"The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Are there any more profound and beautiful poetic words than the ones I have just read? The dawn from on high will break upon us The new day is coming - a morning when the sun rises not just on another day, but on a new day that will be the beginning, the dawn of a new way of being and seeing. It will give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death That time in the early morning when the dark night is not yet spent and we dwell in the darkness, awake to our fears and painful deliberations. Perhaps haunted not so much by our physical death, but by the death of a relationship, or a job; the death of an opportunity that offered so much and yet gave us so little. The darkness that robs us of the joy that comes with the morning sun and the new day, and then the deep longing that this new day which is dawning will dispel the darkness hidden deep within our souls and finally guide our feet into the way of peace.
The author of Lukes gospel takes these words, this prayer or Psalm of Zechariah, Priest and father of John who will be called the Baptizer, and paints a picture of the role his offspring will play as forerunner to the Prince of Peace.
The prayer of Zechariah is filled with hope and joy, love and the promise of everlasting peace. And yet we look around today, 2,000 years after these words, and find wars and quarrels; dispute and disquiet; turmoil and anxiety. Things fall apart and when they do, it is difficult to maintain the peaceful life, or the peaceful world that we all long for. The Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön said, in her book titled When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times, these words:
"We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem,
but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." (p10)
I think what Pema is suggesting is that peace/healing does not mean docility, tameness, passivity or weak resignation. We know, from the story of the life of Jesus that will be told in the next twenty-four chapters of Luke, that peace is hard won and requires a real commitment to truth and justice.
Peace Within and Peace Without
In the past I have often been critical of the idea that peace is pursued one person at a time. That is, world peace will come when the hearts of men and women are changed and they will then collectively promote peace. Perhaps it was just being a younger man and thinking that was too naïve a view and that political and social action was necessary to deliver the peace bonus we all seek. Well, there is truth in both views, we know that, but at my age and observing the world through my morning newspaper and the evening TV news, I am moving toward the idea that it is all about changing the human heart in order to bring about peace.
More and more writers, philosophers, theologians, poets and scientists are recognising that there is interrelatedness between all things. That human consciousness is not separate from the earth on which we live nor even the universe of which we are but a grain of sand no, even smaller than a grain of sand. But our size in the universe does not exclude us from participating and contributing to the fabric and nature of the universe. I know that there are very woolly theories about consciousness and its power to change the world and your life, but that is not what I am referring to here. I am much more interested in the power of the human heart the human soul the creative spirit of God that is within each of us, to transform and change our way of being in the world and even the world itself. We have a great treasure in the person and message of Jesus. But to really hear it and to live it requires some stripping away of two millennia of religious veneer. It was the journalist G.K. Chesterton who said last century:
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.
Things are Falling Apart for the Christian Church
The answer to finding peace within and peace without has its seeds in Chestertons quote. The fact is that the Christian Church is falling apart around the world. In the West, attendances at worship services are declining at a rapid rate and in the East and Africa, where the numbers are increasing, there has developed a fundamentalism that robs people of access to the life-giving message of peace, love and justice found in the person and teachings of Jesus.
But there is also at a personal level a deep "dis-ease" within the lives of many in our society. It was Chesterton again who said, "When people stop believing in God they dont believe in nothing, they believe in anything." Now I dont suggest that we should return to a notion of God from the 19th Century. Nor that we should all fall in line behind my view of God. No, what is needed is a return to the image that Zechariah prophesied; "That the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give us light "
I have been reading Roland Ashbys book A Faith to Live By: What an intelligent, compassionate and authentic Christian faith looks like. I thought, well, Im all those things, so this book is for me. It is a book of interviews done by Ashby, who is a journalist with The Melbourne Anglican newspaper over the last 10 years. The interviewees include Michael Leunig, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Fr Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister and a variety of scientists and philosophers attempting to integrate faith and life in the modern world. In the article by David Tacey, he says that religion has fallen out of the centre of Australian life because the average person doesnt see a lot of the celebration of life in the churches, or that the creation is basically good. We no longer have a credible answer when we see things falling apart.
but Peace, Hope, Love and Joy can be Found
As always the beginning of the solution to any problem is to be aware of the present situation. When it comes to inner peace, we need to accept that peacefulness, like joy or hopefulness, is glimpsed and experienced for a season and is seldom a state of continually being. Like happiness: there is little point in waking in the morning and saying to yourself, "Today I am going to make myself happy and peaceful!" Happiness and peacefulness are experiences that occur while one is engaged in other activities. If you want to have a sense of inner peace, then do something worthwhile for another person. Or as Charles Dickens said, "To be happy, you must reduce your desires and lower your expectations." Of course, that goes against most of our modern ways of being in the world. But you know, when things fall apart and we are desperately wanting some inner peace, we are often willing to violate the doctrines of modern life.
If you seek inner peace, there is also the timeless mantra that comes to us from Michael Leunig:
Either, as this world preaches, we must go faster and higher and be stronger or, as the other world suggests, we travel slower, go deeper and become wiser. Nothing of lasting value is ever achieved at speed. The way to inner peace follows a gentle, slow and winding pathway which leads deeper within, and there we discover wisdom.
And whether it is inner peace or world peace that we seek, both follow the same path. The world is falling apart well is it any more than it has been before? Some will say so, but I am more hopeful that that. I think we are discovering a new way of being together in the world. Will it happen this year or the next, or 10 years or a hundred? Who knows? But there are signs of a shift in consciousness in the world toward a deeper longing for justice and peace. Our newspapers wont tell you that. They think we crave a diet of despair, desperation and despondence wrapped in the notion that that is just the way it is. Well, thats not always the way it is. To go back to Chesterton, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried -found difficult and not tried". If we want world peace, then we have to go back to the fundamentals that Jesus lived by and taught to those around him. And the most difficult of these is at the heart of the gospel and appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it contains the seeds for world peace ."Love your Enemies!" There is nothing in the Bible that is more counter-intuitive than that pronouncement. And truth to tell, it has never been tried.
When things are falling apart, it is exactly the right time to try new ways (or old ways that have never been tried) and then our lives and our feet will be guided into the way of peace.