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

Better is not what you think

What happens when doors close and we don’t see other doors open? Life is full of closed doors: unemployment, failure to graduate, illness, tragedy, lost friendships, divorce — the list goes on. What happens when you are stuck in the middle of that transition and can’t see a way through? For whatever reason, doors close. The fact we sometimes don’t know why may make it harder to take.

Paul wanted and “attempted” to go to Asia. The lectionary doesn’t include the verses (6-9) immediately prior to the first text today (Acts 16:9-15). For some inexplicable reason, the Holy Spirit “did not allow” Paul and his cohort to travel there. A door is closed. 

But you’ve heard the cliche: When God closes a door, another one opens. Which is, presumably, a better deal.

After the door to Asia, and Paul’s ‘wants’, closes, he then goes to Macedonia after a convincing vision and on to Philippi where he meets Lydia. The result of their encounter is that “she and her household were baptized”. Good things happen. This open door was a successful mission. Even though, originally, this mission-field was not for-seen, planned, even desired.

The church finds itself in an uncomfortable situation these days. The glory days of ethnically-defined church planting and building are long gone. We still yearn for those good-old-days, the hey day of the kind of church we still try to maintain when Lutherans from Germany were streaming off the boats, church budgets were growing and pews were filled. For the institutional reality, it feels like a door is closing. And we don’t see a clear picture of what it is changing into.

It’s not a comfortable place to be, when doors close. Where’s the open door?

Earlier this year a couple members of a Lutheran church in Southern Ontario, decided to partner with a neighbouring church to organize a refugee sponsorship initiative. They complied with all the regulations, began a fundraising appeal, and the word got out.

Before long they had attracted fourteen people from the community to work alongside them. They found unprecedented success at mobilizing resources and motivating people to help. Tens of thousands of dollars was raised in no time. An apartment was secured and furnished without problem. A Syrian family was on the way.

The Lutherans on the committee made sure their own congregation was brought up to speed with regular reports, appeals for help and updates. To their surprise, and dismay, all but a couple on that growing committee were members of their church.

The gentleman who had initiated this refugee work lamented to one of the Synod staff who was close to the community, “What’s the point of doing all this work, when the people working on the committee don’t come to church on Sundays and put offerings in the plate?”

“Are others aware you are a Christian from a local congregation?”

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

“Are you doing this from your conscience as a Christian?”

“Do you feel God is calling you to do this work?”

All these questions were answered in the affirmative. So, what’s the problem? Maybe a door is closing, and maybe another has opened? It just isn’t what we may expect or think we want. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and among people. The question is, are we willing to walk through that open door? Congratulations to that Lutheran who took the initiative to do something when there was a need.

When a door closes, it can feel like you are unprepared for whatever may be. In life transitions, especially, the in-between ‘close door / open door’ time can be unnerving. When a baby is born, for example, no manual comes out with the baby. Being a parent is feeling your way to make decisions with each passing moment. Preparation — you can throw that out the door!

Of the top three major festivals of the church year, the Day of Pentecost comes up almost unexpectedly. Did you know it’s two weeks from today? Unlike Christmas and Easter which have long weeks of preparation (Advent and Lent, respectively) leading up to these high, holy days, Pentecost does not.

We only have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:23-29) to his disciples, these days, preparing them for his departure. And giving the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Occasions like this should be sad, unnerving, disquieting, too sudden. And, on some level, it is. It cannot be denied. After all, the disciples will no longer have Jesus physically present with them any more. In a way, they are losing something precious and dear to them: their leader, their confidant, their friend. The common reaction to a loved one’s leaving is sorrow and despair. We can understand. Sympathize.

And yet, Jesus tells them to “rejoice” that Jesus is going back to the Father. Be glad, that Jesus is leaving them? It doesn’t make sense. Be glad, that you are going? – You can probably hear the disciples murmur under their breath, trying to figure it out.

