Peace that Surpasses Every Thought
Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church May 4, 2014
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. (Wendell Berry)
Why do we think of wild things as being at peace? Because they are what they are, with no attempt to become something else. The daffodil glorifies God by blooming. The heron landing on the pond glorifies God by doing what it was created to do. They do not worry about what will be. They live in the moment and not in tomorrow.
Jesus famously pointed this out in the Sermon on the Mount. “Consider the lily; it never worries about whether it is beautiful or what it will wear, but no human has ever dressed more perfectly. Consider the birds of the air (even, he says in Luke, the ravens); they don’t worry about making ends meet. They don’t even think about whether the supply will be there tomorrow; they just eat what is there.” We humans, who are equipped to reflect on such things, understand that there is a God who created a world that provides for birds. A book called How Many Birds Are There? (1997) estimated that worldwide there are between 200 and 400 billion birds—as opposed to 7 billion humans. “If your Father in heaven provides for them,” Jesus says, “won’t he much more provide for you? You of little faith, you worry-warts!”
Consider, as the Gaelic blessing says, the deep peace of the running wave. The wave can be wild and unpredictable to us, but it is never distressed by its waviness. We humans may talk about “the angry waves,” but the wave never feels anger. It never thinks of being other than it is. As far as we can tell, nothing in nature is torn by a desire to be something other than what it is. This is the peace of wild things. I wonder about our pets and domesticated animals, though, who have been infected with our anxieties and our desires for them to be other than animal-like.
The humans stand in contrast to the wild things, and this is the story told in Genesis 3, which many call the Fall. The first humans, the story goes, were not content with being creatures who are provided for and live within their limits. The humans wanted to be like God. They wanted things they did not need, which were not natural to them. This is the beginning of worry. First we reject the limits of creatureliness and the confidence that what we have is enough. Then having claimed autonomy for ourselves, we recognize that we are naked: the way we were made is not good enough. Our autonomy means that we are alienated from nature, so that we have to struggle to make the earth produce food for us on our own timetable. We exercise our freedom by taking freedom away from others, as the man takes it from the woman as his first act. Believing that we are on our own in this world, we worry, having lost the peace of wild things.
When the risen Jesus shows himself to his disciples, he says “Peace to you.” It is more than a greeting. It echoes the promise he made in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.” Then he says, “Don’t be troubled or afraid.” The opposite of worry and fretfulness is Jesus’ peace. Paul makes the same kind of move in Philippians. “Don’t be anxious,” he says. Instead, let God know what you need and be grateful for what God gives. If you do that, then “the peace of God that passes understanding will keep guard over your hearts and minds.”
The word “peace” means more than one thing in the Bible. Sometimes it means the end of war. Sometimes it means the peace between God and us: we used to be his enemies but now we are his friends. Sometimes in both testaments it reflects that Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means more than the absence of conflict but also general well being and flourishing. When you say “Shalom” as a greeting—or in Arabic “Salaam”—you are saying that you hope the other person is well. Seven of the letters of Paul in the New Testament include the same opening sentence: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
But what do we mean by the peace of God? And what does Jesus mean by my peace? There is a sense in which we have peace that is produced by God the Father and by Jesus—because they have broken down the wall between us, because we know that our Father will provide for us. But there is a deeper meaning here. The peace of God is the deep peace that God has within himself, Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus’ peace is the same as that, and that is what he wants to give us.
I think it helps to remember that God is the most peaceful being there could ever be. God never wants to be something he is not. God never worries that he is not good enough. God does not struggle to meet deadlines. God lives always in the eternal now even as he also has a broad view of history. God has no reason to be humble, and God has no reason to be anxious. Within God’s self there is perfect peace and love that is shared within the three persons of the Trinity, constantly flowing in a circle among them as they perform a kind of graceful dance. The deep peace that Jesus gives us is his own peace, as he says, that peace that was from the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
We miss the peace of God and the peace of wild things because we want to be something other than what we really are. We do not want to be creatures and be dependent on God, yet that is who we are. We want to please others and we want to be seen as powerful and competent. We allow our sense of self to be shaped by the needs of others rather than the reality of who we truly are.
The truth about me is that I have struggled over my lifetime with anxiety—and still get treated for it. I’m sure a part of that has to do with a childhood marked by uncertainty about my mother’s health and frequent moves. But as an adult I’m convinced that it has more to do with trying to be someone I am not.
