When a conversation turns to golf, a good friend of mine loves to tell the story of how his dad tried to teach him to play the game. My friend dreaded it when he heard his father’s words, “Son, how about a golf lesson?” As my friend tells it, they would get to the first tee and as he lined up to hit the ball his father would start in on a litany of instructions, his voice building with intensity with every point: “keep your head down, don’t use your big muscles, keep your eye on the ball, don’t lift your head, don’t sway, make sure your grip is right, bend your knees, get your weight off the balls of your feet, and for God’s sake, RELAX.”
The demands of life, today don’t seem any less exacting: exercise regularly, eat well, but not too much, don’t smoke or have more than 1 drink a day, get 8 hours of sleep, slow down and spend time with your children and your spouse, speed up and get to work early and work late in order to stay competitive, read a newspaper or two or three daily to stay informed, read good fiction to stay current with the culture, keep up your friendships and call your mother daily and for God’s sake, RELAX and ENJOY your life.
Getting my life under control in order to start living with equanimity has always been a fantasy of mine. Equanimity is defined as being able to face life in all of its vicissitudes with tranquility and a calm mind. It is the feeling of even-mindedness in the face of both suffering and joy. It is the ability to be equal minded in all circumstances and toward both friend and foe. It is the ability to regard all beings with loving-kindness without any trace of partiality or bias. I’ve always admired people who in the midst of chaos remain calm and focused on the present moment. I dream of that day that my desk is cleared off and every thank you note is written and my address book is organized and up to date and I’ve read every book on my night stand and I’ve cleared out the in box in my email, then, maybe then, I can feel calm and serene, and…. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one here that tends toward this kind of thinking. Because we engage life through our senses we have a hard time imagining that peace and serenity could come from some place other than the world around us. But in fact, the Bible and every spiritual path out there makes it clear that true and lasting equanimity never comes from our environment, from somewhere outside of us, from our job, or marriage, or children, or our golf game, but from within where God resides in our innermost being.
Jesus talks about peace 105 times in the New Testament. Probably his most famous words about peace are found in the gospel of John when he speaks to his disciples in the upper room before his arrest, sentencing and crucifixion. “My Peace I leave with you;” he tells them, “my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14) This is the message that the peace of God as it weaves its way all through the scriptures. Michael Lindvall writes, “Time and time again in scripture the word is, ‘Do not be afraid.’ It is, you might say, the first and last word of the gospel. It is the word the angels speak to the terrified shepherds and the word spoken at thetomb when the women discover it empty.” It is the word spoken at the end of Jesus’ life in the upper room and to a group of disciples on a small boat tossed about on a raging sea.
It must have been one big storm. The fearful men in Mark’s story were fishermen who had spent years on the Sea of Galilee and they knew well the possibilities it held to swallow up a boat in the midst of a fierce storm. Like the crew of the Andrea Gail in the movie The Perfect Storm the crew of disciples on Jesus’ boat vacillated between abject fear and the faith that they would make it back to shore. Waves pounded at their small vessel, tearing at the sails and threatening to flip the boat over. As the disciples fear grew, they must have been stupefied to see Jesus sleeping away in the stern of the boat. Sleep usually eludes us when we are afraid. It keeps us wide awake as it pumps adrenaline through our systems. But there is Jesus sleeping soundly as the disciples are overwhelmed with panic.
In a sermon preached on the TV show 30 Good Minutes, Rev. Julie Pennington Russell told the story of panic on a not to be forgotten morning in her home. In the midst of her family’s morning routine, Julie’s seven-year- old daughter Lucy asked if she could light a candle on the dining room table to make the breakfast just a little more special. Her dad helped her light the candle and then went to check something in the kitchen. Only moments later their son, and a friend of Lucy’s whom Julie was driving to school, burst into the kitchen hollering, “Lucy’s on fire!” Lucy had leaned in too closely to the candle and her hair was on fire, “blazing like a tiki-torch.” Julie grabbed Lucy and quickly put out the fire with her bathrobe. Then they all breathed a sigh of relief as they realized that Lucy hadn’t burned any of her skin, only her hair. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse the smell of Lucy’s burned hair began to fill the room. Perhaps you are aware that there is almost no smell more revolting than burning hair, and so it was no surprise that within moments of extinguishing Lucy’s hair her brother and her friend became sick on the dining room floor as Julie picked the ash out of Lucy’s hair. Rev. Pennington-Russell writes, “I have a feeling that whole scene isn’t too far removed from the way many of us feel these days on a regular basis as we ricochet through the pressure-filled, multi-tasking, media-saturated, time– crunched pinball that has become life in 21st century America. Lots of us, I think, feel as though our hair is on fire a good deal of the time.”
