This is for Cherice
On Catching a Message
by Peggy Senger Parsons
reflections after NPYM 2002
I am a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am also a Quaker Preacher. The former defines my being and purpose, and is usually understood, in some form, by those I meet in the ministry. The later defines my process, and is often misunderstood, even by Quakers of the various branches. I will attempt to clarify my understanding of my own process.
I preach on a regular basis. I bring a message. But I diligently try to never present a sermon. A sermon is a prepared speech, often exhortative, on a topic chosen by a minister, which the minister perceives that the community of believers needs to hear. To my thinking, there is nothing wrong with preparing and delivering a sermon, as long as you are honest about what you are doing. The art and craft of fine oration seems to be dying in our culture, and I, for one, miss it. I like listening to good sermons. But I am not called to write and present sermons. I am called to be a message bearer. This presumes a message sender and intended recipients. I believe that the messages I receive come from Christ through the Holy Spirit. I call the transmission of this message preaching, because it is an active verb, and this transmission does not really feel passive to me. I am aware that the term preaching carries a lot of negative baggage, but I desire to retrieve it from shame. I am aware that there are many non-Quaker preachers who also consider their call to be message bearing. But all of us, when we are honest, know when we have presented a sermon and when we have born a message.
I consider my job as a preacher/message bearer to have five parts.
The first requires me to live my life in a state receptive to the Divine. I, myself, must be fertile soil. This requires me to take good care of myself physically, emotionally and intellectually. I must be vigilant about sins and addictions. I must be vigilant about distractions. I must seek healing for my wounds. I find that practicing spiritual disciplines, studying Scripture, and being about the business of Christ; i.e. feeding the sheep and fighting the Lamb’s War, help me immeasurably. I also find that I require the community of those who will hold me accountable. I do not live my entire life in this receptive state - far from it. But I find that I am more receptive, more of the time, as I walk farther and deeper down the path of Christ. I work at this continually.
When I am receptive - messages arrive.
It is essential that I recognize and accept the messages. I have to go through a discernment process about where the message is coming from; and I try to weed out, or divert to the right time and place, those ideas that are simply mine. But I find these days that I do not have too much trouble with this, Divine messages have a feel and a smell to me, and it is unmistakable. Harder, is the discipline of receiving the messages with the time, attention, and reverence that they deserve. It is easy to hear the message and yet be distracted to the point of having it slip right on by, not caught, not treasured, not attended to. More occasionally, I have to fight rebellion. Some days I just do not want the job. I always surrender, but sometimes it is a fight.
The third step is to discern who the message is for, and when it is to be given. This process is similar to that which any Quaker minister (and that is all of us) goes through in meeting for worship. Is this message for the group, and is it appropriate to share it now? My process differs in that I often get messages at times other than group worship and at times other than the time of delivery. I am a public friend, a recorded and released minister in whom the community has noticed a consistent ability to accurately catch messages. These days, this results in invitations to speak at meetings. I sometimes have many invitations on my calendar. Often a message comes during a time of prayer set aside to consider a specific place and occasion. But sometimes a message arrives and I do not immediately know who it is addressed to. But as I consider the message, and pray about it, the recipient becomes clear. I have received messages for as broad an audience as “The daughters of God”, “Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting”, or as narrow as “Scotts Mills Friends Church this Sunday”. Some messages get delivered again and again until the Spirit says stop; some messages are spoken once, and never again.
After discerning the recipient, I must hold the message. The gestation time for messages varies from seconds to months. It is not always comfortable to hold a message. I do not like all of them. Some of them scare me. Some of them are so wonderful that it is all I can do to not share them before the appointed hour. Sometimes they go somewhere down inside me, and I, myself, cannot find them or pull them up at will. I know the message has been received, I know it is in me, but I cannot recall it until the moment of delivery. I believe that some sort of gestation process is active in me at times. The message grows and clarifies as it sits in me. Sometimes I am aware of this process and participate; attending to the message. I listen to it multiple times inside of myself, I sometimes take notes. I never practice delivering it. I never time it. I do not write it out in manuscript form before it is delivered. I have a few times erred on this point, but writing it out beforehand has a way of calcifying the message for me, and taking a manuscript into the meeting has never failed to yield disaster. As a crutch, I sometimes carry a small outline in my Bible to refer to, but the best messages have happened when I forsake even this.
