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)

The loved migrant: a ‘washing feet’ analogy

The disciples need to have their feet washed.

It was not only customary in ancient times to wash the feet of guests into your home, but necessary. Calloused and muddy feet were the norm in an age of open-toed sandals and pedestrian highways. Providing this service was a kind and appreciated gesture offered to the weary pilgrim.

But no one else had volunteered to do it. The disciples had followed all the Lord’s instructions to prepare for a meal in the upper room. They had bought what they needed in preparation for the Passover. They had gathered the bread and wine. Check. Check. Check.

So, what made them miss this important act of hospitality, friendship and welcome? What blinders did they have on?

Perhaps, we can’t underestimate the state of affairs among the disciples. Recall, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.[1]And for any one of them to volunteer to wash feet would be to lose the argument. Because only servants and slaves washed the feet of their superiors.

So Jesus got up to do it—shocking them all by his disregard for social and cultural convention.[2]

And then, as if that wasn’t shock enough to the system, Jesus looks up at the disciples, looks them square in the eyes and says:

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v.14)

How good are we at ‘washing one another’s feet’? We’re not doing it in worship tonight on Maundy Thursday. I don’t believe we’ve ever done it here at Faith. But maybe we need the practice.

Since my father’s death earlier this year, I’ve been reviewing his life story, going over certain details. Especially in his formative days when he migrated from Poland to London, England, in the mid-1960s, I see a pattern emerge.

The small town in southern Poland where he was born and raised was and has been the largest concentration of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. They called themselves the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. And, the church whose bishop he assisted later in London was the Lutheran church ‘in exile’ from Poland. This church was taken care of by the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Even though commissioned to serve ELCIC congregations when he and my mother immigrated to Canada in 1967, Dad was still called upon to serve Polish-speaking Lutherans once a month in an independent Lutheran Church in Toronto during the 1980s. This congregation has since become part of the Missouri Synod.

When our long-time family friend from Toronto visited us here in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, I was reminded again of this pattern: My father had been, in the first part of his life certainly, born and bred in the culture and beliefs of the Missouri Synod/Confessional Lutheran Church, worldwide, you could say.

The question I’ve pondered is: What made him change his allegiance? Why not continue to remain serving the denomination and church culture of his childhood and youth—even in North America? Why did he change? What made the difference?

It wasn’t doctrinal, by and large. I remember several debates we had around the kitchen table over the hot button issues in the church during the past few decades. And he usually tended towards the more conservative stance. It wasn’t doctrinal. It wasn’t about beliefs and confessions of faith. It was something else.

When he was serving the Missouri Synod church in London, he met someone over lunch after worship one day. This man, William Dase, had been a pilot in the war. A Canadian flying with the British Airforce, he had made many runs over London. And, after the war, decided to make London his home.

He was also a major benefactor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. In conversation over lunch, my Dad expressed a desire to learn English, and not anywhere people knew him. Somewhere far away from any Polish-speaking Lutherans, he felt he could master the English language. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he also didn’t believe he could ever return to Poland a free person.

And so Dase posed a simple question, with significant consequence: Why not spend a study year at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Canada? Dase would sponsor my Dad’s study and booked passage for both my parents on the ocean liner, Maasdam, to set sail from Southampton to Quebec.

Before my parents landed in Waterloo, the Dean of the Seminary at the time, Professor Dr. Hauser, had already arranged an apartment in student housing and a job in the cafeteria kitchen for my mother which paid $75 a month. This was just enough to cover the rent for the apartment.

After completing his master’s degree at Waterloo, my Dad was appointed to serve a small rural parish north of Stratford, Ontario. He needed a car. So, Assistant to the Bishop, Dr. Berner, of the Eastern Canada Synod, went with my Dad to the bank to arrange a loan to buy a VW Beetle. Dr. Berner used his standing with the bank as collateral for the loan.

However, after the year was up, my parents’ temporary student and visitor VISAs were expiring. And so, the Dean of the Seminary, Dr. Hauser, promptly took my parents to the immigration office in Kitchener to vouch for an upgrade to landed immigrant status— ‘my parents would make excellent citizens in Canada’, he told the immigration officer without hesitation. They received their immigrant status on the spot.

When my brother and I came along a couple of years later—twin boys—thus creating an instant family that doubled in size literally overnight, my parents experienced a sudden strain on the household budget.

