Alone no more

Mary and Joseph mess up. Their only child, and they lose him. (read Luke 2:41-52) Aren’t parents supposed to know where their kids are, at all times?

Now, of course, this stuff happens all the time to the best of us—in large crowds, at amusement parks, sports stadiums, Disney World, the mall. Unintentionally we make mistakes. Each of us can likely relate to a time when we got lost and felt abandoned by our parents, and how that felt. Or, how as parents we lost track of our child. And how that felt. The fright. The embarrassment. The shame.

Maybe it’s a comfort to know that even Mary and Joseph parents of the Christ child didn’t get the parenting thing right, on occasion. Today, we would communicate that in social media as #parentingfail.

I’m reminded of the popular Christmas movie, Home Alone, when a family plans a European vacation for Christmas. The relatives all arrive for the big event. But in all the commotion the youngest son feels slighted. Expressing his frustration inappropriately, he is punished and sent to a room in the attic.

There, in a fit of anger, he wishes that his family would go away so he could be all alone. The next morning, in their rush to get ready and leave for the airport, the family overlooks the little boy in the attic. They get to the airport and board the plane, all the while believing he is with them. The boy gets his wish when the next morning he finds himself home alone.

The twelve-year-old boy Jesus experienced the feeling of abandonment by his parents. Perhaps this was a foretaste of the abandonment of the cross he would experience at the end of his life. It appears Jesus knew already from a young age what it felt like to be a human being. It appears he learned to accept the follies and misgivings of the human condition. For, he experienced it himself. At the end of the story, he felt the joy of being found and of not being alone anymore.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the temple was a sign of God’s eternal presence. And so we have a clue as to why this story from Luke is read on the First Sunday of Christmas. Because, without the temple, how else would this story fit? After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. And this story is about Jesus on the verge of adulthood, his ‘coming of age’ story from the bible.

Jesus was found in the temple, engaged with the learned in conversation about God. In his childhood experience of abandonment—in the midst of it—he was still in God’s presence. He was found in God’s presence.

Christmas is about the promise of God to be with us. It is about the grace and gift of God-with-Us, Immanuel. Immanuel is the name given to Jesus by the angel in the Christmas story. It is a name to give us hope.

God is with us, even in the darkness of grief. God is with us, even when we feel abandoned. God is with us, even when we are lost and forsaken. God is with us, even when we are confused and don’t know what to do. God is with us, in all our losses, pain and especially in our suffering. That is why this story, I believe, is included in the Christmas repertoire year after year: To remind us of this holy promise of hope at the darkest time of year: God is with us.

It feels like once we celebrate those first few days of Christmas, time seems to thrust forward in leaps and bounds. At one moment, we are cooing with the barn animals at the baby in the manger and singing hallelujahs with the angel chorus over the fields of Bethlehem.

And the next, we actually fast forward over a decade in the story of Jesus to this temple scene when he is almost a teenager. The Christmas message catapults us from the past, into the present and towards the future in a kaleidoscope of events that unite in the meaning of God-with-us.

A gift-giving tradition in our family is the exchange of books. I just finished reading a fiction which told its story by shifting forward and backward in time. In reading through the book from beginning to end, there were times when it felt a bit dis-jointed, where I asked myself especially early on: What does this detail or this person have anything to do with the story? Why is the author spending so much time and several pages describing this particular scene or detail? How does it all fit together?

This technique, of course, kept me hooked. I was committed to the journey. I had to trust that in the perplexing ‘set-up’ the author was providing, there would eventually be a satisfying ‘pay-off’. And I wanted to know, and feel, the resolution to the mystifying issues, sub-plot lines and character developments. I had to trust and hope that the longer I stayed with it, at some point, there would be some satisfaction to the bemusing chronology of the storytelling.

People will often say, there is a reason for everything. Even when bad things happen, they will say there was a divine purpose. I would sooner say, in everything that happens—good and bad—God is present, and there is reason to hope. Because we don’t know the mind of God.

As soon as we say ‘everything has a reason’ we presume our suffering is a consequence of our not knowing. But knowing ‘why’ is not our business. We cannot comprehend the fullness of the divine mystery and purpose. We can’t really pronounce on what God is up to in the evolution of reality and history. We can only make the next step. Our task is to become aware of God’s presence in all our circumstances.

In hope.

If we are not a people of hope, we are not human—just animals scavenging for survival and reacting to impulse. If we are not a people of hope, we are not the people of God who are called to see beyond the circumstances of the desert and darkness of this world with all its suffering.

In hope, time is really irrelevant. In hope, the past and future collapse into the present moment. That’s where we live, anyway. This time of year is not well-behaved, neat, and orderly. To be faithful in this time-tumbling season is to stick with it despite the disorderliness of our past, present and future, and not just give up.

We can appreciate the good in the past and can anticipate the good that is promised in the future. We can hope that no matter what lies before us or what happened behind us, there is good that still awaits. There is good that is here.

God is here. God is present. God is involved, now. That’s the meaning of Christmas—God is now with us, Immanuel. For now, and forevermore, God sheds tears and rejoices alongside us. God walks with us on this journey and will never abandon us in God’s love.

Hope is what keeps time. Hope is what connects the past and the future into the marvel of the moment. A moment in time infused with grace.

Where does hope reside in your life? In what activity? In which thoughts? What feelings are associated with hope, for you? How do your thoughts, your actions and your feelings reflect hope today?

May you be open to the blessing of God’s presence, in the New Year.

Christmas, now

Just a couple of years before he died, Martin Luther preached one of his last Christmas sermons. In it, he challenged his 16thcentury German congregation to bring the nativity into the present moment – the present reality.

Martin Luther described the squalor and desperation swirling around Mary and Joseph arriving late in Bethlehem and not finding room in the inn, leaving them to give birth to Jesus in a small barn out back. Then, he said:

 There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen!” … [Well] Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbour in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.[1] That was preached in 1543.

At Christmas 2018, we are not just called to hear the story again, but to be in it, part of it.[2]

Essentially, Martin Luther was getting at the meaning of Christmas for his contemporaries. And for us, today. How can we be inspired by the children, the music, the gifts we bring at Christmas to step out of the nativity ‘play’, and into the real story unfolding around us today?

We share in the communion tonight. In the chaos, noise and crowd, celebrating the sacrament might not fit our idea of a neat-and-tidy, perfect Christmas service. It’s hard to sentimentalize the Eucharist.

But it’s important to offer it tonight. Because the sacrament brings us to the present moment. The meal tells the story of Jesus being in our hearts—not decades ago when things were golden and sweet in our memories, not two thousand years ago, not in the Martin Luther’s day, not lost in words of scripture alone—but right here, right now, in the present day, in our own experience of life in this world.

Receiving the bread and cup doesn’t mean your life is perfect, doesn’t mean you are now ready for Christmas, doesn’t mean y our life is in order and worthy of God.

When you receive the Communion, you are affirming that God is somewhere in the mess and chaos of your life. Our life. Emmanuel–God with us.

Celebrating Christ’s birth does not bring us outof history, it involves us with it—in the present time.[3]The Christmas story gets lived out by our attention and care for the dark shadows in our own hearts, as well as reaching out to vulnerable people in our world.

I heard with dismay on the local radio station last week that the City of Ottawa is putting up 230 families in cheap hotels this Christmas, where they have to live for over a year before social housing spots open up. Talk about conditions of squalor entire families, all of them poor, need to live in at Christmas. And we’re not talking about a handful. Two Hundred and Thirty families, in Ottawa alone.

Have we considered that when we pray for and help in whatever way we can these people, we are serving Christ himself? After all, our Lord was a refugee himself right after his birth, fleeing to Egypt with his parents to get away from Herod’s violent and murderous intent.[4]

Popular TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie just came out with a book this Fall entitled: “Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories on and off the Ice”[5]

In one chapter about an inspiring Ottawa story, Bob McKenzie relays the words of Karina Potvin, a minor hockey coach. She writes: “So much about Canada is welcoming. Well, except maybe our winters, but they’re a small price to pay in order to play hockey …”

As Karina watched on the news refugees being greeted at the airport, she writes: “I knew I wanted to help these new Canadians feel at home. I just wasn’t sure how.

“A few months later I was at practice when I saw one of my fellow coaches … coming towards the bench … [he had a] new idea for Reach Out. Reach Out is a program in our hockey association that helps low income families pay for equipment and registration fees so that their kids can join our league …

“‘You know how my wife and I have been working with some of the Syrian families who have settled here in Ottawa?’ He went on, ‘We took a family to …[a] game last week, and their sons absolutely loved it. They had never heard of hockey before, but they want to play.’

Karina ended up coaching three boys—Mohammed, Ahmad and Ismael—who quickly got the hang of skating. “They’re all over the ice!”

“The three boys breathed hockey all day, every day. As did their parents. By midseason, the parents were typical Canadian hockey moms and dads.

“One Arabic word I learned was hebbak which means “I love you.” Sometimes when we were on the bench, I would turn to Mohammed and say it. He always gave me a strange look.

“’Yeah, I just told you that I love you. Because you’re playing really well tonight and listening to us coaches.’

“He shook his head, ‘Coach Karina, you’re weird.’

“’If you ever make the NHL and they ask you who was your first and favourite coach, you have to say Coach Karina.’

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

“’And if you ever play for the Senators, you have to get me tickets.’ Every time I said this, he would smile and reply, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’”

Just imagine: The year before, these kids had been in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now, they were playing hockey just like so many other kids in Canada.[6]

May the first Christmas story become alive and real for you, as the Christ child is born anew in your hearts thisday.

Here are the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle in a poem entitled “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Merry Christmas!

[1]Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1543; Matthew 25:45

[2]Lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com, 19 Dec 2018, (Lutherans Connect, @LuTConnect).

[3]Gustavo Gutierrez, cited in LutheransConnect, ibid.

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

[5]With Jim Lang (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

[6]The full story in ibid., p.45-56

Children’s skit: A true Christmas cheer

This skit was presented by three puppets during the Christmas Eve service at Faith Lutheran Church on December 24, 2018, as the children gathered around the manger scene:

[the sound of Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells is heard …. ]

MACY: [singing] “Jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh …” I love this time of year! Meeeeerrrrrrrrryyyy Christmas everyone!

JILL: [looking sad]

MACY: Hi Jill, how are you? You look sad. Is everything ok?

JILL: Oh well, you know …

MACY: Come on, Jill, put a smile on your face! Christmas is great! The lights, the songs, the snow, the presents, the ginger bread dough …

JILL: [sigh] I just find this time of year kinda hard to take, is all.

MACY: The message of Christmas is joy! We went with friends to church, remember?

JILL: I know the message of Christmas: [speaks quickly, like rattling off a list] God so loved the world, and sent Jesus to us, born a baby in Bethlehem. Mary & Joseph and no room in the inn. The stable and manger. The shepherds in the fields. The angels chorus. The magi from the East …

MACY: And that doesn’t help? God is with us. God is with you! I can’t wait for Christmas dinner!

JILL: Yeah. But last Christmas my grandma died. She always made the turkey. And my family always fights when we get together at Christmas. And they complain about everything: the traffic, the busy malls, not having enough money, the hypocrites at church, the flu, Donald Trump, etc. etc.

MACY: Let’s not get political here!

JILL: Not only does Christmas make me feel I miss my grandma, everyone around me gets really grumpy at this time of year. Stress, or something. [shakes head] I don’t know how the Christmas message has anything to do with all of that.

MACY: [trying to cheer up Jill with some distraction] I went Christmas shopping yesterday, and look at this! [displays ugly Christmas sweater]

JILL: Very nice [sulking]

MACY: I even found another sweater I like that I’ll wear on Christmas day: On the front is a picture of Jesus’s face and the caption reads: “Let’s party like it’s my birthday.”

JILL: [shakes head as ISMAEL comes onto the scene]

MACY [with enthusiasm] & JILL [softly]: Hi Ismael.

ISMAEL: Hi Macy! Hi Jill! I heard your great singing! Getting ready for Christmas?

MACY: Yes [looks at Jill questioningly]. At least, I am!

JILL: What are you doing for the holidays, Ismael?

ISMAEL:  We don’t celebrate Christmas, but my family gets together and we make a whole bunch of baklava to take to take to my uncle’s restaurant in the Market.

JILL: I love sweets!

MACY: What’s ba-kla-va? [tries to pronounce]

ISMAEL: In my religion we eat it during the holy days. It’s a layered pastry soaked in honey and served with walnuts.

JILL: Yum! [rubbing her tummy]

ISMAEL: My uncle opens his restaurant on December 25thfor anyone who doesn’t have a home, to come and have a meal. Baklava is very popular!

JILL: My grandma always had a baking day before Christmas. I went over to her house every year to make cookies for the Christmas meal.

ISMAEL: Hey, we’re making the baklava tomorrow. You’re welcome to come over and help us.

JILL: I’d love to learn how to bake it! [her head is held high, obviously happy now]. I can bring some to my family dinner.

MACY: Can I come, too?

ISMAEL: Sure! The more, the merrier!

MACY: How do you like the snow, Ismael?

ISMAEL: Love it!

MACY: Can I teach you a song? It goes like this ….

MACY, JILL & ISMAEL interlock arms and skip off stage singing together the first lines of “Jingle bells, Jingle bells” fading to the rousing applause of the congregation!

 

Behold, your servant!

A few weeks before Christmas, little Benjamin was thinking about what he really wanted for Christmas. This year, it was a Star Wars Lego set. All his friends had this, and he really wanted one.

And Benjamin wanted to write a letter to Jesus for this gift. His mother said he should really be writing a letter to Santa, but no, Benjamin was serious. Better Jesus; he thought, better chance he’d get this gift by communicating directly to Jesus instead of Santa.

So, Benjamin starts writing: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been a very good kid, and …”

He stops. No, Jesus won’t believe that.

He crumples up the paper, throws it away, and starts again: “Dear Jesus, most of the time, I’ve been a good kid…” He stops again. No, Jesus isn’t going to buy this.

 He starts again: “Dear Jesus, I’ve thought about being good…” He thinks a bit, then decides he didn’t like that one either. Benjamin throws on his jacket and heads outside, frustrated and upset.

He walks to the church around the corner. In front of it is set up a large manger scene. And he has a brilliant idea: He grabs the wooden figurine of Mary in his arms and rushes home with it!

He wraps the sculpture in blankets and stuffs it under his bed, then heads over to his desk and starts writing a new letter: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, send me that Lego set! Your friend, Benjamin.”

At least Benjamin was honest. Before God in all our vulnerability, as the light of God’s gaze rests on us, we may feel inadequate and not good enough. We, then, will stay stuck in negative self-talk and complacent in-action. “How could God use me?” “Not only a sinner but quite unexceptional. Doesn’t God see all the dirt in my life, all the dark corners that even I don’t want to look at?” “Not me!”

“Behold, your servant.”[1]Mary’s first words after hearing the angel’s call for her to bear God’s Son. The New Revised Standard Version replaced the older English “Behold” with the phrase, “Here I am”. Of course, “Here I am”, based on Mary’s initial response to the angel as a precursor to her Song of Praise[2], is now a popular song in our worship book. “Here I Am, Lord.[3]

Interesting that Mary begins her prayerful response to God simply by acknowledging God’s astonishing choice of her: a common, teenager with no pedigree, status or exceptionality to her name. “Behold, your servant.” Yes, God sees her. God favors her. God beholds whom God created, in Mary.

“Behold, your servant” is a statement of profound love. Mary’s very being is seen by God. The light of God’s love shines upon her common, fragile, vulnerable nature. Yes. But the dirt doesn’t matter to God. She is deemed a worthy recipient of God’s good intent and purpose.

As God first beholds Mary, we see in her what is true about God’s relationship to us. As God be-holds, Mary holds the Christ child within her. As God be-holds us with unconditional acceptance and love for who we are, so we hold the presence of the living Lord within us. Not only are we called to receive Jesus, we are called to conceive Jesus in our lives.

A truly remarkable message at Christmas, every year! We become Christ-bearers, to give birth to Jesus’ life and love for this world through how God has uniquely created each one of us–through our words, eyes, hands and heart.[4] We need to be reminded of this truth often.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.[5]

This ritual reminds everyone who participates a few important truths: First, your neighbour gives you a statue; you don’t get one for yourself. This part of the ritual is meant to convey that before we say or do anything in response to God, we must acknowledge, as Mary did, that God’s gift first comes to us. Jesus himself later told his disciples a lesson in love: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[6]

And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was a pure heart. Yes, Mary was sinful as any human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she reflected the image of God.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in every kind of family, especially at this time of year, we can also look for a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst and within our very selves.

We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar biblical characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being.[7]

We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed, transformed and united in God.

Someone once said that to be of help to anyone, you must first be able to see the good, however small, in that person.[8]  Then, and only then, can you be effective and genuine in your caregiving. Can we see, first, the good in others? Can we practice doing so this Christmas?

We can be strengthened in this course, nourished at the Table and emboldened in faith to know that God, before anything, “beholds” us in God’s loving gaze, just as we are. God sees the preciousness in each of our lives before dealing with the dirt, and loves us anyway.

So rather than right away assume the worst in us and others, and then like little Benjamin act out on that vision; rather than initially write off others who annoy us because they are different—those strangers and people we don’t understand and maybe even fear …

Perhaps we need Mary to remind us again of her response to God’s beholding of each of us. Perhaps we need to appreciate anew the gift in others that may not on the surface of things be always apparent.

Perhaps God is coming to us again this Christmas, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world”.[9]

Indeed, love is coming. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

 

[1]Luke 1:38

[2]The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55

[3]“Here I Am Lord”, Daniel L. Schutte (Fortress Press: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006), #574.

[4] Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Brother-Give Us A Word” (22 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org

[5]For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41

[6]John 15:12-17

[7]2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Ephesians 3:16-19

[8] Yuval Lapide: “Bis du nicht das Gute in einem Menschen siehst, bist du unfähig, ihm zu helfen.“

[9] John 3:16

Christmas funeral sermon: God-with-us love

Please read 1 Corinthians 13 (v.1-8,13); Romans 8 (v.35,37-39); Matthew 28:20

In a popular Christmas movie, Home Alone, a family plans a European vacation for Christmas. The relatives all arrive for the big event. But in all the commotion the youngest son feels slighted. Expressing his frustration inappropriately, he is punished and sent to a room in the attic.

There, in a fit of anger, he wishes that his family would go away so he could be all alone. The next morning, in their rush to get ready and leave for the airport, the family overlooks the little boy in the attic. They get to the airport and board the plane, all the while believing he is with them.

When the little boy wakes, he discovers that there is no one in the house and believes his wish has been granted. He is home alone.

And he is delighted, even delirious with joy. For the next few days, while his family tries frantically to return to him, the little boy has full run of the house. He eats all the junk food he wants, watches whatever movie he wants, sleeps wherever he wants, and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.

But then burglars try to break into the house, and he discovers that his aloneness has made him vulnerable. After the burglars have been foiled with his inventive array of booby traps, the boy realizes how lonely he is. Being alone, without his parents and the rest of his family, isn’t as wonderful as he thought it would be.[1]

I think about this funny yet poignant movie in light of what we do today. We remember and celebrate the life and love of a beloved son, father, brother, uncle, friend and colleague.

Your loved one was a funny guy. He appreciated good, practical humor. Even in his final moments, he expressed his love to you in a gently humorous way. I suspect your loved one might have praised the little boy’s ways of foiling the burglars in Home Alone.

There are, of course, various ways people show love. Gary Chapman in his bestseller, “The Five Love Languages”[2], identifies different strategies for expressing love: through acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, giving gifts, spending quality time.

It’s true: there isn’t exclusively and only one, valid way of expressing love between people. It’s important to know how you do it yourself, and then equally important to know what your loved one’s preferred strategy is. To that list, I would add humor. Although it is often misunderstood.

God’s way of showing love is often misunderstood. People ask: If God is all-powerful and all-benevolent, why does God allow suffering to happen? How is God being loving when tragedy strikes, and when bad things happen to good people?

 Yet, God minds the gap, so to speak. God blesses the space between us. Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote a book of blessings entitled: “To Bless the Space Between Us”.[3]The title alone captures the essence of his poetry—blessings for people at the edge of an experience or relationship where there is a space, a darkness, a longing, a want, a suffering.

If God loves us truly, God will give us the freedom to choose, and not force nor demand our love in return. In the Home Alone scenario, the boy had to experience the freedom of his ways before realizing what he truly wanted—desiring to be with his family again.

Because God loves us, God gives us the freedom, the space. God does not smother us or make us into robots. God is not a control-freak. God honors the space. God lets us figure it out. Make mistakes. Find our way. God is patient. God is free.

To be sure, in the darkness of night, in the being home alone, we struggle. In the darkness of grief and pain, sight is compromised, vision is blurred, fear and desperate feelings can suffocate. And yet, it is in the darkness of the gap between this world and the next where God is, and comes to us as God did to your loved one, in his moment of greatest need.

One of the most common words we hear each and every Christmas is: Immanuel. The word adorns Christmas cards, is sung in hymns and carols, is painted or sewn on banners. Yet the impact of this word is often lost on us. Immanuel is one of the names of God, one of the most beautiful and enlightening names of God. And it explains one of the great reasons for Christmas in the first place.

The Christ child is called, “Immanuel”, which means “God is with us.” Not just in the ‘peachy’[4]times when all is well. But especially in the night. In times like this.

Christmas celebrates the coming of God into the dark night. The angel chorus announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds brightens the night sky. The back drop of this heavenly scene is a very dark time—on every level: politically, socially, historically.

Passing through the night, it is now ‘peachy’ with your loved one, our faith will say. The promise of the dawn is there for us all. The night will not last forever. How can we move towards that new day while we still walk in the dark as yet by faith?

Because Christmas celebrations are often lonely affairs for many, many people; because even those who have many friends feel alone—especially now, we can live the promise and truth of ‘God with us, Immanuel’. We can extend the love of God-with-us by sharing our presence, our love—in whatever language of love we use—to those who may need that extra special attention: a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, an understanding smile, an act of kindness.

Humour can only be understood in relationship: a relationship of trust, of readiness to forgive, of unconditional love. Humor opens the soul, the heart and the mind to accept reality and look at things in a fresh way.

That’s healthy. To continue to build and strengthen those relationships among family and friends even now that he is gone from us. Your loved one’s gift to us can be this posture of openness, and encouragement to express God-with-us love to others.

 

[1]As described by Dan Schaeffer in his Introduction to God With Us: Christmas Reflections from Our Daily Bread (Windsor: Our Daily Bread Ministries Canada, 2018) www.ourdailybread.ca

[2]Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2015)

[3]John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Toronto: Doubleday, 2008)

[4]A favourite word of the deceased

Behold, I bring you joy!

The Gospel — good news — of God comes to us, as it did two thousand years ago, not on a bright, sunny day. Not as the sun’s rays stream down from a cloudless sky.  The word, both spoken and the Word made flesh, came into the world at night. God’s love became incarnate right in the darkest of times. This message was conveyed by a heavenly host in the dark: “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”[1]

Today, in the season of Advent at literally the darkest time of year, we observe the Sunday of Joy: Gaudete Sunday, traditionally called. With the shepherds who keep watch at night, on this long, dark journey of waiting, and preparing and watching—the message of joy pierces our longing, our yearning and even our despair.

Joy is a consistent theme among new Testament characters:

“Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary.[2]In her song of praise, Mary proclaims: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.[3]When Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptist cries out: “For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled.”[4]To his disciples Jesus’ message brings joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[5]And, Jesus promises: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”[6]Even amid persecution his disciples continued to be “filled with joy.”[7]

The New Testament abounds with the language of joy.

Shortly after his election, Pope Francis challenged the church, “Why should wenot also enter into this great stream of joy?”[8]

How do you respond to such an invitation for your life to reflect this joy?

You may react as do I. On the surface, such a juxtaposition seems unnatural, even offensive. For, how can we feel joy in the midst of sadness? How can we feel joy when we have such a long way to go, still? How can we “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!”[9]when confronting the darkest night of our soul—where we are most vulnerable and where it hurts the most? We may object to the phony feel of this call to be joyful, dismissing it as a fake and artificial expression that denies the hard realities of life.

We are not alone on this journey. We join the followers of Christ from the beginning who in their own ways traversed this uncertain territory that somehow brought them from suffering to a place of true joy. What did they do? How did they do it?

An early Christian theologian, Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, explained Christian faith and believers in this way; listen to his words:

“We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies …”

What accounted for this radical change in the life of first centuries Christians? Even Emperor Julian—who was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and against Christianity—wrote:

“Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans (Christians) care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”[10]

Clearly, the early Christians were known as people who cared for the stranger in need. And not at a time when Christianity was privileged in society. Not at a bright, glorious time in Christian history when Christianity was growing around the globe in leaps and bounds. Not when Christianity occupied throne-rooms and halls of power in governments. Not in the world’s measures of success.

Rather, this care for the other was given when Christians were persecuted and driven underground. Their greatest witness to the living Lord came at the darkest time for Christians.

Maybe those early Christians understood a truth about the Christian path: That our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.[11]When we cry out simply, yet from the heart: “Help!”; when our tears soak the pillow and we can’t see a way through but know that somehow God is somewhere in this; when poverty, violence and death continue to populate the media and the world around us, we lament and shake our fist in anger towards the heavens. Why, God?

Pay attention in this darkness. Keep watch. For, our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.

“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”

For a week in April 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the Dalai Lama in India. Their dialogue and interactions became “The Book of Joy”. In it, they write: “Suffering is inevitable. But how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.”

In “The Book of Joy” they outline the four qualities of the heart that lead to joy: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. At the end of the book, they offer this blessing:

“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing.

“And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”[12]

Perhaps, then, there is a way in and through the darkness.

“Behold, joy!”

 

[1][1]Luke 2:8-10

[2]Luke 1:28

[3]Luke 1:47

[4]John 3:29

[5]John 15:11

[6]John 16:22

[7]Acts 13:52

[8]Cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation (Center of Action & Contemplation, 25 Nov 2018) http://www.cac.org

[9]Philippians 4:4

[10]Cited by the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki inThe Eastern Synod Lutheran (Kitchener: Eastern Synod ELCIC, Volume 44, September 25, 2015), p.1

[11]@lutherans.connect, “Faith in the Night”, DAY 1, Advent 2018

[12]Cited in Richard Rohr, ibid., 29 November 2018

funeral sermon in Advent: Faith in the Night

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter (v.5.9):

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world.”

