by Noah Merrill

This talk is the 43rd Michener Quaker Lecture, delivered to Southeastern YM on January 20, 2013.

Table of contents

As  I speak, some among us have been led to hold this gathering in prayer. In the stillness, their hearts call out the message prepared for us in this time together, drawing us deeper into the rising tide that moves beneath the words we hear.

Others among us feel a knowing deep within, a recognition that we are called to shared work, a quickening in them that yearns to be more fully expressed in the world.

Still others have worked long hours: issuing invitations, coordinating logistics, mediating the conflicts and confusions inevitable in any shared work of this kind. Each of us has made room in our often all-too-busy lives to be here, some with great difficulty.

This work we are doing together creates the vessel into which the Life that moves among us can flow. What we now experience is the fruit of each of these three kinds of spiritual work I have just described: the motion of prophets, the motion of midwives, and the motion of thieves.

In our time together this afternoon, I invite you to join me in exploring these vital motions for encouraging transformative faithfulness: the motion of prophets, the motion of midwives, and the motion of thieves. Together, these three motions create something more: The ministry of the whole.

A child of the Quaker movement

I am a child of the Quaker movement. I was born to parents who were members of a Friends Meeting, and some of my earliest memories are of the play of light and shadow on the meetinghouse floor during worship. But beyond the George Fox song, my childhood had little connection to the deeper roots of our tradition. As I grew, I often felt as if I was living in a magnificent greenhouse built of shining panes of stained glass – the witness of Friends in generations past. It was as if, high above me, a beautiful shell had been built of the compelling principles we call our testimonies.

I had a problem. I had no map from my community on how to cross the distance from where I was to the inspiring lives of Friends I learned about in First Day School.

It took me a long time to learn to lower my eyes from these shining examples and to turn my attention to where I was. In my imagined greenhouse, I brought my awareness down to the ground and noticed for the first time the tender spiritual plant growing at my feet, which was my authentic inward condition. There was trouble in my early life. All of us know that trouble leaves scars. At first, it hurt too much to remain for long in the reality of where I was. Time didn’t make it easy, but it helped me learn to sit with the suffering. Over the years, with help, I’ve continued to get to know that tender plant – its wounds, gifts, and longings, its quiet joy.

My relationship with the tender plant deep inside myself helped me to more clearly recognize the growing edges in its life, and to have the courage, sometimes, to lean into those edges with it. With grace and many missteps, I began to discover ways to encourage the life of the plant: relationships, wisdom, and practices that helped nourish it.

Then I began to be aware –in small ways almost unnoticeable at first, and then, in moments of feeling swept with grace and wonder — that the beautiful dome of the greenhouse seemed closer somehow. The tender plant was much the same — still wounded, bearing gifts, longing. But something had changed. The plant, now a thriving young tree, was growing, infused with the groundwater of Love. And as it grew, in the greenhouse of my vision, I was lifted up.

Though I didn’t realize it then, I was learning to participate in the ecology of faithfulness: the motion of prophets, the motion of midwives, and the motion of thieves.

A story about our ancestors

Now let me tell you a story about our ancestors. In the early part of the twentieth century, about a hundred years ago, a group of Friends looked out on the Quaker movement of their time. In the previous century, our communities splintered in conflicts over theology and practice. The Religious Society of Friends in North America was fragmented and distant from the wider world.

Facing violence and change beyond what anyone could remember, the People called Quakers seemed to these visionary Friends to be at risk of becoming irrelevant.

They knew God wasn’t finished with the Quaker movement. Down at the roots of the tradition lay the seeds of something radical, transformative, and vitally needed in a troubled world. But something had been lost, something forgotten.

Even the most beautiful stories grow tired and need to be told again in new ways.

These visionaries – some of whom gave Michener lectures – Rufus Jones, Anna & Howard Brinton, Steve Cary, Henry Cadbury, Dorothy & Douglas Steere – and the thousands of us who responded to their message – led the work of rediscovering and reclaiming Quaker faith and practice in the context of their generation. They forged new forms to sustain and transmit the Quaker movement in their time.

