Finding Inner Peace in a Complicated World

Inner peace is not something that we attain despite the challenges and anxieties of our lives. Inner peace isn’t just about finding serenity. It is something that we find with and through the challenges of our lives. It’s when we center down into the very things that seem to be in the way of experiencing inner peace, and emerge from that centering down with a clearer sense of conviction and connection and confidence.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday December 7, 2014.

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Once upon a time, there was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried their hand, and hundreds of pictures of peace lined the king’s distinguished throne room. One by one, the king looked at all the pictures.

There were only two he really liked.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for the peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace!

The other picture had mountains, too, but these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all, and everyone who saw it wondered what the artist could possibly be thinking.

But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, the grey thundering raining skies, and the wind rushing the rugged and bare mountain, sat a mother bird on her nest of eggs, in perfect peace.

What the king understood is that peace is not something that depends on a serene environment, with the perfect combination of factors, where nothing distracts or threatens or surprises. Peace can happen anywhere, at any time, and in any heart that truly commits to it.

When I think about those two pictures, I can think of a few moments where my life felt like a picture perfect lake, with a perfect sky and perfect clouds and perfect mountains. I’ve had some moments like that, like the last time that my three brothers and I were in the same room together. It was just so beautiful I could have cried if I let myself. Or that time at a concert where the music moved me and I felt lifted above the confusion of the world and my own conflicted heart. I had such a clear sense of perfect inner peace and I wished it would never end. You’ve probably had these kinds of moments too. But they don’t happen every day. They may happen only a few moments in your life.   What about the rest of our lives?

It seems to me that life is more often like the second picture.   There is usually something going on that seems to make life difficult and anxious. Maybe it’s pressure at work. Demands from family. Demands at school. Stress about money. Illness. Applying for college. Maybe a loved one has really let you down and you don’t know what to do. Maybe you’re the one who did the letting down and you don’t know what to do.   Then there’s the really big stuff. Like what’s happening in our city around racial tension, and the impact that is having on many of our relationships and the way we feel about each other and our city and our nation.   There’s a lot of emotional and political heat in our city right now. Every one of us is being pushed and challenged in the way we see ourselves, each other, and our world. That’s a stressful place to be. Living with that kind of pressure takes its toll on all of us.

One of the things you often hear people say is that things are faster now than they used to be. and that life is harder and more frantic. I’ve said it myself, and I wonder if many of us use this to justify why our lives seem plagued by anxiety and pressure, that it’s different now than it used to be. We have more of it.

But then, I look at the scriptures and I look at folk tales, like this story of the king, and it seems to me that in every time and every place, anxiety and pressure exist, and every people has struggled with how to meet the demands of their day while fully appreciating that day and being in a place of centeredness and peace. The practice of meditation wasn’t created in the last 25 years. It was created thousands of years ago. We aren’t unique and our yearnings didn’t just happen in this lifetime. They have always been there.

I think about that bird in our story, sitting in a small bush that grew out of a crack in the rock. Somehow, in all the tension around her, she still had the resolve to lay her eggs and to sit there, patiently waiting, to birth new life, in that harsh environment. So much could have distracted and discouraged her.   She could have said, “This is a lousy place to build a nest. I’m going to wait for that perfect lake with the perfect mountains and the perfect blue sky. That’s where I’m going to make my nest and have my family.”

If she had tried that, she would still be looking because no life can be that perfect and that serene, not if you want to be engaged and connected with other human beings and with the world and even with yourself, not if you want to love and be loved, and not if you want to grow as a person.

Instead, she stayed where she was. She made her home in an imperfect place, even, one could say, a harsh place. She found a little tiny corner behind the rushing water, that seemed, in the moment, to be safe enough to dream of a future. Then she did the bravest thing of all, she entrusted the life of her children to that imperfect place. She literally put all her eggs in one basket.

Now I hope you know that I’m not just literally talking about when it’s best to have kids, although if that’s the message you need to hear this morning, more power to you!

This is a metaphor for our lives.

The bird in her nest symbolizes what is possible for each of us when we realize that inner peace is not about what surrounds us. It’s about what we do with what surrounds us. It’s about what we do with it in our hearts, in our minds, and then in our actions.

Inner peace is not something that we attain despite the challenges and anxieties of our lives. Inner peace isn’t just about finding serenity. It is something that we find with and through the challenges of our lives. It’s when we center down into the very things that seem to be in the way of experiencing inner peace, and emerge from that centering down with a clearer sense of conviction and connection and confidence.

I want to read you a poem by Howard Thurman, called “How Good To Center Down”:

“How good it is to center down

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moments and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;

A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment – the kinds of people we are.

The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives? – what are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings? Where are we trying to go?

Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?

For what end do we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?

What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?

Over and over the questions beat in upon the waiting moment.

As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind –

A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.

It moves directly to the core of our being. Our questions are answered,

Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round.

With the peace of the Eternal in our step.

How good it is to center down!”

Thurman’s understanding of inner peace locates it in the middle of our real lives, in our busy minds, in the clashings of our spirit. Inner peace is not an escape from the pressures of our days. Inner peace happens by centering down in them, listening to our inner voice, and asking what all this is saying to the core of our being.

In Unitarian Universalism, there is a very special understanding of the voice within. It has four layers to it.

The first layer is truly our unique private inner personal voice that belongs only to us and responds to the particularities of our life.

The second layer of our inner voice is part of the larger communal human voice of generations where we hear the echo of every human emotion and yearning, and we are its bearers for the time that we are on earth. When we listen to this inner voice, we are connecting to the entirety of human existence, from ancient times to now.

The third layer of our inner voice is a pathway from the entire natural world, yearning to live into the complete fullness of our being. Our inner voice is one manifestation of that same energy that is in the seed that must sprout when it hits the earth, in the water that must flow from its source, in the salmon that will swim against the current to spawn, and in the flower that will bloom magnificently until it’s time has come. Listening to our inner voice is listening to the whole magnificence of creation.

And the fourth layer of our inner voice is the holy, or the mystical union, or the God of your understanding. In Unitarian Universalism we often say that there is a spark of the divine in each of us. When you listen to your inner voice, not the voice that is connected to pride or ego or the momentary meeting of desire, when you strip those away, you center down into the voice of God itself speaking through you.

Those are the four layers of your inner voice – the self, humanity, all of creation, and the mystical union of all things. This is why, in our faith tradition, we pay so much attention to that deep listening. So much of our religious education for our children is about helping them to learn to listen to their inner voice, to cultivate a deep sense of reverence for what they hear, and then to take responsibility to think about what they hear and what it asks of them.

Every challenge and anxiety we face, every imperfectness in our lives, is an opportunity to center down and listen to the inner voice and participate in the ongoing revelation of truth and meaning and wisdom.   It is like sitting on a nest of eggs promising a future amidst the grey sky, the rain, and the barren mountain.

This week, in the midst of all those things that ask for your time and energy, find some time to center down. It could be during your morning commute, or that quiet five minutes before you wake up the kids, over a last hot cup of tea before you go to bed, or between the meetings and commitments that fill your days. Listen for the inner voice and it will connect you to all history and all time and all being.

May the spirit of the ages be with you and yours, amen and blessed be.

Ideally, a sermon is meant to be heard rather than read, which will account for the style of its writing.  This sermon may be reproduced and shared provided credit is give to Rev. Krista Taves.

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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