These days, we walk in darkness.

December 6thwas the first day the sun set the earliest it will all year long—at 4:19pm. And that will be the case for another week before the days start getting longer again. Your beloved died at, literally, the darkest time of year.

And, so it is with your grief at this sudden loss. It is a dark time, indeed, that you journey these last days of a significant year in the life of your family.

At the end of the year. At the end of a life shared together. It is dark. And it is in the darkness that we must remain, for some time.

We may feel like love is lost at times like this. In the intensity of grief, the finality of death hits like sprinting into a brick wall. The familiar bonds are severed completely. And the prospect of a radically changed life, now, chill the heart with fear and uncertainty.

Where, O Love, is Thy soothing presence? Where, O Love, is Thy warming touch? Where, O Love, is Thy reassuring voice?

For Christians, this loss is symbolized by the cross. And in the cross we see a cruciform shape to reality: Loss precedes renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every change in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form’.[1]

At your loved one’s bedside on December 6, you described to me the image of wings of protection and love that your beloved offered in prayer and in spirt for his children and grandchildren. The image of wings of love surrounding his family is a tender one.

In the bible wings describe the loving and protective stance of God towards us. “I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (2 Esdras 1:30). The Psalmist prays: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7).

May the image of holding a bird demonstrate the kind of love we need now to express in this time of loss. They say that to hold a bird, you can’t hold it too tightly. When the chickadees fly into the palm of my hand when I feed them nuts and sunflower seeds, I cannot, dare not, clasp my hand into a fist.

I must keep my hands open. They say that to show true love you must be willing to let the object of your love go. They say that to love, one must let go. One cannot control true love, hold on to it tightly. To be sure, there are times in life when love calls for a tighter grip, especially when giving direct care to one in need, or guiding and parenting children. In these situations, yes, a firmer hold in love may be necessary.

But at other times, especially when dark times of the year come around which they do for all of us, love demands a different approach. People wonder, understandably so, why if God is Almighty and Benevolent, why God allows those dark times to even happen at all.

If God truly loves us, God will offer love freely and not demand it be returned. If God truly loves us, God will give us freedom. God will let us go. Not abandon us, because God is everywhere. But give us the freedom to love and to let go.

And, you know also the saying: What you let go in love, like giving a tiny bird freedom to fly away from your hand, will return to you in love. Perhaps not in exactly the way you expected. Perhaps not according to your timing. Yet, this is the nature of God’s grace and love: In letting go, we discover and experience the surprise of love’s return in some form, some day.

What else can be said about December 6th, besides the day your beloved died? December 6th, of course, is Saint Nicolas Day. If anything can be said about Saint Nicolas is that he was generous. Generous to the poor, to those in need. Your beloved was generous to you with his love. The gift of generosity is given on the day your beloved died.

How can we continue in the love freely given and freely received in the union of marriage and family that was severely disrupted on the day your loved one died? The symbolism of the day cannot go unnoticed, unrecognized. We can continue in the legacy of your beloved is leaving to us: to pay attention to the needs of the vulnerable, the children. To be generous with the gifts God has given us to share with those in need. This is an honorable expression of our love for your loved one. This is a worthy focus of our energies as we wander in this dark time of loss and grief.

Yes, “grief and anxiety has gripped us, and we are frightened by the future. Yet, even in these times, God is there. The good news is that Jesus always comes again. Every year, despite how hard things have been, Jesus is born into our lives anew. Death is never the final word”[2]– divine love comes and gives us life. Again.

May love be our guide through these dark days, and into the bright hope of a New Year.

 

[1]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (Center for Action and Contemplation,  www.cac.org) 7 December 2018)

[2]Lutherans Connect “Faith in the Night” DAY 7 (Lutheran Campus Ministry Toronto, 8 December 2018), lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com