Saturday, December 4, 2010
Like hope, joy, and love, peace is an Advent word, and this is a season for preparing our minds and hearts and souls for peace on earth, and good will to all.
You don’t have to read very much of the Bible to know that the Middle East has always been a violent place, certainly as far back as the Exodus when the ex-slaves from Egypt finally reached the “Promised Land” and wanted to claim the Promise. There was just one problem: there were people already living there who hadn’t been let in on the Promise. In fact, they rather liked living there. That’s why Joshua had to “fit” the Battle of Jericho, and that’s why the walls came “a tumblin’ down”–so that some could be pushed out in order to make room for those who had been promised “milk and honey.”
When we read the Bible, or the newspaper, we find that that was pretty much how it has been ever since. A few years of peace, under David’s reign, when things went pretty well...but in the scheme of human history not much. Israel and her neighbors – the Iranians, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Iraqis – under various aliases throughout history have not had an easy time of living together. After World War II the world community once again carved out a Jewish homeland. And once again we discovered (even when we tried to deny it) that there were people who had been living there for some time who had grown quite fond of doing so. We still haven't sorted out what that means but one thing is certain: we will never have peace if we can't be honest.
Life is not easy, and what is to one person an "answer to prayer" may be another's worst nightmare. This, I think, is what makes peace so difficult and elusive. In the real world it isn’t simply about feeling stress-free, and maybe we need to let go of that false ideal in order to make way for God’s peace: peace that brings with it justice, and that leads us to reconciliation and love of neighbor.
Those of us who claim the name of Christian are inheritors of a violent tradition that nevertheless still dares to yearn for, and dream of, and work towards peace. The prophets dare to speak of a time when “swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”–that is to say, resources are re-directed from military appropriations to agriculture. It is only once that happens, say the prophets, that a peace that is more than just the “absence of war” becomes possible. God’s shalom is not about a “cease-fire.” It’s about abundance, and gratitude, and hospitality. It's about a a willingness to share and a table set with fine wines and veal piccata for everyone. It’s about a community where trust is a given, and where walls that once divided are broken down.
Sometimes people say to me that the Old Testament is hard to read because it is so violent. There is a great deal of truth in that statement, but there’s another way to look at it – a way that makes it so near and dear to me in fact. The Old Testament (and I believe the New Testament as well!) refuse to be “pie-in-the-sky.” They refuse to live in a dream world. They dare to look squarely at what really is.
The Old Testament especially does not avoid geo-political realities, and whether the super-powers are Assyria, or Babylonia, or Persia, or Rome, or Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, or the United States, the Bible insists on being honest about how violence degrades and hurts God’s people, and how even religion can be used to perpetrate violence and to justify power relationships. The Old Testament, and especially the prophets, are honest about what is. But they also refuse to settle for the status quo as what must always be. They dare to dream of the dawn of a new day, of a time when God really is the ruler of heaven and earth, a time when justice and peace go together.
I’ve always appreciated the song, “Let there be peace on earth...” not just for the memories it evokes in my from childhood, and not just because I like the tune, but because of the next clause: “and let it begin with me.” I think that is a very Biblical prayer: to ask God for peace on earth, but in the same moment to also recognize that such a prayer requires a response on our part. “Let it begin with me.” In the end it is not the politicians and the generals who will bring about peace on earth. It’s people like Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds, and fishermen, and tax-collectors, and teachers and nurses and in-laws and neighbors. Each and every one of us are called to be “preparers of the way” in this holy season.
I think that part of what Jesus does for us is to invite us to look to the little things. Ministry is about “small things.” Jesus talks about things like “mustard seeds” when he speaks about faith, and I think peace as well. We can and should pray “let there be peace on earth” - but only if we are willing to let it begin here, and now, with us on this Second Sunday of Advent.
If and when we can find peace in our own hearts, it will be poured out in our homes. Maybe it is as simple as taking time to pray as a family, or lighting an Advent candle, and building a fire and talking about our days together. Maybe we need less “fast food” this month and more “comfort food.” Maybe we need to let go of some old habits, and begin to cultivate some new ones.
If and when there is peace in our hearts, and peace in our homes, we may very well find that it begins to extend to the neighborhood, because surely peace is even more contagious than dis-ease. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some degree of conflict, or disagreement, or difference of opinion; among human beings there will be differences. But there are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with conflicts; mature ways and less mature ways. When peace is in our hearts–when it begins there–it can truly spread. We learn to confront one another, face to face (rather than gossiping about each other third-hand.) We begin to learn and to practice ways of resolving conflicts that do not require unanimity, but simply a willingness to listen, and to learn, and to forgive, and to love.
What happens when we take seriously our calling to be “preparers of the way” and therefore allow the peace that Christ pours into our hearts to extend to one another, to soften our hard edges, to make us better communicators and more open to healing, and to forgiveness, and grace? I think what happens is that peace starts to become palpable. I think that people feel drawn into the love of God even more deeply and that mission and vocation are re-energized. And as that happens, we learn (and re-learn)what it means to be salt, and light, and yeast for the sake of a broken world.