If someone had told you last fall that by the end of the first week of October in 2020, you would have been in your house for roughly eight months, missed out on all your favorite events, like festivals and fairs and sporting events and concerts, that you’d would be sitting at home this morning watching church in your jammies (which I admit may not be an entirely bad change), you probably wouldn’t have believed it. And you wouldn’t be alone. We simply wouldn’t have been able to believe it was possible that our world would change, from one year to the next, so dramatically, so quickly, so completely.
Last October there was no way to foresee the life we would be living right now. It’s in our nature to expect life to continue in the future the way it was in the past, with the people, activities, and events we’ve known. That expectation is known as the normalcy bias, the idea that things will unfold the way we expect them to, following a familiar storyline. And because for the most part, we expect “normal,” we’re not always prepared—and are sometimes thrown for a loop—when “abnormal” happens.
It’s likely that none of us have ever lived through a more “abnormal” time than the one we’re living through right now. We collectively respond to that loss of normalcy in all sorts of different ways—healthy and not–and we are seeing the impacts of the ongoing stress in peoples’ lives all around the world. On the healthy side, folks try to stay positive, stay grateful for the little things, use technology to stay in touch with each other, and get outside more to exercise and breathe the fresh air. On the struggling side, and this is everywhere, we are seeing skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety off the charts, worsening mental and physical health, increasing use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, and more.
However we respond to the stresses of this time, whatever choices we’re making, however irritable or avoidant or compassionate we find ourselves being right now, at this moment we are doing the best we can with a situation we’ve never experienced before. God understands that, and gladly accepts whatever our “best” may be today, no matter how small, no matter how incomplete, how far below the standards we expect for ourselves and each other.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he shared his thoughts about how God builds on whatever we offer, no matter how weak it may be. He tells them of a man he knew who was caught up in paradise and heard things from God that cannot be told. But he says he, Paul, doesn’t have a story like to boast about—even though his conversion on the road to Damascus was one of the great transformation stories in all of scripture. Paul says God gave him a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble, to make sure he didn’t grow arrogant in his faith.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me,” he writes. “9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
In his commentary on this passage, Richard Foster writes, “Paul is so consistently counterintuitive! His insistence on the inversion of power and weakness is central to his teaching. Human glory is revealed in what the world misconstrues as weakness; for example, failing to take advantage of one’s opponents or standing aside so that one’s own will does not impede true obedience to God. Paul is especially proud that the “thorn…in the flesh” has not deterred his ministry, which has thrived in spite of it. Overcoming adversity enables one to glorify God all the more.”
Overcoming adversity—illness, anxiety, addiction, depression, unease, irritability, hopelessness—enables us to glorify God all the more, because God’s grace is sufficient for every one of us, wherever we are today, whatever our thorn in the flesh might be. We may think our weakness makes us a poor representative of God’s light, but God says, “Not true, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” We might even say that it’s when we feel weak that we are most likely to let God’s Light come to comfort, companion, and guide us. The Light first ministers to our pain and then shows us the truth and gives us a sense of hope, beginning to open the way and lead us forward.
Today is World Quaker Day, and throughout the world, Friends are celebrating our tradition, which is all about doing our best each day to seek and live in accord with the Light of God. Throughout our 400-year history, Friends have counted on God to provide grace, strength, power, and truth when our human efforts fall short. Because of this trust and faithful following, Friends have pioneered reforms around the world that have made things better across the years—rejecting slavery, calling for peace, improving conditions in prisons and mental hospitals, feeding the hungry, advocating for public education, working for native-American rights.
William Penn was the first great Quaker prison reformer. In the 1680s in what he called his “Great Experiment” in Pennsylvania, Penn abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder. He insisted prisons offer rehabilitation and teach prisoners a trade so they had a workable skill they could use to earn a living when they were released. These ideas were a huge change from the prison system of the day and were based on Penn’s firm belief of “that of God” in everyone.
