Category Archives: Asia

Spirit-Led Living—A Simple Path

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Workshop participant reflecting on God’s leading in her life, Tahan, Myanmar

In its most simple form, Spirit-led living is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and then cooperating as fully and quickly as possible. Listen and cooperate, listen and cooperate, in one situation after another. Step by step, a long string of saying, “Yes,” to the Holy Spirit becomes a Spirit-led life. The concept of “cooperation” with God, normally emphasized by the Catholics (to describe the proper use of a regenerated human will) is sometimes shunned by Protestants (to some, it sounds too much like works-righteousness). Yet, in using the concept here, I am not talking about relying on ourselves to do the will of God in our own strength, but rather utilizing our human faculties to “go with the flow” of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul teaches that our wanting and having the capacity to do what pleases God—our ability to cooperate—is not from ourselves but actually comes from God (Philippians 2:13). Yet, in our experience, our cooperation feels like dropping our resistance, submitting to God, or actively embracing whatever the Holy Spirit is putting before us. Spirit-led living, then, means taking the action that flows naturally from whatever you hear the Spirit say. A simple model to grasp, to be sure, but not so simple or easy when it comes to putting it into practice. Why? But first you have to be listening, and to listen, you have to be in a state of mind that is truly open and ready to hear what the Spirit wants to say. Learning to get your own self out of the way, to quiet the competing voices in your head, to be willing to stop and change course, to be patient to wait for the voice of the Spirit, or to be willing to step out of your comfort zone is hard work. You may feel uncomfortable or unsure of yourself when it comes to listening to the Spirit. You may not be sure what is the voice of the Spirit and what is your own voice. But you can learn.

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Fatherless boys in Yangon

Lately, my workshop for learning how to better listen and cooperate has been on the streets of Yangon. Talk about challenges and the need for the Spirit. I work with at-risk youth when I’m not teaching seminarians or doing leadership training, and I frequently find myself over my head. Between being overwhelmed by their physical needs—extreme poverty, hunger, and stressful living conditions—and trying to navigate all the lying and manipulation, my head is often swimming. I often don’t know what to believe or what to think, let alone what to do. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have been critical to my ability to truly make a difference in the lives of these kids, not to mention preserve my sanity. When I start to get frustrated and uptight, sometimes I hear, “Relax. Just enjoy the kids. Let them experience God’s love through you.” Or, “Listen to their stories. See their hopelessness and desperation. What would you do if you were in their place?” My heart opens again, and I feel God’s compassion surging through me.

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A needed conversation, Yangon, Myanmar

Not infrequently, when everything seems to be deteriorating or going backwards, I suddenly realize that we’re in the midst of a teachable moment. Yesterday’s disappointment, frustration, and discouragement have laid the groundwork for having a meaningful conversation today about responsibility, values, or relationships. The Spirit helps me to see that it is not only appropriate to confront them, but doing so turns out to be the most loving and constructive thing I could offer them. I look around and see some people getting taken in and used by these kids. Others who have been trying to help them over the years have become so disappointed and burned that they want to walk away. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have helped me to avoid the extremes of naivety and cynicism. The Spirit helps me to stay calm, to be willing to step back when I have no idea what to do, and to wait until I can see more clearly what is needed; but to not lose heart or give up.

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1 woman and five kids share a 1 room shack, Dalla, Myanmar

I’m always praying, “Spirit, what should I do now?” I don’t usually get immediate answers, but living in a continual state of prayer, acknowledging my dependence on God’s leading and working, keeps me humble and keeps me listening. My desperation and distress have forced me to my knees on many occasions. There, the Spirit often reminds me to put the kids in God’s hands and to stop thinking that their well-being is all on my shoulders. When I listen, I become more peaceful. Cooperation here means letting go of what I cannot control, and waiting for the Spirit to open the door when it’s time for me to say or to do something that will be truly helpful. Where’s your workshop for learning to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit? The simple path of Spirit-led living is meant for everyone. What’s the Spirit saying to you? What’s your next step? But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)

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Between Sundays—Spirit-Led Living in Ordinary Life

U Zaw

U Zaw (pronounced oo zo) teaches and mentors poor, teenage boys who work for Helping Hands, a small social service program in Yangon, Myanmar. Annie Bell, the wife of an British diplomat, started this skills-development outreach several years ago. A deeply compassionate woman, Annie has generously opened her heart and home to these boys and to many other individuals in response to the overwhelming poverty and needs that surround her.

