Friday, April 17, 2009

Spoken Minstry Part 2

In my last comments regarding spoken ministry, I described the specific emotional process I use to discern when it is appropriate for me to interrupt the silence of meeting with a message. In this entry, I wish to explore the idea of preparation for ministry. How is it achieved and who is capable of achieving it?

The simple answer is that I don't have a clue. Everything I write is merely a musing. No reasonable person could mistake my ramblings for anything but. Certainly, I could not expect that my pattern of ministry (spoken and otherwise)is right and proper for anyone other than myself. That's important to note from the get-go.

I agree wholeheartedly with other Friends that the "quaking" feeling I get, though apparently shared by many and a part of the recorded historical tradition, cannot be a litmus test for the genuine nature of any given spoken ministry. I assume that it works for me, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, because it provides a counterbalance to the head-centered self-control I apply to the rest of my life. I also think that my physical/psychological nature tends to be more turbulent beneath that practiced self-control. (And I wasn't fooling about those seizures either.) I have to assume that there are other methodologies that make much more sense for others. I think of us as instruments for the Divine Musician. Some of us are played as trumpets and others as flutes. Some of us are beaten like drums and others of us strummed gently. We play different parts in the orchestra and this is why Friends' cannot be summed up easily. We are not a jingle. We are a symphony.

If I were to give serious advice to Friends about what to wait for before offering up a spoken message in meeting for worship, I would suggest that they experiment with the discipline of silence for as long as possible before speaking but I would not suggest that there is some perfect moment for spoken ministry any one of us can identify. Stay quiet as long as you can until you know the time is right. And how will you know? I can't answer that. I only know how I know. You're on your own there. And I think we'll all mess this up at least once. We'll speak when we should have been still. We'll be still when we should have spoken. We'll add an unnecessary flourish or edit when we should have barged ahead with the seemingly ill-formed and insensible. We are merely children together in this. Part of our work is play and our learning requires error.

It is not necessarily the content or the discipline of the delivery (intellectual, mystical, emotional, etc.) nor even the apparently profundity of the words (there is great meaning in the mundane too) that indicates that the message is true. So how do we know? In one word, my answer is "depth." We must learn how to seek it, learn how to use it, and learn how to lose ourselves to it. How do we achieve depth? Preparation.

Spoken ministry, even when it arises out of that quaking, almost purely emotional space is far from unprepared. I advocate study in history, theology, science, and philosophy as a general background for any Friend whose intellect craves it but I do not think such studies are universally necessary. In fact, I think we require Friends whose approach is entirely different. Let us not neither idolize intellectual achievement nor fall into anti-intellectualism.

I focus on the scholarly approach because that is the approach used by the ministers of my childhood. I have great respect for a well-prepared and researched message. As a public speaker, I spend many hours of concentrated study before I deliver an address to my audience. But as I understand it, in meeting for worship, we are not speakers so much as we are instruments. While our brains and the words we arrange and deliver are limited, the Source beyond is not. Our task then is not to prepare ourselves to deliver messages that glorify ourselves but to keep ourselves well-tuned for the Great Musician who may have need of us.

We can never know when we will be called upon to speak. If we wrote our own speeches in advance, it is akin to saying that we have the power to predict the Source's intention. Nor can we expect to resonate with the Divine Voice if we spend the week in shallow and selfish pursuits heedless of the possibility that we may be called upon to act as vehicles of the Divine Word. How can one be ready to speak without preparing a speech? I almost wrote that when we speak, we should "dig deep" but this is not what I mean. That oversimplifies it. We should dig deep during our daily lives. We should dig deep in our research and our relationships. We should dig deep in our meditations,our prayers, our charities, challenges, doubts, passions, and fears. We should live lives that dig deep. Every day. In all things. Our psychic hands should be calloused from the digging. Let us not be masters but laborers who having dared ourselves all week to use our whole lives to peer into that Abyss that human reason can glimpse but never illuminate. If that is the case, on First Day, when we silently draw inward, the Abyss will be there waiting for us, terrible, heart-breaking and beautiful. We need only the courage to fall into it.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

You say metaphorically
>>>Some of us are beaten like drums and others of us strummed gently. We play different parts in the orchestra and this is why Friends' cannot be summed up easily. We are not a jingle. We are a symphony.

I like the music analogy, though I might perhaps suggest, we are like jazz (as a writer has suggested). God knows where Existence is going, but all of us, if Spirit-tuned get to contribute our unique notes which add to the creative mix:-)

Also, I strongly agree--that at least for most people--we need to be spiritually immersed in religious images and words before we come to meeting. Then all that previous planting (to mix metaphors) sometimes brings forth a beautiful blossom or an ugly but necessary thorn cactus.

In the "quietistic" period of Friends what seemed to happen to many Friends is they didn't plant, so a wondrous harvet seldom came.

Isn't it all about paradox again--too much human preparation and we are in danger of convoluted human theological constructs of doctrine and overly formalized rituals; too little preparation and we are in danger of a spiritual famine or barren land.

In the Music,


Hystery said...

Daniel, I just read an article about the differences between Penn and Fox. What interested me about the article was a description of early Friends interpretation of Scripture as empathic interpretation. According to the article, Fox thought metaphorically and internalized the message of the text (a comparison was drawn to the Black Church use of Exodus literature). Because Fox and other first generation Friends lived the emotional reality of the Bible, they did not need to treat it as an external source of authority.

All of this to say that I believe that immersion in the literature (and I would argue that the literature can certainly extend beyond the canon) can provide a spiritual language that prepares us for ministry.

Chris M. said...

You write: "We should dig deep during our daily lives."

