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

Mixed up Christians?

A popular term I’ve heard recently in business circles, as well as in various political attempts to solve conflicts dealing with teacher contracts and Aboriginal-First Nations disputes is: “results-based management.”

A simple Google search will reveal what results-based management principles and strategies are all about. As I understand it, it is a performance driven approach to leadership, bottom-line economics, and mediation. It seems to me, such an approach pre-judges the outcome of an encounter between people who differ in some respect. Its success relies heavily on the exercise of power and who has more of it.

I wonder, though, how results-based management styles square with principles drawn from the more organic approach described in Paul’s illustration of a community of faith being like a human body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). I doubt the interaction of body parts will display health and vigor if one part lords it over another. I wonder if results-based management allows for the possibility of an outcome that neither party pre-meditated and pre-determined prior to their interaction.

The focus of prayer during this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is India. And at last year’s Luther Hostel in Waterloo I learned about some very critical aspects of India’s geography. One of those geographic wonders is the Sundarbans delta in India and Bangladesh.

The Sundarbans delta comprises of a giant estuary. Estuaries are borderlands that are continuously interlaced by the rivers on one side and lashed by the ocean on the other. The Sundarbans is the largest river delta in the world and is bordered by the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. It is marked by the coming together of the River Ganges and the Indian Ocean.

This estuary receives two environments that do not blend together easily. Variations in temperature, salinity, and murkiness create downright havoc in the delta. Instability is characteristic of this delta.

But this variability also proves its greatest strength.

The Sundarbans serve as the home for a large variety of animals, among them some endangered species. It’s home to the largest population of Royal Bengal tigers in India and also some of the world’s largest crocodiles, which can get to be over twenty feet long and big enough to hold two grown men. Within the forest bordering the estuary live some fifty species of mammals, about 320 species of inland and migratory birds, about fifty species of reptiles, eight species of amphibians, and about 400 species of fish. They are the breeding grounds for several species of fish and serve as nurseries.

The productivity of an estuary is estimated to be eight times that of agricultural land because of the rich organic material that the river brings in due to the give-and-take in the mixing of river and ocean.

It is no wonder that the word “Sundarbans” means “beautiful jungle” in Bengalese; the paradox of it all: How can a jungle be beautiful? And yet, it is.

Estuaries, in general, are “the schools where lessons of life are taught, where one’s eyes are opened to the reality of the world. They are margins where there is an unveiling, where revelation takes place.” (Mary Joy Philip)

This is a natural example of the mixing of two very different components resulting in a hybrid environment — a new reality. And this new reality can produce so much good for the world.

The positive consequence of mixing two distinct entities is not dilution or dissolving of those entities. For some species that cannot adapt to that changing environment it means total extinction. But for those that can adapt, the result is a transformation which is vital, giving rise to an entirely new, vigorous reality for both.

I think it is possible for distinct beings — whether those beings are groups in society at odds with one another, members of a family, business team, religious or political community in conflict, or a society struggling with its open diversity — to engage one another productively.

But in this coming together, no one can pre-meditate, and manage towards a result that either party wants. The effect and consequence of coming together in mutual respect and as equal creatures, we cannot forsee. But we are in this thing together. And it is only together, not apart, where the solution lies.

Mix it up together, we must.