Go ahead, light your candles and burn your incense and ring your bells and call out to God, but watch out, because God will come, and He will put you on His Anvil and fire up His Forge and beat you and beat you until He turns brass into Pure Gold.
- paraphrased from Saint Keshavadas
The above quote may sound a little scary, but actually, doesn't it also provide some comfort? Don't you and I often feel just beaten all to hell by our constant struggles, by the unwanted situations or annoying people in our lives? We may feel bruised, defeated, exhausted - but then remember, "Is this what it feels like to be beaten and beaten until I am pure gold?" If we can take just the littlest bit of faith that way, maybe we can go on one more day. Faith is the key. But we so often misunderstand it by a mile. We create a so-called faith which is more like a letter to Santa Claus for everything we want, and then when we don't get it, we "lose our faith."
Sita and I, along with a few members of our staff, recently spent a day on death row in Raleigh, North Carolina. I gave a couple of talks and we were able to spend some time hanging out with the condemned men. One of them approached me to express his appreciation for our visit, and to share his glad tidings that Jesus has saved him. Now he knows that his next court appearance will go in his favor. He said Jesus will not allow him to be executed. He'll be sprung from prison; reunited with his family. Jesus won't let him down. The fellow beamed and said he has "complete faith."
An elderly woman recently wrote that she always had strong faith in God and was devoutly religious, but then she developed bladder cancer. Though she prayed, followed all the right regimens, and even traveled great distances to be blessed by holy sages, God did not fulfill her expectations. Her faith was shattered.
Does Jesus not love our condemned friend if the court upholds his execution? Is God betraying the prayers of the elderly woman if she dies of cancer?
Better Catch Up On Religious History
If we take even a brief look at the history of the great world religions, it becomes clear that faith and religion have more to do with our response to things going wrong than with our problems being magically set right.
Faith is a profound acceptance of life's Ultimate Goodness no matter what happens.
It's a willingness on our part to accept any immediate situation - execution, cancer, loss, betrayal - as part of God's power and Grace and Love for us, like the following story from the Sikh religion illustrates:
One of the great Sikh warrior/gurus was captured by the invading Mughal army. The enemy emperor was very excited to have finally defeated one of the pillars of the Sikh faith. He summoned his soldiers to bring the prisoner to him.
Bound in chains, the Sikh general was forced to his knees before the emperor. The emperor mocked him and said, "Let's see your great faith save you now!" The Sikh general calmly replied, "I can write down a magic formula which will shield me from all harm."
The emperor was furious, and shouted, "Bring this lunatic a paper and pen!"
The Sikh general wrote a few words, folded the paper and kept it in his hand. The emperor said, "Now, cut off his head!" A soldier raised his sharp sword, cut off the Sikh's head, and his body fell lifeless to the ground.
The paper was taken from his hand and read aloud: "You can have my head, but not my Faith."
The Holy Ones of every religion came here to show us the way that a person of faith can respond, not to a world which supports or rewards our faith, but to a world which often despises, condemns, rejects, exiles, tortures or even murders us for it.
Jesus didn't come to get us off of death row or heal our cancer or patch up our worldly problems. He came to inspire the courage in us to live as He did - to love others and dedicate our lives to the common good. Faith in such a way of life is a very radical choice, because it is opposite to nearly everything we have been taught. It is extremely unpopular, too. He got killed for it. So did many of his apostles and disciples through the centuries.
But if we make that choice and stick to it, we will touch something so incomprehensibly perfect and loving and wonderful that it no longer matters so much whether we get our heads chopped off or spend the rest of our days behind bars. Once we touch that Love, the rest is small potatoes. Hard to believe, but true, I promise.
Saint Stephen touched that Love, and it was so fulfilling that even as an angry mob stoned him to death shouting "Blasphemer!!", all he could cry out was, "Father, please don't hold this against them." Imagine such Love!
Mahatma Gandhi touched that Love. As an assassin's bullet tore his life from him, his immediate response was, "Jai Ram!" ("Hail God!").
It Doesn't Always End So Badly
When the Chinese invaded Tibet, they killed countless peaceful monks and destroyed most of the monasteries. One Chinese General was especially known for his barbaric cruelty of disemboweling monks with his sword while they screamed for mercy. At one remote monastery, word came that this particular general and his band of soldiers were on their way. All the monks fled to the hills except one elderly monk who sat calmly in the main hall.
