Perspective

Many of us grew up with the story of the Three Little Pigs who came across an untimely end when they encountered the Big Bad Wolf. The story was told from the perspective of, and with sympathy for, the pigs.

The original story portrays the wolf huffing and puffing and blowing down the straw and stick-made houses of the first two little pigs. The wolf was bad, and we didn’t like him by the end of the story. He deserved his comeuppance: In the original tale, the wolf dies trying to break into the third pig’s brick house.

But the story told from the perspective of the wolf, a retelling by children’s author Jon Scieszka[1], shows an entirely different reason for the wolf’s aggressive actions. The wolf was making a cake for his granny. And he ran out of sugar. So, he decided to go and ask his neighbours for a little bit of sugar, just like anyone might do in a friendly neighbourhood, right?

Problem is, Mr. Wolf had a bad cold. And he was sneezing all the time. And basically, that’s what leads to the straw and stick homes being blown down. He eats the dead pigs not to be wasteful of good food and it is in his nature to eat, after all.

In the revised story, the third pig inside the brick house insults the wolf’s granny. And the wolf doesn’t stand for any disrespect for his elder. So the wolf wants to give the pig a piece of his mind. But things don’t turn out so well for the wolf, as we know. We may still not side with Mr. Wolf completely, yet the revised version gives us a more sympathetic understanding for the wolf’s actions.

Taking an old story that everyone knows and re-telling it from a different perspective can lead to new insights and a deeper understanding of the truth. 

In the Gospel story for today[2], the narrative Peter believes is the one the world talks about. Jesus announces first that he will suffer and die. And the world’s narrative about suffering and death is that these things are to be denied and avoided at all costs. We deny suffering because it leads to meaningless despair, anguish, sorrow and a helpless, endless demise into nothingness. That’s the world’s perspective.

Peter, at first, only sees it from the world’s perspective. No wonder he “rebukes” Jesus. The notion that the Messiah should suffer and die – who would stand for that?!

The world cannot initially grasp this notion of faith amidst the suffering, the hope born out of death to new life. We kind of easily, even unwittingly, remain stuck in the negativity of it all. And that can only lead to despair. And keep us stuck there.

I think Lent is about critically looking at the narratives we believe – believe about ourselves, God, and others. Seeing it from a different perspective might help dislodge some of our unhelpful assumptions. So, Lent is first about grieving the past. It is about, first, the suffering and death parts of what Jesus said. We cannot deny nor avoid it. So we must confront our pain, losses and suffering. We must feel it and grieve it.

This year, we are accustomed very much so to the feeling of Lent. After all, the entire year has felt like Lent, so today is just another blurs-day, another “ashy day.”[3]

In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “The point is that for more than a year now, that’s pretty much all I’ve done — reflect, pray, and read, mostly alone, all the while worried that I might die, someone I love might die, or I’d unwittingly contribute (by my own carelessness) to someone else dying. Every time I put on a mask, I think of death and dying.”[4]

In a year where over twenty thousand Canadians have died from COVID and millions of people around the world, the Lenten discipline of contemplating mortality seems like one more painful day. Every single day, these days it seems, is an exercise in mortality, as we see our dusty illusions of existence coming at us like a wicked lake-effect blizzard.

But Jesus also then says that, after the suffering and death, he will rise again to new life. That promise undergirds all our suffering and dying. Jesus introduces a different perspective, a new narrative for life: Death has not the final word. We can endure what we must endure because of the promise of transformation, renewal and new life, in Christ Jesus.

A couple who postponed indefinitely their wedding date from last summer because of the social restrictions reflected on how they felt about the uncertainty of it all. Before COVID they knew their love was going to be publicly professed in a wedding on a specific date. Today, they still don’t have a wedding date despite their ongoing commitment to set one when the time is right.

What remains constant nevertheless is their love for each other. The groom said that there is a certain degree of growing anticipation and joy with each passing day, not knowing when that date will be, yet confident only that it will happen someday.

Perhaps there is a hope we can feel with that couple. Grounded in a steadfast love that pre-exists any crisis we face, can we live each day in the hope that one day we will come out of the pandemic intact? New life emerges from the dust heap of Lent. We continue on in this hope, this blessed promise.

And that’s a perspective worth believing in.


[1] Jon Scieszka, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (Toronto: Penguin/Scholastic, 1991)

[2] For the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B – Mark 8:31-38

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “Just Another Ashy Day” in The Cottage (dianabutlerbass@substack.com, 17 Feb 2021).

