Grant us peace

This evening we find ourselves at the threshold of all that Christmas anticipates. Our sight is therefore narrowly focused on the immediate. After all the waiting and the long journey, Mary and Joseph have finally arrived at the place of nativity, in Bethlehem.

And, like any expectant father and mother, they find themselves embroiled in the hustle and bustle that immediately precedes birth. Christmas Eve is therefore all about a sense of ‘place’.

Everything happens here, on this holy night. We are drawn to this place in this time to remember and re-enact what happened on that very first, special holy night. At one moment in history, God entered the world on that first Christmas. In a specific time, at a specific place — the town of Bethlehem.

The children re-created the version of the Christmas story according to Luke. And they made sure we got into the roles and felt that sense of place — the innkeeper’s door, the manger scene in that town surrounded by shepherd’s fields under a starry night.

It was that small, dusty, ordinary, rather plain and dull place that was to receive the greatest gift of all time — the gift of God incarnate. Bethlehem was the scene of the glorious host of heaven entering into the world. But, “How could anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condescending yet prevalent attitude expressed by an early disciple of Jesus (John 1:46). How could it be that Bethlehem and its ragtag cast of characters would receive this gift?

Indeed, receiving gifts is just as important as giving gifts at Christmas. I think, in our achievement, accomplishment and success -oriented culture, it is more difficult to truly open our hearts and unconditionally receive a gift of great joy. When we don’t feel like we have to somehow return the favour, or earn it by our hard work. I think for many of us busy-bodies, to stop and just be — before any active response — is tough to do.
We are so used to ‘providing for’, doing it, giving it, expending our energy, performing, succeeding; or, God-forbid failing at succeeding, accomplishing by our acts of heroism — to care for another, to make it happen for others. We are compulsive in our drive to be a champion of something or another.

You’d think we were the Messiah coming to save the world by observing some of our actions.

I heard from several of you this Advent how you haven’t this time around either decorated or baked or ‘checked off the list’ all the things you’ve normally done in years past. And this was cause for moments of anxiety: “Would Christmas be the same?” And what a gift it was to hear from you confess that, indeed, Christmas has come to you at a more meaningful level as ever before.

Could it be, because we are slowly learning, simply, to receive the gift that comes, despite us?

One of the oldest prayers and carols in the Christian tradition, originally expressed in Latin: Dona Nobis Pacem — give us peace. “Peace on earth” is the purpose of Christ-coming. The peace we seek in our lives. And for that to happen, we need first to relinquish our Messianic compulsions. We need to recognize and accept our human limitations. And that is good. Because when we can release our grip — or at least loosen it for a moment — could we, then, have peace.

O Little Town of Bethlehem signifies this gift of peace. Why? Precisely because it is un-spectacular. It is not an exceptional town in the region of Nazareth. You would not find Bethlehem listed prominently in the Frommer’s tour guide books from the 1st century. Maybe that’s why it took the Magi some time to get there. It’s like one of the ‘if you blink you’ll miss it’ crossroad hamlets that dot the rural landscape of our land.

If you drive down highway 41 south from Pembroke through Eganville towards Denbigh, you pass by one of those blue-coloured town signs with the word “Khartoum” written on it. Khartoum, Ontario — do you know it? It is actually a town — but you might count three houses driving by amidst the pine, spruce and rock-lined, winding roadway. Khartoum is like the Bethlehem of Ontario.
Perhaps because expectations are low. Why so many don’t have peace at Christmas is because expectations are so crazy and unreasonable at this time of year. Again, assuming ‘we make Christmas happen’. But this is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not make Christmas happen.

The Gospel — the good news — of Christmas is that the baby Jesus had to rely on this ragtag cast of characters to survive. The holy child, the divine made flesh, the almighty God — became vulnerable. God had to wait. God had to receive the gift of these imperfect characters, these unimpressive, un-extraordinary people. Jesus the baby had to receive their gifts of protection, love, care, and support. In order to be the greatest gift for us, God had to receive our imperfect gifts. God waits to receive our imperfect gifts, our offerings, our giving.

I’m learning something as I begin the second half of my life: The art of letting God come to me. It’s not dissimilar from the the concept espoused by those who coach sports, who advise: “Let the game come to you.” They make reference, of course, to players and teams on a winning streak who play loosely, who are not trying too hard, who don’t hold their sticks or bats too tightly; And, who nevertheless concentrate, who are in the flow, in the zone. Yes.

