I’ve been a Quaker nearly all my life, and in attending dozens of different Quaker meetings for worship, most but not all of them “unprogrammed,” I feel fortunate to have experienced many varieties of vocal ministry. I wish I could remember all of the messages offered to my ears in the worship we shared! But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way it felt the first time that I, myself, was moved to speak.
I was far from home and in college at the time, attending the Quaker meeting that was across a footbridge from campus. While many Sunday mornings I’d bring to worship whatever problem or question I was trying to work out in my head, something happened one morning that was completely unexpected. Settling into the silence, I found myself awash in memory. I began to recall a receiving line at the Quaker meeting where I grew up. It had been coffee hour after meeting when I was perhaps 12 or 13 years old. Sybil, an elder in the meeting, was at the end of her life, and Friends were coming by to say their goodbyes and to share what would probably be a last interaction with her. I was with my father in line. When it was our turn, he and Sybil exchanged a few words, and then I remember her taking my hands in hers, which felt cool and papery, engraved with the map of a long life well-lived. She looked at my dad and told him, “You have a wonderful son.” He replied, “I know.”
I don’t remember whether I cried then and there, but I do every time I recall this moment. And that morning as a homesick first-year college student in a deepening Quaker meeting for worship, I seemed to sense a deep message of generational love. While the memory was definitely mine, as I explored it in my mind and heart, it became increasingly clear that the message was not just for me, but for all. I can’t tell you what words came out of my mouth when I finally rose to speak, but I remember the trembling. I wished I could resist. After I sat back down, I felt awash, dazed and exhilarated. Someone after the rise of meeting thanked me “for my faithfulness,” which has always struck me as the perfect compliment and affirmation for Quakers’ vocal ministry: not for the message itself, but for the discernment in allowing that of God within to filter through and outward to the gathered community.
Collected in this issue of Friends Journal are essays on vocal ministry that I hope everyone, whether you are new to Quakers or not, will find illuminating and, if you can believe it, practical, as well. You’ll read how Friends describe the process of preparing oneself for the possibility of giving ministry, but also the process of preparing oneself for the possibility of receiving it in the context of Quaker worship. A deeper, more gathered, more soulful experience of communal worship could await you!