My wife has an extremely active dream life. Not dream life as in she has everything she could ever ask for in life or that she’s crafted the perfect persona on the Sims video game. But actual dreams. If I ever ask her how she slept through the night, she will inevitably reply, “I had a lot of weird dreams last night.”
I, on the other hand, have always half-joked that I don’t dream at all. Scientifically, I know that’s not really a thing. In fact, I’m pretty certain that never dreaming in sleep is indicative of a whole slew of other health issues that I’m not excited to consider. But the ongoing joke is that my mind is so active while I’m awake- always processing, sorting through all the possible outcomes of all the possible situations- that when it comes time to sleep, my brain celebrates it as a chance to simply shut off for a few hours and stop working. I do tend to fall asleep very quickly.
And one would think that having a sharp mind with an active imagination would be a great thing. Most of the time, it is, I assure you. But there are days where I wish that all the noise would. Just. Stop. Just for a moment. Let me catch my intellectual and emotional breath. There are simply days where I can be away from every single other soul on earth and still not be able to experience peace.
Peace. There’s an Advent word, right? Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. That’s peace, right? Well, no. Not entirely. There’s a lot more that goes into it.
The holiday season is supposed to be a time of happiness, family, togetherness, and celebrating “the reason for the season.” (Said reason seems to fluctuate depending on who it is who happens to be reminding you of this.) We do this by getting together for a full month with people we don’t see enough (old friends and extended family), people we already see too much (work parties), or some combination of both (school and church functions). We overeat (don’t sweat the small stuff), we strive to impress (while not sweating the small stuff), and we put on a good face all while doing our best to contain the chaos and madness swirling around inside (because, never let them see you sweat).
In the end, we usually find ourselves stumbling backward into Christmas day and beyond a tired, overstressed, overindulged, frazzled mess of emotions. And then we’re expected to keep it all together because “Christmas day!”
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Never let them see you sweat. Who comes up with this stuff? And how in the world, in a season that we pack full of more random, excessive activities than any other, are we supposed to be embracing “peace” at the same time?
Jesus’ friend, Martha, had a similar experience.
As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10.38-42
Jesus stops by to see his friends. Martha goes into overdrive on hospitality mode. Clean the house, invite the neighbors, make a huge feast. All the while, she’s probably grumbling about Jesus not giving her any advance warning and feeling ashamed that he had to see the house in such a state.
Mary recognizes the visit for what it was. A chance to spend time with Jesus. She didn’t want to make it anything more than what it was. Because when Jesus walked in, Martha saw it as an obligation to do. Mary embraced it as a chance to simple be.
But Martha decides to double down and makes one of the few outright demands we see a human make of God in the bible. “This isn’t right- tell my sister she’s lazy and make her help me.”
In the chaos, we find stress. In the stress, we begin to find resentment with the people we love. And in resentment, we speak out of the sin in our hearts. Which is why Jesus responds in the way that he does.
“Martha, you’re stressed out for no reason at all. There’s only one thing I want you to focus on. Mary’s already doing it. Won’t you join us?”
The Greek word for “peace” comes from a root verb that literally means “to join”. It is a sense of safety, security, prosperity, and tranquility. What Mary had found and Martha was looking for- was peace.
In the Hebrew, it’s a very familiar word- Shalom. Shalom can be used in many forms of greetings. It’s sort of a combination of “good morning”, “I wish you well”, “have a good day”, and the hearty “God bless you” we say after someone sneezes. When we toast to someone’s good healthy and good fortune, we are speaking of shalom.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga puts it this way:
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call “Shalom”. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a ceasefire between enemies. In the Bible, Shalom means “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight” – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed. A state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
The way things ought to be. The very thought of it warms my soul. It speaks to that longing I spoke of in the Hope article. The one that Paul says in Romans 8 all creation groans for. A return to that better way.
The thing that Plantinga likens as the opposite of Shalom? Sin. Sin, he asserts, is not the way things are supposed to be. And so, with the entry of sin into the world, our shalom- our peace- is threatened and disrupted. We are no longer whole. Instead, there’s an emptiness inside. We can’t find our delight in the creation of God around us. And no longer do we or the things around us flourish without effort.
What sin brings is toil, sorrow, shame, resentment, and fear. Sin is the thing that steals our peace, which robs our joy, which overshadows our hope, which prevents us from experiencing and showing true love. When we step into the chaotic cacophony of the holiday season, we do it knowing that it will ultimately heighten our stress levels and bring out many of those negative emotions. But it’s the most wonderful time of the year- and so we put on the masks and do what’s expected of us.
Maybe this season, it’s time to step back. To reconsider, like Jesus told Martha, what was actually the only thing worth being concerned about.
Shalom. Peace. It’s not striving to sin less. It’s returning to how things ought to be- where we aren’t as focused on becoming as we are simply on being. In His presence. And there, we do sin less. But as a byproduct, not the focal point.
Cut out the clutter. Cut out the noise. Allow your minds and hearts to embrace fully the wonder of a Savior who would willingly step aside from his own identity in order to give us a new identity in him. The King of kings, come as a baby. Growing up, working with his hands. Experiencing temptation just like us. And living a life of full obedience to the Father, even to the point of a criminal’s death on a cross.
All in order to restore things to shalom. The way things ought to be. Rest in that. Breathe it in. And then, maybe see what you can cross off your “to do” list so you can have more time to simple be.
For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.