Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’
Comfort and Joy by Kristin Hannah, Ballentine Books, 2005, 237 pp.
Comfort and Joy is pure fun. I grabbed it from the pile to read on an airplane, and it was simply perfect. Nothing too deep, but a fabulous story told well, with likable characters that you want to find happiness and they do. There’s heartbreak and redemption and heartbreak again, and a bit of magic thrown in too.
The central character is narrator Joy Faith Candellaro, a simple school librarian from Bakersfield whose whole life falls apart when she discovers her husband and her sister are having an affair. The story begins as she anticipates her first Christmas alone. On a whim, unable to face the bleakness of a holiday with no family, she buys a ticket on a charter flight to the Pacific Northwest without telling anyone where she was going or even that she was leaving town.
Things don’t go as expected, and Joy finds herself the only guest at a closed inn. Her only companions are a boy, Bobby, and his father, Daniel. The boy’s mother has recently died, and his father has returned after their separation to close down the inn and move Bobby to Boston to live with him. Joy and Bobby become companions in their separate griefs, and they help one another heal through the holidays.
However, all is not as it seems, and just when Joy believes she has found a new and happy life, everything falls apart and she must return home to make peace with her life in Bakersfield. I can’t say more without giving away too much, but do not despair–the book lives up to its name. There is Comfort and Joy at the end of the story.
This book is a light and quick read, perfect for an airplane or a snowy afternoon. Get yourself some cocoa or hot tea and snuggle in for the smiles.
The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder. Zondervan, 2009, 151 pp.
I’ll start with a confession of prejudice: Zondervan makes me nervous. They publish mostly materials from a more conservative theological position, and I often find their titles to be interesting at first, but disappointing or downright offensive upon closer examination. If Zondervan makes you nervous too, fear not. The Advent Conspiracy is the real deal. While you won’t find a progressive theology or inclusive language, you will find solid theology and biblical interpretation, alongside a commitment to overcoming consumerism and responding with compassion to the crisis of poverty.
The Advent Conspiracy starts in a familiar place: the feeling that consumerism has robbed Christmas of its sacred purpose. However, rather than just passionately insisting that we remember “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the authors address the real pressures we all face around secular Christmas traditions, and invite us to practical, challenging steps to reshaping our experience of the season. They do not suggest we can easily accommodate Jesus in our otherwise secular celebrations, and they refuse to make peace with consumerism.
Consumerism requires our consciences to stay detached from the moral consequences of our purchases. We buy without thinking beyond the price and the promise of a newer, better self. Yet we ought not to deceive ourselves: this is a religion, and this is worship. (26)
In response, they issue four short instructions, in four short chapters: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All. The chapter on Worship Fully looks at what we truly worship versus what we say we worship, and looks at Mary (including the radical Magnificat), Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Men as examples of worship. The Spend Less section encourages us to look at all our spending and see if it is true to what we say we believe. It is not about avoiding spending, it is about being more intentional and spending on things that matter. They quote C.S. Lewis:
I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. (61)
The chapter on Give More encourages us not just to give to charity, but to give better and more thoughtfully when we give gifts to those we love. They discuss giving relationally–gifts that are costly (not necessarily in dollars), honor the recipient and relationship. No more cheap junk to fulfill an obligation. Finally, the Love All section turns toward giving for the poor. It encourages all Christians to honor the God who came to live among the poor by showing a real and lasting commitment to serving the poor in the world today, especially highlighting a water project in which the authors are deeply invested.
The book has an accompanying DVD series, and a lesson plan for each chapter at the back. We offered it as a series at my church, but it was hastily organized and lightly attended. I would like to do it again, and do it better. This is a great resource, and I encourage more churches to make use of it.
In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
My spiritual personality is suited to the season of my birth. Like Advent, my spirit dwells more in the realm of possibility and promise than in the here and now. I pray in a state of anticipation, connecting to the God of the Prophets who promises justice, righteousness and peace. My spiritual gifts in ministry involve imagination, vision and leadership—helping people come together for a journey to an unknown place.
I wonder if the season of my birth is what gives me this Advent heart.
Many millions of people for many thousands of years have believed in the Zodiac, claiming that the alignment of the stars at your birth portends your character and your future. Could the same thing be true for those of us steeped in Christian tradition? Is the season of our birth like a Zodiac sign for our spiritual self?
Imagine what traits and gifts each sign might inherit.
Advent: Those born in Advent come into this world with a deep longing that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. Their relationship with God is not about fulfilling that longing, which is a beloved companion, but about knowing that God shares their yearning for a better world.
