By Eddie Pipkin
Christmas is a time for stories. At the Pipkin household we’ve been firing up a cup of hot cocoa and working our way through some of our favorite movies and T.V. specials. The scripture focus for the weeks of Advent is a visit to the narrative of the nativity, familiar characters responding with courage to God’s improbable plan. In that spirit, I thought I’d take this week’s blog space to share a story (Christmas-adjacent, of course) about my personal epiphany of what “heavenly peace” is (and our confusion about what it’s not). And what that understanding of peace means for a chaotic and confounding season and the mystifying months ahead.
A few years ago, I was working on an Advent sermon, and we were plowing through the standard rotation of love, joy, hope, and peace. I had been assigned ‘peace’ week and was flailing around to find a new way to approach a seasonal topic that I’d heard approached a hundred times before – a common challenge for preachers this time of year. This was foremost in my mind when I showed up for a middle school / high school combo Christmas concert, packed to the rafters with excited families – remember those former times? My days of seeing my own kids in these school performances were over, but there were several kids in the church youth group who were part of ensembles, so I had scored a coveted ticket and wedged into a very full room. I was solo, so I tucked into a lone available seat, surrounded on all sides by strangers, moms and dads and grandparents and little brothers and sisters crammed in and craning their necks to pick out their own budding musicians and singers.
It was one of those concerts with a pastiche of themed performances by choruses, orchestras, puppet troupes, guitar classes, and some featured soloists to fill the transition gaps between groups. Since my own kids grew up as band and orchestra nerds, I love these seasonal concerts, the culmination of hours and hours of practices they represent. They have always felt like a special part of the holiday season to me. So, I settled in with the program, on the lookout for the kids I knew as they chimed in, performing their parts in the Nutcracker suite and “Joy to the World.”
But, oh my, it was a restless crowd. There was a consistent low-level hum of whispering and jostling and pointing (“…look…there’s Bobby…”), moving about to get the perfect picture, and little kids playing video games on cell phones, oblivious to what was happening in the room. And I will confess, I am an old school petty snob when it comes to concert etiquette. I am a seether when people are not quietly respecting the performance, an obvious eye-roller when people are whispering, and occasionally – I’m a little ashamed to admit it – a demonstrative “shusher.” I was trying my best not to shush anybody that night, because somebody had recently preached a sermon about holding our tongue, but I was failing miserably – I could feel my blood pressure rising.
Then, in the transition between the middle school orchestra and the high school orchestra, a young lady stepped forward to the microphone and began to sing “O Holy Night.”
It is a cliché to write that she had a voice like an angel, and I’ve never heard an actual angel, but if they sing, her voice was what they sound like. I found out later she was only an eighth grader, but her song was beautiful, stunning, like she’d been performing as a professional for decades. She articulated each word with precision, starting off quietly, but confidently, rising with intensity as the notes soared, bringing the narrative to life with authentic emotion.
And all around me, the chattering and jostling continued, oblivious to the miracle of sound that was happening 20 rows away. I couldn’t believe it! Did these ingrates – these buffoons – these unsophisticated troglodytes not hear the musical miracle that was happening! I was shaking with righteous rage. I wanted to move straight past shushing to grabbing and shaking, to standing up and shouting, “Shut up, you idiots, and appreciate this beautiful song about Jesus’ birth!”
I didn’t. I controlled myself (for once), and though I seethed internally, I tried to focus all my concentration on that angelic voice – she had begun the oft-neglected but powerful second and third verses – and God granted me one of those rare but special epiphanies: This young lady understood the secret of Advent peace. Even in the midst of the chaos and low-grade cacophony around her, she concentrated on the one thing she had control over: her song. She sang with heart. She sang with excellence. She sang with focus, oblivious to what anybody else in the room was doing. She had a mission, and she was true to that mission: she offered her best without distraction, without bitterness, without rancor or complaint, with only a commitment to the beauty she could bring to the moment. It was transcendent.
I got it. That’s what peace is. Peace is not removing ourselves from the chaos and confusion; it’s experiencing God’s grace in the middle of it. It’s concentrating on what we’re called to do and doing that thing with passion and excellence, without getting caught up in stressing over all the discordant noise around us. We are not called to obsess over the circumstances we can’t contain and the people we can’t control.
We sing the song we are called to sing.
And when we do that, we can focus on the gifts God has given us and empowered us to use faithfully/ We can escape the bondage of other people’s expectations and drama. This is the peace promised in Advent. This is the peace of the nativity story (the young woman called to be part of an unfathomable miracle, a royal birth that takes place in the not-so-silent-night of a stable).
We get caught up in identifying peace as the absence of chaos and calamity, as removing ourselves from distraction so that we can concentrate on what is holy and beautiful – an escape to a serene and secluded mountain retreat. But biblical peace is about focus and serenity and engaging with the holy and beautiful in the presence of chaos and calamity (life, in pandemic times and all times – that mix of the beautiful and ugly, what is choreographed with precision and what is seemingly random and unfair).
This knowledge of true and abiding peace is a special gift of God’s grace we have been given as followers of Christ, and it is my prayer for you this strangest of Advent and Christmas seasons.
Sing your song. There is so much we can’t control right now, but be reminded that our call is not to control everything, but to sing the song we have been given, to concentrate fully on that task, to lean into it with passion and faithfulness and let God handle the rest.
Later on, I grew enamored of a turn of phrase, an appropriation of an original Hindi term, pukka, which is popular now in British slang as shorthand for what is authentic, pure, real, first-class.
A pukka peace: not a faux peace, temporarily created by thinking we have everything perfectly managed and aligned to our preference. A pukka peace, permanently grounded in the Holy Spirit, honest and engaged, faithful to who God has created us to be and the work he has called us to perform in the place where we are, appreciating the abundant blessings with which we have been resourced.
That’s my 2020 Christmas wish for you all.
And, to close, a reminder of that inspirational third verse of “O Holy Night”:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is Peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name, all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us Praise His Holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
How’s that for some inspiration to find and dwell in our God-given peace?
How are you finding peace in a chaotic close to this year-of-years? What is your church doing to help people focus on the peace of singing their own song (rather than getting caught up in trying to sing someone else’s for them)? Share your stories!