Dear God, grant me the peace that exceeds my puny ability to be calm in the storm. Remind me to inhale your grace and exhale a little breeze of compassion and understanding into this broken world – even when I’d rather throw a temper tantrum. Shake me gently to reboot my reason so things are put back into proper perspective. Clear the fog from my eyes so I can see the way you want me to go. Be my spiritual GPS and clean the prejudices from my ears so I can hear you whisper “all is well.” Pour the balm of Gilead on my dis-ease. Take my hand and help me walk in faith on the tempestuous waters of my weary world. When I am ready to push the panic button, tap me on the shoulder and remind me to look in the back of the boat where the true captain of my soul is sleeping in heavenly peace. Amen
Nothing confronts us humans more with the deep mystery of life than our own awareness of our mortality. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” By contrast one of my favorite and most challenging Scripture texts is this one in Luke 2 when Jesus is 8 days old:
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
I confess I am more like Woody than Simeon, and life and death are full of countless examples of those opposing approaches to the grave. Dylan Thomas famously said,
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Contrast that with Elijah passing his mantel on to Elisha and ascending into the clouds. In my own family we witnessed the stark difference between my mother-in-law who was content and peaceful as her last days approached and my father who fought against the inevitable as long as he could.
I’m not sure what to make of this, but I think the clue to contentment is found in Simeon’s surrender when he says, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation…” Simeon had accomplished his life’s purpose. He was looking forward to Israel’s consolation and believed God’s promise that he would not taste death until that purpose had been fulfilled.
What is the purpose of how we spend the dash between our date of birth and date of death? That’s a question all of us must wrestle with ourselves. We can ask God’s guidance and seek the counsel of wise mentors, but ultimately the choice is ours. What shall we live for? Are we human beings or human doings? Do we spend our lives in pursuit of things that do not satisfy our souls? Are we so caught up if making a living that we fail to make a significant life?
Since this is Super Bowl weekend let me share this analogy. Even casual football fans know that football time is not real clock time. The final minutes and seconds of a game can fly by or they can drag on forever depending on which team is ahead and who has the ball. If my team is behind they will do everything they can to stop the clock after every play – run out of bounds, spike the ball, call a time out, fake an injury, challenge a call, etc. Many a football widow knows how long it can be from the 2 minute warning till the final gun.
But if the team with the ball is ahead the exact opposite strategy is employed. They will run the ball so the clock keeps ticking after the play. They will stay inbounds; they will run the play clock almost down to zero on each play to use up as many seconds as possible before snapping the ball.
What’s the difference in these two scenarios? Team A is desperate to score again because they have not achieved their purpose which is to win the game. Team B is content to let the end come ASAP because they are ahead – they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished their mission.
What does the scoreboard of your life say? Are you ahead or behind? Are you accomplishing your purpose or still striving to get to the goal line? I’ll be going to two funerals this week- one of the deceased was in her 80’s, the other just 50. Both dedicated their lives to helping others in personal and professional ways. Both were people of vision and compassion. One slipped gradually toward death over several months, but the other died suddenly leaving many of us again to wonder why.
I simply do not know. Maybe someday I will see clearly what is now only a dim reflection in a foggy mirror. But this much I do know, both Judy and Joe have left a hole in the human fabric; and it is part of my purpose and yours to pick up their mantle. The world will little note nor long remember who wins Super Bowl LIII, but if we want to win the game of life and be content to depart in peace whenever our time comes, we must all trust in God’s promise and make our game plan congruent with God’s will.
Advent is a season of waiting – not waiting for Christmas, but for Christ to come again. We wait and hope for a Savior to come into a world hungering for peace. We wait for God to set us free from the cares of the world that keep us awake at night. We long for a life that is calm and bright.
But sometimes we look for peace in all the wrong places, or we give up looking at all. We feel trapped in jobs that frustrate us, in classes that seem useless, in negative habits that do not serve us well. We confuse peace with comfort and security.