As Annie’s right hand man, U Zaw is responsible to teach 20 boys and young men how to refurbish furniture for resale. He’s there to help them develop marketable skills; and, just as important, he quickly adds, character. Most of those who work at Helping Hands are fatherless, with huge voids in their lives. U Zaw is genuinely concerned for each boy, and takes his mentoring role very seriously.

As a Christian, U Zaw’s faith is very important to him and is a source of inspiration for his work. I was surprised by his low impression of his own spiritual life.

Love for these kids oozed from his pores, and his dedication was manifestly obvious; but it was his wife that he praised. She is the one who truly loves Jesus, he told me somewhat sheepishly. She is the one who is committed to the church, he explained, obviously self-conscious about his own minimal participation. U Zaw works six days a week  and rarely has time to even attend a weekly worship service, let alone any other church activity. He clearly feels bad about his lack of church involvement.

We only had a few minutes, but there was no way I was going to walk away without commenting. The measure of our spiritual vitality goes well beyond what we believe or how much time we spend in Bible Study or church. Spirituality is also—maybe chiefly—about how we live out our faith between Sundays. I had to tell him what I saw in his love and dedication for those kids, that his heart and actions shouted a living spirituality and were beautiful expressions of what it means to follow Christ in ordinary life.

Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita in the Jesuit School of Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, California and pioneer in the academic study of spirituality, captures well the interplay of belief, relationship to God, and relationship to the rest of humanity. Schneiders defines spirituality as one’s “lived experience” of faith.[1] Spirituality, then, is not just belief, on one extreme, or a collection of religious experiences, on the other; and it certainly isn’t the accumulation of religious activities. Rather, our spiritual life is grounded in God’s activity on our behalf, is enlivened by our response of faith, and is marked by our experience of seeking to live out the faith in myriad ways, affecting every dimension of our life.[2]

Please don’t misunderstand me. We need to worship, and we need spiritual disciplines to strengthen and encourage us as we seek to follow Christ. Personally, I depend on guidance and inspiration from reading my Bible, fellowshipping with other Christians, singing, worshipping God, and praying.

Yet, between Sundays, the real measure of our spirituality is in how we live out our faith in the context of our daily life. It’s in how we fulfill our duties and responsibilities, and in how we treat one another. We must resist the temptation to measure our spiritual maturity by how much we’ve learned intellectually, how many spiritual practices we observe, or even how many spiritual “highs” we may have experienced. Instead, what matters most is how much we let the love of God move us and flow out of us toward others.

As I turned to go, U Zaw began shaking my hand vigorously, a huge smile spreading across his face. It was apparent that no one had ever explained to him what spiritual vitality looked like in the life of a humble, sincere follower of Christ. “You must come back and talk to me again!” he insisted. “I want you to meet my wife, too!” I would be happy to do so, I thought. You’re just the kind of person I want to be around.

 “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “The Discipline of Christian Spirituality and Catholic Theology,” in Exploring Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM,” ed. By Bruce H. Lescher and Elizabeth Liebert (New York: Paulist Press, 2006), p 200.

[2] Adapted from my book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2008), p. 6.

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The Way of Jesus

On the eve of my return to Southeast Asia, I am looking forward to more conversation with my students and colleagues on the way of Jesus in a predominately Buddhist context.

Like Jesus, the Buddha is usually portrayed as a gentle and wise spiritual guide. By following his teachings and example, in pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from this world, Buddhists seek to detach themselves from all those desires that produce suffering. Along the way, they seek to live peacefully and to become more compassionate toward others. Buddhists don’t expect these changes to happen overnight, to say the least. In fact, according to common Buddhist teaching, full enlightenment will probably require thousands of (re-) incarnations, if it ever happens at all.

