Glory to God in the highest
And on Earth peace, goodwill toward men.
If you’re anything like me, you find yourself caught in the web of constant busy-ness. Despite my protestations to the contrary, I clearly believe (at least according to my actions) that awake time exists solely to be filled with the important tasks of the day. Whether those tasks involve requirements for the job that pays my salary, the church where my family is covenanted in life, or the family entrusted to me matters little in the overall feeling of busy-ness. And this busy-ness has done nothing but grow in my adult years. With every passing year, the very concept of that peace that was announced two millennia ago grows more ethereal, moves farther outside the realm of (even an imaginative) possibility, and remains firmly established just beyond my grasp. Don’t get me wrong, I do not doubt that peace exists—in some form or fashion—but, if I am being completely honest, I do not hold out much hope that I will ever actually experience it—at least not on this side of the grave.
Even vacation time proves to be nothing more than an exercise in delaying the inevitable. When I get close to getting my mind off the busy-ness, the reality that those tasks do not stop accumulating just because I am away from the normal setting leaves me worrying about my return and the added busy-ness that awaits in the post-vacation normal. Even in the resting, I find a way to be consumed with the busy-ness of life.
When I come to the advent season, then, and am challenged again to turn my thoughts to those familiar themes (hope, peace, joy, love), I annually find myself arrested by the thought of peace, by the longing for what I consider that peace to be in that busy world that only gets busier with every passing year. My mind quickly wanders to a world filled with clear desks, empty task lists, and mountain streams meandering through virgin forests where nature remains undisturbed and only the most basic requirements of life press me into action.
But, I wonder if I have fallen victim to at least two unfortunate readings of life: the one being allowing myself to become enslaved by the tyranny of the urgent and the other being allowing myself to settle for a puny vision of peace that really is nothing more than deep physical rest. Neither of those extremes are necessarily wrong or sinful. Many urgent needs do exist and, according to the stewardship that I have been given, must be handled according to deadlines. While I should not be enslaved to those urgencies, the work must be done in a timely fashion and according to requirements that are often outside of my control. On the other side of the spectrum, mountain streams bring a settling calm to my soul, and something about nature that has not yet been touched by the advances of civilization reminds me of simpler times and easier burdens.
Yet, I am concerned that my understanding of peace has been incorrectly limited to the meshing of those two readings of life—as if, real peace comes with a lack of busy-ness and a calming, pastoral scene. As I return to this advent theme every year, I find myself once again preaching to myself of the need to have my expectations re-oriented, my desires re-focused.
For I am reminded that the same God who announced peace and goodwill toward humanity in the midst of that first advent also promised that peace would be found in the midst of trials and tribulations in a world that has already been overcome. Maybe my longing for peace—my desire for that clear calendar and an empty email inbox or a longing for that mountain stream—actually exists to remind me of the deeper peace that God has brought into the world. Maybe the busy-ness of a life that is being stewarded for the Kingdom (and I pray that mine is…God, please make that the case in my life) is not the adversary to peace at all. Maybe the traffic of the city and the constant barrage of the sights and sounds of people are not the antagonists to the calm that I desire. Maybe they are just reminders—even godly reminders—that good work, even urgent work remains to be done, and that real peace comes not in getting caught up on tasks but in placing those tasks in service to the King, not in enjoying untouched creation but in enjoying a close relationship with the One who did the creating.
I am certain that my longing for a less busy life and for a cabin near that mountain stream will not leave me any time soon. But every year as I am reminded of the real longing of humanity’s collective soul, I pray that those desires will remind me of the peace whose adversary is not mere busy-ness or civilization but rather is the chaotic existence of a humanity that does not know their creator. My prayer, then, is simply that my small longings for personal experiences of peace may be redeemed for greater visions of Kingdom service that bring real peace to the world around me!
Jonathan W. Arnold is Associate Professor of Church History and Historical Theology and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.