Last week I had just learned about the second of the two shootings on my way to church and as I walked into the meetinghouse, I was feeling heartsick and discouraged. My silent, ongoing prayer last Sunday was that God would minister to us and somehow bring words of truth and comfort, kindness and fellowship. And—thanks be to God—God did that.
I’ve mentioned before that ideas for the messages I write always seem to arrive in a consistent and curious way. Typically on Monday or Tuesday a message title bubbles up. It feels like more than simply one of my own thoughts—there’s inspiration attached to it. But last Monday, the title that bubbled up—following the news and struggle about the latest awful shootings–was, “Peace in Our Time.” Oh, no—I said inwardly—how could I possibly write a message about something that big, that important, that seemingly impossible? But still the title persisted. And throughout the week—as so regularly happens—first bits of scripture, then quotes, then sources begin to show up, all in support of the common theme. That’s how our message this morning got here, on par with what seems to happen every week.
When I finally let go of my resistance to the idea and looked up the phrase, “peace in our time,” I learned that it comes from A Book of Common Prayer, which was published in 1549 and used in the Anglican Church. “Give peace in our time, O Lord,” the leader says, as part of an evening litany in which the minister and members read responsively together.
The idea of “peace in our time” as something that comes from God is also echoed clearly in the passage we heard from Micah this morning. Micah paints a beautiful vision of peace, when the people are calm and have what they need and feel safe. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” the verse says. Tools that had been used to destroy will now be used to build up, to plant, to grow. The people won’t “learn war anymore” and they’ll be able to sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one will threaten and frighten them.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? How different our world would be today if no one felt the need to “learn war” and each person—at ease with their life—could sit in peace, enjoying their own garden. Richard Foster says this is the big, beautiful promise of the kingdom of God—it is “characterized by freedom from ignorance, war, and fear.” Interestingly, Foster’s idea almost exactly echoes a thought I heard in a spiritual teacher’s talk this week—this is how these synchronicities work. He said that we have trouble seeing the truth of God in us because of fear, ignorance, and arrogance. That rang deeply true to me.
This idea of peace arising from God is also central to an epistle written in unity by the All Friends Conference in England in 1920, not long after the end of World War I. They wrote,
“In considering the character and basis of our testimony for peace we have felt strongly that its deepest foundation lies in the nature of God, and that its character must be inclusive of the whole of life. There is urgent need for a fuller recognition that God’s essential nature is love, that the Cross of Jesus represents the highest point in the revelation of the character of God, and that there is a seed of God in every man, that spiritual forces are the mightiest, and that we must be prepared to rely upon them and to give expression to them in daily work and character as well as in what we call the great crises of life. We must set before us the highest ideal, that which ought to be, rather than that which is, believing that God is not alone the God of things as they are but the God of things as they are meant to be.”
“God is not alone the God of things as they are but the God of things as they are meant to be.” Right there in that statement lies the hopeful seed of change, the place where we are called to do our part to help bring light into the world by being purveyors of peace. That powerful statement speaks to our condition today because we—as they did—are living through an imperfect, confusing, turbulent, and often dangerous time.
And Jesus has an answer to this paradox of living with peace right in the midst of struggle. In the passage from John we heard, the disciples are happy that Jesus is speaking to them plainly, not shrouding his meaning in parables or figures of speech. They tell Jesus they can see that he knows all things and they believe he came from God. Jesus answers them by asking, “Do you now believe?” and then tells them he knows they will desert him when he needs them most. “Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me,” Jesus says. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Jesus is pointing to something very important and central to the idea of peace—the idea that the constant presence of God, our source of peace, and our rock of security, is always with us. It was true then; it is true now; and it has been true all along. As the writer Martin Laird says, “God does not know how to be absent.”
Sometimes we need a little help noticing that. In the 1980s, psychologists began researching the nature of happiness. In one now-famous study, they used what is called an Experience Sampling Method to survey participants on how happy they were as they went about their normal, daily lives. Each person was given a pager, and whenever the pager went off, the person was supposed to stop what they were doing and write the answer to two questions in a journal they carried with them. The questions were:
- On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you right now? And
- What have you been experiencing in your life to cause these feelings?
The research resulted in some fascinating new ideas about happiness, which opened the way for deeper studies and contributed to the birth of the positive psychology movement, which continues today.
One thing that fascinates me about this early study is that because of the way it was designed, it gave people a glimpse of what they didn’t usually notice. Most people were more happy, more of the time, than they knew. What if we did something like this with peace as the focus? An alarm goes off. Or a doorbell rings. Or a bird sings. And we use those interruptions to stop and ask ourselves, “On a scale of 1-10, how peaceful do I feel right now?”
