The Prince of Peace in today’s world…

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The traditional Moravian beeswax candles for our Christmas service

The first Thursday of December is when Salem College holds its annual Christmas Candlelight worship service, which has been a tradition since the beginnings of our school in the late 1700s. As College Chaplain, I am privileged to provide a meditation. Our world right now is so particularly shattered by hate, violent rhetoric, fear and misinformation, that it begs to be addressed, especially during this season of advent. Below is the message I gave last week –

We come together today for this annual worship service to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. And Christmas is all about honoring the Christ Child. During this season, there are many names we call the Christ Child – the Light, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace. This afternoon, I would like to focus on what it means to prepare for the coming of Peace.

Peace is something we talk a lot about in this world, but it is so elusive. The name Salem itself comes from the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. The Moravian founders of this area sought to build a peaceful society in the midst of a world that seemed so far from it. At the heart of this sacred ground of Salem – peace should reside.

Just as the early Moravians knew, just as Sister Oesterlein (our first teacher) herself knew, this world is not peaceful. In recent months, we have been particularly reminded of that. Violence pours forth in so many parts of the world – whether the streets of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, Nigeria, or other places not deemed as news-worthy. Violent, mass shootings have become so commonplace in our own country that many of us aren’t as shocked as we should be, and think that all we can do is pray. Institutionalized racism is still a core fabric of our society – 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement – racism is present, whether it’s obvious, subtle, or unrecognized by the people in power. People who don’t fit what society deems the “norm” are seen as less than and less worthy.

And we all know the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – and we know the lie that fills that phrase. Words of hate, fear, division and ignorance do hurt us. Peace is that intangible thing we talk about, especially at this time of the year, but which we struggle to grasp. Before we can even define what Peace in our own lives, and Peace in the world, truly means – it slips through our fingers.

The child we gather to hear, sing and pray about this afternoon was someone who lived in a time of great violence and upheaval. He knew that Peace was something greatly desired in his world of unrest, hatred and fear. And when he talked about Peace – it wasn’t a sanitized version, where everything was clean, neat, happy, and uncomplicated. It wasn’t just the absence of violence. It can be too easy for us to buy into this – to sit in our nice clothes in a beautiful setting with the comforting aroma of beeswax candles and think this is Peace.
This – this that we experience here today – this is what propels us to work for Peace. Peace is real – it’s authentic – it’s messy. We come together not because this is Peace – but because this gathering lets us glimpse the possibilities before us. As we see the goodness in our sisters and brothers – we want to carry the hope and promise of true Peace with us tonight and tomorrow and the day after – we want the world to reflect what we see in small part here.

There is an old saying that holds true – If you want Peace, work for Justice.
Jesus was someone who didn’t just sit around and talk about lofty ideals. How he lived – his actions spoke far louder than words. He reached across lines of division – whether it was religious or cultural or political or socio-economic – and brought people together in unity. He insisted they operate with respect for the other, and place others before themselves. He modeled that Peace does not come from a place of power, but from a place of servanthood, of understanding, of walking in someone else’s shoes – especially if they are shoes in which we’d rather not walk.

I encourage you today – take the glimpse of the beauty and peace of this afternoon – this wonderful hint of a better world that is before us at this moment – I encourage you to carry it forth to a world filled with violence, division, fear and hatred. Take steps – both big and small – to work for the abolition of violence in all its many forms, to work for justice – so that peace may prevail. Breathe in the Peace around us, and release that breath of peace to the world. One place, one person, at a time – let peace begin with each one of us, as we seek to go forth and change the world for the better.

Peace be with you. Amen.

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Captain America: The Nature of Good and Evil

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My daughter and I are active participants in the Marvel Universe. We have seen all the movies, and even watched most episodes of ABC’s Agents of Shield. Captain America is perhaps our favorite of the superheroes, so we were anxious to see the new installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The movie certainly did not disappoint.

Captain America (Steve Rogers) was a soldier with the Greatest Generation in the first movie. He felt certain he was battling evil, in the guise of Nazi Germany, during WWII. Rogers found himself frozen at the conclusion of a battle, only to be awoken 70 some years later in our current day. He spends the early part of this new movie struggling with the nature of good and evil. Is he working for the “good guys?” Is he really fighting evil? Does the end justify the means? Without spoiling the movie, let me state that these answers are never resolved, but it is refreshing to hear a hero struggle with those concerns, especially in a summer tent-pole action movie.

As Rogers discovers that Shield (the agency for whom he works) has the ability to spy on every single person on the globe, he is concerned that the actions evolve from fear, not freedom. Much has been written in theological circles since 9/11 about the culture of fear which now pervades society. Countless freedoms have been eradicated based upon fear from real or perceived threats.

Fear is intricately tied to an understanding of good and evil. When we place ourselves solely in the “good guys” camp, it is easy to demonize another person or group as evil, or “the bad guys.” As long as we are the good guys, then whatever we do is necessarily right, and conversely so for the bad guys. We can do no wrong, and some might even say that is the case because God is on our side. When we demonize another, we live in fear of that person. All our actions are based out fear, because we believe the other is evil.

My district superintendent (my boss, and an extension of the bishop in my judicatory) gave me some sage advice during my first appointment at a local church. I was in the midst of a situation rife with deceit and misinformation, some from very long term members of the church. He could not have been a better support, and gave me books to read about church conflict and about the nature of evil. Evil had always felt like a distant entity – Nazi Germany, for instance. Yet, sometimes it can encompass individuals. I am always very careful about naming something as evil – it is a very damning thing to do, and naturally places me in the position of God. Yet, Fred told me one thing I have never forgotten – When we battle evil, we have to be extremely cautious, because it can easily encompass us as well.

There is real evil in the world. Each person has the capacity to commit acts of great good or great evil – it depends upon being in the right or wrong circumstances. Living a life based upon fear much more easily allows that evil to encompass us, to guide our decisions. Captain America: The Winter Soldier powerfully illustrates that point. The movie ends with Rogers, still greatly conflicted about the nature of good and evil in this world, but certain about one thing. He remains convinced that there is good in the world, and that redemption is a real possibility. I look forward to seeing how he follows that belief in future installments.