Please join me in a spirit of prayer.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which in the Christian tradition, is the beginning of a new year, so happy New Year friends!
I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn that while the rest of western Christianity notes this first week of Advent with the theme of hope, our church does it differently by starting out with peace.
I have yet to hear an explanation for this, but like the story of how the organ ended up here and how the upside Bible found its way to our altar, I suspect that it wasn’t motivated by a particular theological tenet.
But it fits.
Because we live in a culture where everything from our foreign policy to our response to the impoverished is grounded in violence and the false promise of good that will come with retribution.
From the very beginning of the founding of this nation, ruling with might has been the default- aiming to subdue or destroy all that is different or misunderstood. Because we started on stolen labor and stolen land, violence is woven into the DNA of how we operate as a country.
We are clearly caught. Trapped. Stuck in patterns that do not make for peace, in part because in the words of Betsy Headrick McCrae, “We are taught paradoxically that (violence) is the way to peace.”
Many in our world believe that peace is the absence of conflict, a state on planet earth that will emerge when all deemed bad are captured or killed, when evil is contained, but our tradition offers another perspective, another way.
Peace in our hearts, in our households- peace on earth does not come from force, rather it is an ongoing commitment, a steady willingness to take another path and to use our lives to take what is and show what else is possible, peace is taking the pain of the moment and daring to transform it.
We heard this from the Prophet Isaiah that seeking out God’s ways makes the unimaginable possible, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Peace is taking the pain of the moment and daring to transform it…
It was 2012 and three months after the Sandy Hook Massacre where 20 children and six educators where gunned down with an AR-15 assault style rife, when Michael Martin of Colorado Springs was moved to learn blacksmithing.
In response to this tragedy followed by no legislative action, Michael founded a non-profit called Raw Tools, taking donated handguns, assault weapons and semiautomatic rifles, and turning them into garden tools or in the biblical words, the organization turn swords into plowshares.
They literally take metal from guns, often given over after a violent incident and they transform them into something that gives life, instead of taking it. For survivors of gun violence, this work is not just about saving lives, it has become something like a public ritual for processing grief- changing the pain into a tool that will grow food and sow peace.
The scriptures for this first week of Advent have a tone of urgency- now is the moment to wake up and to lay aside the works of darkness. Now is the moment to put on the armor of light!
And while I confess that I struggle with the militaristic language throughout the Bible, some scholars suggest that in the letter to the Romans, perhaps Paul is co-opting military language on purpose, turning this metaphor on its head- knowing that one of Jesus’ core teachings was to love our enemies. As if to say, you have heard that peace comes with armor and a sword, instead wake up to another way, point your life on a path of impossibles, instead put on a different kind of armor- the armor of light!
It is an invitation that requires something of us. Because our cultural default is biased toward anger and getting even and if we don’t wake up to another way, in the words of Carl Jung, we “have fallen a victim to unconsciousness.” When our task “is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious…. the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
I had planned to kick back over the Thanksgiving week, but the father of one of my dearest childhood friends died suddenly of a heart attack at 71. We grew up in the tight knit community of Chattaroy, tucked in rural Eastern Washington and we all came of age together. When we talked on the phone and cried, he asked me if I would do the funeral. My friend’s dad was named Jim and he was a strong, kind, man who wasn’t afraid to cry and express his love for his family. He served in the Navy in Vietnam and was awarded a few medals, but like many who served in that war, in that time, he never talked about it openly. After the celebration of life was done and the military internment was done, I made my way back to the funeral home to catch a ride using Lyft.
A white Buick pulled up and I introduced myself. I noticed the Denver license plate frame so I asked if he had a connection to Colorado. It turns out he grew up in Boulder, went to Boulder High and complained that when he left in the 80’s it was too expensive. We laughed about how things had changed very little.
Then I asked about his hat and I started to realize that I had just come from a funeral of James M. who had served in the Navy in Vietnam and now I was in the car of a James M. who had served in the Navy in Vietnam and they are the exact same age. Okay God, I am paying attention…
James took a big breath and he began to tell me about his time in Vietnam. I could see him wipe away tears, as he shared about how many of his buddies died next to him. And he told me how it crushed his spirit to have survived all of that and then to come home and be yelled at and spit on. He was called a murderer and a baby killer. And he told me how that hurt turned into anger and drinking and a kind of sadness that crippled him so bad, he almost ended up on the streets.
He had years, decades of pain in a time where no one talked about or hard the language for PTSD or moral injury. He suffered in sadness. But then something happened that changed everything for him. In 1996 the Vietnam Memorial Wall came through Spokane and even though he resisted mightily, his then girlfriend forced him to go see it. He stood before it in silence and he found some of the names of his friends. Then from behind, he felt a hand on his shoulder and a younger man approached him. “I need to ask your forgiveness,” the younger man said. “I spat on veterans years ago and that was wrong. Can you forgive me?”
James was stunned. He had so much that was still untended to, but in that moment he said yes. He wasn’t sure why he said it, if he meant it or even what it meant, but somehow, something inside him loosened, maybe softened so he could see what was underneath the anger. This was his chance to begin to deal with the pain. This was his chance at peace.
The way to peace is not war, it is taking the pain of the moment and daring to transform it, choosing to face and change it into something that gives life to the world.
Beloved of God, now is the moment to wake up and to lay aside the works of darkness. We can change our swords into plowshares. We can change our pain into peace. Now is the moment to put on the armor of light! May it be so.