The King of Peace and being Peacemakers

In preparation for the sermon this Sunday on Isaiah 11:1-10, which speaks of the coming, empowered King that brings a peace that surpasses all expectations, I am left in reflection on the relationship between the peace that Jesus brings and the peace we seek to make. In Jesus beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”1 Jesus as THE Son of God who comes to bring peace calls those who are peacemakers children of God. Peace is the family business of God, and Jesus is the peacemaker who enables our ability to make peace. In the synonymous language of reconciliation, the Apostle Paul says “All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us this ministry of reconciliation.”2 As God in Jesus makes peace/reconciles, we ourselves become part of the business of peacemaking/reconciliation.

Of course what it means to make peace and reconciliation is up for debate amongst different persons; for some ipeace is more about the cessation of conflict and living in harmony, whereas for others may evoke images of justice that makes peace possible. Furthermore, there is even debates on the ways one brings peace: is pacifism the only option or is there any violence and coercion that is justified as in just war theory? But at the core there is a deep Christian conviction that we are called to be people through whom peace develops. Such an idea no doubt sounds very noble; we appreciate the peacemakers of our day and age. People like Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela have drawn the respect of millions of people who simultaneously recognize the injustice in society and yet also desire for peaceful resolutions. So, many people, including many Christians, are tempted to take on this goal of being a peacemaker. They idealize within themselves a certain desire to be the source of peace, whether it be due to the joy of seeing people live together in love and justice or the prestige of being such a capable of person. To be a peacemaker is a noble goal.

Yet, to be a peacemaker is one that is not an easy task. With some of my observations, particularly at seminary, I have noticed many people who were ardent pacifists, and yet in their life they demonstrated anger and hostility in so many ways. To be honest, I flirted with the idea of pacifism, but beyond the fact that I could not accord the idea with the totality of Scripture, I saw many of the representatives of pacifism who seemed to be fighting more their own inner demons of anger than really achieve peace. Such a rule-bound ethic seemed to show little power in changing their inner hearts. Akin to Paul’s warnings about regulations in Colossians 2:20-23, pacifism seemed to be wise, but it seemed to be of little help in people’s formation. While acknowledging the brokenness and sin in all people, the passionate pursuit of the idea of pacifism frequently seemed to be an attempt to control one’s own inner anger by idealizing oneself as the opposite. This is not a denial of the ultimate goals of pacifism, but a critique of the means of attaining the goals of peace through pacifism by their ineffectiveness, along with the difficulty that Scripture presents against the pure pacifistic ethic. Peace is hard. Not simply because it is hard to get people on the same page, but because first and foremost we have to deal with our own inclinations towards anger, hatred, destructiveness, judgment, lack of forgiveness, etc.

My personal experience in seminary taught me that. As I struggled with my own struggle with those same emotions rooted in anger and disgust as I dealt with some difficult situations, I found myself become something very different. Up to that point, I had always thought of myself as a nice person who cared but I didn’t always understand what was going on with other people. So I pursued greater insight to overcome my weakness in understanding others that would then be combined with a deepening commitment to grace and mercy. I didn’t think myself as a “peacemaker” at the time, but more along the lines of a helper, and through learning and commitment I would be a more effective helper. However, as I dealt with an incredibly difficult situation in which my failures did contribute to the circumstances, I discovered over the course of time that there is the fountain of anger that existed in me. I no longer felt the the springs of life of God’s Spirit as flowing within me, but the bitter spring of anger. As I struggled to keep myself towards kindness, forgiveness, and peace, the reactions of others continued to reinforce the disdain and disgust. Peace is hard, and being a peacemaker is not an easy task.

