Pursuing Peace…

February 8, 2011

Leader: Go in peace, to love and to serve;

All: We will seek  peace and pursue it.

 

Dear reader, I must confess, I don’t pray every morning. Not formally at least. My mind almost always moves towards God, always greets Him, but I don’t always make time to sit down with Him.

But this morning I did sit down, and I decided to use the morning service from the Iona Community to structure my prayer. I don’t do this often, but when I do there is a richness that comes. The response above is taken from the ending of the service, and this morning these were the words that stayed with me. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that by some graceful synchronicity these words are taken from Psalm 34 (part of today’s Bible dose):

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
   I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
   and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it.

Seek peace, and pursue it. Pursue it. I don’t know about you but pursuing is not a verb I associate with peace. In my mind it seems almost predatory. Thinking about this made me realise that I have been thinking of peace as rather a passive thing. A gentle thing. A quiet thing. But can peace also be dynamic, can it be loud and lyrical? Maybe.

I really like this quotation from Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jewish theologian;

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

How interesting. Peace, then, isn’t something that simply arises when conflict stops (I found a great blog post on this subject) but it us a quality, a state to be cultivated and sought after. To be pursued.

But what does that look like?

Well, it must, on one level, mean us as a community speaking truth to power, as the prophets did before us. It must mean crying out against injustice and violence. It must mean speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But it’s not just about breaking down, it’s about building up. It must be about the creation of something new, and this creation surely starts closer to home.

In my church every Sunday morning, as in many churches across the world, the middle of our service is punctuated by ‘the peace’. We stand up and offer each other our hands saying “peace be with you”. Some people even look me in the eye as they say it (in England too, this is quite a rarity). It’s a wonderful moment and I’ve never really thought about it until now, but it really forms the centre of our service; the bridge between the unfolding of the Word and sharing of communion. In the middle of our worship we stop to wish each other peace. Do we know what we’re wishing for?

This act is an important one, its power is not to be dismissed. But I wonder in what others ways we pursue peace as a community? Is it really on our radar?

And there is a peace even closer than this. Closer than the community and even the most intimate relationship. It is the peace within. In John 14:27 Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper “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.” We are given peace by God himself; how many of us receive it?

We don’t live in a world of peace, not on any level. I learnt this weekend (at the SCM Still Small Voice conference) that globally there have been less than 30 minutes of peace since the outbreak of World War Two. 30 minutes.

On a community level our egos and our precious ideas make it hard for us to really hear each other, however hard we try. And individually which one of us does not wish for a quieter mind? That we could switch of the voices of criticism that sometimes swarm around us?

It occurred to me today that without peace, there can be not freedom. It seems to me that this works on all levels; material, communal, emotional, spiritual. Without a clarity, a strength of stillness, how can we be free? While there is still violence, internal or external, how can we be free?

Peace is not easy. That’s why it must be pursued. But perhaps not to pursue it is, ultimately, harder work.

Today I read Psalms 33-35.

 

Thanks for AuntieP on flickr for the beautiful photo.

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Wowza, how frikking amazing is Isaiah? I’m like ‘you go prophet-dude’ you tell them people how it is!’ In fact, you tell us people how it is! Though I have found parts of this book pretty dense and in need of some major contextualising, chapters 56-60 are just so bloomin rousing! Yesterday I wrote about our questions for God, here God throws some pretty tough ones at us!

Now, each raises its own questions. 56 about who we exclude, 57 about how we turn away from God. But for me it all centres around the wonderful Isaiah 58 (59 leads on from it pretty resoundingly). Have you read it? If not, or if you need a refresher then go and read it, definitely read it instead of my ramblings. What are you waiting for? Go! Now!

Great stuff, huh?

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Yes! This is amazing, and it really hits home doesn’t it? It couldn’t be clearer; God is not interested in you piety for its own sake (58:2-5), he asks us ,what are we doing for the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed, the persecuted? And you, know, I’m often at a loss to answer.

