Building Peace

In my praying lately, as I am resting in the Spirit, I have been led again and again back to verses in the Bible dealing with peace and, most specifically, peacemaking. God has been holding in the Light some of the events of my life, and current events, in this understanding of our vocation of peace. Vocation is an overused word, and at least as I remember it being used, means a calling from God to some career or work. One experiences becoming a pastor as a vocation, as it is traditionally used. I would like to assert that Christians have a vocation to creating, spreading, and building peace.

In Matthew 5:9 it says that peacemakers are blessed, and I was curious about this word, peacemaker. In Greek it is eirēnopoios, and etymologically its root is eirēnē. If we are supposed to be building this thing called peace, I’d like know what I’m building. I looked into this word eirēnē and found that it means a state of tranquility, a turning from the havoc and chaos of war, peace and harmony between individuals, a sense of security, safety, prosperity, happiness, and joy. We are supposed to be actively building this, pursuing it nationally, in our communities, between individuals, and within ourselves.

And I started thinking about all the things that Jesus said, all the things he pointed to, that Christians read about all the time and never do. The Beatitudes have almost become like the sentiment in a Hallmark card. Someone reads it and says, “Awww, that’s a nice sentiment.” But no one really invests much in it. It’s the obligatory birthday wish in a Hallmark card.

I was at a coffee shop with one of my friends, and he was asking me questions about Quakers, and through his questions we began discussing the involvement of some Quakers during the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad, like the Beatitudes, have become stories told to school children. It is at risk of becoming sentimentalism, but I began pondering what it must have been like. Being enslaved, and having to run from groups of people trying to hang you for running away, hiding in the homes of people you don’t know. Some of the runaway slaves were caught and hanged, some got away. And a story that is not often told in schools today is some of the white people who were involved in the Underground Railroad who were hanged for aiding and abetting runaway slaves, some of whom were Quaker.

Some of the Quakers back then believed in the inherent dignity of enslaved black men and women so deeply in their spirits, despite what society said about these men and women, that they were prepared to die trying to help them to be free.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Try to undo all the storybook Beatitude learning you got in Sunday school, and all the storybook Underground Railroad learning you got in grade school, and ponder the real and actual implications of this. Let’s talk about real life. They were so invested in human dignity and compassion, building peace, that they were prepared to die for it.

In a society that has become so incredibly polarized, everybody fired up to defend their views and their politics and their race, or whatever the latest American divisive drama is about, what are we doing to build peace? What are we doing to further peace and harmony, nationally, between individuals, between our neighbors, between the people living in our own homes? What are we doing to further security, safety, prosperity, happiness, and joy amidst all the things that go on in our country and in the world? The Bible says we have to actively go out and build it, like a house, brick by brick. Some of the Quakers were willing to die for it. What are you willing to do?

God blesses those who work for peace,
    for they will be called the children of God.

Matthew 5:9, NLT


The Dying South

I recently picked up the banjo. Call it nostalgia, but I went on Amazon and bought the highest quality, cheapest banjo I could find. The purists would roll over in their grave if they knew the banjo I bought. But the urge came to me when I was up in the mountains of north Georgia, shopping around at farmer’s markets up there, a few weeks ago. I confess, I’ve been on a crusade lately for the purest tomato that I’ve ever had.

I stopped in a small town just north of Dahlonega, and got out of my truck, and looked around. The sun was shining, it was slow time. There were maybe six storefronts in the “downtown” area, a crisp American flag snapping outside the police station. And something hit me. I looked around, and the old couple sitting out front of an antique shop waved at me and smiled. Mayberry, reincarnated.

I tried to look like I belonged there. I walked into the old folks’ antique store, and they followed me in. The old guy and I chatted for a good hour. He was a WWII veteran, and had been at the Battle of Metz in France in September of 1944. Being a veteran myself, I welcomed him home. When I shook his hand before leaving, it was like gravel, his weary eyes speaking volumes. I guess there are just some handshakes you will never forget.

I took to the road, driving through the hills and hamlets, passing farms, cows more plentiful than humans. The air was sweet with spring, it was a wonderful place to be.

