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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“What kind of love makes a marriage flourish?”

On July 8, I had the privilege of giving the Charge to the Couple during the wedding ceremony for my son Tim and his bride Stella. Since so many people we know and love around the world could not witness this incredibly joyful experience, I am reproducing the Charge here as this month’s essay. So many longtime couples who were present at the service told me that the message was not just for a bride and groom, but for longtime couples as well.

Stella and Tim on their wedding day

Charge to the Couple

The Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion

What does it take to make a couple’s love stay strong? What kind of love is needed to not only make a marriage last, but to enable it to blossom and to flourish continually?

As you may know there are many different kinds of “love” in human experience: love for family; love for friends; romantic love; erotic love; and the kind of love that Greek writers called, agape. And when we speak about love between a husband and wife, there are also many different ideas about what marriage means: Should we think of marriage in utilitarian terms, a contract between a man and woman to produce a family and secure a couple’s well-being in old age? Is it a romantic saga wherein a strong hero rescues the damsel in distress and cares for her valiantly for the rest of their lives? Is it about passion, a union that allows for the fulfillment of every dream and desire? Or is it really about a treasured friendship between a man and woman, who simply want to be together and to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s company?

There is not one right answer to these questions, and these options are not mutually exclusive. What matters the most is not so much what answers you come up with, but that you are willing to find answers that work for both of you. In other words, marriage is not simply about trying to meet your own individual needs or to gratify your own desires, but to develop a relationship in which you work with each other to create something beautiful and good for both of you.

What kind of love do you have and will you seek for each another? What kind of marriage do you envision, and do you intend to create?

We read in Genesis 2 (verses 18-24) that from the beginning of time, men and women have left their parents in order to cling to each other in marriage. The writer is not talking about an impulse or even sexual desire, but a deep level of attraction that draws a man and woman to want to create a union between them that is like no other. But no matter how powerful the mutual attraction, this kind of love is only the beginning point for a marriage.

From the Song of Songs (2:8-14), we were drawn to the amorous feelings of two lovers. Passion is indispensible in bonding a husband and wife to each other, and can lead to tremendous satisfaction in the marriage relationship. However, eros, as the Greeks called this kind of love, is neither a superior nor an inferior form of love to other kinds. Eros brings joy like nothing else, but it is certainly only one dimension of married life; and no marriage can survive only on it. More is needed.

In reading Paul’s interpretation of agape love, we realize immediately that he’s talking about a kind of love that is more than an ideal and more than a feeling. He was not writing about marriage, but the relevance to a married couple is immediately obvious. Listen again to how he characterized agape.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

C.S. Lewis wrote about agape love in his popular book, The Four Loves. He describes agape as a “selfless love…that is passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other person”. [1] That’s well said.

Such love is not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to treating each other in the right ways, to believing the best things about each other, to being there for each other. Agape leads to sacrificial service for the sake of the other person, and for the sake of relationship that one has with the other person.

Right now you may think that you really know each other. But you don’t.

You may think you know what married life is going to be like. But you don’t.

Right now you may think that you really love each other. And (don’t worry) you do, but you do not yet know how much your love needs to still grow in order to endure for the rest of your lives.

You are about to embark upon an adventure that will be filled with many surprises, twists, and turns. Some will be wonderful, and some will be harder than you can imagine. For some things you have been well prepared, but for others, you are going to feel completely over your heads.

It’s simply not possible to prepare for all that is ahead of you, but you can commit yourselves to love each other no matter what. When times get tough relationally, you need to be committed to stay together, and to work through whatever you need to work through. No matter how much your love may falter, agape love insists on remaining faithful and not looking elsewhere or to someone else to meet the needs that are reserved for the marriage union. When you don’t understand each other or don’t know what to do, you need to seek whatever help you need, and to do your best to treat each other kindly and respectfully while you’re figuring it out. That’s agape love at its best, and where it’s most needed.

In other words, agape within marriage refuses to give up on the other person or the marriage. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does.  You need to focus more on what it is right, than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.

When I think back to my parents’ marriage, I remember distinctly that their relationship was rocky at times. They weren’t the best match for each other, and sometimes it was painful to be around them when they were arguing. Yet, one thing never wavered. And that was their devotion to each other, and their commitment to their marriage. I believe it was that kind of love that saw them through so many painful and disturbing experiences that had to endure. It was that kind of love that gave me security as a child.

And when I married, guess what? It turns out my wife and I were actually quite different. Yet it was our common commitment to our marriage, our common commitment to Christ, and our willingness to seek help from God and others when we didn’t know what to do that have helped us through the hard times. And today, having gone through a lot of ups and downs, our love is stronger and more vibrant than ever. Even after 30 years of marriage, we are still discovering new ways we need and appreciate one another; and new ways for us to serve God and live life that bring us more joy and satisfaction than ever.

