There was a time in not-so-ancient history when a daily newspaper was delivered—in print—to homes like yours and mine. No, really! And it had actual news in it—of international, national, and local interest. Actual news!?!? Google it—the internet can tell you all about these relics.
Growing up, we received our daily newspaper in a yellow tube creatively marked NEWSPAPER, securely tucked under the rusting, gray mailbox. Each morning, it was my job to go and retrieve it. As I walked up the driveway back to our house, I would quickly scan the many pages to glean any items of significance before dutifully handing it off to my parents. There was a hierarchy in our home when it came to catching up on the news, and, as the youngest, I was at the bottom of the waitlist.
In those days, the newspaper was divided into neat and tidy sections. International news and important national news were found in section one. Business and classified filled section two. Sports dominated section three. And then, in section four, came the feature stories. These were less the who, what, when, and where of the day’s events—and more the articles focusing on a variety of human endeavors and interests. In my newspaper, this was called the Living section.
I think it was when I was in middle school that the Living section began running a daily feature piece called People. It was always on page two and it chronicled the comings and goings of all of the cultural celebrities—the actresses, models, singers, athletes, and politicians. Whenever possible, it also included any noteworthy local people—the self-proclaimed movers and shakers close to home. Thanks to the People section, the rest of us could keep up on the opinions, fashion choices, and activities of the famous, fabulous, wealthy, and beautiful—both those near to us and far away.
In all of the years I read the paper, not one person I actually knew was ever listed in the People section. Usually, the same persons would show up over and over again in this section—but the rest of us, actually the vast majority of us, never had our photos, our names, or anything else about us ever included.
For whatever reason, our plain, ordinary, less-significant lives did not qualify. We were not worthy to show up within a section devoted to the people who mattered most—at least by the standards of the newspaper. In a world just dying to know the latest gossip around the stars, there simply was no time or space to waste on the dimly-lit lives of mere members of the crowd. According to the Living section, people were the unique individuals who were significant enough to be named and to have their faces splashed across the page. The rest of us were part of a nameless, faceless miry, muddled mass. A crowd.
While the Bible certainly has its own share of big personalities, one of my favorite characters throughout the text—and especially in the New Testament—is “the crowd.” It is a group that gets mentioned, in one form or another, about 200 times in the New Testament alone. These are the ones who follow Jesus much of the time and sometimes at a distance. They are curious, desperate for help, eager to hear him teach, and astonished when he says the Kingdom belongs to people just like them. They vacillate between being serious disciples and happy fence-sitters and adversaries.
We do not know much about any of these nameless and faceless ones—not their political persuasions, thoughts on the latest diet plan, or commentary on the hottest social controversy. All we know is they are members of a greater, often invisible, mass of humanity.
Read the New Testament from the perspective of the crowd at some point. Place yourself squarely within that community. Listen from that point of view. See from the vantage point of one who stands in the back of the room rather than the front. Consider how different it feels to watch the drama of God unfold through the eyes of the one who does not assume she is in charge or that he gets to determine the outcome of history for himself or others.
Members of the crowd in the New Testament come from all walks of life. Most often they’re the lower class—the uneducated, common people who tend to blend together and fade into the background when highlights of the day’s most important news are recounted. They were tax-collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all shapes and sizes. Among them, you would find fishermen, farmers, peasant women, and shepherds. Each has a story—an important one—but in most cases it rarely gets told. In a world enamored with the glitter and glitz of those who find or force their way into the limelight, the dim lives of the ordinary and unexceptional pass mainly from view.
But if you read church history, and even our own Quaker story more closely, it is clear that the growth and impact of the gospel would not have been possible without the ones whose names we have never heard. When it comes to the rapid spread of the gospel after the birth of Christ, the reality is that it is mostly attributable to the lives and witness of the crowd rather than the well-known people. Oh, the Pauls, the Peters, the Marys and Marthas had their place and role—but any good historian will say it was the nameless and faceless sisters and brothers who were mostly responsible for the sudden and dramatic rise of Christianity. It was their faithful witness, their radical obedience, their spirit-empowered lives and God-infused love that drew so many, many more into the fellowship of faith. Having encountered Christ, they went back to their lives and work praising and glorifying God along the way—and others noticed the difference. Through their very ordinary and otherwise hidden lives, God used them to make an extra-ordinary difference.
Some days, I get the sense that many Friends wish we could make some big splash to heighten our notoriety and visibility. We want to do something so remarkable, so noteworthy or radically faithful that it will make us more visible and well-known. If we could just end hunger, or sponsor some kind of massive protest captured by the news, or post an insanely popular YouTube video gone viral—everyone would fall in love with Quakers. Suddenly, people would recognize us and we could be relevant. Or, if we just find or create a modern-day Fox or Fell or Woolman, then maybe we Quakers could recapture some of that “world-changer” mojo we fear we have lost.
I am all for changing the world and I greatly appreciate the Quaker heroes, both past and present, who do incredible and noteworthy work around the world. More and more, however, I am inspired and humbled by the quiet, usually unseen, faithfulness of ordinary Friends who are already going about this work every day right where they live. Years from now, when our history is re-told, these people will be remembered as the ones who changed things the most.