One of the things I often feel led to do is give vocal ministry in closing worship at Quaker gatherings. This is challenging for me because I usually am pretty tired by that point. It is also hard for me to give messages in front of large groups of people, so I feel God working me pretty hard at these times. (I have written about this experience before, after speaking at North Pacific Yearly Meeting
and at the World Conference of Friends
Talking about vocal ministry is hard because Friends believe that the messages in meeting are from God. It would be easier if I could say that it is all God and I have nothing to do with it, but that is not true. The message is
from God, but God uses my voice and my experiences.
This is one of the reasons that daily spiritual practices are so important. I have heard Friends refer to this as "stocking the pantry"—making sure there is good food there for when you are ready to make a meal.
I am tempted to say that, when I give vocal ministry, it is 25% me and 75% God, but that does not feel right. Really, I think it is 100% me and
100% God—of course, God is much bigger than I am, so there is a lot more of God than me coming through.
It was in the middle of the night on Wednesday of the Gathering that I first had the sense that I might give vocal ministry in the closing worship on Saturday.
As is often the case when I travel, I did not sleep well during the week I was in Greeley. I was up in the night every night, often for enough time to read or eat a pretty substantial snack. That night, I began to feel like I do when I am going to give a message, but I tried to ignore it and went back to sleep.
On Thursday morning, the feeling was still there. I felt it while I was doing yoga before breakfast, and I was even more distracted than usual during breakfast. (Poor Aimee, who was eldering for me, kept trying to get me to eat breakfast, to no avail. Each morning, I would load up my plate, then pick at my food. That is not usually the case for me; in what I keep thinking of as my "regular life," I am a big fan of breakfast and never miss it.)
Aimee and I left the dining hall and went to the classroom where our workshop was held. As part of our preparation for leading the workshop, we settled into a time of worship, as we did every day.
During worship, I could feel the message strongly and I was really upset. As we continued to worship, I told Aimee that I had this sense of leading and it was hard for me because I felt like I needed all the energy I had for the workshop and other obligations, and I didn't have anything left for the message. I also shared the pieces of the message I had so far.
Aimee listened to me and asked clarifying questions. In the end, I think we both had a sense of the message, but knew that it would be different by the time of closing worship on Saturday. Our time of worship and clarification was very helpful for me; afterward, I felt like I could focus on what we were bringing to the workshop that day.
I have had this advance sense of giving vocal ministry enough times now that I know better than to fight it. Instead, I did my best to let it go. Every once in a while, I would check in to see if I still felt the leading. It was there, like an ember in my chest, waiting for the right time.
At one point, Aimee asked me what it felt like for me to carry a message like that. I said that, honestly, the closest feeling is how it feels when you have the stomach flu and feel like you are going to throw up. You don't always feel like you will be sick right away, but it's always there to some degree. You know that you will feel better once you do, but you also know that the feeling might go away on its own.
On Saturday morning, Aimee and I went to the dining hall early and I finally ate a full breakfast. After eating, we continued to talk with Friends at the table. Two of them at different times asked me if I had a message, and I said that I thought I did.
As the conversation progressed, I began to feel the message more and more strongly. I began to feel pulled inward and I had a hard time keeping my focus on the conversation, even though it was about the process of giving vocal ministry.
Aimee and I went back to our dorm and settled into worship in the living room of our suite. Again, we talked out of the worship. I shared some of what I was struggling with about the conversation at breakfast, Aimee asked clarifying questions and reflected back what she had heard. Then we filled up our water bottles and walked over to the room where worship would be held.
One thing that often has been a source of anxiety for me when I feel like I have a message to share is whether there will be space to give it. That is one of the reasons I like programmed worship—it has a specifically designated time for sharing messages that God has prepared in advance. Sometimes, I have felt the need to create space, but I did not have a leading to do that this time.
