Bringing it home

The first time I played the game “Capture the Flag”, I fell in love with playing outdoors. The team game was held in a large forest, the boundaries of which contained several acres of dense woodland. Not only did my teammates and I need to be attuned to our positioning – as in most team sports played on a court, field or rink; the more we could balance our attack with distraction and lure our opposition away from the prize the better we played as a team. 

But that depended on getting to know the unique landscape of the field of play, which would be different each time we played “Capture the Flag”. The physical layout of the land – boulders, bushes, tree trunks, ditches – played a huge role in how we executed our strategy. Where we played – the specific location of the game – influenced how the game was played and the eventual outcome.

In today’s Gospel reading, Nathanael and Jesus met for the first time. Jesus’ first words to Nathanael were, basically, “I know you and you are a good person.”[1]What jumps out at me was Nathanael’s response. His choice of words; or, as some biblical scholars have decided to translate his response from the Greek, as in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from which we read today.

If a stranger came up to you and said, “Hey, I know you are a good person and there is no deceit in you,” how would you respond? Perhaps our kneejerk, and slightly cynical, response might be: “How would you know that? We’ve never even met.” No, I like how the NRSV interprets the Greek, not starting with ‘how’. Instead, “Where did you come to know me?” Where.

Jesus will know him by another way – by where they would have had a deep, spiritual connection. 

Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree.” We don’t know for sure what Nathanael was doing under that fig tree when Jesus ‘saw’ him. Our best guess is that he was connecting with God in prayer.

Christ is revealed to Nathanael as God’s Son when Jesus appealed to a specific, geographical location where Nathanael experienced God’s presence. Now this convinces Nathanael, and he doesn’t skip a beat in responding: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.”  The Gospels are full of this bias for geography and location. A specific, physical space is so important to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. 

Even in this text there is almost an exaggerated, overdone, mention of various locations. In just eight verses we are made aware of not just ‘under the fig tree’ but Galilee. The story can’t begin without setting this location of the action and characters. Then we hear of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. And then, we deal with this emphasis on Nazareth: positive because that is where Jesus comes from and negative because in the local lore, nothing good can come out of that place. 

The specific place of our prayer is critical, foundational, to connecting with God.

I mentioned how much I enjoyed playing “Capture the Flag” outside. In fact, that is what my brother and I played while my mother prayed. When I was a child, my brother and I often followed my mother to the cemetery beside the church where I was confirmed – St Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Conestogo, Ontario (near St. Jacobs and north Waterloo). 

We lived across the street from the cemetery lined with sprawling spruce trees. On the other side of those spruce trees was a valley gently sloping down to a creek. And this was a great location for hide-and-seek/capture-the-flag kinds of games.

Under one of the spruce trees at the edge of the cemetery atop the hill, my mother would sit quietly to pray. This was her place, her space, to meet with God. And she went there regularly during the spring, summer and fall months of the year.

The last time I visited this place was a couple of years ago at my father’s burial in that cemetery; here are a couple of pictures of my brother and I reminiscing of the importance of this place in our family history:

Here was my introduction to praying in a personal space. Our mentors will often suggest praying, and exercising for that matter, at the same time of day in the same place if at all possible. There is wisdom in grounding oneself in that discipline.

Today, when sheltering in place is the call to protect ourselves and each other from the pandemic threat, our homes and common living space have become our primary places of prayer. Where would you go to pray, today? Over the years while visiting people I’ve seen several so-called ‘home altars’.

There would be, in the corner of the living room, family room, basement or hallway, a chair beside a window or a small side table; on and around it would be symbols, candles, cloths and images that would serve to aid one in prayer. A holy, focal point. This was the place in the house where one went to meet with God. A home altar doesn’t need to be fussy, opulent, busy and crowded with these things: a simple, single candle and a cross would suffice.

Nathanael was convinced, in the end, by God validating his holy experience in place.Where he was drawn to pray nearby. That God would meet Nathanael there, and value this intimate and ordinary common-place spot moved his heart to believe. 

The Gospel story ends, in the last verse, with a reference to one of the most vivid holy encounters between God and human described in the scriptures – Jacob’s ladder. Here, in a town called Luz, Jacob once had a dream about a ladder upon which angels ascended and descended, connecting heaven and the earth in the place where he slept.[2]“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This promise is meant for us all.[3]

Because God is interested in a personal relationship with you, wouldn’t God know you in your personal space, wherever that may be? Perhaps during this COVID time we are all called to bring it home, again: to create that place in our personal space. 

Here, we may not know nor understand the mystery of God. Here, we do not know as much as we are known. And then, like Nathanael, all we can do is kneel, kiss the ground and acknowledge the holy presence of God, in Christ Jesus.[4]

[1]John 1:47-48.

[2]Genesis 28:10-19

[3]The second-person form of ‘you’, here, is plural. The evangelist here is speaking to a wider audience. John wants his readers to see themselves as the heirs of the promise Jesus gave to Nathanael. See Leslie J. Hopp, “John 1:43-51” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Vol.1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.264-265.

[4]Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2020), p.14-15.

The Light for Change

At the beginning of a new year, ‘change’ is on our minds. We consider dieting, exercising, forming healthy habits and other disciplines. And maybe even some plans are made. A couple weeks ago, we ordered a new scale. And it arrived promptly at our door on New Year’s Eve. Good timing. Now, will it work? And I don’t mean the scale.

