"Someone with personal desires will not experience true peace. But when all desires merge, like different rivers flowing into the vast, deep, ocean, then peace is easily realized." *
The PEERS Bible Study has started. Of course, I had some expectations as to what it would look like. And of course, it doesn't look anything like that.
Primarily, I had envisioned eight strangers, from all different faiths, or even possibly some with no faith, sitting around a table talking about the Bible, God, faith and doubt, and how that all connects, or doesn't, to our lives. Beyond that, I hadn't given it much thought. I just wanted DIVERSITY. To encourage it, I wrote on flyers posted around the community, "Share your point of view!"
I really should know by now that my 'daydreams' of what will happen
never turn out quite the way I imagine. What it is are four white American women, including me, from the same Lutheran church, who are friends with each other, sitting around a table talking about the Bible, God, Christianity, faith and doubt, and how that all connects, or doesn't, to our lives. There isn't quite the DIVERSITY that I imagined.
But, there is, surprisingly, more diversity than you might (or I) expect in such a group. For we each have different histories and different personalities, we read the Bible in different ways, we think about Christianity differently from one another, we each have different Bible translations, and we each have different desires for what we want to get out of this Bible study. No matter how similar we may look on the surface, the way we think about things is very different.
It's a universal truth: although we often put people into groups -- women, men, whites, blacks, atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, etc. -- as if everyone in that group were alike in their thinking, in actuality, we are, each one of us, an individual.
Even in this group of four, there is so much diversity present that after our first meeting, I wondered... How can I create a safe and accepting space, in which everyone's point of view is heard, without us getting into a debate or argument? And, how do I facilitate the discussion, so that we are all enriched and encouraged spiritually?
It comes down to the same question I've been asking for the last eight years: How do you create unity in the midst of diversity?
So what have I learned in all that time?
Well, first of all, I've learned what doesn't work. What doesn't work is keeping the differences hidden. That doesn't make for a very authentic experience, nor a fruitful one. The differences are there for a reason; they are a necessary part of the whole. What also doesn't work is judging one person's point of view as right (ie. the one like mine), and another person's point of view as wrong. Whether true or not, and whether voiced or not, that judgment just creates hard feelings, if not division and/or separation.
The only approach that I have ever found helpful, is listening to the other person's point of view, and trying to understand where it comes from, and what experiences have given rise to it, and accepting it. Plain and simple. Not trying to change their thinking. Not merely pretending to listen, until you get a chance to tell your point of view. But accepting that point of view for what it is: significant and meaningful to that person
Acceptance is key. Only when we accept and respect the differences, can we begin to learn a little from each other. That's because, true acceptance means letting go of our own point of view enough to allow the other to settle in, for a moment, at least. Only to the extent that we can do this, can we learn from one another what we need to learn, and grow in wisdom.
There was a passage in our Bible readings for the first week that struck me as a fitting description of our study group. In the description of the Garden of Eden, I read, "A river issues from Eden to water
the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches." (Genesis
1:10). In this image, water flows from an original source
within Eden, but it does not stay as one source. Rather, it divides into four
branches, four rivers, which flow outward in different directions from that source to water
different areas of the land. Why four rivers? I wondered. Why not just one? It seems as if one was not enough.
I like to think of us four women as those four different rivers, each having a common source, and each flowing along a unique path to a particular destination -- perhaps the one ocean that has no boundaries or division (though some people like to think it does), as the Bhagavad Gita describes above. And as we come together to share our thoughts freely, may they, like water molecules, rise up and come together, naturally, and move around and land again in unexpected places. In this way, we might be able to create a cycle of learning, and lasting spiritual growth, even beyond our imaginings.
May we all find a place of acceptance and respect for our own individuality, and may we learn to accept and respect the individuality of those around us, and ...
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you
* from The Bhagavad Gita (sloka 2:70), quoted in "The Living Gita: A Commentary for Modern Readers," by Sri Swami Satchidananda (