Therein lies the wisdom of the Beatitudes. We might be tempted to take the beatitude of being a peacemaker as a stand-alone aphorism about the honor and noble virtue of peace. However, there is a deeper insight into Jesus’ beatitudes, as there is a pattern of spiritual and moral formation from the first to the last contained in the Beatitudes.3 One does not immediately become a peacemaker, but goes through the other aspects of human life; understanding the poverty in spirit, living within mourning over life, the experience of powerlessness in meekness, that deep desire for righteousness/justice, an impulse towards mercy, and a heart that is purified in intention to be in service to God. Each of these stages of human life and experience provides the framework for living into the next stage. Peacemakers must experience a deep understanding of the unfairness and darkness of life in poverty, mourning, and powerlessness, develop a deep desire for the alternative way of life in justice and mercy, and then have one’s intentions, desires, and beliefs purified for those goals.

Why? Because being a peacemaker brings a lot of hostility in return. Being a peacemaker often times entails calling down forms of unfairness, injustice, and abuse that exist because some people’s interests are being valued over and above other people’s interests. Being a true peacemaker where one does not simply paste over emotions to maintain a sense of civility, but addresses the deeper causes of conflict and/or abuse means one must face the harassment that comes when one runs up against people perpetuating the injustice. This is very next step in the beatitudes that follows being a peacemaker; peacemakers are persecuted. When that happens, a person who has not delved into their own anger and hostility will find themselves more becoming contributors to the unfairness rather than simply standing up against the unfairness.4 Without learning how to live with grace as one addresses difficult situations, one becomes a participant in injustice rather than an opponent of injustice.

Living honestly with one’s own desperation and the emotions of anger and fear those bring with the counter-weighing desire of justice and mercy is the start of peacemaking. In the bitter anguish of disaffection from others and even ourselves, we seek for the truth that will set things right, that will be the standard upon which all are expected to act according to. But as we move towards a desire for real peace, we discover the importance of grace. Living in imitation of the King of Peace Jesus who is filled with both grace and truth entails dealing with the fullness of life and its experience, the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows, the celebrations and the wounds, when we achieve our goals and when we do not, when we do good and when we tempted to and give in to sin. Then we give the space in our hearts for the Spirit of God to purify out hearts towards the goal of God’s reconciliation and peacemaking. Just as Jesus openly endured the sufferings of the cross as He committed Himself to God’s justice and love so that He Himself learned the necessary obedience,5 peacemakers must both openly face the prospect of death and a commitment to life to be transformed.

So we celebrate the coming of peace in the birth of Jesus this Advent and Christmas as a gift from God. But we should not forget that real, Godly peacemaking is difficult business. It is so difficult that a cross of love is the pathway to accomplish it.

  1. Matthew 5:9 []
  2. 2 Corinthians 5:18 []
  3. I learned this from my seminary class on Moral Development; Donald Joy is credited as the source of that idea, but I can not find any books or articles to cite []
  4. And all to frequently, those who agitate will consider themselves persecuted rather than contributors. []
  5. Hebrews 5:8 []

The Absence of Advent

Advent stands as a season of anticipatory celebration for us followers of Jesus. We stand on this side of the resurrection in history and we look backwards towards the miracle of Christ and His birth. For us, our songs for the Christmas season are sung with celebration, because we know how the story of Christ’s birth goes, whether people truly believe and trust in that story of not. Advent stands as a celebration of God’s coming, Emmanuel, God with us. We celebrate the positive hope that the Gospels make known to us.

Yet, the deeper significance of Advent is frequently missed. For God to come, God must have been absent in some way. Protests of “God never leaves us,” well intended as they are, do not echo the very heart of the worship of the people of God as contained in the Scriptures. There is a deep dissatisfaction in innumerable Psalms that God is somehow not doing what He promised. As tempting as it to paste over this the expression with “it only appears as if God is absent, but He really isn’t,” even Jesus on the cross echoes the lament psalm of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” God’s absence is no mere appearance, but is cry of a heart that sees God’s protection and provision far from their life, where God’s promises seem to be on the edge of being forgotten. Certainly, the lament Psalms call out after the complaint that God is faithful; Jesus’ excruciating death as God forsook him was followed by a glorious resurrection where God restored life to Him. The frustration and complaint of the laments do not delve into faithlessness and rejection of God; there is a firm conviction of God’s return. Nevertheless, there is the experienced absence of God, to which people long for God to act in fresh new ways to overcome the distance.

