The last time i preached a sermon on the 23rd Psalm, it was rotten. To those who heard it, it was probably just bland and forgettable, but to me, upon reflection, it went nowhere, and offered little good news. It was years ago and i don’t even remember what it said, so why am i sure that it was a crummy sermon?
Because even now, when i reflect on peace, it is a broad and sweeping ideal that covers everything from lying on a beach with an umbrella drink (yes, please) to ending the conflict in the Middle East (also yes please). Sort of difficult to get from one of those places to the other, don’t you think? That shepherd leading me beside still waters shows me all sorts of peaceful dwelling places, but i’ll be darned if i can draw a coherent thought or image from them to places of violence and natural disaster.
The beach, or an end to war. One is sabbath, and one is the kingdom of God. One is only about me and my personal comfort, and the other encompasses God’s vision for all creation. I get the disparity. Thing is, one of those images is within my grasp. And the other seems utterly unattainable, not to mention beyond my control.
But here’s what those two places/visions have in common. They are both elsewhere. The beach and beverage that come to mind for me–when i am in the dentist chair, as i juggle 2 screaming children, or balancing work and home, overwhelmed by details–peace is the “other” place, having nothing to do with my current context. Peace is later and gone, totally disconnected from the time and place to which God has called me.
And when we imagine a world without war–well, that seems like a pretty “other” sort of vision, as well. Beyond our realm of experience or reason, just someplace we desperately hope to live someday.
So while the quiet, lovely beach and the conflict-free world are worlds away (from us, and from each other) each points to a common misconception about peace that perhaps keeps us, eternally, from being peaceful people. As long as we believe peace to be elsewhere, then it remains circumstantial. A beach with noone to bother us or intrude on our space; or a world in which people have finally decided that nothing–not oil, not skin color, not geography, not even religion–is worth destroying another human life: each of those “peaceful dwelling” places depend upon some outside factors.
I think what the Lord, our shepherd, would have us know is this: peace is not dependent upon our surroundings. Peace is not a result of our circumstances but often a defiance of them.
Peace, to a western, suburban mom means something very different than it does to a mom living in south Chicago–or the Middle East, or Libya, or, or, or… Could I speak with a mother of young children in any of those war-torn places and teach her how to find the peace of Christ in her heart? Please. i think not. (though i know many churches/pastors who would try… and might kidnap their children to be raised in the u.s. while they’re at it. Haiti, anyone?)
Peace is not an American commodity. Neither is peace an elsewhere. But here is what i would say to those mothers of elsewhere: that the God living in my heart lives also in hers; and that, despite the horror of her surroundings, the still waters of the soul are hers for the taking, every bit as they are mine. I pray that God will bring a real and literal peace to the global family–quickly and soon–all the while trusting that the God of peace lives and moves, even in the chaos, speaking a word of comfort and radical, mysterious hope to the war-torn and the fearful.
Where does that lead us, good shepherd? I ask this every day, and the best i can figure is here: Hoping against all odds and circumstance that our God can break through human will and settle the dispute of the world…yet believing, even in the midst of the chaos, in the still waters that restore the human soul. This is our call, our prayer, our burden and our truth. I think Nichole Nordeman says it best:
“So grant us peace, Jesus grant us peace,
move our hearts to hear a single beat
between alibis and enemies tonight.
Or maybe not. Not today.
Peace might be another world away,
and if that’s the case,
We’ll give thanks to you, with gratitude,
for lessons learned in how to trust in you,
That we are blessed beyond what we could ever dream
in abundance or in need,
And if you never grant us peace.
(But Jesus, would you please…”)