Saturday, March 7, 2015

Evil Shouts While God Whispers


Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the human race?

Civilization has made so many astounding advances in technology, medicine, energy, architecture, the arts, food production, space exploration, and so on, that one could easily make the case that humanity is on a positive trajectory through time.

However, for every advancement in one area, there are whole populations that are disenfranchised; who have no technology, no food, no health care. And sometimes it seems there is a dark side to progress itself, with byproducts such as pollution, deforestation, or social alienation.

The story gets darker still when we turn on the news and see evidence of terror, large-scale persecution, epidemics, slavery, starvation, and massacres, to name but a few of the man-made horrors that still beset the world.

It seems that technological or cultural achievements are not enough to give us a wholly sanguine view of our common future. Because by themselves they cannot give us peace and lasting happiness, and how optimistic can one be without these blessings?

Pride, greed, envy, and their ugly sisters—the seven deadly sins—have been around since time immemorial (or since ‘time immoral’ as one wag put it). They are the rich soil in which the most extreme manifestations of evil that are traumatizing us all on the nightly news take root and flourish. But ironically, lately, the deadly sins are no longer taboo in our culture. We see them—in lesser forms, but the same sins—paraded in public, dressed up as entertainment ... even, God help us, protected as free speech. As a whole, our spiritually blind culture does not see the connection between a small sin and very big one. That is one reason we still have so little control over outbreaks of human catastrophes.

And we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to spreading the bad news. There is plenty of evil in the world today, but it makes a bigger impression than it would have in the days before microphones and wide-angle camera lenses. The powers of darkness use the same sort of pyrotechnics that made a mixed-up professor from Kansas appear as The Great and Powerful Oz, who terrified children and other innocents before he was revealed as a sham.

Yes, terrorists have traded rocks for rockets and the media project the effects of sin louder and farther on the world stage than has ever before been possible, whether on the news or in movies, TV, and video games. But that in itself is just another weapon in the arsenal of the “ruler of this world,” who lives to engage in spiritual and psychological warfare against God’s people. By causing us to focus selectively on the really bad stuff that’s going on in the world, and turning up the volume on discord and dissention, the media ought to consider whose plans they are helping.

So although the noise levels have increased, my own sense is one of tempered optimism. Evil is no worse than it ever was, and we must remember that its effects have been greatly mitigated by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit active in the world since the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the foundation for true optimism.

The Bible tells us that God is found in the secret places, and speaks in a whisper. As Christians, we need to work extra hard to tune in to God and tune out the mad shout of evil that echoes all around us. For when we listen to God’s voice, we find the peace and power that enable us to change our hearts. And that is the only way to change the world for the better.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

(I Kings 19:11-12)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Peace in Your Day

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
John 14:1

The highest aspiration of a human being is the achievement of peace. Peace in our home, peace in our world, and above all, peace in our heart. All the other things we value, including prosperity, love and happiness, are jewels that hang on the crown of peace. You could fulfill all your wishes: becoming world famous, a billionaire, or the top expert in your field; you could win the most desirable spouse, or travel everywhere you ever dreamed about, and yet, without peace, even those  allurements can turn to ashes in your mouth.

How many of the rich and famous, the powerful and the beautiful, have destroyed their own lives—for a season, with addictions or destructive behavior; or permanently, through suicide? We piously hope that in death they have found the peace that eluded them in life, but it may well be too late by then. How much better to have “peace in our day.”

The more I experience how fundamental a sense of peace is to the quality of my life, the better I understand why Jesus comforted his disciples with the words, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) More than love, more than happiness, more than riches, more than friendship, more than success, more than health, more than wisdom, our souls need peace.

This book was written to try and help you find peace, whatever your circumstances. In one way it’s a self-help book, because there are many things we can do to manage our affairs in ways that reduce unnecessary frictions and bring a degree of peace. But in another way it’s an un-self-help book about letting go of all our ambitions, and letting God infuse our life with the peace that passes all understanding. God alone can grant that ultimate gift, and to receive it, our biggest job may be to stop doing and simply to be … at peace.

