William Taber on Vocal Ministry

February 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

I recently discovered in my papers a lecture on vocal ministry that William Taber delivered on October 28, 1996 as part of Pendle Hill’s Monday Night Lecture series. It spoke so powerfully to my condition that I want to share parts of it here. I do not feel comfortable sharing the whole thing because a note appears at the top saying, “(please do not copy for publication without the author’s permission)”. Bill Taber is no long with us, so I can’t ask his permission. I’m a little nervous about sharing any of it, but have decided to do so because it was, after all, a public lecture, and because it is so good, and because I would like to think that, as the most nurturing elder of my own ministry that I’ve ever had, he would be okay with it.

In this post, I want to focus on the call to vocal ministry. Here’s Bill:

“. . . ministry among Friends has traditionally been understood to be evoked by a “call” from God, so that ministry becomes a “calling” or, to use the Latin form, a “vocation.” . . . Hopefully, this immediate sense of calling takes place each time a person speaks in meeting.

But there is a deeper and more persistent sense of calling to the ministry which has occurred to some Friends throughout Quaker history—and it is still occurring today. . . . Modern unprogrammed Friends who experience this traditional calling and longing to be about the work of God often experience great frustration because there seems to be little or no place for ministry as a vocation in the modern Society of Friends. . . .

Part of their frustration lies in the fact that we modern Friends value expertise and genius in virtually every field except the spiritual, so that we don’t know how to recognize and encourage a person who is spiritually gifted and called to this work. Every generation of Friends, including this one, has had its quota of people who in other cultures might be called budding shamans or seers or medicine men or medicine women. In earlier Quaker eras these budding Quaker shamans were watched over and nurtured and in subtle ways encouraged so that many of them were able to respond to the ever beaconing Call to become a sanctified instrument of the Divine Will.

. . .

Hopefully members of Worship and Ministry committees will be attentive to those who speak in meeting, and be quick to sense such people’s yearning for more fellowship and accountability in relation to spoken ministry. Since most contemporary unprogrammed meetings no longer follow the old Quaker practice of recognizing and “recording” the gift of ministry, those who speak in our meetings are much more on their own, in an individualistic sense, than was true in classic Quakerism. Thus, it could be possible that a contemporary Friend could be a frequent speaker in Friends meetings for many years without ever experiencing any of the continuing education and accountability which was once the case when every recorded minister was expected to meet with the local meeting of ministers at least four times a year, as well as with the quarterly and yearly meeting sessions of ministers and elders. It may be neither appropriate nor wise to go back to the old system, but perhaps way might be found so that our contemporary “public Friends”—that is, those who speak frequently in our meetings—can be given occasional opportunities to meet with their peers, so that they can explore the difficulties of the art or the technology or the craft of following the inward motion while walking the razor’s edge*. It might also be helpful, at such occasional gatherings, to read and ponder together the old advices and queries for ministers and elders (or some modern equivalent).

  •  I think “The Razor’s Edge” may have been the title of this lecture. The document I have does not have a title. By the razor’s edge, Bill is referring to the delicate balance between speaking with authority and yet with humility, between waiting and boldness, between being self-led and Spirit-led.

Six Essentials of the Quaker Way

February 11, 2018 § 1 Comment

An answer to the question, What do Quakers believe?

I have been thinking and writing about this opening ever since the original experience that I describe below happened in 1991. It keeps inspiring me and keeps bearing new fruit. Fairly recently, a new “architectural” metaphor for presenting these six essentials came to me. With slight editing, this little essay also appeared in my meeting’s newsletter in February 2018.


Have you ever been asked what Quakers believe and yearned for an answer that faithfully represents the considerable diversity among Friends? I feel like I was given such an answer at a consultation held at Quaker Hill Conference Center in 1991 on “What do we all hold in common as Quaker treasure?”

We were an extremely diverse group theologically and socially, and there was a lot of tension and even conflict. But we ended up coming to unity on four essential elements of the Quaker way in what was for me the most gathered meeting for worship I’ve ever experienced . . . except maybe for the meeting held the following morning, in which we added a fifth. So the answer I offer below has for me the authority of the Holy Spirit.