In coping with his absence, Jesus nevertheless gives them something even better. The door of his physical presence is closing. But another, better door, is opening. This is unexpected, never-before-seen, and unplanned (from the disciples’ point of view):

After he leaves, Jesus’ presence will be within them: Earlier in this chapter (v.20), Jesus says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will have the power and the grace to do great things in the name of Jesus. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

In order for the new door to open, the old door must close. The only way the disciples of Jesus can receive the Holy Spirit and do and be all that they are meant to be and do, is only after Jesus leaves them and returns to his Father in heaven.

The promises of God are rich. We may not see the outcome or how it will all turn out, in the end. Yet, it is true: Once a door closes, another will open. And it will not be what we think. It will be better!

Grant us peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The glory: Worth the sacrifice?

I commend to you the reflection entitled “Storied Stones” (Nov 2015) written by Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, found at workingpreacher.org. What follows here is basically her wording with some addition and adaptation —

“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. If you haven’t been, you can find online a picture of the western wall — the Wailing Wall — a remnant of Herod’s temple; these blocks of stone are far taller than most people.
Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this Gospel story (Mark 13:1-8) made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples: 
It is true: Like the first disciples we are attracted to splendour and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian today.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. 
Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition?
On the brink of his own arrest and death, Jesus’ lesson to his disciples — to us — is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into Sunday morning routines, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success is not bigger and better, but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. 
How would we feel if we knew the truth about how the large stones came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive. But we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith. And it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.
What large stones in your life reveal sacrifices you have made, or are making, that are positive and/or negative? Is it time to reconsider your striving for the ‘large stones’ in your life? Is it time to reconsider your yearning and desires for grandeur and splendour and glory? is it time to reconsider the purpose of your life, and address those decisions you are making to maintain a false, unhealthy striving based on the world’s values? Is it time to meet Jesus, again, at the foot of the cross? Will you bring your concerns to God, and lay them at the altar today? And start anew?
I love the NRSV translation of the closing verse in this text: The trials Jesus describes that will characterize difficult times of transition are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” (v.8). Birth pangs. Jesus uses imagery from the natural course of life, which begins in considerable pain. Birth pangs normally announce the start of something wondrously new, unimaginably joyous and indescribably loving — the birth of a new relationship, the gift of new life.
The large stones will not last. Life, love and hope will endure forever. Have heart. Never give up.

Jesus is here

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On Christmas Eve we come to see, and to pay attention to, the places where Jesus comes to us: Jesus is born into all the places of our lives. Jesus comes to us, wherever we are and go. The fact that Jesus — the King of Kings — was born in an animal stable (not a palace), to teenagers (not the rich and powerful) and whose first visitors were the ruddy shepherds (not the highly educated) — should tip us off to this truth: Jesus comes into the least expected places of our lives — not just here at church, or at the altar.
But in our homes, in our places of work, in the marketplaces, in our schools.
Merry Christmas!

Jesus is here

On Christmas Eve we come to see, and to pay attention to, the places where Jesus comes to us: Jesus is born into all the places of our lives. Jesus comes to us, wherever we are and go. The fact that Jesus — the King of Kings — was born in an animal stable (not a palace), to teenagers (not the rich and powerful) and whose first visitors were the ruddy shepherds (not the highly educated) — should tip us off to this truth: Jesus comes into the least expected places of our lives — not just here at church, or at the altar. But in our homes, in our places of work, in the marketplaces, in our schools.
Merry Christmas!

Twins in the womb story

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?”

Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!”

As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing. “What does this mean?” one asked.

“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.

“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”

“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”

“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”

“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”

“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”

So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear.

Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death.

(Anonymous, cited in Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

Funeral sermon – A special grace given

Just this last week in the news you might have heard that a 74-year-old nun from Quebec was released from captivity after being abducted two months ago by armed rebels in northern Cameroon.

And just around that time we heard that an American soldier was released after nearly five years of captivity in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban.

When hearing this news, I wondered how those held hostage were able to hold it together. Not knowing for sure when and if they would be released, somehow the nun and the soldier endured their captivity. They persevered, with no guarantee that they would be saved. For all they knew, those prisons could have been the last thing they ever saw.

When I met recently with Brenda, I noticed this quality of perseverance in her. She never gave up hope. She didn’t waver in what she presented to others. She gave determined witness to the faith that she would not be defeated by her illness.

