The fictional but very insightful character “Forrest Gump” was famous for many phrases, but perhaps the most quoted of those is, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” It has over the past 10-15 years become a phrase I have heard quite a bit; it’s not nearly as popular as some of the others which have spilled over from celluloid from “reel life” into “real life” and have become embedded in our cultural lexicon (definitely a testimony to the influence of the media) but I find myself saying it frequently. (It’s one of my favorite film quotes which apply in real time, right up there with “How can you be so obtuse?” from “The Shawshank Redemption” – a phrase I think quite often but never say at the office where I work.)
As simplistic as this phrase that the fictional but very realistically created Forrest was taught by his Mom, which has become embedded in our cultural lexicon is, I have to agree. The statement does contain quite a bit of applicable truth. You really never know what each day will bring. Just as it is not definite when we prepare to savor a chocolate from the box that we are going to open our mouths and bite into a rich chocolate truffle with the hazelnut center (or insert your favorite confectionary flavor here) or the infamous coconut piece most people try to avoid (aside from those who enjoy coconut – I am not one of them, but I know they exist – otherwise Whitman’s would have started leaving them out of the Sampler years ago), with each day we never know what exactly we’re going to find when we open our eyes and prepare to savor the gift of another day.
In a so called “perfect world,” everything would be like in those silly Walgreen’s commercials, and always go just as we planned or we wanted it to, nothing would ever delay our plans, no one would fight, no one would argue or disagree, or no one would deliberately, thoughtlessly, or carelessly upset us, inconvenience us, or cause us grief. There would be no traffic, there would be no person standing in front of us in line at the store when we were in a hurry arguing over the expiration date of a coupon and then paying with a check in the cash only line, there would be no rushing to get somewhere only to find that they were closed. And we could always be assured that things would always go smoothly, just as we planned and hoped for.
And I have definitely had my share of days, even weeks where the box of chocolates seemed to be full of the coconut pieces (again, my apologies to the coconut lovers out there with this analogy – nothing against coconut, it’s just not my personal cup of tea) and things just did not go how I had hoped for them to, or planned for them to, or desired them to. The best laid plans and the best intentions can be mapped out to exacting detail, but that does not always ensure that is how they will play out.
Life is a challenge at times, and if that isn’t an understatement, then I don’t know what is. The reality is that no matter how happy we may be, no matter how comfortable with ourselves we may be, and no matter how secure we might be in our faith, life is full of things that can at the least irritate and inconvenience us (when we allow our own anxieties to create the perception that others are somehow “against” us if and when they disagree with us, or allow our concerns to temporarily obscure our ability to be able to understand a situation from the point of view of another), and at worst emotionally devastate us (the passing on of a loved one, exposure to fear, hatred and anger from others, injustice, a friend or loved one going through a terrible illness, the knowledge of the human capability for acts of horrific evil we might see on the news). There are days and times in our lives when we might feel as if nothing is wrong, and feel on top of the world, and there are others when we might feel like falling to our knees and implore of God as to why we are even here, in such a terrible place.
But one thing I am grateful to God for, and forever will be, is the overall feeling I have developed that given all of the hardships we often encounter in the mystery of life, is that even with all of the craziness that can take place, the stress we may find ourselves under, or the personal storms we find ourselves weathering, it really IS a perfect world. Even with all of its hardships, tragedies and inconveniences, life is essentially good and each new day carries potential. We just have not opened our hearts up to God enough to fully realize, understand and comprehend that yet.
The main obstruction to our knowing that fact, in my opinion, is a result of our being unable or unwilling to fully grasp the idea that God is not somewhere out there, far away, in Heaven, in the clouds, or in some other dimension we cannot see or somehow separate from us, but with us, within all of us and in everything around us. It is also a result of an unhealthy, negative perception of God (which even in a very spiritually healthy person can exist on a subconscious level). A perception of God rooted in fear can result in our mistaking unfortunate or bad events which occur as being actions of said idea of God somehow out to “rebuke” or “reprimand” us for something and good events being a “reward” or “preferential treatment” from the Divine. And sometimes, our feelings of life being overly difficult or unfair during the difficult times is simply temporarily forgetting who we are – that all of us are one with God, and a part of God, and a precious child of God, regardless of whatever illusions of separation from God, or one another we might be currently experiencing or feeling.