The final step is to transmit the message. It is my job to get the message back out and through me and to the recipients. This requires my free will and obedience. This requires me to take responsibility for my transmission and not for the reception. I have to renounce fear, and desire for approval. I am about as good at this as most people, which means I struggle with it. I have to refrain from deleting things that I don’t like or that I think the recipients won’t like, and I must refrain from adding in things that I think will make it better, or which I think they will want to hear. It is a participatory act with the Spirit. It is not “channeling” as new age proponents understand that process of emptying or leaving themselves to be let another speak. I am very present. I am used in the way a musical instrument is used, The oboe is an oboe and does not have the voice of a trumpet or violin, but neither does the oboe call the tune - the player of the oboe does that. The message is not mine, but it sounds in my voice, and my range, and my intellect, and my emotion. The Spirit uses absolutely all of me to bring the word.
Which brings up the subject of giftedness and craft. Some people perceive the messages I bring to be ‘well crafted’. They assume that this comes from careful writing and practice, or else from natural giftedness. This is not a good enough explanation, especially since I do not write the messages beforehand or practice delivery. I do think I have a natural gift for storytelling, developed in childhood under the guise of excessive fibbing. And I have studied preaching in seminary, but what I deliver most of the time does not bear much resemblance to what I was taught. I did learn to stand up straight, breathe, and look at people. The eighteen years or so that I have been doing this have improved my ability to transmit, to participate with the Spirit. I learn things all the time. I try to remember them. But all of this comes down to a few things. I am an instrument. I am not a Stradivarius, but I am no plastic kazoo either. I work to keep my mechanics working well. I tune, and tune, and re-tune. But the musician is still in charge.
I have observed a few things about this process. I have strong feelings about the messages and the transmission, but my feelings often have no bearing to the reception or to the observed work of God on the recipients. Immediately before preaching I experience everything from terror to euphoria. I like it when there is a time of silent worship before the message, but I can take the same time during a period of worship through music. During this centering before preaching - I re-dedicate myself to the task at hand, and renounce distractions. I try and get quiet and in tune. Sometimes during this centering I get a visceral feeling of being filled, literally from the toes up. I like this feeling. Occasionally, this feeling is followed by what I call ‘getting lit’ that happens when the substance I am filled with seems flammable and is ignited. Weirdly, getting filled or lit, does not seems to have any correlation to the energy that is transmitted with the message. Sometimes I am on fire inside and transmit the gentlest of messages. Sometimes I have great rushes of endorphins while preaching. Other times it feel like the words are coming out of my mouth and falling on the ground like bricks, dead. These feelings also have no correlation to how the message is transmitted. Since every time I bring a new message, I am also hearing the words in the air for the first time, there is an effect of the words on me as well as the listeners. I choke myself up all the time. I have to guard against going off on brain tangents just like I do when I am listening to someone else preach. I am sometimes very aware of the individuals who are listening and sometimes I am not. Sometimes I remember very well afterwards what I have said and sometimes I lose it immediately. There is no norm or rule to my feelings, I pay attention to them, and sometimes enjoy them, but I do not allow them to be the evaluation of my preaching. The only real constant is hunger and weariness afterwards. It is hard work, and there is often a blood sugar and adrenaline crash afterwards. It is nice to have an elder who can help me see to my self-care.
I wish I were to the point where my belief and practice of this process were consistent. I believe that the reception is not in my control and is not my responsibility. I wish I did not care what people think, but I do. And always, Friends respond to me. And I face all the same perils of reward and punishment that messengers have always faced. I am told that in Quaker days of old it was considered bad form to comment to the messenger about the message. That might be a very good custom to reinstate. “Take it up with the composer, not the instrument” would be a very good response, especially when they don’t like the message, and sometimes I do respond with a variation of that retort. I like praise, but am uncomfortable with it. I always try and verbally send that to the Source and let the praiser know that this is where any glory should go. When I am praised and respond by telling the person that I did not write the message and that the praise belongs to God, I am often not believed, it is perceived as some sort of false humility. But I am unfailingly curious, and I like to hear people tell me what they heard, because there are always interesting variations on what I think I said, and some of them are informative to me. I like to hear people tell me what they observed in the recipients, because it is often different than my perception.
