On Peace

Psalm 29:9 The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”

One of the scriptures shared this spring in Spiritual Collectives was Psalm 29: 3-11. From verse 3 to verse 9, “The voice of Lord” is repeated seven times with seven descriptions of powerful forces of nature. For the psalmist, it is God’s voice that causes the storm, the earthquake, lightning and flood. God’s voice disrupts earthly symbols of stability- the cedars of Lebanon, the earth beneath our feet, the desert.  And then something unexpected appears: “The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth.”  Some translations ignore this image, deciding to repeat the idea of big trees being twisted, but even so, the deer giving birth is always in the footnotes.

Deer in the Forest by Franz Marc, 1913.

It seems to me that this little description of giving birth is meant to surprise.  In Biblical lands, deer do give birth during the thunderstorm season, yet it is still a startling contrast to see it in this psalm. Through small unexpected elements, art can disrupt our expectations, so that we might look afresh at what we take for granted. In amongst descriptions of power, destruction, ferocity and disruption, is a vulnerable creature bringing forth new life from within.

At the end of the psalm, is another surprise: “The LORD blesses his people with peace.”  The inclusion of these two verses- of the deer and the blessing of peace-  struck me as very odd. They seem out of keeping in a poem that pummels us with descriptions of destruction. And then Jesus’s reassurance to his disciples came to mind. I connected the psalm with Matthew 24: 6-8  You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. And John 16:33 says this: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Japanese Shin Hanga woodblock “Shimanami Coast“ by Kitaoka Fumio, 1973.

In the midst of chaos, destruction, uncertainty, natural and human made disaster, the Divine calls us to new life, and to peace.

We are to understand that our uncertain present is not a time to give into fear, but a time to take courage. The birthing deer is a potent metaphor for tenderness and vulnerability, but how strong is a mother giving birth! Any mother knows the uncertainty and risk giving birth entails- the fears that need to be overcome, the bravery that must be summoned to bring new life into the world. We are called to peace so that in the midst of tumult and disruption we might be able to bring into the world something alive. And what is that life? It is the Kingdom of God within us. The peace we are given is the peace of Jesus, who has entered into our suffering, who has overcome death, who sleeps during storms, and calms the sea.  This sort of peace is located within; God’s peace is a still point in the midst of motion.

Grande Maternité (Grand Maternity) by Pablo Picasso, 1963.

Sometimes we mistake peace for the absence of trouble, and we mistake it for certainty. We can mistake peace for order, for quiet, for stability and control.

While peace can produce these results, it is not dependent on them.

When we seek to produce outward peace without peace in our hearts, we make a counterfeit. It is a false peace because when we seek to control our world out of fear and force on it order, stability and quiet, our actions are the opposite of the love we are called to.  The reality is that we do live in world that  -as well as beautiful and wonderful – is powerful and violent. The stuff our bodies are made of came from exploding stars, new land is formed by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Life arises from larger forces than we humans can control, let alone comprehend. Yet God calls us to peace within this very world. How might we know a peace lives that within us and manifests in the world through love instead of fear?

We often think peace as an absence of turmoil, instead, God’s peace is a result of presence.

The scriptures talk about us finding peace in the midst of enemies, storms, persecution, prison, danger, loss and confusion. The scriptures tell us that in the midst of all power and destruction, God. Is. Present. and nothing in heaven and earth can take that presence from us.  In Jesus teaching and the epistles, we are reminded of who God is.  Jesus calls us to trust and not to be afraid because the Holy Spirit is with us and a comfort to us. (John 14:16-18)  In Paul’s writing he calls us to prayer, so that peace may guard our hearts. (Philippians 4: 6,7)  Psalm 29 begins with calling us to praise, Psalm 22 even tells us God inhabits the praises of his people.

Hugo Henneberg, Night Scene – Blue Pond, C. 1904, Private Collection (Courtesy Natter Fine Arts Wien)

An awareness of God’s presence is cultivated through prayer, praise and trust. 

We build up  a sense of God’s presence through these practices, and eventually our mind and heart ‘gets it.’ We don’t need to worry about being an unfeeling, super spiritual person, that is not what we are called to.

We are called to be at peace within a troubled world and often we are troubled by it.  Like the deer, we are vulnerable creatures and our anxious thoughts or difficult feelings are a natural response; but in them, we may honest with God and through that honesty, through bringing our fears to the one whom we can trust, we gain the peace that passes all understanding.

 As we cultivate praise, prayer and trust in the presence of God in small and big ways, peace becomes something we can recognize and rely on even through difficult times. As we nurture an awareness of God’s presence, we bring forth into our lives, and into the world, comfort, love and the hope of new life.

Cornelia van Voorst is a visual artist and theopoetic practitioner with a studio practice in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her recent work honours stories of endurance and compassion in the face of both personal and collective adversity.  Living with a complex form of PTSD influences van Voorst’s engagement with intergenerational trauma. Her work is an empathetic integration of the personal with the historical that resonates within our contemporary context. www.vanvoorstart.com