Where does our vocal ministry come from?

January 5, 2016 § 29 Comments

We’ve had some very thought-provoking comments. Thank you, readers. The post that follows was in works while these comments unfolded.


For centuries, our answer to my title question—where does vocal ministry come from?—was obvious and unquestioned: Jesus Christ. Or his spirit, the Holy Spirit. The Light within us, understood to be the inward spirit of Christ. All the same thing.

In the famous passage in which Margaret Fell describes her first encounter with George Fox, Fox is addressing precisely this question—where does your preaching come from? He is speaking specifically to the primary rhetorical approach of the Puritan minister, to preach from a passage in the Bible, unpacking it, as it were, for the congregation in his (sic) sermon.

And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,” &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

Today, we still ask the question, “What canst thou say?” But we no longer assume that this Light is the Light of Christ and we no longer assume that what we speak in meeting for worship is “inwardly from God”. Of course, this depends on what you mean by “God”.

I suspect that nowadays, any Friend who claimed to be speaking on behalf of God would receive a skeptical and anxious regard. Especially since so many of the people who DO claim to know God’s mind these days are violent sociopaths.

Yet this is exactly the claim that Friends have made until relatively recently.

This momentous shift in Quaker thinking about vocal ministry is mostly about our understanding of and attitudes toward “God”, and ultimately, toward Jesus Christ. God used to be a “who”; now God is a “what”, if God is anything meaningful to us at all. (Of course, I am speaking mostly of liberal Friends here.)

Many (liberal) Friends do not consider Jesus to be God. Put another way, they don’t believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “was God and was with God” from the beginning. Thus the Light within us cannot be the inward Light of Christ. It has to be something else. But what?

Without Jesus to hold the Trinity together, “God” recedes into the distance. No longer the Father, God becomes an undefinable, basically unrelatable Supreme Being. You start piling up the absolutist adjectives, like all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present, etc., and each one of these adjectives only makes God more distant, more difficult to relate to. Not in the way that you could relate to Jesus, or even to God as the Father.

So—no divine Jesus, and you’re left with a distant, absolute, abstract God. That leaves the Holy Spirit—no longer the spirit of Christ, however, no longer the ongoing presence of the resurrected Christ, the Comforter/Advocate that Jesus promised from the Father. Cut loose from a disassembled Trinity, the Holy Spirit becomes just “the Spirit”. And here we are.

“The Spirit” is even more undefined than God not-the-Father. More potentially universal. More plastic in the hands of us quasi-believers.

Moreover, many Friends, I suspect, connect this now-generic “Spirit” to “that of God” in everyone, which I think many Friends consider some kind of divine spark, some piece or aspect of “the Divine”—the Spirit—within us. The Light within, that of God within, the Spirit—all one mysteriously continuous and universal spiritual reality that we humans do somehow participate in in some vague and undefined way.

Now we’re getting somewhere. If God is Spirit and if the Light, that of God within us, is also somehow that same spirit, then Spirit-led vocal ministry arises within us from the Light and yet partakes of something spiritually larger than just ourselves.

I think that this might approximate what modern liberal Friends think is going on with vocal ministry, if they think about it at all. And it’s not really so different from the understanding of early Friends—except that it’s no longer tied to Christ and the rest of the tradition, which stands on scripture. Which is a huge difference. It’s post-Christian. It’s even post-traditional, in the sense that it has thrown over most of Quaker tradition, and has not yet developed or adopted any other tradition to replace it.

As a result, it lacks substance. But it’s open, welcoming, malleable. You can embrace it almost whatever your prior experience is. You can be indifferent or even hostile to Christian and biblical tradition. You can bring whatever pieces of other tradition you’ve picked up along the way, as I have done. You can even be Christian, for these ideas are really not too far off from some of the ideas in the gospel of John, especially those surrounding the Word, the logos.

And since this religious ideology has no real substance, Friends often seek substance somewhere else. They become Buddhist Quakers—or are they Quaker Buddhists? Or they are thrilled to find the Gospel of Thomas and become a kind of home-grown gnostic.

Many of us, though, fall back on the credal idea that Friends have no creed. We reject the practice of thinking too much about our religion, and we do without much substance. Who needs it?

However, being a post-traditional, mostly substanceless community means that individualism reigns. We have become a community without clear boundaries or definition, in which anything goes.

And the nebulous, unarticulated character of modern liberal Quaker thinking about God, the Spirit, encourages this individualism. And it quietly and increasingly dominates our attitudes toward vocal ministry. Though it’s probably going too far to talk about Quaker “thinking” in this context, for our ideas and attitudes are mostly tacit assumptions and unstated shared conclusions, maintained by a tacit agreement not to probe it too much.

