SAFE WITH GOD
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
We are progressing through the advent candles, hope, love and this week, peace. In the darkness, as we wait, we can have hope because God is present with us in the darkness. We can learn what is eternal as we are refined by the losses and failures of our lives. Bit by bit, we learn that only connection and love are eternal. This week, we seek peace, not as the world knows it, but a peace that surpasses all human understanding.
I am going to start with the seventh verse and work backwards toward ‘do not worry about anything’ and ‘let your gentleness be known. The Lord is near.’ I think both require God’s peace.
Jesus introduces a concept of peace that is literally outside of human thinking. In his life and death, Jesus affirmed that vulnerability and dependence were the way to loving and eternal life. For Christians it is possible to be at peace even when we are threatened and unsafe. But this way of living runs directly contrary to our hard wired ‘survival’ of the fittest.
Secularly, it is safety first. It does not belong to human understanding to accept, much less choose vulnerability. People get hurt that way. It is crazy to think we can be calm, even peaceful, when we are in danger. Fight or flight is the most basic of self protections. Most commonly we try to be stronger and more capable. We try to present ourselves at our ‘best’. We do not want to be seen as weak, as unable to cope, as poor spouses, or as frustrated parents. We do not want our mistakes and failures to be revealed. Yet no one escapes those experiences. We know we are not invincible. We know we are vulnerable but we treat that part of ourselves as undesirable. Fear drives us. Over and over we choose to hide what is really going on in our lives—in the secular belief that we will protect ourselves from being seen as ‘less than’.
The consequence of this way of living is isolation, despair and self negation. The creation story suggests this predicament has been true for all time. When Adam and Eve hid from God, they could not imagine they could be fully known—and loved. Hiding who we really are stifles and finally breaks relationships. But we still hide. We still try to present our best selves. We still try to control how we will be loved. We are certainly not at peace. The problem is that it is not humanly possible to sustain ‘how we should be’ and when we try, we become impostors constantly at risk of exposure. Whole books have been written on the worry that goes with ‘if they really knew’. When exposure means rejection, it is better to stay hidden. It is better to try to pretend to be invincible or at least undiscovered.
If are to know love, we have to give up how we wish to be seen in order to be seen as we are. That means we have to claim our vulnerabilities rather than hide them. It is not something we do naturally or easily. Very few people will post their failings on Facebook.
Even more threatening is our vulnerability surrounding our physical safety. The current political climate depends upon fear. We will be invaded, terrorist will attack us, our way of life will be unrecognizable. More personally, aging and disease threaten our lives and the uncertainties of the world threaten our children and grandchildren. In FIRL, there was the sobering recognition that most of the threats in our lives were not actually manageable—but we still spend large amounts of time worrying about them. Aging happens to us all. Our children and grandchildren may encounter great hardships. Cancer can strike anyone. Each of these realities is frightening and most of us wish we could avoid them. We even call these difficult times bad times. But in real life, they are as much a part of our living as births, hearth and home. The advent darkness requires us to see the totality of our lives. We don’t get to pick and choose. When God came as an infant and died on a cross, he demonstrated that all of life belonged to him. We may hate our vulnerabilities but God claimed them. God’s peace is not a function of control or invincibility. God’s peace comes from placing our vulnerability in God’s hands.
In FIRL, most people had the experience of such a peace but it was ephemeral. Each of us had some experience in which we gave up trying to manage the world. And each of us got a taste of what it meant to safe with God—even as the world threatened us. It is not a peace we were able to hold on to but it was a peace we could remember.
In my own experience, initially I am almost always immobilized by anxiety. No matter what I have been taught and no matter what I have learned, logic doesn’t penetrate or soothe. I have learned however that if I allow the anxiety to crest, it will begin to subside. I actually have to get used to the experience of feeling unsafe. Usually that means I have to get used to the idea that I really have no control of the outcome. It is only when I fully grasp my limits (or am forced to realize them) can I ‘let go and let God’. Only then can I finally yield. Peace comes in letting go. Until I do, I am a ball of worry.
Paul’s injunctions do not provide relief (Do not worry about anything). I can understand this process but I have not found a way to ‘not worry about anything’. I have even had the experience but I cannot seem to reproduce it on demand. I still get anxious and afraid. Peace is far from me. But I have had a taste of such peace and that memory helps sustain me. Verse 6 is believable for me only if I read it as do not worry about worrying. Don’t treat your worry as a sign of your lack of faith. It is part of our humanity that we are called to bring to God. Relief from worry comes from embracing our lack of control—and that includes my inability to stop worrying. Losing control is at the very heart of worrying. The paradox of faith in real life is that we have little control over our need to be in control.
On a very practical level we can practice God’s peace by clearly acknowledging what we cannot manage. Most of us give cognitive assent to the knowledge of our vulnerability and mortality but most of us are afraid and likely to avoid the actual experience. We can choose vulnerability. For instance, it is helpful to spend a bit of time noticing what is happening to our bodies. We will not be what we used to be. And the more we experience that reality, the more capable we will be to use the life we have left. We can choose to open our hearts to another. We can choose to listen to others. These choices create new possibilities. Such choices make a difference in the most ordinary exchanges. It is why Paul advises “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
God’s peace creates room for conflict and disagreement. In conversation, God’s peace is never imposed upon another. God’s peace allows the reality that there is nothing about any of us that can not be criticized or rejected (ask Jesus about that one). By recognizing and claiming our vulnerability we do not have to be right nor do we have to get people to agree with us. That is the stance of gentleness. Giving up our certainties exposes our vulnerabilities but it creates a space for God’s love. And it can be maintained only in the knowledge that God is near.
May you learn to embrace who you are. Acknowledge your limitations, your fear, your worry and your uncertainty. Create the space that allows you to receive God’s embrace. It is there that you will find God’s peace. Let it be so.