About forty Friends attended the Consultation and each of us had come with written answers to some queries we’d been given on the central question. We then labored for several days in small groups to come to unity on answers for each group. Then we gathered for a plenary session on Saturday evening in which we tried to arrive at a sense of the meeting on answers that spoke for all of us—and we succeeded.

That original discernment on Saturday night identified four essentials of Quaker faith that we all held in common. The consultation’s clerk Jan Wood gave us a fifth in her sermon on the Sunday morning following that climactic Saturday night session. A sixth element came to me later while writing of my experience, but this is my own idea and doesn’t come out of those gathered meetings.

Here then are what I see as the “Foundations of the Quaker Way”.

Foundations of the Quaker Way

The Quaker way is built on a foundation of four essentials of faith that we know experientially, four walls, if you will, that hold up the larger edifice of Quaker tradition.

The Light. The first wall, which holds the cornerstone, is the Light—direct, personal communion with God*. There is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, ‘that of God’) that enables the human to commune directly with the divine, without any mediating persons, rituals, or sacramental materials.

The gathered meeting. The second wall is like unto the first: Just as every individual can commune directly with God, so also the worshipping community can be led by and gathered into unity in the Holy Spirit as a community. We call this the gathered meeting when it happens in meeting for worship.

Continuing revelation. The third wall is continuing revelation. God is continually revealing God’s self to us, through God’s ongoing presence within and among us. God’s revelation did not cease with the writing of scripture, but continues for and in those who heed the Light, always offering to heal and forgive us, renew and strengthen us, inspire and guide us, and awaken us to truth and love.

Life as sacrament and testimony. The fourth wall is that we are called to live our faith in practice, to find in all our walkings that communion with God that is our spiritual birthright, regardless of time, place, or activity; and we are called to live our outward lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened inwardly within us. As a movement we have so consistently experienced some of these truths that we have settled upon them as collective “testimonies”, which we hold not as outward rules to live by, but as a witness to the world of our Truth and as a reminder to ourselves of our experience of God’s love.

The bedrock—direct experience. These four “walls” comprise the foundations of Quaker faith. They hold up the rest of the Quaker way—you can unpack them to talk about virtually all the rest of the Quaker ‘distinctives’, the elements of Quaker faith and practice that make us unique. These four walls rest upon bedrock. That bedrock is our own experience. We hold these truths, not as a blind leap of faith, but rather in confidence as things known directly in our own religious and spiritual lives. (This is the element that has come to me separately since the openings at the Consultation.)

The mortar—love. In her sermon in the one programmed meeting for worship we had during the Consultation, our clerk Jan Wood pointed out that, while not all the groups had named it, we had lived into a fifth essential in our discernment. That fifth element was love. She moved from one Bible passage on love to another, showing how divine love had manifested among us as we labored together. I think of love as the mortar that holds the whole edifice of our tradition together. Divine love gathers everyone into the bosom of the Spirit. Divine love gathered us together as a people of God in the 1650s. And that same love binds us one to another in fellowship today. It’s not always natural to us as struggling human beings, but we cling to it as a commandment—to love one another as we have been loved.

So the “elevator speech”, the short, confident, faithful answer to the question, What do Quakers believe? is this: the Light—each of us is called into direct communion with the Spirit; the gathered meeting—the community is also called into direct communion with God; continuing revelation; life lived as sacrament and as testimony; and the commandment of love.


* By “God” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience—whatever that experience happens to be.

Religious Witness? AFSC’s recent statement on Israel-Palestine

February 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

In its February 2018 issue, Friends Journal published a statement from the American Friends Service Committee on being banned from work in Israel because of its support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. (You can read the statement here.) The statement is completely secular in its tone, its arguments, and its language. You can tell that AFSC is a Quaker organization because the statement invokes some Quaker history, but you wouldn’t know that Quakers were a religious communion or that AFSC is a religious organization. But I guess it isn’t.

The statement is presented as just that, an “organizational statement”, and it was published as a story on its website, essentially as a press release. It is not, apparently, a minute of conscience resulting from collective spiritual discernment on the part of its board, its executive staff, or of any worshipping community.