Without the weight of our tradition holding us down, giving us boundaries and context and actual text—content with which we could talk to each other about what’s going on with a common vocabulary—we tend to float up and away. By contrast, believing that you have been inspired by the actual spirit of Christ necessarily instills a certain gravity, a very powerful sense of responsibility. Which we no longer feel.

Read Samual Bownas’s book The Qualifications Necessary for a Gospel Minister, or the journals of earlier Friends like Elias Hicks or John Woolman, and you get the sense that getting their vocal ministry right was one of the most arduous, terrifying, and important things in their lives. Most Friends, I think, find speaking in meeting a little terrifying, too, at least in the beginning. But this is not because we feel the weight of divine judgment; not because we feel we have assumed an apostolic mantle to speak for the living Christ. Not because we are, for the moment, at least, prophets of God’s word.

No longer afraid to give offense to God, we fear instead giving offense to the community, and we fear, perhaps, failing to be true to our higher selves.

This individualism in our practice of vocal ministry has led the community to a new set of agreements about the practice, but we do not discuss these agreements openly very often. We learn these agreements—we teach them—by osmosis. We see other Friends speaking in a range of ways about a range of things, and nothing happens to them. Most Friends seem happy with the ministry. The community seems to accept these messages, even embrace them, and so that’s what we do, too.

Even our language is shifting. Why do I say “even”—of course it shifts. “Vocal ministry” is giving way to “speaking in meeting” and “offering messages”. “Vocal ministry” makes us vocal ministers, which implies a sense of calling. But a sense of calling would mean speaking rather regularly, with a sense of mission. Mission could easily slide into sermonizing. “Speaking in meeting”, on the other hand, is rather generic. It is safer. It implies, perhaps, that the individual is responsible for the action and the message. But at least it doesn’t imply you’re channeling God.

Well, this has been a lot of speculation and generalization. In my next post, I want get down and personal. I want to talk about what vocal ministry is for me.

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§ 29 Responses to Where does our vocal ministry come from?

  • Greg Robie says:

    “Without the weight of our tradition [boeying] us [up], giving us boundaries and context and actual text—content with which we could [edify] each other [in a shared journey up and into Truth] with[in] a common vocabulary—we tend to [drift down] and away. By contrast, [waiting to be] inspired by the actual spirit of Christ [(once perfected)] instills a certain [stillness], a very powerful sense of responsibility. Which we no longer feel.”

    When do’n nutt’n
    The dance of words dominates
    Talk’n ’bout nutt’n

    Except for wished kind
    Life cannot lack for substance
    For goodness sake: look!

    ‘Tis but piety
    Packed ’round injustice’s edge
    This dark ocean’s ‘light’

    Of what thou canst say
    Is what it is thou doest
    Our Anthropocene

    “However, being a post-traditional, mostly substanceless community means that individualism reigns. We have become a community without clear boundaries or definition, in which anything goes [and, within Truth, is dead].”

    …but CapitalismFail continues to grind up life to deliver dividends from DeadQuakerMoney trust funds so liberated Quakers can travel for their carbon fueled hookups where, at least 20 years ago, about half a million dollars were expended to redistribute about a tenth of that amount…as lead by ????.

    I’ve stopped by as part of my exploring a counter-intuitive opening: can religious communities be inspired by greed to do good? I’m imagining a crowd sourced prize of $100,000,000 (at the denominational level), $10,000,000 (at the local level), awarded to the first faith community that succeeds in transforming the lifestyles of a local group that is 10 times it’s membership or 1/10 of its community’s population (whichever is greater) such that the lifestyle is just: systemically sustainable relative to fossil carbon consumption (and without the use of offsets, or geoengineering, or relying on scaled technologies that might exist in the future, like BECCS).

    For NYYM such would be in the neighborhood of 2 million people, not, and this is a dated figure, 36,000. Are the $100,000,000/$10,000,000 numbers too small? If so, what should they be to inspire?

    And the above thoughts were stream of consciousness ones relative to this post and the comments that I arranged into this order. A “Hi” to those with whom I no longer share the responsibilities of membership.

    =)
    Greg

  • treegestalt says:

    I’m sorry that I can’t avoid sounding inconsistent — but there’s a apparent paradox built into the situation, because it matters, and doesn’t matter what we call It, or how we (initially) label It.