Favorite Hymns: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; For the Healing of the Nations; God of Grace and God of Glory
Favorite Scriptures: All the prophets, major and minor
Christmas: This is the shortest season, and those born in these twelve short days are always about incarnation. They are connected to the earth and the world, and see God’s mystery and beauty in ordinary, unexpected places. They are creators and builders, organizers and caregivers.
Favorite Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth, O Little Town of Bethlehem
Favorite Scriptures: Creation stories
Epiphany: Epiphany’s child is born with a sense of wonder and delight that follows them throughout their lives. They see God’s manifestation everywhere, and radiate with a bright passion for the presence of God in our midst. Their relationship with God is filled with a sense of mystery and discovery, always finding God’s new appearances in their midst.
Favorite Hymns: Arise! Your Light Has Come; Be Thou My Vision
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus’ teaching and ministry
Lent: Those born in Lent have a lifelong passion for God’s grace and redemption. They are not gloomy and guilt-ridden, but they have a profound grasp of the pain of sin and suffering. Consequently, they have boundless grace for sinners and endless compassion for any soul who suffers.
Favorite Hymns: Just as I am, Amazing Grace
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus healing and forgiving sins
Easter: Easter people possess enormous zest for life. They are survivors who can overcome any challenge, and embrace change and newness with great energy and excitement. They excel at make-overs, turnarounds and renewals, confident of God’s power to change anything for the good.
Favorite Hymns: God’s Eye is on the Sparrow; In the Garden; There is a Balm in Gilead
Favorite Scriptures: Stories of conversion, resurrection and transformation (Lazarus, Damascus Road, Jesus casting out demons)
Pentecost is a long season, united always by the attention to the Holy Spirit. However, there may be wide differences between those born closest to Pentecost and those born later in Ordinary Time.
Early Pentecost: Those born closest to the day of Pentecost show the fire and flair of the Spirit in all things. They are dramatic souls who prize a burning passion for God above all else in their faith life. They are often talkative and extroverted, with a contagious energy that draws others in to see the Spirit at work.
Favorite Hymn: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee; I Love to Tell the Story; How Great Thou Art
Favorite Scriptures: Any dramatic miracles (Pentecost, crossing the Red Sea, battle of Jericho)
Mid-Pentecost: People born in the middle of the Pentecost season are concerned about the presence of the Spirit in everyday life. They are pragmatic in their spirituality, and view their faith as a lifelong journey, taken one day at a time. They value unity, community and connectedness above all else, and they can point out the Spirit’s presence in the ordinary life of the church.
Favorite Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation; Blest Be the Tie That Binds; Great is Thy Faithfulness
Favorite Scriptures: Epistles
Late Pentecost: Those born in late Pentecost see the Spirit’s presence in the whole journey of history from creation to redemption to culmination in “thy kingdom come.” They emphasize the eternity of God and the promise of life after death. They see themselves as just one generation in a long line of God’s faithful, taking spiritual strength from those who have gone before and those who will come after them.
Favorite Hymn: Forward through Ages; O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Favorite Scriptures: Apocalyptic Literature, Heroes of the Bible
This is my imagination. What’s yours? Does this connect to your spiritual life? Are you drawn to one of those types, and does it match the season of your birth? What would you add? What’s your sign?
The first stop on my sabbatical journey was my hometown, Virginia Beach, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, where my parents and J’s mother and our closest friends still reside. My sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmother are all close by as well. As a child, we always gathered for big family celebrations at every holiday.
Since I became a pastor, I’ve missed all the holidays, and all those gatherings. Christmas and Easter (and the school breaks that accompany them) are the busiest times of my year, and the times that my presence here at church is most important. Sometimes it’s possible to slip away for Thanksgiving, but only if we’re back on Saturday—and Virginia Beach is more than 650 miles away, too far to go for just a two-day trip.
Once or twice, before B was born, J and I tried to travel home on Christmas Day, after Christmas Eve duties were done. The last time we tried it was nine years ago, when we both scheduled 6:00 a.m. flights on Christmas Day (from separate cities across the country, but that’s another story). I made it to Virginia by noon, having slept for two hours in my office between the end of the midnight service and a 4:00 a.m. trip to the airport. J’s flight hit a computer glitch, and he arrived at 1:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, having spent all of Christmas Day alone in the Cincinnati airport. We were both exhausted and miserable, and it took days to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t ever want to go through that again, much less risk putting a child through it, so we haven’t been home for a holiday since.
