People have various motives for volunteer service. Some want to "feel good about themselves." Others want to "give back" to the community. Others see service as a spiritual calling, a way of connecting with God. In Hinduism, such service is called karmayoga--literally, "connecting [with the Divine] through action." Medieval monks expressed a similar concept when they said, Laborare est orare: "To work is to pray."
There are of course many ways to be of service. Some, like Harold Confer, serve by going to troubled areas and showing by their sweat and commitment that God is real and God cares. Others, like Simone d'Aubigne, freely contribute their time and talents to raise funds and help others to help themselves.
Others serve simply by their patience. When workaholic John Milton went blind from writing too many polemical pamphlets (the activists' nightmare!), he wrote his famous sonnet with the line, "They also serve who only stand and wait." Ironically, Milton's blindness forced him to slow down and do what he had always felt called to do in the deepest part of his being--write the great English epic. But before he did so, he had to learn to serve by waiting, being silent, and trusting utterly in the Divine.
Quakers often serve by "sitting and waiting." When I first became a Friend, I couldn't understand how Friends could sit through long, dreary hours on Committees. Now I realize that committee work is a form of patient service without which our Quaker activism would be impossible.
Much of the most spiritually significant service we perform is utterly private--a matter between us and God. This aspect of service is illustrated by a tale from a book by Saul Bellow entitled If Not Further:
There was once a rabbi in a small Jewish village in Russia who vanished every Friday for several hours. The villagers boasted that during these hours their rabbi ascended to heaven to talk with God. A skeptical newcomer arrived in town, determined to discover where the rabbi really was.
One Friday morning the newcomer hid near the rabbi's house, watched him rise, say his prayers, and put on the clothes of a peasant. He saw him take an axe and go into the forest, chop down a tree, and gather a large bundle of wood.
The rabbi proceeded to a shack in the poorest section of the village in which lived an old woman. He left her the wood, which was enough for the week. The rabbi then quietly returned to his own home.
The story concludes: The newcomer stayed on in the village and became a disciple of the rabbi. And whenever he hears one of his fellow villagers say, "On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven," the newcomer quietly adds, "If not further."
This rabbi did not need to preach or advertise his spirituality. His life spoke more compellingly than words. This aspect of service was also illustrated by Quakers who did relief work in Germany after World War II. They labored on behalf of displaced persons (DP's) with such devotion and dedication that someone asked them about their religious beliefs. After Friends explained as best they could what Quakerism is about, the German DP exclaimed: "You Quakers should preach what you practice!"
In light of this tradition of Quaker service, which many Friends are seeking to revive, we would do well to consider the following query:
If a skeptic were to follow me around and observe my life today, would he or she be inspired to become a Friend?