Its arguments are those of a liberal political social change nonprofit. It focuses on “rights and privileges” and human rights violations. It supports “proven nonviolent social change tactics.” It mentions Quaker support for a “Free Produce Movement” boycott in the 1800s and John Woolman, though it places Woolman in the seventeenth century. But otherwise, it leans on AFSC’s own history for its authority, inevitably mentioning its Nobel Peace Prize.

It has no biblical references, although that would admittedly open a can of worms. Torah’s instructions regarding resident aliens in ancient Israel were enlightened for the time, but non-Israelites were still second class members of their communities. And talking about resident alien instruction in Torah assumes a correspondence between the Palestinians and resident aliens; the correspondence might be closer between Israel and Abraham as a resident alien in ancient Canaan and between the Palestinians and the Israelites in the period of the Judges before David’s conquest, when the Israelites were hemmed in to the Highlands of Palestine by the Philistines and the Canaanite city-states on the central plain.

Jesus, however, is another story. Love thy neighbor as thyself (from Leviticus). Love thine enemy. Etc. But no Jesus either.

But it’s been a very long time since Rufus Jones and the overtly Christian impulse behind service in the early days of AFSC.

In fact, the statement doesn’t use anything close to non-biblical religious moral argument, either. Not even a direct invocation of the hallowed phrase “that of God in everyone”, which tha AFSC itself helped to establish as the modern foundation for our testimonies. It does start thus: “Motivated by Quaker belief in the worth and dignity of all people . . . “ What is distinctively Quaker about a belief in human dignity? That isn’t even a “belief”; it’s part of a humanistic value set shared with people of good will across the board.

Don’t get me wrong. AFSC does good work. I support the BDS movement myself. I support AFSC’s stand in this conflict.

But I wish AFSC would stop presenting itself as Quaker in these ways. It isn’t. With this statement, the organization misrepresents our religious movement, seeking to leverage Quaker cred for its own purposes. There’s something off here vis a vis the testimony of integrity.

Or does it misrepresent our faith? In my experience, witness committees in our meetings at all levels of meeting organization are very likely to write a statement just like this one, utterly bereft of biblical, Christian, religious, or even moral message, and our meetings are very likely to approve such statements as minutes of conscience without realizing how we endorse the trend toward secularism in our own religious movement.


Silent waiting worship, the Seed, and vocal ministry

January 29, 2018 § 3 Comments

Based on my own vocal ministry last Sunday, January 28.

Friends practice what we call silent waiting worship. Why do we worship in silence and what are we waiting for?

We worship in silence in order to make room for the Spirit, in order that we may hear the Divine Voice, which often is quite faint and easy to drown out. And we are waiting, first, for a sense of the Presence in our midst, and also, for the truth, for Spirit-led vocal ministry.

With the silence, we strip away the outward accoutrements that characterize conventional worship services so that we may hear the “still, small voice.” But we also seek something deeper than this lack of liturgical busy-ness; we seek what early Friends called the silence of all flesh, seeking to let go of the surface thoughts and concerns that we bring with us into the meeting room, so that we may sink down in the Seed that has been planted in each one of us, and there, to water that Seed with worship, with our attention.

It is as though, with this silence, we have raked away the stones that lie on the surface of our garden soil/soul, so that when the Seed sprouts and reaches for the Light, no obstacles stand in its way.

And when it finds the Light, then it flowers, and our nostrils are filled with the sweet scent of God’s presence, within us and among us.

And sometimes the Seed bears fruit and the Presence raises one of us up with vocal ministry that carries the truth and power of its Source.


Discerning Vocal Ministry—Another Test

January 28, 2018 § 7 Comments

An awful lot of messages in the meetings for worship I attend (I won’t call them vocal ministry, for reasons I’m about to get into) start with the pronoun “I”, often combined with a statement that pegs the time. There then inevitably follows one of two things, either an announcement and/or an anecdote. “I read in the New York Times this morning . . .” A few days ago, I heard . . .” “I’ve been thinking lately . . .”

These introductory announcements and vignettes sometimes are quite charming in themselves, but they almost always lead up to a point, so they are in essence, secondary to the message. Often the route to the point is rather slow, oblique, or peppered with side-trips, but eventually we get to a point. The point is the message the speaker wants to bring to us.