And that reflection could become a springboard for prayer. If we’re feeling reasonably peaceful—say a 7 on a scale of 10–like right now, as we sit here in this beautiful old meeting room with the sunlight streaming in through stained glass—we could say a simple “thank you” to God for the peace inside and around us. And later, when we’re doing something with our kids or grandkids, or we’re eating dinner with our spouse, or we’re relaxing in the porch swing, we can notice what we’re feeling and interrupt ourselves long enough to pray “thank you” for the gift of that peaceful moment. And those moments we find we’re not feeling peaceful become an opportunity for us to invite God in, to open the tightness of our stress and bring us back to calm. God is so good at that.
It’s likely that the more we notice and value our peace, the more of it we’ll find. That of God within us knows that feeling of peacefulness well. The nature of that of God within us is peace. On a very deep level, it simply feels like coming home—because it is. I like the way author Doris Calder described this:
“…I raise my hands aloft to God, that I might be held by God, just like a feather which has no weight of its own strength and lets itself be carried by the wind…” These beautiful words by Hildegard of Bingen speak to my condition…I want to be in such a state of surrender and trust in God that I am like a feather. But, for me, the image of effortless surrender is in reality not easily attained. As humans we are conditioned to rely on our own personal will. Our ego depends upon it and our culture instills it in us. But I am beginning to understand that it is only by letting go that we are empowered. We need to make space for the true inner strength, joy and peace and allow it to hold us, lift us up, and carry us onward.”
This past Tuesday, the morning was beautiful and cool, and as I drove into the hospital, I listened to the radio—which I don’t usually do on my morning drives. I heard a wonderful story on NPR’s Morning Edition about an exhibit called “Vessel Orchestra” that artist Oliver Beer has created with ancient pots at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now when you hear me say art, you probably envision a big collection of pots put together in some kind of stunning way. But instead of arranging pots, Beer listened to them and discovered their voices by dropping a microphone inside and recording the sound. The result is beautiful, otherworldly, peaceful.
In the interview, Beer said, “Every empty space, whether it be an empty room or a wine glass or a jug or the inside of a bronze bust which is hollow, has its own frequency. That’s just a universal truth. And so, in fact, every single object that I’d listened to was an empty object, and therefore every single one had its own notes.” One terracotta pot is 7,000 years old, originally fired in a kiln in what is now modern-day Iran. Beer says it sings the note of B, and it has been singing that same note all this time. That is the nature of its frequency, the way it is made. “If we come back in 7,000 years, it will still be singing a B,” he said.
I love the idea that something that we previously thought of simply as empty space is in fact telling us something vital and true about the essence of our own experience. What if this air around us this morning isn’t just empty air but rather God’s peace, surrounding, enfolding, blessing us? It’s also telling that the sacred voice the artist found isn’t in just a few special pots but in all pots. That of God—the peace of God, which overcomes the struggles of the world—isn’t within a select few of us, but in all of us. That’s the root of the hope for peace in our time. As an art historian said about the exhibit, “These objects are singing to each other on these pedestals long after the museum closes.”
Maybe we’re like that, with peace ringing inside us, awaiting our noticing and our willingness to share it.
Just a few weeks ago, we sang hymn 555 in our Friends hymnal, entitled, “Peace in Our Time, O Lord.” It was written in 1938 by John Oxenham, which was the penname of writer William Arthur Dunkerly, a British journalist and poet who may have been inspired by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s, “Peace for Our Time” speech that same year. Returning from a diplomatic trip, Chamberlain announced the hopeful news—just before World War II began—that Germany and England had reached an agreement that neither wanted to go to war with the other. In reality, the promise of this inspiring moment would soon be dashed, however, and England would enter the war within the year.
But when Oxenham wrote the hymn, he had a strong sense of the light and peace that was possible in this world because of God’s continual presence with us. He wrote,
Peace in our time, O Lord, to all the people, peace!
Peace surely based upon Your will and built in righteousness.
Your pow’r alone can break the fetters that enchain
The sorely stricken soul of life and make it live again.
Too long mistrust and fear have held our souls in thrall;
Sweep thro’ the earth, keen Breath of heav’n, and sound a nobler call!
Come as You did of old in love so great that men
Shall cast aside all other gods and turn to You again!
O shall we never learn the truth all time has taught,
That without God as architect our building comes to naught?
O living Christ, who still does all our burdens share,
Come now and dwell within the hearts of all men everywhere!
You can hear that Oxenham understood what Micah knew, what Jesus taught, what the Friends in 1920 held forth, and what we are struggling with today: Peace in our time is possible when we are willing to listen for the song of God’s presence within us. May we spend some precious time listening this week, and offer up—for ourselves and for our world—our heartfelt thanks.
- OT Micah 4: 3-4
- NT John 16: 29-33