Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

#ChristmasinAleppo

image of Nativity Story movie poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8241723

I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”

There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.

Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.

What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?

Religion In a Time of Despair

I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.

This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.

The True Meaning of Christmas

There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.

Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,

  1. Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
  2. Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
  3. Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
  4. Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
  5. Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.

Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”

Casting Crowns, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, with lyrics

Below: the original artist, no lyrics

WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.

But What Can I Do?

Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.

  1. Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
  2. Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
  3. Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
  4. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
  5. Talk and/or post about it
  6. If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
  7. If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home

Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.

DAA

P.S. If you like this, you might also like…

Previous posts about Syria

Previous posts about Christmas

 

 

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Meditation: Why it’s more important than you think

Why does the past seem so infatuating?   Imagine a place. It can be anywhere. It can be within the empty residence of a loved one recently departed or at a seaside where you used to make sandc…

Source: Meditation: Why it’s more important than you think

Once you were not a people…

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1Pe 2:10 NRS).

This scripture was part of the Kerygma Bible study, and for some reason it struck me. Peter is paraphrasing a passage from Hosea, a prophet from the 8th Century BCE, originally delivered to Israel. The letter was written probably between 70 and 90 CE, so the book of Hosea was already about 800 years old. He wrote to five provinces in what is now Asia Minor, or Turkey. Israel, culturally, was as far removed from them as you can imagine. And yet, the churches in these territories were reading the Hebrew scriptures. That in itself is remarkable when you think about it.

I tried to place myself in the shoes of a Gentile Christian of that time. You don’t know much about Judaism, but somehow you’ve come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. As you gathered with other believers, you learned that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah promised in the Jewish scriptures. You’re a Gentile in a province of Asia. Besides living under Roman rule, what do you have in common with the Jewish Christians in your congregation? Just one thing: you believe in Jesus, and you have heard from those who knew him that everything he did and said was to fulfill scripture, including the way he died, his being betrayed by a close friend, and his rising from the dead.

You’ve heard letters from Paul and stories of Jesus called Gospels. All of them cite scripture after scripture that Jesus fulfilled, so you’ve learned more and more of the Hebrew scriptures. Maybe you have a vague sense that it is connected to you somehow. It is about Jesus and how he was revealed to be the Messiah. But it seems above you or beyond you. It comes out of a history that is alien to you.

In joining one of these churches, you had to renounce whatever gods you had worshipped before. Maybe you have been ostracized from your family. Your associates have stopped doing business with you. Your friends don’t understand why you won’t sacrifice to the same gods now, or why you won’t eat the meat they offer you. You have lost your identity. You are one of the “no-people,” a stranger and alien in what used to be your home.

Then you hear this from Peter. He’s quoting – or actually paraphrasing – some Jewish scripture, but this time it’s not about the Jews or even just about Jesus. It’s about you.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1Pe 2:10 NRS).

And it hits you: I am one of God’s people. You have found who you really are. A history that began thousands of years before you were born, a history that includes Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth and David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and all the prophets, that history doesn’t just belong to the Jews now. It belongs to you. The promises God made to Israel throughout history are to you as well. You and this church and every church everywhere are the people of God just as much as the Jews now, all because of Jesus. This isn’t just their story anymore. It is our story. It is your story. And now you can finally begin to understand who you are. You are a part of God’s people.

You are not just an individual who was born and one day will die for who knows what purpose. You are a part of a people that stretches back through history, long before you were born and will continue long after you are gone. A living history you can build on and contribute to and leave something for the next generation. You are not just an individual in some province of the Roman Empire.

You are one of a people that is in every locality, every city, every province, and is continuing to spread all through the empire and beyond even where Rome can reach. A people of every race, tribe, tongue, and nation who have one thing in common: You have all come to believe in Jesus Christ and his Resurrection power. And because of that, you are all God’s people and citizens of God’s kingdom.

For some reason, all of this came over me at once. Imagining what it would have meant to one of those original recipients of this letter, somewhere in Asia Minor, it came to me in such a clear and overwhelming fashion. I can’t help feeling my words have not even begun to capture it.

Maybe you have had a similar experience, where you were reading the Bible and suddenly you realized God wasn’t hiding somewhere in the pages of history in some elusive mystical experience but was right there with you. Or suddenly you realized you weren’t reading about people buried in two or three thousand years of history. You were actually reading about yourself, your people, your history. If so, I would love it if you would share it in the comments below.

Grace and peace to you.

Spiritual Exercise #1

David Anderson

I’d like to take you through a little exercise. It will only take a few minutes, and I promise you’ll be glad you did. If not, then you wasted five minutes of your life. It’s not like you’ve never done that before. Here goes.

Step 1: Get ready to write quickly. I like to use a notebook and pen for something like this, but if you are more comfortable with a computer and keyboard, or tablet, that’s fine. Whatever you usually use to write. Got it?

Step 2 (optional): If you have a timer or stopwatch readily available, set it for one minute. If not, just guesstimate.

Step 3: Take a minute and brainstorm all the words and phrases you can think of to describe God. You might say things like Creator of everything, omnipotent, infinite, etc. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive. You can write a good list in one minute. Don’t overthink it. Just write what comes to mind.

Ready, set, go.

Don’t read on until after you’ve made your list.

Minute’s up. Now, look at your list. First, if you have anything related to wrath, judgment, damnation, or anything along those lines, cross it out. Or if you’re writing on a computer or device, delete it. There’s a time and a place to talk about those aspects of God, but for purposes of this exercise we want to focus on the positive.

Once you’ve got all the negative weeded out, look over your list again. Say each word or phrase with a pause in between. Let it sink in. Now consider this from Paul:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?[1]  (1Co 3:16 NRS).

God’s Spirit dwells in you. This means everything you wrote a minute ago, everything you thought of but didn’t have time to write, everything you didn’t know to write, everything that God is… is inside you.

God’s Spirit dwells in you. How does that make you feel? Does it change anything about how you think of yourself? About how you think about God? Leave a comment if you like.

Go Deeper

Here are a few suggestions to take this home a little further. Feel free to use any or all of them as the spirit leads you.

  1. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, whisper to yourself, God’s spirit dwells in me. Repeat. Let this be your mantra for today.
  2. Find one name, word, or phrase that speaks to you right now. Next time you pray, use it when you address God. For example, when I pray, I usually begin, “Dear Lord….” Something I liked on my list was “source and perfection of all love.” So next time I pray, I will begin, Dear Lord, Source and perfection of all love…
  3. Find one name, word, or phrase that speaks to you right now. Use it to fill in the blanks of the following: God is _________. The God’s spirit dwells in me. Therefore, I am ________.

In my above example, I would say, God is the Source and perfection of all love. The Spirit of God dwells in me. Therefore, I am the Source and perfection of all love.

Whoah! I am the source and perfection of all love. Pretty cool, huh?

Grace and peace to you.

David Anderson

Appendix – My List

 

  • Creator of everything that exists
  • Lord of all the Universe
  • God Almighty
  • All-powerful
  • All-knowing
  • All-seeing
  • Eternal
  • Infinite
  • The perfection of all that is good
  • Giver of life
  • Faithful
  • Holy
  • Righteous
  • Source of everything
  • Perfection of all that is good
  • Source and perfection of all love
  • Creator and sustainer of life
  • The love that conquers all
  • Merciful
  • King of heaven
  • King of the kings of earth
  • Source and fulfillment of all desire

 

 

References

[1] In Gk, you is plural