I must confess that every time I hear such an opening, I cringe. Very rarely, I think, does a truly spirit-led message start with “I” and an announcement or vignette.  Or at least, I usually feel that we would have been better off with just hearing the point.

When I find myself thinking along these lines, I stop myself and force myself to go deeper. In my mind, I strip away the introduction and listen to the point on its own. If it stands on its own, then maybe I have some ministry to share. Time, then, to go deeper yet and sit with the point some more to see how it feels. Is the point something valuable I have learned for myself from that moment or experience? Or do I also feel led to go public with it? If so, why? Do I get something out of it, or does it truly feel like service? Does it still point back to me, or am I seeking to answer that of God in others?

The problem with these self-centered introductions is that, first of all, they pull the speaker toward his or her self, toward ego, rather than toward service and one’s center. In the process of telling the story your mind runs through the details and these details tempt you to share them, too. You start making connections with other things, and now you’re tempted to run off on a tangent.

Meanwhile, you’re pulling the listeners up to the surface, also. Now they are imagining the scene along with you. Their minds are activated, pulling them up from the alpha brain wave meditative state that they may have descended to in their deepening process toward the beta wave region of active, conscious, everyday thought. Then the point comes like a fly landing on the surface of the lake, and like a bass surfacing to catch the fly, we break the water line and swallow. Now the point has been made, but everybody has to start deepening all over again. Two or three (or more) such messages, and one is just treading water at the surface catching flies.

Introductory personal pronouns, announcements, and anecdotes disturb the dynamics of meeting for worship and tend to waste the point on an audience lured to the surface, away from the depths—even if the point was one worth sharing in the first place. But the point, delivered as prophetic utterance, might have pulled us all deeper into the cool still water of true worship.


Religion and Spirituality

January 4, 2018 § 9 Comments

I want to make a case for Quakerism as a religion.

I suspect that many Friends prefer to think of their Quakerism as a spirituality rather than as a religion. For one thing, “religion” implies belief in God and beliefs in general, and for many of us, “belief in God” isn’t as straightforward as it was a generation or two ago.

Also, “religion” implies tradition, a legacy of beliefs and practices that one has had no part in shaping, leaving you to either accept or rebel against them; religion implies an authority in the community that in some ways supersedes one’s own individual preferences. By contrast, “spirituality” implies individualism—personal sovereignty over one’s own ideas, beliefs, and practices.

For many Friends (in the liberal tradition, at least), one of the most appealing aspects of Quakerism is this freedom to believe and practice what you wish. You can escape the constraints of religion, and for many of us those constraints have been enforced with abuse. Thus, for many Friends, joining a Quaker meeting means joining a group of like-minded people who accept that each of us is practicing our own form of spirituality. In this view, meeting for worship becomes, in essence, a form of group meditation.

For me, however, Quakerism is both a religion and a spirituality. Let me explain by trying to define spirituality and religion as integrally related.

For me, spirituality is the ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices one embraces in order to align one’s inner life toward personal transformation and toward the transcendental and to align one’s outer life toward right living.

For me, religion is the collective spirituality practiced by a community. Religion is the ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices the community embraces in order to align its inner life toward collective transformation and toward the transcendental (God—more about this in a moment), and to align the community’s outer life toward justice, peace, equality, earthcare, and service in the world.

For religious communities have a collective inner life, just as individuals have a personal inner life. (Some Friends, especially in the 18th century, called this collective inner spiritual life of the meeting the angel of the meeting, after Revelations, chapters two and three, which are letters written by Christ to the angels of the meetings of seven churches in Asia Minor.)

Actually, all communities have an inner life. Clubs, professional associations, businesses, municipalities—all these communities have some kind of inner life. But these communities are rarely self-conscious enough, self-reflective enough, small enough, or organized in such a way as to manifest a collective consciousness coherent enough to work with in a deliberate and meaningful way. These communities can still experience transformation. On very rare occasions, they can even experience the transcendental. And they can bend toward justice (or toward oppression) in their presence in the world.