This year, however, my sabbatical made all the difference, and we decided to give it a try. Christmas Day was a Sunday, so there was no talk of departing for the two-day drive any sooner than December 26. We had hoped to make it out before dawn, but J was sick and I was too exhausted from all the Christmas services. We straggled into his mother’s house on the evening of the 27th. After dinner, I felt this strange compulsion. I couldn’t wait any longer—I just wanted to get home, to my parent’s house, the house where I was raised and celebrated every Christmas until I was 23 and left for seminary. Even after a two-day, 13-hour drive, even through a raging storm of wind and hail, I piled B into the car and headed five more miles across town.
I felt the tears creeping into the corners of my eyes as soon as I walked in the door, but it was the Christmas tree that really brought on the joy at being home, and the sense of loss after years of absence. The tree is covered with memories: the angel my best friend gave me in seventh grade; the Brillo-pad bird’s nest I made in art class when I was eight; the baby Jesus in a walnut shell from fifth grade Sunday School; the pair of little girl carolers representing my sister and I; the Snoopy with reindeer antlers that has hung on the bottom branches of my parents’ tree since before I was born.
My son, celebrating his fifth Christmas, had never seen any of these things that meant so much to me, and it felt like such an gift to introduce him to the Christmas things from my childhood. B touched the various ornaments I made when I was not much older than he was, and it was as if he had a tactile, real connection to me as a child. He marveled to think that I made things in school and Sunday school just like he does. And Snoopy with reindeer antlers made him giggle with glee, just like I always do.
The tree was also an aching reminder of how much I’d missed all these years. “Mom, you have a fake tree? You always have a real tree!” “We’ve had this one for five years, and we’re about ready to replace it.” “Dad, where is the cuckoo clock ornament? It always goes right here up top.” “Oh, that’s been gone for a long time—ten years or so. Probably broke or something.” I realized I am now a stranger to my family’s Christmas habits.
All over the house, my mother had carefully arranged nativity sets. When I was growing up, we never had a nativity set. I finally purchased one for my mother at an art show about 15 years ago. Now she has them all over the house, a dozen or more. She had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take B on a tour of each one. “Mom, when did you get all these? I’ve never seen these before.” “Ever since you gave me that first one, I loved it so much I began collecting a new one every year since.” “How did I not know this?” “Because you never come home.”
Instead of the usual defensiveness—“You know I can’t come home. I’m a pastor. I have to work on Christmas.”—I was overcome by what I had missed. There was a moment of grief for all the holiday memories that we do not share, all the family gatherings that did not include me. Even this year, all the family gatherings had already passed by the time we arrived. There was a pain in my heart for the ways that B will never know those kind of big family celebrations, though we often have one set of grandparents or another visit us.
Even more, I felt a sadness and an appreciation for what my family has given up in order for me to live into my pastoral vocation. My parents (and J’s) will never have all their children and grandchildren at home for Christmas, to gather together around the tree of memories.
I love being a pastor. I love spending every Christmas and Easter so thoroughly immersed in the work of leading worship that I cannot get away. The sacrifice feels small when compared with the joy of my vocation—I am absent from my family to be present to the church. I wonder, though, about the rest of my family, who have the absence without the presence to something else.
Going home for Christmas felt bittersweet. It was such a blessing to have a rare chance to be with family for the holidays, and to introduce B to Christmas traditions from home. It was also a reminder of all that we miss every other year.
I am discovering that sabbatical itself is a glimpse of the road not taken. This time apart from pastoral responsibilities shows me what life might have been like without this unique vocation of pastoral ministry. I am glad of my chosen road, and I have no regrets or desire to change paths. Yet there is a painful poignancy to discovering another way of life, a different rhythm, a life not lived. There would be other sorrows and hardships on that road, too, but there would also have been other joys.
I didn’t have the time to post a sermon sapling early in the week, so this is a copy of my final manuscript. However, I did not read from the manuscript in the pulpit, so the sermon as delivered can be found here.
B has been seeing the ads for a new Disney movie for weeks, broadcast during morning cartoons aimed at a preschool audience, and he had been begging us to see it. The movie is called Santa Paws, and the previews show an array of adorable scenes of talking dogs and singing children and Santa Claus. The only way to see the movie was to buy the DVD, and we were reluctant to spend the $20. But his grandparents visited this week, and, well, you know how that goes.
