Friends, this has been a heartbreaking week. As the daily death toll of COVID-19 surpassed previous records and hospitals across the country reported being overwhelmed and out of beds, we watched horror-stricken and helpless as violence, chaos, and unchecked rage boiled over in our nation’s capital, defacing one of our democracy’s most sacred places, threatening and endangering elected officials, and ultimately causing the deaths of five human beings. Pain and fear, outrage and despair stretch from coast to coast in the aftermath of the violence.
So dark. So devastating. So hard to understand peoples’ intentions and motivations, the rationale behind such destructive acts. It is also hard for us, as Friends, to do what our faith asks us to do–to see “that of God” in others, when they are fueled by mendacity and bent on destruction—especially when the destruction is pointed at traditions and values and institutions we hold dear.
Part of the story of this deeply divisive time in our country’s history is the way people silo up in their own realities, believing that the way they look at life is the “truth” and that all other views are at best, badly misguided, and at worse, evil. Science has shown—although we don’t often remember this—that our differences are hard-wired. Each one of us—no matter how similar we seem in our faith, our choices, and our lives—has a view of life that is uniquely our own. Our past experiences, our expectations, the culture we grew up in, the color of our skin, the privileges we’ve enjoyed, and the hardships we’ve endured all contribute to our beliefs about the world, about each other, and about God.
The fact that we are different—on just about every level—is a given. Add to that the challenging reality that we can’t read each other’s minds or look directly into each other’s hearts, and there’s always a bit of a gap in our understanding of each other. It is in that gap—the stretch between us that makes us different—where we have the opportunity to decide the type of world we want to create together. The beliefs we hold and the emotions that drive us have shaping power in the world we see. For better and for worse, they are the fuel behind our actions.
In the Religious Society of Friends, we take a high view of people, believing deep down in the inherent goodness of others and steering by the idea that every life is worthy of respect and dignity. We believe what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Luke, that “the kingdom of God is within you.” We hold to the idea that the potential for goodness, for peace, for God is always present in every life. When Jesus said that to the Pharisees, he was trying to shine a light on their tragically misguided goals as they sought power and prestige above all else. They completely missed the clear light of truth when it was speaking right to them. As we all know, tragically, they never listened to Jesus or took his teachings or example to heart.
Our belief in the goodness of people has been a part of our tradition from the beginning. In a letter written from prison in Cornwall in 1656, George Fox encouraged us to look purposefully for God in each person we meet. He wrote,
And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
That invitation, that ideal certainly presents us with a challenge and a problem in a time like this. Be patterns, be examples, Fox says, of God’s goodness, God’s presence in the world. How can we embody hope when people around us are anxious and despairing? What might our faith show those who struggle, feeling overwhelmed by the darkness they see in the world?
Fox tells us the first step is to live our lives so that our faith shines out naturally in all we do. Then the rest comes as result: we will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But living with faith in the midst of a real and chaotic world isn’t simple. In fact, as we are experiencing right now, it can be quite hard and quite heartbreaking. But there is a way through and it involves choosing, over and over and over again, to trust God, to turn toward God, to let God comfort us when times are scary and upsetting. We ask God to help us find good in those who hurt us, to forgive those who don’t deserve it, to recognize and remove the boards of prejudice and bias from our own eyes—that is the hard, daily, continual work of faith.
I remember hearing a writer say, many years ago, “If you want to see what your thoughts look like, look around.” I thought that was a fascinating idea, so I tried it. Immediately I noticed that there was quite a bit of color and life and creative potential around me—my animals, my plants, my guitar and piano, in a room filled with sunlight. So far, so good, I thought. But when I saw there were places of clutter in my office, I asked myself, “Are my thoughts about my work cluttered too?” When I noticed I had a number of old sweaters in my closet that I never wore, I asked myself, “Is it time to let go of old thoughts and beliefs I no longer need?” (And then I took the sweaters to Goodwill.)
