The Gospel Isn’t Zen

One of the most popular images of spirituality and enlightenment is that of the zen practitioner, sitting calmly in the lotus position. Deep breaths. Long silences. Peaceful surroundings.

Zen meditation is useful. I’ve practiced it many times, and I’d recommend it to anybody. Recollecting the mind and body to this present moment is a valuable skill. The rested calm and equanimity associated with meditation is laudable.

Yet, for those of us who seek to follow the God of Israel, we cannot be satisfied with inner peace. While there’s no doubt that Jesus spent a lot of time in quiet meditation, his path is not one of silent retreat and self-improvement. Jesus reveals a God who both rejoices and cries, who demonstrates great tenderness and furious anger. This is a God revealed not in stoic calm, but in passionate engagement with everyone around us.

The way of discipleship is not a race to become “perfect” by human measures. A cheerful disposition is not a requirement to follow Jesus. The saints of God can be – and are! – just as grouchy, introverted, or melancholy as anyone else. In fact, many of the most faithful servants of God have been among the most afflicted, emotionally unstable people in their societies.

The gospel isn’t about having good manners or being easy to get along with. Friendship with Jesus isn’t about taking deep breaths and smiling. The way of the Holy Spirit is a life of love, expressed through compassion and justice. If that comes across as cranky, so be it. If your disposition is a shy one, God will work through that, too. God is ready to use each of us, just as we are. You don’t have to be a polished image of enlightenment to be a saint.

Have confidence that God created you with a purpose. Even your flaws are there for a reason. Embrace yourself, as God has already embraced you. If you’re stubborn, angry, or cry easily – remember that we follow a savior who demonstrated all of these traits in the course of his ministry. Jesus lost his composure on a regular basis; certainly we can, too!

Zen is great. But it’s not the gospel. The gospel is love – real love that flips over tables, stands with the powerless, cries for the dead, and fights like hell for the living.

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