Peace. What a tricky word! What is peace? What do people imagine when they speak of world peace? I’m sure much of the desires and imaginations of peace would be for the wars and killing to stop. For there to be no more children abused by pastors, priests, and family members. For the sex trafficking to no longer be a business and the porn industry to dry up financially. For those who are hungry and thirsty to be fed and have clean water. On and on this list could go, and these are all parts of my prayer when I pray for peace.
This advent week of peace, I want to remind us of what we know of peace from the story of God, which is in agreement with our desires listed above, but it’s more. The biblical concept of shalom (the Hebrew word for peace) is much broader and more intimate than the common understanding of peace understood as “the absence of conflict or pain.”
The Old Testament has over 200 occurrences of the word shalom, and it has come to be defined in the broad sense of the definition, as not just peace as “the absence of conflict,” but universal wholeness, well-being, justice, or peace with justice. In other words, as the philosopher Cornelius Plantinga Jr. has articulated, shalom (peace) is “the way things are supposed to be” as created by God (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 1996).
Plantinga says this as he speaks about what Old Testament prophets/authors would have dreamed of when thinking about peace:
“They dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would straighten out. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise made humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would bloom, the mountains would run with wine, people would stop weeping and be able to sleep without a weapon under their pillow. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. A lamb could lie down with a wolf because the wolf had lost its appetite. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder. All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, lean toward God, and delight in God. Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from women in streets and from men at sea.” (taken from an online article by Plantinga; http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Pantinga.pdf)
If this is true, then for there to be shalom (or at least more glimpses of it) there must be a confrontation with ourselves and the world views that we live by that need to be challenged, or that challenge the imagination which Plantinga articulates above. We all want the world to look a certain way, and we all have our opinions and judgements, but few of us live our lives in line with our opinions and do not want to be judged with the same standards of judgements by which we judge others. It’s the degree of separation between what we believe and how we live.
So really, peace begins with us, by asking ourselves, “What kind of people do we need to be in order to resist the destruction that our prejudices and judgements create? What are the virtues of true peace? Am I starving to be peaceable with peace and to be peaceable with God, ourselves, and the non-human creation?”
In the New Testament, James the letter of James) speaks of peaceableness as a key ingredient to the wisdom from above: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18, NASB)
To be peaceful is to be full of good fruit and to be absent of hypocrisy. This is a tall order. I admit, I’m a terrible peacemaker, but maybe it’s the admission of our hypocrisy that creates the beginning of peace.
Listen to the words of Jesus in Mark 9:50: “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” To be at peace with others, true peace, is to be salty and useful, to inspect ourselves, and to admit where we are not useful or have become twisted in our thinking/views.
Later on in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says something that stirs the pot and moves us into more questions: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51) What’s Jesus doing here? Is he contradicting himself? I thought one of His names was “Prince of Peace”?
Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the One who says often, “Peace be with you”, knows that for true peace to be made, there must be a stirring, a realization that we are not alright and all right. Peaceableness then, must entail bringing to light that which we ourselves want to corruptly keep hidden… this will cause division and anger within ourselves, but peace will prevail… eventually.
This is where shalom breaks beautifully into this discussion. Shalom is one of those words that we learn what it means the more we see/realize the absence of it, like we do today when looking at all the headlines. The world is longing for shalom and we are all saying “Enough!”, but we are all saying “Enough!” to different ideologies. Where shalom is absent, we begin to grieve the way things are supposed to be and then, if we are able to critique even our own beliefs, we will receive a new set of lenses with which to view and interpret life because of our newly interpreted experiences.
To be peaceable is to be shalomic, displaying the way things were supposed to be when God created the heavens and the earth and all of the life that inhabits planet earth. Where shalom is absent, we are called to move into those places to display and model it, to be peaceable, not quarrelsome. To learn the discipline of living in the tension of disagreements and bringing light to those who are not at peace. To be able to navigate difficult friendships, networks, differing political parties and beliefs, even how to behave in the midst of eminent danger. However, being a presence of peace will often disturb first. It’s like turning on really bright lights in a dark room when people are sleeping or just waking up; angry shouts are hurled at the one who turned the lights on.
But here’s the thing, we all have different cries of “Enough!” which means we are going to rally around something that pisses off another person or group of people. What do we do then? Well, if our cry of “Enough!” is really because of the loss of shalom, then compassion and humility towards those we differ from will (ought) to be present. The problem is, many of our “Enoughs!” are because our personal narrative of how things are supposed to be, and they have taken over. Social scientists would label this as a “self-serving bias.”