For a long time the response I had the most trouble with was “Can I please have a copy of that message?” And then I always had to let them know that no written form existed. But due to the marvels of modern sound systems, I have been regularly recorded, and sometimes these tapes are reproduced and distributed. I have heard amazing stories about where these tapes have gone, and the ministry that they have had on their own, completely without my knowledge. Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that God’s word never lacked power, and I have found this to be true. I have found that this power sometimes extends beyond my control or intention. I went through a season of seeking clearness on attempting to write the messages after the fact. Modern listeners do not appear to have the memory ability of days gone by. Our minds have become accustomed to being able to reference material again and again without having to keep it stored in our brains. Perhaps we are lazy or diminished, but that is the reality. And so a couple of years ago I submitted to the discipline of being a recorder as well as a transmitter. I have found that it is possible, and while the written form of the message will vary from the given form, it has its own power and truth and life. I have adopted the language if iconographers, who do not sign their work as theirs but sometimes put on the back “by the hand of…”; I print of the messages “through the voice of Peggy Parsons”. I also date the message and put the address on it. This distinguishes the messages from other things I write. I do not think the process of recording the messages in written, visual form is as much fun as preaching, but I have found that I can do it, most of the time, if I set myself to the task soon enough and with discipline. Occasionally the message is just gone, and I accept that as the work of the Spirit, and tell folks who ask that it was just for that day and time. This preserving process does involve craft, and I do use readers and an editor; and so it might be arguable that the written messages somehow lack the power or immediacy of the transmitted message. But I have not found this to be completely true. I have chosen my editor carefully for the gift of clarifying without changing the message. The written messages have their own ministry, and retain the ability to move the spirits of the readers, and retain an inseparable kinship to the preached word. But I have found it very important to do the writing after, rather than before, the preaching. It becomes the preservation of a message, not a containing of the message. It is my prayer that these written messages never become the equivalent of Simon Peter’s attempts to build a clubhouse to hold the physical presence of God’s Glory.
I hope this helps enlighten my process. I am very aware that it is not every minister’s process, or every Quaker minister’s process. I do not proscribe it as the only way. But it is the way of God in me.
Post script: This was written after I was friend in residence at North Pacific Yearly Meeting in 2002. Then I went to Africa a preached a bit. Then I came home and we birthed Freedom Friends Church, where I hardly ever preach.
Peggy, thank you for this gift of a deep, powerful example of how to prepare and present a Quaker message. I appreciate so much hearing your process and the way God works in you to bring a "message," not a "sermon." In many ways, as you stated once in this post, it sounds like you pretty much go through the process of getting a message in unprogrammed worship, only over a longer period of time, or at least not during a specific meeting for worship. That's a great reminder, and I definitely attempted to go through this process for my message yesterday, waiting, hearing a direction, pondering whether it was for this group or not, and then letting the ideas develop. This time I tried writing it all down and practicing it, which I hadn't done before. It was a good exercise for me, because I'm still learning what gets the point across, and how to say things succinctly when I'm in front of people. I videotaped myself so I could see my expressions and hear my inflections. This is all mechanical, and I think God can use our practice (especially since I, unlike you, have yet to take a preaching class!). I'm not sure yet about the manuscript/no manuscript thing--it seemed to go well this time, but I like speaking from notes usually, and I agree that it's amazing to see the words and the images form as if in the air before you as you speak, in ways you didn't anticipate. So I'm excited to practice more--practice listening and figuring out how God speaks through me. Thank you again for this glimpse of your process, and for being an amazing woman, Quaker preacher that I can aspire to be like! =) Much love.
Cherice - glad you enjoyed this look into my probably idiosyncratic methods. I have a REALLY funny preaching class story to tell you, but I can't print it here so it will have to wait until I next see you.Post a Comment
I despise being videotaped. Like flourescent lights, it sucks life energy out of the soul - be careful with that stuff. I recently let Max Hansen use the infernal thing during worship - I am getting weak in my dotage.
Bottom line - Trust God and your own Process. If God has found you trustworthy, who are you to doubt it.
peace to you
enjoy - you will never get a better room than West Hills.
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