It’s kind of a funny example, but it was a really powerful exercise that has stayed with me. I love the idea that what we think about on the inside sooner or later shows up on the outside. It continues to be true in my own life. When I am feeling peaceful, rested, and quiet inside, I am more relaxed with Gloria and Olive. I let them play outside longer, just enjoying their company, just enjoying their joy. But when I feel stressed or knotted up inside, I’m worried about something, or pressed for time, I rush them along, tugging on their leashes and sighing impatiently at them as I wait for them to come inside. My frustration makes me act as though they are doing something wrong, but they’re not. The frustration, the tightness, the unease is within me and sooner or later it shows up in my actions as irritation and sighing. That’s true of so much in our lives, so much we project onto others without knowing it. Our insides and our outsides—our thoughts and beliefs, our actions and effects on others—they are linked.
Our Old Testament reading for today follows beautifully along with this idea. It is a well-known verse from Proverbs: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” This to me is the seed of truth that eventually blossoms in our lives, for good or for ill. If we have a peaceful heart, a happy heart, a forgiving heart, a kind heart, it will be visible in our loving connections with family members, fun with friends, and kind encounters with strangers. If our hearts are full of frustrations, resentments, or suspicions, those seeds, too, will bear fruit in our outer lives, creating conflicts and heartaches, distrust and blame.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written we think some 15 to 20 years after Jesus’ death, he is addressing the people of Phillipi from his cell in prison. He tells them he is hopeful he will be released but finds it possible to rejoice even if his imprisonment ends in his death. He is able to face whatever comes because he trusts God and he has hope. He encourages his readers to be good to one another and forgive each other, resolving conflicts quickly so their community can grow in love and harmony, as God would have it do.
Verses 4 through 9 in Chapter 4 give us a kind of how-to manual for guarding our hearts, helping us learn to live with peace and hope even as the far world around us rages. Here’s what Paul says:
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul’s first step says to approach all our experiences with joy, come what may. That might seem like a tall order when things look bad, when we are disheartened and anxious or upset and sad. But when we remember that God is always doing something good, we can begin to look for that goodness, no matter how small it may be, remembering that joy helps move us toward the world we want to create. God helps us with that. Paul says, “The Lord is near.” When we remember that God is our companion, life gets happier.
Next Paul asks us to recognize that our anxiety is destructive and, in fact, is the opposite of faith. It takes us down a painful path, filling our minds and hearts with doubt. As an antidote, Paul encourages us that instead of letting anxiety have its way, we take every concerning situation we have to God and leave it in God’s lap, trusting that our prayers will be answered in the perfect way at the perfect time. We can remember, and claim, and remind ourselves that God is always doing something good on our behalf.
The third step Paul offers is his way of telling us to guard our hearts and minds. We should pay attention to our thoughts, Paul says, because sooner or later they will appear in our environments. If we want to create a better world, we need to feed our minds with beautiful things, true things, noble things and right things. With what’s pure and lovely, admirable and excellent—that should be our daily diet. And then—because our inside world is linked to our outside one—God’s light becomes more visible in our world. And peace becomes our constant companion. And things—near and far–begin to change for the better.
As we get better and better at guarding our hearts and filling them with the qualities of God, our outer world will begin to feel a little safer, more beautiful, better connected. We get a sense that God’s Love and Light are with us and when difficulties arise—and they will—the trouble unknots and resolves more easily because we turned toward God for the solution. The world we all saw on Wednesday—shocking us with its violence, brokenness, disrespect, and destruction—was not evidence of God’s presence, shining with a natural outpouring of love and grace, goodness and peace. What we witnessed was a world that’s lost touch with hope, that is fighting for power, mistakenly fueled by grievance and outrage and cynicism. But the good news is that God can bring peace and renewal, light and grace even there, even now. Let’s hope and pray that that is the sacred opportunity our country learns through this crisis.
So yes, in our far outer world, bad things can happen as all kinds of people with free will act on their beliefs about the reality they are experiencing. We may feel powerless or even despair as we witness the surges of hopelessness and cynicism that seem to be marching toward things we hold dear. But we are not helpless and there is hope. We know because we carry it within us, in our well-guarded hearts, as we hold with determination onto God’s qualities–whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, whatever is excellent or praiseworthy. These qualities—claimed and treasured—will sooner or later show up in our experience. Want to see your thoughts? Look around.
Let’s carry that idea with us as we continue on our Friendly quest to find and bless and share the inherent goodness present even now in the world around us. May God’s peaceful and loving Light shine the way, guiding us as we do our best to be patterns and examples, “walking cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”
- OT Proverbs 4:23
- NT Philippians 4: 4-9