Chicago, Dallas and the leather chair from Sam’s Club that rests its legs on my living room floor. Besides being places I visited in the last few years (some much more frequently than others), they are also places where little light bulbs went off for me. At first they went off independently of one another, but then they became like a string of lights you might wrap around your Christmas tree. Thought led to thought, which led to this idea that’s been hanging around in the back of my mind like the cat we started feeding who now sleeps on our bed, Kitty. That’s what our kids creatively named her. Cats are the perfect pets for Presbyterians because you don’t choose them, they choose you.
Chicago is where I took a group of college students to work with an urban ministry in the heart of the south side of the Windy city. It was spring break, and the weather was surprisingly warm for Chicago. Our days were spent working with neighborhood kids & our nights were spent listening to the director of the ministry talk about the thinking that goes into their doing. The night that stood out to all of us was the night he talked about Shalom.
I’d only ever seen that word on a piece of art hanging on the wall at a friend's house. It simply read, "Shalom Y'all!" I pretended to get the joke, something I do a lot. That night, though, he worked out for us what Shalom actually means. As we sat on those cold aluminum chairs our hearts were strangely warmed as he said things like this: “The gospel is more than about simply having peace with God. It also brings peace with self, peace with others, and peace to the world.” Reminds me of my favorite line in my favorite Christmas carol, "Joy to the World." "He comes to make, His blessings flow, far as the curse is found." It makes me want to dance like the kids in Charlie Brown Christmas, which oddly enough is actually exactly what I look like when I dance.
In about 30 minutes he had undone our American individualism, and in its place gave us this biblically rich view of what it means to work for Shalom, which means rightness and wholeness, with our neighbors, and in our communities. He expanded our view of the gospel to that of Paul’s where he says in Ephesians 1 that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling all things, things in heaven and things on earth. The guy in Jaws needed a bigger boat. We needed a bigger gospel.
Which brings me to Dallas. Every December about 120 other campus ministers and I head there for a week of staff training. Each year we invite someone to come speak to us about a topic with which we want/need to wrestle. A few years ago we invited someone to come speak with us about James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World.
In this helpful book Hunter essentially argues for a new concern for and approach to culture. He calls it “faithful presence,” which includes taking all of the resources God has given us (money, time, gifts, etc.) and plowing them into our communities to the glory of God and the growth of his kingdom.
In that time together our guest speaker demonstrated how even the way we greet one another can add to, or take away from, Shalom. On the one hand, a warm smile and sure handshake is dignifying, therefore works toward Shalom. On the other hand, if I walk up to you and pretend to shake your hand only to rip it away from you, it’s degrading, and breaks down Shalom. My every action is either part of the Shalom Jesus is bringing back, or part of the breaking down of Shalom that made his coming (and coming again) so necessary. Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back, but Jesus is bringing back Shalom.
Which finally leads me to my favorite place to visit, the leather chair in my living room, where I watch (probably too much) TV. One of the best things I watched in the last several years was when Zach Galifinakis hosted SNL. His monologue in particular was so genius. In that monologue, as he moved to the piano where he is a master of delivery, he told a joke that I absolutely love. It goes like this: Sometimes I do something and think, “That is so Raven.” Then other times I’ll do something & I’ll be like, “That was not very Raven.” The collision of these three thoughts led to this idea: We can say about our every action either, “That is so Shalom” or, “That is not very Shalom.”
The beauty of this is that it applies to every aspect of our lives, from the way we treat the opposite sex, to the way that we approach our work, to the way we spend our money, to the way we relate to our neighbors, to the way we update our statuses on Facebook. Take for example the two things we need to talk about the most yet seem to talk about the least: money and sex.
John Wesley once preached a sermon on money. Like any good sermon, it had only three points. 1. Make as much as you can. 2. Save as much as you can. 3. Give as much as you can. The reality is we like number 1 & 2, but number 3 is a little harder. Giving out of excess is hard enough, but giving sacrificially seems practically impossible. Yet it is very Shalom when a college student sacrifices a few White Mochas from Starbucks a week to sponsor a Compassion child. Or when a family cuts back on their budget so they can have more families from their neighborhood over.
If giving sacrificially is hard, being sexually faithful can be even harder. When the Psalmist asks who can ascend to the Lord’s presence and answers, “he who has clean hands and a pure heart,” we certainly know he’s not talking about us. Jesus, yes. But not us. Yet the way we do sex and sexuality is either Shalom, or not very Shalom. It either leads to human flourishing, or takes away from it. Part of why the Bible is so for married sex is it ensures promises being made with your body have already been made with your life, which far from taking away from sex, enhances it with layer upon layer of security. It’s also why porn take so much Shalom away. Sex goes from being fundamentally other centered to fundamentally self centered, and the person on the other end of the screen goes from being a person at all to simply the means to a selfish end.
Donald Miller once wrote, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” The most difficult truth we’ve ever struggled to accept is that life is ultimately as story about Jesus, about how he’s restoring Shalom. Because we made it about us it led to the breakdown of Shalom. Because he made it about us, dying the death we deserved to die, living the life we could never live, Shalom is possible again. And not just for us. The "earth trembles with his love," waiting like a kid at Christmas for the day he finally makes it whole again. And that is very Shalom.