Meditating in the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

As Buddhists look to the Buddha for a better way to live and for hope for their lives, so Christians look to Jesus. Yet, Jesus’ way is different.

Rather than starting with the individual, or even the community, Jesus started with God. He taught us to put the Creator and giver of life at the center of our lives, and to seek to know, love, and serve God with all of ourselves. His Gospel was an invitation to increasingly experience God’s love filling us and flowing through us in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of those around us.[1] In this way, God would be glorified in his creation, and we would experience life as God intends.

Jesus expected that those who follow him would make every effort to realize God’s vision for their lives, but he never imagined that we would try to do this in our own strength. At core, his message was not, “Try harder!” No, his good news was more radical than that. Jesus’ Gospel was a call to surrender our own will and self-reliance, so that God could do in us what we simply cannot do on our own.

Followers of Buddha—or any religion or religious figure that teaches that we must somehow earn or achieve or own salvation—must forever operate under a different system from what Jesus’ taught. They hold a different basis for hope, and live out their days in an endless pursuit of something that is always out of reach.

Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, start by capitulating. They give up the vain aspiration to reach the top of the spiritual ladder in their own strength—no matter how well-intentioned or noble the path. Instead, they gratefully rely on the mercy of God, submit to the yoke of Christ, and learn how to live by the leading of the Spirit of God.

Jesus heals the blind man (John 9)—Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).

An obscure image for most of us, perhaps: a young, untrained ox paired with an experienced, disciplined partner. Once yoked together, the younger one follows the lead of the older, and stops resisting the farmer and exhausting itself. Suddenly there is less stress and distress than when it was fighting against the farmer’s will. And the field gets ploughed.

Jesus is giving us a picture of a relationship with God that is very different from one that requires our striving to some how pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Jesus is offering to gently lead us into the true life God intends for us, both by what he does for us and by what he shows us to do.

The way of Jesus makes him stand out from other great religious leaders, and his teaching from other spiritual paths. The key difference is not so much the intended goals of a becoming a better person, of creating a better society, or of attaining a better after-life. Most religions agree on much of this. No, the critical difference between Jesus’ way and all the others is how one gets there.

By being a follower of Christ, I don’t think I am better than others. On the contrary, I am keenly aware of how limited I am in my own power to become the person I would like to be. I accept this reality, and look instead to God’s love and acceptance for my sense of worth. I rely on God’s mercy and grace for forgiveness and redemption. And my spiritual journey is fairly simple—I’m seeking to learn what it means to live under the yoke of Jesus and live by the Spirit day-by-day, moment-by-moment. I take credit for nothing in my relationship with God, and am only grateful that I was given the grace to recognize the truth that would finally set me free.

A Suggested Prayer (for those tired of trying to advance spiritually on their own): “Jesus, I am so tired of trying to make my life work. I’m weary of trying to be a better person. I give up. Thank you for your gentle and loving invitation to give my life to you completely. I accept! Please teach me how to walk with you, side by side, under your yoke, under your leadership, by your Spirit, to serve God’s good purposes for my life. Please do in me and for me what I cannot seem to do on my own. Thank you.”


[1] Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 15:11-32. See, too, how John further develops this Gospel message, 1 John 4:7-19.

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“But, How Open?”

Benefiting from Buddhism is a series of articles on how to learn from and grow through interaction with those who think, believe, or live differently than we. In the first article, How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?” we looked at our different options. Do we want to be Blenders, Borrowers, or simply Inspired? In the second article, “What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey?” we talked about the importance of honesty, openness, intentionality, and eagerness for those who are serious about spiritual growth. But the question remains, how open should we be? For the Christian who already believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, what is the real goal of being open? And, what kind of openness is appropriate for Christians and truly fruitful on an authentic spiritual journey?

Conversation in the Pagoda

What is the Holy Spirit saying?

