‘Service is our sacrament’

By Mimi Marstaller

One of the phrases from June’s Friends United Meeting Triennial that sticks with me is “As Quakers, service is our sacrament.” The man who spoke these words is named Ross and he works with the Quaker Voluntary Service program (www.quakervoluntaryservice.org). I heard these words after having had a few conversations with Friends about the existence and practice of sacraments in Quaker Meetings and appreciated Ross’s concise summary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says a sacrament is sign of grace, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer calls a sacrament an outward sign of an inward grace given unto us, through which we also receive grace. Each definition contains the same two movements: We receive God’s grace, and by performing a sacrament receive another dose of the healing power and life of the Spirit.
I can easily see service in this construction. I am able to help a neighbor because of the life energy, skills and awareness that God gave me by grace. When I help that neighbor — watching her children while she does an errand, bringing in the recycle bin from the sidewalk, offering a joyful greeting in the morning, inviting her to a backyard barbeque — I feel closer to divine life.

In a QuakerSpeak video called “Form without Substance,” Michael Birkel explains that Early Quakers took issue with the formal nature of sacraments that could be performed without much attention being paid. Service, as I see Quakers perform it, solves this problem by reversing it. Opportunities for service — opportunities to experience divine life— present themselves without form, spontaneously through our days. And because acts of service are our own work, they are substantive: Service springs from our hearts and exists within our
daily living experience, rather than in a book or a church building.

As summer arrives and schedules become changeable, we might seek spiritual nourishment less in the formal activities of the school year, and more in the substantive but spontaneous sacrament of service.

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