My use of the word “thieves” to describe the third kind of spiritual work is intentionally provocative – as it was for Margaret Fell, from whose testimony this reference comes. Let’s allow her words to open us to the work of thieves. This is Margaret, writing about her first experience of hearing George Fox preach, the experience that led to her becoming a Friend, and co-founding our movement:
And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God.”
I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.“
That day in church, Margaret was given a transformative gift: The opportunity to see her spiritual condition clearly, and so be opened to what came next.
We can hear in her words how crushing this realization was at first. Margaret was a wealthy, influential, well-educated person. She was already deeply committed to living a religious life. But in that moment, everything with which Margaret had filled her life was swept aside. In the space that was created, she saw clearly the poverty of her own spiritual life, and the hollowness in the society surrounding her.
The motion of thieves is about clearing away all that distracts us. It takes away our illusions, creating space. In that space, we are able to see clearly our authentic spiritual condition. The motion of thieves is a reminder for us to return to the real spiritual growth.
This is foundational spiritual work. If we want to grow, we have to begin where we are.
This summer I had a conversation with a Friend on Cape Cod. As I often do, I asked how he came to Friends. He said his experience had been disappointing at first, because he’d heard about the principles Quakers held, and he’d assumed Quakers were peaceful people. Imagine his surprise when he found himself in a community of people much like himself: imperfect, prone to judgment, wounded and capable of wounding.
Then he realized something. People become Quakers, he said, not because they’re peaceful people, but because they’re seeking peace. Coming to Friends
is not the end of the journey, it’s only the beginning. Then the deeper work begins — and it begins with the work of thieves.
My Friend was lifting up a vital distinction between who we’re invited to become and who we are simply because we call ourselves Quakers. Jesus challenged his opponents not to justify themselves by claiming to be “Children of Abraham”. He reminds them: “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Using Margaret Fell’s words, we might say, “God is able from these stones to raise up Children of Light.”
This story reminds us that it’s not who our ancestors were, or how many committees we serve on, or whether we’ve read John Woolman’s journal that places us in the living stream of Friends. It’s through living our own authentic journey of faithfulness that we can become Children of Light. Without this, we are claiming an inheritance not our own.
You can know the motion of thieves is present when you find yourself feeling humble, authentic, and vulnerable.
We need to be careful when we talk about humility. The kind of humility this work brings isn’t the kind that would have us reject or repress our gifts. This kind of false humility leads us to oppress each other in the name of preventing pridefulness. This happens far too often.
Real, life-giving humility means living up to the light that we have been given without judgment of how bright or dim that light is. False humility is hiding this light under a bushel for fear of jealousy or judgment. The challenge is to be faithful right where we are – no more, no less. This takes courage.
Many of us carry wounds. We need to be watchful not to confuse true humility with the stumbling blocks of self-hatred, shame, and guilt – one frees and gives life, the other imprisons and deadens. We know this other voice – and it is not Love. True humility brings Life.
Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison, in their recent musical project Clothe Yourself in Righteousness have something to teach us about vulnerability. Their work reinterprets the witness of early Friends in modern language, calling us to “get naked”, to strip away all that is fake in our lives and lay ourselves bare before God and one another in radical authenticity. In our contemporary self-sufficient, privileged condition we may find this message especially difficult to hear. This makes it even more vital to listen.
To be faithful, we have to make space. This is where the role of overseers – and the work of thieves — is needed. All of those visits we heard about in the role of overseers served a deeper purpose: to help make space in the lives of Friends for the seeds of faithfulness to flourish. Sometimes this happens the way it happened to Margaret – in a forest fire that burns away illusions. Sometimes it happens in careful and patient work untangling relationships, or easing suffering so that the Friend can be helped to feel the room to breathe.
The work our communities do in pastoral care, conflict resolution, fundraising, administration, and loving redirection is toward this end. Because if this work is not done, if conflicts fester untended, if the bills can’t be paid, if we let each other get lost, the tender seedling in the greenhouse of our hearts gets choked by the weeds.
It was James Nayler who gave me language for this. He taught me that there are many plants within us that seek our nourishment, but not all of these are the true Seed that bears the fruit of life. Some of these plants are fed by the internet. Some are fed by junk food. Some by success and approval; some by judgment and resentment. Some by drugs and alcohol. Some by too much work – even too much good work. Friends, what are we filling up on, and which plants does this feed?
As we make the space, we are freed to live the Truth, because nothing else competes for our attention. We have found the “Yes” that makes our “no” matter. If our eye is single, our whole body can be filled with Light.
We need each other’s help to do this. Without consistently returning to this work as individuals and as a community, we risk leading each other astray with false hope that will not sustain us. And the world needs hope that is real.
Let me quickly give you three voices on the work of thieves, spanning 300 years.
Here’s George Fox in the same letter from prison we heard earlier, this time on the work of thieves:
Plough up the fallow ground…and none [is] ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then the planting, and the watering, and the increase from God cometh.
Here’s Job Scott a hundred and fifty years later, again from his Journal:
Let him that thinketh he stand be not high-minded, but fear. Let none think themselves safe off the watch, because of any degree of attainment and favour: the watchtower remains to be our place of safety.
And here’s Bob Dylan in “All Along the Watchtower”:
There must be some way outta here / said the Joker to the Thief
There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief
Businessmen they drink my wine / plough men dig my earth
None of them along the line / know what any of it is worth
No reason to get excited / the Thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us / who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I we’ve been through that / and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now / the hour is getting late
My hope is that Margaret’s testimony will stay with us, and serve as a caution and guide in our journey today. It’s a constant invitation to ask, “Are we thieves? Are we, as a spiritual community, claiming an inheritance and an identity that we are not living?”
If we find that our answer is yes, I hope that – like Margaret – we will let ourselves be humbled. In the clarity this brings us, I pray we will sink down together to the seed of what is real in us, turn back to what is true in us, and surrender ourselves to be shaped again through a motion so familiar we sometimes forget we know it:
to turn and to turn will be our delight
’til by turning, turning, we come round right.