Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spoken Ministry

I'm a purist when it comes to spoken ministry. I suppose it comes from being a preacher's kid and from being a bit on the mystical side. In many posts, I have mentioned my non-theism. While that may sound like a rejection of the spiritual life, the opposite is true. I'm just stubborn as a toddler about word usage. Both my experience and my study of religion excludes the possibility that the term "God" is either cross-culturally useful or spiritually accurate. (Semantics, semantics) Comes of reading too much postmodernism in college. But that's fodder for another blog coming from what Daniel calls my "Mr. Hyde" side.

Truth is, I'm fiercely spiritual because I've had so many spiritual moments. I'm not talking the "I was walking through the forest when I realized it was like a holy cathedral" moments. No. I'm talking about the, "I was walking through the house with a bowl of popcorn when suddenly I found myself inexplicably on my knees realizing in the depth of my soul that I was called to ministry" moments. I'm talking the "I completely zoned out and had a vision of the unity of all Life both as Infinitely Large and Infinitely Small through an impossibly dazzling image that pulled me inward and upward simultaneously" moments. I'm talking heart pounding, sweating, hallucination moments of spirituality in the midst of my ordinary life. Seizures probably, but dammit, once you've had them, you have little tolerance for milk-toast testimonies of spirituality.

So what about silent unprogrammed meeting for worship? The silence provides a space to connect to the Living Presence and the communal worship magnifies its voice.

And then people stand and speak. And here's where I get persnickety.

Don't get me wrong. There are many times when others speak that I find my silent thoughts break open in tears and gratitude for Friends' words. Whether delivered in the practiced clear tones of a confident and weighty Friend or in faltering, shy uncertainty, these messages astonish me with their power to chasten me, uphold me, fulfill me.

But I'm not talking about those messages in this post.

I often wonder about the mechanism of spoken ministry. How does one know when to speak and when to remain silent? It is a mystery we cannot solve for each other. When I first became interested in Friends' worship practices, I did a lot of reading. One of the first things that struck me was the advice that one should wait for the Spirit to speak to you before you spoke for the Spirit. This meant that just because some thought arises in your head (no matter how lovely or clever) it doesn't make it worthy of sharing in meeting for worship. One should sit with it for a spell and see if it rises to the level of ministry. If not, it can be shared later in other moments of fellowship. Of course I read how Friends were known for their quaking acceptance of God's direction. As a head-centered person, I was uncomfortable with the idea of admitting this kind of influence in a public venue but I am familiar with it through my studies of Spiritualism and various kinds of Neo-Pagan worship.

When I began attending meeting, I decided that there would be little point of giving it a go unless I really intended to "do it properly." How would I ever know if people really quake in the presence of the Divine if I was unwilling to sit silently and wait for it? I wanted to see it happen to people. You see, as a student of religions, I really love being around people during their encounters with the Divine. Granted, part of my brain interprets these encounters as having a great deal to do with psychology, neurology and sociology rather than divinity but that's only part of my brain. And it isn't the point. The reason I love to listen to others' spirituality, to see them in prayer, to watch their faces and see their bodies move as they encounter what is holy in their lives is because I can feel a kind of energy radiating from them. I do not have the intellectual tools to explain this, but it is akin to the joy I feel when I watch other people adoring their children. It is good to be close to that. It makes me feel more human.

So when I first began attending a Friends' meeting for worship, I was not going to interrupt the possibility of partaking in that energy by talking during meeting from my head. As with anything else in my life, I attended the meetings and sat back, aloof and watchful. I did not expect anything to happen to me. When it did, you could have knocked me over with a feather. "Holy Shit!" I said to myself, "if you sit silently in a room full of Quakers, the Spirit actually does speak to them!" This was big, big, big for me since I was at the peak of atheism at the time. I could not explain it. I asked others about it and they affirmed that they too sometimes felt a very physically tangible pull toward spoken ministry. Curious. Fascinating. My experience was profound and reaffirmed my dedication to maintaining silence unless that feeling gripped me again.

I feel it is disrespectful to the silence and the Friends partaking of it to use that space as forum for egocentric preaching. It would be easier, clearly, to speak from my head. I could compose little sermons at home and really impress people but I wouldn't dare. There's no comparison between the desire to speak to impress and the feeling of being compelled to speak, even if it will make a fool of you, even if you must sacrifice your composure, even if you don't fully understand why this message or why now. Nothing like it. It is an uncomfortable, even frightening experience. If you accept that such a thing happens, you have to live with the fear that it will happen again and the fear that it will not. But it worth it.

