I was recently at a clothing store getting some Christmas gifts. It was a Saturday, two weeks before the big day. The line was really long, and barely moving. A few customers behind me was a guy who had run out of Christmas cheer. He grumbled at a cashier, “You gonna open up another lane, or what?” The cashier said she didn’t know if that was possible, apologized for the delay, and thanked the grumpster for his patience. “It’s not just me – all these people are waiting!” Captain Obvious continued to murmur unknown things under his breath, trying to get other customers riled up with him. Luckily, Mr. Grinch didn’t win any converts to his crusade of dissatisfaction. But he certainly didn’t make the time go by faster or the line move more quickly.
Now and then, I get grumpy, too. Not so much with long lines at a checkout. There are two other contexts that mess with me much more. Technology issues and traffic. Anybody with me on one of those? You’ve got stuff to get done on your computer, and it’s not working correctly, or it’s not connecting to the network, which means you can’t print or search the internet for anything. Or the internet service itself is being overly taxed, or is just down for some reason out of your control. Grrrr! You’re totally stuck. Like being in heavy traffic that just crawls along. Especially if it’s the end of the day and you’re tired, your brain doesn’t want to think anymore, and you’re moving inches a minute. And don’t you love it when the reason for the traffic is someone changing a tire that we all need to rubberneck at? Grrr! What sets you off, by the way?
I know. Pretty minor stuff, really. First world problems for sure. I sleep every night in a warm home, a belly as full as I want it to be, and clean water on tap – even hot if I want to take a shower or wash dishes. I do not live under any tyrant’s threat. I have a good job. My health is good. My wife and kids’ health are good, too. Maybe I’m a whiner…
Even so, my reality is still my reality, as is yours. What sets you off, what adds to the chaos of life for you is your reality to live through. Depending on internet service and traffic congestion, you’re at peace or in chaos. We all live with a certain amount of stress and chaos, and sometimes it gets the best of us. Sometimes Christmas – a season when we wish for peace of earth – becomes a season of chaos instead. Sometimes we have really mixed feelings about the whole season because of the tension. What do we do with it? What can we do to increase the peace for ourselves and others, even in the midst of chaos?
We might take some comfort in the fact that the entire backstory that gave us Christmas in the first place was filled with chaos. Zechariah was told that he would have a son who would prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 1:5-25). He was an old man married to an old woman – way beyond childbearing and baby-proofing years. Chaos!
Mary, the unwed teenager legally bound to Joseph, was told she would get pregnant in ways she could not have anticipated (Luke 1:26-56). She would have to tell Joseph, her parents, her friends, her community, her rabbi, none of whom would be excited for her. Her world was about to fall apart, even though she was a heroin in the story! Chaos!
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby was born about six months before Jesus. Traditions were in place so that everyone could guess what they might name the little boy. “John” was not on that list. When Zechariah finally got his voice back, announcing the name of his son, people flipped out, wondering what might become of this kid (Luke 1:57-66). Old people have babies. Naming the kid wrong. Chaos!
Leading up to the baby’s birth (Luke 2:1-7), tradition has it that Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth (think Calistoga, CA) and travel to Bethlehem, just outside of Jerusalem (think San Francisco). Seventy miles. On foot or on donkey. How long before we’d do anything to sit in rush hour traffic to get off our feet? What takes us an hour or so would have taken them several days. Hungry, tired, pregnant, frustrated. Arriving in Bethlehem – finally! – they found out the hotel lost their reservation because their network was down (GRRR!) and they had to settle for a night in the barn among cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and all the crap they produce… Chaos!
Even the night Jesus was born was chaotic. Beyond the fact that he was born in a filthy barn, the first people to hear about the news were not local dignitaries, but the youngest and newest shepherds taking the graveyard shift. The lowest guys on the ladder. Their night was chaos-filled, too (Luke 2:8-20). If they wore underpants, they were surely well soiled after they received a visit from an angel from heaven, followed by a host of them giving the first Christmas concert! Chaos!
So much for silent night!
Sometimes I long for moments of peace. I think of incredibly peaceful moments and want to escape to them: take me to a beach, or a redwood grove, or a stream, or a mountain lake, or a ski slope, or any number of natural spots. Get me there, and I’ll be at peace. And there are other moments as well. Silence at times. Quiet walks with my wife. Memories of watching my babies sleep. Playing with my dogs. Being elevated by music or art.
