I grew up attending an Episcopalian Church. Truth be told, from time to time, I find myself missing the pomp and circumstance of the service. There was something about the rhythm, consistency and repetitiveness of it that felt comforting, familiar and spectacular.
The reciting of the Nicene Creed, the Holy Communion and the act of kneeling down on those cushy prayer benches that folded out from the back of the pews; The Hymnal and Prayer Book were my manuals and directives ensuring that I at least looked like I knew what I was doing (which is very important to a teenager). Oh, and the sun streaming in through windows of biblical scenes captured in many glorious colors of glass as we sat in our Sunday best – it all just made for an aesthetically beautiful, fairly predictable and slightly distracting churchgoing experience.
Despite my kept and ironed outer appearance, my angsty adolescent heart was mostly grumpy those Sundays, and in that, the message of the sermon probably failed to penetrate my mood. Nonetheless, there were two mainstays of the space and the service that were impactful and had my eyes and my heart gravitating towards them on those days we were in attendance.
My eyes – to above the altar and that massive wooden cross with our Lord stretched out upon it and suspended over the congregation.
My heart – to the exchange of the Peace.
The scripted ceremonial call-and-response went:
Priest: “May the Peace of Lord be with you.”
Congregation: “And also with you.”
And this was the cue for us parishioners to turn to those to left and to the right of us; to those in front of and behind us, and sometimes to even move our feet to travel to those across the aisle from us, to extend our hands, maybe even to get close enough to lean into an embrace, and say the words “Peace Be With You” to each other.
To be clear, my family and I weren’t “every Sunday” attendees. While we would have called it our church home, aside from a few of the members faces being recognizable to me, we didn’t “do life” with them. I wasn’t privy to knowing their favorite sports teams, lunch spots, vacation destinations, gripes or pet peeves, and I had no knowledge of any agendas or social preferences. And sure, the assumption was, in that space, we were all followers of Christ. This may have made extending the peace seem an easy request to fulfill, in spite of understandable awkwardness.
In our youth, our psyche, developmentally, is egocentric; meaning: not yet capable of not putting our concerns and ourselves at the center of the universe. While I’d like to think life has matured me beyond that stage of psychological development, and that I am far more focused on God things and other people’s things – I can often find myself back in that self-centered state. And when I’m there, do you know what I notice?
There is no peace.
I am far more restless, worrisome, defensive and discontented. I have dropped my focus on God and all His blessings.
How can I possibly extend peace to another from that place? How can I possibly contribute to any greater presence of peace in the world on a whole?
I have been thinking a lot lately about that practice of exchanging The Peace. There is so much in scripture that talks of the peace we seek. God’s people were in constant search of it in their hearts and in their land. But Paul speaks directly to the particular dilemma of our inner peace and its cultivation in Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV):
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The thanks-giving precedes the peace.
Peace-robbing distractions abound in our culture. When I have chosen to remember God and His blessings … and to say “Thank You”, I have experienced an inexplicable freedom from an agitated, bound up and downtrodden spirit.
A Peace that I not only wish inhabits me, but that I exhibit towards you – and vice versa.
A Peace that eclipses any lines that could define division between us.
A Peace that unites us with a common desire to live respectfully with our differences.
A Peace that recognizes that we are all God’s creation. Every last one of us.
By no means do I consider this an easy request, but I do pray, when you’re feeling ill at ease, that you will take a deep breath, say “Thanks be to God” for all that is good in your circumstances, receive the peace that He provides, and then turn to your proverbial left and to your right, behind you and in front of you, perhaps even travel across “the aisle”, simply to speak a genuine desire for that same state of being to reside inside of them.
Peace be with you, friends.