But the thing about a religious community is that it’s designed to work with its collective consciousness. It’s designed to provide shape and context for the spirituality of the individuals who comprise its collective consciousness; but it also works directly at the collective level with ideas, attitudes, emotions, and practices that only the community as such can embrace.

For most religions, this direct attempt at collective faith and practice is limited to the worship service. Friends enjoy a number of other “venues” for collective spirituality in addition to worship: worship sharing groups, clearness committees, even committee work itself—we conduct all of our gatherings and discernment as meetings for worship, at least in theory, as shared tools for aligning our collective inner and outer lives.

What really makes Quakerism a religion, in my view, though, is that our practice of collective spirituality sometimes manifests in collective transcendental experience. We call this direct experience of God the gathered meeting. By “God” I mean here the Mystery Reality behind our experience of the gathered meeting. We may not be able to collectively articulate what that presence is very well—it’s a mystery. But we share the knowledge of its reality.

The direct experience and knowledge of that reality puts “belief in God” in a new light. We don’t believe in God as a matter of faith in a legacy or tradition of ideas. Rather, we know God collectively through direct experience. As individuals, we may elaborate in various ways on that immediate apperception of the divine which we’ve experienced in the gathered meeting for worship—we may have certain beliefs about what’s happened.

The community may do the same thing with its collective experience and develop a “theology”, as early Friends did, as a way of sharing the experience—with each other, with our children, with potential converts. But, for early Friends, such evangelizing did not aim at converting people to a set of beliefs, but at bringing them into that experience, bringing them into direct relationship with God. So also today, our theology, our ideas about what’s happening in our collective spiritual life as a meeting and as a movement, are only tools for pointing toward the Presence we experience in the gathered meeting and/or in our own hearts.

Thus Quakerism does have a tradition, it does have a legacy, and that legacy does include ideas, attitudes, feelings, and practices for the individual to practice as the Quaker way. But these are not as fully developed as in some other religions. This is mostly because we are so inwardly focused and have abandoned outward forms to such a thorough degree. We don’t light votive candles, pray rosaries, have stock hymns or a religious calendar lectionary. Technically speaking, we don’t even have a religious calendar at all. We don’t have a Benedictine Rule. We don’t have the formal elements of the Eightfold Path, breathing exercises and asanas, like yoga does.

Even to “turn toward the light” or to “sink down in the Seed”, favorite phrases of George Fox representing spiritual “practices”, are very ambiguous as actual practices; it’s taken Rex Ambler to “systematize” the former to some degree as a spiritual practice, and to my knowledge, no one has done this for sinking down into the Seed. And even Ambler’s Experiment with Light is a collective practice, as well as an individual one.

This leaves us as individuals free to hold onto any more fully developed spiritual practices we may have picked up from other traditions, as I have done myself. And we can take some of these with us into our collective Quaker practice; I use some of the same deepening techniques I use in my personal practice to deepen when I attend Quaker meeting for worship. These don’t just help me as an individual to experience worship more deeply; I think they deepen the collective worship, as well.

But the collective practices of the Quaker way are what make it a religion, because, through them, we come to know God in ways that are not possible for us as individuals, in ways that transform the community as community. These practices and these experiences are what make us a peculiar people of God—that is, a religion.

This post is getting pretty long. In the next one, I want to explore how the collective spiritual practice of a religious community is shaped by its founding collective, transcendental, spiritual experience; how the focus of the practice evolves as the community moves away from this foundational experience in time, through the generations; how this kind of evolution has shaped the legacy we have inherited as liberal Quakerism today; and what all this means for us.


The Spirit-led Life

January 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

I have a close friend who feels that seeking to live a “Spirit-led life” is inviting delusion. That certainly there is no “Spirit” who might lead us, that there are many such “spirits” who might lead one astray, and that what we’re dealing with here—Spirit, or spirits—are only impulses that come from within ourselves. Some of these impulses can be trusted; some cannot.

I’m reading an article in The Atlantic about Vice President Mike Pence in which a former aid wondered to the author whether Pence’s religiosity might be a rationalization for what he wants to do anyway. I wondered the same thing about George W. Bush. I wonder the same thing about myself.

