Meeting for worship is our basic Quaker practice. It is a communal experience where we gather together in expectant waiting for the movement of Spirit within and among us. We sit together, mostly silently, but occasionally a Friend rises to speak, which we call vocal ministry. When we are learning about Quaker practice, there is a fair amount taught about vocal ministry, such as: When is it appropriate to speak? When should we wait? Is the message for me only or for the group? We are urged to be as concise as possible and not to speak too often.
Although most of us rarely speak, we are all listeners. No one would give a message into an empty room. Vocal ministry involves everyone present. Although the Spirit creates the message and the speaker provides the words—the vocal part—it is the audience which transforms those words into ministry.
Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s (BYM) 1988 Faith and Practice says:
Friends approach the meeting for worship confidently, believing that God speaks directly to us, revealing Divine Will and guiding those who listen. Each worshiper becomes a listener ready to receive God’s message, which may come in the silence or in spoken words.
Speak as if God is listening. Listen as if God is speaking. Speak as if Spirit is speaking through you. Listen as if Spirit is listening through you.
There is surprisingly little written about how to listen to messages in worship, as if listening is so easy that nothing needs to be said. I maintain listening is a spiritual discipline that needs to be practiced mindfully and with as much intentionality and discernment as settling into the silence or speaking.
So, how do you listen to messages in meeting for worship in a way that transforms them into ministry? How do you hear the Divine speaking in the message? How do you “Mind that which is eternal, which gathers your hearts together up to the Lord, and lets you see that ye are written in one another’s heart,” as George Fox wrote in 1653?
I find this phrase a wonderfully helpful description of worship. This attitude helps create a positive tone where I hope to be led to a deeper connection with the Divine, both through my personal meditation and prayer, and also through any messages that are given. There are many disciplines of prayer and meditation which can help us to create an atmosphere of worship, so I won’t try to describe them all. For myself, I come with a different phrase, song, biblical quote, or prayer every few weeks. These help me to center and become open.
I like the practice of deliberately connecting with everyone in the room when I enter into worship, saying each person’s name to myself or carefully observing each presence as I glance around the room. I keep my eyes open during this process, but even if you are someone who likes to keep your eyes shut, you can be aware of the people around you. Meeting for worship is not private meditation; it is communion. We are manifesting the Divine because we are all together and willing to share our experience one with another. From the 1988 Baltimore Faith and Practice: “Each is aided by the seeking of others, so that worship becomes a corporate experience.”
When someone rises to speak, be grateful and curious. We have been striving to hear “the still, small voice within.” Now someone is doing us the favor of speaking that voice out loud. Silently, sincerely, thank them in your heart as they rise to speak, and again when they conclude. I rarely speak in worship, but I know the quaking feeling it entails. The speakers are brave souls.
Still your inner critic. Everything you may have read or heard about discerning whether you should rise and speak has zero relevance to the question of how to listen to the message. Assume that the speaker has done all the appropriate work and that they are channeling the Spirit in the meeting to the best of their ability. Your work is to discover how the message touches you—how God is reaching out to you through another’s voice.
Think and pray on what is said. I used to passively let the words wash over me, but now I actively try to engage with them to see where they lead me. Sometimes it is the emotions, more than the words, that need to be heard. Maybe pain or joy is the primary message. Often, I am able to distill a few key words, especially when more than one person speaks. Something is stirring among us when one message leads to another and then another, although it can be hard to connect them all. I am particularly appreciative of those with a gift for rising late in the worship to unify all the messages. I think we too easily disparage a “popcorn” meeting when we should be impressed with the Spirit bubbling up in and through so many people. How can we bring the kernel of these messages back into the silence before worship is over?
We need to listen to the spirit behind the words. Sometimes we have to translate phrases into something we understand better. If a message is too “New Age,” is there a Bible passage with a similar theme? If the message is too Christ-centered, can I find a Universalist theme instead? Does it sound too mundane, as if pulled from the newspaper or Facebook? Look to the eternal behind the everyday. Be careful. It is easy to get caught up in editing and lose the message. If we get too involved in disagreeing or correcting, we should let it pass like any other distraction. I can easily hear God in the birds outside or a child’s laugh, so the message does not have to be profound to be meaningful. We need to listen with love.
Ministry means service and healing. The easiest ministry is just to direct my thoughts inward and work on my own spiritual practice. For example, I can probably find something in my own life that is similar to the message of the speaker. It is more of a challenge to focus on what the message is telling me about the speaker, or what the words are telling me about the meeting as a group. Is there something I should be doing differently now that I have heard this message? Is there something the meeting could be doing? Do I need to hold the speaker in the Light? How might this message change me? How might it affect my relationships with others?
I freely admit that there are people I find easy to listen to and people who are more difficult to hear. But perhaps we get more spiritual benefit in this difficulty—just like a strenuous workout makes us more fit than an easy one. At the very least, I can project love and gratitude towards each speaker. Our careful listening can help all the speakers grow and improve their abilities. Even the best speakers were novices once.
Some people do not like to talk about the messages after worship, but I have found talking about the preceding worship often promotes spiritual dialogue. I have also heard the complaint that coffee hour can seem too superficial. When can we engage in deep spiritual dialogue? It is fun to speak with others about the messages; the conversation brings us closer as a spiritual community. For the people who spoke, I have found that they appreciate the acknowledgment, even as we remember that messages are brought to us through the Divine. Others often enjoy the opportunity to talk about how the messages touched them.
I invite you to experiment with participating fully in vocal ministry by listening with God’s ears.