As we walked toward the room, I could see that Friends had set up the chairs so that they were facing each other in a large circle. That was comforting. At the entrance, two Friends from the worship committee said that Friends were settling into worship as they entered the room. The Friends also let us know that the front rows were reserved for Friends who felt a leading to speak. They asked that Friends move to the front row when they felt that leading.
I said, "I feel a leading to speak. May I sit in the front row and stay there?" The Friends looked a little startled, but nodded.
Aimee and I walked into the room, and I saw Connie G sitting in the front row of one of the sections. I had told Aimee that I probably would have a clear sense of where I should be in the room, and in that moment, I knew it was sitting between Connie and Aimee. I whispered to Aimee that none of the standing microphones were facing me. After I got settled, Aimee asked me if she could leave for a few minutes, and I said I was fine. She returned and we settled into worship.
A few minutes later, I quietly told Aimee that I had received more of the message. She said, "I was just praying that you would get what you needed!"
Friends began to fill the room. I had my eyes closed most of the time, so I didn't see most of them. The worship deepened. At the official beginning time, one of the Friends from the worship committee rose to welcome everyone and reminded Friends that those who felt led to speak should move to the front row. She asked Friends to use the standing microphones, but then said that, if Friends had mobility issues, they should raise their hands and a Friend would bring the microphone to them.
Aimee whispered to me, "Good thing they will bring you your microphone!"
Then everyone settled into worship and I waited to give the message. At that point, I was very physically uncomfortable, and most of what was going through my head was, "Stay in the room. Stay in the room!" along with some unprintable words directed at God. I looked up and saw two good Friends—one who used to be on my care committee and another from my meeting in Seattle—which was very comforting.
A woman rose to give a message and sang. Shortly after that, I felt led to speak. I rose to my feet. I felt anchored to the spot, with Connie on one side and Aimee on the other, and I could feel the presence of another Friend behind me, grounding me. Even though the standing microphones were just a few feet away, I did not feel clear to move. So I raised my hand. A Friend brought me a microphone, and I delivered the message.
Although the messages I give are always slightly different, the ones in this context seem to follow a pattern. They are intensely vulnerable, prophetic, based in Christian language or the Bible, and accompanied by a lot of tears. In other words, it seems like they are geared to get one's attention.
I know by now that, for some Friends, hearing me give a message like that for the first time can be a powerful experience. But for Friends who know me well or have heard me speak often, there is a sense of, "Oh, Ashley's just doing her thing." Not that those Friends are dismissive—I believe that they are listening to the message and it may have something for them—but it's a little like hearing the same concert performance over and over. It loses a little of its sparkle after the third or fourth time.
I have come to expect certain responses when I give these messages. The best is when Friends say, "Thank you for the message" or "Thank you for your ministry." Those phrases acknowledge that the message is from God and that I have been faithful in delivering it. My usual responses is, "I am glad it spoke to you."
I have also found that Friends are drawn to me after I speak. That seems natural. I have spoken on behalf of God, and I have a certain "God glow" when I give vocal ministry that is attractive.
Another response I have found is that Friends will approach me and say, "I didn't understand what you were trying to say there." My first response to that usually is, "The message probably was not for you." I am glad that they are trying to engage, but I usually do not have the energy to try to explain the message.
The worst is when people approach me and try to debate what I have said or dominate me verbally or physically. Fortunately, this does not happen very often, but it is difficult because I feel tired, vulnerable, and empty after delivering that kind of message.
That is where elders come in. A big part of eldering for me when I give messages like that is being a watchdog at the rise of meeting. Before the meeting, Aimee and I talked through an escape plan, if I felt like I needed to leave quickly.
Fortunately, that was not the case. I felt clear to stay through the rest of worship after I spoke. After worship, I felt like there was a bubble around me. Friends walked past, but only a few engaged. Aimee and I sat until the room had nearly cleared out, then had a wonderful conversation with two children. Finally, we headed back to our dorm room, so I could shower and change and go to lunch.