So we gathered to watch Santa Paws together. What we wanted, what we expected, was a cute story about talking dogs and Christmas, about Santa’s love for a particular puppy, and a little bit of Christmas magic. What we got was a rather maudlin story about a family business going under, the death of a beloved grandfather, abused orphans locked in basements, a Santa with amnesia who ends up nearly dying in the ICU, and the talking dog dies not once, but twice in the movie. Of course, it is a kids’ movie, so everything turns out alright in the end. The dog saves Santa, Santa saves the dog, the family business turns a profit and the orphans find a warm and loving home. But 85% of the movie is one disaster after another in the lives of the characters—it just keeps getting worse and worse as the movie goes on. Poor B was fearful and tense and sad for 75 minutes of a 90 minute film. As the talking dog dies the first time, he turns to me and says, “I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.”
That’s exactly my sentiment about the Gospel story this week. I made a commitment to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year schedule of readings for worship, that began the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t want to break that commitment on week 5, but “I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.”
Just the night before last, we gathered in such beauty and sang carols and held candles. We celebrated the birth of a baby with angels and shepherds and glorias. Now, less than two days later, the lectionary confronts us with the slaughter of the innocents. Jesus and his family are refugees, running for their lives from an evil dictator set on murder. Instead of learning to coo and laugh and roll over and sit up, the Baby Jesus is running for his life to Egypt. We wanted adorable sheep and quiet donkeys, and we get soldiers and murderers and refugees.
“I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.” Yet one story follows another.
But those things always co-exist in Christmas stories. It’s not just Santa Paws. It’s a Wonderful Life is about a suicide attempt. A Charlie Brown Christmas is about a depressed kid who gets no Christmas cards or presents. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is about misfit toys and misfit elves and misfit reindeer rejected by the North Pole community, running away and lost in the snow. Even Frosty the Snowman lives under constant threat of death by melting.
I even considered trying to get away from this story by celebrating St. Stephen’s day, a major feast day and holiday in many Catholic countries, but then we’d just end up talking about St. Stephen, whose major claim to fame was that he was the first martyr, stoned to death for following Jesus Christ.
So the story of Christ’s beautiful birth stands side-by-side with the slaughter of the innocents. The baby Jesus is born homeless, and immediately they try to murder him. His family turns into refugees as they flee the angry King Herod. They leave everything behind, not returning from Bethlehem to Nazareth to fetch Joseph’s carpentry tools or introduce the baby to his grandparents or say goodbye to their families. This is part of the Christmas story, as much as the sweetly singing angels are a part of the Christmas story. As much as abused orphans and dying dogs are a part of Santa Paws.
We want to hold on to the beauty of the manger, the candlelight and the serenity of “Silent Night,” but the real world interrupts with its violence and messiness and struggles. Because Jesus didn’t come for Christmas beauty, Jesus came for the real world.
As much as we all enjoy the beauty of Christmas Eve, Jesus didn’t come to give us a glorious night of singing and prayer and praise. Jesus came to topple empires and threaten earthly kingdoms. It’s no wonder that his trouble with the authorities started at such an early age. He came to overturn the tables in the temple, to speak challenge to the Pharisees, to call people back to God. He came for tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. He came for orphans locked in basements and patients in the ICU, for those who are grieving and heartbroken and lost and afraid. He came to give hope to the poor and justice to the oppressed. Jesus came to die on the cross. And if you have come into this world to be so disruptive that they are going to try to kill you, you’d better expect it will start as soon as word gets out that you were born.
It may not be what we thought it would be like, but I suspect God knew all along that this is what it would be like. If God came to redeem sinners, to live in the real world with us, then that’s just where God had to go.
What does it mean for us? It means that we need not cling to Christmas memories as our only light and hope. Because God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, comes to live in the real world, not just in the perfect places. We need not fear the disruption of arrogant kings or violent forces or brokenness and imperfection or illness and sorrow, or even just the every doldrums of real world life. Because that is exactly the real world that Jesus came inhabit, and came to save.
We need not fear a return to the real world—because, even more than in the beauty and pageantry of Christmas Eve or the serenity of the nativity, the real world is where Jesus dwells. The real world is what Jesus came to save. Thanks be to God.
Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.
I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.
Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.
This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.
So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.
In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.
Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.
When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)
No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.
This is a new (what I hope will be weekly) feature on the blog–an initial reaction and some opening thoughts on this week’s lectionary passages, in preparation for preaching on Sunday. For more info, see About My Blog.