As Rev. Pennington-Russell puts it, the disciples in the story of the fishing boat bobbing around like a cork at the mercy of the Sea of Galilee are in a kind of “hair on fire” experience. And Jesus hears his terrified friends, gets up, reprimands the wind and says to the waves, “Peace, be still!” Then the Bible tells us that the wind dies down and peace does come. And the disciples’ fear turns to amazement at Jesus’ command over the events that have been swirling around them.
Steeped in the Psalms perhaps the words of Psalm 44 came quickly to Jesus’ mind as he spoke to the sea. “O God,….answer me…Do not let the flood sweep over me or the deep swallow me up;” or Psalm 107, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Confident of God’s presence with him, he faced the storm with equanimity. It is Jesus’ identification with God and the reality and truth of the life of the Spirit that allowed him to maintain equanimity in the face of a howling gale that was threatening to take him, along with his friends, to a watery death. His equanimity, his peacefulness and composure were the result of a habit of mind that remained constant in the face of threats of nature or from other people or circumstances.
Living with equanimity because he believed that “all things work together for good to them that love the Lord,” (Romans 8:28) Paul described his life in II Corinthians: “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-we are alive; as punished and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul sees his own life outwardly in trial but inwardly in joy. He has developed a habit of mind that doesn’t rely on outward circumstances to be at peace but on the inward presence of God.
In 1991 Sikmon Rendel developed a method of mapping tranquility for a Department of Transport study in England. By 2007 the whole of England had been mapped according to a tranquility rating based on 44 factors which add to or detract from people’s feelings of tranquility. After extensive public consultations, tranquil areas were defined as places which are sufficiently far away from the visual or noise intrusion of development or traffic as to be considered unspoiled by urban influences. That is all well and good but if tranquility is dependent on where we are we are in trouble. Most of us live at the mercy of circumstances going wherever life takes us. We live at the mercy of our own whims, passions and a mind that jumps around like a monkey in a tree. Perhaps you wonder to yourself if this is all there is to life, being buffeted to and fro by circumstances, like the disciples in their boat, until the show is over. Is this the best that we can manage?
Unless we are called to be a hermit and live removed from the hustle and bustle of life, we are going to have to figure out a way, like Jesus, to maintain our equanimity in the midst of the storm or like Paul, when facing opposition and persecution, or like Lucy when our hair is on fire.
The book of Proverbs states that “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.” The Buddha said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” James Allen opens his book As a Man Thinketh with these words,
Mind is the Master power that moulds and makes,
And Man is Mind, and evermore he takes
The tool of Thought, and, shaping what he wills,
Brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills:
He thinks in secret, and it comes to pass:
Environment is but his looking-glass.
Living with equanimity is a choice. Self-control is available to all of us as a gift of the Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-23) within, and it is through self control that we can choose how we think. The habit of mind that Jesus offers us is one of peace. We, however, have to make our minds available to the Spirit of God to mold and transform us in order to experience that equanimity. Through exercising the disciplines of prayer and meditation, living in the moment and slowing down our lives, we can make ourselves accessible to God in the midst of the overwhelming demands on our lives. But it does take discipline and persistence and confidence that God will bring this peace about in us.
When faced with storms and trials and burning hair, Frederick Buechner encourages us to climb into our little tub of a boat and keep going. “Jesus will be with us:” he writes. “Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us and…in whatever way we can [we must] call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us [peace] and courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we are done, so that even in their midst we may find peace [of mind], find him.” Amen.