I’ve recently been using a book of blessings by John O’Donohue called Benedictus (it’s so wonderful, I highly recommend it). It’s blessings are mostly in the form of poetic prayers, but there is one called ‘At the end of the day: A mirror of questions’. These are questions to help you reflect on the day that God has given, and they really get to the heart of things. One of them reads ‘What did I do today for the poor and excluded?’. It’s a striking question, mostly because it implies that I should be doing something for the poor and excluded every day. Do you do that? I know I don’t, but since it’s has been in my mind it keeps asking and, I pray, it’s spurring me to change. I want to have answer for this question, every day. Not a big answer, not an impressive answer, but answer all the same. Because I really believe that this is a question from God.

It might be to talk to a homeless person rather than avert my eyes or just quickly slip them some change, it might be to give to charity, it might be to write to my MP, it might to volunteer somewhere, it might be to offer my support to someone who is lonely or in need, it might simply to pray. These are all little answers, some bigger than others. And I do believe that prayer is certainly doing something, though we also need to partner with God in answering our prayer; we can’t just pray for a nice world, we have to at least try to make one.

So, what have you done today for the poor and excluded? For the hungry? For the orphan? For the bereaved? For the naked? For the homeless? What have you done to ‘loose the chains of injustice’?

If we all had little answers for this everyday, perhaps it would change the world. 

Paul has a lot to say in Romans 8-10; no change there then. If, like me, you have a sleepy brain it might  feel like a lot to get through this evening. It seems to me, though, that it’s all a variation on one quite beautiful theme though. He really wants to you to know that whoever wants to access God’s love through Jesus can. And there’s not much I can add to that. So instead I have picked two verses that I think we could all do with hearing, again and again and again;

38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38-9)

Amen.

I am a big fan of making pop songs into worship songs. My new favourite is Madonna, Rain. No, seriously;

Rain; feel it on my fingertips, hear in on my window pane, Your love’s coming down like rain. Wash away my sorrows, take away my pain, Your love’s coming down like rain. 

Come on, if it was by Tim Hughes you’d love it…

That song’s been going around in my head today, and it has helped me think about today’s passages. Genesis 4-7 makes me sad. Cain and Abel, Lamech’s disturbing song (4:22-24), the declaration that God was “sorry that he made humankind on the earth” (6:6), the decision to start over; the flood.

I suppose Noah’s Ark is often told as a positive story of a righteous man who is chosen by God to make a fresh start in a turbulent world. It’s a Sunday school favourite. But the beginning of this story and its preceding chapters don’t fill me with enthusiasm. Even for Noah, is this a great deal? Stay in an ark for months and months and return to an obliterated land… oh cheers!

How did it go so wrong so quickly? From Eden to oblivion in 3 chapters? What does that say about us? What does that say about God?

There’s a great phrase that Rob Bell uses; the stories of the Bible aren’t important because they happened, they’re important because they happen. When a Bible story disturbs me I know it’s because it resonates with something happening now, inside me or in the world. Usually both. So I ask how do these things in Genesis 4-7 happen? Well, humans still kill, we get angry, we forget God. The world makes me sad sometimes, that’s why these stories make me sad… God doesn’t wipe us out though. But maybe there’s a different kind of flood coming.

When I remember that God is Love, and when I remember that this story happens the water starts to feel different. The story starts to be about cleansing and renewal, not smiting and destruction. Washing away sin seems very loving really… Your love’s coming down like rain…

If you read this story as literal then it’s hard not to see it as extreme. Of course some would take the ‘don’t question God’s justice, they all had it coming’ stance, but I don’t. I can only see this as a story about the power of God to renew, however dark it has become. I see the flood like a baptism of the earth, a promise that there is nothing good that cannot be salvaged. Creation is good, humans can be good, we were created good.  Just as everything can been corrupted, everything be cleansed. It may take retreat, labour, loss but transformation is always possible. When I relate this to the gospels, to Jesus’ washing away of sin, then the message comes alive even more.

Rain is what the thunder brings, for the first time I can hear my heart sing. Call me a fool but I know I’m not I’m gona stand out here on a mountain top til I feel Your rain… who knew Madonna was so deep?

photo by  cosmonautirussi on flickr

Testing times… (Job 1-2)

October 15, 2010

Today I begin my journey into a book of profound poetry that wrestles with that most timeless issue; unjust suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? A first reading of Job’s first chapters might give you a rather disturbing answer; because Satan tells God to do it…huh??

