by Rich Accetta-Evans
This article was prompted by some questions put to me recently by a thoughtful attender at my Friends’ Meeting (or “Quaker” congregation) in New York City. Why, he wanted to know, do Quakers say that the “messages” we hear spoken in our meetings come from God? Isn’t that a bit much to claim or even to hope for? Doesn’t it raise the bar so high that any sane and modest person will be deterred from speaking in our Meetings at all? Doesn’t it offer a platform primarily to unbalanced people who are led by narcissism or megalomania to exaggerate the parts they play in God’s work?
I should explain for the reader unacquainted with Quakerism that, in the form of worship practiced by many Quaker groups, there are no separate clergy to deliver sermons or to lead the congregation in prayer, song or ritual. Instead, all of us gather in a deep kind of silence and try – as we say – to “center down”, and to open ourselves to the presence of the Spirit of God. Yet Quaker worship services are not completely silent. From time to time a worshipper will stand and speak to the group. There may be some Sundays when this does not occur at all, but more often it will happen several times in the course of an hour of worship at any large urban Meeting. My friend’s questions were about this speaking that occurs during the otherwise silent service of worship.
We refer to such speaking as “vocal ministry”. It may take any of several forms: personal testimony, prayer, praise, prophetic comment on society, moral exhortation, or spiritual teaching. Whatever its form, the Quaker understanding has always been that true vocal ministry can only take place when the speaker is “led” or “moved” to speak by the Spirit of God or Christ. Ministry should not be planned before the Meeting. It should not be purely a product of the speaker’s own thought, feeling or opinion. It should not be offered casually. When speaking has been truly “led”, we believe that the words spoken are a divine message for us and will help us come closer to God or better understand God’s will.
To most folks it may strain credulity to imagine that the Creator of the Universe would communicate in this way to anyone on Earth even once in a lifetime – much less every 10 or 15 minutes to a motley gathering of earnest sectarians like the Friends.
What can I, as a Quaker, say in response to this feeling of incredulity? How do I reply to my friend’s questions? I can begin by offering three insights that I will summarize as follows:
1. God is not a remote and impassive abstraction, but a living Presence who is able to move in the heart of any person at any time.
2. Those who try to serve God through vocal ministry are indeed fallible human beings, but this doesn’t mean that God cannot speak through them.
3. As a guard against self-delusion and inflated self-importance, those who often give vocal ministry in their meetings should always look for nurture and guidance to the community of faith they belong to – the Meeting as a whole and those within it who are spiritually experienced and mature.
1) God is Livingly Present
The Quaker teaching cannot be and never has been that a remote and normally impassive God has singled out Quakers to receive miraculous messages for themselves alone. We believe, rather, that the Creator is close to the creation in every part of it, that the Creator’s Life is reflected in every living thing, and that the living Spirit speaks to every human heart – not exclusively to Quakers, and certainly not only to those Quakers who are led to speak in Meeting. Early Friends found confirmation of this faith in the Gospel of John, which speaks of Christ as a Light who “enlightens everyone who comes into the world.” This is not to detract from the reality of Divine Power and Majesty, but to acknowledge that God is great enough to be vividly present in every place, to every creature, at every moment. Our mission as Quakers – should we choose to accept it – is to build our personal and corporate lives around paying attention to this ever-present Lord.
A leading to speak in Meeting is therefore really not extraordinary and the expectation of such a leading does not “set the bar too high”. It may be wonderful and exhilarating. It may be awesome and humbling. But is no more “extraordinary” (in the sense of unusual) than the other leadings and promptings and hints and nudges that God is giving every person every day. These everyday “messages” are sometimes heard or seen or felt by the intended recipients and sometimes lost in the rush and hurry of outward affairs or drowned out by the chatter and clamor of the busy and anxious mind, but there is never a time or place where God cannot speak to those who will listen. If anything, Friends run the far greater risk of betraying their central faith if they set the bar too low and accept as ministry anything which is not sincerely offered in response to a felt leading. When we do this it suggests we do not believe or trust the central Quaker claim that “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.”
2) Those who try to serve God through vocal ministry are fallible human beings.
We also need to acknowledge – and those who offer ministry frequently especially need to do so – that leadings to speak, however genuine, do not mean that the person who responds to those leadings is infallible. That we may sometimes hear “messages” in meeting that sound pretentious, misleading, or simply silly does not invalidate the possibility of spirit-led ministry. It does not even mean that those very messages have no value. It only underlines that we have our treasure in earthen vessels.
That the infallible God entrusts His word to fallible ministers may sometimes frustrate us, but it seems obvious that He does. Moreover, it also seems obvious that there is a potential for the original message to be lost or distorted as it passes through the mind and mouth of the speaker. As a truthful people we need to admit this. Otherwise, we put ourselves in the absurd position of sometimes claiming Divine authorship for our own all-too-human workmanship.
This is illustrated in the probably fictional story of a Friend who delivered an impressive message during the hour of worship and was afterwards approached by a young person who told him “Your message was very moving.” “Thank you,” said the ministering Friend, “but it was really not my own message so much as God’s.” “It was pretty good,” replied the young Friend, “but not that good.”
It is also illustrated by Thomas Merton’s experience during a visit to a Friends Meeting during his pre-Catholic years as a spiritual seeker.
“One Sunday I went to the Quaker meeting house in Flushing, where Mother had once sat and meditated with the Friends. I sat down there too, in a deep pew in the back near a window. The place was about half full. The people were mostly middle-aged or old, and there was nothing that distinguished them in any evident way from the congregation in a Methodist or a Baptist or an Episcopalian or any other Protestant church, except that they sat silent, waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. I liked that. I liked the silence. It was peaceful. In it, my shyness began to die down, and I ceased to look about and criticize the people, and entered, somewhat superficially, into my own soul and some nebulous good resolutions began to take shape there.
