A familiar scene: Bright morning sunlight streams in through the glass of paint-chipped windows of a Friends’ meetinghouse, a simple room filled with wooden benches and quiet people. Someone rises to speak, trembling under the weight of God’s message, embodying our long-standing nickname, “Quaker.” Then the speaker’s words set off a wave of smirking and eye-rolling: “I read in the New York Times this morning . . .” And we wonder, did this Friend really receive a message from the Inner Light about the opinion pages? Are they maybe a bit too fond of their own voice? A bit too fixated on their favorite world issue?
I have been that person, sitting and silently judging someone else’s vocal ministry about a news article or a Facebook post. In fact, I sometimes feel very critical of spoken ministry during Quaker worship, and I often feel guilty about feeling so critical. I think it is healthy to be a skeptical to a point, but I’m pretty sure I take it too far sometimes. I know that I myself find it hard to tell whether a message I feel moved to share is actually coming from that of God in my heart, or whether it comes from a more mundane source. Thus, I am trying to practice the tricky task of being forgiving of others who face a similar difficulty.
Clearly, the Spirit moves us in an immense variety of ways. A message based on a story from National Public Radio is not necessarily a selfish or venal message. Of course God can speak in the form of stories about news articles, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos. And yet, I admit that I am often more skeptical about the divinity of someone’s message if it includes some form of news or social media.
In trying to discern the source of this prejudice within myself, I found one clue in a phenomenon I observed at the beginning of this past summer. As numerous Quakers in my community asked me what I was planning to do after graduating from college, I told them that I was planning on splitting my time between working for my family’s construction and real estate business while helping a friend with her organic vegetable farm in a suburb of Denver. The reactions among Friends between those two different tasks was remarkable and almost universal: people were pleased that I was helping my family and excited about all the gardening that I would learn, but hardly a word was said about contributing to the work of real estate.
My belief is that, among left-leaning Friends, certain professions are valued more than others based on romanticized views of old-fashioned, low-paid service. Teachers, artists, and non-profit workers are lifted up, while lawyers, landlords, and accountants are quietly looked down upon. Of course there are exceptions (medical professionals, for example), but it is my belief that among liberal Quakers, being in a line of work that makes a lot of money puts a person in the same category as ethically shady oppressors and evil venture capitalists.
Although mistrust of money and power is often warranted (and necessary if we are to dismantle structures of oppression), I suspect that my Quakerly distrust of lucrative professions has affected my attitude toward vocal ministry about Facebook posts. I seem to be ingrained with an attitude that connects news media and digital social networks to all things powerful and modern, and that connects old-fashioned, humble activities to all things sacred and timeless. When someone stands in meeting to share a story about a revelation experienced during a walk through the woods, some part of me thinks, “How timeless! I’ll bet George Fox and John Woolman had similar revelations while walking outside.” When someone tells a story about a gripping podcast they heard on their commute to work, I think, “Hmm, early Friends didn’t have smartphones or Ira Glass or Sarah Koenig.” Then I feel a bit hypocritical about my dismissive attitude, because I have usually heard and enjoyed the podcast in question. (I admit that I listen to an awful lot of National Public Radio.)
The fact of the matter is that we don’t live in Fox’s era of Quakerism or even in the 20th-century era of Quakerism. We are a part of the fabric of 21st-century Quakerism, and news media, digital media, and social media are all threads that hold us closely. Maasai folk in Kenya use cell phones to make bank payments; homeless folk in the U.S. search for free wifi hotspots in public places. Is it really so absurd to think that it might be God who is nudging us to share ministry about our friends’ Facebook rants?
The Friends Committee on National Legislation understands 21st-century Quakerism. There are Twitter and Instagram hashtags for every Quaker lobby event in Washington, D.C., and moments of silent worship begin FCNL’s conference-call business meetings. I have arrived at the conclusion that ministry can sometimes be dispersed in the form of a tweet, an email, or a text message. As media evolves, so must our faith and practice, even while a fondness for the purity of the good ol’ fashioned way creeps into my mind. I do relish the act of pulling weeds from the soil with my bare hands.
It may be true that some Friends like to hear the sound of their own voices a bit too dearly. It is possible that some of my skepticism about other Friends’ vocal ministry actually comes from a place of integrity. But it is also clear to me that I should try my best to set aside my cynicism and listen for the media of the divine in all of its many different forms. ~~~
Damon Motz-Storey is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado (IMYM). He is an alumnus of Haverford College and is currently working as a Program Assistant for the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility in Portland, Oregon, sponsored by Quaker Voluntary Service.