Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Listening and Visioning

The following is the text of a message delivered during worship by ESR student Travis Etling as part of the ESR Board of Advisors meeting on September 28, 2014. 

The din undoes us
Our lives are occupied territory…
occupied by a cacophony of voices,
and the din undoes us.
In the daytime we have no time to listen,
beset as we are by anxiety and goals
and assignments and work,
and in the night the voices are so confusing
we hardly sort out what could possibly be your voice
from the voice of our mothers and our fathers
and our best friends and our pet projects,
because they all sound so much like you.
We are people over whom that word shema has been written.
We are listeners, but we do not listen well.
So we bid you, by the time the sun goes down today
or by the time the sun comes up tomorrow,
by night or by day,
that you will speak in ways that we can hear
out beyond ourselves.
It is your speech to us that carries us where we have never been,
and it is your speech to us that is our only hope.
So give us ears. Amen.
When I read this prayer, I immediately think about Quakers. I imagine Friends practicing what Particia Loring identifies as a listening spirituality.[1] I imagine Friends sitting together in open, silent worship, waiting expectantly. I imagine Friends practicing an apophatic attending to the presence and activity of the Spirit. This waiting worship, this attending, is best described as a deep listening that is empty, receptive, centered and still.
I also imagine Friends engaged in discernment. I imagine Friends, individually sorting through those voices that reach for us, that make claims of us, claims about who we are in the deepest sense.
I imagine Friends sitting with each other in a clearness committee, asking the questions that rise out of centered silence. These Friends help us to ask the questions that we’ve forgotten to ask ourselves in our individual process of discernment. The committee members give voice to these questions not because they have the answers but because they can’t possibly anticipate what the answers might be. We ask, not because we have the answers but because we trust in the still small voice within to respond to those questions. This voice may respond loudly, but more often the voice is still, subtly, slow like an opening blossom.
I imagine Friends sitting together in worship sharing, centering in silence and then responding to a biblical passage or a query. I imagine Friends sharing deeply out of silence and into silence so that the sharing is not discussed, refuted or even affirmed but is rather allowed to resonate among the gathered Friends and the Spirit that is present wherever two or three are gathered. We share, in the context of worship, so that we may better hear, deeply hear what the other has to share. We share in the context of worship so that we may better hear what the Spirit is saying through the other.
I think this vision of a people gathered to practice listening spirituality is a striking and beautiful vision that gets to something essential or central about contemporary Quakers. I think that these practices have great potential in the context of our post secular but also our post ecclesial landscape. In the context of diverse theological, philosophical and political perspectives, this practice of deep listening may be especially valuable to the broader culture.
If this listening spirituality is the heart of contemporary Quaker practice, I think the imagination should be the lungs. With this foundation of listening spirituality, Quakers are ready to engage in a recovery of the religious imagination. How will we become a people who value visioning as much as we value listening?
I think about the vision of the British Friends who looked out over London from the Ferris wheel and thought, how many people out there are Quakers and just don’t know it? How many people would benefit from this contemplative, experiential faith? This vision about the future of Quakers, lead them to think deliberately about how Quakerism could be shared with the world. This vision lead them to develop the Quaker Quest process, a deliberate and systematic process of in-reach and out-reach that Friends can use to share their practices of listening spirituality. In contrast, my experience with Quakers is that we tend to be conservative (in a bad way) and not so visionary, outward or forward looking.

I think that a robust religious imagination helps us to think about the future. Vision has to do with looking forward, looking outward. If contemplative listening helps us to hear each other and God, discern and follow leadings, prophetic seeing has to do with what is to come. Many writers have described our time as a period of renewal and spiritual awakening. Other have noted that the broader culture has become both post secular (religion and spirituality are here to stay) and post ecclesial (we will be organizing ourselves differently). How will Friends speak to whatever it is that this rapidly approaching future brings? What visions will guide our interaction with that future? Walter Brueggemann’s prayer asks that we hear God’s voice “out beyond ourselves.” He prays: “it is your speech to us that carries us where we have never been, and it is your speech to us that is our only hope.” Prophetic words from Brueggemann to Quakers.
I think we are sometimes guilty of a kind of cultural self-absorption. We are endlessly fascinated with our history, culture, theology, personalities, processes and language. Surely there is a balance between conservation and innovation – where are we in that tension? How do we become as proficient at visioning as we are at listening? How do we become as skilled at looking toward future as we are at examining our past? How do we build on the foundation of this deep listening spirituality? Have we invested as much time and energy in visioning as we have in preserving and conserving. Have we invested as much time and energy in imagining and experimenting as we have in documenting and archiving? Have we invested as much time and energy being in dialogue with contemporary thinkers as we have with George Fox, Margaret Fell and John Woolman?
[1] Patricia Loring. Listening Spirituality. Washington Grove, MD: Openings Press, 1997
Travis Etling is a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. You can read more from Travis on his blog,

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