Inner Peace in a Torn-Apart World
21st Sunday After Pentecost • October 14, 2018
Reading: Philippians 4:4-14
Pastor Jeff Wells
How’s your inner peace lately? If you are like me, you long for that deep sense of peace of mind, heart, and spirit that many have come to call “inner peace.” I suspect most of you have found the actual experience of peace pretty elusive. Or, maybe you can identify with the psychotherapy patient who said, “My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start. So far today, I have finished 2 bags of chips and a chocolate cake. I feel much better already.”
Seriously – inner peace would be such a great thing – if only it weren’t so hard to achieve. The typical response when the concept of “inner peace” is raised is to ask questions like these: How can I experience inner peace when my loved one is ill? How can I have inner peace when I am suffering physical or emotional pain? How I sense any kind of peace when I am unhappy with my work, or I am unemployed, or I have relationship problems? How can we even talk about having inner peace in the face of the reality of the stress, and conflict, and violence, war, and natural disasters that grip so much of our lives and our world?
Let’s just admit it – having inner peace can be hard. This is a very busy season in the church and I have been dealing with added stresses and conflict lately, so when someone asked me this week how I was doing, I responded, “Well, I am not experiencing the most inner peace I have ever had.” I want to be able to say, like the apostle Paul, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have and to face whatever circumstances I find myself in with calm and courage.” I want to experience inner peace and I often do, but it is certainly not continual or automatic.
So what is “inner peace,” anyway? It certainly does not mean being complacent in the face of suffering or injustice – our own or that of others. It is not about avoiding our personal challenges or escaping from the cares of the world. I think of inner peace the way the great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes meditation – it “is not to get out of society…but to prepare for reentry into society.”
If you have inner peace, it means you have gained the ability to feel generally at ease even in the face of difficult circumstances in your personal life and in your social and political context. For example, one thing having “inner peace,” denotes for me is being able to do my work as a pastor with a lot of equilibrium and a minimum of anxiety and trepidation over structural, spiritual, and interpersonal challenges. It means being able to do the work of seeking justice from a place of calm resolve and commitment, but without the destructive motivations of hatred or rage or revenge. For me, it includes being well and stable enough within myself that when I am caring for others, my own issues do not get in the way.
So, how do we get to this elusive experience we call “inner peace”? First, I think it demands that we recognizing our need to care for ourselves in the midst of caring for others and the world. We cannot give so much of ourselves to causes of justice or to the care and well-being of others, that we get burned out, resentful, or have no energy left to take care of our own needs, let alone the needs of others. And, we need healthy relationships and loving community to give us a solid foundation of support, affirmation, encouragement, and care. Jesus himself modeled this for us. He frequently went off by himself to rest and pray. He also took his disciples away from the crowds and from active ministry to do the same. Second, we need to accept that we do not control what happens. No matter how hard we work or try, the world is simply too complicated for any individual, any community, even any one nation or social system to determine outcomes. But God sees all of our possibilities and potential outcomes and is constantly working to move us and the whole universe toward the good, the just, and the loving. Third, we have to practice. We humans need discipline and practice. Specifically, we need to engaging in practices that allow us to unplug, renew, reinvigorate, and then re-engage with the world. We do that every week by joining together in worship, but there are plenty of other ways to practice. Many do not originate in Christianity and other have no direct connection to spirituality. Prayer, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, exercise, hiking, a creative endeavor, volunteering with Hope for Our Neighbors in Need, dinner with friends, watching a movie, going on vacation, are all ways to refresh ourselves – and the list could go on. Jesus was a big fan of socializing with friends and strangers over food and wine. He enjoyed weddings and dinner parties. So much so that he got a reputation for being a drunkard and hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. What all of these practices have in common is that they allow us a period of time to recharge our “inner peace” batteries – and then re-engage with life in all its messy and wonderful abundance.
Finally, we know that our peace ultimately comes from God and our relationship with God. We can know peace because we are in God and God is in us, no matter what happens. St. Augustine famously wrote, “God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Friends, let us learn together to accept the peace God offers us and to allow our lives to rest on that strong foundation. The apostle Paul makes this point powerful in today’s lesson:
Rejoice in God always. Again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
God is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Friends, let us rejoice – God is near. Live as gently as you can in God’s constant presence. Try not to worry too much, but ask God for what you need. God wants the very best for you and for all persons. And let the peace of Christ flow over and through you.
One final ingredient of our peace is not directed inwardly, but outside of us. It is God’s call and our need to serve others. It may sound like a paradox, but one of the best ways to work toward inner peace is to focus outside of ourselves. The writer Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of having heard a sermon many years ago in Manhattan, in which the preacher suggested, for those in the congregation who rode the subway, that they choose one person riding in their car who looked like they were not at peace and pray God’s peace upon that person. The preacher instructed them to “concentrate inconspicuously on one person, affirming silently that this person was a beloved child of God, and no matter what the circumstances, could lie in God’s peace.” L’Engle tried this the next time she rode the subway. Here is what she wrote of her experience:
“I glanced at a woman in the corner, hunched over, hands clenched, an expression of resigned endurance on her face. So, without looking at her, I began to try to send God’s loving peace to her. I didn’t move. I didn’t stare at her. I simply followed [the preacher’s] suggestion, and to my wonder she began to relax. Her hands unclenched; her body relaxed; the lines of anxiety left her face. It was a moment for me of great gratitude, and a peace that spread out and filled me too.”
Try that the next time you are on a train or plane or a bus, or standing in a line at the supermarket; or some other opportunity. Pick one person and pray God’s peace upon them. L’Engle writes, “If God’s peace is in our hearts, we carry it with us, and it can be given to those around us…by the Holy Spirit working through us.” The really wonderful part of it is this: “the more peace we give away, the more we have.”
It works that way because we are all connected. As long as there is one human being in the world who is prevented from having his or her own sense of inner peace because she or he is subject to war, or violence, or sexual abuse, or impoverishment, then my peace and your peace are incomplete. Albert Einstein wrote on this theme. Here is what he said:
A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. And yet we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical illusion of our consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature.
Do you want to experience inner peace? Then, open yourself to the peace that Jesus offered when he said to his followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Open yourself to God’s peace and become a vessel for that peace for your own wellbeing and for the transformation of the world.
 Madeleine L’Engle, “Forward” to Johann Christoph Arnold, Seeking Peace (New York: Plume, 2000), xiii-xiv.
 John 14:27.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
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