Open the Channel

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To celebrate the release of my third solo album, I played a big concert (of course). This was in 2016. I remember the nearly sold-out crowd gathering in the swanky Portland club and me, sitting in the back stairwell behind the stage, trying desperately not to barf, trying to ground back into my shaking-with-adrenaline body. Part of my difficulty lay in knowing that the people buying cocktails and chatting with their friends were there for a little Saturday night entertainment, while I was there to do battle – a spiritual warrior, fighting my way through self-doubt, fear, and a broken culture’s demands that I be small and obedient and perfect.

I have been performing my whole life. People assume it is natural and easy for me to be on stage. But it is the greatest struggle of my life and one that Spirit insists I face.

The difficulties of writing songs are joyful ones. I would gladly live my life tucked away in the forest by the sea, listening for the voices of trees and stones, learning the melodies of the land. Finding communion with the sacred through my cello and my voice – this comes with relative ease in such wild, solitary places. But when I put my ear to the ground and pray, Her voice is clear and commanding: Take these songs out into the world. Give them, give them, give them. Sing them to the politicians running your city; play them for the activists locked down to the train tracks; teach them to the people living in prison. Sing yourselves back to wholeness together.

So I was in that stairwell behind the stage, hearing the waves of laughter and tinkle of ice, pleading with my teacher, the western red cedar, to steady my legs with the gift of strong roots; imploring the hummingbird to loan me his courage; laying my life at the feet of the Holy One, saying: I am terrified, but I am yours. Fill me. Use me.

When I was traveling last fall to prisons in Oregon, I came to understand more deeply the razor’s edge that we must walk to be faithful. This tour involved taking a modern retelling of Homer’s Iliad, for which I’d written a score for solo cello, into the prisons. After each performance, our director joined me and the actor on “stage” for the talkback. Our post-show conversations, between the three of us and the folks living in prison, were intimate and incredibly intense. On two occasions during those five weeks of touring, I found myself failing to speak something aloud that Spirit was clearly telling me to say, complete with hammering heart.

It has been my habit, when it comes to vocal ministry, to err on the side of biting my tongue. The mortification I anticipate at the prospect of outrunning my guide, of speaking out of turn or not truly in line with Spirit’s prompting, has always felt far riskier than passing up an opportunity to deliver vocal ministry. Until now. When the gates of those prisons slammed behind me, when I left my kin, my brothers, members of my community withheld from me and made to sleep in cages, my chance to offer them that holy transmission was gone – really gone.

Reflecting on it now, I realize that those occasions were no different than ones in my own meeting, when I’ve failed to answer the call to stand and speak. Even in my own familiar meetinghouse, never again will that particular group of people be gathered together in just that state, at just that moment in their lives, ready to hear the particular words I’m being led to say. The stakes in the prison felt higher because I was among people starving for beauty, kindness, and connection. But the heartbreak of my occasions of failure there laid bare a truth to me: God asking me to use my voice is always important; my faithfulness is always necessary.

So the substance of my work, my music, and my life is to express the Truth that is given me to share. With this profound task as my day job, I find it hard to write press releases, update my website, and post constantly on social media, reminding everyone in the world that they should come to my cool show. If I am to “keep low,” as early Friends encouraged, if I am to stay humble and give my life in service to God, how then do I follow God’s leading to give my ministry to the world?

The culture of celebrity worship that infects the music industry – where I have worked my whole life – does not merely infuse clubs and arenas and YouTube; it infuses all aspects of our lives; it infuses The Religious Society of Friends. Not only do we have our own Quaker celebs; we are active participants in a capitalist, celebrity-obsessed society. Though many Friends may follow and support “wholesome” celebrities, the formula is the same. The algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, and the whole World Wide Web are telling most Friends which people exist and which people to pay attention to. When I heed Spirit’s instruction to put my ministry into the world, I find myself competing with Netflix, NPR, and Spotify. It seems that faithfulness, in this case, involves having a good marketing strategy.

