May 18 2012

Stop Robbing Us of Your Gifts.

Back in the 17th century, our ancestors risked a great deal to try to prove the point that God didn’t speak more or more clearly to educated clergy, that every person had equal access to Truth. In an age where church and state were the same, it was a dangerous idea. A radical idea. A revolutionary idea.

Some might say that a lot has changed since then.

I would argue that the 17th century concept of “educated clergy” is still alive and well, but has been internalized and manifests in different manners.

  • Culturally, we give more potence to someone with letters behind their name, if they are wealthy, or speak in an educated manner.
  • We relegate our gifts into one professional specialty that then becomes so strongly linked with our identity that we cease to experiment with other forms of expression.
  • We as Quakers often present ourselves based on “Quaker credentials” (what committees we’ve clerked, where we have membership, etc).

Sing with Me!!!

One aspect of my musical ministry is improvisation. I love to make music in the moment, using whatever is available. I find that it allows for a kind of playfulness and communication amongst Friends that silent worship or verbal dialogue does not.

I am often astounded and frustrated at the level to which (seemingly) liberated, playful, spontaneous people are not willing to engage in this kind of musical spontaneity, hiding behind the reasoning that they are not trained in music.

Friends, I am not trained in music. I took a few theory classes in College, but certainly not enough to feel like my credentials give me leave to say anything professionally worthwhile on the matter.

But instead of chasing degrees, I have instead spent a great deal of energy releasing myself of these feelings. Often music comes to me directly from the Spirit, often in a way that I cannot comprehend intellectually.

Often by the time we have fully been indoctrinated by the education system, the life and power of our gifts have left our practice of it.

Do it Now. We need you.

But here is my point: we spend too much of our lives feeling insignificant, feeling not-powerful, waiting for someone to tell us that its okay to use our voice now.

Stop waiting for cultural credentials to write your book. Write it now. Stop holding back from singing in the streets. Stop waiting for an “appropriate” message to stand up with in Meeting for Worship. Stop robbing us of your gifts.

So: I want to say to you (especially if you are a younger Quaker), what do you have to say now, friend? How might you be holding back your gifts because you do not have the proper “training”?

Speak, even if your voice shakes.

As Quakers, we are supposed to speak, even if our voice shakes. I beg you to use your voice now, and throughout your journey.

As a personal matter, I was given a voice in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends program long before society deemed me a potential decision maker or contributor and it had a radical impact on my life.

But in a time where the Religious Society of Friends is rapidly losing youth, it might be a question that we can turn in on ourselves: at what point in ones’ life does ones’ voice begin to matter? How can we find ways to hear and value the untrained, the inexperienced?

Remember, we didn’t get rid of the clergy. We got rid of the layman.


13 Responses to “Stop Robbing Us of Your Gifts.”

  • Michael Says:

    Thank you for sharing your gifts, Jon, and inviting us all to do the same.

    • Jon Watts Says:

      Thanks Michael! I should maybe also mention that this blog post goes hand in hand with the song I just released. Video here.

  • Micah Bales Says:

    Excellent, excellent post.

  • mark Says:

    great article! definitely “food for thought”. the Monthly Meeting I attend is struggling with vocal ministry, or the definition of.

  • Mil Says:

    Thank you for sharing. I just came back from hunting for mushrooms in the Sierras, and I noticed because I was wearing dirty clothes, I was feeling insignificant! Amazing how easily that mindset comes to me. Your post is a good reminder that being small is a disservice.

  • Chuck Fager Says:

    Jon Watts,

    A few comments here. The first one may seem picky, but to me it isn’t.

    You say early Friends struggled to put forth
    “the point that God didn’t speak more or more clearly to educated clergy, that every person had equal access to truth.”

    I see two ideas here, not one. On the first, that God doesn’t speak specially through an “educated” clergy, I’m with you.

    But that’s not the same thing as your next point, that everyone “had equal access to the Truth.” And here I differ.

    If it was “equal POTENTIAL access”, no problem. But in practice, among Friends and elsewhere, actual access differs. The differences don’t correlate to age, wealth, sex, race, degrees, or Quaker pedigree. but they’re there.

    In my experience, if truth was water, some of us have little cups, and some have buckets. (And some of us have one, then the other.) Further, some have turned their cups/buckets upside down.

    These differences are not immediately visible; it takes discernment to figure them out.

    I’ve seen many tough times in meetings when one Friend claims his/her “truth” is “equal” to somebody else’s, just “because.” That’s not enough.

    This might relate to my next problem. You keep talking about “we”, and I have a problem with that. Who is in this “we”? Where did you get the data or testimony that goes into it? If anybody’s ideas or experience differs, do they not count in your “we”? Loose generalizations don’t help much in establishing “our” truth. There are more modest and careful ways of expressing your impressions; I commend them to your attention.

    Third, I’m in the dark about the second item on your bullet list:

    “We relegate our gifts into one professional specialty that then becomes so strongly linked with our identity that we cease to experiment with other forms of expression.”

