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Longing for Peace

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"When we are seeking refuge, from whatever it is that ails us, it is often peace that we deeply crave. Peace to end wars, peace to calm troubled thoughts, peace to accept the things that we cannot change, peace for sore hearts."

- Luke Dowding, Preaching on Psalm 46 at 'Provoking Faith in a time of isolation', the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 8th November 2020

The figure you’re currently seeing on your screen is as accurate a calculation you might find on the number of lives lost to war and armed conflict in 2020.

That number reads 83,335.

83,335.

83,335 deaths caused by war and armed conflict, many of which you’ve probably never heard of. I certainly hadn’t.

The next number on your screen is a probably slightly less accurate currently, but no less telling figure, showing the number of deaths caused by Covid-19 in 2020.

That number reads 1.23 million.

(A slight disclaimer here there these figures were taken as recorded towards the end of this week, so it’s likely there will have been an increase since then.)

It is fair to say that Covid-19, the reporting of it, the measures imposed in attempts to restrict its spread, and the impact it is having on the health and wellbeing of people across the globe, has taken up a fair amount of our collective brain space this past year. Yet, isn’t it strange that the news from the rest of the world seems to have diminished in volume – at least, if it’s not US presidency, pandemic, or Brexit related?

The recent terror attacks in France and Austria made the news here in the UK, but did you know that of the 83,335 deaths recorded as a result of armed conflict or war, 61 of those were from acts of terror in Pakistan?

Did you know that some 2,240 deaths are attributed to the ongoing ethnic violence in South Sudan? Or 2,188 in Iraq, and 15,937 in Afghanistan – those last two almost long-since forgotten in the collective awareness of the West.

Have you heard of the Kivu conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? I hadn’t, but over 3,000 people have died as a result of it this year. This conflict, not considered a full-blown war because the casualties have not hit 10,000 annually, has been raging for 16 years.

16 years.

As a church community, we have particular links to friends and networks in Israel and Palestine. This so-called “minor conflict” began in 1948 and has been the cause of over 27,000 fatalities since then.

That’s 72 years.

72 years.

Just as Western Europe was extricating itself from one of the bloodiest episodes in human history, our hands were further stained by the role of the flailing British Empire in the carving up of Palestine.

Yet, you have to dig around to find any of this out. I read the news daily on my phone from a few different sources, attempting to navigate round the complexities of bias and echo chambers. Yet, I don’t recall reading in the general press about any of the conflicts that I’ve just mentioned over the last few months. Our minds are preoccupied, and there is some grace to be found because of that – but, and if I’m only speaking to myself here then forgive me, where is our heart for the forgotten and the oppressed in this season of isolation and withdrawal?

On Remembrance Sunday, we can perhaps fall into patterns of behaviour that encourage us to remember the wars that have most had an impact on Britain, and those people we may know personally – or their families. Even the symbol of remembrance used for today, the poppy, is to remind us of when the First World War ended. It can sometimes then feel that those “big wars” of years gone by are all that we are remembering, and one would hope seeking to prevent from happening again; and perhaps therefore forgetting that conflict, and all the repercussions of it, is a very real and present fear for millions globally.

In recent weeks I’ve been intrigued to see new dialogue on pacifism pop up in online spaces in particular. Age old questions of: “should Christians be pacifists?”, “was Jesus anti-conflict?”, and “are peace and non-violence the same thing?” are being asked again in light of current social injustices that, along with war and armed conflict, continue to plague the world. And these questions cannot be viewed in the abstract – how do we as followers of the Way respond to police brutality, to the restrictions on the right to protest, to the deportation of asylum seekers and refugees? How do we respond when countries are invaded and brutalised for their natural resources, under the guise of global security?

It may be the case that the world has never been more at war with itself than it is today, or it may be that we are just more aware of it. But regardless, it is likely that our hearts are heavy, and our minds burdened with sentiments ranging from “I can’t do anything about this, stop making me feel guilty”, right through to “oh gosh, I can’t do anything about this, help!”. Or perhaps we swing from one to the next, and back again.

The beginning of our reading from Psalm 46 today piqued my interest, as it starts by acknowledging God and not the obvious problems to hand – which other Psalms are known for. Instead, the Psalmist immediately exults God, and makes it very clear that the world may offer times of trouble, but the Divine remains a source of strength and refuge despite this.

