A sentimental Christmas?

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

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

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

Christmas Day – our gift is good enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!


[1]Acts 20:35

[2]John 1:5,9

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

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

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

What brings you delight?

The story is told of three-year-old Morgan and her mother Sarah driving in the car one day. Morgan is a little butterfly of a girl. She loves to talk—she chatters constantly—especially when she’s in her car seat. She’s always telling her mom, Sarah, to look at things. And Sarah will often respond rather absent-mindedly, “Yes, honey, I see!” or “Wow, Morgan, that’s great!”

One morning while Sarah was driving Morgan to pre-school, Morgan said, “Look, Mommy! Look what I have in my lap!” Without turning around Sarah replied, “Yes, honey, I see! That’s great!” Little Morgan didn’t miss a beat. “Mommy,” she said sternly, “we do not look with our mouths! Turn around and see me with your eyes!”[1]

Often we struggle to ‘see’ God in our lives. Especially during the dark moments when things aren’t going well, when we confront some significant challenge, or suffer pain and loss. In those experiences, we might simply give God ‘lip service’—we say we believe, but deep down, if we’re honest, we really doubt God’s interest or involvement in our lives.

Or, we might downright reject the notion that God is present. And we’re not afraid to say it. In fact, I suspect most people will not see God, will not hear God, and therefore will not believe in God. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ is a very powerful mantra in our society—even among those who may say, “I believe!”

In this text assigned from Proverbs for Holy Trinity Sunday, a main character who speaks here is Wisdom. And she is described in Christian tradition as the third member of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth … then I was beside the Lord, like a master worker; and I was daily the Lord’s delight, rejoicing before the Lord always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”[2]

When you hear the word ‘wisdom’, what first comes to your mind? Like me, you might first imagine a stern, tight-lipped person, a killjoy, or a solemn judge in black robe. But that is not the picture of the Holy Spirit described here in the scripture. God is not dour drudgery. God is not about excessive seriousness. We do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump.

God, in the Holy Spirit, is joyous laughter, dance, and play. “When there were no depths I was brought forth …” The Hebrew word for ‘brought forth’ may also be translated as ‘whirl’ or ‘dance’. That’s why the Eastern Orthodox tradition emphasizes the Trinity in the word, ‘perichoresis’, which literally means “dancing around”.[4]The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness.

God’s invitation to walk, laugh, play and dance comes to us all in the light of each new day. To see is to pay attention to what brings delight to your heart. To see this is to pay attention to what rejoices in your spirit. Not all the answers to the deepest, important questions of our lives, not all the solutions to our biggest problems and challenges, are found in the act of furrowed brows, stern language and intense conversations.

When Jesus says to look at the children as a witness to following in the way of Christ,[3]I believe he does so because it is the delightful, freeing, playfulness that opens the heart to seeing God. The blocking—the unseeing—resides in our grown-up expectations, our stifled adult imagination, our narrowing vision.

God is right behind us, telling us to ‘Look what I have here!’ And we have to do more than say, ‘Yeah, I see’ and carry on in our serious, self-consumed busyness. We actually have to give that playful word validation and significance. And, we have to turn around to see it, and engage that playfulness.

Here’s a personalized version of Proverbs 8, a story of seeing and meeting God in everyday life:

“I was out shopping yesterday, and whom did I run into? Wisdom. Yeah, there she was. She called me over and we began talking. Wisdom and I. Then, I went down to the courthouse, and there she was again, making a plea for justice in some dingy courtroom where somebody had been unjustly accused. After that, I dropped by the school, and she had gotten there before me, calling for students and teachers alike always to seek truth. Then, I went for a walk in the woods, moving along the trail in quiet meditation. Wisdom snuck up on me and said …

“’Now that we are alone, I have something I want to share with you, a present I want you to enjoy. You know, I have been around a long time, really before the beginning of time. I have been whirling and dancing with God all along. I am God’s delight, laughing and playing. I want you to know the lightness of spirit and gladness that come when you welcome me. Will you set aside those thoughts, words, and deeds that make life heavy and sad for you and others? Will you come and laugh and play with me? Will you come and dance with me? Will you?’”[5]

The Spirit of the living God is everywhere. The goodness of God is right before our eyes if we are willing to see it. In Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther, Bainton relays the story of a large bough of cherries which hung above the table in Luther’s busy and active household. The reason given was to remind everyone of the beauty and delight of the Lord.