I saw this funny cartoon in one of my social media feeds. It shows lots of people crowded in a church building all leaning intentionally to block the door. Outside knocking on the door is a figure that is supposed to be Jesus. The caption underneath reads: “Don’t allow Him in. He will change everything!”

Church people aren’t usually the type to welcome change. We don’t normally associate Jesus with change. Or, rather, we don’t acknowledge that walking with Jesus will. 

And yet, Bishop Michael Pryse confesses that in this COVID time he has seen something different in the Eastern Synod. He writes, “In the last nine months, I have learned that our church has a much greater capacity to change than I ever thought imaginable. We pivoted and established new models for ministry in a matter of weeks. We figured out new ways to engage in worship, learning, pastoral care and outreach ministries! I was amazed!

“And I hereby pledge to never again utter the words, ‘How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?’ ‘Change?’ The last nine months have proven that we can, and we did!”[1]

How does growth and change happen in each of us? And do we want to let this growth happen in our lives? Or do we resist it at every possible turn?

A cherished tradition at Christmas is the candlelight service, when worshippers gather in a darkened room and share the light of Christ. Passing candlelight is not easy but is also the way the One Light is conveyed to the whole assembly. When everyone’s candles are lighted, we all participate in the One Light of Christ. The small light we hold is no different from the first candle, the source. We are not Jesus, but we participate in his energy, his life and his light.

Symeon the New Theologian said, “Just as if you lit a flame from a flame, it is the whole flame you receive.”[2]

The Baptism of our Lord indicates that, in our baptism, we have the capacity to experience, first-hand, God’s presence directly. Our very lives reflect the ‘whole flame’ that we have received. To what degree we experience God depends on God’s loving initiative—grace, on the one hand; and our response on the other hand.

Sixteenth century Spanish mystic John of the Cross takes up the analogy of a smudgy window to make the connection between God’s grace and our response. A smudgy window, he says, is less able to transmit the sunlight shining through it. The more cleaned and polished the window, the more identical it appears with the rays of sunshine. While the nature of the window is distinct from the sun’s ray, a clean window better participates in the ray of sunlight that passes through it.[3]

It is not easy to wipe the smudge off. Sin is so entrenched within our ego that it might very well take a lifetime and beyond for all the dirt to be cleaned out. Since the time John of the Cross mused about smudge and light centuries ago, other poets and writers have commented on how the light gets to us and is reflected from us. 

More recently, Leonard Cohen wrote about how there is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. Whether it is through our weakness or strength, we turn towards the light in whatever way we can, to do better. The pinprick of light already shining in us slowly burns and cleanses. And we change.

In the end, the personal encounter with God changes us, so that others may experience Christ more fully in us. Our job, in the end, is not to horde the light for ourselves. The experience of the Christmas Eve candlelight service would be spoiled if no one passed their candlelight along. Our purpose is to share the candlelight to our neighbour, so they, too, may have the joy of holding and reflecting the light of Christ in their lives. 

As I said, passing the light is not easy. It’s tricky. And never a perfect art form. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well for us, or for our neighbour. Wax gets spilled. Wicks get snuffed. But, still, we try and try again. 

In the end, our participation in God’s energy, life and light means more than dwelling on debates and disagreements about our essence and/or Christ’s essence. It’s about participating in, and being changed because of, our personal experience with the Light – with Jesus. Twentieth-century American poet, W.H. Auden, offers what I consider a prayer for our imperfect response to, and sharing of, God’s grace:

How should we like it were stars to burn

With a passion for us we could not return?

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.[4]

[1] Bishop Michael Pryse, “Adieu—‘to God’—2020” Canada Lutheran (Vol.35, No.8, December 2020) p.30.

[2] Symeon the New Theologian was an eleventh century Byzantine Christian monk and mystic revered to this day by Eastern, Orthodox Christians. Cited in Richard Rohr, “Christ Born In Us” Incarnation (Daily Meditations, December 25, 2020),

[3] Cited in Rohr, ibid., December 10, 2020.

[4] W.H. Auden, “The More Loving One”

Guiding star

We prayed at the beginning of the service about the magi who discovered Jesus by the leading of a star. Aren’t we like those magi, I wonder? Aren’t we on a journey of discovering Christ in the dark night of our wanderings? 

Maybe at the beginning of the New Year you are looking for something more in your life. Maybe, like the magi, you search for God in the midst of all that is wrong in the world today. You want to be on this journey of discovery. But you can’t find Christ. You can’t see God.

How do we discover Christ? 

We need guidance, to be sure. On the journey of faith, the symbols, rituals, and traditions – like the star – all serve this higher purpose: some guidance on the path towards Jesus.

Over the centuries, the stars have captivated explorers and those travelling on journeys. Astronomers, astrologists and theologians have all weighed in with their various explanations and interpretations of the Christmas star. 

The Christmas star has been thought to be the result of a supernova explosion, a comet or a conjunction of planets as was the case this year with Saturn and Jupiter aligning up in the night sky. Medieval writers believed the magi saw a bright angel, which they mistook for a star.[1]

In the German Lutheran tradition, the Christmas Tree came from Martin Luther who in the sixteenth century noticed the starlight shining through the trees where he was walking outside.

When he brought an evergreen tree into his house at Christmas, and put lighted candles on its branches, he pointed to the lights on the tree as symbols of the stars, and hence the light of the world that came that first Christmas.

