I am on vacation for two weeks back East in Massachusetts and Maine to be with family, so I missed writing my Saturday Evening Post last week (and likely to miss this Saturday as well). However, while here I finished a formal piece I submitted to Christian Century in response to an open request for a personal essay to there word prompt of “Quake.” So I decided to share what I wrote for the Christian Century as my weekly SEP. As you will note is written in a different style. I welcome your responses.
Like other members of the Religious Society of Friends I often personally experience the “quaking” that led the authorities at the time of our founding in the1600’s to mock and belittle Friends when they shook while offering vocal ministry during worship or in public testimony. In time we embraced the term as recognition of the Spirit that so passionately moves us to speak, and thus we became “Quakers.”
While I may not obviously “quake” when I give a message during meeting for worship, or when I testify before the legislature or at a controversial meeting, I have learned to especially trust my readiness to speak when I am accompanied by a visceral, internal, “quaking” need to respond.
Many of my “quaking” messages during Quaker worship are initiated by what we Friends call a “concern” such as an injustice that has moved my conscience in my prison ministry. Or I may speak about my gratitude for life’s blessings and joys as well as the concerns about the hardships of friends and the world. In each experience I am usually moved to speak because I feel nudged by some level of physical charge.
I also try to be aware of a visceral motivation when I speak extemporaneously in public as a means of discerning if Spirit is moving through me. In my role as Executive Director of the Maine Council of Churches I was once asked to speak to the state American Baptist leadership on the topic of gay rights. Although I had a prepared talk, as I listened to the prior conservative speaker making disparaging statements about those who supported gay rights, I became increasingly aware I needed to put aside my prepared remarks and just come down from the pulpit and speak as personally, honestly and directly as I could. Prompted by my “quaking,” I found myself describing as a kid how so deeply immersed I was in various forms of homophobic put downs. I said I did not respond adequately at the time because I was afraid of being identified as gay or homosexual (although I don’t think I even knew words beyond the slurs for it at the time.) And I spoke about how difficult it had been for me over the years to work through my prejudices and to recognize how harmful they have been to me personally - and, as I later found out, of course, to my gay high school classmates. As I spoke I noted a number of the men in the audience shook their heads in agreement. I remember myself “quaking” during this whole encounter out of my personal and professional vulnerability. But I think that was one of the most important speeches I made during my twenty years of leadership.
Most of the time, however, my preparation for sharing a Spirit-led message follows a fairly consistent pattern. When I find myself receiving or generating what I believe may be a Spirit-led message, my first response often is resistance because I feel so vulnerable and reluctant to break the meeting silence.
So I must first test whether it is authentically Spirit-led or just a passing musing. Is my intended message simply an expression of my ego? Is it meant for the whole meeting or simply out of my need to share my personal thoughts? I check my watch to see if there is still time for a message. I anxiously ask myself: Do I really need to speak? Am I reasonably clear about the central message I want to explore? How might it begin…and end? A message quickly begins to take shape. I continue to reflect on what I might say. I may feel agitated and anxious; my breathing may quicken. Finally I sense I really do need to rise and speak. Or not. A final check. I wait a few moments more. Finally when I do rise to speak my legs often quiver a bit, especially if my message is deeply felt, and I am being particularly vulnerable. When I sit down I often feel weakened and spent, or what the Quakers call “well used." I may or may not even remember what I said if asked later to repeat my message. If I am faithful to this process my message feels more than my own.
I hasten to add, of course, that all messages, including my own, are not always so dramatically inspired and disciplined, although surprisingly, they usually are. There is always the temptation to share less than Spirit-led messages about political concerns or the latest interesting piece from NPR. But the meeting as a whole tries to model and experience Spirit-led messages, and we learn to know the difference. We especially thank folks for their heartfelt, personal messages, especially from those who may seem too shy or reluctant to speak. I am most moved by simple messages from those speaking tentatively, perhaps for the first time, as they share publicly how Spirit has moved in their lives.
My Quaker faith and practice centers on the expectant waiting for Spirit to move in and through my everyday life, and by extension though the life of my community and my public life The practice of giving and receiving Spirit-led vocal ministry is a foundational part of that experience. So, yes, I do still often “quake” as the spirit moves in my various forms of ministry.
After serving for twenty years as the Executive Director of the Maine Council of Churches, Tom Ewell retired to Whidbey Island, WA, where he continues a career in ecumenical peace and justice ministry with a specially of criminal justice reform . He offers a weekly “Saturday Night Post” blog on contemporary faith and practice at firstname.lastname@example.org.