But it did not get very far, for presently one of the middle-aged ladies thought the Holy Ghost was after her to get up and talk. I secretly suspected that she had come to Meeting all prepared to make a speech anyway, for she reached into her handbag, as she stood up, and cried out in a loud earnest voice:
‘When I was in Switzerland I took this snapshot of the famous Lion of Lucerne…’ With that she pulled out a picture. Sure enough, it was the famous Lion of Lucerne. She held it up and tried to show it around to the Friends, at the same time explaining that she thought it was a splendid exemplification of Swiss courage and manliness and patience and all the other virtues of the watchmaking Swiss which she mentioned and which I have now forgotten.
The Friends accepted it in patience, without enthusiasm or resentment. But I went out of the meeting house saying to myself: ‘They are like all the rest. In other churches it is the minister who hands out the commonplaces, and here it is liable to be just anybody.’” (The Seven Story Mountain, Part I, Chapter 3.)
Whether Merton’s memory did justice to this particular vocal ministry I do not know. Yet nothing in my Quaker experience gives me complete confidence that the message was any less banal than it seemed to him. Quaker Meetings will necessarily always be vulnerable to such events. After all, the Divine Voice does not boom out of the empty air or crackle through a loudspeaker in our meetings. It comes through someone’s mouth and tongue by way of his or her heart and soul and mind. It is the Spirit of God who stirs, but that which is stirred is some part of some person. Receiving such a message is not like “channeling” or “spirit-possession” said to be practiced in some circles. God does not commandeer a person’s body, obliterate the personality, or override the will. Instead, God’s Spirit works with whatever materials lie at hand, and the worshipper wrestles with that Spirit, attempting to let it speak authentically, yet also always trying to reconcile its new promptings and new insights with the worshipper’s prior habits, plans, ideas and beliefs that may also in their time have come from the Spirit. The message heard aloud by other worshippers is nearly always the end product of this process, not the same pure motion that first came forth from God. In other words, as I have heard many Quakers say, “The water always tastes of the pipes.”
For that reason it is usually not hard for members of Quaker meetings to recognize the distinct “flavors” that vocal ministry acquires from various vocal ministers. We learn the concerns and thought patterns and the language of some Friends who minister frequently and we even begin – despite ourselves – to think of the messages they give as their messages rather than God’s message. We hope and expect that those who speak will have tried to thresh out the chaff and to give us only the good kernels of real wheat, but we know from experience that there remains to us as listeners a further duty of interior sifting and discernment.
As for the vocal ministers themselves, they have a responsibility, which grows in proportion to the amount of ministry they offer, to seek for the help of others in becoming better discerners between the good seed and the chaff in their own ministry. That brings me to my last major point:
3.Vocal ministers should look for nurture and guidance from the community of faith they belong to
This is a tricky point. Plenty of rationalizations are available which could enable us to evade it altogether at one extreme or to misapply it at the other. The temptation to evade this point altogether is perhaps the subtler of the two. We have a testimony for the “free gospel ministry” with emphasis on “free” both in the sense of unfettered and the sense of un-bought. If it comes down to a choice between faithfully following the leadings of Christ and yielding to the human judgment of an overseer or elder, it seems obvious that Christ is the right choice. Indeed, for the person who is young in the ministry, there is perhaps more danger than not in over-sensitivity to the community opinion. George Fox advised elders to “be careful how you put your foot among the tender plants,” implying that new ministers needed less outward guidance and more encouragement than those who were more experienced.
With all this in mind, the Friend who believes that she or he has been faithful in ministry may feel that no one else has anything to say about it. It is tempting to respond to any comment or criticism with the rejoinder that “I have to obey God rather than men”. Yet I don’t believe that anyone who is really mature in the ministry will take such a stand either lightly or frequently if they believe themselves to be part of a larger spiritual body. George Fox taught, after all, that “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” which is a little different from “Christ has come to teach each person separately and individually himself.” The same spirit of humility and teachableness that opens us to God’s spirit speaking inwardly will also open us to learn from the experience and judgment of others who practice the life of prayer and discernment. In fact, it will lead the minister to not only accept such guidance when it comes unbidden, but to seek it out.
Ordinarily such guidance will not come in the form of questions about minute points of doctrine or about individual word-choices. Nor will it be enshrined in a set of arbitrary rules that “true messages” must conform to. It will come, rather, in the form of reminders to wait patiently for clearness before speaking, reminders to pray that others may be given a share of the work of ministry, reminders to sift and sift and sift again in the silence.
Ideally, such guidance will include at least as much nurture and encouragement as correction or criticism. It will also encompass the minister’s whole spiritual life, and not just his or her speaking on Sunday. Finally, it will not occur only when someone is upset about a particular message or a particular personality, but will be a steady stream of encouragement and counsel in all seasons.
My short answer to the questions put to me by my friend at coffee-hour is that God can lead people to speak in Meeting and has often done so. The faith that He is close enough and concerned enough to do so is a large part of what Quakerism is about.
My longer answer, however, would also acknowledge that there is always a danger in the freedom of Quaker worship that we will slide off either into banality on the one side or pomposity and monomania on the other. The remedy for this is to dwell deeply in the silence, to encourage faithful obedience to God’s leadings, and to help those of us who speak often, through spiritual counsel and advice, to keep a proper perspective on ourselves, our gifts, and our own limitations.
Rich is a member of New York Yearly Meeting. He has a blog called Brooklyn Quaker and also sometimes posts on Quaker-Quaker.