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.

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."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Using historical counterfactuals to treat dysthymia

Here's a brief list of my strangest wishes:

I wish that the British had defeated us in the American Revolutionary War. Even better, I truly wish that war had never begun. I'm always bummed out when I get to that part of history when we declare war. And even though I know fully well that the Americans will win, there's always this funny little irrational part of me that keeps cheering on the Brits.

I also wish that Jesus had not died on the cross. I'm very attracted to various theories that he actually did not die on the cross at all but survived the crucifixion. My favorite story is that he was spirited away and eventually ended up in India. I probably began entertaining this comforting historical revisionism after reading the Laughing Savior and the Last Temptation of Christ when I was a teenager. The unlikelihood of this wish really bothers me especially during Passion Week. Could Maundy Thursday be any more depressing?

More personally, I wish that I had not bothered with a graduate education. That was a waste of time and money. Oh well, that train has left the station and now I have to put up with the consequences: poverty, disillusionment, anxiety and guilt. *sigh*

I suppose I can pretend that Jesus survived (No one can really prove otherwise) and just try not to dwell on the Revolutionary War (sucks that I have to teach about it every effing year) and maybe pretend I don't have this damn degree and just imagine that my enormous worthless debt is because I had some kind of gambling problem or bought a couple houses, forgot to ensure them, and then lost them both to very localized flooding.