Sure We Have Preachers!

I am a plain Friend.  I teach Speech at a Catholic seminary/college.  As you know, traditionally Quakers practice waiting worship; we wait in the Name of Jesus Christ.  We wait in silence.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves an individual to speak.  We do not have a Minister who leads the congregation.  That does not mean we do not preach.  Some of the most inspiring preaching I have ever heard has been during the waiting worship at our biyearly Quaker gathering in Barnesville, Ohio.

As a speech teacher in a seminary I think a lot about training young men to become good preachers.  Yet as a Quaker I really didn't think that my own religious tradition had anything in particular to offer my students when it comes to preaching. The other day something happened in class to change my opinion.  In fact it made me see that Quakers have something very important to theories of preaching or Homiletics.

Why am I sharing this in The Call and not in a journal of Homiletics?  Because the Quaker tradition is a precious jewel that we as Quakers often think applies only to ourselves.  We sometimes forget that we have traditions that could be of profound use to others.  I think our "preaching" is one of those traditions.  It's something we should all feel free to share as the treasured jewel that it is.

One of my students said something to me that made me realize that Quakers do indeed have something special to offer to the discussion of preaching.  He asked me how a Quaker knows when it is time to stand and speak; how does the Friend know that it is truly the Holy Spirit leading and not the individual's own ego?  I said that we pray long and hard about that very thing and sometimes we hesitate to stand for that reason.  Some Friends have taken years to discern if a specific message was truly from the Holy Spirit or from their personal opinion and ego.  But when we stand we "just know" that it's time.  The Spirit is moving in us and we stand with a sense of obedience.  He looked a little confused and I spent a moment trying to find a better way to put a somewhat mystical experience into clearer words, when one of the other students said, "Yes! That's it!  And when you do speak out of the prompting of the Holy Spirit, you forget all about being nervous the words just flow."  I was impressed with this young man's insight and obvious experience of speaking from the Spirit.  I told him that in fact if I stand at Meeting and do feel nervous, I often sit right back down again because I feel that it's me and not God that's doing the prompting.

I'm not saying that this is a cure-all for the inevitable speech anxiety of public address.  But it is often true about the type of Spirit-led speaking that occurs in a traditional Quaker Meeting, and obviously it was true for this young man studying for the Catholic Priesthood.  When we are truly Spirit led, the words flow and a certain self-consciousness tends to fade away.  Some might even consider this a kind of test that tells us if we should really be speaking.  I know I have come to think of it that way.

Perhaps what Quakers have to offer to the discussion of preaching is a sense of speaking out of silent and holy waiting; a sense of moving over a bit and waiting to hear what the Lord wants to say through us at that unpremeditated moment.  I've often seen fine Protestant ministers close their eyes and wait in silence for several moments before they began their sermon.  I've thought, "Ah! They're waiting for Him; this will be a good sermon."  And it almost always has been.

Certainly as I teach young people to develop sermons and speeches I teach them lines of reasoning, argument and refutation, fallacies, good organization, voice and articulation, etc.  That's what every speech teacher does.  But perhaps I also need to teach them about waiting, about silence, about "centering down" to that place where it is the Spirit that moves first and our words follow after the waiting.  Perhaps this is something very special that Quakers have to offer those who speak of God, whether they are sermonizing or just talking.  Maybe they will find that this helps to create more sermons filled with fire and wonder, or tenderness and awe.  As a seminary teacher I think it might help my students struggle a little less with speech anxiety and a little more with being an avenue for God's inspiration.

So when we are asked if we have a Reverend Minister for our Church, we naturally must say "no," but we can follow it by saying "That doesn't mean we don't have any good preaching!"

 Francis-Clare Fischer
Reprinted from The Call
Issue No. 1 for 2007