Tag Archives: Peace

3 Things I’m Learning About Cultivating Peace

How do you find peace?

peaceful-sunset-1920x1080-1207058This is a question everyone asks at one time or another. I’ve been on a personal journey to answer it since last year’s Lenten season. The 40 days of fasting and repentance opened my eyes to the fact that in almost any given moment I was unsatisfied. Not unhappy, just unsatisfied. Restless, like I wast perpetually missing something. And I unknowingly tried so many ways to settle my restlessness, but always to no avail. When my mind wandered I would check out on social media, or grab some junk food, or go buy something, or reorganize the books on my bookshelf. Anything to avoid being fully present in the moment as it existed.

When I came home from the office I would often bring my restlessness with me, mostly because I felt like I had accomplished so little at work and needed to get something done. So at work my mind was restless, then at home my mind was restless because I spent the day in restlessness at work!

During Lent last year I gave up meat, which forced me to be very intentional about what I ate. I couldn’t just “grab something” whenever an urge hit. I began to notice that by forcing myself to think about what I was eating, my mind was much more focused on what needed to get done. Since food was no longer an escape, somehow that helped my mind be satisfied with the moment. And when I was able to be satisfied, the other vices began losing their appeal, and eventually I was rarely looking for an escape.

Robert Pirsig refers to three levels of understanding in our search for peace: Physical, Mental, and Value. THIS IS THE FIRST THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our physical behavior (like giving up meat for 40 days) influences our Mental state, which then creates a “Value Quietness” in which “one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, and that seems the hardest of all.”*

Once I realized this, I was forced to ask: “But what was I escaping from?” And that’s where the real journey begins. We fall into the trap of thinking we have no peace because our environment is not peaceful. And, to be sure, we ought to intentionally work toward a peaceful environment. We are a loud, busy, multi-tasking people who rarely stop for the sake of being present. Environment does play a part, but it’s only a small part. But simply removing the thing causing distress doesn’t get at the heart of the problem itself; namely the question Why does that stress me out?

med1I have a friend who is a foster/adoptive dad with a large family. He once told me that shoes on the stairs causes him great distress. As he kept talking he began to acknowledge that the location of the shoes wasn’t the problem, but rather the disrespect he felt as a father by his kids not putting things where they belong.

And that’s where his journey toward peace must begin.

THIS IS THE SECOND THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our environment is not necessarily bad, and can sometimes solve the problem. But more often than not, what is really needed is not a change of environment, but a change of Self, because there’s only so much control we have over our environment. Unfortunately, changing the environment is always easier than changing our Self. As Martin Luther once wrote: “The Self dies hard.

BEGIN TO CHANGE YOUR SELF WITH THREE QUESTIONS

THIS IS THE THIRD THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing your Self is never complete; it requires time and maintenance. It also requires intentionality and a recognition of restlessness when it occurs. For example, I was at my 12-year-old son’s basketball game recently. It was a close game and came down to the final shot. My son’s team got the ball off a missed free throw and immediately called time out. They had 7 seconds to move down the court and get a shot off. I try not to be that obnoxious parent at my kids’ sporting events, but sometimes I get outside of myself and a little too wrapped up in the game. That was the case on this particular night. I just wanted them to win so bad!

So, during the time out, while all the players were off the court, I actually paused and asked myself three questions:

Will I be at peace if they win?

Will I be at peace if they lose?

What must I do to have the same peace either way?

This, for me, has become the central focus. I want the same peace if my son’s team loses as I would have if they won, and I want to intentionally work to maintain it. The work of maintaining peace starts with recognizing how little control we have at any given moment.

As a spectator – not a coach, nor a ref, nor a player – I had no control over any aspect of that game. If my peace were contingent upon my environment, then I would have been fighting a losing battle because it was completely out of my hands. And that’s the case for most of life; life is imposed on us more than we impose ourselves upon it. Loosening our grip in moments like a 12-year-old boy’s basketball game reminds us of this fact, and leads us toward a cultivated sense of peace.

Whether it’s a basketball game, a work situation, family life, marriage, church, school, community, neighbors, weekend getaways…we are always given the opportunity to ask:

Will I be at peace if A happens?

Will I be at peace if happens?

What must I do to have the same peace either way?