But they are not making it happen. They are not driving it too hard. Doing too much. Nor are they over-stating their presence, pushing it. Let it come to you, rather than trying to make it happen — this is the practical yet difficult challenge at Christmas.

Christian writer and teacher, Henri Nouwen, wrote: “Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid, and let God …be our companion”. Allow God — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — come to us. (Henri Nouwen, “Gracias!” in “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M Nouwen”)

A birthing experience will force all closely involved into a receptive state of being — as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us control freaks. We do need to just let it happen when it will. Let the gift come to us.

The unconditional love, unconditional positive regard, the faithfulness of God in us, the trust of the baby Jesus — these truths bring us all to a level playing field. There is no them-and-us. There is no outsider in God’s realm. There is no hierarchy of social standing. There is no moral-achievement program here. There is no ladder to climb.

Rather, God climbs down the ladder to us, just as we are. Because God’s love for us is so great. That is the message of Christmas. That is the peace that we seek.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill among all people! Merry Christmas!

Courage and Joy

Last night, the hustle and bustle of getting ready, and anticipating the birth. Last night, the noise, the anxiety, the smelly stable, the animals, the shepherds, the chorus of heaven singing in the starry, silent night. “Joy to the world” indeed!

Today, however, the child is born. A little more breathing room, perhaps. A little more time for realizing what just has happened. Time, amidst the burping, squawking infant feeding for quiet reflection, to ponder this miraculous birth, this wondrous event that will change everything! “What child is this?” indeed!

As things begin to sink in, to settle, one may ponder the last several months as I am sure Mary and Joseph did — how it all began to take shape. It all started, of course, when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her the news of God’s intention (Luke 1). 

Looking back, this was the critical moment. In the reverie it almost feels like the Mission Impossible theme song should start up: “Should you choose to accept your mission ….” Da-Da, Da-Da-Da, Da-Da. 

Everything depended on that moment of decision on Mary’s part. The course of history hung in the balance. So much at stake. What does she do? How will she respond?

During Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.

But the biblical record suggests something more. Listen to the famous poem, the “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov who captures the immensity of the moment:

“We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 

almost always a lectern, a book; always

the tall lily.

       

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,

the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,

whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

courage.

       

The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free

to accept or to refuse, choice

integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations

of one sort or another

in most lives?

         

Some unwillingly

undertake great destinies,

enact them in sullen pride,

uncomprehending.

More often

those moments

when roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept

like any other child–but unlike others,

wept only for pity, laughed

in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence

fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous

than any in all of Time,

she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’

and gravely, courteously,

took to heart the angel’s reply,

the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry

in hidden, finite inwardness,

nine months of Eternity; to contain

in slender vase of being,

the sum of power–

in narrow flesh,

the sum of light.

                     

Then bring to birth,

push out into air, a Man-child

needing, like any other,

milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed, Spirit suspended, waiting.

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.”

How did she handle the moment of decision before the Angel Gabriel? I must conclude, with both courage AND joy. Often we don’t consider the two together. Either someone has a whole lot of courage, determination, and serious intent about their business. Or, someone tends towards the frivolous, uncontained in their happiness and joyful demeanour — even being silly, unfettered from the cares of the world.

During the memorial service for the late Dorothy Mueller last week, we recalled a moment in Dorothy’s early life in Montreal with her husband Henry. One night all dressed up for going out dancing on the town, she and Henry came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did.

Not many of us would demonstrate that level of courage in the public arena. And take the risk to stand up out of passionate concern for the underdog, the downtrodden, the suffering, the poor.

What else is impressive is that she showed that courage while out on the night, dancing. Along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled with joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and others, have suggested that the most appropriate contemporary equivalent to “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) may be “The Word became poor.” (1) Like Mary, like Dorothy, we too need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the poor and the needy.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. When Mary, with courage and joy, accepted the mission presented by the Angel Gabriel, the God-human relationship was now restored in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Indeed, “The Word became flesh.” Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to all humanity. To us.

God was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. Jesus came into the darkness of the 1st century world. And, Jesus continues to come into the darkness of our lives.

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, the world, our lives, still have problems. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, and to each according to our needs.

Perhaps, on this Christmas Day, we can start by giving thanks to God for Mary — her courage and joy at being the first to receive Christ.

(1) cited in “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, WJK Press Kentucky, 2014, p.138

Advent 4 – children’s sermon

We’re almost there! Less than a week until Christmas! Are you excited?