The first time I ever experienced panic attacks and real anxiety was when I was 28. Becca and I had moved to Birmingham to take a new job at UAB. My boss had told me my main job was to start a brand new ministry at the med school—which I eventually did—and develop one at a small liberal arts college, which I loved. But I hadn’t been in my new house for a week when my boss fired the other campus minister at UAB. This had been his plan all along, and it left me with the jobs of two people. I had to take over the program for a group of undergraduates who were angry about the firing, plus take over a building program to renovate a doctor’s office building of about 6,000 square feet into a Baptist Student Center. Being pushed into this job that I did not want caused me to have symptoms. I could not bear to get into the elevator at that doctor’s office building, and I had never had claustrophobia before. I could not even bear to sit in the back seat of a car. The thought of airplane seats made me panic.
Now you can tell me that it is genetic or chemical, but I know that at least part of it was being forced into being someone I did not want to be. Symptoms are often a metaphor for how we feel about our lives. This anxiety was related to a loss of power and self-determination, and a loss of confidence that the power over me was benevolent. But there was a more general sense that I was being asked to be something other than who I was.
Twenty years later I began to have similar symptoms as a consequence of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was always moderate to progressive in my politics and progressive evangelical in my theology, but I did not leave the denomination when the right wing first took over and began firing people. My church in New Jersey did not need to deal with that mess, I told myself. Each year the restrictions got worse and worse. What tore it for me was the imposition of a statement of faith which said that women could not be pastors.
During that period I took Nathan, age 10 I think, with me down to North Carolina for a weeklong conference for Southern Baptist leaders while Nathan went to day camp. I was really trying to make this Southern Baptist thing work. I’d sit at lunch with big wigs and get them to be friendly even though I went to Princeton. It wasn’t working for me. This was not me. When I put Nathan to bed each night in our hotel-type room, I would try to lie down and anxiety would wash over me. My skin would crawl, my heart would race, and I needed to get out of that room in the worst way—but I could not. My feeling trapped in that room was of course a metaphor my body was providing for the feeling of being trapped as a minister asked to play a role I could no longer play.
I didn’t have the spiritual practices or peer support I needed to deal with the anxiety that came from trying to be someone I wasn’t. I did reach out for help from a therapist and a few friends and from Becca, and eventually made the decision to find a ministry where I wasn’t asked to be someone else.
I’m not assuming that you are all that interested in my history, but I wonder if some of you haven’t felt squeezed to be other than you are—or if you didn’t press yourself into someone else’s mold in order to please a boss or a parent or a spouse. What you lose in that situation is the peace of God, the peace that comes from being who you are and understanding that it is enough. If you’ve been pressed like that, you know that choosing to be yourself takes courage. People imagine that becoming a peaceful person is all about becoming passive and going with the flow, but the truth is that it takes great courage to decide to be who you are, with all your limits, your gifts, and your convictions. And that’s where peace comes from. Some people call it integrity—that is, being integrated, being one person and not several. It takes courage to acknowledge the reality of who we were created to be and our dependence on our creator. It is the peace of wild things, and the peace of God.
It has helped me to practice something called centering prayer. Others call it the prayer of the heart, or contemplative prayer. It’s not a prayer where you try to focus intensely, or push yourself to repent, or plead with God for revival. It’s the prayer of resting in God’s arms like that weaned child in the psalm. And it is very importantly a prayer without words. One recent translation of Philippians 4:6 [Holman Christian Standard Bible] says that “the peace of God, which surpasses every thought” will keep your hearts and minds. There is a peace beyond thinking.
There are only a few simple rules to this practice, and I have them in a handout for you. Sit relaxed in a chair. Close your eyes. Turn your attention to being present in faith and love to God dwelling at the center of your being. Choose a simple word that expresses your being to God in love, and whenever you become aware of any thought, gently use that word to return to the center, because the idea is not to think. You just want to be with God in a peace that surpasses every thought. People usually have some kind of timer for 20 minutes; yes, there’s an app for that.
This may sound like some Buddhist or TM practice, but Christians have been doing this since the early centuries of the church, and at the center of it is not some state of mind but drawing close to God and resting in God. Is it possible to be with God without using words to praise or plead or confess? It is possible, as it is possible to be with someone you have known for a long time and just sit in a comfortable silence.
Peace comes when we realize that we can be with God and just “be.” We can be his creatures and his children and be exactly who he created us to be. May it be so for all of us.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807