Memories are such funny things. This week, out of the blue, I remembered a moment from more than 30 years ago that became the seed for this morning’s message. My brother John had come to visit when I was living in Brown County, and we were having coffee in the kitchen that morning when he shared something interesting that his friend had said to him recently: “Righteousness is the next right thing.”
This was in the context of a much larger conversation, but the idea was that righteousness, which seems like such a big, unreachable, God-level concept, is really much more personal, much more doable, than that word makes it sound. It simply means choosing the next right thing. In this moment, and the next, and the next. Creating a righteous life, a life lived in tune with God’s qualities, is simply choosing love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, compassion—in the tiny, daily moments of our lives–over and over and over again.
I love the idea that this big impossible thing that seems so far beyond our mostly failing human efforts could be small enough to hold in our hands, to fold up gently and put in our pockets. This kind of personal righteousness we can do. It goes with us. And God is along to help.
This week I’ve been thinking about peace in the same way. Peace as a concept—for everyone, everywhere, all the world round—is a huge and at this moment a seemingly unreachable concept. As things in our country begin to calm down, the signs of division are still unmistakable: we have big canyons of understanding stretching between people with different views and experiences and perceptions of the world. And those differing realities may be with us for a while. We need a way to be with each that doesn’t require agreement on all our views. How might we serve God’s purpose of peace—a kind of pocket peace we carry with us always—in a way that helps others feel comfortable around us whether we have the same ideas or not? What might be a simple step of peace that’s easy enough for all of us to take?
My mind first went to the iconic prayer attributed to St. Francis. Scholars tell us the prayer wasn’t actually written by him, even though it is consistent with his views about God’s love and healing in the world. They point out that Francis’s writings (and many of them still exist today) never focused on himself or used the pronouns “I” or “me” repeatedly. Francis kept his focus on God and God’s love for his creations, from the smallest animal to the cosmos at large.
But the prayer we’re all familiar with was originally published in French in 1912. That first version, translated into English, goes like this:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
The specific nature of the first half of the prayer—answering each need with the quality of God that heals it—is a beautiful treasure of both logic and hope. Nothing ever goes unanswered. Every need is met by the goodness of God. God’s love heals hatred; pardon smooths offence. Union is the sweet answer to jangly discord. Truth undoes error. Faith is the balm for doubt; hope dissolves despair. Light—as we Quakers know—dispels the darkness. And joy—joy, the quality of God I think God most wants us to share and experience with each other—is the cure for sadness.
Each healing quality is an active demonstration of God’s love for us—love, pardon, union, truth, faith, hope, light, and joy. Each one, an antidote to the wounds and heartaches we find in this world: hatred, offence, discord, error, doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness. We’ve certainly had a lot of those darker feelings lately haven’t we, with the state of our world, the exhaustion and threat of the virus, and all the worries that hang over us, clouding today and seeming to threaten tomorrow? These first verses remind us that no matter what, there is an answer to the pain and fear of this realm–there is light and hope and joy. And we will find it in a real way and fold it up gently and put it in our pockets, when we remember to open our hearts to God.
The second half of the prayer changes, moving its focus from outward to inward, helping us learn what’s needed when we do what we can to share God’s love each day. Let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console, the prayer says. To be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. In other words, God, help me not to make this all about me, focusing on my desire to be loved and accepted and understood. Help me instead to let your love flow others, naturally and easily, so that I may be an instrument of your peace. May I care more about what others need of your consolation and understanding and love and let go of my over-focus on myself and my wants and needs.
What a different world that would create, if we were able to live in tune with that kind of Godly love! It might happen only two people at a time, sure, but then those two people put the needs of those they meet ahead of their own needs, and then that group of people does the same—soon you are touching a town, a city, a state, a nation with kindness and caring, the seeds of peace.
In 2017, Michigan State University published some interesting research that showed that emotions are contagious and that we regularly “catch” others’ moods—good or bad—without knowing what’s happening. The more animated the person—showing facial expressions, using gestures, speaking in a loud or funny voice—the more likely their emotions are to make an impact on us. And some of us seem to “catch” others’ emotions more easily than others—we’re “emotionally susceptible.” You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever spent time with a friend who is in a bad mood and you feel irritated for no real reason after you go your separate ways. Or conversely, maybe you were having a bad morning when someone happy showed up and changed your day for the better.
