Years ago, when I went to my first Quaker Meeting, a friend told me to just sit and listen. It was a large Meeting, and the silence was powerful. Yet several individuals rose and spoke from the heart during the worship hour. Later I asked my Quaker friend whether she spoke in Meeting. Rarely, she said. She had been taught to stand and speak “only if what you have to say moves you so deeply, you just can’t stay in your seat.”
For many years I didn’t speak during the worship hour – I just listened as other Quakers shared their vocal ministry, often eloquent and riveting. Sometimes the messages started with personal anecdotes, sometimes with musings on a theme, occasionally with a quote from the Bible or another spiritual text. Many, whether brief or extended, bloomed into something universal and important. One woman rose and said simply, “I have to remember my wants are not the same as my needs.” A man told a winding story about his father’s search for God, only to conclude with the revelation that his father had died the day before and the man hoped his father now had his answer.
Understandably, deciding whether to share thoughts or a message can be difficult. If everyone is too circumspect, then the Meeting goes quiet and loses the wonderful perspectives and sharing of vocal ministry. But if too many jump up and share thoughts that haven’t properly seasoned, then Meeting can lose the vital foundation of silent contemplation. The Quaker Lanny Jay says: “There is no question of one’s worthiness to speak, or of the importance of the message. Rather, the matter at hand is the source of the message. Is it coming from the Friend who would speak, or through him or her? Is it for the Meeting as then and there gathered, or is the message not yet ripe, or meant to be kept to oneself, or better shared after Meeting with a more select audience?”
In the magazine Quaker Life, Stan Thornburg suggests Friends consider the following questions before rising to speak: Is the message from the Holy Spirit and not just from you? Is it intended for anyone besides you? Is it intended for anyone beyond the last speaker? Is it intended to be shared in this Meeting right now? Will others likely mistake the message for a political statement, lecture or personal announcement? Is the message truly one God is asking you to share? And, finally, must you speak?
We all have wisdom and questions and soul to share with the Meeting. The wonder and mystery of vocal ministry lies in its variety and heartfulness. May we all continue to speak out of the silence, and to one another.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.