Contrary to what you might think, staying open in the midst of a conversation is less about the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the other person and more about God. While each of us has so much we can learn from other people who think differently than we do, the priority is on listening for what the Holy Spirit wants to say or do through the encounter.

When you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit in interpersonal relations, you are likely to become more understanding and less judgmental. You will feel more compassion and want to respond to that person with respect and kindness as a fellow human being. The Holy Spirit is not going to prompt you to water down your commitment to Christ, but may show you something you would not have seen or thought of otherwise. The Spirit may also remind you of a truth in Scripture or in your faith that you have forgotten or put aside, but now need to take hold of once again. By being open to the Spirit in such circumstances, the possibilities for God to work in your life are limitless.

For example, within just the past couple of months, the Spirit spoke to me very meaningfully through encounters with Buddhists, Muslims, and an agnostic. An hour discussion sitting on the floor with a Buddhist monk in Mandalay reminded me (once again) to not assume I know what others believe just because of the clothes they wear or the label associated with them. His articulate philosophy inspired me to do a better job making sure others know the heart of my faith and life.

Listening to a renowned Buddhist philosopher, Mandalay

Through a brief conversation in a small city square, a Muslim mother told me how she could manage raising five small children with her husband thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Her simple faith reminded me to look to God for strength to do whatever I’ve been called to do.

An agnostic friend of mine blew me away with his ridiculous acts of generosity. He refuses to take credit and insists that he does what he does to meet some need of his own. But his example led me to prayer, to ask God for the ability (grace) to not let my fear and greed hold me back from giving more spontaneously and generously to those in need.

Not one of these people read a verse from Scripture or referenced Jesus Christ, and clearly none of them would call themselves a Christian. Yet the Holy Spirit used the encounter to speak to me, to touch me, and to move me another step on my spiritual journey in ways that I deeply treasure.

Pakistani Muslim friends, Chartres, France

I’m not worried about being too open to others, because I know how much Jesus Christ means to me, and I am continually looking to the Holy Spirit to help me sort out and benefit from all that I am experiencing. However, I don’t want to suggest that you don’t have to be thoughtful and prayerful about listening to others.

Talking with someone who articulately believes something different can be very disorienting, confusing, or troubling for many different reasons. Yet, rather than run away from the discomfort, and certainly rather than letting yourself just get swept away by every new idea that comes along, learn how to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the encounter. The following are 10 suggestions that might help.

Making the Most of the Encounter—10 safe steps you can take with the Holy Spirit

  1. Ask the Holy Spirit to prepare you to hear God’s voice through your encounters with others, and to lead you to the people you can learn from.
  2. Reach out to others. Sounds pretty simple, but most of us stay within our own little, safe circles. Seek out those who think or believe differently than you, and look for an opportunity to exchange views and experiences with one another.
  3. Ask God to help you to listen without judgment and to love without strings. The goal of an encounter is not to quickly size someone up, but to genuinely connect mind to mind, heart to heart, and soul to soul.
  4. Expect and ask for the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the encounter. Notice whatever strikes you as interesting or important in the conversation. Particularly take note of whatever is true, good, or beautiful, no matter who said it or who did it.
  5. Ask questions. Be curious. Seek better understanding wherever needed or wanted.
  6. Be ready to share with the other person how your faith in Christ and your experience with God have been a gift to you. Don’t use theological or formulaic language, but talk from your heart, as you would to a friend. What is true in your own relationship with God that is worth telling someone else about?
  7. Identify further questions or concerns for yourself that arise from the encounter. What do the ideas or feelings of the other person make you wonder about your own faith or life experience? Try to put your question into words.
  8. Actively seek out answers from reliable sources: Scripture, your pastor, mentors, or other trusted resources. Don’t stop with identifying your question. Look for answers.
  9. Pray your questions and concerns. In other words, hold up what is confusing or troubling you to God, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and work in you through the ongoing process of seeking greater understanding.
  10. Thank God for the gifts of the encounter. What were you able to offer the other person that brings you joy? What did you receive from the experience? What will you do next based on your experience—for the other person, for yourself, or for someone else?

