It is one thing to understand words, testimonies, and descriptions; and it is another matter to understand, know, enjoy, possess, and live in that which the words relate to, describe, and bear witness of.
– Isaac Penington, 1670
The word of the LORD came to Jonah. . .
– Jonah 1:1
A defining aspect of Quaker worship is the silence, the waiting, the stillness we use when we gather together for our meetings for worship. We stop making noise, quiet ourselves, and thus open ourselves to the “still, small voice” of our Inward Teacher.
Yet I am convinced that there are words we need to hear from one another, if we are to be faithful Quaker communities. Recently I decided to give this some attention, and because I am trained in the scientific method, my first step is to categorize, to separate, to make distinctions. In this little essay you will read my early attempt to understand and clarify the words we need to speak, and the words we need to hear. I have ranked them in increasing order of something that I haven’t quite named well: Importance? Weightiness? Value to the community? I’ll come back to that quandary after presenting my list and a few comments.
Note: I presented these ideas at a workshop at the 2021 annual sessions of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. Workshop participants encouraged my writing of this piece. In addition, my local meeting, West Hills Friends (in Portland, Oregon) approved this minute at a recent business meeting: “West Hills Friends endorses Julie Peyton’s essay on ‘Words,’ for distribution beyond West Hills Friends. We commend to all a consideration of this work, springing from her concern for a deeper expression of Quaker foundations in our lives.”
1. Announcements We need these to know what’s going on, and when and where to show up. An added benefit is that the service of sharing an announcement is relatively easy and non-threatening — it can be a simple way for a new attender to feel a part of the meeting. After a few months attending West Hills, I felt comfortable enough to tell Friends that we (my spouse and I) were about to celebrate a wedding anniversary. It was the first time I’d spoken to the group on a Sunday morning. The warm reception of this simple announcement started building my sense of connection to the community.
2. Reports We need these to hear what Friends are doing that is life-giving and inspiring and bringing the Kingdom here and now. Again, these can be an easy way to step into speaking to our communities. When I listen to a Friend reporting on work being done, I feel like I am participating in that effort. When the one bringing a report is met with a listening and attentive audience, the speaker is encouraged and the community is edified. Something more than mere communication of information happens.
3. “Joys and Concerns” or Prayer Requests We need to share our lives with each other, to share what is important to us, so that we are known and seen by our Friends. These words are, or can be, a little more self-revealing, and thus require a good amount of trust and risk.
4. Teaching and Education We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in each generation. Let’s learn from those who’ve gone before and contemporary Friends who have gathered good information: Bible study, sermons, devotional reading, the history of racism in our country and communities, the lives and witness of Early Friends, workshops on anti-racism, etc. Quakerism is a skills-based religion, and as such requires some training and practice. (That statement is certainly worth an essay and much discussion in its own right!)
5. Testimony and Testifying We need to tell each other how the Spirit is moving in us as individuals, how we are being transformed by the Presence to do our work in the world, and thus spreading our hope and transformation among the group. Our stories are powerful. West Hills Friends has this great bit of programming called “First Word,” which schedules a few minutes at the beginning of our meeting for one person to tell us a story of their spiritual life. In my experience, frequently, this has been the highlight of the morning’s gathering. It also serves as a sort of “right of passage,” when a newer attender steps forward to tell us something of their spiritual journey. I’ll say it again: Our stories of faith are powerful, and they build the community.
6. Vocal Ministry When we gather together in Quaker waiting worship, sometimes a Word is given, coming through one (or more) Friends, bringing immediacy, Power, and Life to the gathered meeting. All the prior words can be prepared and carefully thought through, but Vocal Ministry is given by the grace of God. This is the bit that is almost unique to our tradition. We address the gathered community, speaking with the authority of our Guide. It is an awesome responsibility. Most of us have experienced this and understand why Friends were nicknamed “Quakers.”
Many spoken words can fit more than one category. An announcement can include a concern, a report can be a testimony, and so on. It could well be that Joys and Concerns are more important to the community than Teaching and Education, as one of my dear Friends argued, but the latter might have a more foundational effect for the long term. Testimony should be a part of our Quaker education – some might think of this as “narrative theology.” The observant reader might also wonder where singing fits in. There are lots of conversations to be had about this list.
But . . . I want and need to distinguish, to set apart, to prioritize Vocal Ministry. The need to pay special attention here is more necessary, perhaps, among programmed Friends than unprogrammed Friends. As programmed Friends, we fill much of our time together with words we’ve prepared beforehand. It is my observation (and here I need to be so careful!) that much of what I have heard spoken in our periods of silent, waiting worship is actually not Vocal Ministry, but rather, emotional responses triggered by statements shared earlier in the meeting or by items in the mainstream news.
That doesn’t mean that those messages didn’t need to be spoken. I repeat: Many messages that are not Vocal Ministry do need to be said aloud and heard by those present. But when Friends see no other opportunity to speak such words, they sometimes speak them into the stillness of our waiting worship.
My key point is this: All the different types of words we share with each other are vital to our faith. Everyone has something to say that we need to hear. We need to make the time, to create the space in our schedule, for all contributions. But… We typically spend just one to two hours together on a First Day morning.
The word of the Lord can come to us, as it came to Jonah, but only if we devote enough time listening together for it. As Penington advises, we must first place ourselves “in that which the words relate to” before we can hear them. Our highest priority as Friends must be to protect enough quiet space for Vocal Ministry to flourish among us. ~~~
Julie Peyton is a member of West Hills Friends.
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