When we think of Peace we think of quiet, stillness, perfection. I can’t count the number of men I’ve met in the last six years who have said to me some version of, “If heaven is all about eternal peace…I don’t think I’m interested. I’ll screw it up, or it’ll be boring.” Inevitably, strangely, these have also been men who promote the theological notion that God wants nothing more than “our surrender to God’s will.” So for these people, God requires them to deny themselves and everything about who they are, so that they can hope to achieve something that….they aren’t interested in? It’s an interesting conflict. From my standpoint, it’s the kind of theological conflict we come to when we fail to reflect on the totality of our human experience. If God just wants our surrender, why do have free will? If heaven is undesirable and boring–or can be ruined by someone’s manly impulses–then what could possibly be the point? If Peace requires total tranquility and perfect conditions…then why do we refer to a 1st Century Jewish teacher who was violently put to death at the hands of the government as “The Prince of Peace?”
At what point did we start using “Peace” and “Total absence of conflict” interchangeably? Certainly it began–like so many aspects of our faith tradition–after Jesus. Because Jesus somehow found a way of saying, “Peace be with you,” (John 20:18), and “I come not to bring Peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10: 34). Whatever this gift of God is, it somehow exists within and despite the tumultuous world which we inhabit. The Pax Romana is how we refer to the 200 years of “peace time” in the Roman Empire, when there were virtually no large military campaigns. If this “peace time” across the globe were somehow the same as God’s Peace, then the world would have returned to a Paradise about 50 years before Jesus was even born. We need to rethink our assumptions about Peace…what it means…what it promises. Fortunately, we have another divinely-inspired gift to help us do just that. It’s called Discernment.
The name of this blog changed for the 15th or 16th time a few months ago. It changed to “Discernment On…”; the idea was that each blog post would be me discerning (meaning to elicit the meaning of) a particular concept or issue. The reason for this is that I have discovered a new sense of awe and wonder from the practice of Christian Discernment. It has to do with what I found in a particular story from the Bible:
Acts 1: 12-26…Jesus had 12 Disciples, but now they were only eleven. Jesus had been crucified, and a few days later, these remaining followers–having lost their brother Judas, the one who betrayed Christ, and then took his own life–had experienced Jesus’ Rescurrection. After Judas’ passing, they desired a twelfth witness…not just a witness to the resurection, but a witness to all of what Jesus had done–from his Baptism through his Resurrection–so they drew lots to decide between two candidates: Joseph, AKA Barsabbas…AKA”Justus” (why all the aliases, “Joseph”??) and Matthias. They ended up choosing Matthias. I honestly don’t know if we end up hearing more about him later (there’s a non-canonical writing called the Acts of Andrew and Matthias?). So why is there an entire story in the Bible about choosing this replacement of Judas who we never hear about again? Is EVERYONE bored by this entire last paragraph?????
I think it’s about to get interesting. Hang in there.
What I believe this story teaches us, what I have taken away from it, and why I think it is so important….is that the act of discernment should be rooted in reconciliation…or the desire to be made whole. There were 12 Disciples in order to represent the 12 Tribes of Israel. There had to be 12. Losing Judas wasn’t just the loss of a friend…it was the loss of an identity. In order to understand themselves and what would be required of them next, the Disciples–who were now known as Apostles–required a twelfth member…to be made whole.
How we discern should lead toward being restored, reconciled, reconnected to our God.
I believe, this is where Peace lies. The very Peace we celebrate and wait for during this time of expectation…I believe it is only found in reconciliation with our Creator. Where we get into trouble, I think, is believing that being restored–whether in this life or the one beyond–is a state of being that doesn’t require conflict. Is our longing for Peace a longing for being One with the Creator, or is our culture just so conflict-averse that our only way of imagining God’s Peace is to desire a space that is entirely devoid of conflict? I bring you Good News and…less great news. The Good News is that restoration, or oneness with the Creator of All Things, is a gift that is readily available to you. Right now. The not so great news is…it won’t save you from conflict…it gracefully guides you in how to manage conflict.
I played the alto sax in the school band from 5th-12th grade. I was never a good band member. I practiced regularly (for awhile), and I learned the practical lessons required to match the notes on the page with the ones I played through my instrument (for the most part). But I was never very good at appreciating my place in the band. I wanted solos, I wanted to take the lead…there were many pieces we would play that involved 32 or 64 measures of REST for the alto saxes…it drove me insane. I could never pull back far enough to appreciate that the piece we were creating was so much more grand and important than my part. I took no joy in resting, in waiting, in listening and appreciating the gifts of all the other parts around me. I would get agitated…impatient…and it occurs to me that I’ve lived a lot of my adult life in this same fashion. Not that I always want to solo…but I have been rather impatient and agitated and frustrated and increasingly distraught over life’s imperfections–which are so much bigger than simple, little me–and I have failed to pull back…failed to see the entirety of what is being created…which means I have not been playing my part as well as I could. My favorite band teacher said to us often, “If you don’t know how to play your part, I’d rather you play nothing at all.”
