A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Christmas Day – our gift is good enough

This Christmas message begins two months ago, on Halloween night. Yes, Halloween, when the goblins, skeletons, super-heroes and pirates were out in full force trick-o’-treating. 

It was a dark night. And pouring rain. But the children were determined to fill their sacks with as much candy as possible. 

Even the parents were in on it. In Arnprior, this made the local news: One Dad had lifted the large, tented car port from its moorings. Then he found three more willing parents to help him carry it like a giant umbrella down the street, protecting the dozens of huddled, costumed children from the relentless rain. 

When there is a will there is a way. Nothing was going to stop these folks on their mission to get the children as many treats as humanly possible. Talk about commitment. Dedication. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. For a cause.

Then, I heard of one grandparent who decided to give out candy at their door the same Halloween night, but here in Ottawa. He was going to get in on the spirit of it all and dress up himself. But, this time, he was going to shock his costumed visitors.

So, imagine with me the scene: Let’s say on Halloween you are going house to house with your pillow bag already brimming full of candy, pop and chips. And as you walk up the lane to the front door of thishouse, you start noticing something a bit off: 

Bright Christmas lights are hung around the front door frame and porch, blinking in blues, reds, greens and yellows. Ok. And when the front door opens, who is standing there, but Santa Claus! And he is ringing a hand bell and calling in a booming voice: “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

The grandparent who did this (sometimes adults will dress up as Santa Claus, you know!) reported to me afterwards about one little princess who stood at the door, dripping wet from the rain, mouth gaping open, eyes popping out. And she stood there for what seemed as an eternity. You could see the wheels in her head turning, wondering what on earth to do.

Finally, she made up her mind. The little girl placed her snack-and-candy-laden sack on ground and with two hands reached deep into the pillow case, pulled out fists full of treats and handed it all over to Santa. “Merry Christmas, Santa,” she said. I think it was Santa who was momentarily caught off guard, wondering what to do.

At Christmas, there’s a lot of pressure to perform with our giving. Today, it’s almost unheard of to limit a gift to $5. Today, if you’re not spending hundreds of dollars, will it impress? Yet, many will give in impressive ways – their time, energy, passion, money, and a gift for everyone on the list. Yes, we can say that it’s indeed better to give than to receive.[1]Yes, we can perhaps even point to times when it felt good to do so. 

But what if we feel there’s no more gas in the tank? What if we feel like we have no more to give. That we can’t keep up. We may decide not to give out any gifts because of this pressure we feel to impress. The emotional and digestive roller coaster, that is often what we experience over the holidays, may leave us spent, exhausted and hating people, hating ourselves. What more, on earth, can I give to anyone, let alone God?

Long ago, followers of Christ began to commemorate the coming of Jesus at the darkest time of the year. It was probably no accident that God came into the world when everything seemed so dark, so hopeless and helpless.

In the Gospel today from John, we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”[2]These words of hope are central to the first chapter in John’s Gospel. It is then no accident that we today celebrate Christmas just days after the winter solstice, December 21, which in the northern hemisphere is literally the darkest time of the year. 

In John’s telling there are no angel choruses. In John’s telling there are no shepherds tending flock. In John’s telling there are no wise men travelling from afar. In John’s telling there isn’t even a baby lying in a manger with Joseph and Mary looking on. Those are the stories Matthew and Luke tell. 

In John, the message is about the meaningof God becoming human, the word made flesh. At Christmas, we’re not just talking about getting ready, waiting and getting prepared for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened two thousand years ago! What Christians have been doing every year since is welcoming the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history of every time and place.[3]

Ancient Christians knew very well that this Jesus, his teaching, his message, his life, his spirit, his example, leads us to the way of life itself. The way of life where we take care for one another and the world, loving God and each other as children of God.

In John’s Gospel the way of life in Christ is gift. Pure gift. God is with us – Emanuel. God now lives in us, and is born in us. There’s nothing we can or can’t do that changes God’s intention to come to us in love, over and over again.