Yes, exactly! Being a Quaker one day a week doesn't cut it for me. Not that I've ever achieved it seven days a week -- yet.

One of the blessings of a Yearly Meeting session or FGC Gathering for me is the set-aside nature of the time, where it's easier to dig deep every day that week, both because I'm outside my normal routine and I'm surrounded by many others trying to dig deeply.

Finally, I think you'd like the new pamphlet by Helen Gould of Australia Yearly Meeting, "The Quaking Meeting," for many reasons, but I'll just mention one thing here. She quotes Michael Sheeran as saying the real divide among Friends is between those who have experienced a gathered meeting and those who haven't. Similarly, I think Friends can fall into the category of those who want to dig deeper, and those who are satisfied and get what they want or need without having to do that.

Hystery said...

Chris, thanks for the reading suggestion. Where can I get that pamphlet?

Chris M. said...

It's published by Australia YM as the 2009 Backhouse Lecture. I read it only because Valerie Joy gave a copy of it to our meeting when she was visiting from FWCC Asia West Pacific Section.

You can email sales -at- for more info or to order one.

Tom Smith said...

What a great blog! (Whew, I almost "never" say great or awesome or ...)

It resonates with King's "Deep answers to Deep."

Alice said...

I think Samuel Bownas writes about the call to give spoken minstry as being subject to the traditional Christian test: is it the one Holy Spirit, the true vine? Does it lead to the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22)? There are many 'spirits' that can move us but I think we are encouraged to reach for that same Holy Spirit which sent forth the prophets of old - maybe the same as what you write about digging deep: we have this capacity to recognise The Holy.

Michael Bright Crow said...


In a way I'm preparing every day for spoken ministry, because I follow Spirit's leading to authors, web writer, and friends who are grappling with concerns like mine.

So, for example, I've been reading my way through historical Jesus research, through issues of Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, through Friends Journal...and then through books suggested by these sources.

When I sit in waiting worship, however, I often struggle with "monkey mind," which wants to show off all the brilliant stuff I've read.

Instead, if I manage to center down enough, what is most urgent in my heart catches my attention, and I can dwell on that.

Sometimes things I've read will rise to relevance. Still not enough to qualify for spoken ministry, but closer.

More rarely I will have that "quaking" (for me it's actually a clenching around the solar plexus) that says, "You must speak."

Of course, then the doors are open and whatever I was thinking of, whatever writings I thought I might share, fall into the background, and Spirit saw want it wants to.

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow

James Riemermann said...

Very well said, Hystery. Both the guidance you use for yourself, and the cautions you lay down earlier, that to an extent everyone has to find their own voice and way of knowing when they have a message.

I also agree with Daniel, it is definitely jazz we are playing. Not just improvisation, but group improvisation. It is at its best when we are all hearing some sort of underlying melody or structure, listening to one another, and when we add something it has to harmonize, or offer some sort of creative counterpoint that acknowledges and plays off the whole.

While I certainly agree that some of us--perhaps many--would do well to wait longer and set the bar higher before speaking, there are also those who have set the bar too high, who stay silent because they are afraid of speaking inappropriately, thus depriving us and themselves of something beautiful. In particular, I wonder how many might spend their whole lives waiting for a message that they know is "from God" without it dawning on them that it might not come with that sort of label. The water will taste of the pipes, as they say.

Some people are naturally far more reserved in worship, and we might all gain if they considered loosening their restraints a bit.

forrest said...

It's frustrating when all I can find to say is "Amen!"

So, all right... Why shouldn't a well-researched message give glory to God? Aren't our lives part of that research?

Are we only instruments? Or are we performers in this orchestra? So we play what we've rehearsed well, (and maybe add a little personal ornamentation? That's been part of the written-music tradition, too, at least in early music!) and if we're watching the conductor, we may even play the right note at the right time!

Hystery said...

Thank you Tom, Alice, Michael, Forrest and James. It is always exciting for me to read responses to my writing. Kind of like magic. I sit here in my living room and write stuff between loads of laundry and a few days later, I find responses that sustain me, challenge me, and draw me more deeply into community. How cool is that?

It strikes me that there is quite a bit of diversity in the spiritual and philosophical perspectives of those who have commented on this blog. It is curious that such wide disagreement regarding the source of inspiration does not necessarily inhibit the inspiration itself.

My own inexplicable experience of this phenomenon (the quaking one feels before speaking) in the context of my own doubts and cynicism is what convinced me that whatever "it" is, it is real enough to take seriously.

Is the ability to name the Source as important as learning how to discern its call amidst the bells and babble in our heads? I think Alice's comments on paying heed to the "fruits" of our beliefs and messages as the test of their truth.

James, I also wonder how many sit silently when they might speak. My grandfather was a profoundly shy man but also very wise and very kind. He spoke infrequently and quietly. He also had a speech impediment so we had to listen very closely to his words and could not take them for granted. What he did say was well worth hearing and we treasure all he taught us these many years after his passing. Would he have shared his thoughts with Friends? I am almost certain his shyness would have prevented it. I have the luxury of having multiple and diverse opportunities to express myself and a certain amount of self-confidence. How does this affect my discernment process in meeting?

As for the jazz metaphor, I can only say that I avoid it stubbornly because I so dislike jazz. lol

Rich in Brooklyn said...

You mention that you just read an article about the differences between Penn and Fox. I'm intrigued.
If you can, please tell us:
a) Who was the author of the article?
b) What was the title of the aritlce?
c) Where can we find it?


Hystery said...

The article is "Did William Penn Diverge Significantly from George Fox in his Understanding of the Quaker Message" by T. Vail Palmer, Jr. It can be found in Quaker Studies 11/1 (2006), pages 59-70.