Christmas is a reminder of the price of peace for the world

Almost every Christmas Eve service I have attended has concluded with the congregation singing “sleep in heavenly peace” under the soft glow of candlelight. Growing up, I believed peace had to do with quiet, stillness, and a tiny baby surrounded by a halo of light. And I think that’s the version of peace I carried into adulthood.

For many of us, “peace” is essentially the absence of conflict. Or it’s the holy hush we envision hovering over the Christ child in the manger. It’s not the least bit disruptive. It’s comfortable and comes without effort, struggle, or pain. But that’s not the peace to which God has called us.

Paul wrote to the church at Colossae: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Col 3:15). The word “peace” Paul used in this context carries the full weight of the Hebrew word shalom.

This sort of peace comes at a price. The prophets remind us that shalom often comes through the work of breaking down and building up, plucking up and planting (Jer 1:10). Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love” reminds us that Jesus’ coming into the world involved considerable pain. “It was not a silent night / There was blood on the ground,” the lyrics begin.[1] Rather, the first Christmas involved a woman groaning in pain, her body bruising and breaking as she delivered the Son of God into the world. Ultimately, the peace her Son would forge between God and humankind would cost him his life (Col 1:20).

A ruling peace

Paul’s call to peace echoed the words of the Psalmist who called God-fearers to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps 34:14). Paul wanted the church to be comprised of the peacemakers Jesus sought to bless (Matt 5:9). In his choice of verb, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul hinted at how Christians ought to go about this business of peacemaking. The word rule perhaps calls to mind images of kings and thrones. A better image is that of a referee or umpire in a sporting event — someone not opposed to conflict and struggle yet who enforces the boundaries of the competition and does not let it spiral out of control. Paul envisioned the church being a group of people whose guiding vision and final “arbiter” was the renewal of all things.[2]

Yet, when it comes to the conflict on the pastoral search committee, the complaints about the building renovations, and the frivolous fighting about what brand of coffee to serve on Sunday mornings, does this sort of peace rule? Or could the hot tempers and reactionary behaviors among us be symptoms of trouble within us?

Pursuing peace

As we step across the threshold into a new year, what might it look like to lead people in the way of peace? Sure we could teach them how to listen empathically[3] or encourage them to disagree civilly. These soft skills can certainly help and may mitigate some tension. But the harder, more important work is to help people pursue transforming peace by first attending to the lack of it in their own souls.

Chuck DeGroat, professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at Western Seminary, believes the pathway to peace within us, the pathway to wholeness, begins with moving toward our pain instead of away from it. “The challenge,” he writes, “is to move into the dark places, both in our own hearts and in our own communities, and bring them light.”[4] Pursuing peace doesn’t begin with deciding the issues or resolving conflicts. It begins with attending to the dividedness at the core of our beings.[5] It begins with acknowledging the pain, brokenness, shame, and guilt that reverberate in our souls.

For Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, helping people press into their pain is the first step of prophetic ministry. Not prophetic in the sense that it elevates certain gifts or focuses on a single charismatic individual. Rather, prophetic in the sense of presenting God-followers an alternative way of living in a godless culture. Brueggeman writes, “It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering and death.”[6] Shepherding people through dark valleys sometimes involves goading them into the fear, the grief, and the pain that overshadows them.

But prophetic ministry does not leave people in despair. It helps them name the brokenness, grieve over it, and lament for it. And then it helps them give voice to the “hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long [a]and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there” by pointing to the promises of God.[7] Prophetic ministry helps people find fragments of light in dark places.

Pursuing peace in community

But the pastor need not be the sole practitioner of prophetic ministry. God has given us brothers and sisters with whom to do this hard work of pursuing peace. Paul reminds us that we “were called in one body” to the work of peace (Col 3:15). But, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, merely participating in the life of the church does not yield the “life together” to which God called us. “The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.”[8] And as those deeply affected by sin, I would add.

The break-through, the pathway to peace, for Bonhoeffer is confession. “In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.”[9] When we confess our sin to one another and when we acknowledge our hurt, our guilt, our shame, we bring it out of the darkness and into the light. We receive empathy from our brothers and sisters and forgiveness from Christ. And we begin to heal and experience shalom in our own lives.

This level of vulnerability with one another not only transforms our faith communities but also empowers us to invite others into the peace that flows from it. DeGroat writes, “Being connected to others who long to live from their own Inner Light fosters wholeness and creates communities of people who seek to invite others into this life-giving wholeness.” Bonhoeffer knew that this work of pursuing peace in community would translate into an ability to “let peace rule”: “The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.”[10]

Agents of peace

Brueggemann contends that culture can make us numb, shielding us from the reality of pain and death. And, when we allow this numbness to permeate our hearts and minds, we can hardly imagine that shalom is possible in us, for us, and through us by the power of the Spirit. Instead of accomplishing God’s redemptive work in and through us, this a pseudo-peace turns our hearts to stone. We try to hide our pain beneath our stoic faces, but it manifests itself in myriad ways, particularly through our grumbling and dissension.

Pursuing peace in our churches, homes, workplaces, and communities begins with the hard work of pursuing peace within our hearts. It means moving toward our individual pain and brokenness in community with the hope of bringing it into the transforming light of Christ. Yes, it requires vulnerability. Yes it may be uncomfortable. And sometimes it may require the company of a therapist or spiritual director.

On Sundays, we leave our churches charged to be agents of peace in this broken and hurting world. Experiencing the transforming power of Christ in our own lives gives credibility to our witness. We can tell others that pain often precedes healing, darkness comes before light, and death before resurrection. But it’s worth it. Knowing God and knowing his peace is worth it.

 


[1] Peterson, Andrew. 2004. “Labor of Love.” New Spring Publishing, Inc.

[2] Moo, Douglas J. 2008. The letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[3] Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[4] DeGroat, Chuck. 2016. Wholeheartedness: Busyness, exhaustion, and healing the divided self. Kindle version. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 186.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brueggemann, Walter. 2001. The prophetic imagination. 2nd Ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, p. 41.

[7] Ibid., p. 60, 65.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1954. Life together. John W. Doberstein, Trans. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, p. 110.

[9] Ibid., p. 112.

[10] Ibid., p. 26.

[a]“denied so long” is in the original quote

About the Author

Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.