Jonathan stopped by at midday to pick something up at the house, and we had a fight. I would call it an argument, but that sounds too reasonable, like we were coolly debating opposing sides of an issue. Logical. Rational. Collected. The stuff to make marriage therapists proud.
This was hardly that.
Because most often what we’re arguing about—in this case a decision about our daughter’s schooling—isn’t really what we’re arguing about. What we are actually arguing about is our fears, anxieties, identities, and hopes. We were really arguing about how we love our daughter and feel a chasm—a terrifying chasm—between our responsibility for her and our ability to bear it well. We were grieving the reality of our limitedness and our inability to rescue our daughter from suffering in our broken world—and even in our broken family.
And we were arguing about the sharpness in our voices, and who interrupts whom, and how often, and about a passing comment he made yesterday and a look I gave this morning.
These are the patterns in family life that make it hard to be patient and gentle and kind. I’m not mad that you threw your shirt on the floor today; I’m mad about the last 300 times you’ve thrown your shirt on the floor. Or, more painfully, it’s not just that I’m mad about your criticism today, it’s how a pattern of criticism, comment by passing comment, bumps up against my own patterns of sin, woundedness, and self-defensiveness.
Today’s conflict was not a marital crisis—there was no profound betrayal or lie or scandal. It was a bur-under-the-saddle conflict over the kind of habitual resentment that, if we let it, builds. We start by talking about something casual. Then I fret aloud and he dismisses it—because I’ve fretted aloud so often that it is a pattern—and I say something sarcastic and it escalates from there until one or both of us yells and then one or both of us leaves the room.
Thankfully, we have a small house—we can’t get too far away from each other. So we play chicken. I sigh loudly. He gets on the computer. We wait to see who will lay down their sword first. It takes a lot of bravery to lay down a sword—more bravery than either of us have at the moment. So we sit in stony silence.
Neglecting the Obvious
The truth is I get along with most people pretty well. When I do have conflict, it is usually with those I love most. The struggle to “love thy neighbor” is most often tested in my home, with my husband and my kids, when I’m tired, fearful, discouraged, off my game, or just want to be left alone.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, senior demon Screwtape coaches a junior devil on how to infect a man’s relationship with others: “Keep his mind off the most elementary of duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones. Aggravate that most useful of human characteristics, the horror and neglect of the obvious.” He continues, “I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s ‘soul’ to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.”
Like those under Screwtape’s influence, I often neglect the obvious, proclaiming a radical love for the world even as I neglect to care for those closest to me. But I am increasingly aware that I cannot seek God’s peace and mission in the world without beginning right where I am, in my home, in my neighborhood, in my church, with the real people right around me.
Passing the Peace
At church on Sunday morning, right before the Eucharist, we pass the peace. At the churches I’ve been to, this mostly looks like chaos. Parishioners turn to each other and say “Peace of Christ to you” or “Peace of the Lord” or “Hey” or “My name is Jim.” Kids run around the sanctuary. People talk. It’s loud. Congregants walk to and fro, in and out of the sanctuary. The gregarious mingle and laugh. Others shift awkwardly, not quite sure what to do, waiting to just get on with it.
The passing of the peace finds its way into our day mostly in small, unseen moments as we live together, seeking to love those people who are the constants, the furniture in our lives—parents, spouses, kids, friends, enemies, the barista we chat with each week as we wait for coffee, the people in the pew behind us with the noisy toddler, the old man next door who doesn’t get out much.
In these tiny, unseen interactions we reenact the passing of the peace that we practice on Sunday. “Peace of Christ to you” is instantiated as I hand my toddler carrot sticks, respond patiently to Jonathan when I feel slighted, or genuinely celebrate a friend’s upcoming vacation even though I’d never be able to afford it myself. Ordinary love, anonymous and unnoticed as it is, is the substance of peace on earth, the currency of God’s grace in our daily life.
We are all called to be willing to follow Christ in radical ways, to answer the call of the one who told us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. And yet we are also called to stability, to the daily grind of responsibility for those nearest us, to the challenge of a mundane, well-lived Christian life. “Passing the peace” in every way we can, in the place and sphere to which God has called us, is neither a “radical” practice nor an “ordinary” practice; it is merely a Christian practice, one that each of us must inhabit daily. We can become far too comfortable with the American status quo, and we need prophetic voices that challenge us to follow our radical, comfort-afflicting Redeemer. But we must also learn to follow Jesus in this workaday world of raising kids, caring for our neighbors, budgeting, doing laundry, and living our days responsibly with stability, generosity, and faithfulness.
But today, I blew it. I lost patience with my husband. I spoke sarcastically. I honestly didn’t care much about peace.
After 20 minutes of playing chicken, we cave. I apologize; he does too. We forgive each other. Dropping my sword and walking into the next room to apologize felt like a kind of dying. It smarted.
We’ll have to keep forgiving all day, every time we think back to our argument, every time we’re tempted to pick up the sword again. Peace takes a whole lot of work. Conflict and resentment seem to be the easier route. Shorter, anyway. Less humiliating.
Anne Lamott writes that we learn the practice of reconciliation by starting with those nearest us. “Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.”
God has reconciled us to himself, and he brings reconciliation and peace to every sphere of life. He is bringing peace to city streets and out in the wilderness and on farms and in the suburbs and in my kitchen. He is reconciling us to himself, to each other, and to the earth. God’s ministry of reconciliation works its way into all of life, even into these small moments of our day.
In the end, this practice each Sunday—the passing of peace—is a prayer. We are asking that God would do something we cannot, so that we can extend peace, not of our own making, but of Christ’s, our Reconciler.
We are quarreling people, but God is reforming us to be people who, through our ordinary moments, establish his kingdom of peace. Believing this is an act of a faith. It takes faith to believe that our little, frail faithfulness can produce fruit. It takes faith to believe that laying down my sword in my kitchen has anything to do with cosmic peace on earth. And it takes faith to believe that God is making us into people—slowly, through repentance—who are capable of saying to the world through our lives, “Peace of Christ to you.”
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, the author of the forthcoming Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (December 2016, InterVarsity Press), and an advisor to CT Women. Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright © 2016 by Lutitia Harrison Warren. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com