Martin Luther responds, “All you need to do is to look down and around the table at all the children running about – and you will learn from them more than from a cherry bough about the delight of the Lord.”

May we learn to set our sights on what is right there before us, to see God.

 

[1]Sharon Garlough Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey (Illinois: IVP Books, 2013), p.51

[2]Proverbs 8:25, 30-31

[3]Mark 10:13-16

[4]Jeff Paschal in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 3 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.27-31

[5]Paschal, ibid.

From spiritual childhood to adulthood

It was in the 1980s and 1990s when the phrase “kids of all ages” came into vogue. When its usage skyrocketed. People attending circuses, entertainment and other public events would often hear the invitation and address to “kids of all ages!”

It was also during the 1980s and 90s when baby boomers became adults. And when these adults—like no adults before them but all who followed—started acting like children:

Half the buyers of comic books and tickets to superhero movies were adults. The majority of video game consoles, cartridges and discs at the end of the last century were bought by people in their 30s. Video games, originally sold to boys to pretend they were grown up action heroes were soon bought mainly by grown men who wanted to play like kids.[1]

This was the time when it became acceptable for adults to play video games and fantasy sports. This was the time when it became ok for the likes of me to dress like teens, to groom themselves and even get surgery to look thirty years younger. The “kids of all ages” phenomenon has had negative repercussions on men and women alike, especially around issues of self-esteem and body image.

Emotional immaturity, narcissism, co-dependency and not taking responsibility for one’s actions tend to be the psychological effects of the kids-of-all-ages era. And we live with these effects to this day.

You can understand, then, why some contemporary theologians have expressed concern over an uncritical and indiscriminate use of the term, “children of God”[2], which appears prominently in the short text from Romans today.[3]

It is popular in the church to identify with being “a child of God.” We gravitate to images of Jesus rocking children on his knee, telling his disciples that they are to become like children to enter the kingdom of God. At baptisms and confirmations, we remind the candidate and ourselves that each of us is a child of God.

We are held in the arms of God, close to the bosom of Jesus. Yes. Such comforting images can be helpful during times of trial and suffering, for sure. Yes. Our following Jesus and our endurance and resilience in the spiritual does not depend alone on cognitive, intellectual knowledge—usually the purview of adults—but on a simple childlike trust. Yes.

I also agree with Stuart Brown who, in his book, promoted the value of play. That, what might seem like a frivolous or even childish pursuit can be beneficial to our mental health. That, paradoxically, purpose-less, unproductive activity from time to time can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.[4]These pursuits normally belong to children but are of benefit our whole life long. Yes.

At the same time, when Paul uses the term ‘children of God’ he associates our identity in Christ with anything but childish states of being. He talks about not being enslaved in fear. He talks about living with suffering. These are realities, not fantasies, born of a life lived and experienced and embraced with the good and the bad.

Being a child of God doesn’t give us license to behave childishly. Being a child of God doesn’t give us license to behave irresponsibly, shifting authority and blame for one’s actions to someone else.

Two aspects of being an adult in Christ I want to underscore. First, it is to pay attention to our own desires, not denying them. Paul writes that the Spirit of God speaks to our own spirit. “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We have a human spirit. And God speaks through the deep desires and longings of our hearts. Unfortunately, whether we realize it or not, we use the identity of ‘child of God’ to deny our very human needs and desires. When we do so, are we not blocking God’s way of speaking to our hearts?