When we pray at Jesus’ coming into this world, we are admitting a truth that flies in the face of our heroic attempts at Christmas – attempts to get something more out of it for ourselves or for others, to impress others, to meet and exceed expectations, to perform well. Even when we give for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we do need, again, simply to kneel by the manger side where God is born in a baby – vulnerable, weak and helpless. Maybe we do need, again to kneel by the manger and remember that we did not choose to come into the world on our own. We did not choose our families of origin, our ethnicity, or our sexuality. While we were born with intelligence and with the capacity for learning, we did not arrive fully assembled nor did we come with instructions.

We are children of God, truly. In our honesty. In our vulnerability. In our instinct to turn to God. And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now. The only instinct we had in the beginning – like baby Jesus did – once our lungs were clear after birth, the only instinct we had was to cry out for help as loudly as we could.[4]And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now.

God receives us, as we are. At the manger side, there are no expectations, no need to put on a good impression or please anyone. We come as we are. The greatest gift we can bring to God and to life is our presence, our heart, our intention and attention.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.[5]And that prayer is good enough for God. For God is with us now.

Merry Christmas!


[1]Acts 20:35

[2]John 1:5,9

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Celebrating an Eternal Advent” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation(www.cac.org, Tuesday, December 24, 2019).

[4]Br. Jim Woodrum, “Help – Brother, Give Us A Word” (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, December 4, 2019)

[5]“In the Bleak Midwinter” v.3 (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006), Hymn 294

Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

Prayer as Silence – Advent sermon series 4

In this concluding sermon in a series on prayer this Advent, I invite you to consider prayer as silence. In the first, we acknowledged prayer as growth – that there come times in our lives when God invites us into a deeper communion of prayer; and so, a different way of praying. In the second sermon, we considered that the fundamental work of prayer was to listen – listen to the other and listen to God. Last week, we reflected upon an important type of prayer that often is missed especially during times of the year we are called to be happy; the lament makes our relationship with God real and our ultimate joy authentic.

The eagle changes its flying posture depending on the state of the air around it.  When in flight it encounters noisy, turbulent air, the eagle folds its wings straight down and underneath, riding the agitated, unstable winds in as compact a body mass as possible.

But when the air is calm high above the earth, the eagle will spread its massive wingspan to its farthest limits. It will expand its body mass to its fullest potential as it coasts and glides on the silent, peaceful air.

Silence gets a bad rap in the Protestant church especially. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, we are suspicious of anything that is interior or to do with experience. When we still our minds, we are afraid that we will let the devil in! 

And, we will straight away point to bad silence – like the violence percolating beneath the surface of giving someone ‘the silent treatment’. Or, we rightly condemn the complacent, fearful silence in face of injustice. In both cases, words must be spoken. And better loudly at that!

Yet, there is a silence that is healing, transformational. We find it in nature. We find it in the stillness of predawn dew resting on flowers and blades of grass. We experience it the first night in the bush after driving all day away from the loud, noisy city. 

We also find silence in the bold action born of convicted hearts, action that happens behind-the-scenes. Not in the spectacular, the sensational. Not in attention-grabbing largess of personality shock-and-awe. But in the quiet, dedicated, barely perceptible giving of those who know themselves and respond to the still, small voice speaking in their hearts.

This is Joseph. He appears, indeed, to be the strong, silent type. But not because he is afraid to say or do anything. But because he has the courage to respond. He begins his risky venture with Mary “after waking from sleep.” Even though he went to bed “considering in his mind” all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Mary, “resolving” to leave her, his course of action changed dramatically after he stopped the busy-ness of his mind, the activity of his consciousness – as good and righteous as it was – and went to sleep. And dreamt.[1]

There is a difference between the absence of noise and silence. Something is already happening in this holy silence. Something we’ve been too busy, too rushed, too loud, too distracted to notice. Where God already is, in between the words, in between the spaces defined by our cerebral, ego-driven impulses and imaginations.

