This is the second week of Advent. Yesterday, Christian churches lit again the candle of Hope, and then lit the candle of Peace.
I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33
Peace seems to be in short supply this year. Congress members are calling each other names and spreading false information. Three teenagers were killed and 8 others were injured in a rampage by one of their classmates. Rep. Thomas Massie, a congressman from Kentucky, posted his family Christmas photo on Twitter, and they are all holding guns that look to me like automatic rifles. The pandemic rages, with yet another variant (Omicron) wreaking havoc. Trials of some of the January 6 insurrectionists have begun. I could keep going but listing this makes me feel like I need to go take a shower.
What is peace? And where do we find it these days?
Merriam-Webster defines peace as a state of tranquility or quiet, as in the absence of civil disturbances; freedom from oppressive or disquieting thoughts or emotions; harmony in personal relationships; or a state of mutual agreement between governments. On Sundays, many churches "pass the peace." People might say, "Peace be with you," or "God's peace be with you." Others (like me) just say hello.
I think some of our images of peace during Advent come not from the natal story of Jesus, but from hymns like Silent Night ("all is calm, all is bright"), O Little Town of Bethlehem ("how still we see thee lie"), any hymn that is a lullaby (Away in a Manger), and all the hymns that place the birth in a snowy, quiet winter scene (In the Bleak Midwinter).
I don't think it was really like that. Luke tells us that "all went to their own towns to be registered," and when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was no room at the inn. That means it was pretty crowded, and most family reunions I know of are pretty celebratory, and many involve lots of alcohol. This means the town would have probably been pretty raucous, with drunk people singing their bar songs at the tops of their voices - more like a college campus after a big football win than a quiet, country barn. I don't think there was an absence of civil disturbance. We have plenty of civil disturbances now, too (see paragraph 2, above).
There wasn't much mutual agreement between governments, either. Rome was THE government, and my understanding is that it wasn't very agreeable. Remember that the Jews were waiting for a messiah who would restore the throne of Israel to the line of David - presumably to liberate the Jews from the oppression of Rome. We don't even have agreement within our one government today (see again paragraph 2, above)!
I know that Luke and other Biblical writers were masters at literary devices, such as metaphor. If we believe, as I do, that the birth narrative didn't happen exactly as it is written (scholars seem to believe that the birth didn't happen in Bethlehem, for example), then what were Luke and those guys trying to tell us? What is this peace of Christmas? Because it clearly isn't civil tranquility or governmental accord.
Is it freedom from disquieting thoughts, and harmony in personal relationships?
It's the holidays. We are busy busy busy!! What should I buy for Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Daughter, Son...? What should I wear to the holiday parties I have to attend? What if I don't have any parties to go to? What if supply chain issues prevent me from getting THE perfect gift for my loved ones? How many gifts are too many? Do I have equity in my gift giving? How am I going to get all these presents wrapped? What if Santa can't take off because of climate change at the North Pole? What if the elves go on strike? My personal worry - is anyone going to be disappointed????
No, this is the season of disquieting thoughts, not the season of peace and goodwill.
How about harmony in personal relationships? Have you read any advice columns lately? "My loved ones want to get together but refuse to get vaccinated." "My loved ones have large dogs (or cats) and my kids are allergic/afraid but they won't lock them up." "My in-laws refuse to limit their gift-giving to my kids." Take a look at the movie, Christmas Vacation, and see how much personal harmony goes into the holidays.
So peace is pretty hard to come by these days. We know what it is, but how do we achieve it? I enjoy reading advice columns, but I don't write one, so no advice on how to achieve it here. I think all that advice destroys peace, anyway. My favorite was when someone (I think it was Martha Stewart) said to simplify Christmas by making your own Christmas cards. REALLY? How does that simplify ANYTHING?
Here is something to remember: this is Advent, not Christmas. Advent is to be a time of quiet reflection, repentance, and getting one's internal house in order in preparation for the birth of Jesus. Can you carve out 5 minutes - more if you've got it - to sit quietly and reflect on what is hopeful, peaceful, joyful and loving in your world?
It was the Grinch who discovered that Christmas isn't something that comes from a store. Peace is something we encounter in running waves, flowing air, quiet earth, shining stars, and gentle nights. Peace is in the gentle touch of a child's hand, and in the joy of an elderly smile. Peace is something that is within all of us, but it may be so covered with the clutter of old hurts and new worries that we can't find it anymore.
