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Too Much to Ask: Lighting the Peace Candle for Advent

advent peace :: sarah bessey

I woke up early with the tinies this morning. A cold has been steadily passed around since we travelled to visit my husband’s family for American Thanksgiving so we’ll likely be staying home from church to spare everyone else a miserable week or two. Instead, I brewed the tea and made porridge, we settled into the couch with books and Doc McStuffins. Soothing small wounds, feeding hungry bellies, setting the house to right again, running fingers through their hair, this is ministry, too.

Sundays are ‘candle days’ as the tinies call them because it’s another Sunday before Christmas. They will probably bicker about whose turn it is to blow the candle out but whatever we’ll get there. They asked which candle is for today: “Peace,” I said. “We’re lighting the Peace candle tonight.”

Talk about a radical act of faith.

The world’s relationship with peace feels complicated right now, I know. The prophet Jeremiah cries out from the Old Testament like so many – too many – of us around the world right now,

They offer superficial treatments
    for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
    when there is no peace.

Or as the old King James version says, we are ones who say “Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:11)I tried to sing O Holy Night the other day. I broke down into tears: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” Weary, yes, that’s the word for it.

In his name, all oppression shall cease.

O Holy Night, like so many of our advent songs, is beautiful, yes, but it’s also prophetic and subversive, protesting with what C.S. Lewis called “biblical imagination.” It’s a speaking-out-ahead of the truth, it’s a declaration. The very thing that makes it holy is the thing that most of us want to forget in this season: the presence of oppression and grief, weariness and weakness, how desperately we need his law – love, and his gospel – peace.

I’ve learned by now that faith isn’t pretending that the mountain isn’t there. It isn’t denial of the truth, or the facts, or the grief, or the anger. It’s not the lie of speaking “peace, peace” when there is no peace. It’s faith because it is hope declared, it is living into those things that are not yet as they will be.

I hold space for the righteous anger and the grief, I join in the lamentations of the weary world.

And at the same time, I will light a candle tonight and declare that the Prince of Peace is among us again.

Lighting candles is fitting for Advent. We live in an electric light world. At Christmas, we are overwhelmed with the bright lights, the sparkle is never-ending. We dazzle and distract ourselves with glitter until we leave no room for the longing and the waiting that still resides within the grief of being human. I love the sparkle of Christmas but I also need the quiet light of a candle on my old kitchen table to illuminate my faith. Here is the darkness, here is the truth, and so we light a candle.

I was reminded of a poem by my one of my favourite poets, Luci Shaw, this morning. I went to my rickety Ikea bookshelf, swaying with the weight of books, and pulled out the slim volume of poems for the Incarnation called “Accompanied by Angels.” This book has been my companion for eight years of Advent now, for some reason I find more solace in poetry during times of longing than in any well-delivered sermon or point-by-point systematic theology argument.

The poem I was thinking about is called “Too Much To Ask” – the pages are dog-eared and so I found it easily.

It seemed too much to ask
of one small virgin
that she should stake shame
against the will of God.
All she had to hold to, later, 
were those soft, inward 
flutterings
and the remembered surprise
of a brief encounter – spirit
with flesh.
Who would think it
more than a dream wish?
An implausible, laughable 
defense.
 
And it may seem much
too much to ask me
to be part of the 
risky thing – 
God’s shocking, unconventional,
unheard-of Thing
- to further heaven’s hopes
and summon God’s glory.

 

I’ll light the candle tonight and I’ll pray for peace with the Church worldwide, even if I have to do it here with a bunch of sick kids wiping noses on their sleeves in the darkness, even if it feels too small of an act.

And then I will seek ways to embody those very prayers, to incarnate them, to further heaven’s hopes and summon God’s glory in ways big and small, seen and unseen, mundane and holy.

Skeptics, each of us, when it comes to the thought of peace. It’s too much to ask and it is that very thing that makes it worth doing, the very impossibility of living into our Advent songs and declarations. His law is love and his gospel is peace.

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Continue Reading · advent, christmas, peace · 11

In which God is transforming the world :: on hope, Iraq, and everything else

One of my tinies has a particularly sensitive spirit.  (Well, to be honest, I tend to think most kids do. Maybe some of us just get really good at dulling our sensitivity early.) One night, he couldn’t sleep and seemed very rumpled in his soul. Finally, hardly able to speak the words for how they gripped his mind, he told me about a poster he had seen at a community event. He had been out with his dad for the day. And there were booths set up at the event, not only for local businesses but also for local charities. And I guess one of them was for a charity that works to prevent child trafficking.

“It was a kid, Mum, and he had chains wrapped all around his body and he was scared.”

My son was devastated at just the memory of this poster, unable to sleep. He was too young to see such a thing perhaps, because he didn’t understand marketing materials. He was just at a little community event and was confronted there with an image that now tortured his sleep. We didn’t notice it and so couldn’t help him understand or process it at the time.

That night, I wrapped him in my arms. We prayed and talked about it and prayed more. He curled up into our strength. He slept with us all night.

