We all long for peace but it can be frustratingly elusive, partly because peace is far more than just the absence of conflict. True and lasting peace stills the turmoil within us and leads us to a deep sense of well-being regardless of what may be happening around us. And true peace can also help us to deal more creatively and compassionately with the turbulence and hostility in the world around us. But the first step to finding this peace is to begin within before we even think about bringing peace into our world. Because when we change our inner world, everything changes in our outer world even if nothing changes.
In this second Advent episode of the EvoFaith podcast, we examine what peace really is and how we can access peace even when our world is anything but peaceful.
A few years ago I lived with my wife in a suburb that was full of apartment buildings. It was high-density living, with thousands of people in a very small, place. And the people who lived there had a reputation, in the rest of the city, for extreme aggression.
One day I remember hearing a commotion outside of my office. I looked out the window to see that a man who was moving house had allowed the removal truck to park in the middle of the narrow street. A line of cars had formed behind the truck because no one could get past. Someone had asked if the truck could be moved just a little so that they could all go on their way. But this man had erupted with a violent, angry stream of vitriol that made me feel bruised just listening to it. It was not kind, and his primary victim was the old lady in the first car. But after I’d reflected on this for a while, I realised that this poor man, as abusive as he was—and I’m not condoning that—must have been so full of turmoil and conflict within himself.
We all know the pain of conflict, turmoil within us, loneliness, and hostility in our families, neighbourhoods, churches, countries, and world. And we all experience hostility within ourselves toward ourselves, at least at some stages of our lives. Regret, failure, feelings of worthlessness, confusion, and anxiety plague us all. And we all long for peace. We may define it differently, but we all long for it. The challenge is that peace can be frustratingly elusive.
The reading from Matthew’s Gospel for the second Sunday in Advent tells us about the work of John the Baptiser. This is what it reports:
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
People from Jerusalem, and throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.
(Matthew 3:1-12 CEB)
In this reading, John hardly seems like a peacemaker. But he was living in an occupied country, with religious and political leaders sucking up their Roman oppressors for their own personal benefit. The average person in Israel at that time had a tough life which could be disrupted or threatened at any time by military or religious bullies who just wanted to exert their power. It was not a time of peace for most Israelites and John could not help but challenge that. John spoke out about everything that got in the way of peace. He condemned the sense of entitlement and the corruption of the religious, political, and financial elites. And he called the ordinary people to a new way of being that would bring greater peace within them and between them, regardless of what might be happening in their world.
John’s confrontational message may not seem peaceful, but it was a calling to a life of peace. It was a promise that peace could be found even in the face of the oppression and corruption happening in his world. And it was a simple invitation for people to nature peace within themselves so that they could know peace in their lives and world. Remember, when you change your inner world, everything changes in your outer world even if nothing changes.
So what can we learn from this? How can we find peace in our turbulent and often unsafe world? Well, here are some of the things that help me to find peace. Maybe they’ll help you too.
Spiritually, everything is connected and everything is sacred. When I see this, I am better able to release my own turmoil and focus on what brings peace to me personally and in my world. What does it mean to you that all is connected and sacred? How does that help you to connect more deeply with peace?
From an evolutionary perspective, and from a creative one, chaos, destruction and death are the raw material from which order, creativity and life are born. Yes, there is conflict. Yes, nature is red in tooth and claw. But ultimately, chaos is where the creativity is and life always emerges from death and destruction. When I remember this, it calms me and gives me peace. How does an evolutionary perspective help you to find peace in your life now?
Globally, as much as there is conflict, extremism, and war, there are also peacemakers by the millions. Those who seek connections with others and who work tirelessly in whatever they can to build bridges instead of bombs far outnumber those who spread conflict and violence. And when I remember this, I find a peace that I can cling to even in the face of turmoil. Where do you see signs of peacemaking? What hope and peace does that offer you?
Relationally, I have learned that peace can often be found by stepping into the shoes of the other, seeing things from their perspective, honouring their differences, and giving up trying to control them, while focusing on controlling only what I can—myself. A few days ago I read these words from Father Richard Rohr: “Loved people do good things. Unloved people do bad things.” Loving one another can make all the difference and it has the power to bring peace even when peace seems impossible. And even if it doesn’t help us make peace between ourselves and an antagonist, it does help us to love the other person and let go of the anger and aggression toward them that we so love to harbour within us. It also empowers us to love ourselves and find peace in recognising that not everyone will like us or see as we do. Where have you experienced peacemaking in your relationships? How does that help you to cling more strongly to peace?
Finally, on a personal level, loving ourselves is a clear path to peace, When we make time to know ourselves, to understand our inner storms and to give ourselves time to rest, reflect, and find what calms us, then we can nurture a consistent practice of internal peace-making. What can you do to nurture peace within you right now?
This is definitely easier said than done, but it is possible: we can find peace even when everything around us is in turmoil. It takes work and it means focusing on creating peace within us before we even try to create peace around us. And when we do this, we will be able to be more peaceful even if we can’t bring peace into our world. Because when we change our inner world, everything changes in our outer world even if nothing changes.
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