“Well, I’m going to talk to her about it,” announced the woman.
“No, you’re not,” I shot back.
The setting for this exchange was a weekly bible study. Not exactly dripping with “the peace that passes all understanding,” I know, but I was very concerned. We were discussing Mrs. Spence, an elderly woman, consistently well-dressed and consistently in attendance on Sunday mornings. She was also consistent in that she never smiled. Ever. This last was the reason the woman in the bible study announced in frustration, “Well, I’m going to talk to her about it.”
There is a strange dynamic that can ride through congregations sailing upon a logic that goes something like this: God is love; love is freedom; freedom is peace; peace is happiness. Therefore, if you are praying (really praying) and you believe (really believe) then you must be possessed of a peaceful, carefree, happy demeanor. The absence of this demeanor can become a source of irritation for some.
I was concerned that Mrs. Spence would be confronted about her ‘un-Christian’ demeanor because I knew something about her that was generally not well-known: she had lost her parents (which is expected) and her siblings (which is not unexpected) as well as her husband (which is unfortunate) and her two children (which is hugely tragic).
Now, at 73, with her remaining years to be spent without her closest earthly loves, she faithfully attended church week upon week and prayed with us to a God who had not, it is fairly safe to assume, answered all her prayers as she might wish. But she was faithful, and she was kindly in her fashion, with no bitterness or anger that I had ever noted. She was a deeply spiritual person and one who struck me more than once as deeply at peace. She also seemed profoundly sad. Yet, how could that be? How could one be at peace and yet still seem so unhappy?
I believe that although peace and happiness are often found together as logical companions, they are not synonymous. Happiness is an emotion. Peace is a spiritual state that can not only survive the absence of happiness but carry us through the most unimaginable personal tragedies of this life and out the other side. I truly do draw strength from those who are happy in their faith because they bring lightness and levity everywhere they go, but I truly draw inspiration from those faithful companions who sit in the ashes and the shadow of the cross and refuse to curse God and die.
I have seen happiness faked many times. I have done it myself. But I have yet to see anyone, anywhere who can fake the peace of God.
The Rev. Lee Lambert has been a military chaplain for seven years and is rector of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Russell, Ont. At the recent annual meeting of the Associated Church Press and Canadian Church Press in Chicago, Lambert’s reflection, The Dreaded Knock [Sept. 2010, p. 5] received a first-place Award of Excellence.