    Something a woman at my Yearly Meeting told a group about her own experience: She’d been meditating and suddenly saw Jesus. “What are you doing here?” she’d asked. “This is a Buddhist place!” He told her, “Yes, but I need you to be a Christian.”

    Now that’s perfectly compatible with God wanting someone else to be a Buddhist — while over the longer haul, either religious framework can be enhanced by insights from the other.

    The AA approach (as I’ve heard about it from outside) seems to have much to recommend it — People are told accept this any way they can, with whatever strong or weak faith they have available to — because they need it!

    This, I think, is a big part of why Jesus’ “sinners” were getting it while his pious opponents were missing something essential. It isn’t just theoretical; God is a real reality;

    and people miss a _lot_ to the extent they go on reassuring themselves that it’s only a twitch in their brains.

    What’s often essential to copping to God is the recognition of your own need for that, your own need to straighten out and learn the reality of What-It-Is better.

    The real Gospel is that Love and Power and Wisdom are conjoined in God; we don’t need to keep limiting our acceptance to any half-assed ‘definition’. As our core tradition insists, God is here to make or break “Traditions”.

    • William F Rushby says:

      Don and Forrest (Treegestalt):  Having all the answers must be a heavy burden to bear!  Do you ever listen to others’ narratives?

      • treegestalt says:

        I certainly do listen, enough so that I find it interesting that you (of all people) should be asking me this.

        It is not so much that I “have” all the answers, as that I can always ask the source of them. This does not make me perfect in understanding nor in expression, but does make it possible to learn and say better.

        Peace & like that?

      • Don Badgley says:

        Unkind, judgmental, closed minded, shallow, unfortunate and sad. I don’t know you Friend but you have my love. May the Spirit of Christ lift you from your anger.

  • Don Badgley says:

    Where does vocal ministry come from? This post goes straight to the heart of The RSoF in the 21st Century and raises questions and concerns that must be answered if “Quakerism” is to survive into the next century.

    Calling un-programmed Friends “liberal” has always troubled me. In fact it would be easy to argue that this branch of Quakerism is actually the most conservative if conservative means the preservation of the original fundamentals. I am not a Protestant and neither were the first few generations of Friends. 90% of the world’s Quakers today are Protestant and that is a pretty liberal (and inaccurate) interpretation of Fox’s and Barclay’s ministries. Perhaps we should consider “traditional” rather than “liberal.”

    The ministry of Fox pointed directly to the immediate and direct Experience of God which he called by different names including the Spirit of Christ and Inward Christ. He meant Jesus and he supported that ministry with scripture, but the essence was always the Experience, “even one, Christ Jesus has come to teach his people.” That language spoke to him and to those who heard his ministry.

    There is no doubt that the Christian seeming basis of that message does not resonate with many traditional Friends today. This is understandable and not of particular concern to this Friend. We have evolved as a species and the call to retain original language, interpretations and understandings is an impediment to spiritual growth.

    The separation from the Trinitarian concept of God does not in fact leave us more distant from the Divine and certainly not more remote from the Experience that was formerly described in Trinitarian language. In fact the disposal of that worn out baggage may be the best hope for a revival of an experiential faith that, rather than being made distant from a theistic construct of a deity, actually brings us closer to that Divine Source that empowered not just Fox by Jesus himself.

    The concept that the direct experience of the Light is somehow less valid because it lacks a foundational tradition seems strange to me. The Experience of the Light cannot be tied to a tradition and if it is, it is immediately diminished, not enhanced, by the tradition. For me the only “tradition” that matters is the fact that for all of human existence people have been blessed with the ability to experience the infinite and eternal Light and Love that is the Source of all faith. This, as Fox said, is unchangeable. Authority does not reside in traditions or in scriptures or in the proclamations of people. It resides in the Light that led Jesus to change the world and, as he pointed out, it resides in each of us if we but seek it.

    That is the tradition we need to recover and for me it is the hope for the world. When vocal ministry arises from that eternal Source it will resonate vividly and well beyond our meeting house doors.

    • Don: The approach you describe has dominated liberal Quakerism for the last fifty years. Has it helped or hindered???

      • Don Badgley says:

        William,

        The problem with this medium is that we tend to overlay our own biases. Your question is rhetorical and your assumptions are in error. This is not about an “approach”. The ministry and faith I describe has in fact been nearly entirely absent from Friends for far longer than 50 years. Thus the Quakerism of Experiential worship is dying. Read it again.

