Peace Be Still: Giving Thanks as a Rebellious Act

Recently, I was out hiking with a friend I hadn’t seen in years.  We were in “his” mountains, the Appalachian range, of which there remained very few trails, valleys or mountainsides he had not scaled, hiked or skied. However, all of that changed as a series of life disasters — divorce, surgery and heart issues stole his lust for life and left him with a general apathy towards everything. He had been, as U2′s Bono so succinctly puts it, “stuck in a moment,” and he couldn’t get out of it.

So, how did you get better?” I asked.  He came to a dead stop on the trail. First he smiled, paused, and then said, “giving thanks.”  The irony was that “thanks be to God” had been his very own mantra he had repeated, out loud to others, throughout his life. And yet, in this crucial period of crisis, his mantra seemed to fail him. Perhaps the mantra had not quite fully penetrated his heart, as busy as he was making his way in the world.

His intuitive therapist then put him on a daily regimen of “giving thanks.” Over time, his mantra turned into a practice, as it sank from his head to his heart,  it became an act of rebellion against fear, doubt and anxiety. He began his day giving thanks for everything, in defiance of his reality,  he gave thanks for his life, his suffering, his relationships, his lack of relationships, the emptiness as well as the fullness, the pain as well as the joy, he just began giving thanks all day long for everything, even the disaster, and he gradually got better. Some of his physical issues remained, but gradually improved to a point he could tolerate, in other words, he could get out in his mountains again.

Gratitude as a practice, it changes your heart and your heart changes you.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How does it work? It’s a mystery. Try it sometime, just for a day, and see how it alters your perspective, observe how it makes you feel.

When I was growing up, we sang an old hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one…count your many blessings see what God has done.” I remember thinking about this on so many nights when I had trouble falling asleep. I would count my blessings, literally, and I was always surprised at the many positive things in my life, throughout the entirety of my life. I would always think of the kindness of various people, provision when I thought there would be none, love in the oddest of places, and from that came peace and from peace came rest. Now, I try and practice gratitude throughout the day, particularly when things are rough. It becomes my daily act of rebellion against all the chaos that seems to rule the world. Gratitude may not change the landscape of the reality around me, but it does change my ability to deal with it, my ability to have internal peace when it seems that only chaos exists.

Peace, peace be still, he spoke  into the chaos. A presence, not just a phrase. It seems to me that Jesus, Divine presence in human form, knew this was an act of rebellion, stating something completely counter to physical reality around him, and he practiced it constantly.

Deena Metzger, poet, author and spiritual leader, writes about the importance of focusing on the sweetness in the nature of living things as a way to spiritual renewal.  She also says its important not to cultivate gloom. We do this by speaking peace defiantly into a world of chaos.

Many people have said to me that they find it impossible to focus on anything for longer than a minute or two, that their minds race forward and they feel they can’t control the race. These people also tell me that they find it hard to focus on anything good when so much in the world is bad. I try and remind them that faith is a practice, it doesn’t come instantaneously, and that much of our faith is about the focus on the goodness of God penetrating doubt, fear and anxiety.  I encourage them that it is something we were intended to do, this ritual of spirit, and it is not that hard once you get going, in fact, it takes on a life of its own.

These realms of fear, anxiety and doubt do exist and the power in these realms is very real. We can spend our entire lives being driven by these forces, trying to numb them, outrun them or feeling crushed by them. However, there is a higher order that is capable of speaking peace and calm into this disordered realm where compulsions drive human behavior. We find this order in the rebellious act of being in a state of gratitude.

Doubt, fear and anxiety drive us to create things that give us security, and this is not inherently bad, it’s actually a good thing to create shelter, a savings account, good living conditions for everyone, etc. However, we tend to make these things an end goal rather than a means to an end, and when we do that, we invest our hopes and dreams in the pursuit of things. This means that our energy goes towards the pursuit of things we think will deliver peace, joy, love and happiness. We generally end up unfulfilled when we achieve these end goals (or invest everything and don’t achieve them)  and realize the pursuit did not bring us what we thought was promised. Sort of like a dog chasing its tail, an endless loop that only results in more of the same.