Traditions and rituals always point to something beyond the obvious. As the writer of Hebrews says, “faith is the conviction of things not seen …[and] what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”[2]In other words, faith is about how and why we see what we see.

The star of Bethlehem, then, was not meant to be a scientific, astronomical event. It wasn’t necessarily an extraordinary celestial event, but an ordinary star seen through the extraordinary eyes of the magi. They had “eyes to see”, a kind of seeing about which Jesus spoke in the Gospel.[3]This is a seeing that appreciates the ordinary in an extraordinary way. That is faith.

We have to put our traditions and interpretations in perspective. We need to remember, as Saint Augustine long ago wrote, “Christ was not born because the star shone forth, but it shone forth because Christ was born.”[4]Form follows function, not the other way around.

The magi were already on their journey to find God when God found them. And on that journey, they discovered love. Love was the signpost, the mile marker, on their journey. They discovered that God found them in the love of a baby born in Bethlehem. In humble estate. Surrounded by the love of ordinary parents. Their hearts were moved on an otherwise hostile, dangerous journey.

The journey to God is an eternal discovery and growth. Stars don’t stop. They keep moving. The constellations are in constant motion from our perspective. That the star “stopped” refers not to the ordinary motion of the planets but to the magi finally recognizing the Christ child surrounded by love.

God is not a fixed point but a moving centre within us and within all of creation. The farther and longer the journey, God continues to draw us into the immeasurable depths of God’s loving being.[5]This journey of discovering and experiencing God requires of us not intellectual understanding nor study so much as an abandoning ourselves to, and marvelling at, God’s love when we happen across it. 

The world does stop when we fall in love. But we move forward on this journey trusting that this love holds us and leads us into the unknown future. Dante wrote that God is “the love that moves the stars.”[6]

All we need to do, is turn our faces towards that guiding star. And keep going. In Jesus, God has sent out a beacon of light, “that all who are lost in this great night might see it and turn towards it, in order to find their way home.”[7]

[1]James C. Howell, “Mathew 2:1-12” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.212-215.

[2]Hebrews 11:1-3 (NRSV).

[3]Mark 8:18 (NRSV).

[4]Cited in Howell, ibid., p.214.

[5]Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001)  p.114-115.

[6]Cited in James C. Howell, ibid., p.214.

[7]Br. Jim Woodrum, “Beacon” Brother, Give Us A Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 28 Dec 2020)

The good news this COVID Christmas

This Christmas Eve many of us worship in our homes.

I’ve asked you to bring and light a candle for the duration of this time of prayer online. Perhaps as we look to the weeks ahead, we’ll all be spending more time at home during the lockdown, and there will ample opportunity for you to create a space and time for prayer, and light your Christmas candle. In fact, you may want to light it for a few minutes each of the twelve days of Christmas.

Lighting a candle and pondering its flame is a simple act. Yet doing so provides you with a focus for prayer. It creates a holy space in your home. And brings an awareness of God’s presence closer to your heart.

Maybe that’s the good news in this COVID-Christmas. Because isn’t that the truly evangelical faith – to experience personally an encounter with the Lord? Not by going to some other place from where you live, sleep, eat and spend most of your days. Not in holy sanctuaries far away. Not somewhere you need to drive to or take a bus or walk. But right where you are. Right where you live.

Christmas is about God coming into our world. And for many of us this Christmas, our world is very close to home. Where the heart is. For all the missional work the church aspires to and the social gatherings many of us love in the public spaces of our lives, the faith at some point still needs to resonate in the heart of the believer. And that’s what this Christmas is about. Inviting us to press the reset button on faith, by starting at home, where we are.

In an email that I received from a friend a few weeks ago they signed off not with  “Sincerely” or “Best wishes” or “With warmest regards.” Rather they signed off their letter by writing “Keep negative.” Keep negative? What did they mean?

I reacted to that statement and I wondered if they were being brassy or making a dig at me, always trying to put a positive spin on everything. Were they trying to be funny? It seemed odd to sign off that way. Anyway, I asked what they had meant by ‘keep negative’. 

They laughed and said it was a COVID reference. Keep negative. That is, if and when you get tested for the coronavirus, they hoped I would get a negative result. Not a positive one.

It was my turn to laugh. Of course. And then I reflected, how easy it is for us to focus on the negative. It’s almost our default. Even when there is good news. We’re afraid that if we are overly positive the other shoe will drop and something bad is just waiting to happen. 

Even when there is so much for which to be thankful. Even when there is so much that we have. It’s easier to ‘keep negative’ and talk about what is not happening this Christmas, what is wrong in the world, how dark it is. The ‘good news’ can be staring us in the face, and we don’t acknowledge it. We choose to turn away from it.

Christmas is a time to focus on that single flame from that single candle surrounded by darkness and give thanks for the greatest gift of love and life in Christ. Christmas is ‘good news’ that we need to recognize, first in our own hearts. And then spread it to others around us.

The message of Christmas is that divinity and humanity unite – and we see that first and foremost in Jesus. But the purpose of Jesus was to bring that awareness and truth into our own lives. So, during this COVID Christmas we are pressed, indeed, to grapple with Christ in our own lives.

The image of a pregnant Mary carrying the Christ child to birth is an image to hold onto. This Christmas, we carry the Christ child in our own hearts. And if at first you can’t find Jesus there, take some time to explore the interior regions of your own soul. This Christmas, we are invited to traverse the inner landscape of our hearts, and discover the spirit of Christ lives there, too. Even where there is pain, illness and fear.

