We’ve been dabbling in the Quaker sayings these past several weeks. We talked about Minding the Light and That of God In All People. Last Sunday, Keith Wimmersberger explored the historic parallels between Baptist and Quaker spirituality, our chief similarities being spiritual feistiness, and a healthy suspicion of religious authorities. Anyone who can keep a roomful of people hanging on their every word while discussing religious history has my vote for Preacher of the Year!
This morning I’m inviting us to think about the Quaker saying, Let your life speak, which is a paraphrase of George Fox’s counsel to early Friends to Let yours lives preach. Beginning in 1652, Fox wrote roughly 400 letters laying out his theology, many of them lengthy, specific, and rather tedious. Eventually, Quaker historians brought order to chaos by numbering these letters. In the 200th Epistle, Fox wrote this little gem of a phrase— “Let your lives preach…,” meaning let your lives reflect your values. We don’t just preach with our lips, we preach with our lives. Let your lives preach. Over time, the word preach was replaced with the word speak, helped along by Parker Palmer’s marvellous book Let Your Life Speak. I really like Parker Palmer, he’s a kind and gracious man, and a fine Quaker, but I’d like him a lot more if his books didn’t sell more copies than mine.
Let your life preach. Make sure your life reflects your values. Because there are few things so discouraging and destructive as hypocrisy and duplicity, when people say one thing, but do another. Nothing will kill a spiritual movement so quickly as insincerity and hypocrisy. Nothing will doom a spiritual movement so thoroughly than to populate it with people who know exactly what to say, exactly what to believe, but have no commitment to the life and values they describe. We all know people who’ve done that, and if we’re honest, we confess our own failures to live with our lives what we have preached with our lips. Indeed, I know this Quaker minister who talks all the time about the importance of simplicity, but owns five motorcycles. Go figure.
But that is not all this phrase means. Letting our lives speak means not only living out our virtues, it is also means paying attention to your life, and listening to your experience, and letting others do the same. I remember when my siblings and I were little and we’d all get to talking at once, except for my brother David who was the youngest and not as vociferous as the rest of us. My mother would say, “Let David speak. Give David a turn.”
You and I go out into the world and we pay heed to all the expert voices, who are only too happy to tell us what to think, what to do, how to vote, and how to live. The trends and the movements and the fashions and fads are putting in their two cents. Our friends, albeit well-meaning, are saying, “I’ll tell you what I’d do if it were me…” Social media offers up its counsel.
We’re listening to all these clamoring voices, and all the while our lives are standing silently in the corner, unable to get a word in edgewise. Let your life speak. Beware though, friends, when you let your life speak, when you call on your life to speak, and give your life its turn to speak, there will always be those who say your life shouldn’t speak. This is especially true if your life is the life of a woman, or the life of a person of color, or the life of a gay person, or the life of someone poor. In this nation, we have made it abundantly clear we don’t want those lives to speak. We have made it abundantly clear we want those lives to stay in the corner, in the kitchen, in the closet, in the slums. When they let their lives speak, we turn away, and when we grow weary of turning away, we turn on them. We have made it abundantly clear that some lives should never speak. Their story is one we do not wish to hear. But I say, let their lives speak, too.
The genius of Quakerism was its insistence, from Day One, that every life should speak.
When we refused to tip our hats to the powerful and high-born, or tickle their ears with fawning language, we were saying, “Every life should speak, not just the wealthy.”
When we said women and children could also teach and preach and lead, we were saying, “Every life should speak, not just men’s.”
When we fought to free the enslaved, we were saying, “Every life should speak, not just ours.”
When we labored for reform in our prisons, we were saying, “Every life should speak, not just those at liberty.”
When the Quaker Rufus Jones visited Germany in 1938 to condemn the cruelties visited upon German’s Jews, we were saying, “Every life should speak, not just Christian’s.”
Today, when we defend the rights of Palestinians, when we empower the poor, when we agitate and legislate for justice and freedom for all, when we house the homeless, when we feed the hungry, when we tend the sick, and defend the defenseless, we are saying, “Every life should speak.”
Let your life speak, but even as you let your life speak, make sure you are helping the lives of others to speak.
I love that story of Jesus, when he is talking with the disciples, and the children begin to speak. The disciples are put out, and view it as an interruption, but Jesus says, “Allow them to come to me, and hinder them not, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Let their lives speak. Jesus might well have been the first Quaker. And hinder them not.
Let our lives speak, but even as we let ours lives speak, make sure we hinder not, we silence not, the lives and voices of others. Keith’s sermon last week was powerful, indeed. But Keith knows, and I know, and you know too, that letting our lives preach is the higher good.