Now you might be asking, what in the world does this have to do with the topic of peace? Everything.
When I think of peace, and being at peace, it always is accompanied with how I think about God and what I feel God wants each and every one of us to have. I am not referring to a concept so noble as “World Peace” (although I do sincerely believe it in my heart to be attainable at some point and time, should everyone be able to let go of their fears and let love be the ruling factor in all of their lives) but merely a three step process which has proven to be a blessing in my own life to enable me to find a sense of inner peace and well being and perpetuate peace in my own life during both the challenging times and the pleasant times. It is a formula that not only enabled me to develop a greater sense of trust in and Oneness with God, but also enabled me to share that with others in need. It is three separate steps, yet each one is closely connected and dependent on the other: finding peace with God, peace with oneself, and peace with others.
Peace begins within, and the first and most crucial step to this process is finding peace with God. I believe that without that, nothing else can take place, as God is the Source of all things and in everything. Finding peace with God means discarding and letting go of any and all inaccurate and false ideas about God, and for the Christian it also means being able to let go of the idea of a harsh and legalistic idea of Christianity based in rhetoric and dogma as opposed to Love. It means becoming fully aware that God is not against any of us, or for any of us, but there for ALL of us – and that we were all made as we are for a reason, and Loved with an unconditional Love. It means being able to reshape our ideas about being a Christian from conforming to a human idea of what that definition is into allowing our identification as a Christian to mean a follower of the teachings of Christ, and how they are still very alive and relevant thousands of years later – regardless of whether you view Him as being fully human, Divine, or both (for the record, I see Christ as both – as the Highest expression of God in human form).
For LGBT individuals, the first two steps can prove to be problematic and difficult at times. I know that for me, as a bisexual man, the first two steps were particularly challenging. It is difficult to find peace with God when you have had it repeatedly ground into your head over time that your sexuality and sexual orientation-a vital aspect of who you are – is somehow “unacceptable” to God, and when you find yourself not only an outcast among heterosexual friends but many homosexual ones as well as many are skeptical of the bisexual. Add to that that there were other bisexuals who were critical of the fact that I am in a committed, loving, caring and honest relationship with both a female and male partner and that only complicated matters further. Although it is absolutely by no means necessary to be validated by any person in order to feel at peace with who you are or with God, it could get frustrating at times when everyone was attempting to convince me that I was not acceptable.
It took time, as I am certain many others who have been through the process of reconciling their spirituality and sexuality will tell you, but the only way I was able to get to that place of feeling a sense of total peace with God about who I am was trust and faith. It came about in a multitude of forms; but most predominantly it came from my trusting in God, rethinking my concept of being a Christian to being more about the teachings of Christ and how they applied to my life and to life today rather than about following someone else’s ideas of what being a Christian was supposed to be, and most of all, allowing myself to be open to feeling at peace and to the ideas and knowledge that could enable me to reach that place.
It came about in a variety of ways, from talking to others who had been through many of the same experiences, to reading, to merely spending time quiet and still, and listening to the real Voice of the Loving God in my heart. I filled myself with positive information and read the Bible for myself for once. I surrounded myself with caring, affirming people who were willing to listen and understand and relate to what I was going through. And I remained wonderfully open to God’s Love and Acceptance, not always certain of how it would come but only knowing that it would.
Thankfully and eventually I was able to reach a place where I knew there was nothing unnatural about my sexuality or sexual orientation or who I am, nothing sinful about the fact that I am in an honest relationship with both a woman and a man, and nothing wrong or flawed about how I understand God and what I feel it means to be a Christian – a follower of the teachings of Christ rather than allegiance to dogma and a literal interpretation of Scriptures as opposed to a metaphorical one. Perhaps most important to the entire process was the realization that it was irrelevant how different I was from the mainstream or the norm-I am who I am, and that is how God Created me. It was accompanied by the understanding that each and every one of us, no matter how different and diverse we may be, is a unique and vital aspect of God’s Infinite Creativity. It is we as individuals who create any conflict in our inability and/or unwillingness to attempt to understand each other, or at the very least to accept each other for who we are even when we may not fully understand each other.