[4] Ibid.

Hungry

Adam Shoalts was hungry. For four months in the summer of 2017 during his four-thousand-kilometre adventure alone across Canada’s Arctic, he admitted that he was constantly hungry.[1]

Even though he was able to consume over three thousand calories a day mainly by eating energy bars and freeze-dried meals on the fly, his extreme physical labour meant he was still losing weight and craving even more food. 

He had to learn to live with it.

Feverishly paddling his canoe sometimes seventy kilometres a day across Great Bear Lake, poling his canoe against the strong currents on the great Mackenzie or Coppermine Rivers in the far north, hauling his canoe over giant rapids, or carrying all his gear through muddy swamps for up to forty-kilometre portages burned every calorie and more that his body stored. 

And he had to keep moving. Most of the Far North is encased in ice and snow for nine months of the year. He had only a narrow window of time in which to make this impossible trek. Once he had to pass on fishing for seventy-pound lake trout off the north shore of Great Bear Lake in order to keep his torrid, exhausting pace to make it across in time.

But it was even before his journey began where he shows his discipline to learn to live with and accept his hunger. Friends were driving him and his gear up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon towards Fort McPherson. They stopped at an old inn on the gravel roadway near the Arctic Circle. The hosts offered to cook up anything on the menu. His friends ordered the chili. They encouraged Shoalts to eat the chili as well, since in the next four months his staple would consist of a more meagre fare.

Instead, Shoalts calmly chose one oatmeal cookie, without thinking more of it. He knew that should he pig-out on his last meal he would not wisely manage his stomach for success, for the long grind ahead.

While reading again the traditional Gospel story for this First Sunday in Lent – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – I paused at the part where the devil tempts Jesus to eat.[2]“He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” So, this was quite a temptation Jesus overcame when he denied the devil’s baiting.

In order to walk in the way of Jesus, it’s also traditional in Lent to give something up – a favourite food or other unhealthy habits. Why do we do this? One reason, is we want positive change in our lives. Eating less chocolate, watching less TV or abstaining from meat will make us better, healthier people, we believe. Transformation is another word for it. 

Transformation in the way of Christ often comes from first letting go of something. The changes we yearn for – the new thing which we envision and to which we aspire – can’t happen without first loosening our controls, certitudes and compulsions.[3]And living with the pangs of hunger for a while.

Our ego will resist. Because on the surface we don’t want to go without. We don’t want to be uncertain about the outcome of our labour. We don’t want to confront our cravings, and ‘feel’ hungry. We compulsively want more and more, instant gratification. 

It almost feels scandalous to say – especially to privileged people that we are – that God created us to know hunger, to know this yearning for food, material and spiritual. What is the good about feeling this hunger?

Being hungry exposes what we really believe, deep down, what we really think. This awareness can lead to a re-consideration and revision of long held assumptions. Going without also forces us into a deeper listening to what is going on around us. As we suffer the pangs of any kind of hunger, our egos have less energy to get in the way, and we listen more, we receive more and we accept more. We learn what it’s like to let go. 

That’s why fasting has been a common tradition in Lent. It is at this point in the experience of the journey where the seed of transformation is born and out of which true growth emerges.

The kind of Lenten discipline that attracts my attention are those commitments that connect doing without with giving more. So, for example, when people eat less and the difference from what they would normally have consumed they donate or give in some way to others in need. The inner discipline of letting go is inextricably linked to an outer discipline of blessing the world.

There are almost a billion people on this planet who go to bed hungry every night. There are around thirty thousand Canadians who don’t have their own ‘home’ and sleep on the street. During this COVID winter we are advised to ‘stay home’; but, indeed, what if you don’t have a home? Jesus identifies with those who go hungry. God knows how it feels, in our humanity, to be hungry, to have no home and be without.

In the end, the story about Jesus’ temptation in the desert is a story about God’s intention to be human and identify fully with our humanity. God will go the distance, will experience what it’s like to do without, will feel the pangs of hunger – a hunger for us, a hunger for relationship, a hunger to be in communion with everyone and everything. 

God will identify not just with the part of ourselves that we wish everyone will see, but also with that part of us that hungers, that is lacking in us. God’s vision of love is set on the hungering stomach and the hungering soul. That’s where God goes, into the desert wildernesses of our lives. Will we?

I haven’t yet finished reading the book about Adam Shoalts’ incredible journey. But I assume he survived and reached his end goal on the shores of Hudson Bay, since he lived to write about it. And I suspect he is all the better a person for reaching his goal, and grateful, for having paid the price of being hungry for a while.