That Christ Jesus chooses to live there despite all that is not right — this is good news. And this news brings joy, peace, and hope. So, keep positive; there is good reason.

When the star is broken

At one of our recent online confirmation classes, the students were to follow instructions given by Pastor Judith to make a Christmas star ornament – using a couple of sheets of white paper, some glue, a ruler, and a pair of scissors.

This is what it was supposed to look like when I was finished:

Well, after an hour of hard work, this is what I came up with: 

Not exactly what I had hoped for. At the time, even as the class was ending, I was tempted to keep at it, like the proverbial dog with a bone until I got it. But at the end, I had to accept and feel it, that it wasn’t going to work out for me, at that time.

In that class, there were about eight students. I guess I could take comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get it right. But about four in that zoom room held up a properly made and beautiful star! Some did get it! And I could see and feel their joy at that sense of accomplishment. Even though the end result wasn’t ideal for me, individually, as a class it succeeded.

This might not be the Christmas you had wanted and desired: Family gatherings not happening the way you had always envisioned; Church events and services just not the same; That pall of fear weighing heavily over your soul about COVID-19; The grief over all the deaths; The worry about the ongoing pandemic danger threatening us all. It just might not be working out for you this holiday.

That first Christmas was not what anyone expected. It was quite simple and bare bones, close to earth. Literally. The holy night was indeed silent. No large gatherings and noisy parties. No one decking the halls and filling their bellies. 

And yet, somewhere, someone, experienced profound joy. Initially, just Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. And someone, somewhere, is experiencing the wonder of the season today in 2020. Somewhere, this year, children are having fun. Somewhere, someone is expecting their first child. Newborn babies bringing laughter to joy-filled homes. And yes, there are some whose hearts are filled with peace, gratitude and joy this Christmas.

Being a Christian is not being bound up in ourselves all the time. As Christians we don’t identify exclusively with our isolated selves. There is someone bigger, a greater love, that is part of us, the essential part of us, beyond our self-centred preoccupations. Following Jesus is never just about ‘me’, trapped inside myself. It’s difficult to get this, because we normally are totally identified with our own passing thoughts, feelings, and compulsive patterns of perception.[1]

Rather than finding meaning in my own self, Christianity is about finding meaning in my relationship within the Body of Christ, the whole. How I connect with and identify within the community is where I find purpose for life in Christ. 

Perhaps this Christmas, I need to be happy that some of the kids hit it out of the park with this star. Perhaps this Christmas, especially those of us who are struggling, need to rejoice that Christmas is still being celebrated and felt by others. And for some, there is inexplicable joy. Thanks be to God!

It may just start with one small act of kindness. It may just start with a generous act of love to surprise someone else with the unexpected from you.

And so, I can say: Have a Merry Christmas.

[1] Richard Rohr, “Self-Emptying – Letting Go of Our Very Selves” Daily Meditations (, 16 December 2020)

Singing through the turn

Today we sang Mary’s words – traditionally called ‘The Magnificat’ – in response to the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. “My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord!” Mary sings. And so do we.

In that song[1], we find these verses describing a God who turns the social order upside down:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.[2]

This is what Jesus Christ is all about. The Advent of the Lord means things are turned and the rug is pulled from underneath all our expectations. 

One of my favourite hymns using the same tune as the one we just sang is called the “Canticle of the Turning”. It describes a God who keeps the world turning. The fourth verse goes:

Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.[3]

The turning is not only turning things upside down. There is also a turning of direction. Often in the bible we hear the prophets, poets and preachers call people of faith to turn away from what is not good and turn toward God.[4]Turn. 

The act of turning speaks of movement that changes our direction. We turn, like paddling with or against a headwind, like following the centre line whilst driving around a bend in the road. Like leaning away or towards something or someone. Turning requires attention, intention and concentration. It is not going with the flow or giving up. It is hard work.

Significantly, then, when you turn, it is not sudden nor momentary. Not always but most often the turning is not pivoting in one spot. It covers some distance. And takes some time.

And, perhaps most importantly, the kind of turning that will have lasting effect, spiritually speaking, always happens in the dark and emerges from the dark. That’s why I like the words of that hymn. The Canticle or Song we sing at this time of year – in Canada around the winter solstice when darkness dominates each day and so much in our world is in crisis. Yet, it is during this dark time when we celebrate the light that is coming into the world, the light of the Christ that shines in the darkness. 

Perhaps the only thing we are now anxious to turn is the calendar. We are seeing a light at the end of a long, narrow and dark tunnel. The COVID-19 vaccine is slowly but surely trickling into the country starting a long immunization campaign that will last most of the coming year. The COVID-19 era is not over. It won’t be for a long time still.

The ship is turning, slowly. We might not immediately experience or feel the difference at the start of a new and promising year. But the turning is nevertheless happening. And we need to embrace, learn to live and work with it.

In the darkness of the times, we are like in the womb. And like gestation, the dawn cannot be forced. New life cannot be prescribed. In the womb, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, we can only support and watch for whatever happens, however small and however incomplete it may first appear.

Socially, we may be self-conscious of singing out loud in the physical presence of others. In a packed room we may feel uncomfortable with silence. Self-consciousness is the blight of the spiritual path. Learning a new spiritual skill is difficult when we are self-conscious. So, perhaps there is an opportunity here during a socially-restricted Christmas.