But these are easy-outs. We don’t live at the beach. We can’t take the mountain lake into the clothing store where Mr. Grinch is spouting off. Our network issues won’t be resolved by a walk through the redwoods. Whatever the chaos is that we face, our efforts at escapism really is just a temporary fix, a momentary distraction.
Perhaps we should take a second and realize that those perfectly peaceful moments are exactly that: moments. Maybe we would do well to lose the perfectionistic idealistic dreams of life being one constant experience lacking chaos altogether. That’s not realistic. And it’s not the experience of those who have gone before us who experienced and pursued shalom throughout their lives. The postcard picture of peace is not what gave us Christmas. Their lives were filled with chaos. And peace that passes understanding. That’s where the power is; that’s where real hope resides and Good News stems. Christmas Peace in the midst of Christmas chaos. Real life.
I recently attended the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at Pepperdine University, a private Christian school in Malibu, California, where my son is a Sophomore. There were several hundred people – mostly students – in attendance. Some were stacked pretty deep up toward the stage, paying close attention to what was being presented. But perhaps half of the crowd was more or less on the periphery, huddled in groups catching up with each other, talking and laughing even while the program moved forward. Some folks had no plans to be part of the ceremony, but were there briefly as they moved through that part of campus on their way from A to B. Thousands of students were not there at all. I have no idea where they were. Studying? Eating? Working? Shopping? Working out? And yet the ceremony continued, moving along with songs, liturgy, words of encouragement, etc. Christmas was happening.
And Christmas continues to happen. Christmas – Christ’s day – the anointed one’s day – the day of anointing – happens every day. Every day the presence of God is manifest in our midst in myriad ways. No day is born where Christ is absent. Christ is born, in a sense, with every dawn, because the presence of God is fresh and growing and redeeming every new day. One ancient voice had the audacity to say that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness, O God!” (Lamentations 3:22-23). These were written, by the way, as part of a book of lamentations – life was chaos for this writer, as it was also for his country. But the steadfast love of God kept coming.
A strange, paradoxical peace does come when we realize that we don’t have to wait for chaos to end before we can have peace. In fact, in the very midst of chaos, peace is. Christ came in the height of chaos – the birth didn’t wait for just the right time when the flowers were in bloom, when everybody was in a good mood, when the network worked and traffic was light. Nope. The anointing of God came – and comes – all of the time. Even in times when we absolutely cannot expect it. Because God is I AM. God is always. God is Present.
More and more people are waking up to this real reality that we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience heavenly peace. More folks are building lives of faith on a simple insight that “God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us. We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe. This world, not heaven, is the sacred stage of our times” (from Grounded, Diana Butler Bass, 30). The implication of this is that we can expect to find God at all times, in every situation, because nothing exists apart from God in the first place.
I think Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph all discovered this after they entered chaos. I think they all woke up to the reality that their chaotic circumstances did not mean that God was not present. In fact, their chaos increased because God was present! Maybe we should then take some delight when we see Godly chaos emerging?! It’s pure speculation, but I wonder if they were all forced to see differently – and respond differently – because they embraced the chaos that was happening rather than trying to deny it or avoid it.
That’s helpful for me. When I deny the chaos, there is little need for Christ, because it’s all nicely organized in my little dream world. But reality catches up eventually. When I acknowledge things as they are, then I can call for help where I need God’s help. I can also see people for who they are – “chaosed” yet made in the image of God. It softens me toward Captain Obvious in the checkout line, and moves me to encourage the associate having to deal with grumpy customers. I can feel “at peace” regardless of the circumstances if I simply acknowledge the chaos that is there, and at the same time believing that Christ is no less present because of it.
Jewish marriage was/is considered sacred, and a shared goal in marriage is expected to be pursued: shalom bayit. This completeness or wholeness is achieved through nurture, respect, and chesed (loving-kindness). Harmony in the home was the goal – a place where the present, anointing of God – Christ/Messiah – dwells. As Jesus followers, we pursue the same goal, because we realize that our world is God’s home, and shalom is our potential. So we pursue it. It is core to God – it is the ground we walk on – and it is core to our life on earth. Peace is not just to be enjoyed individually, as a form of present escapism. On the contrary, shalom is something we only experience deeply as we sow it wherever we go – especially in field of chaos.
What do we do, then, while waiting in line with Sir Grumpy? Or when moving through much more seriously chaotic segments of life, like health, relational, psychological, or economic chaos? I have my thoughts. What about you? Can peace and chaos occur simultaneously? I think the cloud of witnesses suggest they can. How?