So I don't speak unless I'm awfully sure that I'm supposed to. For me this means that unless I'm literally quaking and feeling as though if I don't deliver a message I'll pass out in a cold sweat, I keep my mouth shut. I find this is effective for me because I'm the kind of person who gets spiritual messages in that kind of funny temporal lobe seizure kind of way. Now, if you're not lucky enough to have this kind of brain abnormality, then maybe you want to be more intellectual about it. I don't know.

But isn't it funny that someone like me who rebels against the use of the word "God" is advocating that people who do believe in God should probably be quiet because their words betray their disbelief? (Does this make sense?) It is just that I sense very deeply that their NPR testimonies and popcorn ministry comes from someplace other than a deeply spiritual place. When I speak, I'm obeying something that scares the bejeezus out of me and effectively crushes my doubts like a wee little bug. Or maybe that is the wrong way to put it. That which seizes me doesn't give a damn about my doubts. It uses me anyway. I take that very seriously. After this happened to me the thought of speaking from ego terrified me. You don't speak from ego when you know that Something Else has the power to grab you by the guts and toss you around like a dog with a rag doll.

Is this, (or some equivalent experience appropriate to their spiritual needs)happening to other Friends? Oh, how I'd love to spend time talking to people about this! Friends just clam up after meeting just when I want to be asking them, "What was that like? What did it feel like?" I admit that I find myself doubting the authenticity of the experience of too many meetings for worship in which spoken ministry takes place. It has nothing to do with the skill of the delivery. Some of the most powerful messages would get mediocre grades in my classroom. I do wonder though if Spirit were talking through them, why Spirit is so god-awful boring and predictable. I wonder why Spirit seems to have such a poor grasp of the bible or seems so interested in New Age philosophy. With Susan B. Anthony, perhaps part of me is saying, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice that it always coincides with their own desires."

I'm not saying I have a handle on what Spirit should or should not be saying but when the folks who deliver these messages appear bored or formulaic, I gotta tell you, that makes me suspicious that maybe they aren't interacting with the Divine. Or maybe they're so used to the Divine that it doesn't surprise them anymore. Could be. I don't know. (And I have a brain abnormality so probably no one should pay any attention to me in the first place.) But when I've encountered the Numinous (or to satisfy Mr. Hyde, that which I experience as the Numinous) it always knocks me off base. That which is Death and Life simultaneously is a wild thing, devastating, disruptive, deep and wild and glorious. Even when it comes to us gently and tenderly, a thing so small that only our deepest watchfulness prepares us to receive it, it is never trivial. It is never dull.

So I am left wondering about messages. I sit in meeting with tears running down my face like an idiot only to be jarred out of my reverie by people giving messages that sound like community service announcements. Really? You interrupted this sacred silence because you felt a quaking in your soul about Bill Moyers? I confess that it has occurred to me that maybe some Friends don't really believe that the Spirit comes to speak to them so they fill the silence with ministry from the Gospel of NPR, or from Gandhi or Emerson quotes, or from the Gospel of Appropriately Progressive and Green Sentiment. And that's fine. I guess. But I also guess it leaves me a little disillusioned.

Maybe I over-intellectualize and maybe I'm crazy but I think I'll keep my religious research and my hallucinations (if that is all they are). Like Professor Digory Kirk in the Chronicles of Narnia, I'll refrain from quizzing those who speak on a First Day. I'll follow his advice, "And don't mention it to anyone else unless you find they've had adventures of the same sort themselves. What's that? How will you know? Oh, you'll know all right. Odd things they say-- even their looks-- will let the secret out. Keep your eyes open."


Priscilla said...

"That which is Death and Life simultaneously is a wild thing, devastating, disruptive, deep and wild and glorious." Can it be said any better than this? I don't think so. Thank you! And I know just what you mean about messages from the head or messages from that place of fear and trembling. Anytime I'm in a meeting (secular or religious) and feel my heart start to pound at a thought, I know, oh, s--t, I'm going to have to say this....

Natasha said...


Newbie said...