The bishop of the Eastern Canada Synod, then Bishop Lotz, immediately arranged for a changed call to the three-point parish in Maynooth, Raglan and Denbigh—because these parishes were able to offer a higher wage.

That was then, this is now. I understand. Nevertheless, I am impressed in reviewing this history how church people who were in a position to do so could make such a positive difference in the lives of those in need. No just once. But consistently. Over time. And in response to various needs.

I can say with certainty that it was the love shown in practical, simple, ordinary ways to my parents when they immigrated and settled into Canada, that made all the difference.

The disciples needed their feet washed, after all. Despite all their debating and power struggles and determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus showed his disciples, and shows us, that to help another is to put oneself on the same level as the other. Not to ‘lord it over’ in a condescending manner, but to recognize the common humanity we all share.

Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the ‘new commandment’ of love.[3]If the world will know that ‘you are my disciples’, it has nothing to do with agreeing on doctrine, creedal statements, confessions of faith. In fact, arguing about these things, as the disciples tended to do, hinder this expression of true discipleship.

In the Gospel of John, the disciples do not and cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ actions until after Easter.[4]Even then, their faith still falters.[5]In John, “the disciples’ divine election and sustenance do not depend on how much they understand. Their faith is perfected, not in knowledge, but in how much they love their fellow lambs (21:15-19; cf. 1 Cor 13:12-13).”[6]

Jesus tells his disciples after washing their feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”[7]

It’s about loving action, not knowledge/understanding.

St John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” I concur. When all is said and done, at the end of the road, we will be asked: “How have you loved your neighbor?” not “Did you believe the right things?”

Just like washing one’s feet is messy, and uncomfortable, so at first it may feel out-of-sorts to be so vulnerable to one another. There are boundary issues when it comes to feet, to be sure.

We are not used to small and ordinary acts of self-giving for another. We need to practice. In an age when congregations and denominations are significantly divided over doctrinal, social, and other issues, and sometimes have difficulty even gathering at the same table for a meal with one another—what do we need? What do we really need?

More debate? More information? More knowledge? More convincing arguments? Really?

The disciples just needed their feet washed.

 

 

[1]Luke 22:24-27

[2]Jim Green Somerville in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.276

[3]John 13:1-17,31-35, the Gospel text for Maundy Thursday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 14:26

[5]20:19-29; 21:20-23

[6]C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word., ibid., p.279

[7]John 13:17, emphasis mine.

The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

Christmas – God comes anyway

Do you remember ‘grumpy old uncle Stan’?

Eleven-year-old Nadia couldn’t believe that her recluse uncle fell asleep under the Christmas tree during the family gift exchange. He snored louder than any squeals of joy from other family opening presents.

Nadia complained to her Mom that she didn’t want to sit beside him at the Christmas dinner table any more. His burps and other inappropriate sounds coming from him embarrassed her to no end.

“I just don’t get it,” Nadia said. “Even though we make his favourite mash potatoes every year and wrap up all sorts of yarn for his knitting projects – he still acts all weird-like.”

“We only see him once a year, dear,” said her Mom. “We need to be patient.”

Nadia took a bite from left-over ginger bread. “Yeah. I don’t remember a Christmas without him.”

“You’re right,” Mom said. “He comes every year. He has a present for each of us. He listens to us more than he talks. I think he is just happy to be invited.”

“And sometimes he will ask me questions that make me really think.” Nadia continued eating her cookie. “I missed my cousins this year.”

“Yeah,” Mom sighed. “Other family members will sometimes find reasons for not coming. Uncle Stan comes anyway. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of who does or doesn’t have colds. Even when it would be better not to come. He comes anyway.”

“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Grumpy Uncle Stan.”

Christmas teaches us how God is present to us. I believe that everything that Jesus says, everything that Jesus does, and everything that happens to Jesus reveals to us how God is present in our life. And the way Jesus responds to the situations and people in his life reveals to us how we are to respond to God’s presence in our life.

It is in that spirit then, that I read and hear again this holy night the Gospel story of Jesus birth: When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to give birth. And probably because of all the people in Bethlehem because of the census, there was no room in the inn. And so, they had to go to a small stable where Jesus was born. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and put him in a manger. And he was born there out in the dark in the stable with the animals.