So Advent really is more a lament, of complaint and trust, than a celebration. God’s promises seem to be far off, but there is an expectation that it will not remain that way. In the darkness of an Israelite society, groaning under the political, economic, and religious injustice, there is a waiting for something better. As Israel groaned in Egypt, and God acted in faithfulness to Israel’s patriarchs through Moses, Israel groaned again, this time in their own homeland with even some of their own brothers as the oppressors.

One needs to acknowledge the complaint, the darkness, and the experience of absence of the provision and protection of God in order to appreciate the celebration of God’s integrity to His Word. Even as we celebrate, we need to mourn. Even if the mourning isn’t personal to our life, there are reasons to mourn for others, both in our past and our present. Then in the throes of despair, there is the surprising celebration of God’s power in and through His Son. Engaging this emotional process through personal devotion, liturgy, etc. prepares our hearts to recognize Christ’s future displays of unexpected power and love even when all else seems to be devoid of God’s justice. We learn to be open to and recognize the small acts of power in our lives where Jesus can be said to be coming into our lives as a metaphor for powerful action to overturn the inversions of justice and peace we experience and, more ultimately, the final coming where Jesus will right the wrongs of human history and bring forward a new, decisive age of human life in relationship to God. In engaging in lament during Advent, we train our hearts in union with the Holy Spirit to be able to trust in and recognize God’s loving power amidst the times where God’s love is not powerfully showing itself up to that point. The acceptance of the reality of God’s absence is prerequisite for fully appreciating the powerful presence of God.

Preparing for the Mystery of Advent

For the past four years, I have been trying to make sense of what happened to me the last year that I lived in Kentucky. Having faced an interminable contradiction turned double bind, my heart became overwhelmed with the chaos of the situation. In the four years since leaving, my head tried endlessly to make sense of the situation; I felt I had to as it connected so much to questions of who I was as a person in so many ways. But for every answer that I thought I had in my head, it made sense of some things but not others. The littany of explanations I constructed in my head had little power to ease my heart. In the desperation of wanting to turn off a mind tortured by what had happened, I was waiting for someone or something to come along to ease the endless tension. Then, one day recently, a flash of unexpected insight occurred to me that brought for the first time clarity to all of my contradictory memories and feelings. An option I had never considered suddenly brought everything into focus and began to relieve the pressure of the past (although, it presented new challenges of learning to accept what did happened and the consequences it brought forth).

In life, we face circumstances where we want everything to be brought together. Whether it is solving a puzzle of the past or finding peace in present circumstances, as the bucket of life drips slowly empty, we can find our resources exhausted and our hope failing. We can seek release and salvation in any and everything we can. As life seems so untrustworthy, we desperately reach out for anything that vaguely resembles something or someone we can trust or is reliable. Embedded in the heart of desperation is a certain rigidity. Our hearts are not readily open to anything new, anything different, anything unexpected.

But it is in the vagueness and hopelessness of life that God’s newness shines through in unexpected ways. The Savior of the World is a baby? While surely, every person is a baby at some point, how foolish is it to place the hope and expectations of the future upon someone as they are a weak, frail, helpless infant. Let him at least get to the age of being able to take care of himself before you anoint him anything; what can be so inspiring about a baby? Nevertheless, the coming of God was made known in a most unexpected way. Simeon, who longed for God’s comforting of Israel in it’s difficulties, understood that this infant was God’s salvation and light. How could a man who was longing for a sense of peace, and it was granted, find in someone so unexpected the hope that would ease his burdens? How can the inevitable skepticism birthed out of hopelessness be suddenly undone?

