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

Search for love – a wedding sermon

There once was a little boy who decided he wanted to go find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip to find God, so he decided to pack a lunch, four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer.

He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. In this park on a bench, sat an old woman looking at the pigeons and feeding them.

The little boy had already walked quite a way, and thought it might be a good idea to sit down for a bit. So, he sat down on the park bench beside the old woman. And he watched the pigeons too. After a while he grew hungry and so he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her a Twinkie. The old woman gratefully accepted it and smiled at the boy.

There was something about her smile that fascinated the boy. He thought it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen, and he wanted to see it again. So he brought out the cans of root beer, opened one and offered the old woman the other one. Once again, she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time, the two sat on that park bench eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching and feeding the pigeons. But neither said a word.

Finally, the little boy realized that it was getting late and that it was time to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, then turned back and gave the old woman a big hug. The old woman’s smile was brighter than ever before.

When he arrived back home, the boy’s mother noticed that her son was happy, yet somehow strangely quiet. “What did you do today?” she asked, trying to figure out what was going on. “Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,” he said. Before his mother could reply, he added, “You know, she has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.”

Meanwhile, the woman had left the park and returned to her home. Her daughter noticed something different about her mother. “What did you do today, Mom?” she asked. “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God,” she said. And before her daughter could say anything, she added. “You know, he is a lot younger than I had imagined.”

Often when we set out on significant journeys of our lives we have big expectations. We set out to find love, to find something of the divine, fulfillment in life, maybe even God. We make choices, then, that are based on these larger-than-life expectations.

The problem is, that when we don’t, when other people and experiences don’t reflect our utopic visions, we are disappointed and may even despair. But what we have failed to do is find God, or true love, or our deepest needs in the mundane, ordinary, common life, day-to-day experiences.

In many ways this day for you, Katherine and Max, is perfect. It is certainly a day set apart for you in exquisite ways. A unique natural setting. You both look beautiful. You are surrounded by the people closest to you. This place is beautiful, being outside in God’s natural creation. What a day!

At the same time, I hope you remain open to being surprised on your journey, moving forward. I hope you keep your eyes open to those moments, perhaps, when no words are said, perhaps in the regular routines of day-in and day-out.

They say the spaces between the notes in music are part of the music. The pauses. The rests. When no sound is made. Those can be the most important moments in appreciating a musical piece.

Being so attuned to one another in marriage, when sometimes no words are necessary. Experiencing the divine while sitting on a park bench eating Twinkies and drinking root beer of all things. Finding simple delight in the moments of grace, in the least expected circumstances of life, when Life smiles at you. When Love embraces you.

“Love only endures when it moves like waves …” I think that’s my favourite line in the James Kavanaugh poem.[1]Like the waves on the lake behind us there is a rhythm in nature that I believe describes well the pattern and truth of love and life. That we find it not just in its full-on force expressed like when the wind blows and the waves crash on the shore and the music is played at its loudest. But also, just as real, when there is a pause, when the waves retreat. When there is a moment of silence. Who would have thought? Are we listening, and are we watching there, too?

On your marriage journey, Katherine and Max, may you find the way filled with park benches, Twinkies, root beers and wordless silence where you can experience in each other the loving presence of a faithful God who will always find us.

With a smile.

 

[1] James Kavanaugh, “To Love is not to Possess”

A ‘fussy’ Christmas?

I was stunned, as I am sure many were, to see photos last week of snow-covered Bethlehem. They say it was, for that Mediterranean region, the first such weather event in over a century.

And over the past century, biblical scholars have criticized Hallmark and other popular artists for depicting these snow covered fields around Bethlehem with sheep softly grazing; ‘they are not being historically or factually accurate’ we critically-minded people complained.

We were critical of such romanticized attempts to depict a ‘perfect’ Christmas from the Canadian perspective. Isn’t it true, though? In the weeks before Christmas, don’t we invest a great deal of time and energy trying to achieve that picture-perfect Christmas? How can you have Christmas without snow, after all?

We ramp up our expectations. Just like they do with movie trailers. Months before its theatre and weeks before its home release, we watch these 60 second teasers, which are designed to wet our appetite and raise our expectations to the awesomeness of the next super-hero, blockbuster flick.

Should we be surprised, then, when we are disappointed? Our expectations have been managed. Marketing gurus have effectively created an appetite, a need. The result: sadness. Many at Christmas feel an emptiness that their lives and families prevent them from having the sort of Christmas they believe they should have. If I don’t get that perfect gift, I’ll be depressed. Right?

Have we ever questioned why we have these expectations in the first place? From where have they come? Who is telling me, ‘It ought to be this way’?

