Shalom is a Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “peace.” This is not a bad translation but it is not entirely adequate. Shalom can also be translated as perfection, wholeness and completeness. Often when we think of peace, we think of an absence of conflict. Yet one can walk into a room without conflict and feel a palpable tension that is the absence of peace. There may not be no guns firing, but being on the edge of violence is hardly peace.
When I think of shalom I go back to a time when I was a camp counselor in northern Michigan. Our days were very active and so right after lunch we had cabin time, also known some summers as “lie low” time. It was an hour after lunch to relax at the cabins, play card games, read a book, take a nap (though everyone was too old to call it “nap time”). I remember afternoons lying by the screened cabin window, belly full of good camp food, a slight breeze coming in, reading a book and feeling sort of dozy. In that moment there was literally nothing else I needed, no place I would rather be and nothing I would rather do. Sure, after a time it would get boring, but for that hour it was an experience of shalom.
Contentment is how shalom feels. It is the deep sigh of satisfaction. It is the unforced hint of a smile. It is knowing when enough is enough.
Much of our culture is grounded in creating discontent. Marketing strategies seek to create a sense of dissatisfaction: that my cereal isn’t good enough, that my car is too slow or too weak, that my clothes are too old or too plain, that my teeth are not white enough, that my body is not thin enough. If we can just improve and upgrade our things, then our lives will also improve and upgrade. If we live with a sense of contentment; if we embody shalom, such appeals come as a foreign language. My body is a gift as it is. My little car gets me to where I need to go. The things I have are enough to be happy and truly my happiness ceases to be dependent on things.
Contemplative Christians talk about being grounded in the presence of God as the source of contentment/shalom. When I spend time aware of the constant love of God that undergirds my every moment and every breath, contentment is never far away. When the love of God is the source of shalom, I am constantly in shalom, only needing to be reminded when I forget or become distracted.
There is, however, a danger to contentment in that it can easily turn to apathy or complacency. The prophetic voices of the faith challenge this impulse. I may be content with the food I have; the things I have, but I cannot ignore my neighbor who does not have enough. The prophets invite us to be grounded in the love of God so that we can advocate for those for whom shalom is absent.
I write this in the wake of another school shooting in America, this time in Parkland, Florida, where a young man killed 14 students and 3 faculty members with an assault rifle. Such an event should move Christians from complacency, to advocate for and support students who now are beginning to demand shalom, safety, freedom from fear in places of learning. We should step forward with them, asking our leaders to allow the scientific study of gun violence (The CDC has not been allowed funding to do this work since the Dickey amendment in 1996) and advocating for policies that will keep children safe.
In fact, I believe this is a fundamental calling of the church, to witness and advocate for shalom in the world; to live the meaning of contentment; to share so that others can have enough. Contentment does not mean that we spend our lives in experiences akin to my camp experience, a constant retreat. These moments are meant to ground us in contentment so that we can live content lives in a discontent world. In Christ, we see shalom; in God, we find shalom; together, we live shalom.