Saturday, 28 October 2017

What Is Ministry?

One of the hardest things, in my experience, about trying to explain Quaker practice to those unfamiliar with it, is getting down and detailed about Meeting for Worship. Okay, so we sit in silence, and wait for the spirit to move someone to speak; that much sounds simple. I've written before, in some detail, with thoughts on how to tell if the spirit is moving you to speak. After that, though, once someone is speaking, how do we understand what has been said in that spoken ministry? Even assuming that everyone who stands to speak is genuinely moved to speak, there are several ways to think about this.
The most obvious one is at one extreme, that these are genuine, literal messages from God/the Spirit/the Divine/whatever you're calling it. That the words themselves are chosen for you, and the speaker is merely a conduit, with no responsibility for what is said. At the opposite extreme, perhaps the Spirit only gives the germ of an idea, and the compulsion to share it. Then the words are the choice of the person speaking, as they try to express an idea, possibly a very nebulous idea, that has been placed into their mind. I have spoken to Friends who view ministry at each of those extremes.
As is usually the case, however, when there are extreme points of view, there's also the possibility of ideas that lie between them. I suspect that most Friends lie somewhere in that in-between space, as indeed do I, but there's a lot of variation possible. Ultimately, however, all such positions amount to something of the form that ministry is a collaboration between the individual and the Spirit.
For those with a traditionally theistic view, that might mean that God and the individual cooperate to produce the final form of a piece of ministry; to those with a near totally materialistic view, this might mean that a person's subconscious “divine” is cooperating with their conscious, rational mind. For myself, it is a cooperation between the essence of the Divine in the individual, possibly in some degree of gestalt with that of others, with the ego-mind – that is, the part of the mind we most readily recognise as our conscious self – including both rational and creative parts of that mind.
What do I mean by a collaboration, in the way I see it? It is not merely a seed planted by the Divine that the mind works out on its own, as in the most person-focussed extreme presented above, nor is it the Divine working through a person and making all the choices of word and phrasing, as in the most Divine-focussed extreme. It is not that the Divine makes some of the choices, leaves them there for the person to work through, and perhaps signals approval or disapproval through some impulse in the individual. Rather, it is a two-way collaboration; the Divine reveals more of its contribution as the individual works through it with their ego-mind.
This fits the observation, made by myself and many other Friends I have talked with, that sometimes, when one stands to minister, one doesn't know exactly where it is going. You know what you're going to say to begin with, and have a general sense of where the ministry is going, but you don't know precisely where it will go immediately. In my experience, this is not some power controlling my mouth when it reaches the unknown parts, but a power directing my thoughts down certain lines, and leaving it to me to figure out the hard bits; I do not have to think hard for the words to every phrase, but sometimes pause to consider how best to put what must come next – and sometimes, occasionally, a phrase comes to mind to use without any effort on my part.
I know some Friends will recognise this description of the experience of being given ministry from their own experience, and I don't doubt that others will see it differently. As with so many things, the richness of all of our experiences is enhanced by the sharing of the differences between those experiences.
But I do not stop here. For ministry is not limited to spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship. Many of us express our faith and our religious experience through other sorts of ministry, whether it is in writing, such as my written ministry found elsewhere on this blog, or in action in the world, such as the pursuit of Concerns for human rights, disarmaments, economic justice, asylum seekers' & refugees' welfare, or so many other causes that occupy the time and effort of faithful Friends.
For any such effort, followed faithfully, will continue to be a collaboration between the person concerned and the Divine, making use of our own gifts in service of those missions set by the Spirit and accepted by those acting under Concern, or otherwise following the leadings of the Divine. For one working in advocacy for a disadvantaged group, the Spirit will give inspiration and leadings on where to focus, but rely on that person's gifts to execute those tasks. The Spirit will strengthen our will and aid us in persistence, but will make use of our skills and our intellect where those are needed for the task. Just so, I believe that my written ministry is inspired by the Spirit, guided by it, and my own abilities enhanced by the love and power that flows from it – but my own talent for writing, such as it is, continues to be utilized, a vital component of the collaboration between the Divine and myself.
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