Saint Irenaeus, second century bishop of Lyons,  France, said that the ‘glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ God speaks through our very humanity. What gives us joy. What causes us pain. What is good and right. Our small ‘s’ spirit within us is the very thing God’s big ‘S’ Spirit connects with. The Psalmist paints an image of how God communicates with creation: “Deep calls to deep”.[5]We are part of, and participate in, the divine equation.

This divine relationship, from deep to deep, needs containment nonetheless. This is the second aspect of being an adult in Christ. Here, we turn to the words of Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopalian Church in America. You might remember his famous sermon he preached at the royal wedding just over a year ago. In it, he talks about fire—the primary symbol of Pentecost—harnessing the incredible power of love.

He said that the harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history.

‘Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time.

‘Fire made it possible to heat environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates.Fire made it possible—there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire.

‘The advances of fire and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.

‘Anybody get here in a car today? Fire—the controlled, harnessed fire—made that possible.Controlled fire in a plane gets us across this world. Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook, and socially be dysfunctional with each other’ and act like children!

Fire makes all of that possible. Indeed, fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history. And then Bishop Curry concluded that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love—it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

The passion, the spirit, the fire of love coming from within us needs to be contained. For it to have effect it must work within limits. The damage of forest fires and bombs we have witnessed both literally and figuratively throughout history and in our own lives. The passion, the spirit, and the fire of love needs containment. Then when its boundaries are respected, we can discover its true and divine power.

Poet and spiritual writer Anne Lamott says it best in describing the maturing Christian, as we grow from child to adult: “Grace meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” In the implication there to ‘Grow up!’, we are challenged to continue to learn how to harness the energy, joy and passion of the Spirit within us, to use for the good of all.

The message of God’s love, the sending of the Spirit of God upon the church ever since that day long ago in Jerusalem, grows us into the adults that we are created and loved to be.

 

[1]Kurt Andersen, “Forever Young: Why Are Adults Acting Like Children?” The Saturday Evening Post (June 12, 2018).

[2]“As someone concerned with Christian moral practice, I lament the infantilizing of Christians as children, without the responsibilities of adult members of the household of God,” Jane Lancaster Patterson, Commentary on Romans 8:14-17 in www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Romans 8:14-17; a reading assigned for the Day of Pentecost, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary; in four short verses, Paul uses the term ‘children’ three times.

[4]Stuart M. Brown Jr. & Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Press, 2009), p.11

[5]Psalm 42:7

Alone no more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversations – Children’s Ministry

In recent years and with increasing awareness, it’s evident that a fresh, creative approach to children’s ministry is needed. We stand, really, at a crossroads with how we do this work. An opportunity stands before us. And an important question is: Will we embrace it?

What is this opportunity, you ask?

As part of the process of growing our ministry at Faith, the leadership of the church — comprising of members of the council as well as members at large of the congregation — we felt one important step in discernment was to bring the questions to the whole assembly on a Sunday morning.

There isn’t likely a better way introducing this conversation to the congregation than by having a baptism.

First, scheduling this baptism had been a bit of journey itself. Originally we were aiming for a July date. But in the last ten days, the opportunity in the family’s lives to be together this weekend came up. And so, here we are, on the Sunday we had planned for the better part of a month to bring the children’s ministry issue up for conversation. It’s a wonderful convergence that happened beyond anyone’s planning.

Then, there is the meaning of the baptism itself. What does this occasion mean to you — as parents, sponsors, cousins and church community of Elise? It can mean belonging. It can mean togetherness in faith. It can mean life. New life. New beginnings. It can mean the start of a life-long journey of continual growth, learning and expanding the soul in God’s love.

I hope you can with me begin to see some connecting points with the question I asked at the top — about the opportunity we have at this moment in the history of Faith to embrace something new, something fresh in our growth as a community of faith. Let me further prime the pump!

