Peace on Earth

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Matt. 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

This is a week of Peace. That is perhaps surprising news in light of recent events: armed gunmen in a Connecticut elementary school or the recent Israeli Hamas conflict. Yet in the season of Advent this week is one marked by the topic of peace. This is the week we remember that God is quite interested in overhauling the world geopolitical order; restoring justice for those who often find themselves at the mercy of the powerful and violent.There is a line in a new song by the artist JJ Heller that is echoing in my mind as I write this “sometimes life doesn’t make any sense, it’s full of war and pain and accidents. We’re singing I don’t know…I don’t know what you’re doing. But I know who you are.”

Looking around the world today I confess I see no easy fix. For instance there was an article in the New Yorker advocating for more stringent gun control laws in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut. This struck me as ludicrously naive; the gunman intentionally went to an elementary school with the intent of killing people. There is no rational explanation for his attack, these children could not have slighted him, there is no misunderstood vengeance at work. His actions were in a word, Evil- naked and unprovoked. No amount of legislation could have halted so sinister a plan. Gun control laws are indeed valuable and may prevent some rash violence- this shooting does not fit that characterization. If there were no guns on the face of the earth this person would have found some way to slaughter children. You may be sure that actions like this imply “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”

There is an old story about the birth of Jesus that seems pertinent to today’s events. It comes from the end of the second chapter of Matthew, commonly referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.” It is a morbid story about how the local king (Herod) felt threatened by rumors of a new king in Bethlehem and decided to kill all boys under the age of two as a preventative measure. Such violence in the world and in scripture often troubles me. I struggle to understand why God does not show up in such moments, terrible and grand and flashing with fire and lighting to the defense of innocents.

Yet I am reminded of the fact that the story of Jesus birth includes such a story for a reason. God does not stand far off from humans in the midst of their violence. He does not wait at a distance for us to get our act together, for the end of rape, infanticide, our general callousness toward each other etc. True in the gospels we don’t read that God acted supernaturally from distance to end suffering. Instead he walks right into the midst of our suffering. He trusts a poor Jewish couple with his Son at a time that it wasn’t safe to be a child in Palestine. He isn’t squeamish about our tendency toward destruction but instead becomes one of us that he might show us the way out. This is why his birth was announced with news (and a prayer) of “peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.” God is drawing the world toward himself in Jesus, drawing the world toward peace. The pull is as imperceptible as the tides but no less real. Thus it is not with an awareness of the apparent irony that I say, with complete sincerity, “this is a week of peace” and at the same time “deliver us O Lord from such evil men, and bring peace to the families of those who grieve!”

Holy Moments

There have been many who have asked “So what was it like to be a hospital chaplain?”  The answer to this question is inevitably too long for the person asking.  I spent the summer as a full-time chaplain at a Phoenix hospital and the experience was rich enough to defy summation.

I was consistently invited into the lives of people, who, seconds earlier, were complete strangers to me.  I was told the life stories, great fears, and incredible sorrows.  The patients I saw were ordinary people.  These are not the voices that we often hear in memoirs or on CNN.  Most of us would never get the opportunity to hear these stories because, to be honest, we generally don’t care.  People poured out their hearts to me.  Often they were not Christians and had no real value for the title “pastor.”  I was struck by the fact that every day I would come across a “Holy Moment.”  I was privileged to enter the life of my neighbor, the person my God commands me to love.  I have tried to do so many times over the years; this was the first time my neighbor was interested.  No matter how weary or burnt out I felt that day a patient or family member would fall into my schedule for by divine providence.  They would then share a crippling fear or starling hope with me and we would talk or pray for quite a while.

Thankfully this happened only once or twice a day because I doubt I could have born the weight of the significance.  It was hit-and-run beauty, like a flower in the desert, shocking and then gone; I would be left with the humbling reality that God had used me in a moment which I was woefully unprepared for.  I was a tool: a word which we ministers often use of ourselves, yet in this time it was more obvious than ever before.  In situations which I was not (nor could I ever have been) prepared for, amazing things happened.  Plainly, I am not that good.  If I had doubted the reality that God takes an active role in the work of ministry it evaporated in the hospital.  In a way even the ordinary conversations with people were valuable in their own way.  But it was the Holy Moments, those surprising conversations that stood out against the white noise of suffering, that I treasure from my time as a Chaplain.