If anything can capture and convey the true meaning of Christmas, a story will do just that. Listen, then, to the story of the ‘fussy angel’:

“When Jesus was born as a tiny baby, God wanted Him to have a special angel to guard Him. But it wasn’t St. Michael the great warrior archangel he chose; nor the mighty archangels Raphael and Gabriel.

No, it was the smallest angel in Heaven that caught God’s eye. ‘This one will do well,’ the Father said. Which proves that God works in strange and mysterious ways.

“But on that Christmas Eve when Christ was born, the little angel was not happy with what he found. ‘This will never do,’ he said, looking around the cold and drafty stable. ‘Get those smelly beasts away from my Master,’ he ordered, tugging on the donkey’s tail. ‘Who knows what diseases they carry and they’re breathing in his face!’ ‘Hush, little one,’ Joseph said. ‘Their breath is warm. They comfort him.’

“There was a cobweb on the manger. Mice peeped out from under the straw and, perched on a beam above where the baby lay, an old crow gazed downward. The little angel grabbed a straw broom and began some furious sweeping. ‘The King of Kings and they dump him in a barn full of animals,’ he muttered. ‘It’s terrible.’ He waved the broom at the crow but the bird ignored him.

“….At midnight the door of the stable burst open and a group of excited shepherds tumbled in. The shepherds fell on their knees, their leathery faces pointed in the direction of the manger. ‘Where’d you lot come from? You’re tracking snow inside. Keep the noise down. Can’t you see he’s sleeping?’ the angel warned.

“A young shepherd took a woolly lamb and laid it at the foot of the manger. ‘What good is a lamb? A sheepskin blanket would have been a better idea,’ said the angel. ‘Can you imagine how prickly it feels to sleep on a bed of hay?’ But Mary smiled at the shepherd boy and bent to pat the lamb.

“In the early hours of the morning they heard a camel snort and into the stable proceeded three wise men. They were richly dressed. Mary held the baby on her knee and as the kings approached, they laid at her feet gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“’That’s very pretty and quite useless,’ the angel observed. ‘If you were truly wise you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.’ The kings turned their proud faces on the angel and were about to reply when the baby gurgled with delight and waved a royal fist in the air. Tempers cooled and everyone smiled … even the angel.

“Outside over the fields and houses of Bethlehem, angel choirs were singing in joyful chorus – ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.’ The angel stepped outside. ‘The night’s not silent but it’s definitely bright,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen so many stars. What was God thinking of? How can anyone sleep with all that light? We need curtains to shut it out.’

 “He found some sack cloth and pieces of straw and blocked the holes in the roof and walls of the stable. ‘Blow out your lanterns,’ he ordered the shepherds. ‘The baby needs some sleep.’ But even with holes blocked and lanterns dimmed, the stable was bathed in a golden glow. From the center of the manger a light shone that penetrated the darkness and it seemed this light would never be extinguished.

“By now the angel choirs were piling up ‘Glorias’ which shook the heavens with their strength and timbre. The angel strode outside again: ‘No, no, no! Brother [and sister] angels, have pity on him. He’s human now and needs to sleep. Turn the volume down!’

“But the heavenly choirs could not be silenced. Crescendo after crescendo rang out with such power and majesty that the people came out of their houses and gazed fearfully at the skies, wondering what was happening.

“Sure enough, inside the stable the baby had wakened and was back on his mother’s knee. The angel hung his head in shame. ‘It’s a mess,’ he groaned. ‘My poor master! What can I do?’

“Mary reached her hand toward the angel. ‘Come and see,’ she said. She drew back her veil and the angel looked at his tiny charge. And as he looked, his frustration melted. ‘Why everything is perfect,’ he thought. ‘It’s just the way He wants it to be. Smelly animals, prickly straw, silly gifts and loud music. The snow and the thin, sack blankets. It’s human and it pleases Him.’

“…. he was [then] struck by a surprising thought. This poor stable would one day be more famous than Buckingham Palace or the White House. In the hearts of the people everywhere the stable with its dirt floor and broken walls would be the most glorious palace of all ….” (Mary Arnold, The Fussy Angel, Ignatius Press, 1995).

Tonight, I welcome you to consider how you relate to the newborn Child of Bethlehem. Remember – God’s not looking for the perfect place to be nor the perfect person to do God’s will. God does not demand a perfect situation or people in order to fulfill God’s purpose and be present with God’s love.

Each of us is invited to come and kneel at the manger. I think Jesus and his ‘Abba’ Father in heaven would be happy – pleased – simply for us to come, to give what we are, and who we are, just as we are. What a gift – the greatest gift at Christmas, barring all expectations! – for Almighty God to receive us with such mercy, acceptance and grace. ‘Just the way we are’ is the best offering we can give to the tiny, newborn Jesus, who is our healing and our salvation. How can we resist such love?

