But this striving for perfect humbleness can easily become dogmatic. We can come to reject anything that looks remotely like attention-seeking, and we miss God’s message in it.
Jon weighs in with some good, juicy questions. Where is self-promotion a way to promote something bigger? And when is it ego-driven? t’s not just a internet question, of course. This is also at the heart of our Quaker vocal ministry: someone just stands up in worship with an implicit claim they’re speaking for God.
Samuel Bownas is a good go-to person for these sort of dilemmas. He was a second-generation Friend who shared a lot of the inside dirt about Quakers in ministry. He wrote down the trials and temptations he faced and that he saw in others in their “infant minstry” as a conscious mentorship of future Friends.
One of Bownas’s themes is the danger of apeing others. It’s tempting to get so enamored of someone’s beautiful words that we start consciously trying to mimic them. We stop saying what we’ve been given to say so as to sound like the (seemingly) more-articulate person whose style we envy. Most creative artists walk this tension between copying and creating and as Wess will tell you, the idea of remix has become of more importance in the era of digital arts. But with ministry there’s another element: God. Many Quakers have been pretty insistent that the message has to be given “in the Spirit” and come from direct prompts. Unprogrammed Friends (those of us without pastors or pre-written sermons) are exceptionally allergic to vocal ministry that sounds too practiced. It’s not enough that the teaching is correct or well-crafted: we insist that it be given it at the right time.
When thinking the pitfalls about ministry I find it useful to think about “The Tempter.” I don’t personify this; I don’t insist that it’s central to Quaker theology. But it is a thread of our theology, one that has explained my situation, so I share it. For me, it’s the idea that there’s a force that knows our weaknesses and will use them to confuse us. If we’re not careful, impulses that are seemingly positive will provoke actions that are seemingly good but out of right order – given at the wrong time.
So, if like Jon, I start worrying I’m too self-promotional, the Tempter might tell me “that’s true, it’s all in your head, you should shut up already.” If I work myself through that temptation and start promoting myself, the Tempter can switch gears: “yes you’re brilliant, and while you’re at it while don’t you settle some scores with your next post and take some of those fakers down a notch.” There’s never an objective “correct” course of action, because right action is about stripping yourself of self-delusion and navigating the shoals of contradictory impulses. The right action now may be the wrong action later. We all need to grow and stay vigilant and honest with ourselves.