The kingdom of heaven is a heart at peace


Perhaps, as I used to, you think of the kingdom of heaven as a large, probably very pretty, but remote place. Perhaps you believe that the people lucky enough to enter are happy there, but the concept of a heavenly kingdom doesn’t seem relevant amid the vicissitudes of your everyday life. Jesus tried to explain to people that this kingdom was not a far-away place, or a remote chance of happiness, but was as close and life-giving as their breath.

What is the kingdom of heaven? Jesus explained it often, by means of some puzzling parables. For example, he said that the kingdom of heaven is like:

  • a mustard seed
  • yeast
  • treasure hidden in a field
  • a merchant looking for fine pearls.

In these examples, Jesus was teaching that the kingdom of heaven was something that could fill our lives utterly, even though it seemed very small or hidden. Why a mustard seed? “Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Why yeast? Because a small amount can be worked in to a large quantity of flour to leaven the whole dough. And when we find the treasure hidden in the field, or the pearl of great value, we will want to sell everything we have in order to possess it.

Jesus also said the kingdom of heaven is like:

  • a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish, good and bad
  • the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old
  • a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.

In the ending of all these parables, in the fullness of time, good is separated from the bad, and only the good is kept. This tells us that the kingdom of heaven is not a mixed-up place full of good and evil, as life on earth tends to be. It is a pure state that has been purged of bad things. That is one reason we think the kingdom of heaven is unattainable on earth, because we don’t see any examples of this around us. Yet even without attaining perfection we can be tending our inner and outer gardens to bring ourselves ever nearer to living without weeds, worry and woe. It is a process, and there are ample rewards along the way.

“The kingdom of heaven is within you,” Jesus used to say. How can a fishing net, a sower of seeds, and a pearl all be found within us? They can be, if the kingdom of heaven represents peace—a state of being that is the gift of the Spirit. It is not an external accomplishment like a college degree or a two-story house in the suburbs, as nice as those things are. It is a gift, and one that has been promised to us by Jesus himself.


What does peace look like?


Have you ever experienced a sense of profound peace? Were you sitting quietly when it came upon you, or were you engaged in an activity? Try to recapture one your peaceful moments right now, and relive the sensations. It may not come to you completely or right away, but if you have ever experienced peace then at least you know it can be done!

I won’t presume to suggest what God’s peace would feel like to anyone else, because God relates to each us in unique ways that gently honor our individual personalities and mental traits. But I can describe my experiences.

Peace can be a wave of contentment that comes over me suddenly while walking down the street or washing dishes—or doing any kind of mundane chore. This type of experience is usually combined with an overwhelming and completely uncritical feeling of love for other human beings, either a specific group, like my family, or the whole world at once. Sometimes I can almost feel myself embracing all the other people within eyesight.

At other times I simply notice, in the course of my day, that I am at peace. I experience this simple pleasure so often now that I would characterize my whole life as being “peaceful.” (Note, I didn’t say “perfect.”) 

One New Year’s eve I started a list of goals for the following year. I prefer to make goals rather than resolutions as goals seem more positive and powerful. I had in mind to write down several financial and business goals, since the economy was still in a downturn and my income had been sorely affected. But this sheet only had one entry:

I have total peace about my finances.

Other than that, I came up empty. Not because my life is perfect or I’ve achieved everything I want to yet, but simply because I felt so peaceful with myself already that setting goals was unnecessary and superfluous at that moment.

A third type of experience I have had of peace was given to me while asleep. In a class on the Old Testament, the teacher had described God as a nuclear power core. I was uneasy with the metaphor, as it didn’t sound like the approachable and loving God I was familiar with. But I respected the person who had made the suggestion and invested quite some thought about how God could be like a nuclear reactor.

The answer came to me in a dream. I dreamt I was drawing close to God, and as I touched Him, my heart detonated in a white hot, radiantly expanding nuclear explosion of divine love. Wow! What a surprise to receive an answer to my question in this way, and what a glorious experience to have had. Now you may be thinking that a nuclear explosion doesn’t sound very peaceful, but as anomalous as it sounds, this “explosion” was the result of my heart uniting with the heart of God. I saw my spirit expanding to a huge size in the universe as I momentarily gained the ability to love the world as God does. I was one with the peace that passes understanding.

Waking or sleeping, God is able to reach us, deal with us, and change us.