One fact that really was of help to me towards finding peace with God was finding my own “quiet place.” I am not speaking of a room, or even a physical location where I would retreat to, but a place within myself and my own heart where I was able to feel and ascertain a sense that no matter what I might have been fearful of or been taught in the past, or what fears the opinions of others might have left me with, that there was no way that I ever would, or could be separate from or unloved by God.
It was a place where I could center myself and reconnect with the spark of knowing that God is a Loving God, as was truly evident in the teachings of Christ, and His Spirit, and for lack of a better term, get a hold on myself spiritually among whatever I was dealing with at the time so that I could reconnect. There was no specific ritual, or rote, but merely breathing deeply, listening to my heart, which is where God has always spoken to me the loudest and clearest, and simply “being still and knowing.” It was focusing on the Loving teachings of Christ as being the Way, rather than dogmas and fears of human creation which had in the past served to do nothing but create the illusion of separation and alienation from God.
It was relearning a lot of the old, negative and potentially self defeating and self destructive (and in my experience, being either of those two does not result in our being very good company to others) ways of thinking about God. When things went wrong, it was not, “God being out to get me” or when something didn’t work out in the manner I had hoped it was not “God punishing me.” It was simply accepting while there are many things in life we can always maintain faith in, there are an equal amount of factors and variables which are totally unpredictable from day to day. It was also accepting responsibility for my own actions when I had acted in error, and taking the valuable lessons from those experiences as gifts to better myself when confronted with the same situations again.
Old fears, such as the ones I had to conquer and that many who are LGBT and who reclaim their spirituality also have had to conquer sometimes take a long time to wash away. They eventually do, and sometimes they leave a stain on our souls, but in time, that too will wear off. I know that for me, I would have times when I would allow old fears to creep in and just simply repeating the phrase “be still and know” would get me through it.
Another key ingredient in my being able to attain my sense of peace with God came down to what is often the most difficult. I call it “a matter of trust”; others refer to it as “letting go and letting God.” And that can often be one of the greatest challenges to anyone on a spiritual journey, regardless of where they are or who they are.
By “letting go and Letting God” or “putting full trust in God” I am not referring to the idea of absolving ourselves of full responsibility for our own actions by any means.
I am ashamed to admit that there have been times in my life I have fervently prayed for light traffic or no stoplights during a morning commute when the reality is that I could have avoided running late by not foolishly staying up too late the night before. Or, I have prayed for calm after deliberately drinking too much coffee, or for a more drastic example found myself in situations where I had not thoroughly thought through the potential consequences beforehand and found myself in a very bad place and ended up turning within to God for help. This is not giving it to God, this is choosing to avoid the difficult work of being responsible, or doing what we know is right in our hearts even if it is not always the easy road, or making God out to be something we wish God was – a magical “fix” – rather than what God is, the Source of all and the energy in and that is everything.
What I am speaking about is having real faith that no matter how crazy or upsetting things may seem at the time – be it something as trivial as an inconvenience to our daily routine or a temporary setback in our plans, or something enough to temporarily turn life as we know it upside down, or something which causes us to momentarily regress to a state of fear – God is always with us, and we will always be okay, no matter what.
Just about every time I have ever had situations where I temporarily succumbed to fear, I have always found out later just how foolish it was to do so. The times I would have setbacks in a schedule or plans would be cancelled or somehow fall through, it always seemed to be for a reason, and always a good one: I would be there for what would have been a missed opportunity; I would avoid what could have been an unpleasant situation, I would understand at a later time why things did not occur as I had planned, and not too sound cliche, but I have always been able to quote those old favorite sayings, “everything for a reason” and “there are no accidents.”
It is important to note in all of these cases that I was acting in faith, acting as responsibly as I could, and hoping for the best outcome in a given situation. Even though the outcome was not as had been initially expected, it did end up being the best outcome. Do I fully understand all of the why and how? No. But it really does reaffirm my faith in the idea that each and every one of us is taken care of somehow, as well as strengthen my belief that even when we are the most afraid or worried, there really is nothing to fear. I agree with the sentiment of the late Emmet Fox: “To be afraid is to have more faith in evil than in God.”
