Peace is in the Now

June 12, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalms 90:1-4; 12-17, John 14:25-27, 2 Thessalonians 3:16


The three readings today have two things in common; time and peace.  Tough both are gifts from God, time and peace are often in conflict with each other.

What is time?  Time has long been a major subject of study in religion, philosophy, and science, but defining it in a manner applicable to all fields proves difficult. Some question whether time truly exists, or if it is simply a human invention to measure the progression of existence, like someone turning 70 years old, and measuring the progression of events; music in 4/4 time or we’re twenty minutes into our service.    Periodic events and periodic motion such as the apparent movement of the sun across the sky, the phases of the moon, the swing of a pendulum, and the beat of a heart have long served as standards for units of time.  Regardless of whether we can define it or understand it, we know that time is important. On occasion time drags on. More often, we seem to not have enough of it.

One of my favorite books growing up was Alice in Wonderland.  I remember my mom reading it to me before I was old enough to read, and being struck by the contrast at the start of the story. Alice is sitting quietly outside in her yard watching her sister read, and feeling quite bored, when a white rabbit, holding a pocket watch, comes rushing by, extremely harried,  saying over and over again, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date.” I felt sorry for that poor suffering rabbit.

Scene Two: It’s the 1970’s and Tom and I are dating. One of my favorite groups at the time, Chicago, came out with a song: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

It’s a nice catchy tune. Some of you remember it, right?  In the song there’s background vocal that contrasts with the easy going tempo and lyrics of the melody. At one point in the song that background is spoken. The words are:
People runnin’ everywhere
Don’t know the way to go
Don’t know where I am
Can’t see past the next step
Don’t have to think past the last mile
Have no time to look around
Just run around, run around and think why
Does anybody really know what time it is
I don’t
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
about time
We’ve all got time enough to die
Oh no, no

And that is how many of us, I think, experience time.  It’s limited and a source of stress in our lives; just the opposite of peace.

Now what is peace? Merriam Webster has the following definitions: freedom from disturbance; a state of tranquility; a state of security; freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions; harmony in personal relations.

In today’s Gospel Jesus blesses his disciples and blesses us by saying, “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you.” So if the world can’t give us this peace, how do we achieve it? In the section of John’s Gospel that Caryn read this morning, Jesus assures us that the divine Spirit in and among us will teach us. So, open to the Spirit, let’s take another look at time as presented by various rich traditions:

The Greek language has two words for time; Chronos and Kairos. Chronos refers to numeric, or chronological, time. Kairos, literally “the right or opportune moment”, relates specifically to metaphysical or divine time. Kairos is qualitative, as opposed to quantitative.

Kabbalah is an ancient wisdom that originated in Judaism and that reveals how the universe and life work. On a literal level, the word Kabbalah means “to receive.” It’s the study of “how to”. According to Kabbalists, “time” is a paradox and an illusion. Both the future and the past are recognized to be combined and simultaneously present.

According to Zen, our universe; space as well as time are one, an utterly inseparable whole.

These are but three examples of the wisdom from ancient traditions that guide us to accept that all we have is now. And now is the opportune moment.  Now is qualitative time. Or as scripture tells us, “Now is the acceptable time.” Now is where peace and fulness of life reside.

Think about what keeps us awake at night. Unless we are feeling physically ill or in pain, what keeps us from sleeping is preoccupation about the past or the future. We revisit old hurts, anger, and resentment. We replay unpleasant experiences and think about what we could have said or done differently. We worry about what might happen. And at that moment, in bed, we can’t change a thing.  Focus on the past or the future only robs us of the present.

Peace lies in the present. But in our busy, demanding lives, how do we stay there?  Mindfulness, from the Buddhist tradition, is the gentle effort to be continuously present. It’s a technique that we can practice and a skill that we can develop.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist and professor of medicine emeritus at University of Massachusetts medical school, has created programs to introduce and spread the practice of mindfulness into secular society. Here is some of what he teaches:

“Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past.

“When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We don’t appreciate the living present because our “monkey minds,” as Buddhists call them, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.

“Most of us don’t undertake our thoughts in awareness. Rather, our thoughts control us. When you become mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them.” In other traditions, this non-judgmental observation of our thoughts and feelings is called acceptance; accepting ourselves as we are, imperfect and precious.

In the world of additions, living in the present moment, accepting what is, is critical to recovery.  Addicts are people who have such a strong relationship with a substance or a behavior, that in order to continue that relationship they end up harming themselves and others.  Though many addicts come to recognize the negative consequences of continuing this relationship, they can’t imagine life without that substance or behavior. Only focusing on the present, a day at a time, an hour at a time, a moment at a time without that substance or behavior brings hope. Maybe in the now, just for right now, I can survive without doing this or having that. The addicts that I worked with for over twenty-five years taught me a lot.  They had to learn to live in the present moment in order to survive.  I have to learn to live in the present moment in order to be at peace, in order to live fully.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn states, “Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. Mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships”. Dr.  Kabat–Zinn’s description of the benefits of mindfulness describes peace.

Jesus offers us this peace, what he describes as peace that the world cannot give. And indeed, mindfulness is counter-cultural. We praise and reward multi-tasking, doing, accomplishing. I often think that if I just get this or that done, then I can, rest, play, do whatever. That’s the world’s way.

Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard and author of Mindfulness says, “When people are not in the moment, they’re not there to know that they’re not there.” I understand this very well.  When I find myself running around the house looking for my glasses or looking for my car keys, that’s a sure sign that I haven’t been mindful.  When I’m living in the moment I’m aware of placing my keys here or putting my glasses down there.  Then when I want them, I can remember where they are.  Overriding the distraction reflex and awakening to the present takes intentionality and practice.

Living in the moment involves a profound paradox: We can’t pursue it for its benefits. That’s because the expectation of reward launches a future-oriented mindset, which subverts the entire process. Instead, we just have to trust that the rewards will come.

A cartoon from The New Yorker sums it up: Two monks are sitting side by side, meditating. The younger one is giving the older one a quizzical look, to which the older one responds, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”  Maybe you’ve seen the poster or bumper sticker promoting meditation that says, “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There”

This is not the American way. A good day for most of us is one in which we have accomplished a lot. We want measurable results! Now!!

Focusing on the present moment also forces us to stop overthinking. Stephen Schueller, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania says that being present-minded takes away some of that self-evaluation and getting lost in our minds—and in the minds is where we make the evaluations that beat us up.

In her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend who, whenever she sees a beautiful place, exclaims in a near panic, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!” “It takes all my persuasive powers,” writes Gilbert, “to try to convince her that she is already here.”

She continues, “Often, we’re so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what’s happening right now. We sip coffee and think, “This is not as good as what I had last week.” We eat a cookie and think, “I hope I don’t run out of cookies.” Instead, she exhorts us, relish or luxuriate in whatever you’re doing at the present moment.

Prayer, according to St. Benedict is an habitual awareness of God present in our lives and a willingness to conform to what God wants. In today’s first reading, Psalm 90, we heard the beautiful words, “God through all generation you have been our home . . . Satisfy us with your unfailing love.”  God has been and is our home.  When we pray, “Satisfy us with your unfailing love” we are not asking God to love us.  God love is unfailing, constant, no matter what.  What we are praying for in that psalm is our recognition of that love.  Our awareness that God always and at all times loves us.  We are praying that we be conscious of God loving us now.

Prayer happens any time we experience beauty and feel awe, anytime we recognize goodness and feel grateful, any time we are loved and rejoice. God gives us the gift of time.  God gives us now. Let us be grateful.

May the Lord of peace give you peace now, at all times and in every situation.