This is good, Lutheran theology! The grace of God already exists in our lives. We don’t have to make it happen. Really, we don’t! God is in the world, already. It is given. God is present. God is waiting for us, in the silence of our hearts. God is waiting, already, in the circumstances and situations of the world. God is always listening to us. 

But are we always listening to God? Are we willing to step into the river of God’s action and Spirit? Will we immerse ourselves into the prayer already flowing in our lives, a prayer flowing into the ocean of God’s presence and love? The late Thomas Keating was known to have said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[2]

It is in silence where we can be fully and truly who we are. We don’t have to hide anything. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, put on a good impression or please anyone. We can let go and let all that is there come to the surface in the confidence that all of it is held in God’s love – the good, the bad and the ugly. We can stretch to our fullest without judgement. We may be, in truth, letting the devil out, not in.

May we step into the spaciousness of God’s mercy, peace and joy just waiting for us in the silence of God’s ever-present love. May we learn to pray in the gift of silence, especially when we may so desperately need it.


[1]Matthew 1:18-25

[2]Cited in Theresa Blythe, Fifty Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p.32

Prayer as Lament – Advent sermon series 3

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a command to rejoice! Be joyful!

In all the furtive busy-ness of getting ready for the big day, in all the running around and striving to check off everything on the ‘to do’ list before Christmas, carrying all the pressure and responsibility …

The church says: don’t take yourselves too seriously on this journey. There are times when we need to not just listen up, but lighten up. Gaudete!

Yes, we are on the path of transformation. And this path requires us to be intentional and disciplined. After all, Christmas is coming; there is much to prepare! It was Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary of Martin Luther in the 16thcentury, who urged the church to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us.”[1]

Not bad advice. Except we won’t survive this journey if we don’t also take the foot off the gas pedal from time to time. Can we let things be as they are? Can we accept ourselves and rejoice even at the imperfection of our lives – the cracks in who we are? Or, have we deluded ourselves into thinking that only when everything is perfect, and finished, and just the way it ought to be, then, and only then, can we rejoice?

How can we be authentically joyful, especially when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in our lives and in the world?

In our ordinary lives as much as in our worship and prayer, we have to make room for lament. Lament? It seems odd to suggest that on Gaudete Sunday of all days – the Sunday during Advent when we are called to rejoice – we offer our laments to God in prayer.

I’d like to suggest this is the path to expressing true joy. Lament as a necessary step on the path to true acceptance, hope and joy. So that our rejoicing isn’t just an extension of our culture’s surface ‘good cheer’ which often only masks deeper needs.

The Psalms, which are the primary prayer book for the ancient Israelites and Jews of Jesus’ day, are filled with laments. We read one together this morning.[2]Even Jesus, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, expressed his disappointment and sorrow over Jerusalem[3]. And then in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God if only his cup of suffering could be taken away.[4]Jesus wept for the death of his friend Lazarus[5], and on the cross he cried out, “O God, why have you forsaken me!”[6]quoting a Psalm. Jesus was familiar with, and used often, the prayers of lament on his journey to new life.

Perhaps we are afraid that if we do take the foot off the gas pedal during this season of rush-rush, we might not very much like what comes to the surface. In that moment when we are not driven by our compulsions and distractions, what scary thing might emerge?

This season can be difficult for those, for example, who grieve the loss of loved ones especially when it is the first Christmas celebrated without them. We are supposed to feel happy, but we are burdened by a deep sadness of loss. And all those messages that declare we are to be ‘joyful’ only serve to deepen our sorrow. How, then, can we be joyful?

In the Academy Award winning movie, “Inside Out”, eleven-year-old Riley has moved to San Francisco, leaving behind her life in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy struggle to cope with her new life.

