Monday, 28 April 2008

At a Meeting for Worship is a person ‘compelled’ to one’s feet, by a power greater than oneself, or is ministering an ‘ego’ activity?

Maybe the answer is:- 'both' or ‘neither’ !

However if I had to come down on one side or the other, I would go with the latter. It seems to me that if someone is waiting for a more mystical or ecstatic ‘compulsion’ from outside of oneself, then it is likely that he/she will wait for a very long time. I would argue that the notion that vocal ministry arises from ‘an action of God, over and beyond inner promptings’, adds further confusion to the action. As I see it verbal ministry in the first instance, arises from a human experience, guided by 'that of God' within.

Many people believe in a 'God out there', who directly intervenes in the affairs of people. I believe that it is neither productive nor wise to sit and wait for a ‘God out there’ to intervene directly in the affairs of people. I also believe that the important thing for Quakers is to trust that when a group of people, trusting in the reality of God, choose to meet in silent worship, they can in truth, discern God’s will. By remaining faithful to the process of silent worship and by remaining open to being guided from within. In this way the community remains open to discerning God’s will and to receiving guidance regarding the lives we live.

If some people are waiting for God to intervene, ‘at a future time’, then it is little wonder that they do not trust what is going on within them ‘currently’. Perhaps some people are waiting to get an ‘all clear’ signal or the proverbial ‘kick in the backside’. Other people, however may be focused on the present rather than on the future, and so are more likely to experience inner promptings of love and truth, and such people are surely more likely to take heed of their inner promptings as the leadings of God, and as a consequence more likely to have the courage to stand to offer verbal ministry.

Meanwhile a person waiting for ‘a mystical or ecstatic experience’ may well, from the very absence of trusting ‘inner promptings’, judge any ‘current inner promptings’ as coming from a lesser place, sometimes called the ego, and so be fearful of sharing any inner promptings in verbal ministry. A big problem arises wherever there is an emphasis on the 'ego' as a negative element of the personality. In such situations their arises a fear of being judged as an ‘egocentric’. In my understanding the ego is more properly understood as the positive 'choice-maker' which each of us, needs to respect and come to terms with, if we are to engage in anything really challenging.

The healthy making of ‘an ego choice’ is of course to be distinguished from 'egocentricity' which is what happens when someone ‘acts’ as if they were 'the Centre', or alternatively ‘refrains from acting’ because of a fear of ‘appearing foolish’ or ‘out of step’ with the group. People who perceive much ministry as 'egocentric' will, as a consequence, more likely 'fear' the trusting their own inner promptings. Paradoxically the consequence,of not trusting inner promptings, and of consequently refraining from ever ministering is more likely to be 'egocentric'.

The situation where a person accepts the challenge of ministering, even when aware that the content might be perceived by some as being 'less than brilliant’; and when the ministry may even be criticized is something different again, – such a person is brave, and I certainly would not call the person 'egocentric'. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s words:- ‘God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control.’ (2 Tim. 1:7).

Can I add here, that I fully accept the validity of the fact that many people who come to a Quaker MfW do not, for a variety of reasons, wish to offer verbal ministry, and I am not suggesting for a moment, that everyone who attends, even regularly, should offer verbal ministry. I fully accept the wisdom and the practice of offering Quaker Space to the newcomer, the troubled and in fact to anyone who desires just such space, but this is slightly beside the point. The question I'm addressing concerns the place verbal ministry plays in a Quaker understanding of MfW.

I believe that verbal ministry that genuinely comes from one’s inner promptings, is likely to be desirable, especially when the one ministering has the sense of the content being relevant to more than just one’s own personal living, and when one has the common-sense, to be aware of and sensitive to, the overall ministry offered within a particular meeting.

I believe that ‘shared worship’ should have a real element of the sharing that which comes from 'that of God’ in the lives of those gathered. I feel strongly that worship is about more than just ‘drinking in' and ‘privately valuing’ what comes to each person individually. It surprises me when I hear people describe verbal ministry as being something exceptional; and it also surprises me that some people do not seem to have a sense that sometimes ‘God’ may be calling them to share something of their insights ‘with the gathered community’. Please do not hear me suggesting, for a moment, that silence is not important, that it should be ignored, or that the hour should be filled with verbal ministry. Hear rather my belief that what comes out of the silence is also important, and that verbal ministry from a wider range of people should be truly welcomed.

I know that it is challenging for some people to stand up and offer verbal minister. However this is quite a different thing from reacting to the fear, or of being silenced by the fears which may be about the inadequacy of one’s efforts. I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to be ‘people of encouragement'. Expressions life 'daffodil ministry', with negative overtones, should be carefully avoided. I would argue that a single verbal ministry arising from the leadings of God might well be ‘the word’ to help another. We might all leave the Meeting House more refreshed and more determined ‘to do God’s will’ not only during MfW but also ‘out there’ in Sheffield and beyond.

