Have you noticed the sense of peace and quiet that settles over the world as winter arrives? No more crickets chirping; only a few bird calls, here and there. There are no leaves left on the trees to rustle in the breeze. Late at night, when I take Gloria outside for the last time before bed, it is so silent I sometimes think I can hear the stars shining. Along with that sense of hush comes a feeling of reverence, almost as though life is just waiting for us to settle down and pay attention so it can show us the Holy within and all around us.
Yet for most of us, holiday time can seem full of everything except peace and quiet. The malls are filled with Christmas music and busy shoppers; the roads are jammed with cars, whichever way you go as people head toward holiday appointments and events. We fill up our calendars with dinners and festivities—all of which have their place in adding joy and beauty to our holidays, but they rarely draw us back to a sense of peace and quiet. Of rest and ease.
I looked up the definition of the phrase, peace and quiet, and according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, it means, “tranquility and freedom from disturbance.” The phrase’s redundancy, the description says, does not mean “lack of sound,” but rather an added peacefulness. So you might say, it’s tranquility on the outside that adds to our peacefulness inside, or vice versa. In other words, harmony.
It seems fitting that during Advent we consider this kind of all-encompassing peace—harmony inside and out—as we make room for the Prince of Peace in our hearts and in our lives.
Our Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah this morning foretells the arrival of the Prince of Peace, declaring that he will have God’s “spirit of wisdom and understanding, spirit of counsel and might, spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” in whom he delights. He will not judge by his eyes or ears, Isaiah says, but will judge with righteousness and act with faithfulness.
About this passage, Richard Foster writes in his commentary, “The oracle describes the expected and long-awaited king as one who will be infused with God’s Spirit and who will practice justice and righteousness toward the needy of the earth. A special dimension of this promise is that the coming expected king will not only rejuvenate the social process but also heal creation and cause all of creation to be reconciled.”
The image Isaiah paints is a beautiful one: the wolf living peacefully with the lamb, the cow and the bear grazing together, their young resting in community without fear. People will live in harmony with nature and no living being will hurt or destroy any other on all of God’s holy mountain. “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” Isaiah promises, “as the waters cover the sea.”
We Friends have a painting we particularly love that gives us a visual of this amazing era of peace. It’s called the “Peaceable Kingdom” and it was painted in the early 1800s by Quaker Edward Hicks. Edward was born in 1780 at his grandfather’s estate home in eastern Pennsylvania. His parents were Anglican and his father, a British Loyalist, lost all his money after England’s defeat in the Revolutionary War. Edward’s mother died when he was only 18 months old, and he went to live on Twining Farm, the home of his mother’s best friend Elizabeth. The Twining’s were Quakers, and as he grew, he attended Quaker meeting with the family and was deeply influenced by Friends beliefs and practices.
Edward needed to find his way in the world, and as a young man he became an apprentice to coach makers, where he learned the craft of coach painting. He had a talent for it and did well; when he was old enough, he struck out on his own and sold his services to coach makers in the town of Milford. In his memoirs, he described himself in this stage of his life as being too frivolous, “exceedingly fond of singing, dancing, vain amusements…and swearing.” He began to feel restless and unsettled, though, ith his lifestyle, wand he was ultimately drawn back to the peace and quiet of the Quaker meeting, where he soon found his center once again.
Soon Edward had joined his Quaker meeting and married a young Quaker woman, and as they began their family, he also felt a leading to seek recording as a Quaker minister. By 1813, he was traveling all over Philadelphia, bringing ministry to Friends. By the time they were expecting their fifth child, the family was struggling financially because of the cost of his travel, and Edward decided to branch out in his painting to paint more ornamental pieces. This decision did not set well with the Friends of the day, who felt that this artistic avenue contradicted the plain approach Friends valued. So Edward faced a dilemma: should he fully use the talents he had to do all he could to provide for his family, or was it more important to stay within the counsel of Friends?
