Some words lose their meaning because they are overused. We are approaching Valentine’s Day and for those of you out shopping for the perfect sentiment, you know how difficult it is to convey the ups and downs of a covenant, a marriage, a friendship, or the love of your child in the way that someone will really “get” it. There are a plethora of cards saying a plethora of things, but words like “love,” “joy,” “gratitude,” and “friendship,” just kind of fall short when there are a million and one ways to say it, but it is the showing of it that is at stake.
“Peace” is one of those words that gets bandied about A LOT. So much that it loses its power when we can’t find another way to imagine peace than a bunch of old hippies sitting around singing Kumbaya and making peace signs around a fire. I have nothing against hippies or Kumbaya, but it is just so darn difficult to get other images in one’s head these days when peace, whatever that looks like, seems to drift way above the fray of human life like smoke from a genie’s bottle. It becomes anesthetized, drained of whatever meaning it once had.
When Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he weeps over the city and says, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42) Which is like saying that the city’s inhabitants don’t know or understand the conditions needed for peace.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there is an immoveable, wooden ladder. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is venerated as the place of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy of Holies, in Christendom. Because of a mandate in 1852, care of the church falls to six Christian denominations…and they can’t agree on a ladder. The church is divided into various territories which are governed by these different sects of Christians and fights can seriously get bloody. During the early 1800s, a man belonging to an unknown sect placed the ladder on a ledge against an exterior second-floor wall of the church. Because of the status quo, and the potentiality of a terrible fight, that ladder hasn’t moved for over 200 years. These six churches would have to agree to move it…and so far, no one has. Well, except in 1997, when a prankster moved it and hid it behind an altar, only to be found weeks later and carefully set back into place. When I was there in 2008, the wooden ladder was still there hanging out.
For some, the immoveable ladder represents the inability of even the pious to agree on anything – even something as simple as a ladder. And hey, if they can’t do it, what hope do we have? For us, it might be a reminder of how difficult it can be to find any resolution when people prove intractable in their opinions, their perspectives, and their agendas.
“Oh, that you would know the things that make for peace, but they are hidden from you,” Jesus says, even when a ladder remains as a very visible reminder of our obstinance.
In our home, to reach the attic, one must lug our heavy, metal ladder up from the basement. It is an expanding ladder that my husband and I received as a much-desired wedding gift. It was, and still is, an awesome wedding gift, one of the few things that I still have and still use. It is some kind of gorilla ladder, I think, and can unfold multiple ways which makes it ideal for home projects.
To reach the attic in our house, the ladder must be carefully manipulated. Our attic is accessed by a tight overhead space and, here’s the thing, if you just aim for getting in the attic and do not consider the parameters of the access door or the tight quarters, you will likely fail. If you think that you can just bend the ladder, scale the rungs, and be on your way to accessing the Christmas lights, the plastic Halloween pumpkins, the bins of summer clothes or whatever odds and ends are stored up there, well, you are wrong. Having lived with both the house and the ladder for a while, I have learned the hard way that there is only ONE way to unfold and position the ladder so that you will access that door with your body intact. And that requires folding the ladder firmly in half, popping the attic door, then getting back down off the ladder, extending it to its full length, so that the top is in my kids room and the bottom is just about even with the bathroom toilet, and the middle is exactly perpendicular to the basement stairs which are approximately 2 feet away. I will spare you just how we figured out that arrangement, but we did with many swear words in the process.
The point is, both we and the ladder, had to move, had to unbend and unfold, rebend and refold, stretch, and move away from our stances to access a roomier space.
Others much wiser than I have said that we may likely wake up and find ourselves with our ladders against the wrong walls. We Americans, from Ben Franklin to today, imagine climbing the proverbial ladder of success. The Protestant work ethic is deeply engrained in us, so much so, that when we meet someone, we are much more likely to ask what they do rather than who they are as persons. And then when people retire, there is an adjustment when one learns that the ladder one has been scaling lo these many years has simply vanished into thin air, or not brought the expected rewards one imagined, or has not led to some kind of satisfactory “heaven,” legacy, or conclusion. A gold watch or stock options or a framed certificate notwithstanding, we are often disappointed not to find our rest without worry. Sometimes emptiness prevails.