What does peace look like to you? You may already know, or you may be able to imagine how it would feel. If your life seems so troubled just now that you can’t even imagine peace, then take heart, because you’re about to learn lots of things you can do to achieve a greater closeness to God and to the kingdom of heaven within you. I only ask that you keep an open mind, and allow God to show you where his treasure is buried in the field of your heart.


Prayer


Dear Father in Heaven,

Knowing how brokenhearted his disciples would be after he left the earthly plane, your son Jesus promised to leave them the greatest gift of all—his peace. We too are often cast down by the cares of this world, and we long for peace, in our minds and emotions, in our family relationships, at work, in our communities, and around the world. Please show us how to uproot the weeds that are growing in our own spirits, and give us the courage to throw them on your purifying fire. Teach us when to speak and act and when to be still, allowing your peace to flow into our hearts. We pray for all people on earth to find the peace which passes understanding now, and forever.

Amen

Monday, October 28, 2013

A New Paradigm for Interfaith Respect and Cooperation

By Cynthia Edwards
Speech delivered at the Bahá’í World Religion Day Festival
Irving, Texas USA, January 18, 2003
Theme: A Spiritual Solution to Violence in the Name of Religion



Once upon a time, there were two farmers who were friends. They owned adjacent fields that were separated by a road. All day long they worked in their fields and made friendly conversation across the road.

Now in that town lived an imp by the name of Eshu. Eshu loved to cause confusion, and one day he decided to upset the state of peace between the two farmers. He rubbed one side of his body with white chalk and the other with black charcoal and walked up the road with considerable flourish.

As soon as he passed beyond earshot, the two men jumped from their work at the same time.

One said: “Did you notice that extraordinary white man who just went up the road?” In the same breath the other asked: “Did you see that incredible black man I have just seen?” In no time at all their friendly questions had turned into a violent quarrel and finally into a fight. As they fought they screamed, “He was white,” or “He was black.”

Finally, exhausted, they returned to their fields in hostile silence. No sooner had they settled down than Eshu came back up the road going the other way.

Immediately the two men sprang up again. “I am sorry, my good friend. You were right; the fellow is white.” And in the same instant the other was saying: “I do apologize for my blindness. The man is indeed black, just as you said.” And in no time the two were quarreling and fighting again. As they fought they shouted, “I was wrong!” and “No, I was wrong!”



How much are we like those two friends in the field? When you and I look at God, who is much bigger and more complex than Eshu, we see Him from different perspectives. So, naturally, we see different things about Him.

And when twenty or two hundred or two million people have looked in their own way at God and formed twenty or two hundred or two million different impressions of what they saw, what do we have?

We have … the state of our world today.

It’s a sad fact that alternative views of God, and the different religions that have formed around these views, have often resulted in hatred and prejudice among people who should be friends.

Instead of allowing our different views to divide us, we should celebrate the central thread of God’s deep love for us … and His willingness to work within our limitations. The fact that we see God at all, with our limited eyes, is a miracle in itself!

I have often wondered why, in matters religious, we become so welded to one point of view. Perhaps, when we have a personal encounter with the divine, the experience is so precious, we feel we must protect it at any cost. Or, the experience is so ephemeral, we feel we must define it to make it more tangible.

The problem with too much definition is, as Kahlil Gibran said, “doctrine is like a window pane – it allows us to see truth yet separates us from it.”

Other people’s experiences of God do not need to be a threat to our own experience. And they would never be a threat, if it were not for our limited and flawed perceptions both of God and of each other.

I’ll go further and say we might be amazed … that in spite of humanity’s almost universal lack of fine spiritual awareness … God has managed to bless our world with knowledge of Himself anyway … through a rich tapestry of religions.

On the personal level, God, spurred by his great love, deals with each us … by working through our peculiarities of thought and understanding.

The Eternal, Immutable Spirit charitably presents Himself to us in finite ways that we mere human beings can both recognize and accept.

This is one reason that people who have near-death experiences report encounters with figures from their own religion or culture. God gives us what we can use. He is “every thing to every one.” Or … she is.

It can’t be easy for the vastness of God to relate to the tiny-ness of a human mind on the best of days.

The task gets harder still when He has to find a passageway through our constricted concepts … our doubt and disbelief … the lies and confusion we have bought into … our blindness from sin … and a million other deficiencies. No wonder the message gets a little garbled along the way.

