Week three of our study of the fruit of the Spirit. The first was love, the second joy and now peace. Truth be told, I don’t feel qualified to speak on any of these topics, but because we as Christians are sort of a work in progress, I will. At some point in my life I’ve made God proud by embodying one or more of these characteristics, and I plod through life the rest of the time making Baby Jesus cry. Or so I’m told.
Peace is a hot topic for our society right now. A majority of people in the United States want peace in the Middle East. They want us out of Iraq and away from Iran. I think most people would admit they want peace in Palestine, peace in Darfur, peace in Tibet, and the list could go on and on.
But there is no peace in the Middle East, there is not even peace between our Congress and our President. The media offers us little hope for peace in warring African countries or even hope for peaceful race relations here in America. Not to mention peace between religions (here or abroad) or even denominations for that matter. And with political issues other than war, we still cannot co-exist peacefully with our differences. Just yesterday here in Austin a bomb was planted in a woman’s health facility where abortions are performed. Thankfully, it was discovered and disarmed before it could usher in more chaos and more violence into our community. Last week I received a text message asking me if I was staying inside. My initial reaction was, hell yeah I’m inside. It’s 7am! I’m inside and in my bed! But as I reached for my computer to figure out what this text message was about, I discovered that 5 miles away from where I live there had been a standoff between police and a man with a 16 year old hostage that was 12 hours running and still counting. They evacuated everyone on the block and moved neighbors to a local grade school where class had been cancelled due to the shootings and housed hostage. Violence, violence everywhere.
And with dismay, I am reminded that peace does not reign triumphant here.
But then I see a child at church share a toy instead of selfishly keeping it for herself, and I am encouraged. I see adults compromise in committee meetings, and set up rules to ensure that everyone is heard and peaceful discussion can take place. I see the sun rise after the rain, I see the budding flowers begin to open despite the frost, and I watched my sunburn go away. Some things naturally heal themselves and peace prevails. I see my cat snuggle next up to my dog and I am reminded that someday the lion will lay down with the lamb, the Sunni will eat with the Shi’ite, the Tutsi and Hutus will live together and the Sudanese people will walk the streets with each other. Someday there will be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for we will all be one in Christ Jesus.
We all want peace, but sometimes our selfishness denies peaceful living to others. It is at this point that we beseech the Prince of Peace to help us live out loving our neighbor, peacefully. Peace never means war or hate or dehumanizing others or destroying villages or discrimination. Peace means living contented with our neighbor despite our differences. Perhaps even because of our differences for all good comes from God and it is God who said upon creating humanity, “This, this is very good.”
But there’s another side of peace too isn’t there? The peace that is within us, not peace that reigns externally between nations or people, but the peace that wants to reign in our hearts. Unrest, insecurity, worry and angst are all indicators that we are not living in peace. When we are at war with ourselves, sometimes this proves to be the most difficult battle to fight. But like every war, we fight for freedom. We want to feel free; we want to be right with ourselves, right with the world, right with God, right with each other. We want peace in our hearts.
One of the first Bible verses I ever memorized was Philippians 4:6. “Don’t worry about anything, instead pray about everything. Tell God your needs and don’t forget to thank him for his answers.” A very nice verse about prayer (which I don’t understand), but which apparently proves an easy enough to summarize in one small verse. I took in the simple words and the seemingly simple theme and tried hard to practice them in my life. When I was in high school however, I was really into memorizing scripture. I would write out whole passages and memorize them. At one point I looked at Philippians 4:6 and for the first time read the verse after it. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” the NRSV reads and then it continues with this, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That one verse became revolutionary in my life. All of the sudden prayer didn’t just exist to help me get what I wanted in life, rather, it existed to bring my soul peace. So when relationships fail, I pray to be guarded by the peace of Christ. When jobs are lost, my friends are hurting, when fear pulls into the front lines of my heart, I pray for peace. I pray that peace will guard me, protect me, enable me to resist the unrest and carry on in prayer.
I’ll never forget the afternoon of my ordination council meeting. I was running around opening doors, getting water, greeting ordained ministers, worrying about whether I would pass or fail, whether these people would see my faith story or deny my experiences as unworthy for the cloth. I remember dashing from one place to the next in the hallway outside of the office when I ran into Suzii Paynter. “Peace be with you,” she said to me and like a reflex I said to her, “and also with you.” I started to leave and she grabbed me by the shoulders. “Peace be with you.” I smile with guilt recognizing my hastiness and worrisome attitude, said “thank you” to her and again began to leave. But little Suzii Paynter has very strong arms and she held me fast. “Peace be with you she said.” I stared at her, not understanding. “Peace be with you.” I closed my eyes. I felt my shoulders drop, my heart melt and my mind wind slowly down. “Peace be with you,” and in that moment, I felt the peace of Christ come upon me, to guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I realized the importance of living in the moment and living in peace. I stopped being a Martha, and began to be a Mary. And the peace of Christ came upon me.
It is hard to find that on our own. It is hard to be at peace with ourselves. I’m always second guessing myself, feeling guilty, worrying about life. It’s hard to live in a way that always eases my mind and my heart with peace assuring me I have made all the right decisions, lived in the right way. Black and white, black and white.
But sometimes the peace of Christ comes when nothing is right, nothing is black and white and we live in a world of greys and grieving and questions and laments. It is in those moments when we feel prayer has failed us, God abandoned us, our friends misunderstood us, and the world hated us that we are called to live with the peace of Christ. Love abounds in the midst of hate. Joy abides in the midst of tragedy and peace presides even when chaos has the upper hand. “And the peace of God which transcends all understanding…” When nothing makes since and we choose to let ourselves be free, free to live with questions and pain, but to live with peace, “the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.”
Peace be with you.
Beresheth FBC Austin
April 26, 2007