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

Value-added, Christians in the world

Love is not a gooey, “Come, kiss my boo-boo because I hurt myself.”

Love is not a warm-fuzzy blanket to wrap yourself when you’re feeling blue.

Love is not Valentine’s Day chocolates wrapped up in a big red bow.

That is, not love according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love can be many things. In our world, love has masqueraded in many forms. Do we even have the energy to reflect, talk and most importantly act in the love-sense of the Gospel?

The text from 1stJohn begins with an address to the “beloved”.[1]This is a better English translation than others that start with “Dear friends.” The word in the original Greek is agape. As the first readers and listeners to this word were, so we are addressed, the “beloved.”

This word appears several times in this text. Can you count them all?

And none of them mean what the world, and our compulsive, fearful selves might first imagine.

Agapeis a self-giving love. It is a love that reaches out for the good of the other, despite what the giver wants to do. “Not my will but thy will be done,” Jesus prays to his Father in heaven moments before he is arrested.[2]

I continue to be perplexed by Mother Theresa’s confession on her way to India as a young girl. From the start, when God’s call to go there was beginning to grow within her, I wonder if she really wanted to go.[3]If it were up to what she wanted alone, I don’t believe she would have sacrificed her whole life to the cause of the poor. And yet, we know of her incredible contribution to help the vulnerable and homeless on the streets of Calcutta over the decades that she lived there, served there, loved there.

And what a paradox it was. She discovered, in the giving, that she was being most fulfilled. It wasn’t a sacrifice in the sense of self-denial, self-hatred even, or repression. She was one of the most human of souls on this earth, say those who met her. She discovered that her greatest needs were met, in her self-giving.

In the Star Wars spin off TV series, “The Clone Wars”, a story is told of how Jedi younglings are trained in the Force in a ritual called “The Gathering”. In order to become full Jedi, they must build their own light sabers. Their light sabers are unique to the individual. Each one is built around a crystal which they have to retrieve on an inhospitable, cold planet.

A group of younglings is dispatched into an ice cave to harvest their crystal. In order to succeed, they must meet and overcome their deepest individual fear and greatest weakness: Fear of heights. Fear of monsters. Impatience. Being left behind. Their crystal becomes available to them once they endure this personal challenge, each to their own.

What is more, the clock is ticking. They must find their crystal and exit the cave in a few short hours before the entrance to it freezes over. Otherwise, they would have to wait a couple of weeks trapped inside without help until the next rotation of the sun would allow the ice entrance to melt open again.

It begins as an individual challenge. But it can only succeed as a group effort. Before sending the younglings into the cave, Jedi master Yoda gives them their final instructions: “Trust yourself and trust each other you must.”

For some, this is the biggest problem. Most of the younglings run into the cave and work together in smaller groups, at least in pairs. One helps the other, and vice versa.

But for Pedro, the young upstart, know-it-all youngling boy, he rushes in at breakneck speed and abandons the group immediately. He forges ahead giving the others the impression, again, that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Before you know it, he finds his crystal. Or so he thinks. He is the first one back outside the cave. But when Yoda inspects the crystal, it melts in his hand. It wasn’t a crystal he found on the tip of the cave’s stalactite, just some frozen water.

Pedro needs to go back in and do it all over again. But now, time is against him.
While he runs back through the main entrance of the cave, others are returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Pedro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass-like ice wall.

Ketuni had been rushing herself to get to the entrance after finding her crystal. She had followed what she thought was a short-cut from one of the larger caverns. Just as she was coming up the narrow passage leading to the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the translucent, ice wall. Neither did she have enough time to find another way around.

Ketuni is just about to give up, getting used to the idea of spending days alone in the cave when she notices Pedro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Pedro faces her through the glass wall. “But I haven’t yet found my crystal. I can’t help you. I have to get going.” And so, preoccupied with his own agenda and needs, he darts off.

But seconds later, perhaps with a change of heart remembering Yoda’s initial instructions to work together, Pedro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Pedro takes a sharp rock and breaks a hole through the glass wall big enough to let her out. “Thank you! I’ll help you find yours, now quick!” Ketuni says.

“No, No, you go. There isn’t enough time. Please, get yourself out!” Pedro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Pedro notices a crystal glimmering in the broken ice from the hole he made to help Ketuni escape. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Pedro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from paying attention to the needs of the other as the way of discovering your own gift. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Love, no matter how you define it, is relational. A healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you.

Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.[4]That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in any loving relationship is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of living out our faith, in the world: Our deeper needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

Giving and receiving. Like a vine that is connected to the source. Any part of that vine (the stem, the leaf, the sprig, the sprout) is at any given time both the receiver of nutrients and the giver. It is a conduit. There is constant motion. Stasis does not compute in this picture, this dynamic. Any part of that vine must know what it is like to be both receiver and giver, giver and receiver.

If you can’t trust another to give you help when you need it,

If you can’t receive the love of another, no strings attached,

Then, how can you give it?

Both receiving and giving. Mutuality is thus a hallmark of the agapelove strewn throughout the stories in the Bible.

And flowing in the life of the church today.

We are the beloved. And we are a conduit of that love to the world. Christians are called the world over to ‘add value’ to society. And that value and worth resides in each human being. William Sloan Coffin, in his reflection of love some decades ago, wrote, “God’s love does not seek out value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved. Because we are loved, we have value.”[5]

God does not love us after we prove somehow that we deserve it. God does not love us after we already prove our worth or value. God’s love in the world creates value in each of us and in those we meet whenever we share God’s love.

Whenever we receive love and give love, love is truly the energy that keeps the world going ‘round.

 

[1]1 John 4:7-21, NRSV

[2]Luke 22:42

[3]Greg Pennoyer, ed., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Chalice Press, 2015), p.114-115.

[4]Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31

[5]William Sloan Coffin, “The Courage of Love,” (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p.11

Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission