Christmas in July


This past summer my family visited friends in Italy. We spent three weeks touring around mostly the southern half of mainland Italy — Naples and the Amalfi Coast especially. In this region in summer, the weather is tropical. Palm trees, humid air, full sun and temperatures soaring. We wore shorts and sandals, t-shirts and hats the entire time.

One of our highlights was visiting the Green, or Emerald, grotto near Positano on the Amalfi Coast. We had to take an elevator down from the snaking roadway to the water line. Then, we entered small boats for a tour around the cave.


The grotto was named “Emerald” for the incredible colours that filter from an underground opening and fill the cave with intense nuances of green. The inside of the cavern is filled with stalagmites, stalactites and beautiful works of art created by time and nature.

Near the end of the tour when the boat was paddled close to a wall of the cave, our tour guide asked us to look down into the sparkling, luminescent water on the one side of the boat. “What do you see?” he prompted us. For the longest time, I could see nothing, just the rippling waters.

Then, as the light continued to play on the currents swirling some ten feet underneath us, I saw it:

The grotto is home to an underwater nativity scene, made by a ceramics artisan from nearby Vietri in 1956. Since that time, divers from all over Italy come to pay a visit to the Holy Family at Christmas. But it wasn’t Christmas.

For me, the traditional nativity set felt out of place – a kitsch decoration in a natural, marine setting in a tropical paradise. From my Canadian perspective, it felt all wrong. This didn’t belong here.

It was the least-expected time and place to be reminded of Christmas. Christmas in July, where temperatures were well into the 30 degree celsius range, far away from home on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. On vacation. Christmas was the farthest thing from my mind!

In the Christmas children’s book by Eve Bunting, entitled, “We Were There: A Nativity Story”, she illustrates how the least expected animals very likely also attended the birth of Jesus: a snake, a frog, a scorpion, a cockroach, a bat, a spider and a rat.

It is written from the perspective of these least likely characters who are thankful for the more popular donkeys, sheep and cows who are “so generous to share their place” by the side of the manger. She concludes:

No one will look beyond the light to darkness
and the corner where we watch, unwatched.
They will not know or care.
But we were there. (1)

This children’s book makes a deep, theological point! The problem: We don’t see that God is there. We only expect to see God in certain places, at certain times:
Only at Christmas once a year in a crowded, decorated church;
Only in warm, comfortable stables where clean sheets and cutesy animals surround a quiet baby lying in the arms of a domicile Mary;
Only when good times roll with egg nog at the hearth of a roaring fire sitting in your favourite chair;
Only when choristers sing your favourite carols;
Or, only when everything is perfect.

We’ve locked God into the proverbial box.

The good news: God blows all our contrived and constricted expectations. God comes to us in all times and places, especially when we least expect it, even when we are not thinking about it, or planning for it.

While the dominant Christmas culture depends on our planning and organizing and ‘setting it up’, God comes to us despite all our fussing and fretting.

In truth, God is already there, just beneath the surface, out of the reach of the light, in the shadows where no one is looking or even caring.

Our job is not to make God happen by all our toiling and efforts to create the best Christmas ever. We don’t achieve God’s presence. Our job is simply to recognize where God is already present. Our job, simple though not easy, is to surrender to God who is already there. And this takes practice and intention.

So, this Christmas holiday, take a walk downtown where street people continue to ask for money. This Christmas holiday, search out an old friend with whom you haven’t spoken for a long time. This Christmas holiday, do something that you normally would not do, for the common good. This Christmas holiday, recognize the gifts you already have, not just in those presents packed under the tree.

Give thanks for the gifts you enjoy every day of the year — friends, family, love, community — the blessings that come from learning to want what you have instead of having what you want. Exercise the skill of seeing where and what many will not.

The joy of Christmas be with you. The gift of life and love in Jesus is born anew in our very lives. Today. And no matter where you are and whatever the circumstance of your life. God is already with you, waiting to be seen.

(1) – Eve Bunting, “We Were There: A Nativity Story” (Clarion Books, New York, 2001)

No easy way up those stairs


Perhaps you know someone like Sue.

Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.

And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).

The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:

These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).

The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.

The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.

What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.

Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.

“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)

When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.

He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.

We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.

Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?

It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.

We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?

The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).

Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).

We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.

But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:

The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.

Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.

Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.

Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.

So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.

When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

 

(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153

Advent devotion – Dec 9

Read
Psalm 146:5-10 

Loosen up 

“Happy are they …. Praise the Lord!” (verse 5,10) 

When installing our new dishwasher, I screwed clamps into the cabinetry on both sides. Tightly. 

