Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Ministry in a first-person culture

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Years ago—decades ago—when people rose to give vocal ministry in a Quaker meeting for worship, it was common for the speaker to quote a passage from the Bible, or from the essays of Emerson, or from Leaves of Grass, and follow it with some reflections that brought out the meaning of the quoted text and its relevance to some situation at hand. That type of vocal ministry has become less common these days. A more common message these days is a first-person account of something the speaker has recently experienced or has been thinking about. Speaking in the first person was at one time less customary than it has become now.

The change in the style of vocal ministry in Quaker meetings seems to be a reflection of a change in American society in general. People seem to speak much more about themselves these days than used to be the case. They want to tell their story—not just any old story that could have happened to anyone. People are very much at the center of their own universes these days; everything revolves around them. One sometimes gets the impression that not much else really matters except that person who is at the center of his or her universe, making comments on all the things rotating around the center. These are egocentric times.

Quakers are encouraged to speak what the spirit urges them to say, and it is not uncommon for the spirit to relate things to the speaker’s own experiences. Quakers are encouraged to speak from their own experience and understanding rather than merely offering reports of what others have said and thought. The locus of authority is one’s own inward light, the particular refraction of light that has worked its way through the prism of one’s own life history. So there is nothing at all blameworthy in first-person narrative in vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. For something to be a truly spirit-led ministry, as opposed to a simple report of something interesting that happened on the way to the meetinghouse or an account of something amusing that the cat did yesterday, it should have some sort of universal dimension. It may be about oneself, but it should also be about others as well. It should be something that, in Quaker idiom, speaks to their condition as well as to one’s own.

Needless to say, not every message can or should speak to everyone’s condition. There is reportedly a belief among some Muslims that there are so many religions in the world because there are so many kinds of people with so many different needs and perspectives that God must constantly provide new ways of reaching all of them in their diversity. Even God cannot find messages that speak to the condition of everyone. How much less can a Quaker minister impart such a message. That said, even if a message cannot be expected to speak to everyone, it can be expected to speak to others in the room than the speaker.

When someone else rises to speak in a meeting for worship, one sometimes has the initial feeling that what is being said is irrelevant to one’s own conditioning. Rarely is it the case, however, that a spoken word, however falteringly delivered or apparently pointless, cannot become the basis for fruitful reflection by nearly everyone who hears it. In the final analysis, the old saying is perhaps true that the spirit makes no mistakes.

These are first-person times in America. These are times of self-centeredness and self-absorption. That is just how things have become for now. But why?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 05:01

Posted in Faith and practice

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