Peace is cultivated, not grasped. Nurtured, not achieved. Peace is maintained. And maintenance is more of an art form than a science. It involves routine and structure, but great perspective is also required. For me personally, I’ve found a few things to be helpful in my effort to maintain peace:

  1. Wake Up Early – Obviously this isn’t going to work for everybody, but waking up before our kids** is the first step toward starting the day in peace for me. I typically wake up around 5:00, then go to our living room and practice a series of yoga stretches and poses, followed by some silent meditation in the dark. I spend about 5-10 minutes being as aware of my surroundings as possible. Some call this mindfulness. The discovery of mindfulness has been an extraordinary gift to me in my search for peace. Usually, though, at that time of morning the only thing to be mindful of is our snoring dog on the couch beside me. But these few moments of waking up peacefully set the tone for my whole day.
  2. Guided Prayer – I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director for the better part of a year now. He’s a retired Catholic priest named Father Bob. We meet most Wednesday’s at the Little Rock diocese where he and a few other retired priests now live. Each week he asks about my prayer time from the week before, then gives me some thoughts and scriptures to guide my prayer for the coming week. I’ve also begun using a prayer book. I’ve settled on The Book of Common Prayer. It provides a daily prayer structure that begins with ancient scriptures and liturgical readings. That way by the time I get around to praying for myself, my prayer is shaped by scripture and by spiritual mothers and fathers so that my personal prayer finds context in the great tradition of our faith.
  3. Deep Prayer Getaways – Here in Little Rock we are blessed with the Arkansas House of Prayer, a beautiful sanctuary on a hillside west of town. It’s on the grounds of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which is also a beautiful sight. I try to spend a couple of hours on Tuesday’s at AHOP in what I’ve begun calling “Deep Prayer.” That is, a time of deep and focused interaction with Jesus, guided by scripture and liturgies and my own imagination (imagination in prayer is something I hope to write on soon). I also recently attended my first 3-day silent guided prayer retreat at St. Scholastica monastery in Fort Smith, AR. The sisters at St. Scholastica provided wonderful direction, and I was silent for three days, spending at least four hours per day in focused prayer, and the rest in companionship with Jesus. If you ever have a chance to participate in a guided silent retreat, I highly encourage you to take it.

Yesterday I started working on a space in the woods behind our house for an outdoor contemplative prayer space where I plan to spend my mornings once spring arrives. The hill on which our house sits backs up to the Arkansas river and provides incredible views of the sunrise each morning. So when everything thaws and life starts to bloom, I plan to cultivate peace in the nature of our own backyard.

We plan to move out of our current house in the next 18-24 months, and the thought occurred to me as I was lugging rocks through the trees that in only a few months I won’t have access to that space. But that’s the beauty of cultivating peace; you begin to realize that it’s not about a particular place or a particular space or even a particular time – peace is cultivated where you are, when you are, with what you have. In my case, I currently have access to a beautiful plot of woods behind our house. Perhaps our next house will be in a more urban area with only a small patch of grass out back. But peace is not contingent upon my environment, so an entirely new journey toward peace will open up as I will learn to experience it in a new place.

May that be your experience; may you see life as a perpetual journey toward the peace that Jesus offers, that you might be in a constant state of satisfaction regardless of your circumstances or environment. And may you find joy not only in the peace itself, but also in the cultivating work that you pour into it. May your yoga practices and quiet meditations and guided prayers be filled with a divine sense of work, and from that work may a beautiful harvest of peace rise up within you.

 

*Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values; William Morrow Modern Classics, p. 302

**Did I mention that my wife and I have eight kids? At the time of this writing they are ages 12, 9, 7, 7, 5, 4, 3, and 2. So yeah, don’t tell me you can’t do these things.

 

Happy Ash Wednesday, Dirtbags (Parts 1 and 2)

PART 1

I attended an Ash Wednesday service today at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was everything I hoped it would be – very high-church, dripping with symbolism, the imposition of ashes, and participation in the Holy Eucharist. As a dye-in-the-wool Church of Christ boy, this formal celebration of Jesus and a pious participation in Lenten repentance was refreshing.

One thing I was not expecting was such a focus on mortality. At the imposition of ashes, the Celebrant rubbed an ash cross on each person’s forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That’s right; we’re all living, breathing, dirtbags. Not the pick-me-up most people are looking for during their lunch break. But, as I learned, it’s actually a crucial element to the Lenten season.

Lent was originally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. Participants in Lent spent 40 days preparing themselves for their new life with Christ. And what better day to celebrate one’s new life than on Easter Sunday, the day celebrating the moment that all of creation was made new!