Peace on earth, and in your heart, this Christmas.

.

Discerning God’s ways

How can we tell if it’s God’s voice we’re hearing? Joseph receives the call from God to remain in a committed relationship with Mary … in a dream, of all things (Matthew 1:18-25). And Joseph listens, and acts accordingly. His decision has huge ramifications – the salvation of the world!

No loudspeaker from the heavens, no dove descending, no John the Baptist screaming, no SMS messaging that beeps a notification on our smart phone. But a dream – which is internal, psychological and in the purview of what many of us rational types might deem a “wishy-washy” medium for trust-worthy communication.

But, if this is valid, then what would we make of it? How can we discern God’s way of talking to us?

The Gospel suggests at least a couple of clues. First, in Joseph’s dream the angel cites a scripture from Isaiah – that a virgin will bear a son and name him Immanuel (7:14). Joseph, being a righteous man (v.19), would have been familiar with these sacred and traditional texts from his faith.

So, no matter how strange and even other- or inner-worldly the news from God may come to us, the divine message appeals to, and is grounded in, some aspect of our faith tradition; in this case, the Scriptures.

The second clue lies in the nature of our expectations. The story of Jesus’ baby birth in a lowly barn dashed all popular, first-century Palestinian expectations of how the mighty Messiah was to come triumphantly. So, too, with us: When God communicates with us, it is not exactly what we expect.

If we’re the ones initiating and following through on what we think God wants us to do – will we not get what we expect, what we have planned? Perhaps, sometimes, if we’re in total control. But I suspect more often than not, God’s call to us will fly in the face of all our planning, all our expectations. Very likely, God’s call to us to do something will surprise us.

And like Joseph’s experience, what may at first seem a ridiculous, unpopular and lowly proposition will turn out to be the most amazing and life-changing journey, for the sake of the world that God so loved.

And at the end of that journey, we realize that there could not have been written a more appropriate and better script for our lives. For, our true needs and desires are met, albeit in unexpected ways, should we follow.

Like in The Tale of Three Trees (A Traditional Folktale, retold by Angela Elwell Hunt, Lion Publishing, Colorado Springs CO, text copyright 1989)

“Once upon a mountaintop, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up.

“The first little tree looked up at the stars twinkling like diamonds above him. ‘I want to hold treasure,’ he said. ‘I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I will be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!’

“The second tree looked out at the small stream trickling to the ocean. ‘I want to be a strong sailing ship,’ he said. ‘I want to travel mighty waters and carry powerful kings. I will be the strongest ship in the world!’

“The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and busy women worked in a busy town. ‘I don’t want to leave this mountaintop at all,’ she said. ‘I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me they will raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world!’

“Years passed. The rains came, the sun shone, and the little trees grew tall. One day three woodcutters climbed the mountain.

“The first woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, ‘This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.’ With a swoop of his shining axe, the first tree fell. ‘Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest,’ thought the first tree. ‘I shall hold wonderful treasure.’

“The second woodcutter looked at the second tree and said, ‘This tree is strong. It is perfect for me.’ With a swoop of his shining axe, the second tree fell. ‘Now I shall sail mighty waters,’ thought the second tree. ‘I shall be a strong ship fit for kings!’

“The third tree felt her heart sink when the last woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the woodcutter never even looked up. ‘Any kind of tree will do for me,’ he muttered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the third tree fell.

“The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought him to a carpenter’s shop, but the busy carpenter was not thinking about treasure chests. Instead his work-worn hands fashioned the tree into a feed box for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold or filled with treasure. He was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry barn animals.

“The second tree smiled when the woodcutter took him to a shipyard, but no mighty sailing ships were being made that day. Instead the once-strong tree was hammered and sawed into a simple fishing boat. Two small and too weak to sail an ocean or even a river, he was taken to a little lake. Every day he brought in loads of dead, smelly fish.

“The third tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard. ‘What happened?’ the once tall tree wondered. ‘All I ever wanted to do was stay on the mountaintop and point to God.’

“Many, many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feed box. ‘I wish I could make a cradle for him,’ her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and sturdy wood. ‘This manger is beautiful,’ she said. And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world.

“One evening a tired traveler and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveler fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake. Soon a thundering storm arose. The little tree shuddered. He knew he did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely through the wind and rain. The tired man awakened. He stood up, stretched out his hand, and said, ‘Peace.’ The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. And suddenly the second tree knew he was carrying the King of heaven and earth.

“One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry, jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel.

“But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the first tree beautiful. It had made the second tree strong. And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God. That was better than being the tallest tree in the world.”