God’s peaceful kingdom is not anything the world can give us. It is a gift to those who know where to seek it, who follow the right star and listen to the angels instead of King Herod. God’s presence does not spare us from life’s problems, but is a peace of mind available everywhere in any of life’s circumstances if we make room for Christ.
And so today we light the second candle of Advent, the candle of peace, to remind ourselves to prepare while we wait for the Prince of Peace.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
O Holy one who comes to set the captives free, we confess that for too long we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned by guilt, shame, fear, anger or hopelessness. We have put our trust in things that thieves can steal and rust can consume, and we are always disappointed. Our souls long for peace, but we have been led astray by false prophets of prosperity. We pity ourselves because of adversity and expect peace to just be provided for us. Speak to us again in the stories and songs of Advent. Come Emmanuel, be with us here and now and help us trust you enough that we can give up our foolish pursuits and find true peace that only comes when we are at home in your kingdom. Amen
There are several versions of this parable, but here’s one I like because of its brevity: “Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
That story reminds me of a very helpful mantra for meditation I learned when I took an excellent on-line course called “Peace Ambassador Training” sponsored by the Shift Network. The simple three-part meditation is this: “Let me be peaceful; let me be kind; let me accept others as they are.” At first the part of that which gave me the most trouble was the third – accepting others as they are. To apply that to people I just flat out know are wrong is a total struggle for me. (This was especially true since I took the course in early 2016, just as the nasty Presidential election campaigns were turning up their volume.) Come to think of it the 2018 primary campaign is pretty ugly too!
I finally realized two things: that to accept others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, and that to accept others without judgment requires that I first need to work on accepting myself. So I modified the third phrase to read “let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s better semantics, but even harder to do.
That led me to examine the first phrase. As Julie Andrews put it in “The Sound of Music,” “Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.” “Let me be peaceful” seems to be very self-explanatory. It means to act in a peaceful manner, right? But then the meditation goes on to say “let me be kind,” and that seems a bit redundant to me. If I’m acting peacefully wouldn’t I automatically be kind or vice versa? That confused me for several months until I had an insight earlier this year that reminded me of the Zen parable above. To be peaceful means to be full of peace, and if I’m full of anything else, be it judgment, anger, anxiety, fear, lust or any of the other seven deadly sins there’s no room for peace. (See my February 2016 post “Giving up ALGAE for Lent” for a fuller discussion of this.)
The other thing I realized recently is that the key word in “let me be peaceful” is that little word ”be.” To be full of peace is a matter of “being” before it can be translated into “doing.” The doing is really part two of the mantra, “let me be kind.” Even though the verb is the same in both parts I believe kindness is more about actions and peacefulness is more about one’s state of being. That’s why Gandhi said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”
It is only when we are full of peace in the very depths of our being that we can act kindly toward others and accept them regardless of their words or behavior. I also believe this is what Jesus was getting at in the farewell discourse to his disciples when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27-29) How can Jesus expect his dear friends and closest confidants to not be troubled and afraid when he’s telling them he’s about to be brutally and very publicly executed? They are so afraid they all go into hiding, unable to bear the sight of their Lord and Savior suffering and dying on the cross.
The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are full of examples of both positive and negative examples of those who are full of peace and those who aren’t. Peter can walk on water when he’s full of peace, but when he realizes what he’s doing and let’s fear fill his heart he sinks like a rock. (Matthew 14:28-30) On the other hand, three brave men are able to defy the power of King Nebuchadnezzar when he orders them to bow down to his gods. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3)
The same is true of post-canonical Christian Church history. Mother Theresa couldn’t have lived and worked in the wretched slums of Calcutta without being full of God’s peace. Joan of Arc could not have faithfully obeyed God even to burning at the stake if she was full of fear. One of the charges of heresy brought against Joan is one all Christians should desire for their epitaph: “It was said, “‘She does not submit herself to the judgment of the Church Militant, or to that of living men, but to God alone.”
That kind of peace does not come from human will alone. It comes only when we are humble enough to empty ourselves of pride and arrogance and allow God to fill us with peace. To that end I’ve found it very useful to employ a shortened version of this mantra whenever I remember to pause in a tough situation and ask God to fill me with peace.
