Excerpt from Traveling Unfamiliar Pathways

I’ve been crossing borders for most of my life. I first slipped into Quebec 30 years ago along a dusty back road from Maine. It was so peaceful that our solitary car startled the immigration officer dozing at his post. Later, I sailed into the United States from Vancouver Island on a passenger ship slowly tracing its way through the San Juan Islands as we watched the sun go down over the ocean.

Yet crossing borders can also be an altogether traumatic experience. I once left mainland China battling a heavy cold during a bird flu epidemic. Futuristic heat sensors operated by expressionless border guards pulled sufferers out of the line to be quarantined for ten days or more. And on the Israeli border, we came under mortar attack from deep within Gaza as dust fell from the ceiling and tables rattled to the thud of a missile close by.

In the nativity story, the little holy family was also crossing borders. Transiting from Nazareth in the province around Lake Galilee to the more densely populated Bethlehem in Judea would have been a relatively straightforward trip. That’s if the young mother at the center of the story had not been so heavily pregnant, or the roads so overcrowded with people on the move for the census.

Later, the “flight to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13) was more like my escape from one failing state in central Africa. Caught on the wrong side of the border, Joseph realized his wife and child were in imminent danger. I know very well the blinding urge to pick up my belongings—and run. With five others I had to flee a life-threatening situation when unannounced border controls suddenly blocked our exit. Joseph made his escape at night, shrouded in secrecy. We made our dash across an international runway and scrambled into a small turboprop plane before sleeping guards roused themselves and gave chase.

The way of peace, traditionally the last week before Christmas, often requires the crossing of borders. It may not involve traversing sovereign states, but it can be equally perilous and uncertain. Jesus didn’t recognize “peacemakers” for nothing (Matthew 5:9). He knew very well the sort of borders his followers would have to cross when he called them out in his Sermon on the Mount.

Think about the mother mediating between a warring husband and a testosterone-fuelled son. Or the manager caught in the middle of a heated workplace dispute. Or the neighbors locked in a stubborn conflict. Peacemaking can be very costly in going first to the location of one party and then crossing over to the location of the other. Successful peace envoys have to set aside personal agendas and enter the inner world of both sides.

Often we talk about leaving our comfort zone, or being in unfamiliar territory. Both are references to borders. The way of peace beckons us to drop our vested interests, courageously step over the line, and enter an unfamiliar place. 

Does this remind you of something? In one of the most moving passages in the whole of Scripture, Paul describes the relocation of Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 as “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” I like this proximity to our own situations. With his flight into Egypt, Jesus even had the experience of being a refugee. He really did live among us.

For peace to come we have to cross borders. Whether it is stepping outside our comfort zone to experience peace with God or to act as a mediator and bring peace between people. Slow, painful, and sacrificial, this is the way of Christ. We are trying to become more like him and he is our model. It’s why in troubled places around the world I have noticed that followers of Jesus are so often the first to arrive and the last to leave.

In the largely forgotten and anonymous book, A Guide to True Peace, an early nineteenth century Quaker underscores the reality that peace comes from within. He says if the Kingdom of God is about peace (Romans 14:17), then that Kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21) and is constantly available as a source of life and power.

How do we avoid straying from the way of peace? The old Quaker tells us that when, “through inadvertence or unfaithfulness we become uncentered, it is of immediate importance to turn again gently and peacefully inward.” He goes on “and thus we may learn to preserve the spirit and unction of prayer throughout the day.”

This turning within is the secret of becoming a person of peace because it is there we encounter the Prince of Peace. It is there we follow in the footsteps of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child; all of them travelers pursuing a divine mission. A peace mission.

Others in the Christmas story were also crossing borders. Most obvious are the wise men who came from a country far away (Matthew 2:1). Who knows how many borders they had to navigate to reach the infant king? Then there were the shepherds, leaving their familiar workplace to enter Bethlehem (Luke 2:15).

In a rare moment, the angels themselves come within the range of human senses, unusually visible to the naked eye (verse13). In the imagination of poet Edmond Hamilton Sears, they “bend on hovering wing” coming so close that they are audible to ordinary people living “beneath life’s crushing load.”

If the sages, shepherds, and angels are to be believed, then it is worth crossing whatever borders it takes to get close to the peace that is now available “on earth” (verse 14). This Christmas could be our chance. Crossing the threshold of the stable we too can press in alongside those gathered to see the Peace Child. He has what we want.

Why? Because “he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14) and if we want peace, then we want him.