Opening Thoughts on Advent
We treat Lent as the great season of abstinence, self-examination and spiritual discipline in preparation to cleanse ourselves for Easter, asking God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. Advent, on the other hand, has become a season for carols and decorations and pageants, as though we are preparing for a party rather than the disruptive presence of God. I think Advent should be more like Lent. I don’t mean dour and deprived, but I do mean a time of heightened intentionality and spiritual attunement. In Lent, we examine our souls and our behaviors and ask God to make us righteous again. In Advent, I think we are challenged to examine our cynicism and closed-mindedness and ask God to make us visionary again. The scriptures of the lectionary during the Advent season present some of the most compelling visions of peace, hope, love and joy in the whole Bible. Advent urges us to dream bigger, open ourselves to more possibilities, and to raise our expectations for what we can do and what God can do. My sermon series this year will focus on digging deeper into those traditional Advent themes of peace, hope, joy and love, and challenging us to pray for them in a more meaningful and considered fashion, with faith that God will answer our cries.
Advent I: Praying for Peace
People use the phrase “peace on earth” with abandon this time of year. It comes directly from Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announce that he comes to bring “peace on earth, good will to all.” From the beginning, then, Christmas has been tied to the promise of peace on earth.
But I think our thoughts and even our prayers on the subject are puny at best. In fact, they seem to be more like letters to Santa than petitions to God.
“Dear Santa-God, I’ve been very good this year. Please bring me a new bike, a new car, an X-box 360, those cool jeans I saw at Abercrombie, and an i-tunes gift card. That is all. Oh yeah, and peace on earth.”
It’s as though we use our prayers for peace on earth at Christmas to assuage our guilty conscience. The frenzy of consumerism and desire for worldly things seizes us particularly tight in the days between Black Friday and New Years Day sales. We recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness of all this spending on things that we may want but probably don’t need, and we feel guilty about it. We pray for peace on earth and try to give a bit extra to those in need this season, so we can feel better about all the money we spend on ourselves.
Perhaps that is a little too cynical. I think most of us go for something more like this:
“Dear Santa-God, who makes wishes come true and everybody happy, I don’t want anything for myself. All I really want for Christmas this year is peace on earth.”
There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this kind of prayer, but it just seems so weak to me. The only image I can conjure for “peace on earth” is a Coca-cola commercial with lots of little kids of different hues holding hands and singing. That’s nice and all, but not exactly powerful. It’s certainly not going to bring a stop to the decade-old United States wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not going to stay the violent hand lashing out in anger at an innocent child. It’s not going to free the woman held captive to an abusive husband. It’s not going to make a suicide bomber stand down and stop making bombs.
And we all know it. Which is what bothers me. We all know that these prayers for peace are pathetic and weak. But we don’t really know what to do about it—so we just keep praying with the angels, for “peace on earth, good will to all.”
God is better than that. Our prayers should be worthy of God’s true power, God’s true longing for peace and the depth of brokenness in our human condition.
Peace, true peace, is not about wishes come true and smiling children and a contented, happy people. True peace is risky, uneasy, fragile, vulnerable, and challenging to all our contentedness. It requires courage and probably will make people unhappy. After all, war usually makes some people happy at the expense of making others miserable—I figure peace is probably going to make those victors lose some ground and leave them feeling displaced and discontented.
Isaiah and the Psalmist in this week’s readings—they really knew how to pray for peace on earth. In the Psalmist, I hear pleading, almost begging: “For the sake of my relatives and friends, I say: ‘peace be with you.’” That sounds like the kind of prayer that might be uttered by the spouse or parent of one of our soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone. Or even by the family of one of our enemies—terrorists have families too.
Isaiah takes it even further. He puts flesh on his prayer. He asks God to serve as judge between the nations, rather than allowing the victors of the war to set the rules and make the judgments. This is where the unhappiness comes in, as those victors see their privileges disappearing. He paints a picture of what peace looks like, in which human beings take their weapons of war and melt them down into tools for growing things. Swords into plows, spears into pruning hooks.
Behind both of these prayers, the thing that makes them so powerful is the absolute confidence that God can make that peace possible. It is the absolute conviction of the person praying that peace—no matter how fractious and uncomfortable—is what God wants, and what God’s followers want.
Can we pray with such conviction for peace on earth? What does a hearty prayer for peace really look like? Dare we pray for our armies and those of the terrorists to lay down their weapons? With the passion of the Psalmist and the specificity of vision of Isaiah, can we move beyond a generic “peace on earth” and start praying for a concrete vision of peace, with sacrifice? Are we willing to give up some comfort and even some happiness in exchange for peace? Will we let God’s peace reign in the world, knowing it may disrupt our way of life? Will we let God in, so peace is possible?