As I remembered what plagued me, I did what many would perhaps have considered counter-productive. I sought to keep my mind remember what happened. Despite my fear and pain, I trusted that somewhere there was something good in what happened (along with a trust that my memory would not lead me desperately astray). I could have tried to forget; I could have attempted to direct my attention elsewhere, trying to distract myself from reliving what happened. In the short run, this would have probably made my life better. Yet, it was precisely because I kept my mind and heart open to what had happened that I could then later on recognize the fresh but unexpected insight that brought clarity to the confusion. I had trusted that there was some sensibility in the senselessness and something from God in a situation which had seemed far from Him.

So how could Simeon find Jesus as an infant to be the hope for Israel? The Gospel of Luke speaks of the Holy Spirit being with this devout man. In desperation, clinging to what is reliable and true, the very word of God, can keep us open to the very new possibilities as the One who we can trust is the One who later points us in a new direction. This would have no doubt been difficult to do, however. After all, it was God who made promises to Israel, and yet it was Israel that was in a life far from God’s promised future. It would have been easy and tempting to distance oneself from any serious hope, to relegate the talk of God to language to justify power and rule structures or simply interesting curiosities of discussion. But how does one seriously trust a God who made promises when the promises seem far off? Nevertheless, Simeon did this when so many others didn’t. In aching for the consolation that he still expected, Simeon entrusted his life to the guidance of God. Simeon’s heart remain open and prepared for God’s Spirit to communicate to him the unexpected, glorious future of this small infant.

Often, God’s power shows up in unexpected ways after periods of absence that can try our hearts and minds. So, when God’s solution is revealed in such a surprising way, a heart that is not distracted but continues to direct purposeful attention with anticipation can prepare our minds and hearts to see what is a mystery.

And so as we wait in this season of Advent, we do remember the past coming of Christ. But for many of us, we are looking for Jesus to work new miracles in our life, to bring fresh light into our old, lingering darkness; yet, everything we have tried, everything we have looked for seems to come up lacking. As we look for God’s coming in fresh, new ways, there must be a corresponding disciplining of the heart in order to be able to see and accept what is to come from God. That entails trust, a trust that may be challenged but somehow remains.

 

Humility and Jesus

Humility is a virtue that is promoted by a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, it attributed to Charles de Montesquieu the saying: “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” Ernest Hemingway’s take on humility says ““There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”” Then the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis proposes that “[t]rue humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Mahatma Ghandi says “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” In each of these pictures of humility, you get a wide array on what humility looks like: solidarity with people, striving within yourself towards betterment, the lack of self-absorption, and skepticism of one’s own thinking.

Are these quotes all referring to different things and stand as contradictory? I would say no. Instead, I would say each of these quotes picture a certain aspect of humility but that these different features tend to go hand in hand with one another. A person who stands with other people and is genuinely concerned about their interests will also be the type of person who question their own judgments in case their own thinking does not listen well to the concerns for others. A person who is less self-absorbed will probably be a person who will not seek a position of superiority. However, despite the alignment of these visions of humility, there is also some tension between the various construals. How does one, as Hemingway says, becomes superior to one’s former self while, at the same time, thinking less about yourself. How can you be act with interests for your fellow humans if you are skepticism about your own wisdom throws you into insecurity that prevents the action necessary to stand with others?

In the end, the virtue of humility seems to have no one singular set definition, but the sense of what humility can vary from person to person and culture to culture.  In a collectivist culture, humility may be seen as submitting your interests to the interests of the common good and accepting the judgments of society as valid, whereas a more individualistic culture may think of humility less in terms of submitting one’s own interests and more in terms of cognitive skepticism as embodied in critical rationality and science. What seems to be held in common in understandings about humility is the rejection that greatness is embodied within ourselves, whether that be not making yourself standing above the people, feeling contented with your current self, focusing your attention on your own needs, or overconfidence in one’s judgments.