A self-serving bias could be explained as our tendency was humans to have a superior view of our social desires. We tend to view ourselves as more humble, or ethical, or skilled and tolerant than others. In short, we are really good at justifying our thoughts and behaviors because they are better, or more superior than others. This helps us “mis-remember” our pasts and interpret them through more of a rose colored lens, as we numb ourselves from all the memories of our failures and self-centered behaviors.
To use a Christianese term, this is called “self-righteousness,” or “pride,” which is the root of all sin and the most deadly of the seven sins. This is why it’s easy for the Pharisee to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not as bad as that sinner over there!”, and then you and I say to ourselves (quietly of course), “Lord thank you I am not like that arrogant Pharisee. Darn self-serving biases… this corrupts our relationships with one another.
Our cries of “Enough!”, if they are really for peace, would not be rooted in our self-serving biases, but in humility and driven by compassion and a desire to listen, which doesn’t mean you have to change your conviction. What it does mean is that you’ll be more open to celebrating diversity and will understand that if Jesus were among us today, he wouldn’t champion everything you champion, he wouldn’t vote Republican or Democrat, etc.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, most of our lack of shalom is not because of most of the headlines on the news, but because of our unwillingness to step outside of our own world views, humble ourselves, and admit that we are part of the problem, that we are actually shalom breakers. What a thought!? Most of us can’t resolve marital conflict or conflict at work with a mean boss or annoying coworker. Our desire to see wars end and gun violence disappear and terrorism be eradicated is good, but we need to look inward and take care of business at home, within our own hearts and minds, and commit to release that which is opposite of peace in us; contentiousness.
In the book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger say this about contentiousness: “Like a parasite living on a host, contentiousness feeds on rage and rancor, antipathy and animosity, to fan the fire of discord and accelerate the spiral of violence.” (214)
Peace happens when we wage war on that which is evil inside of us, and this can only happen when we realize how we’ve neglected the parts of our lives that have waged war on shalom. This includes our relationships with God, people, ourselves, food (and how we grow and consume it), what we buy and how much of it we buy, who we’re friends with, and who we neglect. If you’re up for the challenge, add to the list what you’ve been courageous enough to observe in your own life.
Peaceable people look for non-violent ways to address conflict, although I do not believe this means that there is never violent ways to deal with evil. Peaceable people don’t deal with others in stereotypes or labels, rather they seek to know people beyond hot topic issues. Peaceable people expose false world views of consumerism and materialism not by loud arguments but by their lives of simplicity and contentment. Peaceable people know when to say enough. Peaceable people are essential oils to the soul of humanity and culture. Peaceable people seek peace with God, themselves, people and the non-human creation with equal fervor.
And this is why Jesus came. This is why advent is necessary every year, to remind us of the call to be the change we want in our own lives by first embracing Jesus as the only means to truly eradicate evil and bring about shalom. Jesus, who is himself peace, came to undo our messes and wars and to grant freedom for the captives, forgiveness for the sinners, and peace to the broken and contrite in heart. His presence brought and brings peace because he is the Prince of Peace.
Advent for those who truly love the advent season, is birthed from a cry of “Enough!” and a longing for the Prince of Peace to have mercy on them, and in turn, create in them a heart to be peaceable people in the world, as agents of reconciliation and peace. No, this is not a euphoric view of peace, this is peace rooted in the story of God, which has the power to make new life from death, to make the tomb become a womb.
As I close out this post, I am reminded of a newer song by the band Switchfoot entitled “The World You Want.” The bridge of the song reminds us that our lives are always saying something and they have a great impact on life as we know it:
You start to look like what you believe
You float through time like a stream
If the waters of time are made up by you and I
If you change the world for you, you change it for me
What you say is your religion
How you say it’s your religion
Who you love is your religion
How you love is your religion
All your science, your religion
All your hatred, your religion
All your wars are your religion
Every breath is your religion yea
Is this the world you want?
You’re making it
Every day you’re alive
Have you ever seen a “missing person” report on an old milk carton or hung up in the front of a local grocery store? I have all kinds of emotions that pop up when I see them, and think of that child or adult, who’s missing… lost, and I wonder:
What are they thinking? What’s happened to them since they’ve been lost? Are they alive and happy somewhere, or alive and suffering? Are they even alive? Is there family at home grieving over the loss of their presence, their smile? Are they still looking for them, or have they given up?