Giving thanks, the practice of gratitude, is a way through, a way to break the cycle. It calms the chaos within and settles us into pursuits that bring  real peace and joy, where the spirit within has a stronger sway in our day to day world. Through this practice of giving thanks, we connect with the Great Spirit, God, who gives us peace, who sustains our hearts with joy and calmness and breath. Eventually, we begin to make better decisions about how we invest our time and energy, we begin to trust our instincts as they are guided by the greater Good.  That constant pumping you hear in your heart is not just the beating out of a biological function, it is actually the life force of the universe filling you with light each moment, your heart, the center of your being.

Today, try a little rebellious exercise, open your heart to the possibility of gratitude, open your heart to God, to newness, to thanks; even, and especially, in the midst of disaster. I know it’s counter intuitive, give thanks as a rebellious act, what do you have to lose but fear itself? Give thanks, simply, for life in the midst, go stare at a dogwood blossom for a few minutes, noticing every color of light springing forth, count the times you discover a new freckle on your partner’s face, look deeply into a child’s eyes, drink from a natural spring, get lost driving nowhere, go stare at a river, sit in silence with some relaxing music playing and recite a three word mantra, turning it into a practice, here is one….

Peace be still.

You can do it, give yourself permission to try.

 

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Tell Me the Old, Old Story: “Noah” the Movie

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If there were a  manual for interacting with Bible stories, I would like to think the first line might be something like, “Forget everything you know.” The second line, “Engage your imagination fully.” In such a world of wonder and mystery, a world of wild spaces and untamed humanity, one easily gets lost when navigating with a 21st century mind. To imagine that God is a God of wildness, wonder and mystery, the Divine one who is constantly creating would be to unlock a door to a heart that has been sealed by industrial strength guilt, shame and fear. These were the very forces that overtook Adam and Eve (according to the old, old story).

Speaking of ancient humanity and creation stories, I really thought “Noah” was a decent movie, a great story and a wonderful jaunt for the imagination, and here is the key word, imagination. Let’s face it, if the movie was merely based on the scant literary information found in Biblical text, it just wouldn’t be that great of a movie. We forget, so often, that when we are reading the Noah Bible story of Genesis, we’re using our imagination to interact with a story and to expand meaning. The movie re-imagines an ancient story, inviting us to do more of the same. If we were part of that early community to whom the story first belonged, we might be sitting around a campfire or a dinner table listening to Uncle John tell us about how we came to BE in the world and our imagination would be on fire.

“Noah” re-imagines a world where the ancient human is completely dependent on the Creator (the movie’s language) to sustain daily life. The Creator provides according to the Creator’s will, which is basically Divine goodness. The Creator places this goodness in the human self and the development of the self is intended to unfold according to this awareness (that is, if not for the tragic garden event.)  This is Noah’s language throughout most of the movie as he tries to follow his understanding of Divine will.

However, in this early, ancient world of 10th generation humans, the spirits of good and evil are at full on war, within and without. How do you depict a war of good and evil waged in the human soul? The Nephilim roam the earth, evidence of God’s footsteps in the garden still appears now and then and from this garden emerge the two paths, light and dark, the divine and the shadow sides of human nature. Even Noah is complicit (the human struggle) as the movie suggests, under extreme pressure and on the brink of insanity, he moves towards the dark side himself. The whole world was literally on his shoulders, we would all crack a little, if not a lot, under such pressure with no entourage to do political spin on our behalf. In such a world, the Watchers, magic berries, sleep inducing herbs, seeds of Eden and golden fire rocks seem to make sense. The Bible world is not a flattened out reality, the one that we sometimes live in when we overlay our millennia of information and technology (not to mention 2000 years plus of theology) over such ancient creation stories. There are many layers, helpful though they are, to peel back.

To engage Bible story with imagination might also give us the courage to take the God we have created in our own image out of the box, the box we’ve built for a God we can manipulate and comprehend. The truth is, the Divine will still be the creative force of our universe, not to mention all the other numerous galaxies that float and hover around us, long after we are gone. This is a mystery we’ve been trying to capture since we knew how to speak and dream and tell stories.

 

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