God bless you on your journey of Lent.


[1]Adam Shoalts, Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Toronto: Penguin, 2020).

[2]Mark 1:13; though Matthew and Luke provide more detailed descriptions of the Temptation of Jesus. See Luke 4:2 and Matthew 4:2. 

[3]Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media), p.84.

Into crucible of fever and fire

The popularity of the “Bell Let’s Talk” social media event every year (in Canada) has increased our awareness of mental health. Especially this year, in the throes of a worldwide pandemic, we may very well have a contemporary equivalent to the kind of “demons” that afflicted Galilean communities in Jesus’ day. We all struggle with, as we say, our own demons.

When adversity strikes, when prolonged periods of desolation, unknowing, doubt and uncertainty weigh heavy on us like a suffocating blanket we cannot seem to throw off.

Indeed, these are the times Jesus enters the lives of people – when they are in crisis. The context of the healing stories that reveal the divinity of Christ are times of suffering of some kind in the lives of the people Jesus encounters. Why does Jesus, born of God, care to go first, like a magnet, into these messy and dark places of our lives?

After telling the first healing story of Simon’s mother-in-law, the Gospel writer Mark makes a statement-of-fact-like claim when he concludes that the demons, “they knew” Jesus.[1]They recognized him, as they already declared in the healing story prior to this one.[2]

The flipside is true, too. To know another is for the other to know you. The demons knew Jesus. But for this to be true, Jesus had to know them. God, in Christ, knows intimately the darkness, the pain and the suffering of our lives.

The first steps in faith during a crisis is to welcome Jesus in. Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew before any healing could happen. They had to let Jesus into the space of this crisis where Simon’s mother-in-law suffered from a fever. We welcome Jesus into the messy, dark, suffering region of our souls. Not to deny Jesus entrance into that which may be embarrassing, shameful or guilt-ridden. Not to pretend, deny or hide Jesus from these places in our life.

But precisely because Jesus knows our demons, the road to healing will not close the door of our burdened hearts to God but opens them wide in trusting vulnerability.

Nathan Drum was all set to become a successful, big-city lawyer when he joined the military and fought in the Second World War overseas. In William Krueger’s award-winning fiction book entitled, Ordinary Grace, Nathan returned home a changed man. 

His experience in war affected him so much so that he came back and did a 180. He enrolled in Seminary and became a pastor serving a three-point parish in rural Minnesota.

Some of his friends and family wondered what happened that would have changed him, thinking that it must have been a specific incident in the war itself that must have done something to him.

His friend, Emil, offered a different perspective when they considered another friend of theirs, a veteran of the Korean War who came back to heavy drinking and physically abusing his family.

Emil, a veteran himself, says, “Sometimes, Nathan, I think that it wasn’t so much the war as what we took into the war. Whatever cracks were already there the war forced apart, and what we might otherwise have kept inside came spilling out.

“You may have gone to war thinking you were going to be a hotshot lawyer afterward, but I believe that deep inside you there was always the seed of a minister.”[3]

Into the crisis, that is personal for you, Jesus will enter boldly and without hesitation. Christ will enter in, to expose and shed loving light on our heavy hearts and whatever pain we bear.

Jesus will also expose the seed of the truth in ourselves. Not only is the darkness revealed, but the light in us as well. Those ‘seeds’ are deep within us, and we may have for a long time kept these inside, hidden from view. But on this journey Jesus will open to us our capacity for love, for compassion, for mercy and forgiveness. That is the way. The way of Jesus.

The journey there may be painful and will call from us endurance and resiliency. By leaning on the support of others who offer their loving presence and help, we will know we are not alone on this journey. And that, in the end, what ultimately emerges will be the beautiful flowering of who we are and for what purpose we are made.

Some will denounce the lockdown as harmful to us. Some will decry the pandemic restrictions as an unfortunate reality, something we should avoid, deny and as quickly as possible get past and get back to normal. For some of us, we will need professional help to deal with our crisis of mental health, or of a financial situation, or the loss of any kind brought on by the worldwide crisis.

But for most of us whose lives have nonetheless been changed by the pandemic, I believe this crisis can be an opportunity to re-engage the inner and transcendent dimensions of our lives and the journey of faith. Before we can do anything effective out there, we have to come to terms with what’s in here. 