How open should we be to others? Open enough to receive everything the Holy Spirit may want to do in us or through us through the encounter.

A prayer “Loving Creator, thank you for the many different ways that you reach out and speak to us. Please help me to be more open to others and to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to show or teach me through them. Please speak to me in all of my daily encounters, and lead me to deeper levels of faith, hope, and love in every possible way. Amen.”

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“What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey?”

Monk at Mandalay Monastery, Myanmar

First of all, an authentic spiritual journey is the one that is, not the one we aspire to, not the one we create in our minds to fool ourselves, and certainly not the one we fake to impress others. We may feel scared to admit the truth about the quality of our relationship with God, but we don’t need to be afraid. Such honesty can actually be quite liberating, freeing us to build a more vital spiritual life upon a solid foundation—the truth.

By letting go of pretense, we can more fully appreciate the love and grace of God, who forgives us and sets us free to truly love and accept ourselves. The more we stop worrying about what others think of us, and look instead to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the more likely we are to find the way, the life, and the truth we are looking for (John 14:6). Upon a foundation of truth and grace, we are in a much better position to start out fresh on our journey to discover more of the riches that can be found in Christ, more understanding, more truth, more of whatever it is the Holy Spirit wants to show us or do in and through us. It is at this point—more honest, yet hopeful; flawed, but forgiven; humbled, yet empowered—that we must get our priorities straight. We must line up our actions with our deepest held beliefs and values. But what does an authentic spiritual journey look like? An authentic spiritual journey: A case study Son and grandson of Protestant missionaries, Hermann Hesse was dissatisfied with the emptiness and over-reliance on the intellect that he perceived in Western society and the Christian religion. In his angst he sought insight in psychoanalysis and Eastern religion. Finally, in 1951, as the fruit of his own quest, he published Siddhartha, an evocative novel that has since inspired and captured the imagination of millions around the world. His story traces the life-long, spiritual journey of a fictional character named Siddhartha, who is positioned as a contemporary of the founder of Buddhism, Gotama (aka Gautama, Buddha). As a true seeker, Siddhartha is willing to look for answers wherever he can find them, and to experiment with different ways of being in the world. He is trying to find the truth about life—not intellectually, but practically. He wants to know what truly makes sense in the here and now.

Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Siddhartha sojourns with the ascetics for a few years, yet finds such extreme self-denial unsatisfying, and leaves their company. He welcomes the arrival of Gotama, and listens carefully to him; but, in the end, he cannot agree fully with his teachings, and chooses not to be one of his disciples. Siddhartha then swings from asceticism to self-indulgence in his search for truth and fulfillment. He plunges freely into the pleasures of sexual love, wealth, and luxury. However, eventually, the emptiness and the corroding influence on his soul from living so dissolutely drives him to take to the forest. There he lives the rest of his life very simply, in the company of a ferryman, who teaches him to listen to and learn from the river. By the time he grows old, Siddhartha concludes that love is the most important thing to pursue. He increasingly becomes disillusioned with any kind of teaching, with ideas, and even words themselves. Increasingly, he is drawn simply to “action.” Concepts, theories, and articulated philosophies are not as valuable as simply focusing on the manner in which one lives, and the affect one’s life has on his or her soul. Sadly, the intellectualism and spiritual barrenness of Hesse’s day obscured the relevance of the Christian faith for his life’s deepest longings and questions. So much of what he was looking for, and what he came to believe about the tremendous importance of love, simplicity, humility, and gentleness, was already right at hand had he only been able to experience the love of God and leading of the Holy Spirit. He went searching for truth but did not take Christ with him. The real contribution of the novel, in my opinion, is not in where Siddhartha ended up. The jewel of the story is not in Hesse’s blend of spiritual beliefs taken from multiple religions and his own imagination and experience, having created his own eclectic spirituality, as all “Blenders” do (see the first article in this series, “How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?”). Rather, what inspired me was his portrayal of an authentic spiritual journey, as far as it went. Siddhartha faced his own dissatisfaction with life and religion as he knew it, and sought help and a better understanding. He thoughtfully and respectfully engaged those who thought differently than he. He was open to learning from others. He was willing to experiment with different ways to live out his beliefs and convictions. He was willing to change, and he didn’t stop pursuing the truth until he found what he was looking for. Or should we say, …until he found a way of being in the world that he could live with. You may not be satisfied with where Hesse’s Sidhhartha ended up on his spiritual journey, as I am not. Yet are you willing to search as sincerely and earnestly as Siddhartha did to find answers that truly “work” for real life, for your life and relationships, in the here and now?