After meeting with her, I wondered in a similar way I did after hearing about the nun and the soldier held hostage for significant periods of time. How could she endure? How was this possible? How did she do this? Without knowing for sure how things would turn out?

Brenda’s from the Upper Ottawa Valley. I want to welcome members of Brenda’s family who made the trip at least a couple of times down to Ottawa. Perhaps some of you know a retired pastor who has for many years made the circuit among Lutheran churches in Valley. He once told me something I have not forgotten.

He said that God gives a special grace to people at two events in life: First, God gives a special grace to people in their dying; that is, when someone dies God gives them a special strength and ability to do so. And this is not something always and easily perceptible by those witnessing the death, and is known fully, only by the person who is dying — this special grace.

The other event in life when God gives a special grace is to birthing mothers; when the time comes, finally, to give birth, God gives a special grace to endure this trying yet hope-filled event. At these profound moments of life and death, God gives to those who must endure them, a special grace.

And that is the only explanation I can give for understanding the incredible gift of perseverance and final peace with which Brenda endured this last chapter of her life on earth.

The story of Job from the bible is a testimony as well to this incredible ability to proclaim a steadfast faith in the midst of suffering. He lost everything — his family, his property. He suffered disease and ridicule. You would think that his profession of faith would come only after all his fortunes were restored, which they were right at the end of the book of Job, chapter 42. But Job doesn’t wait until chapter 42; already at chapter 19 he can proclaim a great faith even in the middle of suffering greatly.

We are Christian not because somehow now we have the secret to cheating death. We are Christian not because we can avoid suffering in this life. We Christian not because we can prove miracles sometimes happen. We are Christian, because we discover and receive the gift of grace to embrace our faith whenever we do have to suffer in life.

There is a beautiful image in the Gospel of a giant tree where birds of the air find refuge and make nests in its branches. Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed — small, seemingly insignificant, hardly noticed. It’s the smallest of seeds, barely perceptible.

“It is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). We could interpret those words “so that” merely as a descriptive consequence of the mustard seed growing into the largest of trees — that, among other things, birds would find safety in its branches.

But we could also interpret “so that” as the reason why a mustard seed is great. Because it provides shelter, care and compassion for the creatures of this world. There is an important purpose and mandate for that ‘greatness’.

The faith that can move mountains is a faith not easily noticed, perceived or appreciated by the world. Because it is the gift of compassion and care. It is the gift of grace and love which embraces others and provides shelter to those in need.

That is the greatness of faith. It is a faith that recognizes the compassion of our Lord. It is a faith that recognizes God’s steadfast love no matter what happens. “Neither death nor life nor anything in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8).

Brenda showed that grace to others in her life. But she endured these last days because of the compassion and grace given to her. Those around Brenda, closest to Brenda, you showed abundant grace, care and compassion — to put Brenda’s needs before your own, at times of joy in life but also, and especially, in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s the greatness of faith.

The special grace of God is given to Brenda. The prize is hers today. She has endured. She is released from her captivity. And this special grace is ours, also, forever. No matter what may come.

Christmas camping

For any one who likes to camp in one of our provincial parks, and wants to secure that ‘perfect’ site for the summer time vacation, better boot up your computer soon! The rule is: you can make an online reservation up to five months in advance of the date you wish go camping.

So you can perhaps understand that along with enjoying the many blessings of this Christmas tide, my thoughts are also going the direction of outdoor summer camping.

And while I’ve never been very successful beating others online to that ‘perfect’ site, my family has enjoyed some beautiful camp sites over the years.

We define a good site as one that, above all, gives us some privacy; that is, there are as many trees, wild grass, shrubs, and distance between our site and the ones around us. Ideally, our site would back onto a green space, a pond, a beach, sand dunes, or a wild growing, dense thicket of bush.

Conversely, the least favourable site would be one from which we could watch the TV show blaring through the window of the RV next to us, or sing along to the lyrics sounding from the radio propped on the picnic table next site over, or play catch-the-ball with the neighbour’s pet whose leash extends across our campsite.

You get the picture. Instinctively, the last thing we want is someone next to us. Even though, as it turns out, those who pitch their tent next to us are more often than not good people.