    What “professional speciality” are you talking about? In the unprogrammed meetings I’ve been in, we may not be as culturally “diverse” as we thought we ought to be. But as far as “professional specialties” go, there were plenty different ones in evidence.

    For that matter, people change them: I’ve had several such “specialties” in my time among Friends, and will soon take on another. Besides, the Clerks or “weighty” ones did not all come from a particular walk of life: lawyers or doctors or whatever.

    So what are you referring to? I don’t get it.

    I wondered if you might be referring to the programed world, and talking about the pastors. But even that doesn’t square with my observations there. Pastors are a varied and often troublesome lot, but their meetings/churches include many walks of life too, and slavish deference to the clergy is not exactly universal.

    So I’m stumped here, and maybe I’m not the only one. How about a clue?

    One final point. You say,

    “ we spend too much of our lives feeling insignificant, feeling not-powerful, waiting for someone to tell us that its okay to use our voice now.
    Stop waiting for cultural credentials to write your book. Write it now. Stop holding back from singing in the streets. Stop waiting for an “appropriate” message to stand up with in Meeting for Worship. Stop robbing us of your gifts.”

    I’m really with you here, though there’s the same problem with your over-easy “we.” I’m uneasy, again, because I have seen lots of Friends “cut loose” and do or say exciting and unexpected things that brought needed gifts.

    Yet like you, I’ve seen others who were inhibited by all sorts of doubts about being old enough, “weighty” enough, having “permission,” etc., etc.

    For years, in fact, I’ve been urging one quite “seasoned” and insightful Friend, whose name would be very familiar, to put their deep wisdom and wit into print, without luck. This very serviceable Friend, who once was young but is no longer, has faced and coped with many of life’s worst evils and tragedies, and gathered gallons of Truth and insight. Yet I hear claims of every lame excuse one can imagine to avoid writing it down, from lack of a college degree to the universal “not enough time,” to many more.

    I’m hoping, though, that just this spring the Friend may be finally turning the corner and settling down to take up pen and computer and start getting it done. We’ll all be enriched it this happens.

    Maybe this Friend has been reading your stuff or listening to your music.

    Whatever it takes.

    • emiliano Says:

      I think i agree with Chuck in what he says. Perhaps someone’s saying we and us instead of saying I? I would also add that in my experience it’s not about finding but rather the searching process.

      It is in this search that we can ultimately see God in all his forms. Through this search we learn and meet and experience and live the world and God. If we stop searching because we arrived to an ultimate truth, we then missed the point of Quakerism which is to seek God’s guidance and act accordingly.

  • Howie Says:

    I find the spirit of playfulness you describe in a variety of dorky activities. I define “dork” as “anyone who’s too busy having a good time to worry about looking cool.” Dorky activities from person to person and from setting to setting. Any activity can be dorky if it’s done with joy and focus and spontaneity, and such activities tend to be contagious. The world needs more dorks. In addition to the valuable insights they gain from playful innovation, they’re just more fun to be around.

    I see a paradox, though. Dorkiness needs to be spontaneous, or it falls flat. Asking for dorkiness when it’s most needed feels like praying to receive patience NOW. I think you’re talking to the wrong people. I’ve heard similar messages to yours from elders before. I would address the weightier Friends. I reckon the elders should make space for the youth to be dorks. This includes social space, and some license to blunder through. If the elders make space for dorkiness, the youth will fill it, and from the mad science of that experience we’ll figure out what the next generation of Friends looks like. Since the youth care about the insights of their elders, the elders must permit the space for unfamiliar dorkiness and then step back and wait to hear from the youth. And when the youth speak, the elders need to listen. There’s nothing more discouraging than communicating and watching nothing happen.

    I have no idea what could come out of this, but I have faith in our youth. They’ll figure it out if we let them play with it.

    I also know from my own experience with problems that I come up with my best ideas when I stop considering the problem. I wrangle it enough to get the pieces, then I go do something else. Half the time the pieces come together on their own while I’m working on a second task. But the more I’m pushed for a solution, the more my head seizes up. Our youth know the pieces. If they’re given something else to do (or just space for dorkiness), it’ll come together. They’ll make their own connections, they’ll develop their gifts, and if they’re supported and left to work then they’ll come back.

    It’s another paradox: to support someone and give them room to work. But isn’t that what eldering is? I don’t see this as a crisis of the youth. It’s a crisis of eldering.

  • Mary Linda Says:

    Amen, Jon! This post has put in my mind a line from one of my favorite Victoria Williams songs: “And the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, was a floooowing.” Joy! God is with us!

    with love,
    Mary Linda

    The third verse of Holy Spirit:

    I have seen it on a mountaintop
    I have felt it beneath stars
    I have felt it in a churchyard and even in some bars
    It will make you laugh, make you cry, make your heart go ping
    Yeah the spirit, holy spirit will make you shout and want to sing
    That the spirit, holy spirit is flowing…

  • Maggie Moon Says:

    YES!!!!

  • Robin Mohr Says:

    I would add, think twice before you go into debt to get a seminary degree that isn’t required to be a Quaker minister

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