When I ran a cycle, water started streaming out the side of the door. It’s as if the door wasn’t even sealed! I discovered later that because I had fastened the clamps too tightly, the whole unit twisted in an unnatural way and therefore could not seal properly and do its job.

The tone of Psalm 146, found near the end of this long biblical book, looks forward a couple of days to the third Sunday of Advent traditionally called ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. From the Latin, it means, ‘Rejoice!’.

Indeed, to be happy is to know how to celebrate, even in difficult times. Trying too hard without a break can actually damage our commitment in faith.

Especially during the long journey of a dark night of the soul, it is vital for our health to pause from time to time, loosen the screws, and lighten up a bit. Doing so will improve our endurance, deepen our trust in the good Lord, and strengthen our resolve to continue on the rest of the journey.

Hang in there. The end is nigh. The Lord is coming. Soon and very soon!

Thank you God, for giving us permission to relax and enjoy life, even on this dark journey. Amen. 

Advent devotion – Dec 8

Read
Isaiah 35:1-10 

Who’s going on the way? 

“… the redeemed shall walk there” (verse 9) 

She stood at the back of the crowded downtown Ottawa church. In a quivering voice, she told the assembly that Pam was not her real name. Pam told us that she had been Anglican all her life. After therapy to deal with a host of problems, she was doing much better. 

It wasn’t until she went to a sweat lodge for the first time, however, that she discovered who she truly was. When she embraced her Indigenous identity in a community of compassion and spoke about it to people who just listened and validated her – she was made whole.

In Advent the image of a highway – a Holy Way, as Isaiah puts it – denotes the path on which God’s people journey through the desert of waiting and preparation. On the surface the text appears exclusive, reserved only for the ‘in’ crowd. An alternately better translation of verse 8 has it: “the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.”

This turns it on its head! God’s Holy Way is meant for all people, including those on the fringes of mainstream society. God’s Way is made for people who know their suffering, and are not afraid to be vulnerable with others who will walk with them.

 
Creator God, open our eyes to see and listen to our co-travellers on your Way. Amen.  

Advent devotion – Dec 7

Read
Matthew 12:33-37 

Words matter 

“… on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (verse 36). 

In a popular book about near-death experiences, people reported on how they saw a review of their life — the cliched ‘life flashing before your eyes’. 

The people who had momentarily died detailed every single encounter they had had with another human being throughout their life. They not only re-lived it, they were able to feel what the other person had felt. (1) In that life-review the near-dead person knew what others felt because of their words in that particular encounter.

You may be able to imagine how surprised some were to realize what they said actually affected other people, positively or negatively. We may not think how a gracious word or an angry outburst could affect someone else’s day — let alone their life.

A friend recently suggested to me that this is what they thought judgement day would be for us — to understand and feel fully what effect our words had on people around us.

God speaks a word of judgement, too. Yet God’s judgement is always about restoration. The judgement may very well pinch, at first. Yet the outcome is always acceptance into a restored relationship with ourselves, with others and with God.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable unto you, O Lord. Amen.
(1) Raymond A. Moody, “Life After Life”, HarperCollins, New York, 2000, p.55-65 

Advent devotion – Dec 6

Read
Isaiah 40:1-11
 

The God who waits 

“… when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (verse 7) 

In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. 

Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.

We cannot confine God to words alone! And don’t dare try to close our lips around it and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.

It is the great mystery we observe in waiting: that God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.

But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received.

Ma-ra-na-tha, Come Lord Jesus (Sit in silence and stillness for twenty minutes. Gently, interiorly, and intentionally repeat the same prayer word, paying attention first to your breath) 

Advent devotion – Dec 5

Read
Psalm 8 

The gift of a child 

“Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark …” (verse 2) 

I heard a soft rap on my office door. After Sunday worship many like to enjoy a coffee and mill around in the nave and narthex visiting. And it is not uncommon for folks to stop by the pastor’s study to chat.  

 Four year old Dee stood clutching her stuffy and looking up at me with her big, bright eyes. Her mother leaned over her. “We have a problem.” I crouched down to eye-level with Dee. “What’s wrong?” Dee’s saucer eyes fixed on mine.

Mother explained, “The Sunday School did not finish in time today to come upstairs for Holy Communion. And church isn’t church without Communion. We have an unhappy girl, here.”

The elements were still by the altar, so I invited Dee and her mother back into the sanctuary where she is used to receiving the sacrament with the assembly. Dee stood at the railing and held out her free hand; her other pressed stuffy even closer to her heart.

In this Advent time, we anticipate God coming to us as an infant. God chose to communicate God’s truth and grace through a Child. As we wait for Christ to come, what can children teach us about God?

O Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Thank you, for the gift of a child. Amen.