I would go further to suggest that with humility, we are to be careful to not esteem ourselves in a way that distracts us from our responsibilities, whether the responsibility is to serve others, to become a better person, to focus on other people’s interests, or to find truth. Humility is finding our own lives being in right alignment to fulfill our responsibilities. A person who takes themselves in high esteem may view their own responsibilities as being very different from other people; our news routinely reports on people of high status flouting the rules that everyone else lives under. Although different people and cultures will define our responsibilities differently, I would suggest humility is deeply connected to being able to take the responsibilities entrusted to members of a group, whether it be the family of humanity, a citizen of a country, a participant in a religious community, etc.

There are certain implications of this understanding about humility. If humility is related to how we act ourselves in accordance to what we are responsible for, then there are two ways we can fail to achieve humility. The first is certainly the most well known forms of pride: to suggest one is more powerful than one actually is. With this sense of power, a sense of personal self-regard can ensue that can either a) inflate the gandiose mind’s sense of responsibilities or b) lead to the rejection of responsibilities because one has the power to resist. This type of pride is the classical enemy of humility.

There is another enemy of humility, though. It is that which exists in faux humility, where one denies one power. Because pride is readily connected to grandiose views of own’s power, powerlessness is often treated as the pathway to humility. However, the role of being powerless victims stills can flout responsibilities. More particularly, by denying power one is denying responsibility to act. Therefore one is blocking any sense of guilt and shame for what one does or does not do; it is a deep human instinct to not judge those who are powerless to do something.  The heart of powerlessness is also pride. Wounded pride perhaps. Maybe it is the pride of a person who has taken so much in their lives that they refuse to accept responsibility lest the be put into a position where they are held responsible. At the core of a life defined by the powerlessness of victim narrative is pride.

So humility is to have the appropriate mindset and character to keep right connection between our power and our responsibilities. For the followers of Jesus, this is best embodied in JEsus as quoted from an early hymn by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:6-11. As a picture of humility, Jesus is said to have “emptied himself.” What does that mean? What does it mean to “empty” oneself?  The meaning of ἐκένωσεν (ekenosen) in this context is not amply clear. Christian theology has been tempted to develop an elaborate theological concept of kenosis that delves in metaphysical and spiritual notions. However, I would suggest the error in such a perspective as it pertains to Philippians is that it attempts to take the language of the hymn as somehow a technical description of Jesus’ nature. Instead I would argue “empty” is used as a metaphor for powerlessness, much as the word was metaphorically used in other places in the New Testament.

However, that sense of powerlessness is not an outright powerlessness of a victim. Jesus was not powerless nor a victim. For instance, Jesus performed great miracles, even raising a man from the dead. Even in his death, Jesus cross was not forced upon him, but he did it willingly.1 Instead, the powerlessness/emptying of Jesus is a self-limiting powerlessness. It not referring to an ontological or metaphysical powerlessness that Jesus is subjected to or is subjecting himself to. The hymn doesn’t talk about the struggles of how a being with a divine nature could take on human nature.2 Rather, the hymn and the powerlessness it describes is a social and relational powerlessness as described by the position of servant/slave; other human interests restrict the responsible use of power for a servant. Jesus power is restricted by his role and responsibility he has for the rest of humanity. The interests of humanity limits how Jesus uses his own position, power, and authority. It is love that limits his power; it is responsibility that guides his actions. Put another way, Jesus was powerless only because of his ethics.

And so, it is not outright powerlessness that is true humility for the follower of Jesus. Rather, it is the limitation of one’s power for the interests of another, as Paul urges the Philippians before quoting the hymn (Philippians 2:3). Humility is the appropriate attitude that allows us to to accept our responsibilities as followers of Jesus, to God, to fellow believers, to the whole world. That means accepting our power of body and mind to fulfill our responsibilities without overestimating them. That means understanding our responsibilities and accepting them, no matter how great our power might be. That means openness to the truth when we fall short of those responsibilities.3 At the core, the purpose of the virtue of humility is to make us open to accepting and performing the responsibilities we are to have and, as revealed in Jesus Christ, Christ-defined humility the opening of our hearts to the responsibility of sacrificial love of others above our own self.