Gatherings such as the World Conference of Friends led to the creation of organizations that would bring Friends together across divisions – all established within a few decades of one another. Friends World Committee for Consultation. Friends United Meeting. Friends General Conference. Friends Committee on National Legislation. The American Friends Service Committee.

Relationships forged by mutual service contributed powerfully to the reunification of several divided yearly meetings – including my own, in New England — and revitalized the Religious Society of Friends. The founders of these institutions were architects building the house in which the modern Quaker movement lives.

These Friends reshaped the structure of Quaker life, but they also reshaped how our story was told. They presented the Quaker tradition as being fundamentally about personal mystical experience and witness in the world. They created an understanding of Friends’ faith and practice founded on what they called “testimonies” – the first time these had been articulated in the form of abstract principles. Friends, does any of this sound familiar?

This was vital and needed work. It helped our tradition survive a harsh and changing season, and it has given us the framework in which the form we live today has grown.

This work belongs to every generation. Today we must rediscover and reinterpret our tradition in light of today’s needs. We’re called to reach down into our roots to draw up what is most vital and needed. Even the most beautiful stories grow tired and need to be told again in new ways.

Those Friends found guidance for their work in an early twentieth-century modernist worldview that valued architecture, reason, and ideas. In the early twenty-first century, our human community is finding in the natural world wisdom to help us re-learn what we have forgotten about living on this planet.

Now, we need organic forms in our spiritual life as well.

Friends in my yearly meeting, in this yearly meeting, and throughout our movement are coming more fully under the weight of a concern for the dramatic and dangerous change being caused by human activity on this planet. We sense that Friends have something to contribute to how our species adapts to live in growing harmony with the natural world. We know that the wisdom we need is already present, deep down at the roots. We are seeking to return to right relationship with Creation, as a blessed, humble part of the commonwealth of all life.

The ecology of faithfulness

How can we rediscover the ecology of faithfulness – the living system of interdependent spiritual motions at the heart of our tradition?

Both biology and spiritual life are interdependent. In an ecosystem, which would we say is more essential, the fish, or the algae they eat? Is the soil more valuable than the sun that warms it? Do the worms who work the soil matter more than the trees whose roots they nourish? Every part of the whole is needed. This is equally true of the spiritual work we do together as Friends.

Quakers have historically said that we’re all ministers in a “priesthood of all believers”. A more modern way of saying this is that Friends didn’t abolish the clergy, we abolished the laity. Our tradition understands that the most life-giving work we do can only be done together. Being faithful as a community of Friends requires all of us bringing to the table the gifts given through us, as well as our wounds and longings, as we live this ministry of the whole. Our local meetings are – or can be – communities of transformative practice. But it takes us all.

There’s something more here. The unique and blessed qualities we’re given are not for us alone. Contrary to what our contemporary culture tells us, our individual success isn’t what matters most. Our tradition teaches that the gifts given through us are intended as a blessing for the whole community.

Our individual faithfulness, our spiritual growth, our healing, our witness on issues of vital concern – are not the end of the journey. They’re our unique and precious contribution to the ecology of Love’s birth through the gathered community.

Looking at the witness of Friends today in light of the transformed lives we lift up as examples – John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry, Lucretia Mott— we sometimes grow discouraged about our present situation. What power shaped their witness? In what conditions did the kindling force that formed these lives come forth? We might feel deep down that something has been lost, something forgotten. We may also find the quiet conviction that God isn’t finished with the Quaker movement.

So what is this ministry of the whole that opened the channel for this living stream, and transformed the lives of Friends who speak so powerfully today? How can we recognize it, and help it live more fully in our communities of transformative practice? Where might we look to rediscover these vital motions of our tradition?

The Quaker tradition is a live oak with many branches. Some preserve Friends’ traditional practices.

In the United States, in Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio, communities of Friends we now call “Conservative” — with a capital “C” — faithfully tend the embers of this deep-heart knowledge, with the faith that in a time like this one – a time when the need is felt – they can be shared. Many of us know about “seed banks”, which gather and guard indigenous and heirloom varieties of plants, protecting our heritage of biodiversity against industrial agriculture and environmental destruction. The Conservative stream among Friends is a spiritual seed bank, sustaining our precious living tradition.

