Don’t write off Christmas this year

In our weekly confirmation class on zoom, the students were first asked to imagine Christmas this year. What will it look like? What is the important message?

Then, we considered the first words of the angels to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid …”[1]What are we afraid of? The participants were asked to identify a picture they could find on the internet that represented their own fear. And we saw all manner of examples of what we are afraid of: large crowds, germs floating in the air, fire, accidents, the darkness. By the end of the discussion, it didn’t feel like we were talking about Christmas at all.

But maybe we were.

On the one hand, the Gospel reading for this First Sunday of Advent conveys to us a great faith that feels like certainty: “You know that summer is near as soon as the fig tree’s branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves.”[2] Jesus puts this matter-of-factly. You should know. Read the signs. It is clear. And so, have faith. 

Our spirit may yearn to echo this conviction that speaks of unshakable hope. At the same time, we may confess that in all honesty we are afraid. And we feel insecure about a future that only appears dark on our horizon. Would that we could only have this confident faith in the midst of the darkness swirling about COVID-19.

I recently heard a wonderful story of a graveside funeral service held early during the first wave of COVID in southern Ontario.  Following social guidelines strictly, the mourners limited attendance to only ten people. But unexpectedly, just as the niece was about to start sharing words of tribute about her loved one, an eleventh person joined the group.

A large golden retriever jumped the fence lining the graveyard and bolted to the group standing by the open grave.  The dog’s owner, living right beside the cemetery, scrambled over the fence and chased the dog who went straight to the niece.

The niece’s eyes widened in amazement and she held up a hand to calm the mourners who were becoming visibly uncomfortable with the intrusion of the canine. 

But the dog, upon reaching the feet of the niece, sat on its hinds wagging its tail, and quietly looked up at her. “Let the dog be,” she said with a wide smile and tears glistening in her eyes. “I was just about to say how much my uncle loved dogs. And I believe this dog knew that to be true.” [3]

In times of grief and sadness, when all is dark – don’t miss out on these moments that arrive at what may appear on the surface the most inappropriate of times. Don’t fall asleep to these moments of grace. Keep awake! Pay attention, because the Lord is coming when you may least expect it. 

How about right now? Not two thousand years ago. Not during Herod’s rule of tyranny. Not even during the Jewish revolt when Roman armies brought down Jerusalem in flames in 70 C.E. – and when most of the New Testament scriptures were first written down. “The Son of Man coming in the clouds” is a direct quote from Daniel 7:13, and the “desolating sacrilege” refers to the Maccabean revolt a couple hundred years before Jesus’ time.[4]

The point is, Christmas doesn’t direct our vision only to one point in time – to that sweet image of baby Jesus born in a manger. We don’t read scripture. The scripture reads us. As the message of Christ coming to the earth resonated with people in all the historical contexts we read about in the bible, so the message of Christ coming must resonate with us, in our time. And, especially in this COVID time. 

Don’t write-off Christmas this year just because we aren’t doing it the way always have done it. Christmas will not lose anything this year. In truth, the meaning of Christmas will have a greater potential punch in our lives and in the world this year more than in our past. 

Because the message is meant precisely for times such as these. “Don’t be afraid, for I bring tidings of good news for all people!” sang the angels. Not when everything is warm and fuzzy and cozy, when everything makes sense. And all is well in the world. But “good news” especially for dark times. When the light is most needed.

I believe we can live in confidence of faith. Because as God remained steadfast and faithful to the people over the course of all history, so too God will remain faithful through these times as well. Our faith stands on the shoulders of thousands of years of people living through good times and bad times. 

COVID won’t stop Jesus from coming. Nothing will. Not our fear. Not our failure. Not our sin. Not our bad luck nor our misfortune. Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[5]

Wherever and whenever love is shared between people living through dark times together, Christmas will happen. Wherever and whenever love guides those with privilege to reach out in mercy and welcome those who are on the margin, Christmas will happen. Wherever and whenever mutual love strengthens bonds of trust and forgiveness, Christ is born.

Advent is the call to action, a call to exercise this faith, this hope, that Christ will come: Come into this world, come into our lives and come through our loving deeds.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Luke 2:10

[2] Mark 13:24-37

[3] Adapted from the Rev. John Lougheed (The Delton Glebe Counselling Centre & Martin Luther University College, 2020).

[4] Christopher R. Hutson, “Mark 13:24-37” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2014), p.63-64; the NRSV tones it down by translating it, “that suffering”.

[5] Romans 8:35-39

The Really Real

If there is one thing that stands out in my conversations with others about what people are learning from the pandemic, it is about the quality and honesty of relationships, especially with strangers. It’s like the pandemic has heightened our awareness of other people we pass on the street or in the mall, or even in our home. We have been re-introduced to what is important, what is real, in those relationships.

For example, folks have shared with me how strangers are often friendly towards them. And how they themselves feel more willing to return or initiate a kindness. Perhaps in times of social anxiety that we feel all around us, we know and behave out of a deepening awareness that we are all, indeed, in this together.

