By Christopher Sammond
In 2004, when I came to New York Yearly Meeting to serve as General Secretary, some Friends shared with me that yearly meeting members whose passion was for witness were saying “Well, it looks like Ministry won,” with my hire. My passion for spiritual deepening was well known, and in a committee structure where Witness and Ministry were separate umbrella coordinating committees, our worship and our witness had come to be viewed separately, and to be in competition with each other for resources.
A sense of disconnect between worship and witness wasn’t new to me. In Northern Yearly Meeting, it was less pronounced, but I witnessed that disconnect there, too. Friends tended to gravitate to one or the other.
This disconnect does not serve us well. I think most of us would agree with Patricia Loring when she writes Neither the inner life nor meeting life nor an active relationship with the rest of the world is optional. Prayer that does not issue in deeds of love becomes a form of narcissism or an aesthetic exercise. Activity that does not take time to find its source and grounding in prayer, worship and divine leading becomes dry, exhausting, exasperating-or an exercise in power. (Patricia Loring, Listening Spirituality, Vol. 1, p.1) Yet how many of us feel that we are doing a good job of living out this synergy?
Several years after coming to NYYM, I facilitated a Pendle Hill consultation on Quaker leadership with Quaker leaders from across the continent, from yearly meetings, schools, and Quaker umbrella organizations. One of the surprises from that consultation was that almost universally, Friends expressed a difficulty in their organizations in moving from a place of prayer, discussion, and discernment, to one of action. Rebecca Mays, who served the group as elder, and I named it as “the nexus point,” that moment when Friends were ready to move from considering something, to acting on that consideration. Looking back at that takeaway, I realize now that one way I could frame that revelation was that Friends need to get better at getting out of the mystic, and into action, a lament I have often heard from Friends with a more activist bent, but hadn’t considered at an institutional or at the level of our Religious Society. Since then I’ve come to understand that the reverse is also true institutionally and individually: without spiritual grounding, the exhausting un-led activism Loring describes is also futile.
More recently, I had the privilege of being a co-core teacher in the School of the Spirit program Participating in God’s Power. The subtitle of that program is “Living From the Divine Center, Opening to Transformation.” If you really want to learn something, teach it, and not surprisingly, in co-teaching the program, I learned how to live from the Divine Center at a much deeper level than I ever had before. Toward the end of the program, I began holding the question as to how to connect this experience of living in the Divine Center with the reality of the web of life on Earth unraveling, and also the unconscious blindness of most white people in this country to systemic racism.
I sought a leading as to how to act, given those realities, a leading as clear and powerful as when I feel a leading to speak in meeting. It’s my belief that where the words come from in worship is the same place that leadings for what Friends have called “a concern” come from. I explored where my three years of extensive anti-fracking work in the town of Homer came from. Was I led? Or was this motivated by my outrage over the lies, deception, and heartrending damage the gas companies were inflicting on counties over the border in Pennsylvania, just south of me? Was that outrage the prick of the Divine Conscience, just in a form that was unfamiliar to me? In hindsight, I’m still not sure, though I can say that it didn’t feel like a leading in worship.
In holding the question of whether I was led to offer another iteration of the Participating in God’s Power program, I became clear that it needed to focus on that nexus point, the place where worship and action touch. As part of that discernment, I agreed to lead an afternoon School of the Spirit session at this year’s FGC Gathering on that topic, on my discernment to date, and to hear how other Friends experienced the disconnect between our life in worship, and our work in the world. As I tried to write a blurb for that session, coming from the more mystic-centric lens of “we need to be more spiritually grounded in our witness to face the interlocking crises of the day,” I could not find my way to what was clear and right, though I tried multiple times over a week. Eventually, I remembered the lesson from the Pendle Hill consultation- our difficulty in moving to action. What became clear to me is that we need to get down to the root which gives life to both our worship and our witness, for that root is what connects them.
As I have lived with that, it is clear to me that my sense that the place “where the words come from” in vocal ministry is the same place that leadings for action come from. They come from the same root, and that root is love.