40 Years in America
"Forgive, Love, Unite!"
C. Thomas Phillips
Upon listening to introductory seminars on Divine Principle, I had a Wesleyan experience of the warming of the heart and a personal spiritual experience with Jesus. This powerful transforming experience left me with little doubt concerning the authenticity of this "new truth" as genuinely Christian and directly approved by Jesus. Excitedly I wrote about my experience with the Divine Principle to my mother and grandparents who had always encouraged my spiritual pursuits. My letter crossed a letter from my mother in the mail. Enclosed in her letter was a clipping of a paid advertisement in the local newspaper called "Forgive, Love, Unite!" Deeply touched that a foreigner would come to America and demonstrate the Christian response to the moral failings of our president, she was convinced this was a message from God for the America people. Upon receiving my letter she marveled to discover that I had met the movement inspired by the same person who had brought this Christian message of forgiveness, love and unity to the American people. For our family this was a testimony of Godís wondrous and mysterious work both within our lives and within the world.
My grandparents went on their knees thanking God for the effect of Rev. Moonís work on the religious life of their grandson after they received my letter sharing my encounter with Jesus. This had been an answer to their prayers for my conversion from the secular lifestyle of the 70s to a life dedicated to Godís calling. Personal experience with Jesus was an important tenet of faith in the Bible Missionary Baptist Church where my grandparents served as pastors. However, even after years of attending revivals and summer church camps at our familyís church, I still lacked any genuine experience with Jesus and eventually dismissed organized religion when I became a university student.
A soul-transforming experience awaited after listening to the Divine Principle lecture on the "Mission of the Messiah." My heart, burdened with the knowledge that Jesusí original purpose was not to die on the cross, cried out in earnest prayer asking Jesus to confirm or deny its truth. This simple outpouring of my heart opened the way for an overwhelming spiritual experience. Jesus came to me in a powerful vision, saying, "I could come to you because you understood my heart. Now anytime we share the same heart, I will be with you."
My grandfather shared my joy and saw the movement as an opportunity for a revival of the Christian spirit in America. Later he would be reprimanded by the superintendent of his church district for openly supporting the controversial Reverend Moon before his congregation. His superintendent, who had been my church pastor, said, "I donít believe Tom would go too far in the wrong direction, but you simply donít know the whole story of Rev. Moon." My grandfather countered, "The reason you donít like Rev. Moonie is because he is doing what you and the other Christian leaders have not been able to do -- bring revival to the youth of this country which is rapidly abandoning the Christian spirit!"
While studying world religions at the Unification Theological Seminary, it struck me that some of my early experiences in the Unification Church with some Japanese leaders were similar to training from a Zen master. Initiation into communal church life brought both rich experiences of the possibilities of harmony and unity and the occasional dissonance created by the different cultural and religious backgrounds of our "family members."
Careful study of the Divine Principle and confirmation through spiritual experiences with the Holy Spirit had left little question in my mind that the movement to which I was aligning myself was authentically Christian and that Jesus was working directly within this movement. However, many of my Japanese brothers and sisters considered the movement a new religion, and therefore could not readily consider themselves Christian. Yet, the closer I came to my Japanese brothers and sisters the more I perceived in their character a quality that was "genuinely Christian." Why that was so was profoundly revealed much later in my church life as I researched comparative studies between Christianity and Buddhism at the seminary. Especially, the Christian/Buddhist dialogue on kenosis and sunyata revealed deep insights into the experience of self denial to find spiritual enlightenment through purity of heart common to both traditions.
Studying the Divine Principle fostered in me a radical change of character, opening my heart to experience Godís heart through spiritual experience with the Holy Spirit. This experience of Godís love and truth instilled moral power to deny my tendency to self-centeredness and selfishness. I was then liberated to experience the restoration of my genuine self which aspired to live a lifestyle charged with high moral ideals. This experience can be compared to emptiness or sunyata, wherein the individual through radical self denial is able to stand outside of his own self interests and affirm his authentic self through acknowledgment of a higher reality at work in the cosmos even within oneís own personal life.
Thomas Phillips (center) in MFT days.
A critical experience for me along my spiritual path occurred on the national mobile fundraising teams (MFT). It led me to an experience which is similar to emptiness or sunyata. My leaders on MFT often used methods not unlike the Zen master used to instruct his pupils. Buddhism is sometimes anti-intellectual; they especially detest pragmatism and rationalization. Like a Zen master, my leaders would sometimes refuse to answer simple questions, or ignore requests for rational explanations. I understood the motivation for such non-rational behavior by my leaders was similar to the Zen Master who shocked or awakened the student to bring him to a new level of consciousness. This strict vertical manner of relationship could be experienced as austere, even hurtful, yet I mostly felt the warm heart of leaders and consequently recognized their actions as motivated by true love.