Peacemaking and peacemakers depend – in part—upon the ladders we are climbing and to what end. Against which walls are we leaning and trusting our rising steps? Likewise, peacemaking demands that we recognize who shares those ladders with us—whether we are simply using others as the rungs for our feet or whether we are building better ladders that can accommodate both our differences and our similarities. Peacemaking requires an ability to reconfigure HOW we rise: not at the expense of another person, tribe, or country, but with shared goals, interests, goals, and rewards. It’s a tall order; not just any ladder will do.
We also must be willing to examine whether the walls against which our ladders are placed are worthy of our life’s energy, investment, and values. What a loss to arrive at the top only to discover we are falling, instead of rising—whether falling into discord and distrust, falling into debt or addiction, poor relationships with our family or loved ones, stressed health, environmental disaster, or other degradation.
So, friends, where is YOUR ladder placed?
Is it immoveable like the ladder at the Church of the Sepulchre? Or are you willing to reconsider its placement and alignment with your values? Do you notice the rungs on which you step? Are you willing to place your ladder near those living in the dregs and the grit of life, like my bathroom, if it means that you and your enemy might rise equally, safely, and well?
About ladder safety—Often people pick the lightest ladder as a matter of convenience. Often when workers realize their ladder is too small, rarely do they go back and get a taller or heavier ladder. Instead, they climb on the top rung or cap of the ladder to gain a bit of extra height. But then, having nothing to hold onto, they risk falling, injury, and even death.
Needless to say, our ascent should not be predicated on someone’s descent.
There is a story told by Anton McConville who was 14 and growing up in Northern Ireland. It was in the 1980’s and it was one of those damp, cool, grey days in which the rain isn’t quite a drizzle, but a “mizzle” as McConville writes. Everything was closed on Sundays in Northern Ireland in those days. To McConville, Sundays meant Mass, family visits, family dinner, and washing copious amounts of dishes. McConville was reading soccer scores in the family kitchen one average Sunday when he heard a noise. It wasn’t inside, but it didn’t seem to be outside either. He looked around the room but saw no one. His father lay sleepily in the living room, in front of the t.v. Curious, McConville went outside the kitchen door and heard voices again.
“Up here,” he heard.
He looked up and in the lane on a wall, there were 3 British reserve soldiers camouflaged, holding rifles, and stuck. The wall was 30 ft high.
“Do you have a ladder?” one soldier asked a bit desperately.
McConville writes, “What was the soldier hoping? That I would graciously respond ‘why yes I do’ by majestically unfurling a ladder from the cuff of my sleeve like a cabaret magician?”
Instead, McConville replied “no,” but went to fetch his father who was a builder, and who was also sound asleep. McConville was loathe to disturb him for those soldiers and when he did, his dad nearly catapulted from the recliner.
The soldiers told his father that they were lost, they and needed a ladder pronto.
On their way back to the house, his dad explained to his son that the soldiers were in trouble, really. Lost and vulnerable, they could easily be picked off by terrorists.
After they shuffled the ladder into place, the soldiers’ guns gave way to gratitude.
“Thanks,” they muttered, “Don’t tell anyone about this, please.”
McConville says, “My dad was a stereotypical Irishman…[but] some things were open: my dad’s eyes, his smile, and his yard. His ladder was open, offering brief steps in peace.”
Sisters and brothers, what about you and your ladders? “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “for they shall be called children of God.” Happy are we, blessed are we, when we, too, learn this.
 Anton McConville, “The Ladder: Little Steps in Peace,” Stories from North Ireland, Medium. March 25, 2014. https://medium.com/stories-from-northern-ireland/the-ladder-88e6e6b63980