Last weekend I was invited to speak to Abington (Pa.) Meeting’s First-day school…

Last week­end I was invit­ed to speak to Abing­ton (Pa.) Meeting’s First-day school (n.b. prop­er FJ stylesheet) to talk about vocal min­istry in wor­ship. I haven’t been to wor­ship at that meet­ing for eons and can’t speak to the con­di­tion of its min­istry, but I do know that vocal min­istry can be some­thing of a mys­tery for unpro­grammed Friends. Many of us are “con­vinced,” com­ing to the Soci­ety as adults and often have a nag­ging feel­ing we’re play-acting at being Friends, but I’ve met many life-long Quak­ers who also won­der about it.

Per­haps as a response to these feel­ings, we some­times get rather pedan­tic that what­ev­er way we’ve first encoun­tered is the Quak­er way. The cur­rent fash­ion of vocal min­istry in the Philadel­phia area is for short mes­sages, often about world events, often con­fes­sion­al in nature. What I want­ed to leave Abing­ton with was the rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ways unpro­grammed Friends have wor­shipped over time and how some of our prac­tices out­side wor­ship were devel­oped to help nur­ture Spirit-led ministry.

(writ­ten this a.m. but only post­ed to lim­it­ed cir­cles, cut and past­ed when I saw the mix-up)

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  • Not sure if part two is bet­ter off as sec­ond post or com­ment, but I’ll try the latter…

    The form of my pre­sen­ta­tion was a talk. This might seem obvi­ous, as it was billed as one. But I try to test that assump­tion every time I’m asked to give a pre­sen­ta­tion. Quak­er min­istry is not the same beast as a speech. It’s sup­posed to be spon­ta­neous, an unplanned impulse direct from the Holy Spir­it, Jesus him­self come back to bless and inspire our gath­er­ing as he did that of his fol­low­ers at Pen­ta­cost. As Friends’ cul­ture has shift­ed, we’ve adopt­ed the mod­els of the acad­e­my. As I wrote ear­li­er a sub­text for my pre­sen­ta­tion was an aware­ness of our mod­els and customs. 

    I was there to talk about vocal min­istry, not to deliv­er it. That’s fine by me, as I don’t think I have a par­tic­u­lar gift for vocal min­istry. My brain thinks much too sys­tem­i­cal­ly and I veer toward soci­ol­o­gy when talk­ing about Friends. That’s not bad – it’s one of the qual­i­ties that has helped me fos­ter online com­mu­ni­ties, and it’s a good trait for a mag­a­zine edi­tor. It’s just not a style that I think is com­pat­i­ble with true ministry.

    Still, even a talk can be ground­ed. I was warned that this par­tic­u­lar First-day school class could be chat­ty; a few peo­ple warned me that the pre­vi­ous week’s ses­sion had per­haps a bit too much dis­cus­sion. So I start­ed the talk with wor­ship. My F/friend Barb intro­duced me and I went to the lec­turn (a lec­turn? A mic?) and asked that we start with wor­ship, out of which I would speak.

    Doesn’t every speak­er do this? Don’t we know this is one of the best tools for a Quak­er lec­tur­er? You get to set­tle your thoughts but you also sig­nal to the audi­ence that you’re not expect­ing a free-for-all.

    We descend­ed into silence. This might be a good place to talk about the role of a pre­am­bling wor­ship, espe­cial­ly the ques­tion: how long do we wait.

    But the brakes are com­ing on, my station’s here. That’s a talk for the next commute…

  • Open­ing silence: on one end of the spec­trum I’ve known spiritually-impatient Friends who would open a meet­ing with a “moment of silence,” stress on both the “moment” and the “silence.” They would spend the allot­ed twen­ty sec­onds review­ing the agen­da, mak­ing notes. 

    Not much bet­ter was a Friends meet­ing where the stat­ed cus­tom was to have twen­ty min­utes of wor­ship start­ing busi­ness meet­ing, with an unstat­ed par­al­lel cus­tom of always arriv­ing twen­ty min­utes late (one time I was clerk­ing the meet­ing and found myself alone in the meet­ing­house at the appoint­ed start­ing time; it was not appre­ci­at­ed that I let wor­ship go forty min­utes so every­one could have that twen­ty minute of set­tling in time.)

    I will assume we’re talk­ing about real open­ing wor­ship, authen­ti­cal­ly desired.

  • When there’s an event that’s orga­nized as a speech or work­shop there are times you need to esti­mate a time for wor­ship, espe­cial­ly if there are co-leaders. You make a guess, laugh ner­vous­ly at the irony that this is a very pro­grammed event. When it comes time for the actu­al wor­ship, I’ve found I use my nerves as a test. I set­tle into wor­ship with the group. When I feel it’s time to break the silence and begin, I keep qui­et. A minute lat­er, I feel the impulse again and once more stay in wor­ship. I keep the group in wor­ship way longer than feels com­fort­able, because I’ve found I’m prone to treat wor­ship as silence if it’s a pre­dictable, bound­ed expe­ri­ence. I need a few rounds of inter­nal prompts to go deep­er before I start sens­ing those eter­nal waters of the liv­ing Spirit.

    You also need to be able to let the expec­ta­tions go if those waters start lap­ping up in waves over the worshipper’s feet. There are times where the agen­da should be cast aside because he who calls us has brought us to a spiritually-covered state. A few days ago I had lunch with a Friend who described this in-breaking hap­pen­ing in open­ing silence­of a recent work­shop (he had the good sense to get out the way and post­pone the sched­uled exercises). 

    There’s the sto­ry of the Friends min­is­ter who trav­eled a great dis­tance to address a group of Friends. Peo­ple came from a hun­dred miles around to see what this famous out­sider would say. But when the group began in wor­ship, the min­is­ter real­ized to some inter­nal hor­ror that he felt a stop in min­istry. He had noth­ing to deliv­er. A large audi­ence wait­ied and he sure­ly could have gone into some stock speech and deliv­ered a ser­mon that peo­ple would com­mend. But the spir­i­tu­al stop was there and he too had the good sense to lis­ten. The wor­ship last­ed hours, with noth­ing from the famous guest. It was only after­wards that the min­is­ter under­stood Christ’s plan, as a local Friend rushed to him in thanks. The group had been locked into politi­cized camps that used min­istry as oppor­tu­ni­ties to argue their respec­tive caus­es. What they need­ed was an out­sider to remind them of the sacred­ness of wor­ship. The trav­el­ing min­is­ter knew lit­tle of these bat­tles, but was able to speak spoke to wor­ship­pers’ con­di­tion through com­plete silence because he remained faith­ful to God, who knows all and ten­ders all.