In the past, the Episcopalian tradition at the imposition of ashes was to say, “Remember that you are dust ONLY, and to dust you shall return.” But the “only” was dropped several years ago because it was believed to have contributed to a spirit counter to resurrection. Without Jesus, sure, we’re ONLY dust, and to dust we will return. But, because of the resurrection, we are MORE THAN dust, and we will be MORE THAN dust at the final resurrection of all things.

And THAT’S the pick-me-up we all came to hear!

PART 2

My (informal) Lenten journey this year involves fasting from all social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I often find myself preoccupied with what people are saying about me, how many people liked my status or retweeted my awesome picture of the burrito I was eating. Fasting from social media isn’t about saving time (though that will certainly be an added benefit). Instead, it’s about getting my heart right. It’s about reorienting myself in God’s Kingdom instead of my own. I say all the time that we are never further from Jesus than when we’re being selfish, and social media has become a self-glorifying medium for growing further and further from Jesus.

I am also studying the book of Isaiah over the next 40 days. Isaiah seems to be a book Jesus loved, and for good reason. Isaiah is often called “The 5th Gospel” because of its abundance of redemption passages and images of God restoring and resurrecting his people. Today I read and studied the first five chapters. Man, oh man, is it AWESOME!

The first five chapters are a flash-forward to the things God is GOING to do to the people of Judah because of their sin. And what was their sin? Injustice! The leaders of the nation were getting filthy rich off laws and loopholes that allowed them to exploit the poor and further-marginalize the marginalized. Widows and orphans and poor people were being left out in the cold – sometimes literally – and God had seen enough. So from the start he shows all his cards, he tells all the reasons why he’s angry with his people, and all the things that are going to happen to them, both good and bad. His anger is fueled by their injustice:

See how the faithful city [JERUSALEM] has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (1:21-24)

Their punishment – Assyrian exile – was all because they were corrupt, favoring the rich and exploiting the poor. They developed a system that kept the rich rich and the poor poor.

But God had – and still has – a vision for what his people will someday be:

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple [JERUSALEM] will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and ALL NATIONS will stream to it…

The word here for “all nations” is “goyim.” Goyim is typically a derogatory word used in reference to everyone who was not from Israel or Judah. Like the way your grandfather talks about “foreigners” with a little spite. That’s goyim. The Law of Moses spoke harshly about the goyim and warned the Israelites against falling into cahoots with anyone outside their own nation. Goyim were the outsiders that God’s people spent their lives avoiding.

But here, Isaiah says that God’s vision for all of creation is that one day all nations – all the goyim – will come to the Mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem. This means everybody on earth, including both the rich and the poor. They will come not out of fear, not out of obligation, but because God has something no other nation and no other god has. Here’s what he offers:

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations [GOYIM] and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The people – the GOYIM – will come because there will be unsolvable disputes. War and violence and death will have run so rampant that nobody will know what to do anymore. There will be no answers and no peace. No government or judge or arbiter can settle the violence and destruction. And on that day when the world is on the brink of total destruction, all the nations will turn to God and say, “Help!” And God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s ruling, will be to lay down the weapons and end all the violence. To turn weapons of violence into tools of rebirth and resurrection. God’s law will be a law of peace and renewal. And, as one people, the whole world will walk in the light of the Lord.

The problem in Isaiah, though, is that God’s dream of seeing the whole world come together as one is thwarted because his people refuse to lead the way. If God’s own people won’t act in ways that lead to peace and unity of all people, how in the world can anyone else be expected to?

The next few chapters are loaded with destruction and punishment for Judah’s corruption and neglect of the poor and marginalized. God has to rid his nation of everything that prevents his dream from becoming reality. So the rulers and leaders of Judah will be driven into exile, and some of them killed. While this might sound counter to God’s dream of peace and love, it’s necessary in order to see the dream fulfilled.

Our mortal selves are prone to chase after what’s temporary – money, power, sex, pleasure, self-gratification. But Easter brings something new, something better. Easter brings God’s vision for earth into a much clearer focus. At the start of this Lent season, may God’s vision become our vision. May we be a people who bring about peace no matter the color of one’s skin or the number of zeros in their bank account. May we be a people who lay down our weapons of violence – be they physical, emotional, or spiritual – and become a people who fulfill the dream of God.

Together, may we all walk in the light of the Lord.