12 September 2008

Speak in a Large Voice

My Meeting House is an old one, and is very large. It holds 2000 people when all the 75 benches are filled, and people are sitting on the steps, and in the upper galleries, and in the doorways, and standing along the walls. It hasn’t held that many people for a long time, but that’s a different story.

The building was put together with an ear to vocal ministry from the days before sound amplification. The ceiling is high and smooth, the roof above the minister’s facing benches is curved, and the floor slopes gently down to the front. Everything is focused on taking a clear voice and projecting it across a room over 100 feet wide and 60 feet deep. When you lift your head up and speak with a large voice, the room joins with you and gives you a strength, volume, and clarity that doesn’t come from inside you.

But if you don’t speak with a large voice, if you don’t direct your words upwards and outwards, if you speak softly and in a quiet voice, you often can’t be heard. Sometimes we have visitors who are inspired to pray or give ministry, and who end up mostly just speaking to themselves. Some are shy, some are not accustomed to a clear and open space, and some seem more interested in ruminating quietly than in sharing a message with others. Some simply talk to their shoes. This problem has plagued speakers in my Meeting House for 130 years—the old newspaper accounts of the Yearly Meeting often identify a speaker by name, but point out that nobody could tell what they were saying. Their voice was not a large one, and while people could see them, their message was not heard.

In the same way, we in the Religious Society of Friends often fail to be credited in important ways because we don’t speak in a large enough voice. George Fox used to say, “Let your lives be patterns, examples. Let your lives preach!” Modern Friends often take the first part of his message to heart, and forget the rest. When I came to Quakerism years ago, I didn’t know any members of the Society. I came to the practice as an isolate, and my first experience with waiting worship was alone, without models, examples, or fellow travelers. I had other friends and colleagues I associated with, but nobody who I could turn to for guidance about the Society. When I finally located a meeting and asked where it was to be held, I was astonished to find that it was in the home of a man I had known for years.

Richard was a fine man, serious and dedicated to many important aspects of the world he shared with me. He worked for the state Agricultural Department—I was a commercial beekeeper. At the county fair he volunteered to spend hours taking down our beekeeping exhibit and loading it into the truck with us. I always thought, “What a kind and helpful man.” Richard was a Friend, but I didn’t know it. His life was a pattern, and an example, but because he never let on that he was a Friend, his life didn’t preach. His witness was a good one, but not one that helped me to locate the Society that caused him to be that way, to share in his journey. Richard didn’t speak in a large voice, and the important part of his message—why he was the way he was—didn’t make it through. And I struggled without companions for longer than I might have.

In our larger Society, we often take part in exemplary causes. We are active in our communities, both our religious and our secular ones. (If we are fortunate, they’re the same.) We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we comfort the widows, and we visit the prisoners. We often do these things, though, without letting people know that we do these things because we have been called to do it as Friends, as servants of a God who has told us to love each other and to live our lives as an expression of that. And people say about us, “What a nice thing to do,” and turn away. We hide our Light under a bushel, and our witness remains a mystery to those who might benefit from the explanation.

Sometimes we don’t speak about our religion because we seem to think that it’s a secret thing, a hidden thing, something that we’re not supposed to share. I’ve heard Friends explain that they don’t tell people about God because they don’t think they’re supposed to, because they follow an unwritten creed that states, “Thou shalt not proselytize.” Sometimes we don’t tell people who we are because we feel that it’s forward and intrusive to mention religion, as if a strange and restrictive secular etiquette were more important to us than sincerely sharing what we are. Sometimes we don’t speak about it because we don’t think we have the words to express it, and don’t trust ourselves to represent what it is that guides us.

When we do this, we ignore the advice of George Fox. We do not let our lives preach. Because no one knows why we do these things, we do not become the patterns, the examples that we were charged to be by the first generation of Friends. We are good enough in what we do, but we don’t share a path that others can follow in order to do likewise. And if we don’t share that path, then ultimately we have failed at the most important part of being patterns and examples. We walk our trail without blazing it, and others do not follow us because they don’t see the trail we follow.

Friends, the next time you perform an action in faith for your fellow creatures, tell them why you do it. When you hand the homeless woman on the street your lunch because she’s hungry, tell her that you’re a Friend, and invite her to your meeting. When you help a man with a flat tire on the highway, and he thanks you, tell him that he’s welcome, and that as a Friend, you look out for people like him. When you join with like-minded people in a public demonstration of support for a worthy cause, put the religious basis for your action on your sign. When your lives come up in conversation, point out the reason you live the way you do. Don’t hide who you are. Share the message that made you that way with people who want to be that way too, but don’t know how.

Don’t think for a moment that it can’t be your job to lead people to the Religious Society of Friends, that God will do it when the time comes. God chooses tools as he pleases, and sometimes your responsibility is to be that tool. When he chooses, he might speak in a still, small, voice; but that's his prerogative, and not yours. Take a step forward, and stand still in the Light that reveals the truth of what you are, both to yourself and to the world. Speak in a large voice, and let your whole message be heard.

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