Quaker Characters

In my work at hospice, I have a remarkable opportunity to see God’s light shining through so many different lives in so many unique and beautiful ways. Last year I spent time with a woman who had been born in Poland, and as young teen, she was kidnapped by the Nazis during World War II, and forced into slave labor, first working on farms and then in restaurants. After the war ended, she married one of the Americans who’d been part of their liberation and they came to here to start a family. But she was never able to see her own family again. She was able, after many years, to find and talk with several of them by phone, however; when their small rural village in Poland finally got telephone service in the mid-70s.

I also served as chaplain for a brilliant and quiet man who was part of John F. Kennedy’s advance communications team on the fateful trip to Dallas. He shared stories of that day and I could hear that after all these years, the pain was still there as he talked about how their team, shocked and tearful, tried to protect and support Jackie and keep their wits about them as they struggled to do their jobs in the midst of horrible crisis and trauma.

There was the Vietnam vet who broke regulations and took an officer’s jeep to rush a small bleeding Vietnamese girl to a nearby hospital. He spoke of the heartache of coming home—after trying to hold on to some shred of his decency through that war—only to be spit on at the airport and called a murderer by the war protestors meeting the planes.

And there was the talented beautician in the small town who set up a shop in her home and for four decades brought friendly conversation, relaxation, and beauty to all who came through her door. And the gospel singer who discovered her talent late in life and traveled to churches throughout the Midwest, sharing her voice and her faith.

So many people, so many stories, so much joy, and so much heartache. And so much Light shining through it all.

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but God has a work of Light in mind for everyone. A purpose, a talent, an interest, a love. God nudges us forward toward possibilities—usually gently—maybe just giving us the right idea at the right time, inspiring us to act in a way that spreads a little kindness, tells an important truth, or opens our hearts to one another. And thank goodness God does this kind of stretching and leading one day at a time, one inspiration at a time. Otherwise—if we had the capacity to see it all at once—we might not feel fitted to the task.

Consider poor Jeremiah, a young man, most likely tongue-tied and bashful like Moses, and God chooses him to be a major prophet, expecting him to speak challenging and judging words to an entire people and a huge political system that had wandered far from God.

“Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah says in protest. But God reassures him, saying that God himself will give Jeremiah the words and the ideas. It won’t be Jeremiah’s own limited power but the living Light of God that will do the work. Jeremiah just needs to be willing, tuned in.

Jeremiah did go on to become one of the major prophets, and his words of lament and judgment did have an impact for a time. King Josiah had a change of heart and began making changes in his kingdom that improved the lives of the people. Things got better for a generation. But then his Josiah’s son succeeded him, and the son was known for his self-serving, warlike ways. Those years were hard for Jeremiah and for the children of Israel. It was during that time that Jeremiah earned the title, “the weeping prophet.”

We Quakers have these kinds of stories too. We have deep roots of faith that help us continue listening to the Light even when times get hard. Early Friends were persecuted, imprisoned, even killed for doing what they felt led to do. The Valiant Sixty—that band of early evangelizing Friends—carried their message of Light all over the world and faced great hardship and danger. Across the centuries, Friends have impacted all areas of life—from the arts to the sciences to social reforms—because our experience in the world flows through the prism of our faith.

Some of you may be familiar with Sadie Vernon, a vibrant woman of faith who was known as “the nation’s greatest educator” in Belize and who regularly attended meeting for worship at Belize Friends. She also traveled often, served for a time as a nurse here in the U.S. Her vibrant faith and deep insight, and the aliveness of her spirit was well known to many Friends in Western Yearly Meeting. I hear she was quite a character. In her autobiography, In-Transit, she writes:

“That first Sunday after I went to teach in Highgate, I went to Friends Meeting. Somewhere in the 10 minutes of silence I realized that I had the freedom to think what I liked about Jesus Christ. It was the first knowing that came to me, that I could think anything, that I did not have to tell my mind that it is sinful to think this or to ask this. I grew up where it was felt that your beliefs were set and you did not go outside of them. Year in and year out, it becomes a part of you. So, that was a great thing that happened to me that Sunday. I felt a freedom to ask questions of myself, not of anybody else in there, but of myself, to ask questions about Jesus Christ. I could think what I like and allow my mind to think or not think. I had a freedom about the scriptures. I did not have to believe what anyone else told me at all.”

Her experience echoes George Fox’s own, in that Christ is come to teach his people himself. The sense of inward leading, the freedom to seek and find, is a hallmark of Friends’ approach to faith. God’s truth is a consistent and reliable guide, and we need to be free to listen and follow; wonder, question and grow. The path of a maturing faith is a true path and not a destination. If we are willing to be stretched beyond the familiar, God continues throughout our lives to broaden our understanding of life and love.

Jesus showed us that even our doubts become part of the work of light unfolding. We heard the New Testament story of poor doubting Thomas, Thomas the faithful disciple who has been one of the 12 all along. Every other place in Gospel stories he’s mentioned, he’s simply listed as part of the group in attendance, just a name. But here—here where he’s doubting and questioning—he gets brought into full view.

