Vocal Prayer

December 13, 2018 § 1 Comment

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.


Praying for the Sacredness of Personhood

November 6, 2018 § 2 Comments

I have been traveling in Spain with my wife Christine for the past week, pretty far away from the drama of the American midterm elections. (We voted by mail.) When you travel, especially in a foreign country, you realize that there are millions—billions—of people who have lives, lovers, homes, jobs, just like you. They have dreams and ambitions, however grand or truncated by their circumstances, just like you. And your relative largeness in your own little world dissolves into a minuscule atomic reality in the midst of the galaxy of humanity.

In the face of this existential diminution, the great power of Christianity is its personality—the way it raises up personhood, the way it makes each individual life matter. One of the definitions of the soul in the Christian context is that the soul is one’s identity before God—each believer is a personhood who knows, and sins, and grows, and regrets, and ultimately is, on the one hand, accountable before the divine judgment seat, but also more positively, knowable by a divine Person, and even loved. This is some kind of ultimate validation of one’s personhood—at least as long as you pass the trial before the judgment seat—and can believe this in the first place.

Thus idea and context of Christian personality is a desirable thing, I suppose. But on many levels, of course, it’s completely unverifiable. My own personhood finds no solace in this framework. My own religiosity is essentially empirical. For the most part, I trust that which I have myself experienced. Thus my “soul” consists of something else, some kind of center of consciousness aligned toward spiritual growth.

For me, the soul expresses, personhood is manifest in creative action, God is a muse of that expression, a Source of that creativity and of that which is created (when I’m in the Life). Thus, I write, among other forms of expression. I write this blog, some poetry and fiction and nonfiction. I’m working on several books, several on Quaker topics for a mostly Quaker audience.

But this Quaker audience is a very small audience with almost no leverage with the Powers that rule the world I live in: Western imperial capitalism with its satellite principalities of corrupt or hamstrung political institutions, waning civil institutions, and collaborative religious institutions.

I dream of having some influence on this vast system of power with this blog, with my other writing. I have ambitions for publication. But I am one among billions, no more important than the hand-holding young couple I saw a few minutes ago walking below my window here in a hotel in Valencia.

Meanwhile, Americans will partially rebuke or partially affirm the sickness that is the Trump administration and its acolytes, with its lies, its fake conspiracies, it’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, it’s love of wealth and power for itself, and it’s sometimes violent assault on the sacredness of personhood.

There are very few true and meaningful counterweights to the dialectic of existing power and anti-existing-power power. The gospel of Jesus is such a third way, as Walter Wink has reminded us. But what counterweight, what third way, does liberal Quakerism offer? Can the gospel of that of God in everyone offer a meaningful alternative to the anti-gospel of power for its own sake or power for the sake of rebellion? Can it raise up human personhood beyond the mostly self-serving individualism that predominates in many of our meetings, that allows almost any heartfelt message to pose as vocal ministry, that mutes almost all attempts at radical collective action, that looks askance at radically mystical or prophetic experience, especially if it seeks to move the wider body?

Martin Luther King wrote that the universe bends toward justice. I’m not so sure. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this one. That kind of a priori statement about the moral character of “the universe” is clearly unverifiable. It’s a sweet idea . . .

The battle between organization and entropy, between good and evil, between love and fear, seems much more perpetual to me. With no clear end in sight, how can we talk with integrity about how the universe leans? With such obvious relatively long-term swings of the pendulum toward evil (think of the genocide of the First Nations of North America or the enslavement for centuries of imported Africans), how can one generalize about “the universe’s” moral character, even given the other more positive developments that coincided with those evils? An awful lot of individual persons suffered terribly under the Christian context of those evils. Did the Weight that sits in the judgment seat just go out for a long coffee break?

Personhood is small, fragile, and virtually weightless. Only the collective has real weight. Only the collective addiction to fossil fuels could have permanently altered the entire planet’s energy and atmospheric processes. Only the collective weight of emerging capitalism could have made African slave trade a vertex in the great Atlantic triangle of trade. Only the collective hunger of North Americans could have wiped out the passenger pigeon.

And yet Jesus was just one person radically focused on other persons. Or was he? Certainly he was not alone. But even his closest intimates misunderstood him, in the end. And even his bending of the universe got bent again into the imperial monstrosity that is on display in the guided magnificence of Europe’s great cathedrals.

I don’t know where this blog is going, really. Or where I’ve ended up. Just musing, and praying, as it were, with one of the main tools at my disposal, my pen. Praying for a greater recognition among liberal Friends of the deep power that lies in the foundations of our root Christian-Quaker tradition, and for the activation of the forward-looking potential inherent in liberal universalism and its rejection of the imperial thrust of the Christian tradition. Praying for a prophetic opening that harnesses collective action on behalf of the sacredness of personhood.

The Well at the Center

October 7, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

September 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vocal Ministry: Who Calls? Whom Do We Serve?

September 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And isn’t it still?

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Transmitting the Tradition

September 22, 2018 § 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Worship Culture

September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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