        What I hoped to describe is the the Spirit of Christ as Source, the Light and with that as Guide there is no other “approach” necessary. I just don’t believe that theistic or traditional scriptural language is required to point to that Source, to experience it or to share it with the world. If you feel it must be called “The Spirit of Christ” to be genuine for you then call it that. That will resonate with millions. I am easy with any language that attempts to name the unnameable so long as it leads to the Experience of God. Language is not authoritative. Only the Living Spirit has authority for me.

        The Experience of infinite Divine Oneness (God, Christ, Seed, Holy Spirit etc.) is what we seek in waiting worship and we must all strive to allow as the catalyst for our ministry.

        Peace,

        Don

      • treegestalt says:

        Like Don says… the Quaker world-view of Early Friends was, as Fox called it, ‘experimental.’ They weren’t worshipping ‘an experience’ as such; they were emphatically saying that if you didn’t know God through experience you just didn’t know…

    • Howard Brod says:

      Don, the exact experiential Quakerism you speak of is what my meeting is rediscovering – and it is reviving my liberal Quaker meeting. Intellectualism, secularism, political activism, and being concerned with labels (non-theist, Christian, atheist, whatever) pales to the experience of living in that same Light that so motivated and was manifested in Jesus and others (Christian and non-Christian). I do believe we are recapturing the experience of early Friends because the experiences early Friends wrote about are what we are starting to have as a spiritual community. And the labels, the politics, the ego-trips are all disappearing among us as a meeting. We may choose to use language, culture, and customs of twenty-first century people; but the core experience is the same as early Friends. The Spirit, the Light – just is. As soon as we try to label it and nail it down with a name to our ego’s liking, we are missing its power to unite all within it. We begin to judge others based on the label they use for the divine energy and we therefore prevent the full manifestation of that divinity within us.

      We have found that committees of elders and overseers actually hamper the full operation of the Spirit. We have NEVER been more united and spirit-filled as a Quaker meeting since we have moved to an egalitarian spiritual community with no designated ‘leaders’. We see designated human leaders (whatever you choose to call them) as no different than a minister in a church: Just an excuse to not develop our own full relationship with the divine as we minister to one another as the Spirit leads us.

    • Wow, there’s so much going on here.

      First, I did not mean to say that the deconstruction of the Trinity leaves us “more distant from the Divine” but more distant from “God”, meaning the traditional all-powerful theistic deity defined by will and power that has been traditional Christianity’s god for so long. But, as you and some others have pointed out, this deity is demonstrably irrelevant to our actual experience of the Presence. Jesus used to provide us with a human bridge, both theologically, and more importantly, in the actual experience of early Friends on up until the present time. And anyway, my focus, eventually, is on the question of where vocal ministry comes from, and Jesus used to be our answer.

      I’m not saying that “the direct experience of the Light is somehow less valid because it lacks a foundational tradition.” The experience remains valid and powerful. But the language, the rational, has suffered.

      My point is that without the tradition we inherited from those early Friends, we still experience spirit-led ministry, but we aren’t as clear how to talk about it. Many Friends really don’t see the need to talk about it. But as soon as you need to answer a newcomer’s questions, or explain what’s going on to your kids, suddenly the vocabulary is thin, vague, inconsistent, and clumsy.

      What I’m reaching for, as I have tried to several times in this blog, is essentially a new theology for Friends who still wait on the Spirit in meeting for worship but are not necessarily grounded in Christ (a long way to say “liberal Friends”). And this beginning of a new tradition must needs emerge naturally, organically, out of our experience, ’cause that’s all we’ve got left.

      On the other hand, new Light always—I think always—comes out of established tradition. George Fox is our own classic example. And, as Marshall McLuhan brilliantly pointed out, new media coopt the content of old media. That’s why automobiles have dashboards, which were the planks that kept the dash from horses’ hooves from spraying the people in the carriage. We still call it a dashboard, but it does something different now.

      So I ping-pong back and forth from love of and veneration for our tradition and these struggles with its inadequacies and its to-me anachronistic aspects. I am looking for a bridge, not to the experience of the Light, but to its communicable understanding.