What does this story teach us about how God is present in our life? To me, it seems that a lesson is that there was no room in the inn, but God came anyway. The fact there was no room in the inn did not stop God from being born into this world, and that’s the lesson because that’s always true:

That sometimes in today’s world, whether it be through mass media or just the things that are going on internationally, and the way we as human beings treat each other, or sometimes just in our daily life, the hectic pace that we have to keep to just stay ahead of the day’s demands, along with the complexities of it all, it seems that there’s no room in the inn. That there is no hiatus from it all.

It’s true sometimes, not just in the world but in our own families, or sometimes just what we’re going through ourselves and all the ragged unfinished business of things. It seems that there’s no room in the inn. That it’s just all like closed up or too filled up with too much complexity and maybe things that shouldn’t even be there in the first place.

And as true as that might be we can take reassurance that God comes anyway. That God is being inexplicably born in our hearts moment by moment, breath by breath, as the interior richness of every little thing that happens to us and everyone around us.

As much as we may think it is all up to us – the good work we do, the important, business of our lives, striving after all that we believe is important – then come times and circumstances in our lives that confound and disrupt our self-inflated, self-constructed, neatly-tidied world –

A sudden death, a broken relationship, health problems, some failure, job loss, bad news, an unsolvable problem – and our neatly-packaged lives unravel.

And so, the Christmas message is really for those who seek more comfort than joy at this time of year. Some mercy. Some grace.

The Christmas message is for you who have tried oh-so hard to make things right but do not reap nor see the benefits of your toil; to you who by no fault of your own find yourselves in the middle of heart-ache; to you who continue to flounder in fields of despair when it seems there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel; to you who carry on, lifting head high despite the significant impairments of your lives. The Christmas message is for you. So, hear this: God comes anyway.

Christmas is not an escape from those hard realities, an escape we must engineer somehow by all the numbing stimulations of holiday ‘cheer’. But that God comes right into the midst of the darkness of our lives.

But here’s the thing: In order to discover the presence of God, we have to leave the hurly-burly of the inn, the superficiality and the chatter of it all, and find our way in the dark, back to the stable. That is, we have to enter into the humility and the simplicity and the patience and the delicate nature of what’s unfolding in our heart to discover where God is being born in our life.

And in this kind of prayerful attentiveness we are then asked to bring that delicate simplicity back out into the hurly-burly of the world. “It would be so much easier if we were asked to live a simple life in a simple world. But we’re asked to live a simple life in a complicated world.”[1] And I think this is how God is born in our hearts: In simplicity of heart we do our best to live with integrity in a complicated world.

James Finley relates one of his earliest memories of Christmas: His mother would take him to mass on Sunday and they always sat right up in the first couple of rows, off to the side altar. He was maybe three years old. He knew it was Christmas time because there were Christmas trees up in the sanctuary and there was a nativity scene.

He remembers the church was very crowded and a little baby started to cry near the back. And he remembers whispering in his mother’s ear: “Is that the baby Jesus crying?” His Mom leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Yes, it is.” And little James believed her. And today at 74 years old he still believes her. Not in the naïve way that a small child would believe it. But knowing that in Christ it is revealed to us that every child is worth all that God is worth.

And the truth is, for all the complexities and things of which that simplicity has been buried under, these so many things, there is in our heart this childlike purity, this childlike God-given Godly nature of who we simply are because God loves us.

And so, for us Christmas is us being awakened to this birthing of God in the simplicity of our hearts, in the depths of our life; and, into the awareness that despite the complexities of whatever each day might bring, we can take reassurance that God comes anyway.[2]

[1] Katagiri Roshi, Contemporary Zen master.

[2] I’ve adapted his words to my preaching context and am ever grateful to James Finley, “An Advent Meditation” (New Mexico: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017), for sharing and emphasizing the Christmas Gospel message, that God comes anyway.

Pizza, sushi, pigs-in-a-blanket: It all matters

It’s an odd beginning.[1] You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.

During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.

One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.

Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.

He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.

Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers.[2] Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.

Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.

Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.

Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.

I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work.[3] John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire,[4] and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.[5]

Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.

We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”[6]

Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”[7], then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!

Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.

No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!

But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.

In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.”[8] Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.

It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.

The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.

But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?

Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:

There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.[9]

That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.

It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.

We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path.[10] To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.

This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.

We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.

Hope.

[1] The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

[2] Matthew 3:7

[3] Isaiah 40:3

[4] 2 Kings 1:8

[5] John 1:21-23

[6] I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”

[7] Romans 8:38-39

[8] December 4, 2017

[9] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).

[10] Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24