In the movie, each of these emotions is a separate character in the control room of Riley’s mind. Until the big move, it was always Joy who was in the driver’s seat. Joy determined how Riley processed events and situations in her life. Even if Riley, who loved to play hockey on the family pond, missed a shot on goal, Joy would step in and emphasize the bright, positive side of the situation. Sadness would always stand nearby, trying to be more influential in defining Riley’s experiences. But, until the move to San Francisco, Joy always won out.

When big events in our lives happen – events that are happy or sad – these change us and the way we look upon life. By Joy insisting on dominating, even when Riley experienced significant challenges at school and at home after the move, she became worse and worse, shutting out her parents and isolating herself.

It was only when Joy let Sadness take control, did Riley turn the corner. Riley became better in her new life when no emotion was denied, but given its rightful place given the circumstance. The emotions – especially Joy and Sadness – discovered that both have to take turns in the driver’s seat from time to time. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

Christianity did not combine opposites into some kind of favourable blend. Neither does having faith exclude, deny nor avoid one in favour of the other. Rather, our faith holds all dimensions of the human, and all the dimensions of the divine in vibrant and furious tension.[7]Like, the tension of becoming truly joyful when we can also offer our lament. When we can let sadness take the driver’s seat for a bit of that journey especially when it seems it’s supposed to be all about being happy all of the time.

In the Advent study group on prayer, we reviewed the various characteristics of a lament by looking at some Psalms. One characteristic will often escape our notice, maybe because it doesn’t fit our expectations of what lamenting is. You know, we think it’s all tears and gnashing of teeth and breast-beating and woe-is-me kind of stuff.

But a lament is not a lament unless it also carries the one who is praying into a place of confidence and trust in God. Maybe that’s why Jesus lamented so much. Because he was so faithful to Abba. Trusting in God his Father. Besides the obvious grievances and plea for help expressed in the Psalm, did you not also hear and feel joy born out of confidence and trust from the Psalmist’s words this morning?

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it … Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted … Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.”[8]

Prayer as growth. Prayer as Listening. Prayer as Lament. On the road to Christmas.

[1]Cited in Patrick J. Howell, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.65-66.

[2]Psalm 80; see also Psalms 74, 79, 85, 90.

[3]Matthew 22:37; Luke 13:34

[4]Matthew 26:39

[5]John 11:33-35

[6]Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1

[7]Howell, ibid., p.64

[8]Psalm 80:7-8,14-15,17-19

Prayer as Listening – Advent sermon series 2

Last week we met the hermit crab who needs to find a larger shell to grow into. We considered prayer as personal growth. That when we come to various crossroads on the journey of life and faith, we can either give up on a life of prayer or we find another form of prayer.

Today, we consider how important our community is to that journey. Indeed, our relationships are critical and vital to our health and well-being. In truth we cannot do without a community of faith if we want to continue maturing in faith.

After last week’s first in the sermon series on prayer, I was made aware of howthese hermit crabs will find their new, larger shell. Apparently, they find a spot on the beach and line up, together, in a little community of crabs. When a new member of that community finds them on the beach, that new crab drops its old shell at the front of the line. Shell-less, it then goes to the back of the line to wait its turn in finding a larger shell.

The crab at the top of the line – who has waited the longest – has first dibs at the new shell freshly deposited. If it fits, great! Off it goes to resume its life, wherever. If it doesn’t fit, it will keep its place at the front of the line until a shell is left there that fits. The second in line will then try it on. And, in this way, the line moves forward over time until each crab in the community has found a new, larger shell for its growth.

According to this pattern, no crab is left on its own to find its new shell. In this little community no crab is left by itself on the journey of searching, seeking and finding. The hermit crab’s growth is supported by a community of crabs on the journey they share, even as each crab occupies its unique place in line. No two crabs are the same, after all.

Often we think that what glues us together in community is talking, saying words. When we feel we must assert ourselves aggressively. We impose our opinion about who we are about and what we believe about things. We think we are doing the right thing by initiating our opinion. “Speak up!” is the mantra that captures what we believe binds us in community.