      • Now things are getting clearer to me, so that I might perhaps place my “admirable, but misplaced zeal” more accurately: you wrote, Steven, ” the traditional all-powerful theistic deity defined by will and power that has been traditional Christianity’s god for so long… is demonstrably irrelevant to our actual experience of the Presence.” It’s not demonstrably irrelevant to my actual experience of the Presence, and that is why I self-identify as a Christian Friend rather than a liberal Friend. The Presence has spoken to me inwardly, in an unmistakable voice. It has declared my sins, which have been many, forgiven. On one occasion, when I was tempted to *mentally* consider adultery – I’d made no outward move toward the woman standing before me, but inwardly, I’d started to think “what if” – I heard Its voice shout “No!” It has since then assured me that It will not let me fall into sin. It has confirmed two of my spiritual gifts and commissioned me to use them. It has declared to me, “I awaken whom I will, when I think best.” I take all those manifestations as evidence that It (or He, or She) has both *a will* (to forgive sins, to preserve from relapse into sin, to awaken from a lower level of consciousness to a higher) and *power* (to achieve what It wills). I have also witnessed what I take to be other evidences of Its power: to heal, to awaken faith and “convince” (in the original Quaker sense), and to arrange for miraculous deliverances. I could, of course, be fooled in this, just as a physicist who believes that electromagnetic radiation is “really” waves (or particles) is fooled when it turns out to behave like particles (or waves) — for It seems to act like both: like Nature just being Nature, and like Christ Jesus just being Christ Jesus. And yes, I could be delusional about those inward experiences. But I’ve come to believe that when Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” He meant it, and that I am now living a life in Christ who is also living in me. I and other experiencers of this new life in Christ may no longer belong in fellowship with liberal Friends if they’re going to think us delusional, and our notions about a Deity with a will and with power “irrelevant to their actual experience of the Presence.” But that’s for Christ to decide, not us.

      • Thank you, John. I stand eldered, and properly so. What possessed me to say such a thing?

        Of course, the God I have so dismissed is not demonstrably irrelevant. And of course, power is an aspect of the Divine. And of course, as Treegestalt points out, I have no business denigrating another person’s experience of God. You’ve never done that to me and I don’t like it when people do it to me. So please forgive my arrogance and thoughtlessness.

      • treegestalt says:

        See, now I’m needing to agree with JJ Edminster that what he’s talking about is real in His/Her/Its own right, is not some kind of freefloating experience for people to interpret however we like, is not an illusion independent of What/Who’s really there.

        But because God is real, God does not need to be confined to working only for or within Christian believers, or within their expectations.

        Jesus explicitly says that God sends ‘sun and rain’ for ‘the just’ and ‘the unjust’ — that is, that God provides what’s needed for each human soul regardless of how they’d do on a theology exam. And I do find God as much ‘at work’ among the ‘kindergarten class’ as with the postgraduates, possibly more so. This is quite in tune with what Jesus told certain Pharisees: ~”Hookers and accountants are getting into the Kingdom already, while you guys stand around dithering about how much the admission charge should be.”

        God defines Godself; rather than trying to argue about ‘Who is the blindest of us all?” — can’t we just rely on God to help us all see better, whatever our starting points might be?

      • Don Badgley says:

        Steve,

        Our disagreements are so minor that I suspect they are semantic. Our traditions are foundational and I also think that there is no “new Light” but rather fresh discoveries of that which is eternal.

        You nailed it for me when you said that this is about language. We are struggling to find new ways to express the ineffable experience of oneness with the Divine Source. We cling to old forms that no longer resonate with the modern psyche. I try to avoid Christian terminology for this reason and also because it is so encumbered by 1,600 years of baggage that obstructs the experience of the Light. Fox knew this. Jesus knew this and said so in his criticisms of the temple and its leadership. He opened the door to everyone and within a few years the church hierarchy slammed it shut in his name.

        Religion is the ultimate purveyor and enabler of the “us versus them” paradigm. When religious leaders profess that their ancient and sacred doctrines and creeds are the only right path to god, they propagate separation, suffering, poverty, ecological destruction, war and unending violence. Religion’s right minded, foundational and universal call to love is contradicted, even negated by its even more powerful appeal to fear, self-righteous exclusivity and sanctimonious superiority. This is not just limited to Christianity.

        When any religion claims that it possesses the only true path to salvation, that religion cannot then also claim to be a religion of peace.

        This vital truth needs to be spoken, shouted and whispered at every opportunity. I believe that is what Fox and others were saying in the 17th Century and the message is as powerful and as needed today as is the message of the universal availability of Divine Love to all of humanity. That is Truth to me based on Experience and before that Temple of Love I fall to my knees in gratitude and rise up with the strength to share. That is the Source of right ordered ministry for this Friend.