At Christmas, we hear about and celebrate the truth that God came to us. And God didn’t come to us like a visitor would, and then leave. God entered human flesh by being born into this world. And this “incarnation” as Christians call it, was an event that changed the world forever.

In the Gospel of John we read: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). “Lived among us” in the culture of first century Palestine more accurately rendered is: “Pitched a tent by us”. You can imagine the nomadic movement of people across the Judean wilderness. Putting up a tent beside another assumed a trusting relationship, where co-travelers in a harsh environment would seek solace, safety and security – in one another.

This notion of God ‘pitching a tent’ next to us is expressed elsewhere throughout sacred scripture. In the last book of the Bible, we read: “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). In the Wisdom poetry we hear the voice of the Word that became flesh – Jesus Christ — say: “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel’” (Ecclesiasticus 24:8). Of course, the very name given to Jesus as instructed by the angel to Joseph in a dream is Immanuel, which means: “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14).

I must confess my human instinct sometimes goes against this Gospel pull towards involvement with other people, and their involvement with me – especially with people whom I don’t know. Like what happens initially at the camp site. The ones who pitch their tent, so to speak, beside me are at first suspect. Could I trust these strangers who come from outside my circle of family, friends and community at home, and intersect with, even intrude into, my life?

Perhaps the answer lies in the mystery of this incarnation, where the Holy Spirit found a home in Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is truly remarkable, when you think about it, how God was born from a human person.

But the popular, religious focus on Mary can be fruitful if that miracle is seen as extending to all of humanity, all of us – not just Mary. Obviously, the infant Jesus was born from Mary. But Mary was just a teenager, a country girl, representing really the common, sinful yet transformed human being in us all, as Christians.

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.

This ritual reminds each family that the gift of God comes to us, first of all, since you don’t get a statue for your own home; someone else gives it to you. 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 no sin. Yes, Mary was sinful as a human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she was pure and reflecting truly the image of God in her.

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 families of all kinds, especially at this time of year, there is also a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst ourselves. We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Ephesians 3:16-19). 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 and transformed and united in God.

So rather than right away assume the worst, rather than initially write off those intruders on my camp-site, those strangers who ‘pitch a tent’ so close to mine, perhaps I need to appreciate anew the gift in them that appears. Perhaps God is coming to me again, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).

Indeed, love has come. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

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

Returning to the Lord your God

It was a joyous yet emotionally intense day that Mom and Dad finally decided to tell their rather rambunctious four-year-old son the good news of the coming birth of another child into their family. After all, little Joshua liked being the centre of attention, and was quite the social spark at school, church and family gatherings.

The birth of a baby girl came soon enough to the active family. Their lives changed forever. No longer were they three. Another human being was ushered into their home, and a nursery room already prepared at the end of the hallway.

Mom and Dad were a little concerned about how Joshua would react to having a baby sister — someone else in the family who would vie for parental attention. But the first few days after Mom and Daughter returned home from the hospital proved a relatively easy transition for Joshua, who welcomed his sister with endless requests to hold her and play with her.

“Be careful,” Mom’s mantra of advice to Joshua, “she’s just a few days old and we can’t be rough with her.” She repeated this instruction over and over again those first days.

Late one night Mom and Dad heard footsteps down the hallway and into the nursery. Dad was on duty, so he quickly got out of bed and followed Joshua into his sister’s room. When he poked his head to see what Joshua was up to, Dad was a little startled:

Joshua was practically inside the crib with little baby sister, his body hanging over the railing and his legs dangling over the top.

“Joshua! What are you doing?!” whispered Dad as loudly as a whisper can be. “Don’t wake up your sister!”

“Shhhh!” Joshua replied, “I am listening to what my baby sister remembers about God.”

The season of Advent gives us an opportunity to return to an awareness that God is coming to us, always. Jesus’ birth represents a truth about our lives: before we were born, we were united with God; when we were born we began a life journey that will eventually reunite us with God after our death. Honour the babies! For they have just come from seeing God face to face! They may just have something to tell us about God. This Advent may be a good time to practice simply listening in our prayer with God and to each other.