Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Way of Peace


“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78–79)

Years ago a soldier who had fought in the trenches in France in the First World War explained how one Christmas a truce was made for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A British soldier broke the quietness of Christmas Eve night as he began to sing a familiar Christmas carol. Then, across the way, a soldier from Germany familiar with the hymn joined in, singing in German. The two voices beautifully harmonized.

Early on Christmas morning, some British soldiers climbed out of their trenches into no man’s land carrying a football. Even in war, the British took their teapots and their footballs. It wasn’t long before some German soldiers had joined them. Right in the middle of the bloody battlefield in France they kicked that ball around and had a pick up game.

But then, the next morning the carnage began again, with machine gun fire and bayonet fighting. In the words of the storyteller, “Everything was back to normal.”

That’s a telling phrase isn’t it? Everything was back to normal. The peace of the kind that the Messiah brings offers us a different kind of normal, a new way forward. The way of Christ breaks upon us with the hope of a new normal. We need more than a magical feeling or a mere pause in the fighting and killing that is our normal.

The Messiah-Jesus embodied a new normal and calls us to follow. One large obstacle we must overcome to make progress on the way of peace is that of a religious, political, social, or communal life driven by fear and exclusion. It is a great temptation because it offers some immediate rewards. It can give one a sense of being in control, of feeling superior and having secure boundaries.

A religion or politics of fear and exclusion can give us a kind of false peace. I think Jesus was talking about this when he said on one occasion: “I did not come to bring peace, but division.” That sounds like a contradiction. But what Jesus is talking about is dismantling our false sense of peace—peace based on our supposed exceptionalism or superiority.

This is one of the most difficult roadblocks to peace because it is the ultimate disguise. It allows us to feel good about our enmity. It allows us to be exclusionary and mean-spirited without any guilt because we tell ourselves we are doing it for God or country. We convince ourselves that we are standing on the moral high ground. We become just like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” This is what psychologist Scott Peck called, “People of the Lie.”

If we are to make progress on the path of peace we need to be liberated from the fears and insecurities that drive this need to condemn or control others and to realize that we are all God’s beloved children. We are each one loved with an eternal love and are all sisters and brothers in the same family.

Progress in the way of peace also requires a firm conviction that we can evolve and change. Too often we lock people up in ready made judgments that do not give them room to become something different.  

There are many factors that impact our capacity to evolve: our circumstances in life, the way we are socialized into our families and communities, our natural gifts, inclinations, and capacities, the love we receive or fail to receive from others, these along with many other uncontrollable factors affect our readiness to change and our receptiveness toward God’s grace.

Not every relationship that is shattered can be restored. But forgiveness can occur if we work at it. A woman said to her pastor, “My ex-husband has done everything he can to make my life miserable—before and after the divorce. I am so eaten up with anger and bitterness that it has affected my health. The only thing left for me to do is forgive and forget him and hope to God that I’ll be done with him and he will be done with me, so that I can get on with my life.”

Given the many ways we can hurt one another, maybe that’s the best we can do sometimes. But I believe that growth is possible for all of us on some level, no matter how much the odds are against us. We are not all in the same place on the spiritual journey. But we can all change. Not at the same rate. Not in the same way. Not to the same depth. But we all can become more than we are now.

Critical to our progress along the way of peace is our commitment to the nonviolent, compassionate, inclusive way of Jesus. It’s a commitment we must reaffirm everyday. We must, each day, say “yes” to the way of Christ in the world, even on those days when it seems foolish or irrelevant, or even after we have failed miserably and can barely pick ourselves up.

Sometimes we have to rest for a while to replenish our energy. Sometimes we lose our way and we have to find the path again. Sometimes the wind and the rain make traveling difficult. Sometimes we fall into misfortune and we have to take some time to be healed and restock our supplies for the journey. But we keep going. We stay on the path. 

There was a small Jewish town, far off the main roads of the land. But it had all the municipal institutions: a bathhouse, a hospital, and a law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen—tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons. One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker.

In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down, and ignore them altogether. There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran, they should not be abandoned. So they wound their clocks day after day though they knew they were not accurate.

One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks. But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running—the abandoned clocks had grown too rusty.

It’s important to keep winding the clocks, to stay on the path, to keep pursuing the way of peace and practicing the principles that make for peace, just as Jesus our guide did all the way to the cross. 

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