A brief(ish) synopsys: Job is very good man who also happens to be pretty loaded and very fertile – 10 children (7 of them sons; big bonus for the patriarchal Israelites), about a billion cattle. It didn’t go to his head mind you, he’s well holy, even offering sacrifices just in case his children sin at their dinner parties. So, as you may have guessed, God’s well pleased with his man Job and likes to tell the “heavenly beings”, and among them Satan, all about him. Satan is not impressed; “of course he’s good and holy; he’s loaded! Take away his cattle and children, then you’ll see, he’ll curse you.” Rather remarkably, God agrees to this! So in the space of about 5 minutes Job loses everything (except his wife, but that doesn’t seem to be much comfort to him as he calls her a “foolish woman” in chapter 2). Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and worshipping. Nice. Another Heaven scene occurs, God boasts about his devout Job again, but Satan’s not having any of it; “yeah yeah, but if you took his health…then he’ll curse you.” Astonishingly, God agrees again… But again Satan’s plan fails. Job says wisely (to his ‘foolish woman’) “Shall we receive good from God and not receive bad?” Pretty impressive stuff (apart from the sexism, which we’ll put down to post-traumatic stress for now).

What’s not so impressive, rather perplexing, is the exchange between God and Satan. If we read Satan as ‘the devil’ then this is pretty worrying stuff! So who is he? Well he only pops up in three verses than aren’t Job in whole Hebrew Bible (Zech 3:1-2; Chron 2:11) and is not to be confused with Satan in New Testament. In Greek Satan is used interchangably with “the devil”, it’s less clear cut here. Satan is present among “the heavenly beings” and the Hebrew “ha-Satan” (the satan) can be translated as “the accuser”, or commonly “the prosecutor” in the context of Job. “ha” shows that a name is a title bestowed on a being, not the being’s names itself.  David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament) actually says ‘satan’ comes from the Hebrew “to roam” so it could just mean  a roaming spy, a position in Yahweh’s divine council that informs God of His people’s wrong-doings… though you wouldn’y think God needed spies…

The main thing is that this doesn’t have to be read as God being manipulated by the Devil (phew!) ‘the satan’ seems to be part of the Heavely court in this narrative. Perhaps it is a device to show us a “thought process” of God – if He can be said to have such a human thing – and introduce the very pertinent question “do you worship God because of what you have been given or because He’s God?”

Whatever answers the book of Job ends up giving us (stay tuned to find out!), we can pretty safely say that the authority begins and ends with God. God gives the Satan power; he doesn’t have on his own. And at the end of Job (spoiler alert!) the Satan is not there, it’s just Job, his friends and God, implying that the ultimate authority over suffering rests with God. But then again, that’s pretty hard to swallow too, isn’t it? I suppose that’s why our Holy Scripture has a 42 chapter reflection on the nature and causes of suffering slap bang in its middle.

The Epilogue to this heavenly tale is too moving to be ignored. Job’s friends hear of his suffering and set out to “console and comfort him”. When they arrive they mourn with him; “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word with him, for they saw his suffering was very great.”  Later they debate the meaning of suffering, but for now they just sit, they don’t try to do anything for Job, they’re just with him. Wonderful. It seems God had not taken all of his riches after all…

The Bible reading plan I’m using (a link to which can be found at the bottom of the page) doesn’t go through the Bible from front to back. Each day of the week focusses on a different section of the Bible; Tuesday (which I’m reading on Wednesdays) is ‘History’, which begins with the book of Joshua. “O goody!” I thought “the one where the Israelites kill everyone else!”

But I am pleasantly surprised to be reminded that the first 5 chapters of Joshua contain no actual killing. Sure, there are more than a few hints that a lot of killing is about to take place; armed warriors are to cross the Jordan first, spies are sent to Jericho, Rahab tells them that “all the inhabitants of the land melt before you.” But the beginning of the Israelites’ return to the promise land has the power of God and the importance of God’ law at its centre. Throughout the Old Testament we are reminded of the Exodus story and here is no different. God brings the Israelites across the Jordan by stopping its flow, just like in the Exodus.