Hystery, if you were to start an unprogrammed Church of None of the Above(tm), I would come. I have just discovered your blog and read it through (OMg, time for bed!). Thank you from a very deep place in me for stating your Truth; it helps me get closer to finding the words about mine.

Ganeida said...

I dislike intensly for the silence to be interrupted by anything other than a shaking by the divine in the deep recesses of the soul ~ & yes, I often sit in meeting with the tears rolling down my face. Who knows why.

Mary Ellen said...

I guess my response is "Yes ... and ..." That is, I share the preference for the wild and spooky reality of -- That -- and have tried over the years to wait until forced (quaking) to my feet before speaking. But I also seek the discipline of loving openness to other styles of ministry (even ones that so very much don't speak to my needs). It doesn't always work, but when it does, I feel a rush of (slightly wry) tenderness that allows me to hold others in an embrace of loving acceptance in spite of their not getting it, pulling the worship up to a shallower level, or trotting out egoic stuff. Can I stay centered in spite of it? Can I see my own ways of being ridiculous, wasting other people's time, standing also in the need of prayer? And recently, I'm not having as much of the inner pyrotechnics as I've had in the past. Does that mean I'm sliding away from grace and transformation? Hope not!

Hystery said...

I cannot believe that the quaking, embodied style of ministry is the only one worth sharing. I do believe in ministry beyond the silent meeting and in those cases, I prefer not to rely on emotive sensation. I do not think we can underestimate the value of thought, rationalism, and intellectual endeavor as ministerial tools. In fact, I would have had nothing to do with the Friends if I had not believed that their tendency was to embrace the products of intellectual discourse.

But I do love the balance I find in meeting when head-centered people are rocked by that beyond their capacity to to explain. I mock myself a little bit with the explanation that perhaps my shakiness is resultant of a mechanism such as a seizure (although I don't see why the Divine wouldn't speak to us through our brains' imperfections. Why not?)I enjoy the humor of it. That sitting silently in a spare meetinghouse should induce cerebral chaos is just really delightful. For the some of us, there is ecstasy in paradox and disorder (just think of the tidy, self-controlled Shakers).

So what about all the times when a person is not feeling that surreal and spectacular heart-pounding rush? Are we to remain silent?

My answer would be yes and no. I think that if the Divine can work through our illogical, emotive brain then the Divine can work through our logical, rational brains as well. I'm not really sure how that mechanism would work in meeting. Perhaps I value the embodied spiritual response so deeply because I live in my head and the quaking, as a leave taking from my normative state, represents the numinous for me. A head-centered speech in the midst of silence would be too much like glimpsing the man behind the curtain.

forrest said...

It is obviously not a lack of intellectual gifts... so much as having rejected one extremely simple way of describing it--not a 'logical' way (since the validity of 'logic' seems to have so much to do with how good a mapping exists between The Big "X" and our language)-- but much simpler than trying to explain that "X" in terms designed to describe "Everything Else" as if these were separate items.

Anyway... Spiritually is not merely emotion, no more than emotion is necessarily "irrational." But as in a Paul Simon quote I was musically whomped by says, "Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears."

What I think Quaker ministry ought to be, if I could grow into it... not to make an idol of some test like the one an intelligent damnfool once proposed, of whether he feels a message making his insides squirm.... If one could read Rumi verses from the scroll he found them on

Amy said...

I don't have a whole lot to add to the conversation, but I did want to let you know how happy I was to hear about your experiences. So very similar to mine.

Will T said...

What a marvelous wonderful post. Something that Robert Barclay said has been with me a lot lately. He said someting to the effect of "It is the privilege of the Christian to know the Shepherds voice." He is referring to the Gospel of John where John says that the sheep know the shepherds voice and will not follow a stranger. I know this isn't your native language but I am sure you get the drift.

Over time I have found that the great Whatever doesn't always have to knock me upside the head to get my attention. I am starting to be able to hear whispers as well as shouts. Sometimes it is useful to wait for the adrenaline to wear off a little and feel the love underneath.

Spoken ministry is always an adventure and an experiment and you usually don't know until you sit down, how you did. Fortunately the great Whatever is forgiving.

Will T

Hystery said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I am learning so much from writing this blog because Friends' responses to me are warm, encouraging and instructional.

Will, thank you for your comment. In fact, biblical language is native to me since I was reared and continue to immerse myself in this literature. Your comment reminded me of that and prompts me toward new thoughts...