The Way of Quaker Saints

I hope you had an enjoyable Halloween and celebrated it in the way that felt right to you. Some people in recent years have stopped passing out candy—it’s expensive and with COVID there was a chance you could pass along more than Snickers bars. I have never been a big Halloween person myself, but I so enjoy passing out candy because I absolutely love seeing all the kids every year, happy and so excited in their princess and tiger and stormtrooper costumes. This year–even though there were so many kids I went through six bags of candy in an hour and 15 minutes—I saw only one scary mask, and that was worn by a teenager who seemed more apologetic than daunting.

The sweetest costume belonged to a little 4-year-old unicorn, dressed all in rainbows, who told me she’d just had a “birfday” (with an F). She was quite dainty and discriminating about choosing her candy. Her mother was so proud and they both stole my heart. The most creative costume, I thought, belonged to a quiet 8- or 9-year old boy who had the alphabet on his front and a string of lights around his head and neck. He told me he was the “wall” on Stranger Things. I said, “Wow, what a great costume!” and then I texted my son to ask that that meant because I’ve never seen that show. Cameron said it was a really clever costume. So I’ll take his word for it.

So after a heart-warming evening full of happy children, the pets and I settled in for the night, and then we all woke up on All Saint’s Day, which is celebrated November 1st. In contrast to the darker and more mischievous energy of Halloween, All Saint’s Day—celebrated by the Christian church all around the world—honors the saints of the church who have shined God’s light in the world. They might be well-known saints, like St. Peter, St. Augustine, and St. Francis, or they could be known only to a few, the saintly grandmother who first taught you about God’s love and stirred the faith in your soul.

We Quakers rarely do things the way that other denominations do them, and as you might expect, we have a complicated relationship with the idea of sainthood. In our tradition, no day, no place, no person is set above another because “that of God” is present equally in all. So that means special days—even extra-special days like Christmas and Easter—are not really “special” days, because God is present in each and every day, truly and fully. And saints are regarded not as “special” people who have done exceptional things but as people who have allowed the Spirit of God to shine through them and direct their actions, perhaps in ways that have left a lasting impact on our society and our world.

In his Journal, George Fox mentions saints—he even capitalizes the word—but as always, he brings the whole thing back to God:

“The Lord is King in His Saints, He guards them, and guides them with His mighty power, into His kingdom of glory and eternal rest, where they find joy, and peace, and rest eternal.”

When you consider that the word saint is actually the French word for holy, it’s easier to see the direct relationship between God and those who do their best to live in tune with God’s goodness. “That of God” in us is the spiritual center of our lives—the point from which the holiness, goodness, purity, and innocence of God shines out. We heard this idea in our Old Testament reading, as part of the very last blessing Moses offered the children of Israel before he died. Speaking to God, he said,

“Surely it is you who love the people; all the holy ones are in your hand. At your feet they all bow down, and from you receive instruction.”

This is very similar to what George Fox said about God’s saints: “The Lord is King in his holy ones; He guards them and guides them…He brings them into His rest.” The Light of God is doing the leading. The holy ones, the willing ones, the saints are listening with receptive hearts, willing to follow as God leads.

As I looked more into this idea, I found, A Book of Quaker Saints, written in 1917 by the English writer L.V. Hodgkin. She dedicated it to “the children of the Religious Society of Friends,” and she explained her purpose in writing the book this way:

“The stories in the present book have been selected to show how the Truth of the Inward Light first dawned gradually on one soul, and then spread rapidly, in ever-widening circles, through a neighborhood, a kingdom, and, finally, all over the world.” (ix)

In the opening story, “What Is a Saint?” she writes about a small Quaker girl who on a visit to her aunt’s church saw a lovely stained-glass window depicting a story about saints. Their golden halos captivated her imagination and she asked the adults around her to explain. No one was able to offer an explanation that really told her what she wanted to know. Finally, sometime later, she met an elderly Quaker woman who radiated love, and she finally realized, “Saints are a sort of window after all!” because they let God’s Light shine through into daily experience.

