Monday, November 29, 2010

Vocal Ministry: The Inexperienced versus Experienced Divide

At my Monthly Meeting, a Faith and Practice from Baltimore Yearly Meeting is regularly read before worship. "The experienced speaker should be careful not to speak too often, or at undo length." Curiously, no mention of an inexperienced speaker is mentioned at all. As constructed, or at least presented in isolation from other qualifying statements, the sentence implies that only experienced messages or messengers have enough worth to even need ground rules. Inexperienced messages must be absolutely ghastly, following that line of logic.

The most current Faith and Practice from BYM that I can find modifies this sentence somewhat within the framing of a larger statement.

Counsel and support those who are led to speak out of the silence in meetings for worship. Inexperienced speakers especially may need to be encouraged and advised. Those who are inclined to speak unacceptably, at undue length, too often, or too soon after another speaker, may need prompt and loving counseling.

This draws something of a contrast between the two, though I think my reservations are with word choice more than anything else. On a brief Google search, I could not find similar language inside the Faith and Practice (or related documents) of four other Yearly Meetings. If other Friends know more about this matter than I do, I will certainly welcome the insight. In the meantime, it is interesting to observe that others seem as though they've quite deftly side-stepped the matter altogether. Knowing what I do about Quaker process, I would not be surprised if this issue was contentious enough that it was left deliberately open-ended.

To me, it's more feasible to see a sharp distinction between inexperienced speakers and speakers who break the unwritten codes of unprogrammed worship. I have known many experienced speakers, if years of attendance are any adequate measure, who have been known to speak unacceptably, at undo length, too often, or too soon after another Friend's vocal ministry. I've also heard speakers who are diamonds in the rough, whose message might need a layer of polish or two, but who spread pearls of wisdom from the moment they stand up until the moment they sit down.

We all start somewhere, and in an ideal world, Elders would recognize Friends of great promise, and, with Christian love, encourage their growth and development. Elder has a strongly negative association to it as well, which is another post for another time, but if it were seen here as synonymous for "mentor", I think worship would be all the richer for it. What I am speaking about, in my experience, is a process of inward growth, present no matter where we begin. After all, had you mentioned to me ten years ago, long before I became Convinced, that I would regularly share messages during First Hour, I would not have believed you.

In any case, this extended section in Faith and Practice explains how to correctly manage vocal ministry during worship, but it still does not really speak to the quality and the suitability of individual messages. Making summary judgments regarding one person's communication with God requires a surgeon's precision. As Friends, I recognize that we shy away from rankings in any fashion, for any reason, but we might consider using more specific word choices to distinguish between that which is acceptable, but unrealized, and that which is unacceptable under any circumstances. In a context outside of Quakerdom, inexperienced does have a solidly negative connotation assigned to it quite often, but I've always perceived of it in terms of a work in progress or mere Juvenilia.

Even though some speakers clearly are granted God-given abilities, even the gifted must nonetheless begin somewhere. Some believe that vocal ministry is a Divine blessing granted to a very few and some believe it is granted to everyone. We may all be equal in the eyes of God and have the floor if we so choose, provided we feel a leaning, but most Meetings I have observed contain ministers who regularly speak from the silence, week in and week out. In my own Meeting, I am quite thankful to be one of them.

It may be making too much out of one simple sentence to register such extended reservations, but the subject has bothered me long enough that I've chosen to write about it today. I myself was once an inexperienced speaker at Meeting, but by this I don't mean I was disruptive, long-winded, wholly without Quaker etiquette, or not Spirit-led in what I said. Was I naïve and at times precious in what I said? Yes. But like many other things in life, prayer, experience, wisdom, and study have made my ministry stronger and more concise. I had the great fortune to become a Friend in a small, tight-knit meeting whereby sharing in worship was closer to speaking in the company of a loving few.

Unlike my next stop on the road, I was not speaking in a sometimes imposing worship space, where unwritten, unadvertised codes governed those who stood and started talking. Had I not begun where I did, I wonder if I would have had the confidence and assurance that what I said was experienced or moving actively towards it, rather than inexperienced and inadequate. And even then, I still fall short from time to time, though I tell myself that I am not engaged in a competition with myself, anyone else, or with God himself.

Crucial topics like these need more exposure, if we are to properly nurture each other. Anyone who shares at Meeting for the proper reasons enhances worship for all who are gathered. This is a great responsibility. As we rise, we speak for God, setting aside every ounce of ourselves besides that which actively communes with the Holy Spirit. I myself know the power of weighty ministry and how it perceptibly deepens the experience of everyone present. One can feel it spiritually and observe it in the body language of others. It is in eager expectation of such things that I return, week in and week out. Though we may be called to live every day like First Day, most of us only formally worship then. As much as it should be no more or no less special than any other day of the week, it is and always will be.

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