March 4, 2021 § 1 Comment
True prophecy’s job was to invoke the presence of God, to speak in God’s own voice on God’s behalf. This was true in the age of Isaiah and Amos, the time of Jesus, the words of Fox and Pennington.
One of the criteria for including the work of a prophet in the ancient Hebrew canon, the Law and the Prophets, was the quality of the poetry. God would not speak in bad poetry.
In The White Goddess, the poet, writer, and mythologist Robert Graves’s chaotic and magnificent manifesto masterpiece on the origins and nature of (true) Western poetry, he defines the purpose of poetry thus: “The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.” (p. 14)
The Muse is the Goddess, the Mother-Lover-Crone. True poetry, for Graves, is prayer and prophecy.
One knows true poetry when one feels it. The direct experience of the White Goddess is visceral, as Graves describes it: “… the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine …” (p. 24) These signs do bodily manifest the exultation and dread that accompanies all theophanies, all encounters with Truth.
How like the experience of our vocal ministers when the Spirit has truly descended upon them.
January 21, 2019 § 2 Comments
Quaker meeting for worship is a classroom and an exercise room in the school of the Spirit.
In the meeting for worship we learn and we practice how to center down, how to sink down in the Seed, wherein dwells our Guide.
And when that Guide prompts us to speak in meeting for worship, we learn and we practice recognizing the call, and to test the call to discern whether we should speak, and what we should say, and how we should say it, and to remain faithful to our Guide when we do rise to speak.
This spirituality of listening and of discerning and of surrendering in our action is schooling for the Spirit-led life outside of meeting, in the rest of our lives.
January 17, 2019 § 3 Comments
Here are some ideas for how we might work more proactively, and yet tenderly, to improve the quality of our vocal ministry, based on the problems I’ve identified in the past couple of posts.
Facing denial and doubt
I would hold a blind survey of the meeting to establish without any doubt that there really is a problem. How many members are unhappy with the ministry and the worship? How many are staying away because of the worship and ministry? I suspect that the results will be surprising and undeniable. I hope this will lead to a clear call to action.
I suggest that the clerk make time on the business agenda to consider and clarify the committee’s charge and to formally declare its faith in the committee to act on its behalf to nurture and protect the worship and ministry. This will force a discussion about what that means.
Worship and Ministry Committees
Appointments. This is sticky. I would ask Nominating Committee to be mindful of the committee’s charge to nurture and elder the vocal ministry when it considers names, choosing people who know our tradition, are seasoned ministers themselves, and are confident in their dedication to the committee’s charge. But of course, Nominating Committee may not be able to approach this problem with clarity either, and for the same reasons that hamstring Worship and Ministry committees.
Meetings should sponsor RE programs on worship and vocal ministry. My meeting has a great format for this. The committee decides on topics, then identifies a pamphlet or two that speak to that topic, and chooses a facilitator, hopefully someone with some “expertise” or experience with the subject and with the resources on that subject. But if not, she or he simply reads the pamphlet ahead of time and comes up with a brief summary of highlights for presentation and facilitates a discussion. We advertise these ahead of time and make the pamphlets available ahead of time, both from the library and for sale.
I think holding sessions for the meeting in which Friends share their experience of their own vocal ministry helps. Queries might include: How do you know you should share a message? What are your tests? Do you feel a calling to vocal ministry? Where do your messages seem to come from? Whom do you seek to serve with your ministry? What has influenced your approach to vocal ministry—writings, people, experience? Have you ever been eldered and what was that like?
How to elder
Here’s how I would approach one of these delicate conversations with someone about their ministry:
[if they speak fairly frequently] [Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I have noticed that you speak fairly often in meeting for worship and I wondered whether you felt you might have a calling to vocal ministry. Have you ever thought about that?
[if yes] Would you like any kind of support? Books or pamphlets to read, or just a chance to have a longer conversation about how it feels and where you think it comes from and where it might be going?
[if no] Well, what do you think? Does the idea awaken anything in you? Do you think it’s possible to have such a calling? Would you like to have a longer conversation about it? Or anyway, would you like any kind of support? Books or …
[if “I’m not sure what you mean.”] Well, some sense of a source of your messages, or a sense of mission or purpose, or that some themes keep coming up for you, or some other need you might feel to speak. [follow on from there]
The point here is not to bring up the contents of their messages at all, or that anyone is uncomfortable with their ministry, but to focus rather on their potential gift for ministry (for we all have—or at least we claim that we all have—potential gifts in ministry), on their own spiritual life and path, and on an offer to nurture their gifts.