And the more I think about missing people, I think about the season of my life when I’ve been a missing person, right here in my normal, everyday self, when the only person who’s been kidnapped is my identity. Then I ask myself those same questions:
What am I thinking right now? What’s happened to me since I’ve been lost? Is this what living really is like? Is this happiness? Am I even really alive in the truest sense? Does anybody care that I’ve been missing? And does anybody care if I’m found, or will they even recognize me when I show up again?
Over the last 15(+) years I’ve built relationships with people in such a way as to be a friend to people who are longing to have/find a voice, to be heard, to vent, and to offer freedom to those trying to figure life out. I can say that I’ve really learned a lot over the years, and have heard lots of longings and doubts, fears and confusion, loss and pain.
Every single person, in their own way, are incomplete, just like me, trying to find out who we really are what life’s really all about… and in this journey of life, there’s a lot of relational wreckage in my life, and in those of my friends’ lives as well.
Missing person. Incomplete. Where will I find myself? But as Switchfoot poetically puts it, the real question we should be asking ourselves is: “Where will I lose myself?”. Check out their song “Incomplete”:
He’s washing face to start his day
He’s lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely
Nothing in the mirror ever shows him what’s within
Now he’s checking out the faces
On the back of the milk
He’s sour under all this pressure
He thinks the missing person looks an awful lot like him
And he starts his engine
But he knows he’s missing gears
Where will you find yourself?
Where will you find yourself?
Where will you lose yourself?
‘Cause you’re the missing person now
Step outside your doubt
And let yourself be found!
He’s sick of the race just to save face
He’s tied and tried, he’s sick and tired
He’s tired of the holes that are keeping him incomplete
He’ll push the pedal to the floor
Like the day before
He’s trying to be always trying
Try to find an end to justify his means
We all long to be complete. To be found and feel safe and sound. The problem is, we often try to feel complete within a system that has us running off fumes. The rat race. “The pace of life is full, busy, and hopefully, one of these days,” we say to ourselves, “I will find my purpose or be noticed during one of my busy activities, then I’ll feel complete and the burn out of life will be worth it.”
We don’t have to keep saving face. We can step out of the race, out of the system that tells us what it looks like to “succeed”. We don’t have to keep pushing till we drop, and lose or miss all that we already have. As missing people who try to find themselves in what they do, we will miss the people who truly love us now. We will miss our kids, maybe lose our spouse, and hurt those we love most. It’s not worth it. Take your foot off the pedal, slow down, and smell the flowers that are closest by you.
There’s freedom when we take our eyes off the systems and place them on the person, Jesus. The luggage-free savior who isn’t owned or managed by anyone. The problem is, this system, or the systems we’ve created, have squeezed out the very person who helps us find ourselves by losing ourselves.
Losing, or cutting off the baggage that comes with whatever it is we’re trying to protect. It could be Christianity or your faith (or lack there of) of choice, it could be your lifestyle, your job, your “significant other”, or your faith community. Jesus isn’t owned by any of those things or people.
Jesus doesn’t come with the baggage of their history. Jesus rises above the entities, circles, and teams, and clearly makes known, there’s no team that can contain him. He’s complete, and our incompleteness melts away to the degree that we walk in his direction.
Where will you find yourself? It’s where and when you’re willing to lose yourself, to cut out all the lines you’ve drawn and the circles you’ve joined, and realize, Jesus isn’t following you. Crazy thought, huh? Jesus isn’t following us. He’s inviting us to follow him. This is where life is found, not in right belief, or in a well-ordered life, but in a life pursuing Jesus. This is where we really find ourselves and can offer ourselves to people in a ways that give life.
Jesus is the beginning of all that is good, and he cares about missing people, and longs for them to be found.
I have finally arrived at the last song of Switchfoot’s first album, which by the way was recorded, start to finish, in just three weeks. Pretty impressive for a few young amateur musicians who didn’t know all the boundaries that “professional” music was supposed to have. This last song entitled “Don’t Be There” a poetic piece that was written about a relationship that was changing as they grew apart from each other. The beauty of this song, in my opinion, is the honesty of emotion in the midst of change, pain, and confusion.