Spiritual pilgrims on the Camino, en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Final thoughts Different religions define their spiritual goals and methods differently, but every major religious tradition affirms what most of us know from experience: The journey necessarily involves movement and change, and little happens without a sincere and dedicated investment of ourselves in the process. From a Christian point of view, spiritual growth depends upon God as well as us. We can only grow by God’s grace and activity in our lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit; and our part is to seek to know, love, and serve God—and love our neighbors as ourselves—in ever deeper and more profound ways throughout our lives. An authentic spiritual journey, then, will be marked by honesty, openness, intentionality, and earnestness—and, over time, real growth in how we think, how we live, how we relate to God, and how we love. In Scripture, we’re also taught to seek union with God as our ultimate destination, to look to Christ as our guide, and to depend on the Holy Spirit as our source of strength and power. As we experience life-giving changes that reflect Jesus Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, we will know that God is at work, Christ is leading us, and that our efforts have been worthwhile.

Questions to ponder

• How much do I want to grow closer to God and to live more authentically?

• How could I be more honest, open, intentional, and earnest in my spiritual journey?

• What help do I need from the Holy Spirit in order take the next step?

Suggested prayer “Loving God, I know you are the source of my life and the only real hope that I have. I don’t want to live in pretense or with so much emptiness. Thank you for waking me up. Please take my hand now, and lead me forward on my spiritual journey. Show me what I can do, and must do, to live more authentically and to pursue you more wholeheartedly. Amen.” This posting is Article 2 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.” © Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2012.

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How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Since first interviewing Buddhist monks in 2007, I have become increasingly aware of the contributions of Buddhist philosophy and practice, not only for Buddhists but also for Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) Now that I am teaching theological students in Southeast Asia on a regular basis, my interest in benefiting from Buddhism and in learning how to do contextual theology continues to rise as well.

Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. For example, how many Christians know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body and reduce anxiety? How many know how to comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom?  How many have an ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering? How many genuinely value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships? Certainly, many Buddhists do not possess these qualities either, but as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are not accessible to most Christians.

Looking to the East is nothing new for occidental thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, especially in the West, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.

Our first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I don’t mean, at this point, what are the specific benefits that Christians should seek? (I addressed some of these contributions earlier and will again in the coming articles.) Rather, here, we are focusing on, how should Christians think about encountering another faith?  What are the options? What are the issues?

Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different groups emerging.

  1. The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.
  2. The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without any rigorous intellectual theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. (Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it.)
  3. The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive worldview. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” as one of my friends like to say about those who genuinely love God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ.

Thai Buddhist monk active in community outreach

Does it matter which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions? I think it does. Regardless of whatever degree of syncretism may secretly exist in everyone’s faith and spiritual practice, Christians still have the responsibility to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God, of how we may know God and relate to God, and of how God works in human lives, will all greatly affect our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, but integrating reason and experience.

In the end, every attempt to blend religions falls short of providing a secure spiritual foundation to build upon. I want to learn whatever I can from the wisdom and cultures found in the East, but Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorced Christian community reflection over the centuries, thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of Scripture.

The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers gratefully embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after yoga, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had usually involve being consciously aware of God; heart-felt, honest prayer; or hearing God speak to me through Scripture.

Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any credible source, and will gratefully borrow insights and practices from other religions, providing they genuinely cohere with how the Spirit speaks to me through Scripture, prayer, and my relationship with God in Christ.

