Do you remember that hopeful quote from George Fox where he says he saw an ocean of darkness that was swept over by an infinite ocean of light? We’re just about ready for that big wave of goodness to sweep over our world, aren’t we? This week has been harrowing, with the unprovoked attack by Russia on Ukraine, the heroism of the Ukrainian people, and the threats of nuclear weapons. We are caught up once again in a risky and uncertain reality, after two plus years of living with the uncertainty and risk of COVID sweeping our world. I imagine that most people feel like they could use a break from all the worry, right about now.
And there are signs of great good that are unfolding, even in the midst of struggle and heartache. I think of what Mister Rodgers’ mother told him when he was young and feeling sad and scared by things happening in the world. She said, “Look for the helpers.” We too can see countless examples of helpers, people everywhere, rising up for the good. We saw the Russian people pouring into the streets by the thousands to show the world they want peace and not war. Countries and companies, organizations and individuals are doing more and more to help the Ukrainian people and push back against the aggression in the name of peace. We, here in our meeting, have been praying for peace in Ukraine and throughout the world, and we’re hearing of efforts and ongoing meetings for worship with Friends organizations like Friends World Committee for Consultation, and Quakers in Kyiv, and Friends House in Russia.
But here, in our small town in the middle of the United States, we may feel a bit helpless and hopeless, far separated from where the real need is right now in the world. We may not be sure what we can do, how our efforts will count as a part of the ocean of Light God is raising up in response to the wrongs that are so painfully apparent. That’s where the seed of this message came from—because that helpless feeling is not true—there’s always something loving we can do—and if we believe our efforts don’t matter, we may miss out on the part God has in mind for us. If we believe it’s pointless, we won’t try. We’ll give up. And then the wave of darkness will just keep right on circling the globe. We need to be part of the ocean of light, whether our efforts amount to a tiny drop or a flooding wave.
The temptation to believe the discouraging idea–that our personal efforts are meaningless—is key to understanding the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul is writing to the small, vibrant, church community in the bustling and multicultural seaport of Ephesus. He touches on many important ideas in this letter, including the importance of prayer, the power and work of the Holy Spirit, and how to choose a new, creative way to live in the middle of an old, repressive society. But the verses we heard today have to do with preparing for a kind of spiritual engagement—protecting ourselves and being on guard for doubts and chaos and other tricks of darkness that can keep us from trying our best to be a force for good in this world.
Paul tells his readers to “put on the full armor of God” to protect their minds and hearts from temptations and ideas that will take them off track. The armor includes the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet fitted for readiness with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which, Paul says, is the word of God. That’s quite an image, isn’t it? We have a belt of truth, so we can see and recognize and avoid being swayed by falsehood, by discouraging thoughts that would cause us to give up on loving efforts. We have a breastplate of righteousness that guards our hearts and keeps them true to God. Our feet are ready to move to do what we can to add more peace to the world. We carry a shield of faith to block the arrows designed to make us retreat from trying to make a difference. A helmet of salvation protects our minds and keeps our thoughts on God, and the sword of the Spirit slices through the deceit and deception of this world as God’s holy–and wholly trustworthy–word.
Imagine getting dressed each morning and putting on the armor of God as part of your daily routine. It would only take a minute, but what a difference it could make! Protected and ready to carry God’s light into every circumstance of the day—on purpose—blessing those it touches with peace and love and hope. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and powerless, I imagine we would feel strengthened, ready, and even eager for wherever God wants to lead us each day.
The reason we need this kind of spiritual armor, Paul says, staying aware of what we allow into our minds and hearts, is that the deeper struggle in this world is not about the conflict we see out there, happening between leaders and nations, or in here, between a virus and our immune systems. The real struggle is with the ocean of darkness that George Fox saw so long ago and the chaos and heartache it unleashes on this world. The battle is the classic one that has existed we can assume as long as humans have lived: Which is stronger, love or fear? Which will triumph, hope or despair? Will goodness—God’s goodness, Life’s goodness–ultimately prevail? George Fox—and God—say yes.
This is what Fox wrote in his Journal in 1647, when he was 23 years old:
“I was under great temptations sometimes, and my inward sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. And I went back into Nottinghamshire, and there the Lord shewed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without, were within in the hearts and minds of wicked men… And I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.
Fox began with a sense of his own suffering and temptation, and he learned during that time to take his struggle only to God—perhaps that was his way of clothing himself in God’s Spirit. He saw that so many of the pains and troubles in the world came from the “hearts and minds of wicked men” and Fox asked God, “What does this have to do with me? I don’t commit those evils.” We too might look at all the trouble in the world and wonder what it has to do with us, in the quiet place where we live. What could we possibly do about things that are happening on the other side of the world? But God has an answer for that. And it is to equip us to be part of the solution—to teach us how to help when people need comfort and food, protection and hope. That’s where Fox saw the infinite love of God, working through the hearts of each one of us, inspiring and equipping us to share the light and love we’ve received. And in doing that, we become part of the massive wave of comfort and aid that flows continually to God’s hurting and beloved children.