    • Don: It would be erroneous to call Liberals’ faith “traditional,” as there are too many significant differences between it and the traditional faith of the 17th century. For example, first Friends believed that Man must be redeemed from his fallen state; until he is redeemed he is in condemnation. Liberals do not agree with this basic, essential understanding of Christian and original Quaker faith. They instead postulate an innate “that of God in everyone,” by which is meant a natural goodness that does not admit to Man’s fallen nature and need for redemption. The ubiquitous phrase “that of God…” was taken from one of Fox’s statements and given a meaning that distorted his original intent.

      Neither is the faith of first Friends in accord with the Protestant tenet of “sin for term of life.” Friends doctrine of perfection was a major point of contention with the Puritans of the 17th century. Yet it was their experience that Christ could speak to their sinful, natural condition and redeem them from it; through Christ they could become new creatures: perfect, even as their Father in heaven was perfect.

      Many Liberal Friends lack knowledge of the basic content of their tradition, and so the community is without a context for understanding their present situation and their true needs: one of which is a language with vocabulary, concepts, and history to educate and assist in communication and growth.

      For example, Don, you wrote that “language is not authoritative” for you, that only the “living spirit is authoritative.” No one knows what you mean by “living spirit”: does “living spirit” mean a non-personal force; the testimonies; a pantheistic principle; a loving, personal God; some gnostic demi-urge; a neural memory; or something else? No one knows; we can hardly begin to converse because we have no common language coming from a tradition that was clear, precise, rich, and full of wisdom and meaning.

      A newly formulated tradition could not hope to surpass or even approximate the written tradition we have been given. Even the one attempt to form a new theology in the meager phrase “that of God in everyone” intimates a supposition that undercuts the basic tenets of original Quaker faith.

      As has always been the case, the traditional language remains relevant to those whose spiritual experience has prepared them to understand it, as Fox confirms:

      “none could read John’s words aright and with a true understanding of them, but in and with the same divine Spirit by which John spoke them” and “But as a man…is led by the Holy Ghost into the truth and substance of the Scriptures…then are they read and understood with profit and great delight” (Nickalls, 32).

      • treegestalt says:

        “They instead postulate an innate ‘that of God in everyone,’ by which is meant a natural goodness that does not admit to Man’s fallen nature and need for redemption.”

        Well, no, that seems to be a standard moralistic interpretation of what people mean by that, but there are a great many people meaning a great many things by it, or simply puzzling “What could _that_ mean?” — as I’ve heard people do.

        But the truth behind the shared insights of all the various religions which incorporate it in their varied traditions — is very much what is implied when God breathes his life into Adam, or when God is said to have made us in ‘His’ image. That life, whether clean or dirty, continues to pull us towards the source of redemption, however named.

    • Bowen Alpern says:

      Let me do my humble best to roil the waters of well-meaning complacency, here and in all things. Amen.

      (I do not have time for this, but it does not seem that I have any choice.)

      I am willing to stipulate, without proof, but in the presence of some evidence, that there is in every person a longing to live a life free from thralldom to either the thundering hurricane, I WANT, of the selfish id or the shattering earthquake, YOU SHOULD, of the collective superego that we are encouraged to mistake for g-d. (Call this longing “that of God”, if you must.)

      Further, I am willing to bet my self on the desperate hunch that there is a way to achieve that freedom. And that THE WAY (call it Jesus, if that suits your purposes) consists in attending to a phenomenon that Isaiah described as a “still small voice”. A phenomenon experienced as a quiet “I must” amongst a terrible din of uncertainty. (“Here I stand, so help me God, I can no other.”)

      (Aside: I am personally of the opinion that one should resist the temptation to eff the ineffable, describe the indescribable, teach the unteachable. I believe this to be the thrust of the injunction against making graven images, theology is, by definition, blasphemous. I confess I would like to see this opinion held more broadly among Friends and beyond. However, even were it so broadly held, it would not rise, no sink, to the level of a creed, unless it, like all creeds, is used as a club to bludgeon and exclude, people who cannot, in good conscience, affirm it.

      The opinion that violence is bad is widely held among Friends, but it is not a creed unless it is used to exclude someone who happens to believe that, under some circumstances, violence may be necessary or even beneficial.

      Similarly, the widely held belief among Friends that creeds are to be avoided is not in and of itself a creed, unless it is used as a club to exclude people who do no share it. I have no doubt that is on occasion used as just such a club. But such occasions are hypocritical violations of the principle and deserve to be called out as such. The sloppy assumption that any widespread opinion is a priori a creed is lazy thinking and, like all lazy thinking, retards understanding. End of aside.)

