speak, whom does this serve, and how, and why?

Of course, these are dangers for the gospel minister—for someone who feels called by Christ—as well. That is why we used to record ministers (leave aside for now the real decay that eventually set in and prompted us to lay the practice down)—the meeting’s ministry was too important to leave to the self.

And isn’t it still?

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Transmitting the Tradition

September 22, 2018 § 7 Comments

Other religious communities have institutions in place for transmitting their tradition. Christian denominations have seminaries and some secular academic discourse to train their clergy and a number of vehicles for training the laity: stain glass windows and symbolical architecture, the church calendar, elements of the liturgy, especially Bible readings, hymns, and sermons, and catechism/confirmation classes.

Quakers in the liberal tradition don’t have any of these institutions. We don’t have seminaries because we don’t have religious professionals that need training, though we do have Pendle Hill and some other conference centers, the School of the Spirit, Quakerism 101, and other spiritual formation programs. We have a very rich tradition of written ministry, especially the ongoing Pendle Hill Pamphlet series, and some dedicated Quaker libraries. Locally, we have religious education classes for both adults and children. In theory, at least, we have the traveling ministry. And, in theory, at least, we have vocal ministry.

But all of these options are just that—they’re options. They’re voluntary, not mandatory. My Lutheran pastor when I was a kid had to go to seminary, and I had to take confirmation class. And I had to sing those hymns, follow that calendar, and listen to his prepared sermons.

The only vehicle for transmitting our tradition that will reach even those Friends and attenders who do not take the voluntary options that are available in their meeting and beyond, is vocal ministry. Unfortunately, very few Friends avail themselves of this opportunity as ministers. Not enough Friends actually know the tradition well enough to transmit it. And those that do know it do not necessarily feel a call to a ministry of teaching.

Moreover, those who do have a calling to teach, as I do, still have to wait for the Spirit’s prompting. Even then, at least in my own experience, these teaching messages sometimes feel a bit—something . . . forced, or prepared, or somehow pretty close to the threshold of not quite.

Nevertheless, I feel that more of us need to open ourselves to the possibility of a call to teaching vocal ministry, and particularly, to teaching about worship and vocal ministry itself. Because without it, we leave the matter of transmitting the tradition in the hands of whatever religious education our meeting supports and it reaches only those who come. In many meetings, that means haphazard treatment of the tradition, at best, and total neglect at the worst.

And that means that our tradition does not get transmitted. Our members become more and more ignorant, more and more incapable of “running” the meeting in ways that are faithful to the tradition, more and more prone to vocal ministry and attitudes toward worship that seem ignorant of our tradition and the conventions that we have found foster deep worship and Spirit-led ministry.

This is another reason why vocal ministry really matters—or could matter, anyway.

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Worship Culture

September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

As I said at the end of my previous post about the importance of ministry for shaping the experience of newcomers, worship—worth-shape—is how we give shape to that which is of ultimate worth. And we give it that shape primarily through our vocal ministry. Our vocal ministry is the main vehicle by which we build our meeting’s culture of worship. It gives the worshipping spirit of the meeting its definition and character. It is what gives wings to the angel of our meeting.

Shallow ministry or ministry that comes from the self reinforces the sense that that is what worship is for. It encourages newcomers to bring self-defined, sharing-style ministry themselves. And it undermines the prospects for a meeting more gathered in the Spirit.

Without active nurture of Spirit-led ministry, newcomers will learn what we want from osmosis. When its seems that we are not looking for something more, we add to our worship people who are satisfied with something less. And the more people who are satisfied with something less, the more that is what we get.

This cycle of reinforcing feedback can gradually degrade the quality of the worship even further.  Since truly prophetic or deeply Spirit-led vocal ministry requires discipline—or effort, if you will—of several kinds, both personal and collective, the quality of the ministry is unlikely to improve by itself. It is much more likely to get worse.

The discipline of the seasoned minister actually reinforces this cycle. The more people who speak, the less time there is for such a minister to center into her or his own ministry, to discern its source and readiness, and find the peace or inner assurance that one needs to speak. In the meantime, someone else speaks. One stops to listen, to ponder, to absorb the message, and then one returns to one’s discernment anew. More time passes. But in the meantime someone else speaks. . . . And so on.

Similar things happen when some ministry pulls you away from the center or up to the surface of one’s own thoughts, interrupting or interfering with the minister’s centering and discernment.

Weak ministry crowds out seasoned ministry. And this reinforces a worship culture that fosters weak ministry—and tends to hinder efforts to deepen the ministry.