I brought in this candle to show you, because it is special. At Christmas in worship we light lots of candles to show that Jesus is the light of the world. And comes to shine God’s light in our dark world.

Can someone light the candle? What does it smell like?

That’s right! A tree! Actually, a balsam fir, it says on the jar.

For some people, they wait until Christmas Eve to cut down a tree and bring it into their home. Then they put real candles on it, light it the first time late Christmas Eve and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” while standing around the tree.

Smelling this candle reminds us of all sorts of things …. Memories of last Christmas …. Smelling this candle reminds us of so much more than we can see right now. This candle’s smell is bigger than the odour itself; it reminds us of something much larger than the candle itself.

Every thing we do in worship — light candles, say prayers, eat the holy meal, sing and listen together — reminds us and points to something bigger, something larger than ourselves.

Smelling this candle reminds me that very soon a real Christmas tree will be soon giving that wonderful scent of balsam needles in this very space. We can look forward to that! And being joyful about Jesus being born at Christmas! And coming again!

Advent 4 Eucharistic Prayer

We praise you gracious God

That since the beginning your Word created all.

You spoke to your people through the prophets.
You prepared us for your coming in the One

Jesus, who came to feed the hungry, 

who promised to come to us in your Spirit, 

and who promised at the end of time to come again.

We praise you, loving God, that you come to us now

In the Spirit of your Son

In the bread and the wine.
For, in the night before your death
You ate with your friends;

You took bread, gave thanks, broke it,

And gave it to them, saying,

“Take and eat. This is my body given for you.

Do this in remembrance of me.”
Again, after supper, he took the cup,

Gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying,

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,

Shed for you and for all people,

For the forgiveness of sins.

Do this for the remembrance of me.”
We praise you that you fill our lives with Peace

In the giving and the receiving

In the inviting and the responding

In the offering and the accepting
You come, Lord Jesus, as you did to Mary

into our minds, hearts and bodies

You come, Lord Jesus, as you did to Bethlehem 

into this dark world
You come, Lord Jesus, to shine your light 

Upon the joy and the sadness

Upon the love and the hate

Upon the courage and the fear

Upon the peace and the anger

You come, Lord Jesus, into our lives whether we are prepared or not

You come, Lord Jesus, whether we are ready or not

You come, Lord Jesus, into our imperfect, broken, wounded lives
You come, Lord Jesus, 

to restore what is broken, 

to reconcile the divided, 

to heal what is wounded,
To fulfill your Word, and

to give all people Peace.

Bethlehem: house of bread

There’s only one problem with the nativity set. Do you notice? All the characters are in place and accounted-for. 

But no stable. No barn. No shelter for the Christ-child, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi. Not to mention all the animals.

I think in the nativity set around the altar we accounted for this obvious ‘missing piece’ by placing all the matching pieces right beside a figure of a church building. There’s something that feels right about doing that, despite the historical disconnect between modern church building and the first century birth we celebrate this holy season of Christmas.

Because Jesus needs a house. Significant, isn’t it, that Bethlehem in Hebrew means, “house of bread”? Bethlehem, the town of David (Luke 2:4), was foretold by the prophets of old: “But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” –Micah 5:1. Bethlehem was the ‘house’ into which Jesus was born. And Jesus, then became the house wherein all who sought God would find comfort and rest.

Is this not what we celebrate at Christmas? Our homes, places of comfort, places where we find our roots, our grounding, places where we meet and live with those beloved to us. These nativity scenes adorning the altar normally form part of our Christmas decorations in our homes. They, in a sense, bring Jesus — the house of all people — into our houses, our homes. Into our lives.

At Christmas we sing for Jesus to come into our lives. But do we think of what it would mean for us to make room for the Christ? And welcoming the stranger?

In a verse from the hymn, “Christ Be our Light” we sing —

Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone. 

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. (1)

Many times in the Gospels, Jesus describes the “kingdom of God”. One of my favourite images is from Mark (4:32), where Jesus compares God’s reign to a small seed that ” … becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This image gives an all-encompassing, expansive vision of what God intends: a home for all creatures great and small.

Of course, the problem is, that so many people don’t have this shelter, this safety, this home. And it’s not just a spiritual reality. It’s also a material, earth-bound reality.

After all, Jesus himself, was a refugee. After his birth, Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary had to flee the threat of persecution in their home country. In Matthew (2:13) we read: “… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Jesus, Christians believe, is the Son of God. And this God we worship experienced, on earth, what it means to be a refugee and to be homeless.