According to Charles Spurgeon, Psalm 46 is often called “Martin Luther’s Psalm” as whenever there was any great trouble, Luther was alleged to have said: “Let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm together, and then let the devil do his worst.” Similarly from Spurgeon, John Wesley preached from Psalm 46 in Hyde Park in 1750 – after an earthquake had hit London. A report in the Methodist Recorder from 1950 claims that people “leapt in terror from their shaking chairs, and leaving their pewter rattling on the shelves, rushed into the street before the houses should fall on their heads”. Wesley focussed particularly on verses 2 and 3, as you might imagine: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

But if we’re being honest, what does it actually mean to find refuge in the Divine? Perhaps some well-meaning words about the stability of God actually mean very little to you today; perhaps you’d like a little more of a concrete guide as to how you might be able to tap into some of that strength, or find a space in that refuge?

When we are seeking refuge, from whatever it is that ails us, it is often peace that we deeply crave. Peace to end wars, peace to calm troubled thoughts, peace to accept the things that we cannot change, peace for sore hearts.

Peace is often a tricky concept to get across. It can mean anything from resolving decades long military conflicts such as when used like “peace in the Middle East”, or it can be used to instil a sense of calm and serenity like when we might say “I feel at peace”. And of course, as Christians we might attribute the title “Prince of Peace” to Christ.

In the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition, peace, or shalom, is often used in reference to an appearance of calm and tranquillity of individuals, groups, and nations. The Greek word Eirene (airini) is taken to mean “unity and accord”; and Paul uses this to describe the goal of the fledgling church. This idea of peace can also reflect a sense of homecoming in restoration to the fullness of God, through mind, body and soul.

Perhaps then, we might find refuge in the things that bring us peace. That restore us to better understanding of ourselves, and of the God who is at work within us.

When practicing yoga, my online instructor encourages the community to find the unity between the breath and the movement – which for me conjures up imagery of the breath of the Word, moving across the earth. The practice of yoga is to promote unity or harmony between seemingly independent and often warring factions within us, and there is a great wisdom here that Christians can tap into as well.

But if you’re not able to take up the mat and become a wannabe yogi like me, then where else might you be able to find a sense of shalom – of calm and tranquillity, in your lives today? How might you be able to unite thought, breath, and movement, to instil calm and not angst?

As the Psalmist continues, we are taken on a journey through a river that brings joy to the city of God. This is a city where God dwells, and from which God cannot be removed. Perhaps you’re picturing a city like London now, or another metropolis such as New York, Tokyo, or Mumbai. Whilst the Psalmist likely had other ideas, I believe it is not only a powerful image to see God living now in our cities, but also rooted in the Kingdom concept of the “now and not yet”. God is both here in the chaotic and warring city now AND has prepared the way for the peaceful city of the not yet.

The Psalmist continues to extol the virtues of a God who has vanquished the bad guys and stands victorious in a world that thrives without war and conflict, and who commands: “Be still, and know that I am God!”.

If you have ever attended a gig, concert, or even been in a loud vehicle – when the sounds stop it almost feels like the silence is deafening. It’s not that everything else has stopped making noise, it’s that you’re aware of the absence of the loud sounds from before. There is a similar distinction to be made here, the absence of the sounds of war and of conflict, whether they’re outside or within us, enables us to be still and know that which is perfect unity – God. If we are on a trajectory to cities of peace, then it is in the silence and stillness of the absence of conflict where we find the Divine. The conflicts may not have stopped, yet there is still shalom to be found.

I will admit to feeling slightly deflated at various points throughout this year, and one of those moments was when researching the figures for beginning of this sermon. I felt no peace, and saw only war and conflict, both globally but also locally, and in my heart.

On this Remembrance Sunday, let’s then ask ourselves whether we are seeking shalom in all areas of lives, and perhaps then ask what our role is in the global shalom.

The words of the Psalmist here, I believe, are not meant to be a magic cure all chant we can pray and suddenly fix oppressive structures, systems, and thought processes. But rather a way to reconnect with the truth of shalom and seek that within ourselves and our communities. It is in unity with God, unity with one another, and unity within our-selves, that is where true peace is found.

And so, I’ll close with words from the Gospel according to John, chapter 14 verse 27:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

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