I am certainly not saying that we are the “super couple.” I am saying that by being committed to one another, “for better and for worse”; by continuing to seek to grow, as individuals and in our marriage; and by being willing to admit that we needed help at times and by seeking that help, that we have experienced so much growth over the years. And God, who is the author of agape, is key to all of it.

When your life is rooted in the love and grace of God, and you learn to treat each other with that same love and grace; and when you seal your marriage relationship with an unbreakable commitment and devotion to one another, then your marriage will be strong and life-giving for both of you. You will feel secure, and you can relax in the safety of each other’s commitment; and from that place you can dare to be yourself, to experiment, to learn, to grow, and to create freely and fully as you build your life and family together.

For your marriage to be strong and healthy, you will need to discover what love truly means to each of you, and what kind of marriage you want to create with each other. That will take time. That will take openness and honesty. It will take compromise, understanding, graciousness, and a willingness to change and grow. But you can do it. With the help of God, the love and support of family and friends, and true humility and agape love, there is so much that you can look forward to you in your married life together.

Benediction. May your love become deeply rooted in the love of God. May it blossom beautifully and richly. May it flower so gracefully and fragrantly that it becomes the greatest most precious gift that you give to each other, your children, your family, your friends, and all those whose lives you touch.

Amen.


[1] Cited in Wikipedia, under “Agape,” July 6, 2012.

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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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Filed under Asia, Inter-Faith Dialogue

“Why Genocide Will Happen Again”

Ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, France

Translation: "Here, in this place of torture, a group of human beings were massacred and burned by the Nazis. Reverently meditate on these things."

 

On June 10, 1944, just a few days after the Allied invasion at Normandy, 200 German S.S. troops surrounded a little French village, Oradour-sur-Glane. By nightfall, all but 3 escapees and a half a dozen others had been massacred. 642 men, women, and children dead.

Some say the Germans mistook this village for another with a similar name, another Oradour whose Resistance fighters, the machi, had abducted a SS officer earlier in the week. At the official memorial site, interpreters believe the attack was likely ordered as part of Himmler’s ongoing campaign of terror. Whatever the precise reason for the massacre, the killings were brutal, cruel, and completely unjustified.

Jill and I silently drifted from ruin to ruin in the half razed village, preserved as a memorial. As I wandered by the school, the church, and what remained of the little shops in the center of the village, I imagined the scene just hours before the soldiers arrived. Cafés were selling coffee. Coiffeurs were cutting hair. Men and women were working in the fields or selling their products in town. The children were running up and down the street, some helping their parents, others just enjoying summer vacation.

By evening, nearly all these precious lives were reduced to smoldering, bullet ridden corpses.

Some 400 women and children were herded to the church. Into the packed sanctuary, soldiers threw grenades before shooting those who weren’t immediately killed. One man who went to the village shortly after the massacre found three boys, ages 10-12, huddled together near the altar, where they had desperately clung to life and to each other, before succumbing to death. Before turning away from the horror he could no longer stomach, he noticed an infant still in its baby carriage, shot dead.

In the sanctuary, my eyes fell upon the now-rusted-out, crushed carriage still standing there, testifying to the extent of the callous brutality. I felt sick.

The men were divided into groups and taken to various barns where there were few entrances or exits, thus minimizing their chance of escape. Machine guns were set up to mow them down. Dead or alive, everyone in the village was eventually doused with gasoline and set afire. Fewer than 10% of the bodies were identifiable after the German soldiers had finished executing their orders.

I thought it odd that I felt almost nothing for almost two hours, until I realized that I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading and seeing. I was in shock, and couldn’t take in the horror of it all.

It’s not as if I didn’t already know about the millions who had died in concentration camps and gas chambers, the pogroms conducted over the centuries, and the even more horrific genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. Maybe it was the senseless, cold-blooded brutality against innocent villagers that so disturbed me. Maybe it was the realization that the killers looked just like me, and their victims just like the people in my own family. Or, maybe it was a growing sense of terror that what happened in this little village less than a century ago could happen again, anywhere, at any time, given the right conditions. And probably would again and again and again.

When I got to the cemetery, I found numerous memorials. The most disturbing were those displaying four, six, eight or more photographs of members of the same family. Organized in descending order by age, I saw the once smiling faces of eighty- year-old grandparents alongside their sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren. One little boy was only thirteen days old when he had been slaughtered along with with seven other family members.

The tears finally began falling when I read the inscriptions on the memorial stones. Many spoke of loved ones whose lives were senselessly cut short by the “barbarian Germans.” The one pictured above reads: “To the memory of our dear little girls and sisters, charmed with our affection…students of the school at Oradour-sur-Glane, massacred and burned in the church by the Nazi hordes….”

What were the soldiers thinking? What were they feeling? “Just following orders” doesn’t begin to explain the depth of the degenerative forces at work that produced this evil.