The conversation with someone who does not speak often might be somewhat different. For one thing, if they don’t speak often, then given time, their ministry might mature on its own, so one might just leave it alone for a while. But if their messages, however few, are a real problem, then maybe something like this:
[Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I would like to know more about what vocal ministry means to you. Where it comes from. How it feels. How you decide that you should share a message. [I might add that, “Sometimes I find myself reacting negatively to your message and I don’t want to. I know from personal experience that messages that have bothered other people have had a profound and positive affect on me, that you never know when a message is really going to speak to someone’s condition, all unexpectedly. So I suspect that my problem is just one of understanding.]
Here the point for me is to keep it about my reaction—as a potential problem—and about understanding rather than criticism.
January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
In my last post I said that “our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons.” Here’s what I think those reasons are.
First, the committee rarely feels that it has the backing of the meeting as a whole, that it knows what the meeting wants. This is because the meeting never does know what kind of eldership culture it wants. Our meetings do not have a clear agreement about what constitutes Spirit-led ministry or how the committee should protect the worship. For protecting the worship and ministry is one of the charges of our worship and ministry committees. But it’s hard to expect the committee to act when it has no clear mandate from the meting and might fear that some in the meeting will be upset by its actions.
Then, there’s Quaker process. The committee has to come to unity about its approach and it only takes one member of the committee to make that impossible or at least very difficult. If it’s difficult, especially if the committee must labor a lot through meeting after meeting, exhaustion sets in. And meanwhile, there are other things to do, setting up the schedule for clerking worship, etc.
So the third problem is the makeup of the committee. Nominating committees always struggle with filling committee slots anyway, and this one can be especially hard. It’s hard to find Friends who really know the Quaker traditions of worship and ministry, who are gifted or even called vocal ministers themselves, and who are willing to serve. And inevitably, at least one person on the committee seems to think the ministry is more or less just fine, anyway. They may even be part of the problem themselves.
But one attribute may be even more important and it is certainly harder to find—confidence, decisiveness, even boldness, a temperament capable of acting in spite of the fear of over-stepping.
For this is perhaps the biggest problem. We are afraid to elder, and rightfully so. We are afraid to hurt someone. We are afraid to cross some line that, as individuals, we can rarely see with confidence, let alone share with confidence with a bunch of other Friends. Many of us have been hurt by some eldering experience ourselves. We know how it feels.
And we’re not sure how it’s to be done. How do you approach someone whose ministry is perfectly acceptable to some unknown but perhaps fairly large percentage of the meeting to tell them to get with the Spirit?
This brings us to the final problem. We are not a covenant community. We don’t see membership in the meeting as an agreement about our mutual accountability in the life of the Spirit. Put in concrete terms, we don’t say to applicants in our clearness committees for membership that we look forward to their gifts in ministry unfolding over time, that we plan to help that unfolding however we can, and that we hope (expect?) that it’s okay that we can have a direct conversation about their ministry as it unfolds, including even some questions when it seems they’ve “stepped through the traces”, as Friends used to say in the elder days—gotten tangled up in one’s relationship with the Guide.
If we have not broached this matter of mutual support and accountability regarding ministry in the clearness committee, it’s doubly hard to bring it up later, with no foundation on which to stand. We seem to be just coming in with the warship and dropping a bomb.
We need agreements: That, as individuals, we want nurture and support for our unfolding gifts in ministry and that we want correction when our ministry needs work. That, as a committee, protecting the worship and engaging with our ministers is our proper role. That, as a meeting, we need—we insist on—ministry that comes from the Spirit, and that we trust the committee to foster and protect it.
So this exercise in the last couple of posts has brought up some ideas about what to do. On to those in the next post.
January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
I know I keep coming back to our problems with vocal ministry, but it really weighs heavily on my soul.
I can’t tell how widespread the problem is, but I fear that many of our meetings are in a crisis regarding their vocal ministry. I know mine is. Friends have stopped attending meeting for worship because the vocal ministry drives them nuts. I’ve done this twice myself in the past few months.
I don’t yet have any answers to this problem, but I do have some questions, and I’m hoping that airing these questions out loud, as it were, here in this blog, might unlock something, in myself and/or in my readers. I am praying for a breakthrough.
With the questions that follow, I hope to profile the problem.
What? What is happening?
Lots of worship sharing. Some harangues. Personal opinions, basically stand-up blog posts. Appeals for help. Demands for attention. Musings and anecdotes from the speaker’s past week. Hand-wringing about the state of our society and especially of our politics. A dearth of the Spirit and of the spirit of service.
A lot. Cascades of shallow, jarring, or merely personal messages filling the hour, especially the twenty or so minutes before the children come in ten minutes before rise of meeting. But also, unnervingly often, in the first twenty minutes, before we’ve had a good chance to settle and while the latecomers are still trickling in.
In loud, commanding voices. In voices so soft that even the only moderately hearing-impaired like me can’t hear it. Mostly quite confident; not much humility.
Lots of relative newcomers. Some more seasoned Friends. Rarely from our most seasoned elders.