In the relatively short Gospel of Mark, the phrase, “Kingdom of God’, is mentioned at least fourteen times. Clearly, Jesus’ message and ministry on earth is about communicating in word and deed what this reign of God means — to the original listeners in their world, and to us in our day and age.

We come up against some challenges in reading the Gospel for today (Mark 4:26-34). That is, challenges to our way of thinking. Jesus, quite clearly in the story of the growing seed, makes it a point to emphasize the farmer has very little to do with making the seed grow. He “would sleep … and the seed would sprout and grow … [and] he does not know how. The earth produces of itself …” (v.27-28). This is how the kingdom of God operates.

As products of the Enlightenment and Scientific Eras where we demand proof, evidence and rational methods prior to justifying any kind of belief and action — this imagery and story-telling which by the way is how Jesus communicated probably drives us nuts.

But a baby cannot speak for herself what she believes. A baby cannot stand up and confess by memory the Apostles’ Creed (I’m not sure most of us who have likely said a few times in the course of our lives can!). A baby cannot make rational choices nor communicate them effectively. We can’t prove that she can demonstrate in a any clear, indisputable way that she has faith. That she deserves the gift.

A baby is dependent, vulnerable, and relies on others to make this baptism happen. It is truly a community event, not an individualistic enterprise. It does ‘take a village’ in the kingdom of God.

Could that be a sign that the kingdom of God is here? When those values and qualities described in the above couple of paragraphs characterize a situation or a decision? (Yes!) (And Yes!)

A friend who lives in Cantley near the Gatineau Park north of Ottawa told me that his municipality recently replaced aged and diseased trees along the roadway in front of his house. After cutting down several trees, the municipality gave him a few oak tree seedlings to plant in their place.

What surprised him the most after receiving these tiny seedlings, was the actual size of the whole tree that he held in his hand. The part above the ground that would remain visible was only a mere few inches. But the part that would be buried under the ground, the part that wasn’t seen, was the root system. Especially the tap root — the main one — was at least double the length of what was seen above ground.

Now we are also getting at the nature and definition of faith, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” writes Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 5:7). Often, the truth of the matter lies beyond what is visible, what we can calculate, measure and determine rationally.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a job to do. We will water and nurture growth. We will make the space available, and put whatever resources we have to helping the growth along.

The stories Jesus told ask us not to close our imagination and creative juices, ever. Because there is a dynamic, vital power at work beyond our comprehension and grasp, always. Indeed, our imagination must be stirred by these stories as we seek to connect our individual and historical stories within the larger story of God’s movement in our lives and in the life of the world. (See Nibs Stroupe in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Vol 3, Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009, p.143)

This moment in the life of Faith Lutheran Church is ours to embrace and be bold in the creative process. It’s our job to do this. It’s not outlined in a neat and tidy manual. The answers are not clear-cut. And that’s ok.

Remember, “Jesus and the Gospel writers were not lacking in verbal skills. Had they wished to define the Kingdom of God in specific terms, they were capable of doing so. They chose not to. What the Kingdom of God is to be, has been left to us. It has been left to us to envision, to dream, to imagine and to build.” (Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother Give us a Word” 12 June 2018).

Children’s Ministry by, with and for the church — as with infant baptism — is about small things. At least, about the beginning of a journey that starts out small. Yet, these stories of Jesus describing the kingdom of God are about small things, like seeds, that eventually yield great outcomes.

Out of the most insignificant beginnings, “God creates a mighty wind that will blow throughout the entire world. In these stories, Jesus invites seekers in every age and every place to consider joining in this kind of life-long journey” whose ending is anything but small. (Nibs Stroupe, ibid. p.145). Let it be so! Amen.

Children’s Ministry Review – Faith Lutheran Church

The Church Council has considered the reality that dedicating resources to maintain the current Sunday School program is no longer feasible nor sustainable.

Over the last several years there has been a noticeable trend in decreasing Sunday morning attendance that does not justify nor attract volunteers to lead a ministry for children in that traditional model.

