Friday, October 19, 2012

Just a Psalm

When I was little, my dad would read a chapter of the Bible to me and my sister every night before we went to bed.  Usually, we would read through one of the gospels or the stories from the Old Testament, but if we were late getting to bed, dad would tease us and say there wasn't enough time.  We would beg him to read to us, and he would relent, saying, "Maybe just a Psalm."  It became something that my sister and I would say jokingly, when we were up too late―just a Psalm.

Thinking about that makes me laugh now.  I still read the Bible before I go to bed, and I probably read the Psalms more than any other book.  There is so much to them!  The imagery is amazing, and I love how the writers reflect all of the emotions they are feeling: giving thanks, praising God, feeling abandoned, alone, or in despair―sometimes all in the same Psalm!

I also love how familiar the Psalms are, not just because I read them so often, but because I learned so many of them set to music in my childhood.  I will be reading along, then come to a phrase or even a whole chapter that brings back a melody and a time and place I had forgotten.

I memorized a lot of Bible verses as a child, but the first entire chapter I learned by heart was Psalm 100.  My travel Bible says that it is a psalm for giving thanks, which seems like a good place to start.  [Note: I generally try to use nongendered language for God, but because I learned this Psalm with male pronouns, I am leaving it that way here.]

Psalm 100

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song.
Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his; 
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; 
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Eldering III

After my last post, On Outrunning Your Guide, a Friend asked me if I had any advice on what to do if you hear someone else outrunning his or her guide.  This is really a question about eldering.  I have written in the past about serving as an elder for an individual minister and about working with an elder as a minister.  This post is about eldering within one's own meeting.

Dear Friend,

You asked if I had thoughts on what to do when you hear someone else outrunning his or her guide in giving vocal ministry.  I am a little ashamed to say that my initial reaction was, "Don't do anything!"  Taking a Friend to task for vocal ministry is the kind of behavior that has given "eldering" such a negative connotation, and I have spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to reclaim the positive definitions of the word!  Still, attending to the quality of worship and holding ministers accountable is an essential part of being an elder.

A few years ago, the Nominating Committee at University Friends Meeting spent some time reflecting on the question of eldering in response to vocal ministry and concluded that it was not possible to elder someone you do not love.  I think that is true for all kinds of eldering, but especially this kind.  It is something to approach with humility and grace.

As with vocal ministry, God may call anyone to serve as an elder at any time, but there are those in our meetings who have particular gifts of eldering.  An elder's primary task is to hold the meeting in prayer.  An elder may come to meeting early to ground the space, pray for the meeting throughout the week, or have a particular concern for the quality of worship.

If you are in meeting for worship and hear someone giving a message outrun his or her guide, my first recommendation is to go as deep as you can.  Pray for the minister and try to listen for the Spirit beneath the message.  Consider that the message may not be for you, and pray that it reaches the person who needs to hear it.

After the person giving ministry has finished, resist the temptation to respond!  I know that I sometimes feel an urge to smooth things over after a message that seems ungrounded, but I know that I would just be speaking out of my own discomfort and not at the prompting of the Spirit.

If you feel led to speak with the Friend who gave vocal ministry after the rise of meeting, test that leading.  Is the leading truly for you?  Is there someone else who may be feeling led to say something?  Does your meeting have a committee, such as Worship and Ministry, with a concern for the quality of worship?

If, after your discernment, you still feel clear that you have a message for the individual, ask to speak with him or her.  Be direct, speak with love, and say what God has put on your heart.  Then listen.  Giving vocal ministry is a vulnerable thing, and the Friend may have had the sense of outrunning the guide, or may be struggling with other issues.  Hold the encounter in prayer, before, during, and after.

People speaking without divine inspiration is one of the hazards of open worship.  If the meeting is grounded, it should be able to absorb the occasional misguided ministry.  But if this happens often or repeatedly, it is a symptom of larger problems that the meeting needs to address.

Some queries to consider:
  • Does the meeting have a shared expectation that worship is a time to center and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit?  
  • Do members and attenders have a shared vocabulary to describe their experiences of feeling led to speak in worship?  
  • Is there space for conversations about vocal ministry?  
  • How does the meeting as a whole encourage vocal ministry and hold those who feel led to speak accountable?

Monday, October 8, 2012

On Outrunning Your Guide

[An edited version of an email I sent to a Friend recently, posted with permission.]

Dear Friend,

When we spoke, you said that you were worried that you may have outrun your guide in giving vocal ministry.  I have a number of responses to that.  As usual, take what is useful and leave the rest!

First, I have not had any sense of you outrunning your guide when I have heard you speak.  Your messages have felt grounded and encouraging and have spoken to my condition.

As for whether you have outrun your guide elsewhere, I don't know.  Here are some things that have been useful for me when I have been worried that I spoke in error.

One is that we never know who the message is for, even when we think we do.  Giving a message is like tossing out seeds, which fall on all sorts of soil.  The question, as always, is whether you were faithful with what you were given.

If there is a particular time that you feel you may have outrun your guide, it may be useful to find someone who was there, who you trust to be honest with you, and ask how that message felt to him or her.  Afterward, sit with the Friend's response and see how it feels to you.

The minister does not have sole responsibility for the message.  It is the responsibility of the meeting to hold the space, support the minister, and receive the message. That is one of the reasons I try to leave space before and after I give a message―to invite Friends to help me.  Sometimes I explicitly ask for that help.

Finally, even if you have outrun your guide, that's okay.  Ministry is messy!  The sense of outrunning your guide means that you are using your gifts at the edge of your ability, which is a way to grow.  God forgives us every time we make mistakes, and those mistakes give us an opportunity to forgive ourselves.  Then we pick ourselves up and try again at faithfulness.

That was probably much more of a response than you had in mind!  It was helpful for me to write it out, though, so thank you for giving me the opportunity.  I am grateful for our talk and I look forward to talking with you again soon.