One particular experience that led to my experience of emptiness or sunyata began with a miscommunication between my leader, called the "commander," and myself. Despite the authoritarian title, he was a paternal figure whom I respected for his warm heart and selfless concern for others. Under his leadership I was responsible for a team of eight other members in Atlanta, Georgia. Through a conversation over the telephone in broken English, I understood from him that our teamís next move should be to Denver, Colorado. However, when I telephoned after arriving in Denver, it was obvious that he was very upset. Nevertheless, he expressed very little other than his surprise. However, the next dayís telephone communication ended with a request to transfer one of my team members to another team. Each day thereafter, with each telephone report I was directed to send yet another member to different teams until only myself and the van remained of our team. Then the next cryptic instruction was to drive the van to Nashville, Tennessee. After a three-day journey I arrived in Nashville to await further direction.
The commander had informed the MFT leader in Nashville that I should join his team. After arriving at midnight, I soon joined together with my new team traveling overnight across Tennessee. We continued driving for hours with a few intermittent stops as members were dropped off to "pioneer" raising funds in small towns. At around six in the morning the van stopped and the team leader gave me the signal that this would be my town. "Are you ready?" he asked. Groggy, unshaven and still in dirty clothes from the trip from Colorado, I tried to get my bearings as I stood beside a box of flowers and a bucket crammed with bunches of carnations. The team leader sped off in a hurry promising to return around twelve. I offered flowers in the shops and offices for donations and then came back to the appointed spot at noon. After waiting for several hours, I decided that he must have meant midnight -- after all he had left a whole box of flowers, certainly enough for the whole day! I continued fundraising throughout the day and was anticipating being reunited with the team after a long day.
Now midnight, I stood at the meeting point offering the last few flowers to any remaining passerby. After one in the morning, bewildered and exhausted, I finally decided to retire to the flower box -- now empty -- to rest. The next day, wanting to continue my task, I purchased some candy at the grocery store to offer for contributions. Now distressed and anxious about what would follow, I returned to the meeting place at noon, now my second day in this small town where everyone seemed to have already been approached for contributions at least once during my visit.
When the team leader finally arrived after two in the afternoon, he apologized for not having been able to return as promised after his van had broken down a hundred miles away in a remote area with no service stations. However, this was only the beginning of a series of events over a period of more than forty days, which seemed designed by heaven for my personal spiritual training.
In the isolation from brothers and sisters in the remote areas where we found ourselves, there were often moments when only my relationship with God consoled the agony in my heart. These were treasured moments of rich spiritual rejuvenation that usually followed after "dark nights of the soul" which tested my limitations. Obstacles along my path seemed so insurmountable at times that the only way to endure was in complete denial -- as though I didnít even exist! During this period, it was so clear that whenever I would become self-centered and complain about my situation, then some disaster would follow, such as being arrested for soliciting without a permit or having my fundraising product stolen.
However, after denying my self-centered desires, I achieved a new level of consciousness and perceived Godís spirit acting directly through me. As I would approach people for donations, I foreknew who would donate and how much. There were times when everyone I approached would generously give. A spiritual force which could move peopleís hearts enjoined my spirit. It was a time of certain spiritual clarity with no awareness or concern for "self." I felt in harmony with the pulse of the universe and protected from any harm.
One evening towards the end of this forty-day period, the commander drove into the parking lot where I had been selling peanut brittle under the hot August sun. He expressed gratitude for my dedication to my mission and invited me into his car to report about my experiences during this period. I related my experiences of learning to deny my self-centeredness, and how I had reached a new level of consciousness in the realm of shim-jung or heart. Pleased with my response, he explained his prayer had been for me to deeply understand the importance of "purity of heart." I had fought with all sorts of desires: desire to be the best team leader, desire to be the best fund-raiser, desire to be recognized or appreciated, along with intense physical desire for food and sleep and with sexual temptations.
After detaching myself from personal desires and transcending the anxiousness over my own situation, I was no longer overly concerned about what others thought about me or how I might appear to others. The negation of inappropriate desires and expectation had left a vacuum which begged to be filled. Now I became filled with a profound realization of the principles working order and harmony throughout the universe and meaningfulness and purpose in my life.
After having walked a course that seemed to require my annihilation, Godís grace working in my life had prepared me for bigger responsibilities. I was later called to go to New York to receive a new responsibility to guide young members in their life of faith on the MFT.
Fifteen years later, the seminary allowed the opportunity to revisit my course to transcend my fallen nature through self-denial in the traditions of Christians and Buddhists seeking union with the ultimate reality. My course of fundraising had shaken me from habitual routines and provided the environment to find my genuine self through self-denial. Even now from time to time as I loose the center and focal point of my spiritual life, I recall these early battles to cast aside my petty concerns and embrace the public purpose and find my renewal.
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