I stopped a few times at several farms, knocking on the doors and asking for permission to photograph their setup. Old rusty farm tractors, tawny-colored barns, cows doing what they do best. One couple invited me in for a sandwich and iced tea. The husband used to work for the local factory before it closed in 2002. He and his people took to farming to make a few dollars in the meanwhile.

I stopped in at a little redneck joint, and had a cold beer with the 3pm drinking rascals at the Steely Wheel, and heard all their stories, and they heard mine, before I took to the road back home. Hands were shaken, good tidings wished all around, like old friends.

On my way back via the highway I counted four people who cut me off in traffic, but something in me just couldn’t be mad. I went back home and waited patiently for my highest quality cheap banjo.

What a tremendous honor it is to see the dying south, to be invited into the living room, ceiling fans running, and given something good for my soul. In a hundred years all these farms will be gone, a whispered memory spoken among these damned old pines, cement replacing their sun-bathed setup in Mayberry, USA. I might not have any control over the rolling waves of progress, the tidal wave of cement and traffic and stress. But I am humbled and deeply grateful I could have sat for at least an hour, talking about the Battle of Metz, amidst the shining sun.

Something in me hungers for slow time. I hunger for a life where I fall in love with a woman, where I honor her beauty and her absolute worth to me. I hunger to buy some land, sit with her on the front porch, and build an ocean of love. I hunger for and dream of slow slow time.

I promised the old fella in the antique store that I’d master the banjo, like the art depended upon it. And friends, I’m a man of my word, and I will deliver, for the dying south.

Born Again

When something becomes habitual, entrenched in ideology, it becomes like the ruts made by wooden wagon wheels. What an incredible occupational hazard for contemporary Christians! The theologians theologize and theorize, and structures are built around something living, organic, and vibrant. In all this structuring and arguing, something vital dies. I heard a Christian brother tell me once, “The Christianity that can be turned into an institution is not the primal religion, but it certainly keeps the theologians in a job.”

Jesus said we have to be born again. The theologians took this verse and turned it into an institution. “Are you saved? Have you been born again?” the theologian asks. But what is born again? What does this mean? Jesus says,

Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.

John 3:7-8, NASB

Wow. You don’t know where it comes from and where it is going? In being truly born again, we let go of our narrative, the intricate web of storyline we’ve been spinning spinning spinning our whole lives. I like this. I dislike that. I’m a Republican. I’m a Democrat. I’m a Calvinist. I’m an Arminian. All of it is baggage, nonsense, bird poop on a statue of Jesus because it’s not the soul God knew before you were born.

Additionally, all of our future plans, our dissatisfaction with the present, with what we have, rips us away from the sacredness of the present moment. I often say, American society functions as an addict and is the enemy of contentment. It’s like we carry around a 300 pound sack of potatoes every day. Stop spinning tales, let go of your image and your posturing, stop fettering away your life with incessant dissatisfaction and endless planning. Just let it go! Be present.

A scholar sits in a library somewhere, surrounded by a wall of books, cut off from the reality of life. Suddenly, someone explodes through the doors of the library and exclaims, “It’s Jesus! He’s in downtown Atlanta, and He’s healing people!” Does the scholar put the books down and walk out into the sunlight, among people, where the Spirit is moving among us? Does the scholar become born again?

This is especially poignant for me, as I complete my doctoral degree. I feel like on the path of the scholar, every day something is added. On the path of the lover of God, every day something is dropped. This is the discipline of simplicity: determining what is essential and what is neurosis. By dropping what is unnecessary, we become like children.

Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:3, NASB

Have you ever watched children play? The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called this beginners mind. The mind that arrives fresh, without baggage, open to limitless possibilities. And playing children are indeed so incredibly free of ideological baggage, of walls of books and ideas and designators that separate us off from what is truly happening. They come to their play free of encumbrance and enter into it with their whole heart. When the play is done, they walk away.

How quickly we forget.

Friends, we must be born again. And again. And again. And again.

Healing the World

I have always been impressed with the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, which means “to heal or repair the world.” There are various interpretations of this concept, but the basic idea is that God’s presence exists everywhere and in all things, the material world being an extension of the Creator’s creative power. We see this idea in Paul’s letter to the believers at Ephesus, where he describes a God who is “through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6b, NASB). We see parallels of this idea in the Quaker idea of the sparks of the Divine existing intrinsically in each person, and I would argue, each sentient creature.