Perhaps you have this time now to exercise important yet simple spiritual skills this season. Spiritual muscles that have not often – or ever – been exercised. So at home alone, sing out loud. At home alone, sit in silence and stillness to pray. Exercise your innate spiritual capacity to be aware of God’s presence all around you. This is crucial, gestation time for God’s Spirit to energize you as we move and turn into a new season.

Each time we sing or pray in silence our hearts proclaim a steadfastness, a faithfulness, not only of our commitment to the long journey forward but of God’s. Because each time we pray we confess the God who is turning the world around. So, may our hearts sing … for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

[1]Luke 1:46-55

[2]Luke 1:52-53

[3]“Canticle of the Turning” #723 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006) OneLicense #A-732801.

[4]Psalm 85:8; Isaiah 45:22; Acts 3:19

You are not alone this Christmas

“A witness to the light … coming after me”[1]– two phrases from the Gospel reading today I invite you to consider: “Being a witness to the light … coming after me.” In the context of the reading, these words refer to John the Baptist, the prophet crying in the wilderness who prepared the way for Jesus. 

Of course, pretty much every year since that first Christmas Christians have celebrated Advent and Christmas. There’s something about Christmas that beckons to be repeated, that needs to be recognized again and again. We don’t just decide one year to suspend Christmas – even though 2020 would maybe qualify as one year to just forget it.

In one life we have only so many Advents and Christmases. Maybe especially because of COVID, this season calls us not to approach Christmas the usual way – with sentimentality or nostalgia. That approach might just make things worse. 

Instead, maybe this year it is time to slice through the superficial and lay hold of what is real and true about God coming to us. Maybe this year we are called to approach Christmas as a rediscovery and rebirth.

The word, Advent, literally means ‘coming towards’. I suspect when we first hear that phrase, ‘coming towards’, we see it from our viewpoint. We must go towards God in our preparation and diligence during the Advent season. It starts with us – getting ready, cleaning house, decorating, making it happen. If we didn’t do any of these things, would Christmas still happen?

Flip the meaning of the word to go the other way, in the opposite direction. Advent is essentially not about us coming towards Jesus or God. It is about God coming towards us.

How does God come towards us, year after year at Christmas?

The speed of light is incomprehensible. Light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second! It takes just one second for light to travel from the moon to the earth, just eight minutes for light to travel from our sun to the earth.[2]

Despite the incredible speed of light, the source – the starting point – first produced and sent its light long before we respond to it. Long before we can marvel at it. Long before we can choose to do anything about it – good or bad – it’s already been travelling towards us.

The important questions during Advent are not: What must I do to come towards Jesus? How do I find Jesus? These questions betray a way of thinking that suggests it’s up to me or us to generate the release of God’s love, a way of thinking that suggests we can never be good enough. That we don’t have what it takes. And never will. We are perpetually stuck.

Rather, as Henri Nouwen suggests, the better questions are: What am I doing that prevents me from recognizing this gift, a gift that has already been given to me, a gift that has been coming towards me year after year – long before I was even aware it was being granted to me? How am I blocking the light? How do I hinder myself and others from receiving it?[3]

The COVID pandemic of 2020 has exposed our resistance to this gift. It has exposed our self-absorption. By remaining stuck in ways of thinking that keep us fixated on beliefs that are not true. You are worthy, beloved, child of God! You have what it takes! Don’t let the voices in your head and in the world tell you otherwise!

Exposing such lies has ironically made many of us uncomfortable, edgy, unravelled. The social restrictions that have, to varying degrees, forced us to limit our urges and compulsions. We’ve needed to bring focus to what we are really all about – forced us to look in the mirror. And we are faced with whether or not to accept the truth that has always been there but for whatever reason we’ve put off. It would be easier to get back to normal so we may continue distracting ourselves.

As Bishop Michael Pryse writes, “One should never waste a good crisis!”[4]Don’t forget what you are learning about yourself and about our community during this desert experience. Because herein lies the key to a deeper receptivity of God’s coming to you and to me, and to us, as a church. Here is the opportunity to make the necessary and healthy changes, letting go of habits of thought and behaviour and traditions that keep us stuck and fixated.

Because what is coming at us this Advent, at the speed of light, is therefore already here. What does preparing for it mean, except realising the eternalbirth of the Word, the Son of God, within the historical birth in Bethlehem and, crucially, no less in our ourselves, and at this time. What is coming towards us is here already.[5]We need the ritual repetition of Advent and Christmas, year after year, to accept this truth over the course of a lifetime. We have every opportunity to slowly but surely melt our cold hearts and bask in the eternal, self-giving light and love of God.

In other words, we are not alone. Never were. Never will be. No matter how much darkness surrounds us in the foreground. The light of Christ lives and shines within and through you! The dawn comes again just over the horizon. This is good news, full of hope. 

So, we can risk it. We can do the right thing. Because God giving us love and light does not hinge, does not depend, on whether we get it right or wrong. We have nothing to lose. 

