Stillness, War, and The Micro Zen

Be still, and know that I am God. The phrase is so familiar that if it weren’t for reading the words in Psalm 46, one might suspect it to be an extra-Biblical motivational mantra like those often attributed to scripture on Pinterest. A trifle stillness, perhaps. Stripped of its context, it evokes memories of my middle school art teacher’s miniature zen garden. The garden was displayed prominently near our classroom door and I recall being genuinely curious about the object whenever I was in class. Something about the pocket-sized Buddhist meditation sandbox set against the personality of my large, very North Dakotan male art teacher was a juxtaposition that simply surprised me. I don’t recall a single art project we created. I don’t even remember the teacher’s name. But I do remember that zen garden. Why was it there? Who was it for?

Stillness as prescribed in Psalm 46 has a wisp of zen flare, but it really is much deeper than that. Set against the preceding description of war and turmoil, ‘be still’ is a strange call-to-action amid the blockbuster movie scene. It is a yoga mat on a battlefield. A micro zen garden in a middle school classroom. Be still? This is where the CSB translation of the Bible really helps capture the sense of the phrase a bit better:

Come, see the works of the Lord,
who brings devastation on the earth.
He makes wars cease throughout the earth.
He shatters bows and cuts spears to pieces;
he sets wagons ablaze.
“Stop fighting, and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.”
The Lord of Armies is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Psalm 46:8-11

Stop fighting. As a father, let’s just say that I get this. And if I were a middle school art teacher, I suppose I’d know it on an entirely different level. God isn’t just telling us to rest easy, he’s showing us how the magnetic pull toward war actually moves us from glorifying God to exalting ourselves, our culture, or our side—both revealing an erosion of our faith and cementing it. This is the primordial soup of playground fights and adults with nuclear codes. God crashes our party and reminds us that he is in charge. He invites his people into knowing him as an alternative to knowing constant chaos. Winning isn’t our defender and refuge, God is. His Spirit is our provider of peace and the only path toward lasting victory.

The miniature zen garden was also a symbol of a transcendent reality crashing into my kid life. It showed me that my teacher was complex, confident, and human. Thinking back, I think he put the garden there as an invitation—a beckoning call from an older sojourner who had seen a better way. A kids-stop-fighting-and-create-something way. The Master Artist invites us into a deeper stillness—tying the art smock of peace around our waists as he prepares us to join him in forming a new and better reality.

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