Sometimes when I am worried and not feeling at ease, I remind myself of the story in Matthew 14:28-33 where Jesus is walking on the water and asks Peter to come to him. Peter starts out and then allows his fear to get the best of him and begins to sink, to which Jesus responds to him, “Why did you doubt?” The metaphorical intent of the message seems clear to me, at least, how I interpret it: the key is trust in God, and not giving into fear. Even in the most trying and seemingly impossible circumstances, if we just trust and not allow ourselves to give in to fear, we will make it through.
That’s one of my favorite passages, and it has gotten me through more than a few rough storms of my own. And more often than not, I have let my own anxieties get the best of me and ended up in the proverbial drink like Peter. But in time, more and more, I have learned to be able to regain my focus and put my trust in God – and just do the very best that I can and know that somehow, things will turn out okay. Oddly enough, they always do in the end.
Those are a few things that enabled me to develop the first key, a sense of peace with God, and interestingly enough, the other two followed as a result.
Finding peace with God was a critical step towards finding peace with myself. It is often said that we are our own worst critic, and unfortunately, I was my own worst critic for quite some time. While it is perfectly natural and normal for anyone who is in touch with their spirituality to be very conscious of their words and actions towards others, and doing the right and ethical thing, it is another entirely to be overly self critical to the point of being self defeating. It is one thing to monitor one’s own thoughts and actions to ensure they are congruent with one’s spirituality, and I feel that is very healthy.
But there have been times in my own life where I was allowing myself to experience feelings of inadequacy, of false guilt, or of low self worth which threatened to drown out the spiritual aspects of my life at one point. These were not of God, but rather thoughts based in fear – either the fears of others or my own imagined fears that I had allowed myself to internalize.
This state can lead to perhaps the worst form of warfare – one being in conflict with one’s truest self, and doing so from a place of fear. And if we are in conflict with ourselves, it is only natural that we find ourselves in conflict with others, as more frequently than not the conflict we create with others can be traced to conflict within ourselves.
The only way that I was able, and which I feel that anyone can ever develop a sense of peace with oneself is to first find peace with God. Once I was able to attain the knowledge (or realize it existed, as it had been there all along) that the idea of being separate from God was an illusion, that God was to be Loved and not feared, and that I was Loved as I am, I was able move past that place of inner conflict and realize that there was no reason I should be so self critical-but rather fully embrace the unique individual that God Made me to be, and do the best I could to make the best of that.
Life gets busy, and hectic, and even with all of the good things, stress comes, and difficult times come. But somehow, it seems when I turn within and center, there is always something there to remind me that even in the tough times, God never leaves.
Sometimes it can be something seemingly trivial. I was driving home once after a very stressful and difficult day, having dealt with a great deal of stress with family and work issues and overall worrying about a multitude of things – most of which, looking back, were trivial and insignificant, especially given the Grand Design of everything. Yet I felt a sense of anxiety about everything than usual I could not seem to shake, and was trying to find my “quiet place,” and at that moment finding it difficult to focus on. I finally ended up putting in a CD I had bought, but had not had a chance to listen to yet. As I was reflecting on how I was feeling, I took a listen to the lyrics of the song that was playing:
When everything is wrong
When hopelessness surrounds you
The sun will rise again
The tide you swim against will carry you back home
So don’t give up
Don’t give in
I walk beside you
Wherever you are
Whatever it takes
No matter how far
Through all that may come
And all that may go
I walk beside you
I walk beside you
It was at the time the musical equivalent of the old “Footprints” poem so prevalent in all walks of Christian culture, and one of those moments where I was again reminded of what it is I believe about God, and something shifted in my thoughts at that point. I felt an extreme sense of renewal and was able to get back in touch with the spiritual strength which keeps me going and had somehow temporarily eluded me in my state of anxiety.
How could I let stress get the best of me? God never left me for all the years before I was fully aware of God and alive with knowing of God’s Love for all of us, and everywhere I look, everything I see, and in all I experience, I see and feel God, so why did I allow myself to get caught up in a snare of pessimistic thinking?