I would like for each of us to take a few minutes, just a few, in a quiet place. Take in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Do it again - as many times as you think you need to. Here is the question for you to ponder: what are YOU doing to bring peace to the world?
There goes the good that those deep breaths did, right? What are YOU doing? What am I doing - I'm just trying to get along here!
The question isn't an easy one to answer - if it is, you aren't really answering it. On the other hand, it is very easy to answer - don't overthink it.
Does your mind turn to the injustices that you have experienced or are experiencing? Acknowledge those thoughts and set them aside. Your list of grievances doesn't answer the question.
The question is what are you doing to bring peace?
Do you feel overwhelmed? You are just one person and have no opportunity or skill to bring peace! Don't overthink it - each of us has it within us to bring peace - even if it is just a little bit - because peace is within us and there is plenty to share.
Don't think you are worth anything so how could you possibly have anything to offer? Turn those voices OFF. Now! You are worth a lot - and God knows it and will tell you, if you can stop listening to all the voices telling you that you aren't (and there are a lot of those, I know). And there is peace within you with plenty to share.
Can't figure out what God wants you to do - that was my issue, until I listened to God saying to me, "You are right where I put you." Stop worrying and feel the peace that is within you.
Peace is within each of us, and there is plenty to share.
Listen the next time you hear news that makes you angry. Does it make sense? Is it possible that the "news" you are hearing is intended to make you angry and afraid? Fear is not peaceful. Turn it off.
Does violence bring peace? Or just more violence? Put the guns away (securely).
Does meanness make you feel peaceful? Might feel good for a hot second, but in the still quiet of your mind is "mean" the person you want to be?
Do you really need that new car, diamond jewelry, beer, scotch, walk-in bathtub (OK, you might need that), upgraded phone with unlimited data? Or do you have enough? Don't get me started on those nature-destroying off road trucks - do we really need to drive trucks up the side of a mountain? Wouldn't it be better to walk up that mountain and listen to the quiet and sit with nature? A farm visitor last week talked about "forest bathing." I love that.
Does it make you feel peaceful to know that people a few streets over don't have enough to eat? That they are struggling to get along because of their partner, their skin color, or their parentage? Does it make you feel peaceful (think about it) to know that your kids are not being taught a complete history of the world and their place in it? There is peace within you, if you'll just find it, and there is plenty to share.
Would it make you feel peaceful to smile at someone at the grocery store? Would you rest well knowing that you didn't spread COVID today? Could you offer some help to someone? Could you write to your elected representative and advocate for justice for someone other than yourself? There is peace within you, and it is a renewable resource.
I think that power destroys our peace, and we give power away so easily. We give it to advertisers who convince us that we aren't complete until we have whatever it is they are paid to sell. We give it to elected representatives who lie to us to get themselves reelected. We give it to church leaders, who hold on to power and influence by telling us that we are sinners and unworthy of God's love.
These people have an agenda, and it is not God's agenda, God created each of us - EACH OF US - in God's image. Yes, we sin - but do we really think God can't handle our imperfections? God loves us! God does not separate Godself from us - we separate ourselves from God, and there is no peace in that.
We can't be peaceful until we are all at peace. The songs we sing at Christmas about peace are lovely, and we love to sing them because for as long as the song lasts, we can pretend that the birth of Christ was a peaceful event. Then the song ends, and we are back to sniping at each other. Maybe if we practice being peaceful - because I really do believe that peace is in each of us - we can learn to be that way, for real.
There is another song: "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."
Start small. Breathe. Think. Practice. Do it again. Let peace begin with you. The world doesn't want you to, but God does, and it is worth it.
The peace of Christmas is the peace that comes with knowing God. It has been within you all along.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)
Take a few minutes and listen to this rendition of John Rutter's arrangement of A Gaelic Blessing. Breathe.
In this Advent season, I wish you peace.
If you would like to read last year's post about peace, you will find it here. If peace is elusive because you are angry or hurt by someone, you might find the post about forgiveness helpful. You can find it here.
Gaelic blessing. deep-peace-with-ct-river-valley-linda-feinberg.jpg (900×713) (fineartamerica.com). Accessed December 6, 2021
Seuss, Dr. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Random House, 1957.