Listening Lessons

Only lunatics hear the voice of God—and saints (who don’t live around here anyway).

This I knew to be true as I was growing up. I heard many sermons in that time and I knew they were the result of hard work, not divine dictation. So it was momentarily a hard thing when I first heard an explanation of how a Quaker meeting for worship works. We sit together, calming ourselves, and listening for that still, small voice of God. But this news was hard only for a moment; I knew a metaphor when I heard one.

I came to Friends as a social activist. My pacifism grew out of my religious background, but I felt that background was largely outgrown. Quakers had a history of doing the right things and I was looking for the right actions, not the right words. It took me a while to become accustomed to the rhythms of an unprogrammed meeting, but eventually I found my place. There was much to think about in the messages given by others, and sometimes I, too, thought of something that was worth saying.

The Lunatic

About 15 years after becoming a Quaker, I was traveling and and went to meeting for worship in an old central city meeting. I sat down and tried to get centered. After about 15 minutes, a woman rose, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t have any idea what she was going to say. At my home meeting, I would have known if she was a frequent speaker or normally silent. I’d have known if she was considered a gifted minister or a rambling commentator. I didn’t know if she was Christocentric or Universalist, a regular attender or a visitor like me. Instead of listening to her in context, I had to rely on her words alone. I had not really listened in meeting in this manner since I was a new attender. It took a while to adjust. Fortunately, years of listening to a variety of people speak in meeting had given me the necessary tools. She wasn’t exactly like anyone else I had heard before, but she was like some in some ways and like others in other ways. By the time she sat down, I had her figured out. I thought I understood her message.

A little later, a man in a leather jacket stood up. I hadn’t noticed him earlier— he didn’t stick out in the meeting—but when he spoke, it was obvious he was different. His ministry was a torrent of words and images. He talked of his life and his troubles. And he talked, and he talked, and he talked. Back home, I might have known his circumstances, which branch of the Quaker family to put him in, and how to listen to him. When he said "God," for example, I could have translated that into one of the standard categories. I would have filtered his words, picking out the important ones and leaving the rest alone. I would have known whether or not to pay attention as he went on, and on, and on. But, there were too many words and too many images, too much to store and too much to process. I gave up and stopped paying attention.

I tried to sink back into a quiet place inside, but his voice kept intruding. He was too loud and too harsh to block out. I could ignore the words, but the sound of his message broke through. Slowly, I realized that I could understand him better now that I wasn’t trying to listen. He said that he was homeless and alone—not just physically, but spiritually. He said that he felt forsaken.

I was stunned. Not by what he said, but by the realization that I would never have heard him in my home meeting. All the Quaker listening habits I had developed would have pigeonholed him and his message. When I stopped thinking about what he was saying and accidentally opened myself to listening naively, it became possible for his words to get around my preconceptions and for his message to strike home.
This was my first lesson in listening.


Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?"

This phrase from George Fox is often quoted as if it means, "Don’t tell me what the Scriptures say, tell me what you know yourself." As a liberal Quaker, I accepted this interpretation, until I read the passage in context.

The quote doesn’t come directly from George Fox but is in the writings of Margaret Fell Fox. It describes the first time she heard George Fox speak in public. He was in the church she attended and, following the custom of the day, he had risen after the minister’s sermon to add his own comments. Margaret Fell reports that George Fox commented on the Bible passage that had been the focus of the minister’s sermon.

And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, "The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord." And said, "Then what had any to do with the Scriptures but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?"

This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried to the Lord, "We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves."

Margaret Fell knew what was being required of her. George Fox was not calling on his listeners to put down their Bibles, but to read it with their minds and hearts open to it in an extraordinary way. He called on people to open themselves to the Spirit that the writers had known when they wrote. Don’t read intellectually and analytically, George Fox said.

Read to hear the voice of God the way the writer heard it.

Unless we get beyond and beneath the words and come to know the Scriptures directly, we don’t know them at all. We don’t own them; we are just stealing the words for our own use. George Fox’s message is not to ignore the Bible and think for ourselves, but to allow it to possess us—to let it serve as a window into the mind of God.

And this was my second lesson in listening.

Ordinary People

It took me a while to figure out what George Fox might have really meant. I’m not a saint, but there have been times over the years when I have felt the presence of something beyond what I can see and touch and wrap my mind around. Even then, I didn’t know what it was like for a prophet or an evangelist to be "in the Spirit." Isn’t there a special Spirit for them and an ordinary kind for the rest of us?

Understanding has come only in remembering the struggles I have had in trying to grasp those glimmers of the Divine. What I feel can’t be put into words. It’s not a thought. It’s not an idea. It’s inspiration—literally an in-breathing of a kind of air I don’t often encounter. There is more content in those too-brief flashes than I could put in all the world’s words. And yet, sometimes I speak in meeting. It is a struggle, but one I have no choice in entering—pulling out one inadequate word after another until God releases me.

It used to be so easy to look at speaking in meeting as an intellectual exercise. It used to be so easy to believe that it was just that for others, too. I heard others’ messages as the products of their minds and depended on my own mind to receive and understand them. The man in the leather jacket taught me to surrender my intellect and let the message minister to my soul. George Fox awakened me to look beyond and beneath the words and the speaker to the source—not only to read Scripture in the Spirit, but to listen to messages in meeting for the Spirit that inspired them. I am learning to feel each speaker’s struggle to make words adequate. I am learning to listen to each person—perhaps most of all to those I like the least—as if each voice were the voice of God.

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley is a Quaker historian and theologian living in Richmond, Indiana, where he attends Clear Creek Meeting.