For a time, Edward heeded Friends’ concerns and gave up the ornamental painting. He tried to stick to the strictly utilitarian projects Friends approved of, but when his family continued to struggle, he eventually reversed his choice. His famous painting, the Peaceable Kingdom came about after he resolved this time of struggle. And lest we think this was some kind of flash-in-the-pan ornamental project he painted just to put bread on his family’s table, consider this: Edward Hicks painted more than one hundred versions of this painting between 1820 and 1846, the year he died. That seems deeply worshipful to me. He loved the image of peace in Isaiah 11 so much that he felt compelled to paint it, and paint it, and paint it until it felt right and good and true to him. An outward expression of his inner inspiration. Harmony of inner and outer. Peace and quiet in the act of creation.
Whether we’re fully aware of it or not, this is an ongoing work in each of our lives, as the Prince of Peace harmonizes our inner and outer realities. In the gentle stillness within, we find our center again when we feel pulled or torn or upset. Step by step spirit helps us approach life with God’s compassion, justice, mercy, and love, helping us see, gradually—sometimes very gradually–how to make peace with one another. Harmony inside and out. Even when it doesn’t look like it, that’s the way we’re headed.
Edward Hick’s story reminds me of another Friend I knew, Betsy Lawson, who attended Indianapolis First Friends when I was there. In her mid-80s, Betsy was a beautiful, vibrant, colorful woman. I loved her sense of spirit and her sense of humor. She told me once she had silent worship by herself everyday at dawn, in the easy chair by her favorite window.
When I was in seminary, for a project I interviewed, on camera, several weighty Friends, and Betsy was one of the ones who agreed to talk with me. We had a lovely, funny, spirit-filled conversation. But one thing she said has stayed with me ever since: Betsy had made her living as an artist and art teacher many years before, but she had never reconciled that with the Friends’ standard of plainness. “Oh, my parents would have preferred I wear gray all the time,” she said. She pointed to her colorful dress. “As you can see, I’ve never figured out how to be a good Quaker.”
Betsy was also the person who, in open worship time, would often rise up out of her seat and sing a verse or two of a much-loved hymn. Her voice wasn’t particularly good, and those of us in the back often couldn’t understand her, but you never missed the fact that it was spirit who urged her to her feet and led her to sing. That’s what ministered to—and uplifted, and sometimes challenged—the rest of us.
In our New Testament reading today we heard the miracle story of Gabriel coming to Mary to tell her she would be the mother of the Messiah. As unthinkable, as shocking, as startling as this must have been, Mary’s answer to Gabriel’s news was clear, peaceful, earnest: “Here am I, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Acceptance of Spirit’s leading. Harmony inside and out. Trusting God to bring about the peaceable kingdom—step by step—through us.
Isn’t that the ideal for our own form of sacramental, faithful living: to allow God’s leading to stir us into creative action, so we do our part to bring about God’s vision here on earth? Seen that way, Betsy—and Edward Hicks, and many people in this room—are the best kind of Quaker, the ones who listen for God’s leading toward peace, toward quiet, toward truth and love and then act on that leading in faith. We won’t all be led in the same way, or have the same passions, the same concerns, the same experiences—and that is as it should be. Helping to bring God’s Light to this world is a big job—maybe bigger now than ever—and each of our gifts and talents and views is needed in this ongoing work of grace.
God needs each of us to be reconcilers in this world. To bring peace between opposing viewpoints. To hold a vision of unity when separation seems to be the reality of the day. To let our lives preach kindness and gentleness and patience in a world with fraying nerves. To stand for peace and quiet, to welcome peace and quiet, to carry peace and quiet with us, as we do our best to live in faithful accord with the measure of Light we’ve been given.
In closing, I’d like to share something from poet Maya Angelou, called Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem. She first read this in 2005, at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C.
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.
- OT: Isaiah 11: 1-9
- NT: Luke 1: 26-38
- Angelou, Maya. Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem. https://womenyoushouldknow.net/amazing-peace-a-christmas-poem-by-dr-maya-angelou/