Waging Peace

From Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
There is a Cherokee legend that goes something like this:  An old Grandfather is talking to his grandson, who came to him furious and deeply angry at some people who did him a great injustice.  The Grandfather responds to his grandson with a story….
    I, too, have felt great anger—even hate—for people who take so much—who do not seem to be aware of how their behaviour affects other people—who act petty, malicious, arrogant, self-righteous, and entitled to more than is justly theirs.  But this hate just wears you down, and it does not hurt your enemy.  It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die.  I have struggled with these feelings many times in my life. . . .
    It is as if there are two wolves inside me.  One is full of blinding anger.  He is fearful, resentful, envious, greedy, arrogant, and full of self-pity.  The littlest thing stirs his temper.  Because he has been hurt, he is willing to fight anyone—anytime—in order to pass along the hurt.  He cannot think because his anger and hate and fear are so great.  But even though this anger is intense, it is also helpless.  For this anger will change nothing. 
    The other wolf inside me strives to live in peace.  He tries to be open and fair, humble and kind, compassionate, and generous in spirit.  In everything he does, he attempts to live in harmony with others and to do no harm.  He sincerely tries not to take offense when no offense was intended, and he will only fight when it is necessary and just to do so.
    Sometimes, Grandfather said, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, constantly pulling me in different directions.  Both of them try to dominate my spirit—to claim my attention and to direct my energy.
    The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”  And Grandfather smiled and quietly replied, “The one I feed.”

    We are all living with these wolves inside us—competing for our energy and attention.  And perhaps even more so at this time of year—when emotions run especially high, expectations drive us beyond our normal limits, and pressure builds up in us to do and be more, better, happier, healthier, richer, thinner, stronger, fancier, faster.
    With all this intensity, the holidays can bring out the best in us—generosity and compassion, hospitality and openness—and they can also bring out the worst in us.  Lately, I’ve noticed people driving faster and more aggressively on the freeways, being pushier in lines at the grocery store, more curt on customer service phone calls.  Despite the peace we hear about and are called to cultivate at the holidays, many people I’ve come into contact with recently are struggling with intense anger, fear, frustration, grief, and stress—and are increasingly on edge.  The angry, fearful wolf inside is consuming them.
    But when we are caught in this cycle of feeding the angry wolf, how do we stop?  How do we break free?  How can we switch gears and do something differently?  How do we begin to nurture that peaceful part of us that wants so desperately to live and thrive and guide us toward a deeper, more meaningful, more loving existence?
    Our contemporary culture accelerates our lives at a hectic pace, and we desperately need ways to slow down, simplify, unplug; we need opportunities to get off the freeways, turn off our phones and computers for a while, and connect deeply with ourselves, with others, and with God. 
    We are confronted daily with information and news that can make our lives easier, more connected, and better informed—but can just as easily contribute unnecessary layers of trivia that bury us in feelings of inadequacy and over saturate us with minutiae…  We urgently need PEACE.  We crave peace. 
    And so, we must wage peace.  We must wage peace with our breath and our very being. 
As Mary Oliver reminds us, “Remember your tools:  flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers. / Make soup.  / Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages. . . . / Think of chaos as dancing raspberries, / imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty.”  The ways we wage peace can be physical or spiritual, but whatever ways they are, they provide ways for our souls to expand and breathe deeply.  They enable us to find a quiet center and nurture that peaceful wolf that lives within us.  And by doing this, peace inevitably ripples outward from our lives and brings peace to the lives of others.
    With the passing of the inspiring Nelson Mandela this week, I’ve been doing some reading and reflecting on his life.  The winner of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end the apartheid regime, he certainly knew a thing or two about finding and sustaining peace in difficult and soul-damaging circumstances.  “If you want to make peace with your enemy,” he said, “you have to work with your enemy.  Then he becomes your partner.”  In his reflections on working toward peace, he wrote, “I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.  A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.  I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me.  The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
    When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.  Some say that has now been achieved.  But I know that that is not the case.  The truth is that we are not yet free. . . .  We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road.  For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. . . .” 
    Our world is full of places and situations of intense conflict, violence, oppression, war.  Many of us are accustomed to thinking about peace only in opposition to these dire and desolate circumstances.  And certainly, peace does stand in opposition to these circumstances; it challenges injustice and advocates for those in need. 
But waging peace begins within us.  And only by creating peace within can we create peace without.
    And this is what I think the writer of Matthew’s gospel communicates to us about peace in our scripture reading this morning.  Repent. . . .  Prepare the way. . . .  Bear fruit. . . .  Peace must start within, and only then can it manifest in the world around us.  John the Baptist’s message—echoing some of Israel’s great prophets—connects him with traditional hopes for Israel’s future.  And his hope was great. . . .  A Prince of Peace to restore the nation. . . .  Like Isaiah tells us, a shoot from the stock of Jesse, an ideal ruler filled with the fruits of the Spirit:  “Not by appearance shall he judge, / not by hearsay shall he decide, / but he shall judge the poor with justice, / and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”  And a peaceful kingdom will result.  Worldly enemies—predator and prey—will peacefully live together:  wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, “with a little child to guide them. . . .  The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, / and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. / 9They will not hurt or destroy  on all my holy mountain.”
    These venomous snakes Isaiah mentions find their way into our reading from Matthew as John scolds the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers,” who are overly satisfied with themselves and unconcerned about bearing good fruit and preparing the way for hope and peace in the world. . . .  And Matthew draws on the final verses of Isaiah chapter 10—just before our reading this morning—to warn those who are not concerned about bearing good fruit in the world:  Isaiah says, the LORD “will hew off the tree crowns with an ax: / The tall ones shall be felled, / The lofty ones cut down” [Isa 10:33].  And in Matthew, John says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 
    This is a warning, as well as an invitation, to wage peace.  To repent, to turn from behaviors that stunt and stifle hope and love in the world.  To prepare the way of the LORD, to make room for the movement of goodness and peace.  And to bear good fruit, to be agents of change and justice and grace.  Otherwise, we might as well be kindling.
    Peace is possible.  Even in the midst of crushing imperial agendas, power-hungry despots, and dehumanizing circumstances.  Peace is possible.  But peace does not begin somewhere out there.  Peace begins within us—in our bodies and in our own personal experiences.  It begins with our commitments and our actions.
    So, prepare.  Make a path for peace to work its way into your lives.  Look for ways to nurture humility and kindness, compassion and generosity of spirit.  Find ways to allow your spirit to settle into spaces of deep peace—no matter what hopes and fears you carry with you.
    Recent studies in neurobiology show that a brain in a relaxed and meditative state is capable of slowing the heartbeat and changing the way reality is perceived.  This peaceful state of being provides an internal environment in which physical, emotional, and mental well-being actually changes the world by slowing down our customary reactive and angry responses to the external environment.  In other words, by nurturing and manifesting peace within, we have the profound power to manifest peace without.  By finding ways to relax, simplify, and quiet our internal struggle, we actually open ourselves up to deeper awareness and greater peace in all aspects of our lives.  So, taking time to feel the earth beneath our feet becomes at least as important as rushing to the next meeting.  And finding moments and places of beauty may be just as important as bread in nurturing our overall well-being.
    During this time of year—and actually at all times—we have the choice of feeding the wolf that is full of anger, fear, resentment, arrogance, greed, and self-pity.  Or feeding the wolf that is full of peace, openness, humility, kindness, and generosity.  They both fight for our attention passionately.  Which one will you feed?


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