Sometimes I think the best I’ll ever do is to imagine peace. Like John Lennon wrote, “Imagine all the people living life in peace.”
Actually, when I allow myself to think hard about peace, I can’t even imagine all the people living in peace much less experiencing the reality of it. Just living with myself in peace seems impossible. Even if there is no external conflict in my life, there’s internal conflict in my head. Every day my left brain and my right brain are in a perpetual wrestling match.
My whole life has been a wrestling match with peace. And when I say wrestling, I really do mean wrestling. I’ve been in a no-holds-barred wrestling match with peace since my earliest memories. I’ve tried every hold in the book: the jackknife, the spinning heel kick, the polka dot drop, the backbreaker, the choke slam. No matter what hold I think I have on peace, peace always slips away.
Wrestling with peace seems to be a national pastime these days. Everyone talks about peace. Everyone wants peace. But the reality is we all seem to thrive on conflict. So the best any of us can do is to “imagine.”
The only problem with that is that Jesus in a beautiful discourse with his closest friends in John 14 says,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
He didn’t say, “I give you imaginary peace” or “I give you peace in the afterlife” or “I give you peace pie in the sky by and by.” He said, “I give you peace” which would imply right here right now. Furthermore, he said, “The peace I give you is not as the world gives you.”
I have so often thought of peace as being the absence of conflict. But when I think about Jesus’s life, Jesus’s whole life was anything but the absence of conflict. Jesus was in conflict with the religious and political leaders of his day. His family thought he was crazy. His hometown tried to throw him off a cliff. He wrestled with God in the Garden. Jesus was no stranger to conflict. With all this conflict, how could Jesus have peace, much less give peace?
The prophet Isaiah paints a beautiful portrait of peace. Listen to this imagery:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the animal being prepared for slaughter together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their calves and cubs shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the poisonous snake,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
I’ve always looked at this scripture as a prophecy of all God’s creatures living in peace when we all get to heaven. As another song goes: somewhere, somewhere, beautiful isle of somewhere. But how can I reconcile that with Jesus words, “I give you peace right here right now in the middle of all this conflict.” And Jesus added to the obvious conflict by adding another layer. He says, “By the way, I’m leaving you but I am also coming.” In essence, Jesus was giving his followers a very conflicting message of his leaving and coming, saying goodbye and hello.
This week it occurred to me that Isaiah’s portrait of peace is more than the absence of conflict; it is a picture of peace in the midst of extreme opposites:
power and weakness,
strength and vulnerability,
the benign and the poisonous,
the innocent and the cunning.
Isaiah’s portrait reflects a reality that goes much deeper than the absence of conflict. It reflects a deeper reality that God is holding the whole world together.
Twilight is such a beautiful time of day. I love watching the sun setting scarlet on the hill. I don’t know. It seems like such a tranquil time. Just the thought of twilight makes me want to go “Ahhhh.”
Sometimes I wonder: What if I could suspend twilight and just live there in that space for a while? Which in reality I think is a little odd for me, because twilight is obviously a time of transition or change. It’s like being on a threshold waiting for the day to end and the night to begin. I, for one, do not like change. I do not like being in between. I don’t like being on the threshold. I like being settled. I like being at peace. I am very much a creature of habit. So my desire to linger with twilight is a bit of a paradox.
And then last night in the middle of the night, God laid something on my heart that I wonder how I could have missed all these years.
The real reason I love twilight is because it’s a time when I get to witness the joining of two opposites: the joining of light and dark. And there’s this moment of rich beauty in their meeting when God lets me get a glimpse of what perhaps God sees every moment of every day when opposites collide and what Isaiah was talking about with the wolf and the lamb and what Jesus was talking about when he gave peace in the middle of conflict including his own coming and going. What could be more opposite than saying hello and saying goodbye at the same time?
Our English word peace comes from a Greek word that means “wholeness” which is why in the Hebrew tradition the word “shalom” is used because shalom means “the joining together of opposites.” So when Jewish people say hello and goodbye with the same word “shalom” they are acknowledging that our comings and goings, that our conflicts, our opposing energies are intricately linked together and part of the whole.
Jesus’s life was defined by conflict and yet he gave peace, shalom, to his closest friends, to us, because peace for Jesus went much deeper than the superficial absence of conflict. Jesus understood the deeper reality of shalom, that God is holding the whole world together. Jesus knew that this Life Force, this benevolent being we call God and Father and Mother is so amazing and so strong that it includes the greatest of all conflicts we call death.
So Jesus could say: Peace. For real.
When Jesus was baptized by John, the gospel of Mark says that the same spirit that descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove immediately sent him into the wilderness where he encountered wild beasts. From the get go, from the moment Jesus began his public ministry, Jesus is faced with conflict and opposites. The same spirit that descends upon him in love drives him into the wilderness to encounter the wild beast. The same spirit that allowed Jesus to encounter the beast also allowed him to encounter the angel. It’s a great sacred mystery that somehow the spirit who leads us into the wilderness somehow knows that the wilderness will lead us back to God.
So whenever I meditate upon a scripture or think about something as sacred as the peace that Jesus gives, I always ask myself the question:
“What’s the invitation?”
For me, the invitation has become “Can I trust?”
Can I trust that the same Holy Spirit who descends on me in love can also lead me into the wilderness?
Can I trust that the same Holy Spirit who leads me into the wilderness to encounter the beast can also lead me there to encounter the angel?
Can I trust that God is in the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear, the innocent and the dangerous, the wild beast and the angel, the coming and the going, the death and the resurrection, the tragedy and the triumph?
If I can trust that God is joining together the opposites into something of rich beauty even when I can’t see it, then maybe I can do more than imagine peace. Maybe I can begin to experience the full measure of peace that Jesus gives right here right now.