I think it’s all too easy sometimes. As I started out saying, life can be quite hectic and sometimes we do forget what truly is important and can even temporarily lose focus on who we are in the midst of turmoil, be it trivial or serious. But even when that happens, there are some things we can always take to heart, that no one can or ever will be able to take away from us.
Whatever feelings or memories brought or bring us joy or allow us to experience unconditional love, those things cannot be taken away from us if we do not allow it.
No one can ever make us feel inferior or devalued without our consent, and no one can take away who we truly are, no matter how they try, unless we allow it.
Regardless of what anyone says, God Loves us unconditionally as we are, and we are all equally valued and precious children of God, and God will never leave us, for there is ultimately nowhere God is not, even if we find that knowledge clouded by fear at times.
It is these thoughts which I carry with me each day as I take it on, and those are what help me to stay centered during the rough spots.
The final stage in reaching a place of atonement, absolution and peace with myself dealt with a practice I have found easier to do for others than myself, and that one which is one of the cornerstones of my faith, forgiveness. I had been able to forgive others who had thoughtlessly or carelessly or seemingly deliberately wronged or hurt me in some way. But I had never forgiven myself for things I had done either to trip myself up or that in some way had a negative effect on others, which was creating a subconscious sense of conflict within myself.
So I learned to forgive myself for the mistakes I had made. That does not mean that I have no things in my life that I feel regret over, nor does it mean I have forgotten the lessons I have learned instead of utilizing them as a tool for self improvement. It simply means I found the ability to let go of the residual anger I had at myself for things I had screwed up on and move on with a better understanding.
And that led to an even deeper sense of peace with myself than I had previously felt. Which led me to the third, and final stage-call it full circle, if you will – of achieving peace: making peace with others, promoting peace, and being the peace we want to see in the world.
Many times, the conflict we encounter in our lives, or with others is the direct result of our own fears, lack of understanding, or even fear of understanding. But even when we have resolved those issues within ourselves and made peace with ourselves and God, there is one key step which remains: I feel we are then called to share the peace God has enabled us to have with others who are in need of it. And that to me does not just mean the people close to us, but everyone in need of it. Looking around, there is quite a bit of work to do in that department, and I think we are being called.
There is far too much conflict in the world today. In between watching the news keeping up with the elections, over the past month I have noticed an alarming amount of stories about shootings, all of which I see as absolute tragedies. It’s something I took note of, if nothing more than just more ammunition (pardon the horrific and sickening, although not intentional pun) in my argument for stronger gun control being an imperative in our society. So many people are angry, and they are angry because they are afraid. And those are a lethal combination and a cocktail for conflict on a devastating level.
There are those in modern society who feel that those promoting peace are “weak” and who think nothing of being proud warmongers to those who are different – be it those of another country who we have deemed as a potential threat, or merely those different from them – such as the fundamentalist Christians who speak of a “cultural war” against the LGBT Community or “spiritual warfare” against any beliefs contrary to theirs. And there are also those who profess to be devout followers of Christ yet who support political platforms that are anathema to all He was about and taught in their platform of “God, Guns and Gays.” Their insistence on one legalistic version of Christianity, their right to take another human life in cold blood while taking away a woman’s right to choose, and their right to discriminate based on sexual orientation and have their prejudices against the LGBT Community legitimized by having them legislated and government sanctioned.
I often wonder at times why there is so much emphasis among Christians who choose a legalistic path on sexuality and violence – as in, some (though not all) being pro-war and vehemently anti anything that is not heterosexual monogamy in marriage – and I rethink it, and wonder – is it because these things sell, or is it because they have their own inner conflicts on these issues? Have they made peace with God as a God of Love, Who views us all as equal and loved? I consider all these factors, and then pray they might be able to let go of fear, for I feel all of the judgment, and self righteousness and anger is all out of fear-just as I feel all conflict, all the way up to full out war is. And speaking of war, so many wars are fought in the name of “whose God is better,” which to me is the biggest tragedy of all. So many could be avoided by simply agreeing to disagree – which could happen if we were all to embrace the questions rather than desperately insist upon possessing the answer.