But I admit that I lay awake wondering why I’m not more bothered – especially because I know the truth behind images like that. And so many others.

A religious minority chased up a mountain to starve to death in Iraq, their children being beheaded and crucified. Forced female genital mutilation. The girls still in the clutches of Boko Haram. The situation in Israel and Gaza, so many Palestinian civilians dead, their children weeping or injured or worse. There’s the Russian escalation, planes being shot out of the sky, the spectre of people littered in a field without proper care for days, 24 hours news coverage of carnage. There are the kids caught in the midst of the central American refugee crisis, pouring over borders and now being kept in detention centres. Lonely, sad-eyed children trapped in airless buildings without hope. Ferocious ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now into Nigeria it seems. Unarmed young African-American men killed o the street or in the Walmart toy section without provocation as they move through their daily lives.

And the list goes on. and on. and on.

I scroll through Twitter and in between snippets of snark and jokes, people are posting pictures of someone else’s dead kids.

With the news coming out of Iraq, I remembered – almost against my will – every single sermon I have heard in my life around Easter, a preacher usually describing in terrible detail the crucifixion of Christ in gory nuance (why do preachers do that?) and then I found myself applying all of those same descriptions to someone else’s child in the cradle of civilization just yesterday, and my stomach heaves and then I shut down my entire mind and heart, unable to bear it.

I can’t think of it, I can’t think of it, I can’t think of it. No one could. This is evil, this is hell.

I hear of these things and then I cannot bear it so I stop thinking of them. I simply close the gates of my mind and heart to it, it’s too terrible. And yet I move through my day somehow. I sleep well. I eat meals. I am consumed with my own concerns.

But on the night one of my children came to me, utterly devastated by just the sight of marketing materials having to do with child trafficking, I knew he was more right than me.

I should be devastated. We should all be devastated. It should disturb my sleep.

Perhaps lament and anger and grief is the most godly response and posture. 

Grief and lament and anger is the beginning point of hope, it seems.

I lay in bed with my broken-hearted boy and saw the truth of this. His heart was broken by just the glimpse of injustice towards children, and I had to wonder why my heart is not more broken, why my sleep is not more disturbed when I know and have seen so much more.

My son was right in his response. I have become too callous to suffering.

It’s been a hard summer in this old world of ours. The Kingdom of God seem so far away in these days. It feels foolish to pray and hope sometimes.

The dream of turning swords into ploughshares seems laughable. Who could turn tanks and missiles into farming equipment? Who could dare speak of a day when all tears will be wiped away? Who is foolish enough to hope for the desert to burst forth into bloom, for streams of water to flow in the parched and barren places?

I turned to the words of the great Desmond Tutu, who carries both hope and sadness like an anointing. He wrote, “Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.” 

And so I find myself hoping.

Foolishly, perhaps. But it’s a company of holy fools, spreading like yeast. Small seeds grow to mighty oaks.

We feel small in these days. And that smallness makes us feel powerless in the face of such suffering. Even stretching out our opinions from the place of disinterest and objectivity on each story is a privilege.

So how do I hold onto that hope that God is transforming the world now through us?

We can’t willfully push away the suffering of humanity and the terribleness of the world out of selfishness and discomfort with the truth.

We can listen – truly listen – to the stories that people need to tell. Maya Angelou wrote that there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.

We can kick against the injustices and amplify the voices of those who are suffering. We can read the prophets like Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah. We can educate ourselves and seek to understand complexity outside of our pet sources. We can light candles and, oh, we can pray.

We can write letters and advocate. We can be teachable. We can hold space for the suffering. We can both prayerfully and practically support people and organizations who are working towards peace and shalom in the front lines. We can do that work ourselves, daily small and unsexy as it is.

We can let our children lead us back to the right response – compassion and tenderness of heart again.

In the words of Isaiah, we can sweep our lives clean of evildoings, say no to wrong, learn to do good, work for justice, help the down-and-out, stand up for the homeless, go to bat for the defenseless. (Isaiah 1:12-17)

Isaiah

If we want the light of God to be the light by which we live, let that light shine in our lives and let it expose the truth. The truth shall set us free. We can give myself over to a sleepless night, holding vigil with all those who weep and watch and wait. We can create beauty. We can be what Kathy Escobar calls a “pocket of freedom and love,” setting up prophetic outposts of the Kingdom of God in our right-now lives.

And we can pray with our children and then raise them to listen, and to work, and to partner with God in the work of truth-telling and reconciliation and justice. This is God’s work, to love well.

We can be men and women who love.

Sometimes, absolutely, mountains move in a great sweep, picked up and cast out into the sea.

But these days I find that God often asks us to move a mountain one small stone a time.

Faithfulness is picking up my small stones, instead of screwing my eyes shut and denying the existence of the mountain.

Sometimes it all begins with the terrible prayer: Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours.

Be careful, because when your heart breaks, everything and everyone can tumble right in, right where they belong, right to the centre of your love and your hope.

Kyrie eléison. Lord, have mercy.