In my life, I’ve noticed that when God wants to talk to me, He does it through symbols I have come to associate with him.

For instance God often moves my heart with thoughts about Jesus, angels, the Bible, and hymns I learned in my youth. God also communicates with me through the things I love, especially music and nature.

Were God to speak to me in Arabic I would not understand his message. You might, but I wouldn’t.

If he approached me in the guise of Lord Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu god) I probably would not recognize him. Note that my response is conditioned by, and reflects, my culture. But that’s no reflection on God.

God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and He works in mysterious ways. There was a memorable occasion when God stepped outside of my ordinary religious symbolism to bring me an extraordinary experience of his profound love.

Once, during an unhappy period of my life, I dreamed of Gandhi. He appeared as the archetypal small brown man in a loin cloth and spectacles … just standing there, emanating heavenly love for me. The love engulfed me, and attracted me irresistibly, as though I had fallen into a deep river and was being carried along by a strong current.

Although I have always admired Gandhi I never would have expected to meet God using Gandhi’s form as a divine avatar.

Whatever God’s reasons were, his method certainly worked. I knew that he still loved and cared for me amid my pain. I was reassured.

Perhaps it is not coincidence that Gandhi was once famously quoted as saying, “I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Moslem and a Jew.”

What did Gandhi see that we don’t see?

It makes sense to believe that God may work in a similar manner everywhere.

Throughout history He has been gracious enough to reveal himself to individuals through their culture, and language, and at their current level of spiritual understanding. He gives us — as they say in school — “age-appropriate lessons.”

We often judge people of other religions in terrible ways, branding them as being inferior in understanding to ourselves or even as being deluded.

While admitting that a range of depth and maturity exists on both the individual and institutional levels, we mustn’t feel comfortable writing off entire religions based our own limited understanding. Remember the tricks of Eshu!

Even if we don’t see what others see, experience shows … that the more perfect one’s interior connection with God … the less likely one is to sit in judgment on others.

Instead of going around telling other people how wrong they are … and how right we are … shouldn’t we just feel happy that God shows Himself to all his children — no matter what state we’re in?

There is a concept in metaphysics that can help us shift into a more holistic viewpoint about the plurality of religions. A hologram is a pattern in which any part contains information about the whole. DNA is similar.

It seems that many small things contain the seed of very big things.

Now, none of us small humans can possibly grasp ALL of God, yet when we get in touch with SOME of God the experience can fill us up to overflowing.

A small brush with the Eternal can even have a radically life-changing effect.

Let’s imagine that to each religion on earth, God has given whatever experience of Himself those people could grasp … even if it’s only a part.

But … can any part of God be less than divine or perfect? No! So there we have a solid basis on which to respect the godliness at the center of every true religion.

Now let’s consider that every individual has a spirit which comes from God. Can each of us be a slice of the hologram of God because we have a spirit? I believe so.

I am not suggesting that we are perfect, not by a long shot. But bear with the image just for a moment.

What would the world be like if we all really recognized the presence of God in other people and stood humbly before one another, ready to learn more by opening our hearts and minds?

In India the chance to look into the face of a spiritual master is called a darshan. But everyone you look at already has a perfect little part of God in them. When we are able to greet and honor the God within everyone then we can have a darshan with God himself every day.

You may have heard the greeting Namaste – it means “I bow to the divine in you.”

Now if this is all sounding too Eastern … too New Age for you … let me give you a Western example.

Mother Teresa – like St. Francis before her – showed the way for Christians. Her mission to the poorest of the poor was founded on her ability to recognize Jesus within every person she met, however distressing the “disguise” in which he presented himself.

Her compassion stemmed not merely from pity at the condition of poverty, hunger, illness, and neglect of a person – which is something most of us can feel – but from her burning desire to serve the portion of God within him or her.

The difference between being sorry for a person in distress … and being able to treat every person with the same respect accorded to God … makes the difference between a humanist and a saint.

We are all called to be saints. To respect God’s handiwork with our brothers and sisters in all cultures and races. To respect God’s presence and purpose in all true religions.

So instead of fighting — like those two friends who were so easily tricked by Eshu — let us thank God for working hard to reveal Himself to us … wherever we are on our journey.

And let us commit — on this World Religion Day — to work with God to bring light, truth and love to every corner of our dark and fallen world.