The two largest planets in the solar system, Saturn and Jupiter, have been aligning since this past summer. And on December 21st, the winter solstice, those two giants in our solar system will be the closest they’ve been together since the Middle Ages, hundreds of years ago. When they do so, they will form what looks, from our perspective, like a double planet. This celestial event has been dubbed the “Christmas star.”[6]

The universe, God’s creation, is communicating hope for us. Hope, that recognizes our need for a little more light. How about a lot more light in the darkness that seems especially heavy this year. The conjunction of planets provides a convergence that we cannot miss: 

The light of the world is trying again to get our attention, ye people of faith!

[1]John 1:7,27 – from the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (Revised Common Lectionary)

[2]Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth; Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p.250.

[3]Henri Nouwen, “The Heart of God” in The Return of the Prodigal Son (Toronto: Image Random House, 1994), p.105ff.

[4]Bishop Michael Pryse,  “Return to different” in Canada Lutheran Volume 35 Number 7 (Winnipeg, ELCIC, Oct-Nov 2020), p.30.

[5]Laurence Freeman OSB, “First Week of Advent 2020”,

[6]CTV news “Christmas Star”

The church is not closed this Christmas

Isaiah 40:1-11

    1Comfort, O comfort my people,
  says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
  and cry to her
 that she has served her term,
  that her penalty is paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand
  double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out:
 “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be lifted up,
  and every mountain and hill be made low;
 the uneven ground shall become level,
  and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
  and all people shall see it together,
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry out!”
  And I said, “What shall I cry?”
 All people are grass,
  their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades,
  when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
  surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades;
  but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain,
  O Zion, herald of good tidings;
 lift up your voice with strength,
  O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
  lift it up, do not fear;
 say to the cities of Judah,
  “Here is your God!”
10See, the Lord God comes with might,
  and his arm rules for him;
 his reward is with him,
  and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
  he will gather the lambs in his arms,
 and carry them in his bosom,
  and gently lead the mother sheep.

Making a rough place level is not easy. To lay a railway bed across this country a couple centuries ago was a formidable task. To our modern sensibilities, even incomprehensible.

I remember driving through Rogers Pass in British Columbia just west of Revelstoke. Here, “The Last Spike” marks the place where the coastal railroad line finally in 1885 met up with the Canadian Pacific Railway whose armies of workers dug and blasted their way through the Rocky Mountains. Historians consider this joining of the line as the moment when national unity was realized. Establishing an economic and cultural link gave access to more and more people moving across this vast Canadian land.

The vision Isaiah puts before the people walking in the darkness of Babylonian exile 2500 years ago is similarly incredible. How could “every valley be lifted up and every mountain made low”? How could “the uneven ground become level and the rough places plain”? How could a small remanent return to Jerusalem across a vast and inhospitable land, not to mention leave a society in which they had grown accustomed over a generation?

It’s as if God was presenting a scenario that is without question impossible for human beings to accomplish on their own. They may have had resources – people power, willpower – to build impressive buildings and accomplish great things in their time. 

But as with so many if not all human achievements there is always that elusive element – call it luck, serendipity, grace – just out of reach of human agency, control and effort however impressive. Just ask anyone who is willing to give an honest answer to account for their success.

A.B. Rogers had to trek over the avalanche-prone Selkirk mountains not once but twice to confirm what he suspected: that there was a way just beyond the next ridge. After having to turn back the first time, he went back the following year from a different direction to verify that there was a tributary of the Columbia River in the valley beyond. Indeed, there was. That river valley had always been there. A given.

But we often find it hard to believe the grace is so close to us. The mental stumbling block for the exiled Israelites was this belief that they could only have a meaningful connection with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Jerusalem, in the holy temple. The physical separation by a vast and dangerous desert – created, you can imagine, a great challenge and crisis of faith: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”[1] they cried. How could they access their God, when they lived in exile so far away from their place of worship? 

These days when so many places of worship are empty, when gatherings are severely limited and space is not being used because of the pandemic, it’s common hearsay: “the church is closed for Christmas”. If we can’t gather together in one, specific place and sing the favourite carols at the top of our lungs, shoulder to shoulder; if we can’t light candles together in the darkened sanctuary; if we can’t give each other hugs and wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ face-to-face … well, then, what’s the point? 

Indeed, it feels like our traditions are ‘like grass’, they have withered and faded in 2020. Despair remains a hair’s breadth away. COVID-19 has devastated all our good efforts in accessing what is important to us in connecting with God. If we can’t be physically in the building with other people to worship God, then it is lost. Our access to God cut off.

And then we hear voices saying that the church is not closed this Christmas. The buildings are closed. But not the church. Access to God continues in various ways. Of course, access to the church is not perfect, especially for those who do not connect with others on the internet these days.

But access to God and God’s people has never been perfect, even pre-COVID. Those who work shifts on Sunday mornings, people with physical disabilities not being able to access buildings with stairs and narrow halls and doorways. Others who don’t access places of worship because of perceived and real judgement laid against them by those who are there. Access to God has never been easy or perfect. We are like grass. Our efforts always fall short. 

But more than that, those voices today continue to say – do we hear them? – that access to God during COVID has never been so broad and far-reaching because of the internet. The people tuning into broadcasts, online services, live streams and zoom gatherings, the coming together of the faithful from different congregations for a weekly event – these far outnumber those who have ever sat in our chairs in the building. People are participating in the life of the church like never before!

What this COVID time is doing is challenging our perceptions and expectations of where we meet with God. The message of Advent is the call to work at re-defining the parameters for ourselves. Advent is this time of active waiting for God, doing different things to help pave the way through the mountain passes of our lives. It is a time for resilient, determined never-give-up-ness. 