At its root, advertising is simply a way to let people know about something they might find interesting or useful. My Luddite soul longs for handset type on broadsides, and to pass those out in the crowd on market day and let my neighbors know that I’ll be playing some songs for them this weekend. But the market in 2019 is on steroids. Triple steroids. I have only a split second of your attention while you are navigating the sea of colors and noises online, only a split second to let you know I have something meaningful to share with you. And by even entering this arena, I am making myself a commodity.

My music is not just my ministry. It’s my livelihood. My effort to get people to come to my concerts and buy my records is both answering God’s call and putting food on my table. At this point, most of my income comes from teaching cello lessons and playing recording sessions with rock bands. Although those recording gigs keep me connected in the music business, they are largely a distraction from my leading to midwife and shepherd into the world the Spirit-gifted songs that come through me.

Launching a page on the website Patreon, where supporters can make automatic monthly contributions to my work, has been an attempt at faithfulness – to establish some ongoing material support for my ministry, so that it can have more of my time and attention. But establishing and growing that page require me to continually generate new content for it, to “expand my online presence.” And I must meet these demands on top of similar ongoing work to keep things fresh on Facebook and Instagram, keep my website current, and create regular updates for my mailing list. A small-business development grant helped me buy some equipment: video camera, tripod, lighting kit, and digital recorder. Now I face a huge investment of my time and attention learning to use these tools to create the images, sound clips, and videos that will let people know what I’m doing.

This avalanche of demands precipitates occasional breakdowns. I was meeting with my anchor committee as I reached one such tipping point. “What does any of this have to do with the songs?” I wailed. I don’t want to be a videographer, a lighting designer, a sound engineer, a publicist. And what does it mean if, in fact, “the medium is the message”? My message has nothing to do with social media or showcasing my ego. I just want people to gather in rooms with me – or better, in forests – and experience the connective power of music. I want to help create real human experiences – sharing how music can heal us, transform us, metabolize our grief. How it can help us know our own power and the power of Spirit moving through us. How does making videos for the Internet help get us there? Doesn’t that just encourage people to keep sitting in front of their screens, mindlessly consuming? But how are people supposed to support and participate in what I’m doing if they don’t even know I exist?

And along with all those existential concerns, I feel my personal human reluctance to get in front of cameras, talk to the World Wide Web, plaster my face and words and music all over social media. I’m not pretty enough, I find myself thinking. I’m not articulate enough. I’m not talented enough. How arrogant, to think everyone should look at me and listen to me! What will people think – that I’m a narcissist?

This self-deprecation and self-loathing sit on the flip side of arrogance. They inflate our sense of the importance of who we are – in a negative direction instead of a positive one. A constant struggle of Friends who are called to prophetic ministry has long been to try to stay right-sized – to avoid becoming over-inflated by self-importance when feeling the power of the Holy Spirit, but instead recognizing that we are simply vessels. But we must also steer clear of vain obsessions with our perceived failures or inadequacies. Such false modesty keeps us from perceiving the Truth of our perfect usefulness as conduits for Spirit.

If I have learned anything on my spiritual path, it is that I am not in charge. My mind, though a useful tool, is untrustworthy as a decider. When I gather up my mess of questions and doubts and opinions about the communications strategies that confront me and harass me, when I lay them before Spirit with a sense of expectant listening, she says: OPEN THE CHANNEL.

I certainly don’t understand what Quakers’ relationships with technology and marketing should be, or how other ministers should handle self-promotion. But for this Friend, in this moment, I see that my own resistance to marketing is a clog in the flow of Divine Love, a love that longs to move through me and into the world.  ~~~

Anna Fritz is a cello-wielding activist folksinger. She is also a released friend with a music ministry under the care of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, Oregon. You can learn more about her work at annafritz.com and support her ministry at patreon.com/annafritz.