For the last week I have tried to keep my ears and my heart open as people have spoken about the word peace in my hearing. It is not that I was asking them to define the term for me. Instead, it was a matter of different people talking about their concern for peace from different points of view. Some of the voices and opinions about peace came to me by way of the news media. Some of the voices came from the world of entertainment. Others came from people with whom I was in conversation who were talking with me about the word peace.
Here are some of the opinions and points of view about peace that came to me just this week. There was a story in The New York Times about a doctor from the Central African Republic who left his country to study medicine in France. After several decades as a physician and researcher, the article said “he decided to leave the peace and security of his life in France in order to bring much-needed medical care to the people of his homeland.” In this case, peace was a physical location and an economic position that guaranteed happiness and security. Is that what the angels meant when they spoke of “peace on earth”?
A second reference to the word peace that I encountered this week occurred when an evacuee from New Orleans sat in my office and said with a heavy sigh that more than anything else, he wanted some peace. For this person, peace involved the end of the emotional upheaval that tens of thousands of displaced persons from that city still feel to this day. Peace would be a sense of once again feeling settled in some permanent home and knowing that their lives will eventually be restored to some order and normalcy. The peace desired by the man from New Orleans was not that much different from what the man from France had given up in returning home to Africa. One man was in search of peace and the other man had given it up, but was either man experiencing what the angels intended in the skies over Bethlehem?
Another reference to peace came to mind when I read the words of a person who had come out of a 20-year addiction to heroin. When attempting to explain why his addiction lasted so long and why his attraction to that drug was so powerful, he said, “heroin gave me a little bit of peace for a short period of time.” That person is not alone; our nation and the world are crowded with people whose only way to soothe their spirits and calm their troubled minds is an over-reliance on drugs or alcohol.
Then there are the words from “Ma Dear” in The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which Peggy and I watched again on Friday night. Cicely Tyson was talking about the words “Peace, be still” that Jesus spoke to the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee. Ma Dear reached into her purse and took out her hand gun and remarked that if you want to have some “peace be still” you better get yourself a “piece of steel.” There are a great many people who seem to feel more at peace when they are carrying a gun. Is that what the angels had in mind on the night that Christ was born?
All of these references concern the same word: peace. Is peace found by moving to a location that affords a quality of life that insulates a person from risk and danger as with the African physician? Is peace a state of mind, a deep assurance that life is slowly being restored to order as with the evacuee from New Orleans? Is peace the buzz, the high, the altered state of mind that comes to addicts and alcoholics once they have greatly indulged in their drug of choice? Is peace the reassurance of a pistol in your purse or a gun in the glove box of your car? Is peace a political arrangement established by people who represent different nations in a series of events we commonly refer to as “a peace process”? Are any of these comments or conditions an accurate reflection of what the angels had in mind when they serenaded the city of Bethlehem with the promise of peace on earth on that night when Christ was born?
What do you and I mean when we employ the word peace? There are several things I know for sure that tell me that none of these earlier discussions of peace is entirely true. Let me suggest several things about peace. First, peace comes only from God, and nothing else of this world can offer the peace promised by the angels. Second, peace cannot be experienced by a single person or by a certain group of persons if, at the same time, it is being denied or withheld from others. Peace is as much between us as it is within us. Finally, the peace I want to see in the world must first be made alive in my own life. I cannot wait for peace to break out somewhere else; peace must begin with me!
Consider these aspects of peace one-by-one. First, the peace promised by God cannot be acquired through any of the countless consumer items of our materialistic society. Peace cannot be purchased, it cannot be charged with a credit card, it cannot be worn, it cannot be eaten, it cannot be driven and it cannot be hung in a closet or stored on a shelf or stashed in a safe deposit box. If the peace of God does not dwell in your heart, it cannot be found anywhere else. Too many people in our society are searching for peace in the shopping mall. They think if they can just make one more purchase and acquire one more possession, they will reach a state of contentment.
Are you one of those shop-a-holics who places shopping and buying and material things above everything else? There was a story in yesterday’s Plain Dealer about a woman who was told by her husband that he would leave her if she did not stop so much shopping. Her response was, “Lord, I sure am going to miss that man.” That person was convinced that nothing could replace the thrill and satisfaction that comes from buying some new, desirable item. Peace does not come out of your closet, your wallet, your refrigerator or your garage. If peace does not come out of your heart, it will not come into your life at all.
Peace is the certain knowledge that everything we have been told about God is true and certain. I have peace in times of crisis because I know “the Lord will make a way somehow.” I have peace in the time of death because I know “when the earthly house we live in shall be destroyed, we have another building, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” I have peace in times of temptation because I know God who will “keep me from falling.”
Peace is our deeply held conviction that wars will stop not when one army defeats another but rather when all armies “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooksÉand study war no more.” In other words, peace comes as I rely less and less on the things of this world and rely more and more on the promises of God. That is why Isaiah 26:3(NKJV) can declare, “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you.”
Peace is not limited or reserved for those times in life when everything is in perfect order. Peace is not the absence of tension or hardship; peace is the presence of tranquility within you in the midst of whatever storms may be raging around you. Peace is not a guarantor that every day will be easy and smooth. Instead, peace is the fruit of the spirit that blossoms in our souls and reminds us that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we can fear no evil because God is with us.