In tikkun olam, each time the individual engages in an act of healing, kindness, or goodness – each time a person speaks up for those who cannot speak for themselves, each unsolicited smile, each time a healing word is extended to someone living low, each act of kindness – the little Divine Sparks that exist in created things are united with the universal Spark of God. When the kindness isn’t rooted in a desire to enslave the recipient in indebtedness or codependency, it creates a situation of wholeness, love creating love, mirrored from one to another. I call this situation the Ocean of Love: God encompassing and filling us with compassion, which we mirror to one another, which is mirrored back, and then returned to God. In this fashion, we heal the world.

But we are not so set apart from our primate cousins, the chimpanzee and the bonobo, that we all don’t have a little “monkey mind” in us. A flash of competitive aggression in traffic, in response to another person’s aggression… religious, racial, political tribalism… letting a desperate friend’s phone call go to voicemail because we’re tired… pretending that the homeless aren’t among us, drowning in addiction and mental illness… a sarcastic sharp reply to our lover, when they are reaching out for validation in unskillful ways… yes, the chimpanzee is alive and well in us.

I believe this is what Paul meant when he lamented, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, NASB). It seems like it is no longer we who are acting, when we act like monkeys, but something welling up in us, something very primal. When we walk a little faster than another person in the grocery store to intentionally make it into line before them, at first the monkey in us feels like it won something, and then we wonder what inspired us to act so petty. These victories are cheap and small, and they belong to the False Self, the primal asshole that is more powerful, more beautiful, more valuable than others. Or maybe the monkey mind is so strong that we never wonder.

Later in Romans 7, Paul goes on to speak of feeling helpless when these primal urges arise, and calls it sin. I do not read this word sin as some kind of wagging moral finger, the shaming and condemning finger, but rather as an acknowledgment of our lingering connection to these primal urges to acquire security, esteem, and power in ineffective and oftentimes hurtful ways. In order to begin to seek more effective and skillful ways of being and living in this world, we have to accept this primal connection in ourselves. In dealing with unskillful states, I like the acronym RAIN, used by the Insight Meditation folks: Recognize the presence of the unskillful urge/emotion, Allow it to be present with kindness and acceptance (without rejecting it or acting out on it), Investigate the real source or motivations behind it, and Non-identify by letting it go and stepping away (ie., “My irritation is not me, it’s not my identity, but a passing state of mind”).

So how is this connected to tikkun olam? Later in Romans, Paul reminds us that despite this evolutionary connection to a primal mindset, the Spirit dwells in us. We, and every living being around us, contain the Divine Spark and are basically good. This is intrinsic and can never be taken away from you, or me, or the guy you cut off in traffic. When we can train ourselves to return again and again to this awareness, that God is among us, within us, and within others, we can honor their sacredness, our sacredness, the sacredness of the present moment, even when our inner monkey wants to get its way.

The Greek word used in Romans for doing good is kalos, which has not only a sense of being noble and pure of heart, but also a sense of a tremendous and magnificently and unspeakably beautiful act… a most precious act. Letting someone in during a traffic jam, smiling kindly at someone, giving a hug, being there for a friend who is suffering, reaching out to the poor, the lost, the loveless, the victims of oppression… these are all tremendous, magnificent, unspeakably beautiful and precious acts arising from our inherent nobility and dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, they are not acts of weakness, but rather acts of great courage, of kingship and queenship. I am not so naive to believe that I can go out and save everybody, and the whales, and the world, in my lifetime. But I can stay alert to these little sparks that exist all around me, these seemingly insignificant opportunities to heal the world, raising little Divine Sparks to unite with the universal Divine Spark of God, and with each tiny drop –  drop by drop by drop – we are creating an Ocean of Love, the Kingdom of Heaven. It is said that we are presented with a hundred thousand opportunities for kindness each day. God save us if these moments find us unprepared.

From “Walking”

“They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which indeed is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.

It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, now-a-days, who undertake no persevering never ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walking