Being Peace (part 3)

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Seagull at Laguna Beach

Various contemplative exercises help me be more peace filled. When my wife Ruth and I were preparing to go to India, we met with a married couple who had served there for many years with Church World Service. They talked about how depressing the social need and poverty in India can be and how it can wear at one’s spirit and emotional health.

The wife told us of a spiritual discipline that helped her. She tried to find at least one beautiful thing each day, even something like a colorful piece of cloth hung on a balcony to dry. I also practiced that when we lived in Kolkata (Calcutta) and found that carrying my camera with me helped my eyes find such things. I was surprised by what a big difference such a little thing can make, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed and distressed by living in that city.

Something I learned from peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh is to practice smiling at strangers and silently wishing them a blessing. This may be a Vietnamese thing because a Vietnamese Catholic chaplain I learned to know at the Washington Hospital Center practices the same thing. People will often smile back. It can be an unspoken human bond and form of being peace.

Another thing that I have been working at is contemplative driving. As a matter of full self-disclosure, it’s easy for me to try to beat the traffic on busy DC highways and to get impatient with other drivers. It’s okay to occasionally get upset with a reckless driver but that’s different from finding myself in a constant state of irritation when I’m driving.

This is still a work in progress. I begin by reminding myself that having a goal of arriving at my destination as a certain time or seeing how fast I can get there is going to make me bad-tempered, which defeats the purpose. A constructive alternative is setting a goal of driving in a way that improves my gas mileage. I listen to classical music on the radio or put in a CD with relaxing music as I drive. I enjoy being aware of pedestrians, people on bicycles, other drivers, architecture, and natural scenery as I drive. If possible, I prefer driving on city streets rather than on the beltway.

It doesn’t always work and I can still fill pretty frazzled after a difficult commute in heavy traffic. But practicing contemplative driving can make a huge difference and I can honestly say that I now usually enjoy the commute between my home in Hyattsville and our church in Fairfax several days a week. I see lots of interesting things in the life of our city as I drive by.

Another spiritual exercise that I practice is focusing on my breathing. Breathing is a basic bodily function but we normally do so unconsciously. Closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing helps me relax when I’m feeling distressed. It enables me to be more in touch with myself and with the divine.

A companion exercise is to silently or audibly reflect on breathing in God’s love and God’s peace and breathing out whatever is troubling me. I breathe out my anxiety; I breathe out my anger; I breathe out my fear, while breathing in God’s peace. If I do that for a while I gradually find myself becoming more serene and at peace. By being peace we become peacemakers.

Being Peace (part 2)

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More water lilies at Longwood Gardens

Being peace begins with my relationship with God. Our God is a God of love and peace. Regularly meditating on God as love and peace fosters a sense of thankfulness and blessing. One of the biblical stories I frequently like to bring to mind is the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3:16). That voice from heaven is not only for Jesus but for each one of us. I’m God’s beloved daughter—God’s beloved son. God created me and is very pleased with me. Belief in God’s unconditional love for each person is powerfully transformative.

Our granddaughter Annie was so excited to go to kindergarten this year and could hardly go to sleep on the night before the first day of school. More recently, she started fretting about various things at school and didn’t always want to go. Her parents were getting a little worried. Then this week she got the student of the month award for her class. That affirmation has made a huge difference. She was excitedly telling her Grandma Zimmerman all about it on the phone and we now have a picture of Annie with her student of the month poster hanging on our refrigerator.

We all need an occasional student of the month award and an underlying sense that we’re cared for and loved. When the recognition that we’re loved is not there, we’re prone to become anxious, fearful, depressed, aggressive, angry, and even hateful. None of these emotions are necessarily inappropriate in response to some circumstances. Some things are quite worrisome and we rightly hate evil.

Reflecting on my involvement in the anti-war demonstration before the Iraq War, it was appropriate to get angry when our government was bent on going to war with fabricated evidence. Anger and hatred are valid emotions but we need to learn how to focus them in un-hurtful ways and then let them go. It takes a spiritually mature person to do that. It enables us to live serenely in a world in constant turmoil. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can to that. Violence cannot defeat violence. Only peace can do that.

Being Peace (part 1)

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Water lily at Longwood Gardens

During the buildup to the Iraq war, many of us put lots of energy into a group effort to persuade our government to not invade Iraq. We took out advertisements opposing the war in our local newspaper, we organized public forums at the town library, and we recruited several busloads of people to come to Washington DC to participate in a huge anti-war demonstration.

Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in that demonstration. I can still feel the energy of the crowd. We were pumped up and shouting call-and-response anti-war slogans, along with pounding drums and any other things that made noise as we marched through the streets. “One, two, three, four—we don’t want your bloody war. Drop Bush—not bombs; drop Bush—not bombs!”

We were ordinary Americans—students, grandparents, and even mothers with babies. Different faith communities and church groups marched along holding signs identifying who they were. There were also a few sketchy groups threatening resort to violence if provoked. And there were groups of hecklers at several locations shouting disparaging remarks at us from behind police lines. In stark contrast to all that, there was a group of about a dozen Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-colored robes silently, peacefully marching along with folded hands as if in meditation. That caught my attention.

It’s not that what most of the rest of us were doing was wrong. Showing our frustration and anger can be a legitimate way to express our humanity in response to a great evil or injustice. However, one of the hazards of being a peace activist is becoming habitually angry. It’s easy to start lashing out, not only at the evils we deplore, but at others in the movement who we disagree with. We soon have a long list of grievances and people we don’t like. Becoming a hate filled peace activist is an oxymoron to say the least.

It’s not only peace activists who have this problem. We experienced some ugly conflicts and broken relationships in the Bible and Religion department where I used to teach. I have also known church leaders who thought it was their duty to fight other church leaders, along with all the other evils they imagined creeping into the church. There’s usually lots of ego involved in such fights.

We don’t always know ourselves. Buddhist peace activists have a saying that we need to be peace in order to make peace. Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese, Buddhist peace activist whose work I have become familiar with through my time in Asia and my involvement in the peace movement. He writes:

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.’ Those who work for peace must have a peaceful heart. When you have a peaceful heart, you are the child of God. But many who work for peace are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work is not really peaceful. We cannot say they belong to the Kingdom of God” (Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, p. 73).

Life Experience

Rural India

A scene from a rural India agricultural project

This blog post is an introduction to my life experiences that shape the kinds of things I anticipate writing about in future posts. A following post will focus more on the name of my blog and the themes of spirituality, freedom and community in the way of Jesus.

My wife Ruth and I had worked for many years on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University, a small Christian liberal arts university in the Shenandoah Valley. I taught religion and social ethics and also served on the pastoral team of the Shalom congregation. Ruth was an administrator in the university’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. After our three children left home we made the momentous decision to uproot ourselves and take a relief, development, and peacebuilding assignment in South Asia. We always dreamed of returning to Asia, having previously served for eight years in the Philippines.

Kolkata, India became our home as we worked at programs in poverty alleviation, sustainable agriculture, education, and community conflict mediation in India, Nepal, and Afghanistan with Mennonite Central Committee and our local partner organizations. My portfolio included church relations, interfaith relations, and local peacebuilding programs. We had envisioned working there for the remainder of our careers but that changed abruptly because of a bureaucratic visa snafu. We had to leave India after three years—considerably sooner than we had anticipated.

That was an anxious time. We had to find new employment in a depressed economy. I took a one-year interim pastoral position in Madison, Wisconsin. I loved that city and our congregation. We were only getting settled there when Ruth was offered a position with World Vision in Washington DC. It was a hard decision but she took the job and I followed her to DC when I finished my pastoral assignment. We bought an old house in Hyattsville, Maryland that needed lots of remodeling and I put all my energy into that for several months. I then took a pastoral sabbatical by volunteering at the MCC Washington Office, the advocacy office of the Mennonite Central Committee.

After that I took one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education through serving as a chaplain intern at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center. I learned so much about our city and life in general through my interactions with patients, through relating to my peer chaplains, through the pastoral care topics we studied, and through my relationship with my supervisor who guided me in a spiritual journey of self-discovery. I learned how to be a spiritual presence to people facing illness, to accident victims arriving in the trauma center, and to patients and their family confronting the end of life and death.

My time in South Asia continues to inform who I am even though my work is now oriented to life and ministry here in the Washington DC area through my pastoral responsibilities at Northern Virginia Mennonite Church. But even that has an international flavor in our diverse community. We share our church building in Fairfax with Korean, Hispanic, and Chinese congregations. I now serve on the board of the Anabaptist Peace Center, which sponsors two peace related public forums each year. I also serve on the board of the Jubilee Association of Maryland, which serves clients with developmental disabilities. All these things together should provide rich resources for exploring what a Jesus centered peace insurgency might look like in our world.