When the general arrived and heard that one monk had not run in fear, he was enraged. He threw open the doors of the great hall, strode over to the small man and screamed, "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM??! WHY, I COULD TAKE MY SWORD AT THIS VERY MOMENT, PLUNGE IT INTO YOUR BELLY AND REMOVE YOUR ORGANS WITHOUT BATTING AN EYE!!"
The elderly monk looked into the General's eyes and softly replied, "But do you know who I am? Why, I could allow you to take your sword at this very moment, plunge it into my belly and remove my organs, without batting an eye."
The General meekly lowered his eyes, bowed, backed away, and ordered his troops to leave the monastery at once.
So it's not that things always turn out badly. Indeed, every religion is full of such stories about the incredible power of pure faith. Faith has indeed healed the sick, raised the dead, parted the seas, moved mountains.
But it's a serious mistake to think that such outcomes are the point. They are not, and never have been, the point of faith. They are just demonstrations of the Power and Glory we're dealing with - not guarantees. The elderly monk in the story above was telling the truth: He really would have been just as calm and fearless if the general had indeed disemboweled him. His faith was not tied to a particular result. He knew it was small potatoes.
Miracle stories serve to remind us that if God wanted our problems to be miraculously solved, they would be. So if the court says, "Execute him," or the doctor says, "Sorry, ma'am, but you're not responding to treatment," or Pontius Pilate says "Crucify Him," then we know that God had the power to change it and didn't. So we can walk calmly even through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing "Thou art with me." No bitterness, no doubts, no panic.
When Jesus left His disciples the final time and said, "Take courage and be of good cheer, for I am with you always," don't forget that He was speaking to a group of men who would be imprisoned, despised, hunted, executed. Jesus knew that, yet said, "Be of good cheer."
God's Power, Our Power
The issue is surely not one of power. Jesus has the power to save our death-row friend from execution, just as He had the power to spare Himself from the indignities and abuses He suffered at Calvary, or to pave an easier way for His apostles. Yet He didn't use His power to do so. And of course God can cure cancer, and sometimes does. But not usually. Jesus didn't heal all the lame; He didn't give sight to all the blind; He didn't raise all the dead.
A friend of mine was once suffering from kidney stones. One night when he was in unbearable pain, he cried out to Jesus, "Jesus, take this pain, please," and was startled to hear in response, "But I just gave it to you."
God creates beans, fire, water, and a pot. God creates the principle that beans will taste better and be digested more easily when they're cooked. God creates the principle that water boils when heated with fire. Then it's up to us.
We have the power to abide or not abide by these principles of God's law, to use or not use them to make a good meal. We can choose to put the pot on our heads, eat raw beans and pour the water onto the ground. We can do all sorts of silly or ignorant things with the best of ingredients and the most wonderful natural laws.
God's power designs and creates unlimited possibilities; our power is to bring the best of those possibilities to life in the world instead of the worst.
Look around at the world. People say, "Why does God allow children to starve, why does God allow innocent people to be murdered, why does God allow so many wars?" But God has merely created all possibilities, including the ingredients necessary for a miserable world or a wonderful world. We have the free will to use the ingredients in a way which will bring more peace or more suffering. That's our choice, yours & mine, all the time.
We continue to choose anger over Love, fear over Love, national boundaries over Love, greed over Love, race over Love, self-protection over Love. God has given us Free Will so that we can make such choices. If we don't like the way the world is going, then we can begin to choose differently right now, today, right here, wherever we are. Waiting for everyone else to change first is a fool's game. Waiting for others to love us first, before we are willing to love them, is a fool's game.
The Buddha said that the biggest mistake we can make is to want to be loved. How much we are loved by others is often outside our power. But what is within our power is our choice to love others. On the cross, hated and mocked, Jesus chose to say, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." He loved them. He showed us the Way. He provided an example of following the Buddha's advice: Focus on your ability to love, not your demand to receive it.
Choose kindness, choose love and unselfishness, choose faith, choose humility, even on death row or in the hospital or out on the streets sleeping under a bridge. Very often our immediate environments or circumstances are not under our control, but our choice of Faith and Love always is. We will not be judged by what others did to us, but by how we responded. As a society, we will not be judged by how much crime there was, but by how we dealt with it. Look at the sad choices we're making!