Jesus, the comforting house and home for all — like the giant tree housing all the creatures of the earth — knew what it was to be without home, without shelter.

Elsewhere in Matthew (8:20) as Jesus exercises his ministry of compassion, healing and grace to the downtrodden, he reminds those who listen: “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

We are called, therefore, to care precisely for those who are homeless, who are refugees today as if we are loving God. Sri Lanken theologian D.T. Niles stated: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” (2).

Where do we find this ‘bread’ today? Because we will not travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, like the Shepherds and the Magi did over two thousand y ears ago. Today we may ask God as the righteous did of old: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to least of these … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

And, in so doing, we reveal the truth that the author of the last book of the Bible expressed: “See, the home of God is among mortals!”(Revelation 21:3). God’s home in Christ Jesus is here on earth, among those who need the “bread of life” (John 6:35). 

Our job this Christmas as all year round is to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Because Jesus has come into this world. He is out there. And he calls to us. Waiting for us to respond. To be and make home for us all.

(1) “Christ Be Our Light” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006 #715

(2) Joseph R. Jeter in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.65

A funeral sermon at Christmas

In these days leading to Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.

But according to the biblical record this characterization is not entirely true. Her song — called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) — suggests a courageous, brave, even revolutionary figure in the bible. Not only does she accept this radical calling of God to bear the Christ-child, she affirms the great reversals of Gospel truth. 

While she says ‘yes’ to God, she implies ‘no’ to the power structures of the day — the rich will be sent away empty, the proud will be scattered, the powerful will be brought down. 

It’s significant that your loved one’s middle name is Mary. Our names are important. I believe they are windows into our souls. And her life reflected, did it not, the style of Mary’s character in the sense of her courage, her almost impulsive stance towards defending the poor? You already told stories of how she often defended the underdog, the downtrodden, putting herself on the line, making herself vulnerable in order to do the right thing.

You told me how one night in her youth all dressed up for going out dancing in Montreal, she and your father came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did. Never mind your poor father who was convinced she was going to get herself seriously hurt.

Not many of us would do that in the public arena. So, the gift of her life encourages us to consider our own disposition towards those whom God favours. Her life is a testimony to the practice of unconditional love to all people. And the risk it sometimes entails.

Mary’s Magnificat is also often sung. Music is an excellent medium for expressing praise and true joy. Dear family, you spoke of your mother’s support of the arts and culture. Your family carries on in various ways this important tradition, this legacy. 

One wonderful memory you hold of your mother at this time is the beauty, the poise, the elegance and the joy with which in the early part of life, she danced. Danced with your father. Dancing was what they did in Montreal in the early years as they courted and were married there. 

Out on the night dancing, was what they were doing just before, in the story you told me, she defended the young man being beaten on the street. It seems your mother demonstrated the truth that along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled and our spirits charged by expressions of joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

We need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the needy. Your mother’s life reflected this both/and stance: The freedom of joyful sharing with others including a great sense of humour, and demonstrating a singular passion for justice and working hard for another. She needed this gift to endure the trials and tribulations of her life.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. What had throughout history not worked so well as far as the relationship between humanity and God, was now resolved in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to humanity. To us. 

The divine was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. 

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, you mourn your loss. You feel this loss deeply. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, to each according to our unique needs.

And for your mother, today, after almost 50 years of being separated by death from her dance partner in your Dad, she resumes a beautiful dance with him in heavenly glory. For joyful reunions, thanks be to God!

Moving on

After the recent shootings in Paris and California, the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq displacing more refugees in 2015 than any other year in history since the Second World War, and what for some has been a personally difficult and challenging year in 2015 — perhaps we are many in voicing our eagerness to leave the past behind and move forward. 

What can inspire us to move on?
The Third Sunday of Advent is known traditionally as “Gaudete” — Latin for “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday when the disciplines of Advent preparation are relaxed, celebratory rose replaces the penitential purple as the liturgical colour, and the foretaste of Christmas joy is proclaimed. (1)

Enter the children! I suspect, if you’ve had children, hanging around babies comes close. It’s a good time of year to surround yourself with children. In the presence of new birth, my heart and mind usually go in a good direction.
There’s nothing like a pregnancy to inspire the soul. Is there anyone here expecting? Then this is your season! Rather than looking backward, waiting for a child to be born turns one’s sights forward almost compulsively in hope and anticipation.

A well-timed baby-kick during pregnancy, however, can kick-start this hope and joy in us. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s tummy gives her a good hoof (Luke 1:41) — true to character John the Baptist is!

