A couple of years back, the author Douglas Abrams traveled to India to record a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The resulting text is called The Book of Joy, and it is an account not just of the week that these two extraordinary people spent together but of their whole lives. They are, both of them now old men, and in The Book of Joy they talk of their lifelong search for meaning and service and love, their encounter with what Tutu would call God and what the Dalai Lama might call by another name. The conversation recorded in the book took place over a week at the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And it is full of remarkable and inspiring moments.
The moment that I am thinking about this morning is when the two of them talk about hardship, about suffering, about unfairness. The Dalai Lama has endured years of exile – as a young person he had had to flee his native Tibet in the middle of the night. Like Jesus and so many other refugees before him, he went to another country to escape the violence of empire. But interwoven with this story of injustice, here is the joy from the book’s title. Even as the Dalai Lama talks of fear and unfairness, delight and laughter are never far away – he and Tutu together are this picture of holy mischief. After the Dalai Lama talks for a while, Tutu stops him and says:
You would expect the Dalai Lama to say that he is joyous in spite of adversity. But somehow he is saying that he is joyous because of adversity.
Tutu talks then about Mandela, about his 27 years in prison and the indignities and the hardships that he endured, but how he was able to emerge from prison somehow transformed. He left prison a kinder, more compassionate, more fully human person than when he went in. And so Abrams asks Tutu, How did he do it? How was he able to see his suffering as ennobling rather than rather than embittering. And Tutu corrects him:
He didn’t see it.
The two of them, these two masters late in their lives, are talking about mystery. And like a lot of mysteries, maybe like all mysteries, this one is laden with paradox. Because on the one hand, what they are discussing is rudimentary, almost a formula or a logical progression: they seem to be saying that suffering is necessary, good for us, that it is what makes us fully human. At one point Tutu says that we can almost be thankful for the Chinese invasion of Tibet, because without it the world would likely have been deprived of the Dalai Lama as we know him now.
Except that it’s not simple at all. We all know folks who have not been ennobled or in any way improved by suffering (maybe we’ve all been those folks). We all know folks who, quite to the contrary, have been almost ruined by it. Their cruelty and hostility has been magnified. It is overwhelmingly likely that a child abuser was themselves abused as a child.
And besides, who wants to say thanks for suffering or for unfairness? Who wants to say thanks for the invasion of Tibet or a car accident or for still another school or place of worship getting shot up? One of our family friends suffers from bipolar disorder – what another generation called manic depression – and he is beyond clear that we are not to talk as though there were “something good” about his mental illness, that we are not to talk about a life in which he swings from this fecund but out of control energy and then to thoughts of suicide as though it were a cloud with a silver lining. He is adamant that there is no silver lining, only cloud.
Similarly, among the many alcoholics whom I know and love, I don’t know that I have ever met one who says that there were some pretty good things about rock bottom, about that moment when they realised that booze was running and ruining their lives, that maybe even they understood that they could either stop drinking or die.
(And maybe the very definition of paradox is that we have to reach for the words “and yet” when we speak of it.) And yet so many of my friends who have seen suffering and unfairness have been, somehow, set free by it. To hit rock bottom and come back, to encounter a staggering grief and come back, to suffer injustice and come back: that stuff changes you. You are who you are because of that experience. We are who we are because of our experiences of trauma, of grief, of loss.
Sometimes these are the experiences which, while they could embitter us, instead transform us. Instead, they invite us into compassion, into possibility, into holiness and love.
Today, Jesus talks with his friends about peace. And maybe they are confused to hear him do so. After all, these are folks who are poor, some of them dirt poor, who are eking out a subsistence living as fishers and day labourers. They are folks who live under occupation, who endure the constant fear of the state’s violence. And they are living centuries before contemporary medicine. All of that together means that their lives can end brutally and abruptly at any time. To top it all off, Jesus has told them early and often that the state is about to lynch him.
More than one of them gathered in that upper room may be tempted to say:
Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?
And at some level, they would be right to do so. If what we mean by peace is a more or less stable middle-class existence, the kind of life that many of us in this room lead, then peace for Jesus and his friends is an absurdity, an impossibility.
But maybe the peace of God is something other than that. Perhaps this is what the hymn is trying to get at when it says that The peace of God, it is no peace. Much as Christian hope is something harder and better than optimism – the resurrection doesn’t say that there is no death, it says that death is real and awful and that God is bigger than death. Much as joy is something harder and better than happiness – if you have ever been up in the middle of the night caring for a baby or for an older person whom you love and whose health is failing, you probably didn’t know much happiness in that moment, but you may have known joy. So is the Peace of God something harder and better than stability.
There is a reason that, come the end of the service, the blessing says:
The Peace of God which…
What does it do?
Which passes all understanding.
God’s peace passes all understanding. God’s peace isn’t easy. But it is good. It is in that peace that we may find that we are following Jesus.