We Friends find truth in the idea that Spirit works through us to bring more light into the world. This has been the hallmark of Friends’ social witness across generations. George Fox did all that he did to try to turn people toward the Inward Teacher because God first met him in the heart of his disillusionment and despair. John Woolman took his stand and became a voice for freedom and equality because God’s Spirit first stirred him to recognize his discomfort with and his complicity in a practice that dehumanized God’s children. The Friends in Philadelphia who established the first humane mental hospital in this country in 1817— called the Friends Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of their Reason—first felt an acute distress knowing that existing treatment robbed individuals of their dignity and worth. Friends felt led by Spirit to create an ethical answer that honored “that of God” in everyone.

The Friends hospital was in service for about 100 years, closing in the early 1900s, but it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. The National Park Service’s webpage offers this description about Friends vision and impact:

“The ingenuity of its design…with better ventilation and light as suggested by Philadelphia Friend Thomas Scattergood, was a model for other American psychiatric facilities. Even more important than the physical layout was the new treatment which Friends introduced - the "moral treatment" of mental illness, a methodology which combined the Quaker religious views of the individual with medical sciences' developing therapies. By the 1850s, the Quaker approach to mental health had become the example for America. Reflecting the Quaker belief in the equality of people, Friends was among the first hospitals to employ women doctors and professional nurses.”

There are so many other examples we could name, stretching across centuries, but the process is always something like this: A Friend who is listening for God’s truth is alarmed, upset, burdened, stirred by a need that arises—perhaps in his or her personal life, perhaps as a larger issue they feel drawn toward. They recognize that upset or unease as a movement of Christ’s Light—God is trying to tell them something. They begin to discern—individually and corporately, by praying, talking, listening, and reading—what God might be calling them to do, and once an answer begins to emerge, after perhaps some “seasoning”—or letting things rest for a time so they can be sure they’ve discerned correctly–they begin to put the plan into action. They take steps to act faithfully on their understanding and leave the outcome to God. That’s what makes them—and us—Quaker saints. We listen and respond to the leading of Spirit in our lives, knowing that God always works for good, providing the Light that blesses, heals, and uplifts all God’s children.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he calls attention to the qualities that uplift individuals and create an environment where a trusting community can grow:

“I…urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

And then he goes on to explain why our efforts at goodwill, love, and compassion are needed—they draw us closer to the reality of the Oneness of God’s love, which is the heart of all community in heaven and on earth:

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

And Paul then echoes the very same idea we have already heard from Moses and George Fox about how God’s prepares and protects and guides God’s holy ones:

“…he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

You can hear Paul’s vision of God’s great work of love in the world—the purpose of not only making us all saints, in the holy sense of the world, but of drawing us into the Unity of God’s good purpose, the living reality of the kingdom of God, within and among and all around us. In that holy community, all are needed and valued, each providing his or her own vital part of the wholeness of God. Each one of us is needed. The love and light we feel and share—no matter how small it might seem–is an important part of God’s ever-unfolding good.

So here, today, what might God be stirring up in our lives that could lead us in the way of Quaker saints? We don’t have to look for some big project out there in the world or make plan to try something others have already done. The answer is closer than that and it arises naturally from the needs we find around us in our very own experiences. Similar to the Friends in Philadelphia at the beginning of the 19th century who simply had to do something about the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, God will reveal the place, the time, and the means by which Christ’s Light, through us, can be helpful in our surroundings.

We can already see ways God has inspired us to be of service here at Noblesville Friends—through Sherri Bonham’s leading to donate food and household supplies to the Trustees office, for people who are struggling here in our neighborhoods; through the Christmas Candlelight service that provides music and beauty and blessing for our community; in the Friends Scholarship Program we started last year. In other times, in other ways, Noblesville Friends has blessed many lives beyond anything any of us here today can know. But God knows—and all along, it has been God’s inspiration, God’s Light, God’s love showing the way and meeting the need.

Toward that end, in your bulletin you’ll find a calendar that lists on different days the names of all the schools in our area. This was an idea that popped into my head so suddenly and so completely that I took it to be an inspiration I was meant to share. So I invite you to join me in praying for a different school each day, holding the students, families, teachers, and administrators in God’s Light. We can pray for their safety, for their flourishing, that creativity and interest and compassion might blossom in their school. We can pray they will feel the nearness of God’s presence and be inspired to share kindness, goodwill, and compassion with each other. Let’s do our prayerful best to bring more Light right where we are, right here in our own community, as we feel so led. And let’s watch how God opens up the next step—and then the next, and then the next—as we travel this road together following in the way of the Quaker saints.

Christ Has No Body
By Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582

Christ has no body but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.


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