Sometimes the baby-kick is not a very pleasant experience at all. It can throw you off balance, literally: A pink slip. A relationship break up. A phone call in the middle of the night. Interesting, in retrospect, how a baby-kick can happen serendipitously yet profoundly at the right moment in time.

The recognition of this ‘kick’ demands a response, does it not? Laughter, for some, if appropriate. Tears for others. Preparation, for another: We make plans, get things ready, and then move forward. When a baby kicks, it means things are happening in us and in the world that turn our attention forward, to what is truly important, to what is hopeful.

Another text read during Advent comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. During Advent the theme of joy is heralded by the oft quoted scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I tell you, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) What is peculiar about the Greek here, is that the meaning of the word for “Rejoice” can also be translated as “Farewell”. (2)

Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote this letter to the Philippian church (Philippians 1:13). If ‘rejoice’ and ‘farewell’ were synonymous, was Paul encouraging the Philippians to look forward to a future with Christ but without Paul? Was he in a sense saying ‘farewell’ to gaining inspiration and joy simply from what he had, to that point in time, accomplished for the early church? And instead, focus on the future and ‘rejoice’ in Christ-coming again?

In fact, the joy we celebrate in this season — as in anticipating the birth of a holy child — is not so much about a “pursuit of happiness” defined by the American dream and what we can accomplish, but rather a “longing” for that which we hope but over which we do not have control.

The German word “Sehnsucht” captures the essence of Christian joy, as proposed by C.S. Lewis. (3). Others have expressed this joy in music. But good music, even joyful in nature, is not about unrestrained frivolity about good times. Good music activates a deep longing for that which is not yet. A deep longing, yearning, for that which is promised and in which we can trust — this brings true joy to the heart.

In Advent we express joy not because of what has happened in the past. It does not emerge out of a soupy sentimentality, a noxious nostalgia. Nor is the joy we celebrate this season anchored always in bright circumstances.

Rather, the joy we celebrate is kick-started by the unexpected, surprising promise and gift of divine presence, despite the evidence of history and the proof of the present. The Lord is near! The Lord is coming!

And this joy brings forth from us an impassioned response for that which we wait. This joy looks forward. And its heart does not give up. Professor and Christian writer, Alberta Lunger, once told a group about a time her life had been crumbling and she could think of nothing else to do other than pray. Someone in the group raised their voice: “How long did it take you to get through that time?”

“Twenty years,” she said. (4) I suppose it also took Paul a good long while to learn how to pray through multiple shipwrecks and jail cells and ailments all which characterized his ministry. I suppose it also took Paul a good long while to encourage the 1st century (and twenty-first century!) churches to do the same. He never gave up. People of faith don’t give up, even though it may take a long time for prayer to be realized. In meantime we are cautioned not to react nor to resign ourselves to inactivity and passive self-centredness.

How do we not give up? First, don’t react to circumstances that don’t require it. Recently when I was pressed for time and had a shower early in the morning the hot water tank must have been sluggish. Because even though I cranked the tap towards the hot side, the water was still cold. So, I reacted.

I immediately turned the tap full-on hot. As you can imagine, soon the water was scalding and burning my skin. So, I reacted again, and turned the dial all the way to cold. In no time the water was freezing. I couldn’t seem to get the right balance because I was reacting.

The key is to give the hot water tank and the pipes time to balance out to offer just the right temperature. The key to living in hope-filled joy is to put up with less-than-ideal present circumstances in the belief that soon and very soon, with some patience and a whole lot of trust in God, balance will be achieved.

The second strategy for experiencing Gospel joy is not found in introspection alone, but ultimately in a desire to turn outwards towards others. Gospel joy is also shared joy. Remember all who are in sorrow, and care for them. Martin Luther King Jr wrote: “The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” (5)

Caring for and reaching out to others may not always bring us immediate comfort, pleasure and leisure. But over time, focusing outward in acts of compassion will serve to heal our souls.

The forward-looking promise and gift of Jesus turns our attention to others, to God in prayer, and to God’s best things. The joyful activity that emerges can withstand the darkest of times, the darkest of years, the longest waits. So, fear not! Rejoice!

The Lord is near!

(1) Philip E. Campbell in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds. “Feasting on the Word Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.62

(2) Joseph R. Jeter in ibid., p.63

(3) James H. Evans, Jr. in ibid., p.64

(4) Joseph R. Jeter in ibid., p.67

(5) Philip E. Campbell in ibid., p.66