Here, we must confess that at the root of this strategy is a fear that if we don’t first assert ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world, somehow we are betraying our own beliefs. We are afraid that if we listen first, we’re not advocating for own ideas and why those ideas matter; we are afraid we’re giving up on our convictions.[1]

“Samar Minallah Khan, the feminist Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker, was enraged. Local tribal leaders were trading little girls as compensation for their male family members’ crimes.

“These leaders, responsible for settling legal disputes in their villages, act as local judges. A long-standing practice was to address major crimes by ‘compensating’ a harmed family with a daughter of the family doing the harm. The guilty father or uncle was then considered ‘free’ and the village was told this issue was ‘resolved.’ Samar thought this tradition, called swara, was horrendous: It forever changed a young girl’s life, through no fault of her own.

“But although Samar was angry, she realized she’d never get to the outcome she wanted if she led with that anger. So, she tried something else. First, she listened more than she talked. She listened to the religious (male) leaders explain the use of swara and its benefits interpreted by the Prophet Mohammad. She listened to the fathers and uncles who allowed their crimes to be expiated this way. And, by listening, Samar learned so much that it enabled her to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of difference.

“Samar had first assumed that the fathers whose crimes were being forgiven this way were happy to let their daughters suffer for their crimes. But when she listened to them, she heard that they were not. They wanted another way.

“She [also] heard from local leaders that they placed an extremely high value on tradition. She heard from religious Muslim legal scholars that swara was a form of ‘vicarious liability’, which is not allowed in Islam. And finally, she heard that in earlier times, disputes were also resolved by sending a girl to an enemy’s family, but she didn’t stay there permanently; instead, she would be given gifts and then sent back to her parents’ home. All of this, she taped.

“She convened local communities to watch these videos and talk with one another about the tradition and its implications. One by one, local tribal leaders changed what they considered true justice. They decided that swara could be replaced by monetary compensation. Samar created change not by selling her idea, but creating a way for everyone to arrive at a new idea, together. What Samar did was to ask people to share their perspective, without trying to convince them of hers.”[2]

This process took time and a whole lot of patience. If we do this thing together, as Saint Paul advocates in his letter to the Romans, we need to be like those hermit crabs lined up together on the beach waiting for and taking turns in finding our next, larger shell.

The values of sharing, of collaborating, of operating in harmony with others – these are at the root of Saint Paul’s description of a community of faith, in Christ: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.[3]

The search for God—this is our prayer life—begins with accepting our humanity. After all it was in the stable of Bethlehem, the stable of humanity that God has come in search of us. I like this translation of verse seven in chapter fifteen of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Accept one another, therefore, as Christ has accepted you.”[4] We accept another by learning first to listen.

So, it’s not talking that binds us into community. It’s not needing to force our way in, somehow. In truth, when you think about your closest relationships, what binds you together—what functions as the cartilage—is the confidence and trust that the other truly listens to you. And therefore accepts you. Not, “Speak up!” but rather, “Listen up!” needs to be our mantra. Prayer is not primarily talking but listening.

I read that a true friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you. Isn’t that our spiritual longing, our motivation to pray and connect with God? Isn’t that the dream we share? That one day each of us meets a person with whom we can really talk, who understands us and the words we say—who can listen and even hear what is left unsaid, and then really accepts us. God is the fulfillment of this dream.[5]And so, in prayer as in all our relationships, we listen to God whom we love as God listens to us.

In making room for another in the act of listening receptively, the irony – when we first listen well—is we find that we ourselves have found a place to be heard. Deeply heard, understood, and accepted. By others in community and by God who stands beside us in line and waits for us to find that larger shell.

 

[1]Nilofer Merchant, Mindful Listening: Emotional Intelligence Series (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2019), p.75.

[2]Ibid., p.69-71.

[3]Romans 15:5-6

[4]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.38.

[5]Ibid., p.38-40.