Are you still with me?

Spiritual gifts to build up the community

In these communities, the practice of calling out particular sets of spiritual gifts to build up the community of faith still survives. For generations among Friends, the life of the monthly meeting was sustained by the work of those serving in the roles of ministers, elders, and overseers. Each of these kinds of work has origins in the New Testament, reflecting early Friends’ belief that they were rediscovering and reclaiming an authentic Christianity lost for centuries.

Although I know they’re familiar to some of us, to help us move forward together, I want to briefly describe the nature of these three roles: ministers, elders, and overseers.

Those acknowledged as carrying gifts as ministers of the gospel have a special responsibility for contributing to vocal ministry in the meeting for worship. Their meeting has recognized that they consistently speak in worship in ways that help open the hearers to a deeper experience of the Presence of God. They’re not the only Friends who speak in worship – all who are led do that. Their charge is to give particular attention to their prayer and devotional life, and to how they encourage the life of the Spirit in others. Their task is to discover the always new eternal Truth of Love’s unfolding, and help make it accessible in the context of present experience.

Life happens at the edges; Ministers are the edge-workers. Ministers meet people right where they are in their spiritual journeys, and encourage their growth into deeper wholeness. This faithfulness gives birth to the newness that seeks always to be born among us.

Friends recognized as elders have three particular responsibilities I want to lift up.

First, elders have care of the spiritual life of the meeting, including meeting for worship. Often it is the elders who arrive early to worship, and who pray silently throughout the meeting, anchoring and grounding the stillness with a felt sense of the power of God, attending to how the quality of worship might be deepened.

Second, elders exercise gifts of spiritual discernment. Their counsel is sought in processes of clearness and testing leadings as they emerge.

Third, elders exercise particular care for the nurture and guidance of ministers in the meeting, helping to encourage them in the development of their gifts for the good of all, and lovingly reproving and redirecting them if they outrun their Guide.

Watching for the emergence of spiritual gifts in the meeting and supporting their exercise for the building up of the whole community is elders’ work. They share symbiotically in this work with the ministers under their care as different organs in one body. Where the ministers can be seen as giving birth to new life, elders are the birth attendants and midwives, helping the newness be born.

The third role is the overseer. This is the one that seems to me least well understood and least explored in this time when many are rediscovering the gifts of ministry and eldering. Overseers have the least hip role.

This attitude arises from a misunderstanding of the spiritual work overseers do. A dry interpretation would say that overseers are responsible for the physical and emotional needs of the community. Another way of saying it is that overseers traditionally have the responsibility for pastoral care, but their work goes much deeper than that.

In a traditional Quaker community, if you fell into debt, you might expect the overseers to offer you help in addressing it, sometimes with strong advice about how you might adjust your financial priorities, sometimes with money to pay the debt for you on behalf of the meeting. In times of loss or tragedy, the overseers would organize care for loved ones, meals, and transportation. It was the overseers who might visit you to discuss the matter of your drinking, your payment of war taxes, the ostentatiousness of your possessions, how the company you keep influences you, or to inquire about the health of your marriage.

While we might recoil at the thought of members of our meeting being so intentionally and intimately involved in the conduct of our private lives, this is precisely the radical and countercultural role those with gifts as overseers are asked to play. They are the watchers on the wall of the community, maintaining boundaries, encouraging ways of living that sustain the integrity and health of both the individual and the community of faith. Overseers pay special attention to creating the conditions for faithful living. They help keep us free from entanglements, clearing away the overburden and the undergrowth of busyness and confusion so that the seeds of faithfulness can flourish in our lives. And in our time, perhaps more than ever, having help to keep free from distraction matters.

So, three traditional roles. Three ways of getting spiritual work done. Three vital motions in the ecology of faithfulness.

Conservative Quaker communities preserve vital understandings about the ecology of faithfulness. These ancient ways of growing together can point us to essential underlying motions by which the Spirit of God works in and through the gathered community.

I believe these motions are always active, wherever two or three are gathered. Often, though, they’re hidden or unrecognized.

But they’re there. You’re doing this already. We have a kind of spiritual muscle memory.