Living with a spirit of peace in the midst of the storms of life is what Herman Melville was describing in the character of the harpooner in his novel Moby Dick. Melville portrays all of the characters on the whaling vessel busy at work as they seek out the great whale that has become the obsession of Captain Ahab. Everybody on board is furiously at work except one, the harpooner. The harpooner is sitting still and undisturbed. The harpooner is not caught up in the frenzy that involves a ship sailing through a storm to catch up to and then kill a giant whale. Instead, says Melville, “The harpooner sits in tranquility and rises with a sense of calm to do his work.” The storm and the fury are going on all around him, but the harpooner is able to maintain a sense of tranquility and calm that allows him to do his job.
That is what peace looks like: tranquility and calm in the midst of the storms of life that allow you to get on with your life and do what needs to be done. That kind of peace does not come from anything this world can provide. That kind of peace comes only from God and, more precisely, from our relationship with God.
Peace is not only my inward conviction that God will sustain me in the midst of all of life’s crises but must also be a shared state of well-being enjoyed by all people. I cannot live in peace in a vacuum. My household cannot attempt to be at peace while those who live across the street or around the corner or on the other side of the world still find their world in chaos and torment. In other words, peace cannot simply be within us; peace must also exist between us. If you and I are out of fellowship with one another, then I cannot be at peace no matter what I possess or what I know. If my actions bring hurt or harm or humiliation to another human being, then I cannot be at peace because I have caused the distress of someone else.
That is the lesson this country and this world have to keep learning over and over again. There can be no peace as a nation if we seek to hurt, harm and/or humiliate other nations. We cannot increase our sense of peace by waging war on others.
Is there anybody in your life with whom you ought to be in fellowship but instead you are not on speaking terms? Are you trying to have peace in your life while there is trouble in your relationships with family, friends and co-workers? I say again, there can be no peace within us until there is peace between us. That is what Christ came to make possible: reconciliation among us. Christ came to give us the power to make peace among ourselves. We can speak the words of forgiveness. We can allow a person who has failed us once to walk on the path of second chances. Our lives will be so much richer and our burdens will be so much lighter when we set aside those things that stand between us and those who are closest to us. There can be no peace within us until there is peace between us.
The promise of the angel of Bethlehem was for “peace on earth.” That does not mean prosperity for us and grinding poverty everywhere else in the world. That does not mean that some people have access to medical care while millions cannot afford to see a doctor. Peace can never be fully enjoyed by some when it is being denied or withheld or made unavailable or unaffordable for so many others. Whatever the angels were announcing that day in Bethlehem, they wanted all of the people on the earth to fully share in its benefits.
Finally, if peace is ever going to occur on the earth, we cannot wait for somebody else to make the first move; peace must begin with us. We must initiate the action and tell someone, “I am sorry.” We must go first and tell someone, “I forgive you.” We must lead the way, set the good example and start doing in our own lives those things we would hope to see others do some day. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “We must be the change we hope to see in others.” If there is going to be peace on earth, then I have to be willing to initiate the action that can bring about that peace. The world will not be substantively changed if all of us simply wait for somebody else to make the first move. Peace must begin with us.
Now remember that we are not making the first move in the process of peace; God has already done that in Bethlehem. God did not wait for us to get ourselves together before He entered into human affairs. Paul says, “While we were still sinning” Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8). That verse can be translated in a verbal form so that the word “sinning” is emphasized as an ongoing act. Or it can be translated in a noun form so that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly.” Either way, God was not waiting for us to make the first move. God initiated the peace treaty and waited for us to respond. God has already made the first move; now all we have to do is respond in that spirit toward one another.
There was a member of our church who we had approached about 15 years ago to join the deacon board. That person declined our invitation because, as he put it, “I am not through sinning yet.” We did not pursue any of the specifics of the issue in an attempt to find out what further sins he needed more time to perform. We simply took him at his word. As strange as that story may sound to you, that person is exactly the kind of person God is after. God seeks us while we are still sinners. God seeks us while we are still sinning. God goes first and then invites us to respond to what He has already done.
I have a friend named Wayne Snodgrass who has the most unusual message on his telephone answering machine. The message says: “This is Pastor Snodgrass. Now, you say something.” In other words, he has made the first move, and the next move is up to the person on the other end of the phone. He has said all he is going to say; now the burden shifts to the other person. That is what God did for us in the Incarnation; God showed up in the person of Jesus Christ as if to say, “This is God. Now you say something. I have done My part. Now you do something. I have made the first move. Now you move in response to what I have already done.”
That is how peace is made; somebody has to make the first move. A holy God made peace with a sinful world by coming in the person of Jesus Christ and taking away the burden of our sins. Now that same God looks to each one of us and expects us to respond. Make the first move and invite somebody else to respond. Reach out over some wall of division and challenge somebody to reach back in forgiveness and love. Do not stand by and wait for someone else to make the first move. Follow the example of my friend: “This is Pastor Snodgrass. Now you say something.”
You do something. You give something. You change something. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!