I began a vocal ministry during Meeting for Worship yesterday by discussing an anecdote told by the writer Robert Fulghum. As the story goes, Fulghum had a profound religious experience in the most unlikely of venues, a grocery store in Pocatello, Idaho. Profundities greeted him in every corner, in every nook and cranny. I don’t recall all of them, but I do remember one that has always stuck with me.
By the cash register, a sign instructed customers to please accept their change and to take it with them. Ah, Fulghum thought, I will accept my change and take it with me. The intention of this anecdote was to speak to those of us who expect miracles, theatrics, and solid proof from God before they will believe. Those were the same demands placed upon Jesus, who was implored by many to work magic once more if he wanted his freedom, to say nothing of his life. He was careful to never put God to a foolish test and we would be wise to act in kind. Once again, we are seeing things in human terms.
I’ve never spied a burning bush and I can’t heal the lame, but I have attuned myself enough with God that I have learned to not miss the signs of his existence plainly in front of me. Encouraging this discipline in others is difficult, because one cannot look inside at another’s inner convictions. Fostering Spiritual introspection in those seated before me is my goal each and every time I rise to speak. Once I sat and centered down again, my message finished, the response was several minute's worth of complete and total silence. In a Meeting that can be quite conversational, this was no small feat.
Paul talked openly about his limitations as a public speaker. In his own words, “I may be unskilled as a speaker, but I'm not lacking in knowledge.” He was a brilliant writer and a strong witness for what was then merely an emerging Jewish sect. But his talents did not extend to oratory.
I know that what I do is God’s work because in any other context, I could never fight off considerable stage fright and introversion. A couple of months back, a young adult group of a different faith came to visit. They requested a ten-minute talk about Quaker 101. I spoke before them, explaining the particulars of my own religion. Though I managed to get through it and did a good job, I was barely able to maintain my composure.
God gave me a great gift, one that manages to momentarily heal a diagnosed health condition. One of my limitations is a severe anxiety disorder that has always complicated my life. This liberation from constant discomfort only seems to apply to Worship, but to have even five minutes respite from it is amazing. I may not have been healed, depending on how one defines it, but for a moment in time I am freed from my awkwardness and insecurity. This is proof enough for me.
In many Quaker Meetings, the same few Friends speak on a routine basis. If I’d lived some years in the past, I might well have applied for and perhaps been designated a recorded minister. Among most Friends, this is a separate distinction no longer made. Many interpret the Testimony of Equality to mean that there should be no special recognition made for any Friend, for any reason. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I think that it overlooks a particular truth. Though each of us may be equal, our skills are not granted equally.
A knowledge and understanding of God makes us stand out in our own way. A recorded minister may possess the gift of prophetic ministry, but within the body of Christ, everyone’s input and participation is needed and necessary. I know that God has the ability to speak through every attender.
New York Yearly Meeting speaks about vocal ministry in this way.
Vocal ministry in the meeting for worship should arise from inward prompting, an experience that may come at times to all earnest worshipers. A simple thought, briefly expressed by a timid speaker, may be the message most needed; the shy worshiper is encouraged to speak, however haltingly.
There is a need to make room for everyone’s contribution. My own vocal ministry has improved dramatically over the course of the last several years, and I hope the process continues. Practice makes perfect, but I always know the source of my eloquence. I work hand-in-hand with God, and I know there will never come a time where I will cast him aside, believing I can manage by myself.
In the meantime, I will continue to find ways to facilitate an experience with the Divine for everyone, attender, member, or visitor. God has the ultimate say, but where we do have control is whether or not we are receptive to the message. Distractions and skeptical voices always threaten to get in the way of true spiritual grounding. Let's learn to think beyond ourselves for a moment, and then delight at the reward we receive.