Here follow some observations about the learning process for younger generation Christians today, that learning is more:

1. Intergenerational – it happens when young and older Christians mix to share their faith and work together in service-projects and initiatives in the community

2. In-the-home – it happens effectively in the church only when there is, however small, some faith-based discipline, activity or conversation in the household/home of that child/youth

3. Spanning-a-whole-life – it happens effectively in the church when a whole-life approach is adopted for Christian learning. Milestones such as Confirmation are markers along journey of faith that continues into adulthood and beyond

4. Worship-integration – Each worship service, rich in ritual, liturgy, symbol, art and sacrament are valuable occasions and opportunities for ongoing Christian learning

5. Inter-denominational – Because of the growing reality of multi-faith marriages, families are more open to seeking children’s ministries from other churches and faith groups, not just their own parish where they hold membership

These observations reflect the changing realities, socially, and for the church as we respond in ministry. Our response needs to respect and adjust to these changing realities.

These challenges may be summarized by the following questions for the church to consider:

1. At this time, does Faith Lutheran consider itself a children’s Christian education center, as a reflection of our unique character and mission? If not, what about the couples and families who do come with their children to worship? To which congregations can we refer them /partner with for a viable children’s learning ministry?

2. If we do, what is the focus, scope and intent of the program?

3. Who is the intended ‘audience’? Only those who have been baptized here in the last few years (e.g., cradle roll)? Or, is there a more public ‘interface’, providing a service to the wider community?

4. What resources (skills, passionate volunteer leaders, property space, budget lines) do we have already, and are we willing to make available for this purpose?

5. In what specific way(s) can you support a children’s ministry led by Faith Lutheran Church at this time in your life? Please check all that apply:

_____ organize and lead a traditional cradle-roll for all that have recently been baptized at Faith;

_____ organize and lead children’s programming on a Sunday morning;

_____ organize and lead children’s programming on a weekday afternoon/evening;

_____ pray regularly for the children and youth who attend Faith;

_____ increase your financial donations to the church in order to support a viable program; ministry starting in the Fall.

Please make time this week to reflect on these questions. Submit any written notes you provide, into the offering plate on Sunday, June 17, 2018, email your comments about Children’s Ministry to pastormartin@faithottawa.ca, or submit to the church office by June 29.

We will make time in the service on the 17th to honour and celebrate the Sunday School ministry in our history at Faith, recall favourite memories together about Sunday School at Faith, and address some of the questions above. Thank you for your time and input.

The musical performance

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his followers.[1]

What does it mean, ‘to be a witness’ to all that happened around Jesus over two thousand years ago? How can we be a witness to these things with which we haven’t had a direct experience, when we haven’t seen with our own eyes and met with our own bodies the living, Lord Jesus?

The weather this weekend is a joke. There’s no other way of putting it, to my mind. It is the season of baseball not snowball! But sometimes when things don’t go our way, humour can be a good antidote. So, here is a music joke.

Last week I gave an example of a double bass player to illustrate how we need to go from the head to the heart. But we don’t always trust that movement from head to heart because it feels like we are losing control.

Imagine a picture of several double bass players standing at the back of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The bass players are swaying to the majestic sounds and rhythms; their bodies are into it. It is nearing the end of the epic masterpiece, and the caption at the bottom of the comic strip says:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the bassists are loaded.” Hmmm. Maybe too much heart?

How do we live a life of faith that is heart-centred? At same time, how do we deal with our performance anxiety, worried about how people will perceive us when we do our thing, as Christians? We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform to perfection and make a good impression. Unfortunately, this kind of self-talk keeps us from being the best we can be. That’s why, unfortunately, too many musicians have too much to drink prior to a performance.