Each of us has had this experience. Our bodies have an amazing capacity to learn and remember. It’s the cliché of riding a bicycle. When, after years away, we get back on the bike, something in us remembers – and we can ride.

These three motions are the spiritual muscle memory in the body of our movement — part of who we are, always available to us. Sometimes, through disuse, the spiritual muscles can atrophy. Though they are still present, we don’t realize it – and so we don’t use them. Maybe our particular monthly meeting or worship group is new enough never to have known the traditional roles. But the motions are in our DNA as a People. The more we’re able to exercise these muscles – as uncomfortable as it may be to get started, and as out of shape as we might feel we are – the more these motions become active, and the more life our communities experience as a result.

From here on, let’s turn our attention from the traditional roles of ministers, elders, and overseers themselves toward the underlying motions of which they are a part, and to which they point us.

Sometimes changing the words we use helps free us from the burdens of old baggage, and opens us to see in new ways. I have some fresh language to offer to describe these motions. Try it on. See where it takes you.

Where we have until now talked about “ministers”, I invite us to hold their work as the work of prophets. Where we’ve used the word “elders”, try on the work of midwives. And where previously we’ve spoken about “overseers”, let’s instead call this the work of thieves. Remember, “overseers” was the least hip title, and the one that got the least attention – so I hope you’ll work with me on a little rebranding.

Minsiters…prophets. Elders…midwives. Overseers…thieves. Let’s explore these three motions in more depth, beginning with the work of prophets.


I call the work that ministers embody the work of prophets. In doing this, I acknowledge that in Friends tradition ministry is essentially a prophetic act.

When we rise to offer vocal ministry in meeting for worship, we are seeking to give voice to the inbreaking of the Divine among us. As the Living Christ speaks in our hearts, the words we speak are an articulation in this moment of eternal Truth and Love. Like the messages of prophets in the Hebrew tradition, we’re never given the final word. Drawing on an experience of the immediate transforming Presence, we are allowing that Life and Power to speak through us into the present moment, in which Friends gather expectantly to wait on the Word. This is the growing edge of continuing revelation. As we reach for the river of eternity, it rises to meet us, and carries us along. This is the purpose of ministry – to be channels for Love’s continuing birth in the world.

But this prophetic work doesn’t just happen in meeting for worship. It can happen anywhere. Conservative Friend William Taber, in his Pendle Hill pamphlet “The Prophetic Stream”, speaks about the work of prophets as having essentially three tasks: To discover the law, to describe how the law must be put into practice, and to make spirit available.

We must first encounter the eternal Truth – what Bill Taber calls the law – that is unchanging and ever-present. This isn’t a matter of legislation written in stone, it’s a matter of the basic Way of Love that holds creation together, the one that’s written in our hearts, in the seas and stars. This Truth is far beyond our own limited perspective. It’s impossible to articulate fully, and so we’re left with the hope of being able to know it only incompletely. Even that incomplete knowledge can be enough to guide our lives when we’re willing to pay attention.

Once we’ve touched it, our work is to hold up our present circumstance to this Truth, and to ask how this Truth could be put into practice in the present situation. We don’t live in the wilderness of Sinai, or in first-century Palestine, or in the 17th century England of the first Friends, or even the 20th century for which the Quaker structures we’ve inherited were built. We live in a 21st century at the threshold of transformations unknown in human history until now. So what does Love require of us, today? What does Love desire for us, today? Helping re-articulate the eternal Truth we encounter in worship in light of the present situation – by word and action – is the work of prophets.

Finally, the work of prophets is to make spirit available. This has to do with inspiration, with helping people to be freed from all that keeps us from fully living. Often we do this more with the shape of our lives than with the values we articulate – since the clearest messages we send are the messages we live. Working prophetically means helping people find reasons for hope in places where hope seems absent, nursing trust that even in the dead and dying moments in our lives, precious newness might be waiting. Prophets prepare people’s hearts to welcome living water, to expect streams in the desert, to trust the swift sunrise we thought might never come. Prophets make plans for the field that will be planted when the exile is ended and we return home. And new hope is born just when there seems to be no room at the inn.

