Vocal ministry—My discernment
January 9, 2016 § 7 Comments
Early in my Quaker career, I read Howard Brinton’s Guide to Quaker Process and I think its discussion of vocal ministry strongly shaped my expectations and my inner process of discernment regarding vocal ministry. It’s been almost thirty years, and I now only clearly remember the feeling I had of gratitude for some guidance. In other words, I was a bit afraid of doing it wrong, as I think most Friends are.
But I’m a trained and seasoned public speaker. I’ve done it a lot, all of my life since my teenage years, and I’ve done some stage acting. Yes, I feel a little frisson every time a speak in public, but I actually like that thrill. So I think it was probably easier for me to get over the initial barrier than for some Friends. Still, it took a while. And I’m not sure how well I adhered to Brinton’s advice.
For a long time—decades—I relied on a set of internal feelings to guide whether I rose to speak, feelings that I had first experienced while meditating when yoga was my spiritual path. These feelings amounted to a gradually increasing sense of “pressure” in my skull that ultimately leads to quaking, what yogis call kriyas, though usually, only a close observer would notice that my spine was jerking. I put “pressure” in quotes because that’s not quite the right word; it’s not painful for one thing. It’s located in the back of my skull and reaches down into the back of my neck. Sometimes this mounting feeling reaches a kind of threshold, and I experience quaking—in yoga-ese, kriyas.
Kriyas. Imagine your nervous system is a plumbing system in which nerves serve as pipes for conducting prana, the Sanskrit word for life force (and also breath, as in Hebrew and Greek). Karma—stored tension in the system—acts like constriction or the build-up of material on the inside of steam pipes. If you turn on the faucet full blast (by meditating), sometimes the pipes can’t conduct all that extra life force freely—and the pipes shake. That’s quaking, the nervous system firing randomly from overload, releasing the tension, the karma.
So I would usually wait until the pipes started shaking before I felt ready to speak.
This still happens to me, but I no longer rely on it so much. Something more subtle is often going on now that is harder to describe. It feels more like the faint perception of need, as though I can hear a call from somewhere asking for something. Is that something some vocal ministry?
Maybe. It’s hard to tell, most of the time. I wait to see whether the call comes more clearly. Usually, it doesn’t. I’m left to decide some other way.
If I don’t quake and I have no other clear indicator, my default position is no—no ministry. And if I do quake, I still might not speak; it depends on . . . what?
Three other factors. First, the structure of the ministry. If the ministry begins with “I”, I let it go. If I feel tempted to refer to some event, or reading, or encounter with people or some media, I let it go. “I read an article in the New York Times . . . ” “I heard a piece on NPR . . . “ “I’ve been thinking about . . . “ “This week, I . . . “ All of these frames for a message suggest to me that I am about to share some opening from the surface of my spiritual life, rather than from its depths.
Second, I have a calling to vocal ministry. At least I think I do. It has never been submitted to corporate discernment. I feel led to a ministry of teaching. I know Quaker faith and practice and history pretty well. Sometimes an opportunity to share something timely or relevant about Quaker tradition comes up, in the moment, or in the life of the meeting, and sometimes I feel led to take that opportunity in vocal ministry. This is especially common for me in meetings for worship with a concern for the life of the meeting.
When one of these teaching messages rises up, the other confirming indicators might not be so strong. The need is not an internal compulsion, but rather a sense of need or opportunity in the meeting bolstered by my sense of calling, which is often reinforced by Friends’ comments afterwards, and the knowledge that meeting for worship is really the only place where many members and especially attenders actually have an opportunity to learn their Quakerism.
This call to a teaching vocal ministry does lower the bar for me for a bit, I think. Not to the level of, “I saw a documentary this week that . . . “ But it encourages me to serve the meeting rather than the Holy Spirit, though of course, all Spirit-led vocal ministry serves the meeting, as well. This nervousness I feel is about the apparent source of the prompting, not the end result.
Finally, for other vocal ministry not attended by the internal sense of pressure and release I have discussed, or answering to the call to teach, my process is much more subtle. It’s neither physical nor cognitive. It’s intuitive, I guess I would say. It just feels right in a certain hard-to-define way.
It requires a dedication to the silence, a stripping away of the signal noise to better hear the small signal that’s trying to get through. It’s hard to relax that way when you feel like working at it; I feel like digging it out, rather than letting it be. So it takes a while. Meeting often closes before I get there.
It also depends on how clear the message itself is. Everything I’ve ever read on vocal ministry stresses how being articulate doesn’t matter, only the immediacy, the integrity of genuine leading, being faithful. But that’s not how I work most of the time. The faithful part, yes. But attending to the wording, the process of “crafting”, is also part of my discernment. I very often realize the ministry is not for sharing when I become clear what it is I think I am given to say.
Once I am clear, I sit with it. I release even the clarity and wait. In that final release or commitment to “the silence of all flesh”, as early Friends used to say, then the yea or nay may rise up. Often it is just then that the kriyas come on.
When I rise to speak, I always have to stand there for a few seconds. I have to get past the anxiety and try to get back to the peace. I make a point of speaking loudly. I’m a little hard of hearing myself so I’m sensitive to the needs of people like me across the room.
No matter how clear I am about the content of the ministry, it almost always takes off on its own. Usually, it hews fairly closely to the general outline, but new openings often come in the act of speaking.
Sometimes the messages are pretty long, though usually not much longer than those of some other Friends who might have spoken that day. Many of us go on a bit.
All the guides for vocal ministry stress succinctness. I don’t really understand that. It’s a contradiction to emphasize faithfulness and at the same time emphasize succinctness. What matters is that the ministry is spirit-led and that you do not run past your guide. What matters is that the body has been drawn deeper and closer to our collective Guide when we are done.