How can we nurture this courage and resilience from within?

The latter part of the poetry in this passage from Isaiah contains a promise that we know to be true. Historically. But also, personally. We know that King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and freed the people in the sixth century B.C.E. This liberation was not engineered by the people. And still, the exiles who had spent years far away from their place of worship were now free to return to Jerusalem. King Cyrus made that possible.

Personally, Isaiah’s poetry reflects imagery of the caring shepherd. We know that Jesus was the shepherd whose voice the sheep that follow him know. We know that Jesus is the shepherd who carries the lambs – the sheep who are most vulnerable, most in need, most in despair, most afraid and anxious – in his arms. And he will feed us, give us what we need.

Not only that, God has a special promise to those who feel responsible for others’ well-being. The shepherd will also “gently lead the mother sheep”. Isaiah’s message is not only to those who are dependent on others in dark times. Isaiah’s promise also includes a word to those who feel the emotional if not practical burden of responsibility for others when times are tough. That mothering instinct to find solutions, say the right things, solve problems and be there for others – here, too, God’s promises give permission to take a load off. God will enfold and carry the ones who normally lead.

In the end, the question is not so much about how we access God, and where we need to go. The Gospel message – the good news – is that God accesses us, wherever we are. God will come, God will find a way, into our hearts and into the hearts of those we care for this Christmas. We have to believe that.

We don’t have to have all the solutions, the strategies that work, the answers to what challenges us in COVID times. We don’t need to always feel that burden of responsibility for the fact that many church buildings are closed this Christmas. Because, we know and believe, the church remains open to hear God’s voice and trust in God’s promises – to come to us wherever we are.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Psalm 137:4

Don’t write off Christmas this year

In our weekly confirmation class on zoom, the students were first asked to imagine Christmas this year. What will it look like? What is the important message?

Then, we considered the first words of the angels to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid …”[1]What are we afraid of? The participants were asked to identify a picture they could find on the internet that represented their own fear. And we saw all manner of examples of what we are afraid of: large crowds, germs floating in the air, fire, accidents, the darkness. By the end of the discussion, it didn’t feel like we were talking about Christmas at all.

But maybe we were.

On the one hand, the Gospel reading for this First Sunday of Advent conveys to us a great faith that feels like certainty: “You know that summer is near as soon as the fig tree’s branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves.”[2] Jesus puts this matter-of-factly. You should know. Read the signs. It is clear. And so, have faith. 

Our spirit may yearn to echo this conviction that speaks of unshakable hope. At the same time, we may confess that in all honesty we are afraid. And we feel insecure about a future that only appears dark on our horizon. Would that we could only have this confident faith in the midst of the darkness swirling about COVID-19.

I recently heard a wonderful story of a graveside funeral service held early during the first wave of COVID in southern Ontario.  Following social guidelines strictly, the mourners limited attendance to only ten people. But unexpectedly, just as the niece was about to start sharing words of tribute about her loved one, an eleventh person joined the group.

A large golden retriever jumped the fence lining the graveyard and bolted to the group standing by the open grave.  The dog’s owner, living right beside the cemetery, scrambled over the fence and chased the dog who went straight to the niece.

The niece’s eyes widened in amazement and she held up a hand to calm the mourners who were becoming visibly uncomfortable with the intrusion of the canine. 

But the dog, upon reaching the feet of the niece, sat on its hinds wagging its tail, and quietly looked up at her. “Let the dog be,” she said with a wide smile and tears glistening in her eyes. “I was just about to say how much my uncle loved dogs. And I believe this dog knew that to be true.” [3]

In times of grief and sadness, when all is dark – don’t miss out on these moments that arrive at what may appear on the surface the most inappropriate of times. Don’t fall asleep to these moments of grace. Keep awake! Pay attention, because the Lord is coming when you may least expect it. 

How about right now? Not two thousand years ago. Not during Herod’s rule of tyranny. Not even during the Jewish revolt when Roman armies brought down Jerusalem in flames in 70 C.E. – and when most of the New Testament scriptures were first written down. “The Son of Man coming in the clouds” is a direct quote from Daniel 7:13, and the “desolating sacrilege” refers to the Maccabean revolt a couple hundred years before Jesus’ time.[4]

The point is, Christmas doesn’t direct our vision only to one point in time – to that sweet image of baby Jesus born in a manger. We don’t read scripture. The scripture reads us. As the message of Christ coming to the earth resonated with people in all the historical contexts we read about in the bible, so the message of Christ coming must resonate with us, in our time. And, especially in this COVID time. 

Don’t write-off Christmas this year just because we aren’t doing it the way always have done it. Christmas will not lose anything this year. In truth, the meaning of Christmas will have a greater potential punch in our lives and in the world this year more than in our past. 

Because the message is meant precisely for times such as these. “Don’t be afraid, for I bring tidings of good news for all people!” sang the angels. Not when everything is warm and fuzzy and cozy, when everything makes sense. And all is well in the world. But “good news” especially for dark times. When the light is most needed.

I believe we can live in confidence of faith. Because as God remained steadfast and faithful to the people over the course of all history, so too God will remain faithful through these times as well. Our faith stands on the shoulders of thousands of years of people living through good times and bad times. 