It’s not enough for us to preach that the world is broken. Too often, what we call “prophetic witness” goes this far and no further. The real work of prophets criticizes and then inspires us to participate in the way all things are made new. And this means making a choice about allegiances. Bob Dylan famously reminds us, “you gotta serve somebody.”

In a world where so many of us are in captivity to cynicism and fear, those called to the work of prophets must make the daily choice to be prisoners of Hope. When we live in it, that deep Hope – the hope on the other side of despair – is contagious.

Writing from prison in 1656, George Fox described his understanding of the essential nature of Quaker ministry, and the work of prophets:

So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the Spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same Spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures, and with one another.

In other words, Friends’ prophetic ministry is about mutual liberation. It keeps us close to the edge of newness and the inbreaking of God’s continuing creation. It means being ready for the revolution that is already here, and coming right around the corner. Prophetic work helps us rediscover and reclaim essential truths in the context of our time. Prophets give new birth to what we deeply need.


Birth is messy. It can be scary, painful, and confusing. It involves risk. Having a midwife helps.

The work of midwives is often less visible. Midwives do the work of accompaniment, the work of being with. This takes wisdom, patience, and discernment. It needs timing and skill.

The work of spiritual midwives is also about accompaniment. This is the facilitating motion. It’s a motion of drawing out, of helping new life be born in one another, in the community, and in the world.

In the work of spiritual midwifery, we are always being born anew. The spiritual rebirth that comes into the world comes through every member of our meeting community. We have a responsibility to each other: to midwife our Friends into new ways of serving and living.

For nearly four years I participated in a ministry of healing and peacebuilding in relationship with Iraqi people changed forever through war. Being with those holding such profound suffering changed me, too. I feel more deeply now. And I am less afraid of being with.

From a dear Iraqi friend, I learned that a word Iraqis use for “midwife” is the same as the word used for “electrical generator”. I can hear what the word means now: Mualideh: “Something – or someone – who draws out what we so deeply need”.

At first it may seem a strange connection. But when refrigeration in the blazing Mesopotamian heat means the difference between access to scarce lifesaving medicines and death from preventable disease, the parallel is more clear. Within it is the recognition that especially in the midst of the most horrific human suffering, the birth of new life and the nourishment it brings to the whole community may be our deepest need. New life is Hope, a future. In the most basic way, those who help draw out this new life are delivering tomorrow.


Midwives must also be mindful of the ripeness, the readiness, the time for new Life to be born. If the baby isn’t ready, great violence can be done by trying to force its birth – and even when the baby and mother are ready, it can still require deep reservoirs of patience and willingness to struggle and wait until the new life comes fully into the world.

Midwifery is a work of mercy. Without the work of midwives, new life would still seek to be born. But it might be born with greater pain, with unneeded
complications, with trauma and confusion. And sometimes, that new life wouldn’t be born at all — and the world would not have it.

Spiritual midwifery requires knowing one another deeply. The work is tender. It’s happens in places of vulnerability – and we are nowhere more vulnerable than when what is most True and Real is being born in and through us. If we don’t really know and trust those in our community, surrendering to each other’s care can feel impossible.

Job Scott writes about this work in a way that opened my understanding of the work of midwives. A widely travelled Quaker minister from New England active in the late 1700s, Job had a keen understanding of the movement of the Spirit in the meeting for worship; I think it translates to our life together as well. This is how his journal describes the interplay of the work of prophets and the work of midwives:

This may be strange doctrine to some; but others know that the spring must be opened in the hearer, or else there can be but little profitably done by the speaker. And [he] that speaks only in the ability that God immediately gives, must feel a door of entrance in the people’s minds, or it is very difficult to get safely and relievingly forward. But when the spring is livingly opened in [him] that speaketh, and in those that hear, then it is that deep calleth unto deep…

This “spring being opened in the hearer” is the motion of midwives. This is the motion of expectation. Midwives come to their work trusting that great joy could be born through those they encounter.

The work of midwives waits with us at the door, and helps us take the next step forward. As the longing in one of us calls out to the gift in another, something opens. Deep calls to deep. Together, we draw out the nourishment we so deeply need. Prophets give birth to new life, and midwives deliver tomorrow.


