Walk Tall: Spoken Ministry among Friends

I came out of the grocery store carrying a small bag and almost immediately spoke in meeting. There, not 50 feet from the entry, was my car, passenger’s side back window smashed and inside a young man frantically trying to remove the anti-theft lock on the steering wheel. "What are you doing?" I offered as vocal ministry. Hastily he jumped out of my car and dove into the passenger’s side of a waiting guard car that looked exactly like mine. They sped away, and I was left to pick up the pieces of the violation.
Although I now refer to my words as vocal ministry, the designation did not occur to me until the following weekend when I met in retreat with other members of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel Committee. To me, the core of vocal ministry is someone being used by the Inner Light/Holy Spirit to recall self and others to our rightful place with the Truth. Since our natural state is grounded in being good, it is in this readjustment that we are set free from the world and its temptations.

Perhaps this core explanation is too esoteric for those not steeped in the Quaker tradition. Heaven knows that when it comes to vocal ministry most liberal Friends meetings give minimal guidance to those who gather with us. (I do not refer to those with whom I worship as unprogrammed Friends because any group that ritually starts and ends at the same hour of the 168 hours in a week is indeed as programmed as the software I am using to write this article. Without our commitment to programming meeting for worship, how else would so many attenders and guests know when the possibility of divine contact is heightened?)

I believe that vocal ministry is best when it is as stripped of programming as is humanly possible. Whether spoken or sung, in prose or verse, when uttered in the dominant language of those in expectant waiting, the attempted translation should be of something that originated in the Divine, not the New York Times, The Economist, National Public Radio, or the president of the United States. As well, it should be concise and framed in silence, perhaps rough-edged, or even sharp, but never mean-spirited.

Many of us despise "popcorn meetings," but I do not define all sessions where one speaker follows another as "popcorn." I define a popcorn meeting as one in which one speaker gives no chance for reflection when she or he rises for the next offering. Such a meeting could have as few as two back-to-back speakers in a 60-minute period. Even if the second speaker seems to build upon what has been previously shared, it is not enough. Where there is silence-framed vocal ministry, it is conceivable that eight or more speakers could speak in a gathered meeting for worship. However, our meetings are intended to be prayerful, and Quaker prayer stresses listening. This is different from what most people consider prayer, which is either words of supplication or gratitude. The Peculiar People attempts to listen to the Divine and trusts that there is that spark in those beyond ourselves, including the others in the meeting. Among all people of faith, talking over the Divine is blatant sacrilege.

On occasion in meeting for worship, I have heard the Still Small Voice speaking through early Quaker writings, Faith and Practice, the Bible, old and new poetry. By introducing a "prop" we are not automatically yielding to a staged ministry. The one who prays best is also the one who attempts to pray constantly. If the Inner Light can use us in a grocery store parking lot, surely we can be used in the meetinghouse. The key is to remember that we are to be the used; we are not the user. In worship, "speak when spoken through" is a good discipline. We are not called to enter into the Presence committed either to speaking or not speaking. No one has given us the right to dictate actions to the Divine.

The object of our lives is neither the First-day meeting’s silence nor the sound of our own voice. The object is obedience to the Divine. Borrowing the title of a Cannonball Adderly composition, to "Walk Tall" means to be cheerful in all weathers. We are called to cheer to good behavior the common thieves, the searching worshipers, the self, wherever we may be.

I circle back to a question posited above: "How else would so many attenders and guests know when the possibility of Divine contact is heightened?" The best way to teach others the Divine Will is by constantly practicing our faith. Each act is a prayer that others will do the same. To revolutionize this violent, racist, sexist world, we must align the other 167 hours with divine focus. Anything short of that dishonors our spiritual foreparents and our own life and times. In the final analysis we are co-creators with the Divine.

Dwight L. Wilson

Dwight L. Wilson is a member of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meeting, the headmaster of Friends School in Detroit, and a former general secretary of Friends General Conference.