Then in Chapter 5 all those born in the time in the wilderness (which is everyone, all the previous generation have died) are circumcised. This is followed by an account of the celebration of the passover and Israel’s first meal of the “produce of the land”, which must have tasted pretty sweet after all that manna. And finally we are told of an encounter between Joshua and “the commander of the army of Lord”. This chapter, which is directly followed by the fall of Jericho, ends with the command “remove the sandals from you feet, for the place where you stand in holy.” Very Moses and the burning bush; don’t you think?

There are many mysterious and inspiring passages in these early chapters of Joshua, but I must admit I can’t help finding them tainted them by the anticipation of what is to come…”holy war”. Yet if I put that aside this time – I fear it won’t be so easy next Wednesday – I see that this is the home-coming of the Israelites. The climax of exile. A return to where they are willed to be by God. And every chapter revere’s God’s power to do this, through the narrative voice and the voices of Joshua, Rahab and God Himself.

So I try to ask what is this saying to me? I don’t think it’s as simple or cheesy as “God can part seas for you” and certainly not “God wants to give you stuff; just be good and do what you’re told and you’ll get it”. But maybe that there is always a way home, through the wilderness, it may take forty years and a complete change of personnel, but there is a way. And Iguess the problem is that the following chapters and books could be saying that once you’re home you can leave again, forget again. Wednesdays are going to be interesting…

And what a way to begin. Genesis 1-2:3 is wonderful isn’t it? True poetry; “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the water.”

And from that came sky and light and tree and birds. Even “great sea monsters monsters” get a mention. And finally, but never finally, us. “Let us make humankind in our own image…male and female he created them”. These first 34 verses are so profound, so potent with meaning and significance that I have few words. I’m sure I’m seeing them as is a dark mirror dimly. They effect me very much like John 1 does. There a rhythm to these words that seeps truth into your pores. Read it, read it now! It tells us of a God who brings light from darkness, fertility from barreness and who gives us the gift and responsibility of his creation.

I didn’t know until recently that many scholars agree that this and Genesis 2:4-3:24 are two different accounts of creation, but it makes sense to me. It’s feels awkward to fit these two together. Creation has a different order and the depictions of God really contrast . In the first story God is he but seems more mysterious and formless than God in the Garden of Eden, who talks with Adam and strolls through his creation. I’m not saying these are different Gods, not at all, but different aspects definitely. And it’s nice to have them side by side, as if one of the first messages of the Hebrew scriptures is a pluralilty of experience and understanding; something I feel the Church could do with embracing more and more.

The story of Eden is one we all know, or we think we know. There is no apple, Eve is no whily minx (she isn’t even called Eve yet, just woman). It is certainly one we recognise. Wanting the one thing we can’t have; knowledge not always being a blessing; shame that drives us away from God.

But I suppose what I want to say today is don’t forget the first chapter of Genesis, or see it as a prologue to Eden. Genesis 1 tells us we were made in the image of God. That’s really important. I don’t think it matters if you don’t take the six days literally, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that we are part of God’s creation, which he called good “indeed, it was very good”.

There is prevelant theology that we are inherently wicked, which some verses of scripture, especially from the psalms, seem to back up. That idea that our innate nature being displeasing to God always troubled me. Indeed, the week before I was baptised I broke down into floods of tears at my house group because that very thing was being discussed and I was worried that I shouldn’t get baptised in a church that held this idea as true. Needless to say everyone was very loving about it and I took the plunge that Sunday. It is nice for me, then, that here in Genesis 1 I find an ally. God created us in his image and called us good; could we really be capable of changing the very nature of God’s creation? We can forget it, corrupt it, we can live in a state of sin that separates us from it, absolutely – that’s what I think the Eden story is about to a large extent – but change it? Change God’s creation inherently? There’s nothing about that in chapter 3. Toil and conflict? Sure? A state of irrevocable wickedness? Not so much.

So I am thankful for this first, deep mystery, that of creation, into which our Bible gives an insight. God created light out of darkness. I look out of my window now and see sun on autumn leaves and blue sky. And I am thankful to the creative God in whom I believe and whose work I could never reverse, however badly I screw up. And who will not turn away from me even though I hide in shame. Before God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, he makes them clothes…