Worldly Failure and Spiritual Success
Many of you who receive these newsletters consider your lives to be a miserable failure. Great! You're halfway there. You are "poor in Spirit." Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
From the eyes of the Spirit, it is never too late to turn it around. And once we do, all those very things we considered to be our worst failures turn out to have been the very building blocks of our compassion and humility.
I love the story of Simon Peter. He was the boldest, the bravest, the most macho of all Jesus' disciples. When Jesus asked all the apostles, "How do you see me?," Peter was the only one who had the guts to say, "I see you as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Peter was a no- nonsense kind of guy. But he wasn't humble. He hadn't failed enough yet. He thought he was tough.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus hinted that there would be some trouble. Peter's response: "Well, even if the others run away, I will never leave you, Lord; I will never betray you." Jesus said, "Oh, Peter, you're just like all the rest." Peter's reply: "No way, Lord. I will not betray you. I would give my life for you!" Jesus said, "Peter, before the cock crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you ever even knew me."
No way. Not Peter. Tough guy. Righteous con. Not a coward. "Jesus is wrong this time. I'll prove it to him."
We all know how it turned out, but have you ever thought about why? And why would Jesus then make that very same coward the rock of His church for all time to come? He ran away. He lied. He chickened out. He betrayed Him. He failed miserably to be a decent human being. And that is precisely what made him ready to be the rock of the church. The one quality Peter lacked was humility. He thought he was better than all the rest, better than you and me. How then could he lead us to salvation?
So Peter's most miserable worldly failure led to his greatest spiritual success. His pride was humbled. That's what it took.
You and I have failed many times. We have let people down. We have been cowards, cheats, liars. We have hurt ourselves and others. If we allow our failures to open us up instead of shut us down, if we allow them to humble us instead of defeat us, then every lousy thing we have ever done can be turned into the very foundation of our devotion and compassion.
Do you "free-worlders" think you are better than a convict? Do you convicts think you are better than a snitch? Do you snitches think you are better than a baby-raper? Then you haven't failed enough yet. We are not better than anyone. That's the message. We have no right to look down on anyone, no matter what they have done.
Every human being contains the highest of the high and the lowest of the low. Peter had to find it out the hard way. I hope you and I don't. Peter must have been so ashamed and humiliated, he probably never wanted to show his face again. But he did. He came down from his lofty perch. He didn't quit or run away. He didn't try to forget all about it. He accepted his flawed nature, opened his heart and moved forward a quieter, gentler man who knew he indeed was "just like all the rest." He could then become the saint we are all destined to become.
Putting our Failures to Good Use
Without Peter's failure, there may have been no Christian church. Without my failures, there would certainly be no Human Kindness Foundation, no We're All Doing Time. Without your failures, you may not have the credibility to help some of the young kids on your cellblock or in your neighborhood to find a more decent way of life than guns and drugs.
So the question is, are you using your failures yet? Are you getting the spiritual point of your failures, and moving into a lifestyle devoted to faith and kindness and helping others? You and I deal with many people every day. Every one of those people hopes we are kind and humble and unselfish. They don't care where we learned it. They don't care whether it came easy or hard, or through failures or successes. If the building you are sitting in catches on fire, the people around you don't care where or how you developed courage; they just hope you've got it now so you can help them!
One thing you can begin taking for granted is that every person you meet who seems to have courage, dignity, compassion and humility, has experienced failure and weakness and shame. So don't be an egomaniac and feel like you're the only one, or you're a worse one than the next. Everybody's got that stuff. Our spiritual victory rests only on what we are willing to do with it.
Faith and Failure
Maybe it seems that this Christmas message started out to be about faith and led into the subject of failure. But the two are not so separate. Our death-row friend and the elderly lady with cancer express a type of faith which is tied to getting a particular result. Peter the Apostle had a faith which seemed to be as much in himself as in Christ. Both kinds of faith can lead us into failure because they are limited. We can then "lose our faith" as the elderly woman did, or we can allow that failure to lead us into a deeper, humbler faith in the Glory and Mercy of God, as did Peter. The choice is in our hands.
Sita and Josh and I, along with all the members of our community, wish you every blessing during this Holy Season. We love you and are grateful to know you. May you take courage and be of good cheer. You are never alone or unloved, and there is a saint within you patiently yearning to be expressed more fully through your life.