I especially value dialoguing with those who offer alternative answers to ultimate and existential questions, because they help me to think more deeply and thoroughly. Yet, I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my identity as defined by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers, and if an encounter with different cultures and religions will help me to see something I’ve been blind to or ignorant of, I welcome the opportunity to learn and to grow.

What about you? How do you seek to learn from “others” in ways that truly move you forward in your spiritual journey and relationship with God?

A suggested prayer: “Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”

This posting is Article 1 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.”

© Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2012.

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No Shortcuts

Adapted from the charge to the graduates at a seminary in Myanmar.

1500 people attend Commencement

1500 people attend Commencement

“Don’t Confuse Seeking God with Serving God”

In my last posting, I praised the many dedicated faculty members and pastors I have met in Myanmar, who have inspired me with their sacrificial service. However, as time has gone on, I have grown uncomfortable with some of what I have been seeing.

I’m still very impressed and challenged by their “theology of the cross” (theologia cruxis) as they live out their calling. Yet, at the same time, I’m concerned for them. Some of these inspirational individuals are burning themselves out and putting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health at risk by trying to please everyone who demands something from them. Many simply do not feel free to take time to nurture their own relationship with God—to experience the love of God and refreshment from the Holy Spirit—because they are so busy serving Christ.

In my address to the graduates, I encouraged them to let their passion for ministry  flow, but to not think that passion and dedication alone are enough for long-term service. No matter how great the needs of others, all of us need a vital relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit to truly experience the full life God intends for us and to have the needed power to serve Christ’s purposes most effectively.

Here’s what was said:
“Most of you will be entering or returning to a Christian culture that will demand everything from you as a pastor or Christian worker. Those of you who are the most dedicated are also the most at risk of being exploited by others, because you will feel guilty if you do not try to do everything everyone wants you to do.
Many of you will take jobs where others will expect you to be available 7 days a week, and if you are not, you will be criticized. There will be great pressure for you to try to meet everyone’s needs.
Well, guess what? You can’t. You cannot meet everyone’s needs. There will always be more requests, more needs, more demands on your time. And when you find yourself being pulled in too many directions, with too little sleep, with too much pressure, what are you going to do then? Keep trying harder until you collapse from exhaustion? Or worse, drop over dead from a heart attack, as has happened?
The problem is that too often we think that having a good relationship with God means that we will work ourselves to death trying to serving God. And what that often translates to is that we falsely equate pleasing others with pleasing God. And so we think we cannot say “no” to the demands of others, without saying “no” to Christ.
The truth however is quite different. Sometimes, we have to say “no” to others in order to say “yes” to Christ. Sometimes we have to say “no” to service, to say “yes” to seeking God.
I can’t give you a formula to help you know in every situation when you should say yes or when you should say no to the demands of your church or others. But I can tell you that Jesus is quite clear that the most important priority we have is to abide in him. He was also quite clear when he said that loving others was our second priority—not our first. Our first priority is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and then to love others out of our experience of the love of God.
When we put pleasing others above knowing and loving God, we risk losing touch with the real source of life, the real source of power, the real source of love, grace and joy.  Your culture may demand that you put serving others first, but who are you going to obey? If you don’t draw some boundaries and carve out time and space for your relationship with God, with your family, with yourself, you are going to lose your ability to serve as God intends.
Some day, you will be honored at the great Graduation Celebration in Heaven. I assure you, I will not be the commencement speaker that day. Jesus will be. The words you will long to hear will not be what we are saying to you today, “Well done good and faithful students.” You are going to want to hear, “Well done good and faithful servants.”
But do not think that Jesus is only going to be concerned about how much work you did or how many people you pleased. He will also care about how much you loved him and how you much you learned to live as one with God. “
Bottom line: Yes, we are called to sacrificial service for Christ. Yet, our ability to be the leaders, ministers, and servants God intends for us in very demanding circumstances requires a vital relationship with God. Spirit-led leadership means just that, it is “Spirit-led.” And the only way we are going to be Spirit-led is if we are continually nurturing our relationship to Christ through the Spirit, as the source of inspiration, wisdom, and power for effective Christian service.
There are no short cuts.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NRSV)

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