Friends have a fairly robust framework for “discerning spirits”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12, for winnowing the true leading from the delusional. At least we do in theory. In the reality of many of our meetings, we are barely holding on to the mindset and the tools we’ve developed for discernment over the centuries. This mindset and these tools serve both personal discernment and corporate discernment.

Regarding personal discernment, the first of these, I think, is regular spiritual practice. It takes regularly setting aside time for turning inward and listening for that voice. Over time, one maps one’s inner landscape, one learns how the spirit moves through that landscape. Deepening techniques help with this a lot.

Then, the “voice” itself. Rarely does one hear an actual voice. I have only done so twice, and one of those times, it was a kind of “language” I could not decipher; the message was the messaging itself, not its content, the establishment of a relationship between myself and that which was offering to lead.

But from then on, for decades now, the “voice” has been “silent”, utterly subjective, internal, devoid of “content”. It feels more like a magnetized needle swinging inside me toward a certain direction for thought, feeling, or action than like a clear command or prompting. It’s perfectly capable of deluding me.

In the everyday surrender of self to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is, however it works), one has to discern the truth of such inner directing on one’s own, basically moment to moment. In the day to day life, the range for delusion is rather small and the consequences rarely very important. The needle flutters lightly on its pivot and one is hardly conscious of its working.

But often enough the needle gains enough mass to break through everyday consciousness and we find ourselves consciously deciding what to do about something. Here is where a regular devotional life pays off. Here the practice in meeting for worship of discerning whether one has some vocal ministry for the meeting—whether your message is spirit-led—pays off.

My problem is that, in these moments, I almost always forget to employ this discipline. I forget to stop for a moment and go inward before I go forward. I forget to check where I am in my inner landscape, to check my belly (as Bill Taber often recommended) and other physiological signs, and to listen for the voice, to seek the light in my conscience. I let the momentum of my current direction, the forces at work on me from the environment and the people around me, and my fears and desires guide my steps instead.  I follow the surface “spirits” of my conscious and unconscious mind.

Most of the time, that’s okay. I get away with it. I make an okay decision, nothing terrible happens. But I’ve lost the opportunity to go deeper first, to be more fully spirit-led.

That’s everyday life. But sometimes a leading takes on more weight than that. Sometimes one feels led out of the everyday into an uncharted landscape. Sometimes one feels called to new action. Now the possibility of delusion really matters. With these stronger leadings of the Spirit, corporate discernment really matters.

I have had several such leadings and these have evolved into sustained ministries. Very rarely in the evolution or conduct of these ministries have I enjoyed meaningful corporate discernment or support. Well, to be honest, I have allowed my initial disappointments to deter me from seeking further support. Once I was settled in my discernment and after finding that these ministries were not just sustaining themselves but getting deeper and expanding, I felt I was on my way and haven’t sought further support since. But I should have.

One of these ministries is to recover and renew with experimentation the faith and practice of Quaker ministry itself. It’s one of the reasons for this blog and one of this blog’s recurring themes. Many meetings are not well equipped to nurture our members’ leadings and ministries. We have deliberately laid down the traditional culture of eldership that nurtured Quaker ministry for centuries and many meetings have not replaced it with anything else.

Well, we have worship and ministry committees, and we have clearness committees. But in my experience, worship and ministry committees do not necessarily have unity about even the existence of divine leadings, let alone solid knowledge of how to “discern spirits” or how to handle a member’s leading. And many meetings are not clear about how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, either.

We use clearness committees for four different kinds of discernment, and they each are constituted and conducted in different ways. Many Friends are not clear about these differences and many meetings have too little experience with discernment committees to feel confident in their use. (See my post “Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees” for more about the four ways we use clearness committees.)

So some of our meetings need to do a better job of supporting the spirit-led life of their members. Our worship and ministry committees need to gain both clarity and unity about how to support leadings and how to conduct clearness committees for discernment. And I think we need an ongoing conversation in our meetings about what the Spirit-led life is for us and how we might nurture it.

This includes, at the very least, the one thing we all have in common—vocal ministry. What does “Spirit-led vocal ministry” mean? How do we discern whether a message is spirit-led? Or is “Spirit-led” vocal ministry what we’re hoping and aiming for in the first place?