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.


The work of prophets, the work of midwives, and the work of thieves. A ministry of the whole. What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God?

Even the most beautiful stories grow tired, and need to be told again in new ways.

Together, these inseparable motions compose the ecology of faithfulness. Through them, God transforms us. Our local meetings are essential ecosystems for transformation. This is what the Quaker movement is for.

There’s something about the dynamic tension, as the lion of my fierce inward leading meets the lamb of my meeting’s genuine engagement. I surrender to the sense of the meeting, and the meeting surrenders to its responsibility to help me grow in faithfulness. The Kingdom of Heaven happens.

Our local meetings can be nurseries where individual leadings are rooted and nourished by a community where all three motions are active. We all need Friends willing to meet us where we are, wait with us, walk with us, hold us, challenge us, encourage us, help us to recognize when it’s not time yet, and bring us back to what’s most real when we stumble or wander from the Way. There’s an Iraqi saying about community that it’s not the finger that matters most, but the hand and the arm behind it. It takes a meeting to raise a ministry.

These motions are coming together in New England. New life is being born. I see prophetic currents flowing in our yearly meeting as we tell the truth about our historical and present relationship with native peoples, our spiritual ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade, and our present struggle with racism. We’re exploring how we as a People can embrace new ways of living in right relationship with Creation. We’re reclaiming our tradition of ministry. At the edge of newness, we are beginning to rediscover the work of prophets.

We are walking with each other into the places where new Life is rising up in our yearly meeting, allowing our precious resources of time, energy, and money to follow those channels. We are responding to the longing we feel to realign our committees and structures, helping the living water to flow more freely among us. Here, the motion of thieves and the motion of midwives flow together. We come toward one another with open hands to roll away the stones. In this work of expectation, we are delivering tomorrow.

To get here, we had to make space. For three years, our yearly meeting embraced the practice of Jubilee. We laid aside our usual business, and opened ourselves to what we called “meeting for wandering in the desert.” This was painful and challenging work. As we began to make room, we came to see that we weren’t where we’d hoped. Despite our love for one another, we can still hurt each other. We saw ourselves a long way from the fullness of the life-giving witness we seek to be in the world. We went into the space of authenticity, and we waited there together. The humility and vulnerability brought by seeing our shared condition clearly has begun to show us the growing edges of our faith.

Friends, your yearly meeting is at the growing edge of our movement. Where do you see that new life emerging? How do you sense these motions at work in Southeastern Yearly Meeting?

Things are going to get a lot harder for all of us. Change is coming, and is already here. Our spiritual muscles need to be exercised so they can be ready for the work we are being given.

The world needs communities of deep hope. The world needs the example of a People who make the daily choice to choose faith over fear. The world needs prophets. The world needs midwives. And the world needs thieves.

The world doesn’t need the Quaker movement to solve all of its problems. There’s plenty of work we can join in, plenty of newness being born in which we can share, in which we are already participating. What the world needs now from us as Quakers is for us to live this Way of Love we have been given – as deeply, faithfully, and courageously as we can.

What we’re called to do and who we’re called to be are the same question. Our local meetings can be catalysts for the kind of resilient living that will be ever more needed as pain, confusion, and fear continue to mount. Our world needs so much more than good politics and good ideas. We need hope people can taste, and touch, and hold onto when the world around them is crumbling. We need transformed lives that speak.

People are waking up to the need for authentic Life, a Life beyond human power. They are coming. There is still a great People to be gathered. And we need communities of transformative practice where the ecology of faithfulness thrives to welcome them home. We need the ministry of the whole.

I want to leave you with a message that needs repeating. It was given to me, and now I’m giving it to you.

At the once-in-a-generation World Conference of Friends in Kenya last Spring, as the gathering drew to a close, a young woman rose in the power of the Spirit in meeting for worship. To all of us in the Quaker movement, she offered a message she’d carried for a long time.

The words were simple. This is what she said:

“You have everything you need.”

Noah Merrill is a member of Putney (VT) Meeting. He serves as the General Secretary of New England YM.

This talk is reprinted here by the kind permission of Southeastern YM.