My tears soon gave away to rage, and I fantasized wreaking revenge on the perpetrators, and anyone else like them. And then it struck me.

We may shake our heads at such mind-boggling atrocities, and we may even weep for the victims, but when are we going to face the ugly truth that any of us is capable of treating others cruelly and even violently? When are going to come to grips with how we are already inflicting pain, and sometimes quite serious damage, on others who have hurt us or who are simply in our way? When are we going to fall on our knees, begging God not just for forgiveness, but earnestly pleading for the  ability to forgive others from our hearts and  to work for healing and reconciliation?

Genocide will happen again, but what are you and I going to do differently today?

Memorial where victims were drowned

A Prayer “Loving God, save us from ourselves. Please break our hearts over our own hatred, desires for revenge, violent words and actions. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Lead us not into temptation to strike out against others, but deliver us from the evil within us as well as the evil all around us. Lead us to your well of grace and love that we may drink from it.  Cleanse us by your living water…and compel us to offer that same gift to others.”

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Filed under What Will Make a Difference?

“Questions”

Crucifix in sacristy window, Chartres Cathedral

(Click on photo to enlarge)

I’m living with lot of questions lately. Burning, existential, spiritual questions. They keep bugging me and just have to be answered.

I suspect that part of the problem is that I don’t always really want to know the answers. But at the same time, I do want to know. It’s pretty obvious that I’m never going to be satisfied—or at peace—until I see what I need to see, and then act on the truth God reveals.

• What does it mean for me to be faithful to God?

• What does it mean for me to pick up my cross daily?

• What does God truly want me to give of myself and my resources in light of the gross inequities and great suffering for so many throughout the world?

I’m not looking for trite answers here. I already know what the Bible says about each of these questions. I’m trying to pierce the fog of self-deception and cultural blindness to see the truth about how I’m living out my faith (or not), what’s truly in my heart, and what Christ sees in me and in the world. I’m trying to be more open to hear how God wants to answer these questions for me.

I don’t have an axe to grind, and I’m not reacting. I want the Gospel I preach to others to revolutionize my own life in all of the ways that Jesus intended. And I want to better serve Christ and his kingdom, and not keep tripping so much over my own stubborn, self-centered, self-serving tendencies.

I feel calm when facing these questions, on one hand; and yet increasingly desperate, on the other. Not desperate so much out of anxiety or fear, but out of a growing sense of the enormous need in the world and my minuscule capacity to do much about it. I’d like to do more, and I’d like to be more.

And so, in my growing desperation, I’m becoming more and more aware that I have to make some choices—maybe some radical choices—if the future is going to be any different than the past. I’m talking about making changes in how I respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in absolutely every context of my life, and in how I give of myself and my resources to others on a regular basis.

For example, I’m increasingly dissatisfied with my trying to have the best of both worlds. I have spent most of my life both attempting to enjoy a meaningful relationship with God and to minister effectively to others, while simultaneously living to please myself as much as possible. And it’s not working. Or at least, I’m not at all satisfied.

Some days, I feel overwhelmed by all these questions. At other times, when I am more grounded, I can let go of what is way outside of my control or understanding. When I feel well connected to God, I can rest in his grace and focus on what is within my power to do.

However, at the same, the Spirit is still calling for changes. I’m beginning to see that the question is not, “How much can I do for Christ and his kingdom, given that I will continue to serve myself as well as possible?” The question has increasingly become, “What could I do—or, better, what would God do through me—if only I would let go of my self-serving choices and behavior?”

The more I keep asking these questions, and am not be afraid of what the Holy Spirit might show me, the more I see that God is actually starting to answer them. He’s using the process of asking the same things over and over to change me in ways I resist, but like. Greater clarity and conviction are emerging little by little—not always with words or concepts, but I can feel the shifts, and I can see that I’m changing for the better.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with this process. I’m not in control, and I’m a little (a lot?) worried sometimes about where all this might go. At the same time, it feels right.

What questions are you living with right now? I’d really like to know how the Holy Spirit is bugging you…and changing you through the process.

A Prayer “Loving God, thank you for the questions that lead me to better places. Please draw me more fully into Jesus’ life and death. Please help me to not lose heart as I have to face the utter darkness, despair, and desperation of the cross. Give me courage and strength to die to myself, and lead me by your power to resurrection in every area of my life possible. May your good will be done.”

I’m writing from Chartres, France. When these words are posted, I will be teaching the The Spirit-Led Leader course at the Ukraine Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kiev. Please pray for Jill’s complete healing from her pulmonary embolism (see post “To Live or To Die”), and for my teaching and coaching of seminarians and pastors this spring (www.fhlglobal.org/ministries). Thank you. May this Easter week be a time both of dying to self and of experiencing resurrection for you.

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Filed under Chartres, France, Spirit-Led Living/Spiritual Growth