In all truth, faith is born in adversity. Faith in Christ cannot be experienced apart from the crucible of fever and fire. Christ will be present into the crisis. And Jesus will touch our hearts, aflame with pain, touch our hearts to heal them and activate therein the fire of love, patience, forgiveness and compassion – for oneself and then for the other.


[1]Mark 1:34, NRSV

[2]In Mark 1:24, the demon assailing the man in the synagogue cries out to Jesus, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

[3]William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace: A Novel (New York: Atria Paperback/ Simon & Schuster, 2014), p.67-68.

To be free and forgive

Letting go is a popular message these days. Especially in the grief process, we are told that we need to let go. And let God. 

Trust, freedom and forgiveness are all implied in the ‘letting go’ mantra. All of these are benefits of letting go, values to which we aspire.

Yet, when letting go stays just a concept in our heads, we will likely not experience its benefits. Letting go is not a mind game.  We don’t just convince ourselves, like when someone persuades us to believe something we hadn’t before considered. Letting go isn’t therefore something that happens immediately, at the snap of a finger. It is something that is practiced over time. A long time. And it isn’t easy.

A friend went to see a wise person one day and asked how they could be saved. And the wise one told them to go to the cemetery and insult the dead. So, the friend did so, hurling insults and stones at the graves. When the friend got back, the wise person asked if the dead people had responded. And the friend said they had said nothing.

So, the wise one told the friend to go and praise the dead. When the friend reported back, the wise one asked how the dead had taken the friend’s praises. The friend replied that they had said nothing.

So, the wise one said: “You know all those insults you hurled at them and they said nothing; you also if you want to be saved – be like the ‘dead’. Take no notice either of the insults of people or their praises. Behave like the dead and you will be saved.[1]

When Simon and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John left their families and jobs and ‘immediately’ followed Jesus, it doesn’t mean these disciples no longer had relationships with those they left behind. It doesn’t mean they were cut off from their families, even though Mark’s style of writing may make it feel like that.[2] It’s just that the nature of those relationships changed, once Jesus came into the picture.

How did they change? What’s happening under the surface?

Letting go. Not a mental thing, but a practiced thing. It’s something we do, trusting in the one who is calling us to step out of the boat so to speak.

When we trust God, it is first an experience of freedom. Each of us has to learn this for ourselves. This is what, I believe, the disciples in the Gospel had to learn in order to follow Jesus faithfully – by practising to leave everything behind. Not because those things they left behind were bad or good in and of themselves. 

But because they needed to be free from family and their jobs. They needed to know what it is like not to be emotionally, psychologically, identified and bound by those things. In other words, the disciples would learn that who they were in Christ was not defined exclusively by what their families thought or how their jobs had conditioned them.

Because if we pursue freedom from a reactionary position, out of our own fear or anger, we just end up passing our own pain and suffering onto another person whether we know it or not. We don’t improve the situation; we just make it worse when we ignore and overlook that inner component of our life’s work.

Maybe how the disciples followed Jesus is an analogy of how we will grow in our relationships with loved ones when we follow Christ. Maybe following Christ is about having a proper emotional distance from both praise and judgement, like the friend learns in my opening story.

Mature spirituality is about letting go. Effective prayer is a practice of this letting go of all that holds us, and experiencing the benefits of letting go. It is a felt sense. Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Then, we can love freely and fully in each moment given to us.

Some say forgiveness is central to Jesus’ whole message. Jesus tells us to hand the past over to the mercy and action of God. We do not need to keep replaying the past, atoning for it, or agonizing about it.

The mind, after all, can only do two things: replay the past and plan or worry about the future. “The mind is always bored in the present. So, it must be trained to stop running backward and forward.”[3]

This is the role of prayer: practising the presence – the real presence – of Jesus with us now, so forgiveness and love can describe our journey with others and with Jesus, in this life.


[1] Adapted from Peter France, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p.31

[2] Mark 1:14-20

[3] Richard Rohr, “Incarnation and Indwelling” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 20 November 2017)

Bringing it home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]John 1:47-48.

[2]Genesis 28:10-19

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

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

The Light for Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How should we like it were stars to burn

With a passion for us we could not return?

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.[4]


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

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

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

[4] W.H. Auden, “The More Loving One” www.poets.org

Guiding star

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

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

How do we discover Christ? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3]Mark 8:18 (NRSV).

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

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

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

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

The good news this COVID Christmas

This Christmas Eve many of us worship in our homes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the star is broken

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly8Pa0TwhNU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Singing through the turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]Luke 1:46-55

[2]Luke 1:52-53

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

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