In the late 1700s, Friends in England became involved in mental health reform when Quaker Hannah Mills was committed to York Asylum. Her family requested that Quakers in York be able to visit Hannah, but they were turned away and she died shortly thereafter. In answer to this pain and heartbreak, Friends founded their own asylum, feeling that “a familiar, Quaker environment would be conducive to a cure.” Not long after that, a group of Philadelphia Friends raised their concern for the treatment and care of the mentally ill and founded the Friends’ Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of their Reason. Their approach of “moral treatment” sought to restore the dignity and sense of worth to individuals struggling with mental illness. Their caring response was the crest of a wave that would lead to widespread reform in the ethical treatment of the mentally ill.
Another well-known example of God’s Light leading forward from a point of concern occurred in the life of 33-year-old John Woolman, a Quaker clerk who wrote out the will and testament of customers who came to him for assistance. Woolman had been feeling a growing inward sense of concern about the issue of slavery in his region, and when a customer for whom he was writing a will wanted to give a slave as property to someone else, Woolman found he just couldn’t write that. Here was a reckoning for him, a stopping of Spirit that demanding his attention, and God’s grace showed him what was needed to move forward. As a result, for the rest of his life Woolman was a great voice and witness for the divine preciousness and dignity of every child of God.
And of course, one of my favorite Friends, Lucretia Mott, was an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and social reformer. She grew up in Nantucket, Massachusetts and attended Friends schools, becoming a teacher after graduation. In her home, she’d been raised with the idea of equality between the sexes—women had equal and respected say in all matters—and so she was surprised to discover as a young teacher that she earned significantly less than her male counterparts. That inequality served to inspire her early interest in women’s rights.
Mott considered slavery to be evil, and after becoming a recorded Friends minister in 1821, with her husband’s support, Mott traveled widely, bringing messages that emphasized the presence of the Divine within every individual. Mott and her husband traveled to London for the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, where Mott was one of six female delegates. Before the convention began, the men voted to exclude the women from participating, and they were made to sit in an area removed from the main convention floor. Good things were learned during that trying time, though, and Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at that same conference. A lifelong connection began that would later lead them to organize the first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York. Mott was a leading voice of truth and witness in the suffragist movement as it grew, which lead, after her death, to the passing of the 19th Amendment, securing women’s right to vote. Author Susan Jacoby wrote that, “”When Mott died in 1880, she was widely judged by her contemporaries… as the greatest American woman of the nineteenth century.”
Each of these Friends, doing what they could in the midst of imperfect, resistant, and often unpredictable circumstances, were able to make a huge difference—reforming social systems in a major way, making lives better for people all across the country—because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness and from that humble point within us all, God’s Light leads us on.
In our Old Testament reading today, the psalmist expresses what he knows to be true—that God’s light comes to help us find our way back to God, where perfect peace, truth, love, and harmony abide:
“Send me your light and your faithful care (or truth), let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.”
What a beautiful thing God’s grace is, finding us wherever we are, unknotting the judgments we heap on ourselves, turning our dark discouragement into Light-led hope and action. Grace walks right up to us at our weakness point and says, “no worries—this is not who you are. You are still my beloved child and loved beyond anything you can imagine. Let me show you the way back to who you are in Me.” That ocean of light that George Fox saw flowing over the ocean of darkness so many years ago still flows our way, bringing strength, Light, power, love, and clarity—divine companionship and a way forward—right into the places in our lives where we struggle most.
As a wise Friend recently said, “Things are not always what we want them to be and it’s difficult to let loose and turn the situation over to God, but He knows what is best.” Happy World Quaker Day, Friends. Be encouraged that God knows we are doing our best as we navigate this challenging time. We can’t know this morning what our lives will look like at the end of the first week of October in 2021. But we can know this: God’s ever-present power is made perfect in our weakness, and His grace is truly, always, and eternally more than sufficient for us.
- OT Psalm 43:3
- NT 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10