  1. John 10:18 []
  2. Though within our classical Christology of orthodoxy there is a legitimate place for asking the relationship between the divine and human nature; however, the Scriptures do not go down that trail. []
  3. We call that sin. []

REPOST: Depression and the loss of the Sacred

As I have taken the time the past couple of weeks to take a look back at the past few years, I also decided to go back and look at some of my previous blog posts that I later put on private. This blog post goes back nearly three years to when I was suffering from severe depresison and I was trying to connect the sense of God’s presence in the world. I had recently read anthropologist Mircea Eliade’s book The Sacred and the Profane and connected it to a study on memory. Even though the connection was rudimentary for me at the time, I was developing in my head the key role that memory plays in worship. Enjoy!


New psychological research has just come out that suggests a link between a memory mnemonic and depressions. Today an article on the Medical News Now says:

Researcher Tim Dalgleish of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and colleagues hypothesized that a well-known method used to enhance memory – known as the “method-of-loci” strategy – might help depressed patients to recall positive memories with greater ease.

The method-of-loci strategy consists of associating vivid memories with physical objects or locations – buildings you see on your commute to work every day, for instance. To recall the memories, all you have to do is imagine going through your commute.1

In other words, one way to help remember the good is to see reminders of good things in your life in the objects and places you encounter in everyday life.

However, this association with location and objects with positive memories is similar to how people perceive the Sacred. In referring to the manifestations of sacredness, also known as hierophanies, religious historian Mircea Eliade says,

It is impossible to overemphasize the paradox represented by every hierophany, even the most elementary. By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding cosmic milieu. A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as a sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.2

From the point of the individual person, a sacred thing reminds people of other realities. In the tradition of Israel, the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) routinely found otherwise mundane (or profane) places or objects to be reminders of God. For instance, in Genesis 12:73, Abraham builds an altar after God appears to him. History was a manifestation of God, and objects and places were reminders of God’s appearance, with the implicit hope that God would appear again.

In other words, the Sacred in Judeo-Christian tradition is a place where God appears and there is hope (most fully, in Jesus Christ). Those objects, location, AND PERSON are memories of what God has done and hope for what God will do again. Likewise, the research indicates that vivid positive memories associated with locations or objects can help depression. This suggests that part of the growing level of depression in Western society is the denial of the sacred, at least in part. When nothing is sacred, everything we see simply is what we see, built from the combination of organic/natural processes. Objects and reality itself is built from a bunch of smaller parts working together, but the smaller parts offer no real hope; they are less than the object itself. Or as Eliade puts its:

For modern consciousness, a physiological act – eat, sex, and so on – is in sum only an organic phenomenon, however much it may still be encumbered by tabus (imposing, for example, particular rules for “eating properly” or forbidding some sexual behavior disapproved by social morality). But for the primitive, such an act is never simply physiological, it is, or can become, a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.4

While sacredness, or an object of being a sacrament, is believed to be more than simply a memory, it does act as a memory. To deny the sacred means we cut ourselves off from this vital source of psychological strength and endurance, memories and symbols of God’s presence and God’s hope. But it is precisely the belief that the sacred actually exists, not merely a trick in memory, that makes those who believe in the sacred develop memories of hope. The limitation of the Method-of-Loci study is that there is no inherent connection between the objects/locations and the memories; people will not naturally make the connections between object and positive/hopeful memories. For the person who believes in sacrality, every object that is sacred automatically invokes memories without a need to construct it.

Humanity without the sacred is an organism doomed to a depressed existence.

  1. Method-Of-Loci Strategy May Help Depressed People Remember The Good Times, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/256895.php []
  2. The Sacred and the Profane 12 []
  3. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (NRSV)  []
  4. Ibid., 15 []