Research done by two professors–one from Harvard University and the other from the University of California, San Diego—found that our emotions travel through our connections to one another, in what they call our social networks. This isn’t specifically Facebook and Instagram, but social media sites can certainly be part of it. What’s surprising is that the research shows our social networks—that web of connections our own personal emotions impact–are much larger than we know, radiating outward to not only our friends and their friends, but their friends’ friends’ friends! So as hard as this may be to believe, research is showing that the peace, love, or joy we feel inside could possibly be helping to lift the spirits of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, some we don’t even know and may never see. The research says that each happy person in social network cluster adds about 9% more happiness to the group.
That, my Friends, is how light shines in the darkness!
Conversely, of course, the effect is also true. If we are hurt or despairing, losing touch with hope or cynical or angry about the state of the world, those emotions we hold inside can also be “caught” by those around us. If those are our consistent feelings inside, we’re the ones that need healing, or comfort, or rest. Our Quaker tradition gives us a gentle, lovely way to get quiet before God. As our Old Testament scripture from Isaiah says, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” We can remember—even when we’re hurting—to turn our thoughts toward God, and God’s good qualities of truth and love, mercy and understanding will flood into our hearts and minds. And then, refreshed and renewed with a sense of faith and hope, we can begin once again to be instruments of peace for others.
Our scripture for today is a passage we’ve likely heard since we were children: the set of “beatitudes” or blessings that Jesus offers on the mountainside.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Similar to the structure we heard in the Prayer of St. Francis, Matthew 5: 3-6 let us know if we are hurting—poor in spirit, mourning, meek, or hungry for righteousness—God knows and sees and cares about our pain. And God naturally, easily heals it. If we’re down in spirit, literally dispirited or discouraged, God lifts our eyes to the kingdom of heaven. If we’re mourning—and with COVID-19 there are more than 400,000 families in this country grieving the loss of a family member at this very moment—God brings tenderness and comfort, reassurance and hope.
If we feel worn out, used up, and under-appreciated, God helps us find renewal, rest, and a sense of dignity as we “inherit the earth.” And those who have been treated unfairly, cheated, hurt, and rejected will be brought out into the sunlight and given their fair share of the goodness of life. God will do it, Jesus says, “for they will be filled.”
So in this first set of blessings, Jesus tells us that when we are struggling and in pain, when we need healing ourselves, God will faithfully and lovingly meet those needs. The second set of blessings he shares give us an idea of how our healed hearts can now be a blessing to others:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Here he shows us what living with healed hearts and doing our best to instruments of God’s peace really looks like. These people live in touch with the flowing goodness of God’s love in the world. And it’s interesting to note that each of the qualities mentioned here–mercy, purity, peace, and righteousness–aren’t things we do alone, in the quiet of our homes; they are relational qualities, ways we act when we meet, interact, share, and work with others.
When we struggle with boundary issues or we don’t see eye to eye, these are the antidotes, Jesus says: mercy, purity, peace, and doing the next right thing, for love’s sake. We can choose purposefully the kind of energy we want to share with the world—knowing it can potentially impact hundreds of people around us. We can choose to be merciful, to do our best to live with pure hearts in tune with God. We can always look for the peaceful answer and set an intention to follow a path of righteousness—choosing the next right thing—no matter what the cost, because it matters—to us and to God and to the world we’re creating together.
In a world so big and so loud and so fast-moving, it is easy to tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter what we do, that we are small and unimportant people awash in an overwhelming ocean of life. But the truth is, and the research shows, that on a spiritual and emotional level, our impact is much larger and more immediate than we know, felt in hearts and lives stretching beyond our small daily horizons. What a great opportunity for a ministry of peace right where we are, each of us, as we treasure in our hearts the loving qualities God shares so freely with us: love, pardon, union, truth, faith, hope, light, and joy.
Peace is not a far-off, impossible and unreachable concept. It can be our daily reality, the next right choice we make, beginning with the qualities of God we hold purposefully in our hearts. And as we get good at that—and God will help us get there—those qualities we hold may just be the spark that light the flame of love in people’s hearts the whole world over.
Let’s try it and see.
- OT Isaiah 26:3
- NT Matthew 5: 3-10
- “Emotional Contagion” https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/emotions_are_contagious_learn_what_science_and_research_has_to_say_about_it