Let’s not sit waiting for the ‘mystical or ecstatic experience’; but let each one of us trust the more ordinary inner promptings of love and truth. This applies not only in Worship but also in the rest of our lives. At MfW:- ‘Let us trust such promptings as the leadings of God, who’s Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. (A&Q 1). I agree with Simon, as mentioned in “The Nature of the ‘Inner Light’”, (24th April), that it has been the Quaker Experience that the trusting of the ordinary everyday experiences, may lead to the more ‘mystical or ecstatic’ experience following on in its trail. But the extraordinary experiences are not the important thing. I believe that this has been my own experience of Quaker worship, as I believe it has been Simon’s experience, especially in the area of the ‘peace-tax’ in its relationship to ‘conscience’. Deo Gratias.


Simon Heywood said...

Thanks Maurice.

I am in fact a big fan of the "wait for the kick in the backside" school of thought. I once got a kick in the backside and refused to act on it, and it's taking me a while to get back the lost ground.

I caught the end of a really good Meeting for Reflection on Sunday, and it took me back to my first Meeting for Worship where I was immediately struck by the incoherence of the ministry - a sermon here, a bit of song there and seemingly nothing to tie it all together. It made me think that it was the very incoherence of it that left room for the spirit to be manifest - the Spirit operated in the obvious "space between" the actual trains of thought/words, and what mattered was not what was actually said, but the spirit in which it was said. The risk with not waiting for the kick in the backside is that I end up saying something that is all very rational and nice but doesn't have that factor X. I've done that too. This is the danger of ego ministry. The ideal is to allow yourself to be caught off guard and just go with it.

As I've blogged before, I wonder if sometimes we are too concerned about the content rather than the spirit of what we say, in ministry and generally. We can be as incoherent as we like as long as the spirit is there - in fact it's the very incoherence that makes the spirit more manifest. I wish I had more courage just to go with the flow.

Mind you, if someone has something worked out and thought through, and takes an active decision to say it, and is at the same time offering it in a spirit of love, I can't see that much can go wrong with it.

Craig Barnett said...

As I was thinking about this, I came across a blog post which vividly describes the experience of being 'compelled' to speak in Meeting for the first time. You can read it by clicking on the link here.

Gordon Ferguson said...

The person Craig's post pointed to could have been me - there is not a word that I would change in describing my own experience of ministering in meeting, or for that matter in describing the non-theist place I often find myself standing in.
I always come back to the problem of false dualities. God is neither out there nor in here. Either everything is mystical or nothing is mystical. The community is not separate from myself. If I start from the position of my ego, it is me that stands and ministers. If I start from the position of community, I am compelled to share. I leave myself at the door of the meeting room and embrace the community, wherein I discover my true self, which is neither me nor not-me.

S Fred Langridge said...

"The ideal is to allow yourself to be caught off guard and just go with it."

I think this is how I've been on the (very occasional) occasions when I've stood and ministered. And being caught off guard has sometimes, no always, involved the 'quaking' sensation.

Feels right to me! Which might be my only way of receiving communication from the 'inner light'.

Ray K said...

New to Quaker Meeting for Worship, I am sure I'm not alone in being unsure about the impetus for vocal ministry and how to discern it from one's own agenda.

Simon's comment though echoed something I read recently that I thought I'd share from Beth Allen's book "Ground and Spring - Foundations of Quaker discipleship"

As ever in Quaker matters, discernment is the key, and we know how to do that. The fact that we often don’t bother to discern carefully doesn’t invalidate our knowledge. We are not short of knowledge or of guidance; what we are short of is the will to live by it: the guts to leave other things and concentrate on the “one needful thing”. “Purity of heart,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing”.

Meeting for Worship is the training ground, where we learn how to discern the right way forward and to work with the Spirit. We learn to recognise what is of God by watching others speak and act, and by acting and speaking ourselves and by keeping silent.

Here my own experience has developed. The first time I was led to minister I felt that I was being battered by pillows; I did not follow the leading, and came away from Meeting utterly drained by the effort of resisting. Over the years the leading became more understandable: the words were there and would not go away, and my heart beat faster; I learned only to minister when I truly felt led. There is no one single way of testing this leading. Because we operate in varied ways we feel the nudge in different ways and have to learn our own signals. For example, I have never “found myself on my feet” in the way some Friends have described. For me there is always a conscious choice. I think that our experience of following leadings develops; more recently I have only felt the beating heart after I’ve spoken, which is rather disconcerting; I now have to test the leading less physically and more inwardly.

Craig Barnett said...

This is a quote from the blog 'Growing Together in the Light', which has a fascinating series of posts on ministry and worship:

"In some ways, speaking in meeting is the essential mystery of unprogrammed Quakerism. Vocal ministry is what distinguishes Quaker Meeting for Worship from other forms of group meditation. Vocal ministry is also the place where our discernment is honed, our inward ear opened and our voice trained. Our speaking is inspired by the Spirit but the Spirit makes use of our individual experiences, talents, strengths and weaknesses. There is an expression among Friends, “The water always tastes of the pipes.” This means that the messages always carry the flavor of the person giving it. We may try to get ourselves out of the way as much as possible but we never get out of the way entirely. What comes from the Spirit, what comes from us? We may be prompted by the Spirit to stand and speak but we always maintain some degree of control. We are taught that there are things to consider before standing. Has there been enough time since the last speaker? Is it too close to the end of the meeting? Is this message for me or the meeting? We are always there, choosing the time, choosing the words."

You can read the full post here.

It occurs to me that perhaps many of us have not been taught to ask ourselves these questions.