COVID won’t stop Jesus from coming. Nothing will. Not our fear. Not our failure. Not our sin. Not our bad luck nor our misfortune. Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[5]

Wherever and whenever love is shared between people living through dark times together, Christmas will happen. Wherever and whenever love guides those with privilege to reach out in mercy and welcome those who are on the margin, Christmas will happen. Wherever and whenever mutual love strengthens bonds of trust and forgiveness, Christ is born.

Advent is the call to action, a call to exercise this faith, this hope, that Christ will come: Come into this world, come into our lives and come through our loving deeds.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Luke 2:10

[2] Mark 13:24-37

[3] Adapted from the Rev. John Lougheed (The Delton Glebe Counselling Centre & Martin Luther University College, 2020).

[4] Christopher R. Hutson, “Mark 13:24-37” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2014), p.63-64; the NRSV tones it down by translating it, “that suffering”.

[5] Romans 8:35-39

The Really Real

If there is one thing that stands out in my conversations with others about what people are learning from the pandemic, it is about the quality and honesty of relationships, especially with strangers. It’s like the pandemic has heightened our awareness of other people we pass on the street or in the mall, or even in our home. We have been re-introduced to what is important, what is real, in those relationships.

For example, folks have shared with me how strangers are often friendly towards them. And how they themselves feel more willing to return or initiate a kindness. Perhaps in times of social anxiety that we feel all around us, we know and behave out of a deepening awareness that we are all, indeed, in this together.

Physician Ruth Martin received the Governor General’s Award in 2015[1] for her work with incarcerated women in British Columbia. Half of the women she helped were Indigenous.  And most of these women struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. 

Challenging the assumption that addicted people make irresponsible choices, Ruth listened to the women’s histories—the physical and sexual abuse they endured as children, young teenagers and women. She said, “I would put my pen down and listen, and I realized that if I had been dealt the same cards, I might have been sitting in their chair. I would often place the Kleenex box close to the woman who was sharing her history, but also close enough to me that I could reach for a Kleenex for myself.”[2]

In the Gospel reading for this Reign of Christ Sunday[3], Jesus is the judge who separates the sheep from the goats – those who loved from those who cared less. For the early Christians who first heard and read this text, not only did the story call them to love “the least of these” in their midst. For they, themselves, were the persecuted and the hungry, too. 

“All the nations” gathered before the king; and the roles between those who love and those who need love are not fixed. They apply to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

This vision includes all people. And therefore, there is a call to respect the mutuality and common humanity we share with all people. As Ruth Martin experienced in her care for Indigenous women, she admitted the line separating her from the women for whom she cared was thin.

God identifies with the side of ourselves we normally don’t want to show to others: our weakness, our neediness, our vulnerability. Simone Weil said that we give not out of our strengths, but out of our weakness. What separates us, distinguishes us, are our strengths; but what unites us is our weakness.

Not only is this text about our role in giving and receiving care in mutual, loving relationships, it’s really about God. And “God is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.”[4]

If we are looking for God in our world, we need to look in our midst through the lives of our neighbors. “Jesus articulates in rather blunt terms that how you treat another child of God in this life is in actuality how you treat God. By seeing the infinite worth in our neighbor, we keep God as our center and focus.”[5] By seeing Christ in the face of those in need we give ourselves permission to connect with God in the brokenness of our own hearts.

But what’s the point of doing all this hard work when we are heading to heavenly kingdom in glory? Isn’t that our eternal aim anyway? Why worry about what happens on earth?

But the Reign of God is not only about eternal life, or where we go after we die. That idea is disproven by Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”.[6]

“Your Kingdom come” means very clearly that God’s realm is something that enters into this world, or, as Jesus puts it, “is close at hand”.[7] It’s futile mental energy to project it into another world. What we discover in the New Testament, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, is that the Kingdom of God is a new world order, and a promised hope begun in the teaching and ministry of Jesus—and continued in us.

I agree with Richard Rohr to think of the Kingdom of God as the Really Real (with two capital Rs). That experience of the Really Real—the “Kingdom” experience—is the heart of Jesus’ teaching. “It’s Reality with a capital R, the very bottom line, the pattern-that-connects. It’s the experience of what is.”[8]

God gives us just enough tastes of God’s realm, just enough joy and grace to feel the blessing of God and therefore to believe in it and to want it more than anything. In the parables, Jesus never says the Kingdom is totally now or totally later. It’s always now-and-not-yet. When we live inside the Really Real, we live in a “threshold space” between this world and the next. We learn how to live between heaven and earth, one foot in both worlds, holding them precious together.

The Reign of Christ begins in community – in relationships – beyond our private, self-centred preoccupations. That is where Jesus finds us. It’s when we risk reaching beyond our own concerns, to think about the needs of another who is also vulnerable, weak and suffering, that we meet the Lord – in the pattern-that-connects, in the mutual love that we experience together.

The Kleenex box is never out of reach for both of us. And when both hands reach for the Kleenex, both find healing.

[1] Status of Women Canada – government website

[2] Cited in Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul; How to Flourish Spiritually in a World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.153-154.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46; the Gospel for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), Year A.

[4] John M. Buchanan, “Matthew 25:31-46”, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.334

[5] Br. Jim Woodrum, “Center” – Brother, Give Us a Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Nov 6, 2020),

[6] Matthew 6:10

[7] Matthew 10:7

[8] Richard Rohr, “Jesus and the Reign of God” in Daily Meditations (Center for Action & Contemplation, Nov 15, 2020)