Don’t be there
‘Cause I’m on my way
And I’m already gone over
And I’m on my way
And I can’t recall myself
How I went down
Did I get shot
Or shoot myself
I’m down here
And you’re way up there
But that doesn’t hurt badly
But it stings right here
And I won’t pretend there’s
You be around and I’ll be square
Don’t be alarmed if I’m not there
You be around and I’ll be square
If you’re a rose
Then I’m the thorn
That’s in your side
And does it hurt badly
‘Cause it burns right here
I’d like to say hello
I’d like to say I care
I’d like to let you know
That nothing here’s the same with me
Nothing here’s the same
Don’t be around
Don’t be there
Oh the freedom to be able to express emotion and to process pain. This seems to be something in our day and age that is numbed by food, technology, or other forms of busyness. Some people get mad when asked, “How are you feeling?” Many people want to just be left alone, and I can understand that, but there is something that is missed when we are able to grieve and process in loss in community. We all love community, but when it comes to painful personal things, we close up; we resist the purest expression of community. Processing loss and pain out loud allows us to break down barriers in ourselves and others so there is room for one another, and for difference, and discomfort, and growth.
So go ahead, try it. What are you going through that you’ve given yourself freedom to be concealed to those you’re close to? Open up to safe people. Give it a shot. Let others walk with you, maybe even say the wrong thing and offend you. It will only serve to heal you and mature you, as you welcome the joy of community and the power of being weak and vulnerable.
This song title is apparently written for a friend of theirs when they were younger, named Willis Chin. I’m sure we could speculate much more about this song, the title, and other things we’d never really know unless we sat down with the band. But that’s not the point of some songs, and I think this song fits in that category, of having a deeper and more liberal meaning (liberal meaning generous, not politically liberal). It’s a great song with questions we’d all be better for if we spent time intentionally answering them in our own lives. Here’s the lyrics:
What’s your direction?
Tell me what’s wrong, tell me what’s right
What’s your direction?
Think about somebody else for the night
Life’s more than girls
God’s more than words
You’re more than this
So what’s your direction?
And where are you now?
Grow, grow where you are
Anchor your roots underneath
Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs
What’s your direction?
What matters most?
What should you know?
What’s your direction
All that you’ve been
Makes who you are now
‘Cause I’ve been ashamed
I’ve been a fool
You know I’ve backed down
When I lose direction I pray to be found
Grow, grow where you are
Anchor your roots underneath
Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs
Now some would read this song and question the health of telling someone to “grow where you are,” especially if you are planted in bad soil, or in a place with little sun and water is scarce. Growth won’t happen there. I agree. To me, this song is challenging us to root ourselves. Be known. Don’t close off and isolate yourself. To grow is to be planted and rooted. In a culture where transient people and communities aren’t rare, rooting yourself somewhere is one of the ways we are going to get back to communal life that is restorative and actually makes a difference in a local context. Healthy global change can never happen if we never focus locally.
Be who you are locally, today. Wrestle out what you believe and what matters most in life. Think critically. Challenge what you do and ask why you do it. Understand what shapes you and how your habits are formed. Culture is not neutral in the sense that it is shaping people and communities all the time. Beliefs and exposed in marketing, grocery shopping, and church going or not. We are always being shaped.
What are you being shaped by? What’s forming your habits and thoughts? Who you running with? Who knows you? Who should know you? Who do you know? The doubts you have…. doubt them and be honest about your doubts. The beliefs you have… believe them and don’t be ashamed of those beliefs. To be a good friend is not to agree about everything. It’s to be who you really are and being honest about that. The best, most intimate friendships are those who are honest with who they are now and the beliefs and doubts they have, even about each other.
Jean Vanier (Canadian Catholic philosopher turned theologian, humanitarian, author, and founder of L’Arche Communities) has some of the best thoughts on community, belonging, being known, and knowing.
This is difficult stuff. Stuff I struggle with all the time, but I’m committed to wrestling it out. Believing what I believe about God, the gospel, life, and sin without shame. Doubting elements of truth that have been shaped more by my own interpretation or other people’s interpretation of a truth. Doubting interpretations of truth is not saying there is not truth… but it is embracing that many truths are twisted and construed throughout history, and getting back to the root of many truths takes much doubting and at the end, an embracing of mystery and faith.
So what’s your direction? What matters most to you? What are you willing to die for? Where have you lost your direction? Wherever you are, you can ask to be found, and you will be found.