These chaotic times we are living through today again cry out for women and men who are so full of God’s peace that we are able not only to act kindly but faithfully and courageously to defend truth and justice against any and all powers that threaten to fill us with fear. Pardon my irreverence, but I fully expect one of the first questions God will ask me on my judgment day is, “Steve, what are you full of?”
I just did the math and estimated that I have gotten out of bed approximately 3700 times on a Monday morning. Wish I hadn’t done that – the math that is, although if I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom I might have pulled up the covers and stayed put. One of the hard things about retirement is the lack of a “normal” routine. The hardest days are often those that are also the best part of retirement—the ones where there’s nothing I “have” to do. Nothing on the calendar at all so the day is completely unstructured, a blank canvas staring back at me wondering what will be on it by the end of the day? Needless to say that’s an especially unusual kind of Monday for a retired pastor who remembers Holy Week as one of the busiest of the year.
I imagine Jesus didn’t want to get up and head back into Jerusalem that last Monday either. He had spent the night with friends in Bethany because of Mary and Martha’s hospitality, but also because it was safer there than in Jerusalem where powerful people wanted him dead. There the city sanitation workers were cleaning up the palm branches and leftover cloaks from the parade route Jesus had followed the day before. The crowds may have been hung over with joy and anticipation from the triumphal entry on Sunday, but Jesus knew what was coming or at least had a pretty good idea.
Imagine the internal debate! “My work here isn’t finished. The disciples aren’t nearly ready to take over! There’s so much more I need to do here. I won’t be able to heal anyone or teach anyone if I’m in jail or dead!”
Doing the right thing when the easy thing is so tempting; when all your friends are telling you to play it safe. To do requires the courage to be—to be true to oneself and to the one who gives us life. To do the peaceful thing in the face of fearful, hateful power requires first being at peace; being full of peace that is deeper than fear and stronger than doubt. That’s the energy that got Jesus out of bed that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and on that Friday that seemed the worst of all Fridays ever.
His soul was full of an eternal peace that calms the storm at sea and the even bigger storms in our hearts that threaten to drive us into hiding when we most need to grab Monday morning by the neck and say “Bring it On!”
I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.
The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
God of grace and righteousness, again this Lord’s Day we pause to remind ourselves of your presence – to thank you for the blessings of life and to ask your continued guidance and comfort when the road of life is bumpy and dark. We lift up those named and unnamed here today for a special portion of your love, and we ask for the wisdom and faith to approach each day of life with a healthy balance of faith and humility.
Help us not to be so enthralled by our own good fortune that we overlook the pain of our sisters and brothers near and far. And likewise when the cares of the world threaten to overshadow our hope, reassure us that we never walk alone. For as the scriptures tell us, even when we don’t know how to pray, your spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words. In the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – grant us a balanced perspective on life that anchors our lives firmly in you as the ground of our being; so that we may offer a safe harbor for the lost who are seeking the way and the truth and the life that we find in Christ Jesus. Remind us again O God of our mission and purpose for living.
As we pray for those without power in Florida remind us of your eternal power that never fails. As we pray for those left homeless by storms or by war and violence, we give you thanks for warm, safe homes, for all the physical comforts we too often take for granted. Give us grateful and generous hearts to receive your blessings, Lord, and also to share from our abundance and good fortune with those with less or without.
As we pray for people without clean water and food, remind us that as much as we need physical comforts, O God, there’s a deeper hunger in our souls that brings us out of our homes to your house each Sabbath. We need to feel the connection of belonging, the fellowship, the corporate worship that nourishes us more than individual devotion and prayer can do.
So we ask your blessing on our worship this day as we pray for ourselves and others, for our nation and world. Bless our acts of praise. Give us ears to hear your special word of comfort or challenge you have for each of us; so that when we return to our homes we do so stronger in our devotion and discipleship to serve you wherever you call us to be in the coming week.
For it is in Christ’s name we pray, for his sake we witness to our faith in words and actions. Send your holy spirit upon us as we celebrate our belonging to you by joining our hearts and voices in the Lord’s Prayer.