God is to be worshipped in spirit, in his own power and life, and this is at his own disposal. His church is a gathering in the Spirit. If any speak there, they must speak as the oracle of God, as the vessel out of which God speaks; as the trumpet out of which he gives the sound. Therefore there is to be a waiting in silence till the Spirit of the Lord move to speak, and also give words to speak. For we are not to speak our own words, or in our own wisdom or time; but the Spirit’s words, in the Spirit’s wisdom and time, which is when he moves and gives to speak.
~ Isaac Penington
The Greek sentence pictured above means, “The Word was God.” In Christian theology, that Word is identified with Jesus of Nazareth; but the word of God can simply mean a message from God to humankind. The message might be written down, as in the Bible; or it might simply be spoken by a prophet and never actually recorded.
So, when Friends give vocal ministry in meeting, what they say is presumed to be from God or inspired by Spirit or—for non-theists—spoken from the depths of their being. Of course, Friends who think they’re giving genuine vocal ministry may be mistaken. They may be speaking a shallow, personal utterance that is not at all prophetic.
Thus, Penington recommends “a waiting in silence till the Spirit of the Lord move to speak.” Silence, then, is a preparation for vocal ministry; but silence per se is not the main point of worship. I’ve known several Friends who are annoyed when someone speaks in Meeting. They feel that their personal worship or meditation has been disturbed by words, be they ever so profound or spiritual. But Quaker worship is supposed to be communal, not a purely personal devotion.
Certainly, there are gathered meetings which pass entirely in silence and in which the entire worshipping community is moved by Spirit; but usually it is the spoken word that inspires people. Language is a distinctively human quality. It is language that separates us from animals and makes us “a little less than angels.” God uses words to communicate his will to us, and we must listen when God speaks.
Of course, Friends giving vocal ministry should not be over-proud of themselves. They should not feel they are special or more important than anyone else. God gives different gifts to different people, and ministers of the word are only “faithful servants.” I myself frequently speak in Meeting, but I’ve known several Friends who have never given vocal ministry but are better Quakers than I’ll ever be. As 1 Corinthians 13 says,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (NKJ)
Love, then, is the criterion by which we should measure the genuineness of a message spoken in Meeting. If the words given bring us together and heal divisions, they are from God.
I pray that Spirit give us many such messages.
~ Richard Russell
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