 

 

Continue Reading · faith, peace, social justice, suffering · 36

In which it’s been 12 years since that horrible day

Make a bit of room in your day for the remembering, for the grieving, for the praying.

America, we are all praying for you and loving you today.

How has it been twelve years since we all beheld the sight of towers crumbling, planes against a blue sky, unflappable news man Peter Jennings unable to speak?  I am remembering my horror – true shrieking innocent horror, hands to my mouth, crying for days – as people flung themselves out of tall buildings rather than remain inside to be burned alive.

Do you remember the posters that went up all over Manhattan of the missing? I am remembering people covered in blood and dust, the terror and agony we all felt. I am remembering the weeping and the mourning all across the world, how we were all Americans that day. I was in the United States at that time of my life, just a 3 month newlywed, and I remember the patriotism, the giving, the love, the deep sadness and even yes, the anger, the rage, and need for revenge.

I won’t ever forget it. We’ve grown jaded and suspicious, sardonic and pragmatic, but on that day, we felt it all and we were changed.

Today I’m grieving for every child that has grown up without a parent, every mother who buried her child, every person with nightmares and pain and fear, every person wounded in their body, their mind and their heart as a result of that day.

I’m also remembering the worldwide military and their families. Those that serve and serve and serve, those that are wounded emotionally and physically, those that lost their lives. I am remembering them far away from their families, struggling and battling, keeping watching with courage and bravery I can only imagine.

I’m remembering the thousands and thousands Iraqi and Afghani citizens who are referred to as “collateral damage” from the fall-out afterwards. Remember the children growing up without parents, the mothers who buried their children, the twisted bodies in the sandy streets and hate-filled mobs screaming for never-ending violence.

I’m remembering the purple forefingers of first-time voters and the girls with disfigured faces from acid attacks because they dared to go to school. Oh, don’t forget the aid workers, the ministers, and the brave ones who stand against tyranny from within in a million small ways.

Today is a day to remember them all. Make a bit of space for God today, make a bit of space to remember and to grieve and to pray. Our world could use a bit of peace making.

Maranatha” again.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Kyrie eleison again.

Christ, have mercy.

(An edited repost from the archives.)

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Continue Reading · peace, USA · 7

In which redemptive violence is a myth for Syria

Peace is not merely a distant goal

I am not an isolationist. We belong to each other, of course, we do. The people of Syria are our people. This vicious civil war has been going on since spring 2011 and Syria’s children dying horrific deaths, her activists have been murdered, more than 100,000 of her people have been killed, some of them with the neuro-toxins of chemical warfare, and there are 2 million – million! – refugees.

Who could isolate themselves from such suffering? Who would turn away from such evil?

And yet I am absolutely against any military intervention in Syria.

Bombing Syria will not solve a single thing in this conflict and it will bear repercussions for decades. Precedent has been set by other conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, that bombings are not strategic and military intervention will not fix anything, particularly over the long term.

There are many logistical, political, reasonable, legal, and just-plain-common-sense reasons for our nations to avoid bombing or military action in Syria. (Check out questions 6 & 7 in this article at the Washington Post, 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask)

But beyond the obvious and well-documented reasons and precedents to avoid military conflict in the Middle East again,  let me add this reminder:

Redemptive violence is a myth.

In the same way that I want to be a feminist in the way that I believe Jesus would be a feminist, I want to engage with world conflict in the way I believe Jesus would engage with world conflict. I believe that followers of Jesus should never be the ones calling out for war or bombings or violence of any kind. Violence is evil, and partaking in violence will never bring about real or lasting peace. Each side in this conflict believes they are in the right and it’s clear there is no “good guy” here. Violence continues and spirals and worsens and there is no redemption in sight. Why would we contribute to that evil in any way?

We sow the wind, as the prophet Hosea warned, and then we are surprised when we reap the whirlwind.

As followers of Jesus, we are meant to live the ways of our Saviour into every corner of our existence. In this instance, I support and engage with efforts advocating for immediate care of refugees, worldwide diplomatic pressure and dialogue, particularly with Syria’s neighbours and allies, and a strong commitment to the practice of non-violence. We should be the voices and hands of peace making in our world. Walter Wink calls this “the third way” – the action alternative from military intervention and isolationism.

Non-violence isn’t passive: it’s active and hard and real. It’s a discipline and it subverts violence with radical peace-making.

Disciples of Jesus are meant to live as ambassadors and signs of God’s shalom. Peace-making is not for the faint of heart and it is the prophetic call of the believer.

We must pursue the third way – not passive and yet not violent, this is the way of the peace maker.

Go on and write or call or email your government to make sure your voice is heard.

Go on and give money NGOs and ministries working to relieve suffering, particularly for refugees, and to end conflict within Syria.

Go on and become active in the refugee community of our city.

Go on and speak up in your community and take the side of peace making.

Go on and sign petitions or participate in peaceful protest.

Go on and educate yourself.

And go on and pray – with your voices, your spirits, your bodies – for peace.

 

Continue Reading · peace, politics, social justice · 28