If you receive all your information about the world through the Internet–or other forms of mass media culture–then you are (probably rightfully) convinced that the world is a disaster…a constant source of stress and heartache. But if you consider yourself a Christian…then the next time something internet-worthy outrageous happens (as I type this, law enforcement is searching for the murderers who shot 20 people in San Bernardino)…it is your call to remember that our faith tradition truly began with 12 of Jesus’ closest friends declaring, “Jesus’ violent death is NOT THE END of the story!” The First Christians were living in direct opposition to a violent and hopeless world by embodying the Peace and Hope they had learned from Jesus himself. They took care of one another, they prayed and studied scripture, they ate meals together. And somehow this way of being in the world was so offensive to the powers of the world that the Apostles were regularly hauled into court and threatened with murder. But despite the threats, they didn’t cave. Because their chosen way of life…which was known as “The Way of Life”…was better than what they perceived as “The Way of Death.” In Christ’s resurrection, they discovered a “Peace which surpasses all understanding,” (Philippians 4:7), which caused them to live in greater conflict with the world around them….not less. A world without conflict is a world without movement or progress…and if there’s one thing we collectively believe about our Creator God, it is that every day is an example of our God on the move. Conflict is required for a physical universe to exist. How we respond to that conflict, however…that is a decision completely up to us…a decision probably rooted in our concept of Peace. If the Peace you are waiting for requires a static, violence-free world in which to exist…keep waiting. If you are preparing for God’s Peace, which allows us to creatively manage and transform conflict into movement…then heaven is at your fingertips.
Process Theologian Marjorie Suchoki has said, “Heaven is a harmony of diversity.” This is a beautiful and enchanting phrase–especially if you are a passionate lover of God’s diverse creation, like myself–but what does it actually mean? What would this kind of heaven look/sound like? I asked my friend Travis that question a few years ago, and he sent me back a video of him at the piano, demonstrating how each of the 88 keys of a piano create a unique sound…and the closer the keys on the piano, the more dissonant or “blech” the combined sounds become. As the keys get farther away from one another, they are more likely to sound nice…and by adding other sounds to them (thirds and fifths) the dissonance is resolved into chords…which builds harmony, melody, movement. To say that Heaven is a “harmony of diversity” is to find a way for unique sounds to strike one another, and allow room for more notes to strike in concert with them. The difference between harsh noise and beautiful music is simply coordination, inclusion, and managing the unique entities in a way that the rising conflict creates music rather than violence. This, I believe is where God’s Peace resides…in a space that is beyond our understanding…where conflict is turned into movement.
Music is nothing more than coordinated vibrations through the air. When terrible things happen in the world, the dissonant vibrations strike inside ourselves…they cause pain, anxiety…the vibrations of the world’s imperfections can strike fear in us which causes anger, violence, more fear. More often than not, when we talk about Peace, we are looking for ways of avoiding these disruptions to our lives. Friends, that is not the Peace offered from God. God does not avoid…God transforms. I do not believe God created a world of cause and effect, trial and error, conflict and movement, just so that we could all sit around and wait to be removed from it. What if, when we encounter dissonant noises in our world, we did not seek to avoid them…but we took action to learn how to resolve such noise into God’s “harmony of diversity?”
If your concept of peace encourages you to ignore the suffering of others…it is not Peace. If your concept of peace eases your own anxiety about climate change while allowing you to contribute to it…then it is not Peace. If your concept of peace depends on your ability to possess firearms, if your sense of serenity requires you to feel confident in your ability to have dominance and control over others, if your way of coping with life’s troubles leads to apathetic “what can you do,” shoulder shrugs…then it is not Peace. We need to learn that God’s Peace does not culminate in surrender and apathy, but in Resolution and Love.
God’s Peace surpasses all understanding…which is why it can–and does–exist in a physical universe that is driven by conflict, change, evolution, expansion. God doesn’t promise us a break from the onslaught of dissonant vibrations we feel in this broken world. God does, however, offer a “harmony of diversity,” to those who are willing to be struck…for those who are able to play their part…for those who know when to rest and when to sing out. Thanks be to God.