Can you remember the New Year’s resolutions you made at the start of the new year? No? Me neither.
What I do remember is that things were going along normally. Life for me was a regular pattern of work and rest; days spent at hospice, afternoon walk with Gloria on sunny days, and preparing for our time together on Sundays in the evenings and on the weekends. There was a nice balance to it all, times of busyness, times of reflection, times to connect.
Ah, those were the days.
Not too long ago, we had a lot more certainty. We were certain that the grocery stores would have what we wanted when we stopped by on the way home. We expected that the school buses would arrive on time, that we’d still have an almost unlimited range of choices when we felt like going out to dinner with friends and family. Of course, we knew the world was worrisome. Rancor in Washington continued to worsen and many ordinary citizens simply turned it all off, unable to understanding it or find voices to trust. Concerns about the state of our society—with its increasing incivility between groups and ideologies—weighed on our minds. The sweeping range of ideas—from belief to disbelief—about climate concerns was a steady heartbeat in the background of daily life.
But life felt normal, and we expected it to continue on, day in and day out, sun up to sun down, more or less the way it was. We dealt with the stresses, savored the joys, and navigated with a sense of faith that, eventually, it would all work out. We kept on keeping on.
Until we couldn’t anymore.
Two weeks ago, almost on the turn of a dime, our society stopped. The emergency brake on our culture was pulled and many people, through no choice of their own, found their lives careening to a halt, confined to their homes with an abundance of time on their hands and little recourse for distraction. The schools were closed, so our kids stayed home. Some businesses encouraged those who could, to work at home and other businesses—especially after the governor’s stay-at-home order—simply closed up shop for how long, no one knows for sure.
It’s no surprise that we might have trouble processing such remarkable, unprecedented changes in such a short period of time. With the exception of the blizzard of 1978 and the shock and trauma in the days following 9-11, I can’t think of a time in my half century when life has stopped, truly stopped, with little clear path forward.
As people, we really aren’t wired for sudden and dramatic changes in our reality. About 70 percent of us, researchers say, operate under what’s known as the normalcy bias, which is the tendency to believe that things will continue on in the future much the same way they have in the past. This causes people to downplay the risk in the path of emergencies, like COVID-19, saying things like, “Oh, it’s nothing to worry about,” or “If I get it, so what?” They don’t take the risk seriously because they are operating from the belief that nothing bad will truly happen; life will go on much as it has always gone on before.
In her book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why, author and Times reporter Amanda Ripley studied the stories of people who survived some of the most terrible disasters of our time: 9-11, plane crashes, nuclear reactor meltdowns, and more. She discovered that a high percentage of people freeze and are unable to act in a disaster, at least in part because of the normalcy bias—their minds had simply denied that there was a real risk, and so they hadn’t thought through any response. Her research showed that people who respond successfully to emergency tend to go through three phases: Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment. First they, like others, may deny that such a thing is happening, or such a risk exists. But then they think about it realistically, deliberating about what they would do if there were a problem, if they did get sick, if their loved one needed care. Then when and if the moment called for action, they could be decisive and realistic and respond to the situation appropriately.
We are in such a moment now, a moment in which everything has changed, and we need to be clear-eyed and open-minded about what it is asking of us and what it is offering us. Even though our reality may for the moment feel mostly like a loss, this sweeping and forced change in the way we usually live our lives offers us a grace, too, in that it shows us that change—big change, life-shaping change, is possible. Yes, we can stay home with our families, looking at one another across a dinner table instead of staring into our phones. We are doing it. Yes, we can find a larger common goal shared by the majority of humanity—the desire to live, to preserve the lives of those we love, the yearning for a world that is healed and whole. Months ago we might have believed this was impossible. And yet that is what we’re leaning toward, trying for, working at even now.
We Friends are typically fairly comfortable being confined in stillness and small places. Early Friends like George Fox, Margaret Fell, and William Penn did some of their best and strongest writing—texts we still turn to today—during their many times of imprisonment for their faith.
William Penn was a very young man—just twenty years old—at the time of the Great Plague in London. This was a resurgence of the Bubonic Plague that killed an estimated 100,000 people in London alone, one quarter of the city’s population during a span of 18 months in 1665-1666. His father sent him to manage an estate the family owned in Ireland, and it was there that he spent considerable time in the company of Thomas Loe, a traveling Quaker minister, and became a convinced Friend.
Two years later, William Penn was imprisoned in the Tower of London because of his new-found religious beliefs, and it was there that he wrote what remains as one of his most influential books, No Cross No Crown. In the introduction to the book, Penn writes the following, [www.gutenberg.org/files/44895/44895-h/44895-h.htm]
“Come, Reader, hearken to me awhile; I seek thy salvation; that is my plot; thou wilt forgive me. A refiner is come near thee, his grace hath appeared unto thee; it shows thee the world’s lusts and teaches thee to deny them. Receive his leaven, and it will change thee: his medicine, and it will cure thee: he is as infallible as free; without money, and with certainty. A touch of his garment did it of old: it will do it still: his virtue is the same, it cannot be exhausted: for in him the fullness dwells, blessed be God for his sufficiency.”
Through Penn’s writings is a call to change and the promise that if only we will open our hearts to the light of Christ, it will change us; it will heal us. This also was the invitation of the psalmist, when he called out to God, saying in Psalm 43:3,
“O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”
This, he understood, was the changing work of grace, an interruption in the normal routine of our lives that suddenly shows us that things don’t have to continue to be the way they’ve seemingly always been. If we choose, if we’re open to it, God’s light will lead us, making everything bright with fresh truth and value. Suddenly we see what matters—not on a petty, daily, worldly scale but on a priceless, eternal one.
If you go back and read the story of Jesus’ ministry, you’ll see that his whole life during those years was an interruption in grace. He had a sense of his overall purpose, certainly, you hear him say it in Mark 1: 35-39, the New Testament scripture we have for today:
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.”
Jesus knew that these interruptions—whether it was the disciples breaking in on a moment of quiet prayer or sarcastic words from the Pharisees or a woman dragged to him in shame—these were invitations of grace, circumstances, people, ideas that needed healing. From one to the next, teaching, uplifting, healing, guiding, Jesus poured his love and light into each of the needs the moments presented. Behind all those interruptions—countless twists and turns through the course of every day—Jesus knew God’s love was at work.
We are now in a moment of great interruption—disruption is the more accurate word. Being smart and safe, staying at home and paying attention to reliable experts is vitally important, not just for us and our families but for our communities, our state, our world. But we also have a choice about how we view this interruption, which can make all the difference in what we see. What if we look at this time as an interruption by grace? With God’s leading and presence, this time for us could become a time of deepening, a time of clarifying, a time of coming closer to God and remembering what truly matters about this life. Not the shoes we shop for or the accomplishments we pile up but the type of humans we are, in our hearts, in our souls. We can let God once again show us what really matters—not the empty, fading things of everyday life, but love, truth, mercy, kindness, God’s qualities that flow to us, enfolding us, leading us, teaching us—from eternity to eternity—even now.
- OT Psalm 43:3
- NT Mark 1: 35-39
- Amanda Ripley NPR interview: https://www.npr.org/2008/07/22/92616679/identifying-who-survives-disasters-and-why
- William Penn, No Cross No Crown: www.gutenberg.org/files/44895/44895-h/44895-h.htm
- William Penn biography: www.quakersintheworld/org/quakers-in-action/3/William-Penn