      On this reading, the goal of Quaker life is not “spirit-led ministry” but orthopraxy of action. Meeting for worship becomes a laboratory for learning discernment. Friends (and attenders) are to be exhorted to treat their processes of deciding to rise to break the silence (and the words they use to do it) much more seriously than they currently do (no matter how seriously that already is). Friends who minister often should consider whether they rise too often to easily and say too much and seek to make their words few and savory. Friends who do not minister should strive to live in the fear that they might be holding back from the community something it needs to hear.

      This kind of worship would be rife with failure — sins of commission and omission. We should celebrate these failures as opportunities to learn, to do better next time. And as evidence that the community it seeking to live into the terror appropriate to trying to discern “the will of God”.

      I suspect that the inherited traditional understanding that one should not speak unless one is confident that one is speaking with authority that comes from the Creator is an impediment to authentic vocal ministry that we would be well rid of. When I speak in meeting I want my words to have no more authority than their resonance in the hearts of their auditory.

      • QuaCarol says:

        Small clarification: The ‘still small voice’ passage is found in 1 Kings 19: 12–13 in the KJV and pertains to Elijah, not Isaiah. (The translation of those same verses in the NRSV is interesting for Quakers.) Bowen and I checked the passage yesterday, but his memory had shifted it by today.

      • treegestalt says:

        “Theology is blasphemous” by definition! I love it! But at the same time, we can hardly avoid trying to eff the ineffable; so I believe this is a ‘pre-forgiven blasphemy.’ That is, we are meant to try — though we’d better do so through divine aid, and take what we are given poetically rather than systematically.

        I think what’s really blasphemous about it is not turning to God for clarification, but becoming idolatrous about the responses we get back. Yes, there is truth in those responses, but when we let them harden into constructions with authority apart from God’s ongoing verification via that ‘voice’, that truth gets diluted and we get deluded…

        The goal is ‘orthopraxy of action’? I would say that the true orthopraxy is to remain available as a tool for God’s action. How to know that it’s God’s? That it blesses rather than curses, allows life and people to develop from within — and is not ‘about us’!

  • bxlloyd says:

    I agree, Friend. And I feel as I do sometimes when I sit down after offering ministry – worried that it was not Spirit-led. So let me footnote my last comment.

    This is a challenging topic, and that Friends have been writing and speaking about it for generations is proof. I do not mean to suggest that I know what true, Godly vocal ministry is, or how to deliver it. You are correct that today, here in the mid-atlantic and also in the northeast states, we learn without instruction and through observation. All the more reason this is such a vital topic.

    Somewhere in the 20th century, “liberal” Friends threw the baby out with the bathwater when we dissolved the committees within meetings that were known as “elders’ or “overseers”. These were essential groups, indeed they were not conventionally known as “committees” but were meetings in and of themselves: “the meeting of elders”. There is a story to be told about how and why these groups disappeared – if one exists I have not found it. My best guess is that they dissolved under the weight of cultural transitions, such as the ones I described in my previous comment.

    The early 20th century saw the rise of neurological sciences and psychological investigation. The human brain, and to a large extent the human experience, was de-mystified by the research of people like Freud, and the realization that our experiences are tied to physiological and chemical processes inside us. “Liberal” Quakers have attracted a highly educated congregation, and, like their progressive political and social concerns, they brought with them an awareness of these developments in psychology and neurology.

    My experience is that faith and ministry are driven more by eros than logos. This is why so many Friends speak about “movement” and “feeling” when describing ministry. But the 20th century brought us the victory of logos (by “logos” I mean rationality, logic, evidence-based research, empiricism.) Religion generally has had to adjust. The statement “God is real” is met with a skepticism, and occasionally scorn, which has diminished our capacity as a species to be faithful.

    Because faith is mysterious. Faith is believing something we can’t prove scientifically. Faith lives in eros (feelings, intuitions, passions, felt experiences.) Consider the tender newcomer to our faith. Where can she go for conversation, guidance, support for discerning her experience of faith – a faith that might lift her to her feet to minister to her new congregation? Where can she go to test faith against her logos-centered mind?

    One of the greatest traditions Friends share is our exquisite relationship to group dynamics and decision-making. Our new Friend needs to be able to sit with a group from her meeting, a group the *meeting* has entrusted with this vital concern: vocal ministry, and by extension, the experience of faith. In this way, we stay true to the unique primacy of the monthly meeting: each meeting will have something slightly different to say to our new Friend. There will be no creedal statements to abide by. But as stewards of the worship experience at their meeting, this group will need to be given the authority to speak with clarity, strength and substance about the felt experience of faithfulness.

