by Pastor Doug Kings
Greetings from Santa Fe, New Mexico (though I will probably be back, or on my way back, when you read this). It has been a quiet time, typical of the post-holiday period and reinforced by a cold snap and snow storm (welcome here after months of drought).
Since the storm arrived New Year’s Eve, I stayed in and went to bed early, not feeling I was missing any “festivities.” On social media I saw many wishing for a better year to come and often saying good riddance to the year past. The frequency of the latter message began to bother me. I knew many of these people and was not aware of any recent major problems, sufferings, losses, etc. in their lives. So why did they view 2021 as being so awful?
Of course, we have been in the continual shadow of the pandemic. And there have been countless other crises of varying degrees involving climate change, race relations, economic disruptions, politics at all levels, international relations, and so on. Yet for most of my social media acquaintances, the direct impact of these things has been minimal, rarely rising above inconveniences. As far as I knew, their lives during the past year had experienced the usual ups-and-downs but had generally been positive.
Yet that wasn’t what they were focusing on. It was all that other stuff which caused them to say that 2021 couldn’t be gone soon enough. Pandemic stress is real; I’ve certainly had my share of it. But it is mostly due to uncertainty about the future and our feeling of it’s being out of our control. What’s going to happen NEXT?
Focusing on our unknowable futures, however, causes us to ignore or miss what is happening right now. Yet as nearly every religious tradition teaches, the here-and-now is what is real; our thoughts about past and future are mental abstractions. Those abstractions can have great power, however. Guilt about the past or anxiety about the future can take control of us, warping our experience of the now and distorting our response to what is actually happening now.
In my sermon the Sunday after Christmas, I quoted the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice about finding peace.
All of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God…. There are many conflicting feelings and ideas within us, and it is important to look deeply and know what is going on. When there are wars within us, it will not be long before we are at war with others, even those we love…. If we can learn ways to touch the peace, joy, and happiness that are already there, we will become healthy and strong, and a resource for others.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the startling declaration, “You are the light of the world.” Starting with the creation story in Genesis 1, the Bible asserts that God lives within us, as Thich Nhat Hanh says above. Thus, there is a source of genuine peace already available within us if we can get in the practice of accessing it.
Unfortunately, there is much that keeps us unaware of the light within us, causing us, as Jesus goes on to say, to put “our lamp” under a bushel basket. Losing touch with the peace within us is the result of our anxiety and the constant chatter it produces in our heads.
Today, much of this comes from of our addiction to what Joseph Keegan calls “outrage-media”—the columnists, radio announcers, and TV “talking heads” whose goal is not to inform or educate but to emotionally hook their audiences so they will return again and again. In his moving essay, “Be Not Afraid,” Keegan goes on to say that our various social crises
have countless people glued to their news feeds, desperate for one more piece of information that will grant clarity to the maddening complexity of the world. We are sick with fear. And often the flood of information that washes over us from the screen of every computer, television, and phone brings only disorientation, and inspires us to seek refuge on whatever isle of understanding we can find, however inaccurate…. Unlike virtue, which grants a person freedom from the narrowness of his circumstances, outrage media—like any other addiction—demands more and more consumption. It sows the seeds of confusion and fear to reap its harvest of anger and resentment.
In short, peace is the last thing these voices want to create, yet peace is what we all crave. And peace is available if we tune out the voices of anger and tune in to the Spirit that is within us all. So if you haven’t made a new year’s resolution yet, I encourage you to consider this one: Commit to turning away from the voices of anger in our world and establish practices which will connect you to the peace within.
This is the primary goal of meditation (which can occur in forms as diverse as sitting, gardening, walking, etc.), to identify, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, the “many conflicting feelings and ideas within us”, and then ignore them. Tune them out and listen instead for Joshua’s “silent voice” of peace and love. It is there if we turn inward to find it. And then, as Paul says in Philippians 4, we can daily celebrate the gift of life God has given us.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Blessings in your life and ministry.