Quakers


From The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith:

The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self; the most difficult thing we have to manage is self. Our own daily living, our frames and feelings, our especial weaknesses and temptations, our peculiar temperaments, our inward affairs of every kind, — these are the things that perplex and worry us more than anything else, and that brings us most frequently into bondage and darkness. In laying off your burdens, therefore, the first one you must get rid of is yourself. You must hand yourself, with your temptations, your temperament, your frames and feelings, and all your inward and outward experiences, over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave it all there. He made you, and therefore He understands you, and knows how to manage you; and you must trust Him to do it…here you must rest, trusting yourself thus to Him, continually and absolutely.

Next you must lay off every other burden, — your health, your reputation, your Christian work, your houses, your children, your business, your servants; everything, in short, that concerns you, whether inward or outward.

It is generally much less difficult for us to commit the keeping of our future to the Lord, than it is to commit the present. We know we are helpless as regards the future, but we feel as if the present was in our own hands, and must be carried on our own shoulders; and most of us have an unconfessed idea that it is a great deal to ask the Lord to carry ourselves, and that we cannot think of asking Him to carry our burdens too.

…Let your souls lie down upon the couch of His sweet will, as your bodies lie down in their beds at night. Relax every strain, and lay off every burden. Let yourself go in perfect abandonment of ease and comfort, sure that, since He holds you up, you are perfectly safe. Your part is simply to rest. His part is to sustain you; and He cannot fail.

[Please excuse all the dashes and the commas – I’m reading an 1888 edition and apparently back then they were rather liberal with their punctuation marks.]

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Photo: Mike Stroud (I accidentally made a video instead of taking a photo!)

This blog has been inactive for a few months. Part of that is because of the busy-ness of moving to a new home, new city, new country and settling into a kind of new, or redirected, job with much larger responsibilities. Part, however, is because it’s in my nature to slowly assimilate changes taking place around me and in me, before I can begin to understand how I feel about them and later start to express those feelings. It takes me a while.

This last weekend, however, I took a break from my daily life. I spent it in a city I’d never visited, celebrating the upcoming marriage of a very old and very dear friend along with a number of other old and dear friends and a couple of new ones. It was fun.

My friends know me well and understand some of my quirks, so they weren’t bothered when I excused myself one afternoon to wander off on my own for a little while. I headed back in the direction we had come, down the beautiful, balconied streets of Charleston, South Carolina to Meeting Street, where I found a memorial stone to the Quakers buried there. There was a particular name I was looking for and found, Mary Fisher Bayley Crosse.

I have many Quaker ancestors but she is not one of them. She is however, a kind of spiritual ancestor, whose testimony has inspired me from the first moment I came across it years ago (for those who are interested, go read George Fox and the Valiant Sixty).  Mary Fisher was a housemaid in Yorkshire in the 1660s, who was convinced by the Spirit to go and preach the gospel to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Despite what many considered to be the insanity of this idea, her church was convinced as well and sent her on her way.

She made it to Istanbul where she went to the British Consulate, in the hopes that they would help her with the introductions necessary to speak to the Sultan. The British Consul, not surprisingly, thought she was mad and worse, a potential diplomatic liability. He pretended to help her, putting her on a ship which he said was going to the Sultan’s palace, but which she realized at some point was actually headed in the opposite direction.

Undeterred, she jumped ship as soon as she could and made her way, by land (again this is in the 17th century!! And she was a woman who probably only spoke English and a heavily Yorkshire-accented English at that!) across South-eastern Europe, back to Istanbul. This time, she bypassed the British consul and began making her own enquires. Somehow, the Grand Vizier heard about her and apparently thought it would be a hilarious joke to usher in this dowdy woman who called herself an emissary of God and he made the arrangements.

Mary Fisher entered the Sultan’s palace, introduced with great pomp, fanfare and laughter as God’s Ambassador to the Sultan. Then she just stood there.

The laughter died down and it must have suddenly started to get a little uncomfortable as someone then told her to get on with it, and give her message.

Her reply stunned them all, and stuns me today. “The Spirit told me to come, He did not tell me what I should say. I must wait for Him to do so.”

The stories don’t say how long she stood there in silence as the court waited, but eventually the Spirit gave her words to speak and she began to share those words with the court and the Sultan. Her words were well-received and she stayed for some time, preaching daily and sharing God’s word with the Ottoman court. Then, suddenly, the Spirit told her it was time to go home and off she went, back to Yorkshire.

In her report to her Meeting she said,

Now returned into England … have I borne my testimony for the Lord before the king unto whom I was sent, and he was very noble unto me and so were all that were about him … they do dread the name of God, many of them… There is a royal seed amongst them which in time God will raise. They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless, though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown towards his servants.

I really wonder what this woman was like; this woman who listened so closely to the Spirit’s leading that she would not take a step or say a word without it; this woman who crossed continents and, at other points in her life, oceans and dared to do things that might have made a wealthy man hesitate, let alone a housemaid from the North of England. She did things, not knowing the impact they would have nor the purpose, but simply because she listened and God told her what to do.

As I thought about her, I thought about all of my other ancestors, Quakers and otherwise, who left home centuries ago because of their convictions, fleeing persecution and seeking the freedom to listen to and worship God according to those convictions. I thought about the many people I know today who pay the ultimate price, and by that I don’t only mean giving their own lives, but also, often, risking the lives of their children, parents, spouses and other loved ones, because of the strength of their beliefs.

And then I thought that it all comes down to such a simple act. Listening. Being quiet and opening our ears and hearts to that still small voice, the Inward Light, as Mary Fisher might have called it, – and then taking the decision and the step to obey.

I’ve been inspired by many things this week: the faith of two friends as they deal with the sudden death of their daughter and wait to learn about the results of the husband’s surgery (he may have cancer); the faith of another friend who last month was diagnosed with a debilitating and incurable disease and then a few weeks ago told she may have been misdiagnosed and is still living in uncertainty; reading the story of Adoniram Judson – (who turned out to be a distant relative of mine!) – who was largely responsible for bring Christianity to the Karen and Karenni and the translation of the Bible into Burmese but who only saw real results after a lifetime of work that appeared to bear very little fruit, the loss of two wives and an infant child and almost two years in prison; reading through the words of Ezekiel and Jeremiah who lived their lives faithful to what God called them to do even though it appeared that no one took any notice of what they said (and frequently did the opposite).

I am reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline at the moment and adding to all the examples above, have had it reinforced that faith is a discipline. Many Christians have been taught to believe that faith is some kind of magical thing that you just have; that it’s somehow bestowed on us with no other action on our part than the initial decision to accept Christ. I’ve also been reading a book on the Great Awakening in the mid 18th century in the American colonies and have been struck by how people at the time deeply agonised over the assurance of their salvation. I think we’d have considered most of them Christians (and “saved”) but many seemed to be convinced that faith was something external that could be given or withdrawn at the apparent whim of God.

Faith is a funny thing and something we should never take for granted. I think many of those with whom I work would agree, that while there are times when our strength runs out and God miraculously refreshes us with faith and hope, most often faith is a decision. It is something we have to choose, sometimes over and over again, when faced with the impossible situations and cases we deal with every day in our professional lives and uncertainty, tragedy and daunting challenges in our personal lives. We are called to pray for our faith to increase, but so must we choose daily to believe.

How brittle are the Piers
On which our Faith doth tread —
No Bridge below doth totter so —
Yet none hath such a Crowd.

It is as old as God —
Indeed — ’twas built by him —
He sent his Son to test the Plank,
And he pronounced it firm.
Emily Dickinson

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Faith—is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not—
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side—
It joins—behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.
Emily Dickinson