  • Thank you for your insightful, articulate analysis, Steven. Exposing the problem is the first step to resolving it, as the Fell quote illustrates.

    Do you know of the theologian Emil Brunner? Benson admired his thought, and I’ve been reading him now for about a year. You may want to look at his Gifford Lecture series “Christianity and Civilization,” where he asserts that “civilization potentially proves vacuous and destructive if it is divorced from Christian foundation and context”—an assertion that resonates with your diagnosis of present-day liberal meetings. http://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/christianity-and-civilization

  • It happens that I was given a school assignment today, to compose a psalm. When I read this very truthful blog posting about the “new set of agreements about vocal ministry,” my psalm came to me:

    A PSALM: TO THE AWAKENER OF MOUTHS

    My heart roars to Thee, O God of Abraham and Sarah:
    They speak lies that serve a god who is no god.
    Has the One who calls the stars by name
    Not called this meeting house the speaking-place of Truth
    For flesh to tremble and keep silence in?
    Woe, woe: they open mouths to utter chaff,
    I’ve dreamed, I’ve dreamed; – It seems to me;
    – This morning on the way I saw new daffodils,
    Praise Mother Nature!
    My heart roars to Thee, O God of Noah.

    They’d share the microphone with Holy One,
    But when the Holy One has held Its peace
    They say that It’s gone walking, yea, cheerfully over the earth:
    Yet there abides some trace of It in each of us; all’s well.
    But Thou, the Framer of eternity: Author of time, How long?

    When the famine comes of hearing healing truth,
    And cast-off people run from sea to sea,
    Where will they go who seek the One Who Lives?
    My heart roars, Lord: will You not open worthy lips?

  • Howard Brod says:

    A relationship with the mystical, yet knowable Spirit that is manifested in all – is still the heart of liberal Quakerism. Without that, it’s just a ‘club of silence’. Jesus is regaining ground among many liberal Quakers as the founder of our faith – rather than George Fox; Fox being perhaps a rediscoverer of it. And for these modern liberal Quakers (the next generation of liberal Quakers?), Jesus message was and is a simple one: “We are all divinity”, and he begs us to just recognize that.

  • Steven: This essay raises many important questions. Talk about substance; your essay is loaded with substance!
    At the risk of “blowing my own horn,” I urge you to read a couple of my essays on the Friends ministry. The first, published in the Spring, 2000 issue of *Quaker History*, is “Cyrus Cooper’s Memorial and the Free Gospel Ministry.” http://www.jstor.org/stable/41947431?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents The other essay, to appear in *Quaker History* in the Fall of 2016 (if I can get the necessary revisions completed in time!), is “Ann Branson and the Eclipse of Oracular Ministry in 19th Century Quakerism.” These two papers seek to “flesh out” the theory and practice of the Friends ministry as understood and practiced by traditional Conservative Friends.
    I also recommend an issue of *Quaker Religious Thought* “The Quietist Heritage,” by William P. Taber and Ruth M. Pitman. 19:1, #51 (1981). The papers by Taber and Pitman provide a good overview of the traditional understanding of Friends ministry. in broad outline.

  • treegestalt says:

    Another formulation? — WhoWhat is not at all ‘nebulous’, nor anything needing to be ‘defined’, but one to be known in the same way we know any human being, incompletely and progressively. Whether quickly or slowly, we learn to trust — not trust God to observe whatever rules we might like to impose, but trust God to treat us with genuine good will, however painful that might need to be. (We can’t always trust a surgeon not to operate, when our condition requires it!)

    Yes, ideologies can get a little thin sometimes, whether they’re modern or ancient. But ideologies are God’s instruments for certain purposes; and when these fall short, God remains and works on.

    I wish people these days did have more reverence for Jesus as a pointer to God’s intentions and ways. The question of whether Jesus “is” God might be truly-enough answered in many ways, as with various lesser guru’s who play that role for other people’s sake; the point is that Jesus called us to treat our fellow-humans with sincere & concrete love, regardless of whether their behavior pleases us — and told us that this sort of response is what God actually does for people, despite appearances. We could learn a great deal from that man!

  • treegestalt says:

    Well, the ‘substance’ which sustains us — whether or not people recognize or name it as such — is neither tradition nor scripture nor ideas, but the living Spirit known also as “God” — not some theoretical construct but the spiritual reality underlying all that exists.

    Speaking for That One is indeed a daunting responsibility — but one that’s softened by the fact that people aren’t expecting an error-free transmission from us.

    I don’t have time to properly finish this; please bear with me!

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