Cultures tend to sustain and defend themselves. That’s what cultures do. While they inevitably evolve over time, they still are conservative by nature and instinct. Of course, a culture is the collective consciousness of a group of individual people. To sustain itself—or improve itself—a culture has only individuals to work with. So, almost inevitably, some Friends take up the task of defending the worship and ministry status quo from whatever they perceive as a threat to their understanding of Quaker worship and ministry. Almost inevitably, someone on a worship and ministry committee or in the meeting resists change, especially if it seems to them intrusive or “eldering” in its negative disciplinarian connotation.

Meanwhile, some Friends might seek to change the worship culture, because, if the ministry seems weak to them, they will want to do something about it. However, the efforts to actively change the quality of the vocal ministry is likely lead to this resistance. The incipient conflict over what to do about the ministry then triggers one of the other dominant forces in Quaker culture—the avoidance of conflict. But even if the committee or the meeting decides to take the issue on, still we must come to unity on both the need to act and, much more difficult, what to do about it.

And so, almost all the time, nothing happens. Often for years. Sometimes until some crisis occurs. Often past the point at which some Friends stop coming to worship. Which is its own kind of quiet crisis.

The only way I see to improve the quality of the ministry in such circumstances is to try to model what we’re looking for. But because of the suppressive dynamics of the meeting for worship that I described above, that often means lowering one’s own bar in order to have a chance to speak at all. Which is exactly NOT what we’re looking for. You can’t model deeply Spirit-led vocal ministry by shortchanging your own processes for listening and discernment.

This is the dilemma of Quaker worship culture when the meeting has no active or effective culture of eldership (in the full and positive sense) for vocal ministry and worship in general.

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Outreach

September 20, 2018 § 4 Comments

When newcomers come to our meetings for worship, two things help them decide whether to come back. The first is the quality of their welcome, the openness of our fellowship. If the community feels warm and welcoming, if people come up to you and talk to you and show a real interest in you, it feels good. You are encouraged to come back.

The other is the quality of the worship, and that mostly means, the quality of the vocal ministry. But because newcomers don’t really know what to expect, don’t necessarily have a benchmark for what constitutes “good” vocal ministry, they are likely to find a pretty wide range of experience at least somewhat appealing. Only really disturbing or obviously inappropriate ministry is likely to turn them away, though they may still find that our form of worship doesn’t meet their religious needs.

The openness and naivety of the newcomer means that much of the ministry I have been complaining about in this series and in other posts will seem okay to most newcomers. Announcements won’t seem out of place. Worship sharing-style messages might be especially appealing, because these seekers may already have some similar experience in other groups, among their friends, and so on. Messages that begin with, “This week, I’ve been reading…” or “The latest mass shooting has me thinking . . .” might feel topical, relevant, and probably uplifting. Popcorn messages might feel exciting, messages given in the first ten or fifteen minutes probably won’t feel jarring to one’s centering.

But if this is all they get, they won’t get what Quakerism is all about—real, direct communion with God, however you want to express the Mystery that we sometimes experience in the gathered meeting. Presumably, that is what a religious seeker is really looking for, something that transcends the usual and expected experience of social interaction, something more or different than they can get elsewhere.

Worship is how we give shape to that which is of ultimate worth. We Quakers give it that shape primarily through our vocal ministry. Do we offer newcomers ultimate worth in a shape that carries spirit and truth? Does our ministry open pathways to the Well in our midst, to the Light within them, to holy communion with the Transcendence they seek?

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Paul’s Gift of Prophecy

September 18, 2018 § 3 Comments

In my last post, I talked about how important vocal ministry is as a vehicle for continuing revelation, and I cited Paul’s discussion of gifts of the spirit in First Corinthians (12–14). But for Paul, the gift of prophecy was one of searching insight into the spiritual condition of the worshippers and of the community, not a message of new direction or of religious innovation, as we usually think of “continuing revelation” today. We have mostly lost this eldering role for vocal ministry.

Perhaps the signature example of this function of vocal ministry is the spiritual awakening of Elizabeth Fry. A sister of the wealthy banker and important evangelical Quaker minister Joseph John Gurney, she was, by her own confession, a silly superficial young woman. Then, in meeting for worship, a visiting minister turned his gaze upon her and spoke pointedly to her spiritual condition. It woke her up to the life of the Spirit. The rest is history.

Now, we probably would not welcome such a message these days. Today we rightly feel that Spirit-led eldering should be done privately, not publicly. But is there a place for the eldering of the community through vocal ministry? For trying to wake the community up to its spiritual condition. Not with harangue (as we sometimes get in my meeting), but with truth plainly spoken—and when led by the Holy Spirit.