I suspect that some of the relative newcomers simply have not yet been fully baptized in the Spirit. Also, they have learned what’s appropriate ministry by osmosis and that means that the current predominance of weak vocal ministry in the meeting makes it look like that’s what’s appropriate. It’s an unvirtuous circle, a feedback loop.
The disquiet that this culture creates in the more seasoned members and the sheer frequency of messages work together to suppress the ministry we might get from more seasoned Friends, so we hear fewer models of more Spirit-led ministry. It’s a feedback loop.
Some people seem desperate for a platform, for the sense of having been heard, for being known in a deeper way than is available in the rest of their lives.
And finally, our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons. I want to get deeper into this last problem in my next post.
December 13, 2018 § 2 Comments
Of all the changes in the character of silent, waiting worship among liberal Friends, one of the most significant, I think, is the loss of vocal prayer, and it’s among the most invisible or unregarded.
In thirty years of worship among Friends, I may have heard vocal prayer maybe a dozen times in meeting for worship, not counting the somewhat more regular prayers of a Friend in New York Yearly Meeting with whom I’ve worshipped a lot and who has the gift of prayer. I have only prayed out loud in meeting for worship twice myself.
Most liberal Friends, I suspect, don’t miss it. Most of us don’t hold dear a God who is “theistic”, whom one could address as an external sentient being who’s capable of hearing, let alone answering, one’s prayers. For many of us “God”, if the word works for us at all, is a much more amorphous—what? Not being; idea, maybe. Nor do most of us believe in a divine Jesus Christ to whom we might pray.
Instead, we liberal Friends “hold each other in the light”. More about this in a subsequent post.
But, for a sense of what we might be missing, listen to what William Penn has to say about George Fox in his introduction to Fox’s Journal:
“But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say was in his prayer. And truly it was a testimony that he knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men; for they that know him most will see most reason to approach him with reverence and fear.
The lack of vocal prayer in meeting for worship reflects, I suspect, a lack of prayer (understood in the conventional sense) in our personal devotional practices. My dictionary defines prayer as an approach to deity in word or thought and, as I’ve said, I suspect most of us don’t resonate with the “deity” part. We may do something else and call it prayer.
In my own practice, I “pray” and I “meditate”. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation and I use several of them quite regularly. And I also pray fairly regularly in the conventional sense of addressing—well, not God, as conventionally understood, as a supreme being, or as the Father of Jesus Christ in the Trinity. I pray to the spirit of Christ, and I communicate with several spiritual allies or companions in a more shamanistic sense.
I am careful to say “spirit of Christ” here because I have no experience of Jesus Christ understood in the conventional sense; that is, as the divine, immortal, resurrected spirit of the biblical Jesus who is still with us today, albeit in heaven, or whatever you call the spirit realm in which the saints and Christ are said to dwell—which definitely isn’t here on the material plane.
That is to say, I’ve experienced something, and I call it the spirit of Christ. I have experienced something transcendental, which has come to me as a sense of presence and as eidetic imagery in the form of some generic devotional wall-painting form of Jesus. The metaphysics of these experiences is a delightful, intriguing mystery to me and I don’t fuss about it too much; I think about it, I have ideas about it, but I don’t take these ideas very seriously—unlike the experiences themselves, which I take very seriously.
So I pray to a “spirit of Christ”, a transcendental sense of presence that has clothed itself in familiar form in my spiritual apperception, and addressing it works for me. It focuses me. It satisfies something in me.
And this is the power of conventional prayer. It feels good, it feels right, somehow, to speak to someone, to communicate in a spiritual relationship that feels like communicating in our other relationships. It comes naturally—if you believe in or sense a “someone” at the other end.
This “spirit of Christ” whom I address is not the only “spirit” I’ve encountered in my journey. There are three others. Let’s call them angels, for want of a better word. They all have in common that they present themselves as beings with whom I can have—and do have—a relationship; they have a kind of personhood, they have moods and personalities. I could say that they are just in my imagination, except that they each have demonstrated their power on my behalf. They have done things that have improved my life, both inwardly and outwardly. Or more accurately, addressing them, bringing them into my devotional life, seems to be associated—causally—with little miracles; or big ones. Changes in my life that I am so grateful for, blessings that I sought and that were delivered, however that actually worked out in the spirit realm.
So I pray.
But these relationships are private, intimate, personal, and it’s complicated to share them with others. So vocal prayer doesn’t come naturally to me. Both times that I’ve prayed aloud in meeting for worship, I had the very rare experience for me of feeling ripped up from my seat, of being under some influence or power, of having hardly any choice in speaking or in what I said.
Did my prayer bring others into the Presence with me? I wonder. I doubt it. But maybe.
In my next post, I want to explore “holding in the light” as our go-to alternative for conventional prayer.
October 7, 2018 § 3 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.
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.
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?
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.