We need not be too hard on ourselves. Easily 50% of the population make decisions based on fear.[2]The annual “Back to Church” movement creator, Michael Harvey, claims that there is only one socially-accepted sin in the church today: fear.[3]

Yet, none of the Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus condemn the fear. It is to be expected. Jesus meets the disciples, and meets us, where we are even in our uncertainty. Jesus’ initial purpose, after all, is to bring peace. “Peace be with you,” are Jesus’ first words to his disciples after the resurrection.[4]

But Jesus calls us, as he called his disciples, to move beyond our fear, move beyond the fearfully locked doors of our hearts.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is not just to allay the fears of Jesus’ followers. It is not to convince us of the miracle of God. In other words, ultimately, who and what we’re about leads us beyond ourselves. The point of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the miracle per se, but that it becomes the engine of the proclamation of Jesus Christ to all nations.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist noted recently that, “Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however, Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It needs to be normal, everyday, how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.”[5]

God’s grace finds expression in flesh and blood – in our bodies. First, as we experience it coming through the Eucharist, the presence of God is made manifest in humanity. And today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that means, in us and all our brokenness and despite our imperfections.

How can we say this? Because in Jesus’ resurrected body, his scars were still visible. His humanity was still intact – in some mysterious way, in an mysteriously enhanced body to be sure. But the fact that Jesus bodily resurrection is so defended and argued by Paul and Luke and other early Apostles suggests, does it not, the crucial importance of the earthly, human manifestation, and receptivity, of God’s grace and presence.[6]

This is the power of the resurrection. That in the midst of our fear, Jesus comes to stand among us. In the midst of all that is wrong, broken, suffering in our lives, Jesus comes into the locked doors of our hearts and bodies. And then, calls us out.

How do we ‘proclaim’ Christ to all the nations? Again, nothing spectacular, here. Through our ordinary, simple selves, reaching out.

Leonard Bernstein, 20thcentury musician and famous conductor of renowned orchestras around the world – the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic – once said: “The only way I have of knowing I’ve done a really remarkable performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer. I have the feeling that I’m creating the piece, writing the piece on stage … making it up as I go, along with those hundred people [in the orchestra] who are also making it up with me.”[7]

Working together, like in an orchestra, we are playing the music of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and in the world. Even though the music was first created a long time ago, we are making it alive and real for us and for the world, today.

We do so, using the gifts and grace and resources given to us from the Composer of the whole experience. We do so, through our own bodies, minds and spirits. At the same time, we let go of our ego, because it is not about us; it is about something much bigger than all of us.

Order of Canada recipient for his work in fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, Father Laurence Freeman said: “…grace works on nature. The grace of God that enters into human existence doesn’t come from out of space; it comes through nature. That’s why it is very dubious to talk about supernatural things. We are always interested in the supernatural, but what’s much more real and interesting is the real meaning of the natural. It is through nature, through the natural, through our own nature, our own psychology, our own physiology, our mind and body – through our human nature – that grace touches, emerges and transforms us …”[8]

So, it is our ordinary selves through which the grace and purpose of God works. What does this mean? First, it means we have to believe in ourselves. We have to trust that God has given us what we need to do God’s work, to be God’s instruments and vehicles through which God accomplishes God’s purposes.

Then, we need to perform the music, so to speak. And, it doesn’t need to be perfect, complicated or anything spectacular. Just simple, ordinary. We have to start somewhere.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day in the Spring, Summer and Fall. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30pm every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for children and young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church, an orchestra playing together.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise and delight in us. All because we began by simply using what God has given us. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others, for something larger than all of us.

That is, being faithful witnesses to these things.

[1]Luke 24:48, NRSV.

[2]Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” (Crossroad, 2001).

[3]Michael Harvey, “Unlocking the Growth: You’ll Be Amazed at your Church’s Potential” (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), p.52.

[4]Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21, NRSV.

[5]Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” on April 10, 2018.

[6]Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a testimony both to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to our bodies being the imperfect vessels for the transmission of God’s grace and wisdom.

[7]Cited in Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The Classic Guide to Reaching a New Level of Musical Performance” (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1986), p.95.

[8]Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Finding Oneself 2” transcript (Singapore: Medio Media, 2017), p.29.