Jesus had appeared to the other disciples after his resurrection, but Thomas hadn’t been there and he said he wouldn’t believe it—or maybe he just couldn’t believe it–unless he saw Jesus with his own eyes. And what does Jesus do? He returns to give Thomas that certainty. What a kind and generous act—for Thomas and for us. Notice that Jesus doesn’t offer any words of chastisement or rebuke. He does say Thomas did anything wrong. Instead, he understands what holds Thomas back. “Here, see for yourself,” Jesus says. “Let yourself be convinced.” Jesus seems to acknowledge—and give a nod our way—that there will be billions across the ages who will come to believe this message of light without the actual physical evidence of sight and sound and touch.

Delbert and Ruth Replogle were two Quakers in the early 1900s who took a leap of faith together and were led step by step through a rich and meaningful life. Delbert grew up in Alaska, the child of Quaker missionary parents, and when they retired from the field, young Delbert—then in his early 20s–was left in charge. But a problem arose: At that time, young men in missions were expected to live either with their parents or with their wives. He had been living with his parents, but that would no longer work. So how would Delbert find a wife? A smart young man with a knack for budding technology, he used the wireless station he had built himself to send a telegram to Ruth Hinshaw, a young Quaker woman he had met a few years earlier when they both attended Pacific College, a Quaker school in Oregon. His telegram wasn’t exactly poetry, but he did try to find a balance between practicality and passion:

FATHER AND MOTHER MUST LEAVE ALASKA STOP
ASKED TO TAKE CHARGE OF RESERVATION AND SERVE AS TEACHER STOP
WILL YOU MARRY ME AND COME UP AND HELP STOP

It hadn’t occurred to Delbert that Ruth might say no, and her return telegram was more of a hesitation than an outright rejection:

WORLD CONDITION TOO SERIOUS. WE MUST WAIT.

World War I was in full swing at that time and Ruth felt she was needed at home. Her brother Virgil was a conscientious objector and was then serving in France with the American Friends Service Committee. Her prospective groom, however, was not so easily deterred. He wired back:

I’M COMING TO GET YOU IN SEPTEMBER

And Delbert did that—he caught passage on the one boat that sailed per year from the artic circle to the lower 48. He met Ruth in Portland and they spent hours talking through possibilities and challenges. At the end of the time, Ruth reported that she had been convinced: Convinced that he loved her and convinced she should return with him to Alaska as his wife. They married on September 8, 1918 and began the long passage back to Nome, Alaska. They shared the boat with explosives that were to be used in the northern mines.

Their leap of faith turned out to be well-founded and over their six decades together, Delbert and Ruth were led through all sorts of experiences that deepened and refined and shared their Quaker faith. After serving in missions, Delbert attended MIT and earned a degree in electrical engineering; he went on to be a pioneer in the new field of television. He and Ruth raised a family, helped in efforts to resettle World War II refugees, assisted displaced Palestinians, and were instrumental in founding Earlham School of Religion, blessing a lot of people along the way.

All this loving service arose for Delbert from a singular moment of divine presence when he was a boy, showing him that faith would at the heart of everything he did. He was looking out his bedroom window at the stars one night, thinking of the future, when he was washed over by a sense of the  and nearness of God. He felt an expanded sense of wisdom, like all of life was opened to him. And he suddenly knew that a lift centered on Christ would be a meaningful and useful life. In his biography of the Replogle’s, entitled, Friends on the Front Line, Lorton Heusel describes the leavening influence this moment had on Delbert’s thought and faith:

“The impact of that event began to shape Delbert’s perception of God as a Person, a Spirit, a Power, a Truth, a Wisdom that pervaded the whole creation and to whom one could relate. The witness of nature and the wonders of the human body testified to a creative Mind which transcended human intelligence and inventive genius. Words could describe, but not define, this Spirit that lived and moved in the world and in and through people, as evidenced in the good they tried to do in spite of themselves. Because of his greatness, God could not be “boxed in” or contained by concepts or particular vocabulary. Jesus Christ was the messenger, the revealer who was so filled with God’s Spirit that he reflected it in all he said and did. Delbert saw that through Christ we are given access to this Spirit in order that our lives might make incarnate that wisdom and power and truth.”

What a powerful and clear message that is. So many Quaker characters, known and unknown, carrying the Light forward in hundreds of thousands of unique and beautiful ways, one person at a time. We are each called, each day, to let the Light shine through us and God’s love does flow into the world—sometimes in spite of us—as wisdom and power and truth.

Whether we protest like Jeremiah or doubt like Thomas or feel willing to take a leap of faith like Sadie, Delbert, and Ruth, God’s light is shining through us in all we do. This happens not because of us but because of who God is. The love simply must be shared; the light must be known. We, Quaker characters that we are, are part of the living ocean of light that George Fox saw so long ago. We too—maybe with just a look out the window on a starry night—will come to know that the goodness and grace of God’s living presence is the very essence of our souls, the light we share with all life the world over.

 

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