In Isaiah 40: 1, that is what God is saying to the angels and the messengers gathered around the heavenly throne: “Comfort, O Comfort my people.” God wants his children to know their time of trial is over, and they will be led home in a great and joyful procession together. These verses also appear in the gospels, foretelling the coming of the Great Comforter, Jesus. The commentary in the Life Application Bible says here, “It can be argued that the…teachings and miracles of Jesus are in fact acts of homecoming whereby Jesus restores people to full functioning in life.” Through the deep comfort and understanding, truth and healing Jesus brings, the lives he touches are made whole again. The ocean of light flows over the ocean of darkness, nowhere more powerfully than in the life and example of Christ.
In his book, Hope and Witness in Dangerous Times: Lessons from the Quakers on Blending Faith, Daily Life, and Activism, J. Brent Bill offers ways Friends can engage with the needs of the world while still staying spiritually grounded and acting in love. Brent suggests that across Friends’ long history of working for social justice in many areas of life, we have learned a number of important lessons about spiritual activism. Among these are
- Our hope and witness must be rooted in the life of the Spirit.
- Spiritual activism must have love as its prime motivation.
The idea that the steps we take to help must be led by Spirit is vital to the success of whatever we do. You’ve probably heard the phrase, If God leads you to it, God will lead you through it. That’s certainly true when God is the one inspiring us in relation to a particular need. God directs us and unfolds what’s necessary to see the inspiration through.
In contrast, we can easily feel the difference when we do what Early Friends cautioned against and outrun our Guide. If our plans aren’t led by Spirit, chances are we’ll meet obstacles and upset along the way. But if God is inspiring our actions, things seem to work out smoothly and instead of feeling drained or worried or burdened, we feel renewed and purposeful and maybe invigorated. Being part of God’s ocean of light brings a deep peace and a quiet joy. When we are in the flow of God’s good intention for His children, we feel—maybe for the first time spiritually—that we are Home.
The idea that “Love is the first motion,” ensures that the belief we hold as the basis for our action is connected to God’s bigger purpose in the world. When we are part of the effort to improve things, we can feel that positive movement of ideas and action. Love lifts us too. I think of the story of Mother Teresa who was asked why she hadn’t joined the anti-war movement in the Viet Nam era. She said, “I will never attend an anti-war rally; if you have a peace rally, invite me.” In other words, she wanted to be part of the wave of good, building a better world for people, not spending her energy battling the evils and injustices that had so much power already.
This is what made me think of us wearing our shirts today. We originally created the shirts as a thank you for those who’ve been serving on our very active prayer chain. On the front is a saying coined by Sherry: “Quaker prayers are powerful.” And of course they are! We see evidence of that each week. It seems important that that belief—Quaker prayers are powerful—is over our hearts, a statement of truth on our breastplate of righteousness. It’s a good thing to think about—the ideas we hold in our hearts as we look out at the needs of our world. However God inspires us to be a force for good in the world, we can keep it right there, over our hearts, where we can remember and reclaim it when doubts come to tell us maybe it’s not possible. If God says it’s possible and God gave us the idea, it’s possible.
It doesn’t matter how old we are or what limits life may have given us—there is something for each of us to do, right now, as part of God’s ocean of light and love. Our prayers don’t have to get on an airplane to reach their destination. Our smiles cost nothing, and yet add comfort and hope and love wherever we go. Our intention toward the world—to add more goodness and avoid adding to the bad—makes a difference right where we are every single day. Like the poet Rumi wrote,
Be a lamp,
or a lifeboat,
or a ladder.
Walk out of your house
like a shepherd.
And one other important thought: If you look at the back of the shirt of someone close to you, you’ll notice that there are two angel’s wings there on the back. It’s good to remember that we aren’t the ones powering this wave of goodness in the world, God is. Whatever we do may seem small and uneven, but God’s love takes the tiniest effort and turns it into something mighty, ensuring it goes just where God wants it to go.
In closing, I’d like to share these wonderful and encouraging words from German writer and theologian Eberhard Arnold:
“Our expectation of the kingdom cannot be a passive waiting, a sweet, soft occupation, with ourselves and our like-minded friends. No, if we truly expect God’s kingdom, we will be filled with divine power. Then the social justice of the future—with its purity of heart and divine fellowship—will be realized now, wherever Jesus himself is present. Our belief in the future must bring change to the present! The spirit of expectation is the spirit of action because it is the spirit of faith. Faith is bravery. Faith is reality. If we have faith, even only a small seed, we cannot regard anything as impossible.”
- OT Isaiah 40: 1-5
- NT Ephesians 6: 10-20
- Bill, J. Brent. Hope and Witness in Dangerous Times: Lessons from the Quakers on Blending Faith, Daily Life, and Activism. https://quakerbooks.org/products/hope-and-witness-in-dangerous-times