Add to the fact that there are those who are in direct opposition to a peaceful existence for LGBT people the fact that although there are many LGBT Christians who have found peace with God, and themselves, and who are making peace with those around them and reaching out to others in need of it, there are even more who still live in a place of fear and terror, who have not yet been able to reach a place of peace. I have received e-mails from other bisexuals who have found themselves in a place where I once was, who are seeking peace with God, with themselves, with loved ones, and all of the above, and I wish there was more I could do to help or give them the hope God has given me and I always attempt to do so. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, whenever I encounter anyone dealing with some type of conflict I make whatever attempt I can.
And even on top of all of that, there are so many struggling in so many ways-there are many who are struggling with issues such as poverty, homelessness, illness, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. These to me are once again the product of fear and not being able to put trust in a Loving God, or let go of fears – and the conflict in their lives and in so many lives is a direct result and reflection of this.
My point with all of this is that being able to connect with our own sense of inner peace and peace with God is not enough-it is a start, and the best start-but I truly feel that God calls us to be the peace we want to see in the world. It will be different for everyone, and I think that embracing and finding peace we were Created to be plays a key role in that.
For me, it has been trying to reach out to other bisexuals, as well as anyone who is LGBT and who is seeking to find peace with God, and helping however I can. Eventually I would love to see a world where same gender marriages and bisexuals in honest multiple partner relationships were considered as perfectly normal and acceptable as heterosexual marriages and relationships, where there was no longer any form of discrimination against the transgendered community, and where no act of sharing between consenting adults was deemed as “unnatural.” I cannot do that, no one person will be able to accomplish it, but whenever I see someone in need who just is in need of some hope, I try to offer what I can.
And it has also been about promoting peace overall, both on a personal and group level – being there for friends and acquaintances who are dealing with conflict, be it within themselves or with others, working with family members to resolve conflicts, and trying to share positive ideas about God and about what I feel true “Christian Values” are – such as honesty, caring, giving, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and charity – whenever I can in a non-obtrusive or non-judgmental manner.
Oddly enough, all of these actions have had the effect of my feeling a greater sense of peace within myself and with God, which in turn leads to my wanting to share that even more with others. Of course, I am only speaking from my own experience, but I have heard others echo the same sentiment.
Just one person alone will not suddenly end all of the conflict, or bring everyone to a state of inner peace, or cause everyone to have a massive epiphany and stop arguing, fighting, or quarreling with one another. Just one person will not end discrimination, and end the injustices in the world. But God has empowered each and every single one of us with the ability to make a difference – and perhaps the greatest step towards being able to develop a closer relationship and sense of Oneness with God is to search within and discover what gifts we have been given to further the endeavor of bringing peace such as God has blessed us with to all others.
Even with all of the trials and tribulations which this crazy thing we know as life might contain, where we don’t always have assurance what each day will hold on either a far reaching global level or a personal one that only holds significance to us on an individual basis, I argue that it is still a perfect world in so many ways. One glance at all of the beauty all around and at the joyful things in life is enough to confirm that it at the very least has amazing potential if we allow it to. Some days and during some times the exact opposite may appear to be true, depending upon the outlook and perception we elect to adopt. We have to consider the thought that no matter whether we get the coconut or the truffle as we savor the box of chocolates, it will be good in some way, and there will be an abundance more where that came from – it is in learning to embrace all of the flavors and make the best of what we have that we become closer to God and learn to appreciate and be grateful for what we have even more.
I believe that overall, while it definitely has its ups and downs that life is good, and it is a perfect world-we just have to make the best of it we can and strive to improve on our own perception of it. God is not going to guarantee you that there will never be difficult times or challenges in your life, and God is not going to deliberately create trying times for you to have to endure – we do enough of that for ourselves at times. God will, however, be with us as we learn to appreciate all of the things that truly matter most, and be grateful for the joy of feeling, of living, of being, through bad and good times.
But you can rest assured in the beautiful realization and awareness that God, however mysterious, is there – like a rock, and anchor, and a solid foundation you can place your faith in to help you discover a greater sense of peace than ever to get you through the tough times – even if they stay tough for extended periods of time, and hold on. For many times when it seems the storm will never end, the clouds part to reveal the rainbow, which carries with it a sense of hope, peace and renewal greater than any before.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.