Physician Ruth Martin received the Governor General’s Award in 2015[1] for her work with incarcerated women in British Columbia. Half of the women she helped were Indigenous.  And most of these women struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. 

Challenging the assumption that addicted people make irresponsible choices, Ruth listened to the women’s histories—the physical and sexual abuse they endured as children, young teenagers and women. She said, “I would put my pen down and listen, and I realized that if I had been dealt the same cards, I might have been sitting in their chair. I would often place the Kleenex box close to the woman who was sharing her history, but also close enough to me that I could reach for a Kleenex for myself.”[2]

In the Gospel reading for this Reign of Christ Sunday[3], Jesus is the judge who separates the sheep from the goats – those who loved from those who cared less. For the early Christians who first heard and read this text, not only did the story call them to love “the least of these” in their midst. For they, themselves, were the persecuted and the hungry, too. 

“All the nations” gathered before the king; and the roles between those who love and those who need love are not fixed. They apply to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

This vision includes all people. And therefore, there is a call to respect the mutuality and common humanity we share with all people. As Ruth Martin experienced in her care for Indigenous women, she admitted the line separating her from the women for whom she cared was thin.

God identifies with the side of ourselves we normally don’t want to show to others: our weakness, our neediness, our vulnerability. Simone Weil said that we give not out of our strengths, but out of our weakness. What separates us, distinguishes us, are our strengths; but what unites us is our weakness.

Not only is this text about our role in giving and receiving care in mutual, loving relationships, it’s really about God. And “God is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.”[4]

If we are looking for God in our world, we need to look in our midst through the lives of our neighbors. “Jesus articulates in rather blunt terms that how you treat another child of God in this life is in actuality how you treat God. By seeing the infinite worth in our neighbor, we keep God as our center and focus.”[5] By seeing Christ in the face of those in need we give ourselves permission to connect with God in the brokenness of our own hearts.

But what’s the point of doing all this hard work when we are heading to heavenly kingdom in glory? Isn’t that our eternal aim anyway? Why worry about what happens on earth?

But the Reign of God is not only about eternal life, or where we go after we die. That idea is disproven by Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”.[6]

“Your Kingdom come” means very clearly that God’s realm is something that enters into this world, or, as Jesus puts it, “is close at hand”.[7] It’s futile mental energy to project it into another world. What we discover in the New Testament, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, is that the Kingdom of God is a new world order, and a promised hope begun in the teaching and ministry of Jesus—and continued in us.

I agree with Richard Rohr to think of the Kingdom of God as the Really Real (with two capital Rs). That experience of the Really Real—the “Kingdom” experience—is the heart of Jesus’ teaching. “It’s Reality with a capital R, the very bottom line, the pattern-that-connects. It’s the experience of what is.”[8]

God gives us just enough tastes of God’s realm, just enough joy and grace to feel the blessing of God and therefore to believe in it and to want it more than anything. In the parables, Jesus never says the Kingdom is totally now or totally later. It’s always now-and-not-yet. When we live inside the Really Real, we live in a “threshold space” between this world and the next. We learn how to live between heaven and earth, one foot in both worlds, holding them precious together.

The Reign of Christ begins in community – in relationships – beyond our private, self-centred preoccupations. That is where Jesus finds us. It’s when we risk reaching beyond our own concerns, to think about the needs of another who is also vulnerable, weak and suffering, that we meet the Lord – in the pattern-that-connects, in the mutual love that we experience together.

The Kleenex box is never out of reach for both of us. And when both hands reach for the Kleenex, both find healing.

[1] Status of Women Canada – government website

[2] Cited in Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul; How to Flourish Spiritually in a World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.153-154.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46; the Gospel for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), Year A.

[4] John M. Buchanan, “Matthew 25:31-46”, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.334

[5] Br. Jim Woodrum, “Center” – Brother, Give Us a Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Nov 6, 2020),

[6] Matthew 6:10

[7] Matthew 10:7

[8] Richard Rohr, “Jesus and the Reign of God” in Daily Meditations (Center for Action & Contemplation, Nov 15, 2020)

In the open light of day

In a scripture assigned for this Sunday from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul instructs Christians to ‘keep awake!’[1]

Stay awake! Every new day we need to awake from sleep. We need to wake up. Martin Luther suggested we splash water on our face every morning not just to clean ourselves but to remind ourselves in so doing that we are baptized. We need to remember God’s promises to us. 

What does this mean? Well, it means we don’t just wash ourselves once in our lives. Conversion is not a one-off. Moreover, as “children of the light”[2], it’s not that we are the awakened ones while everyone with whom we disagree are all in the dark. 

As in our daily ablutions, we need continuous repentance, transformation and renewal. As Christians, we constantly stand in need of reawakening from the sleep of our darker side – our wounds, our faults, our sins, our brokenness and however that is expressed. This word is meant for us, not for our enemies.

The command in 1stThessalonians to ‘keep awake’ is directed at Christians, echoing from the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples slept instead of watching and waiting with Christ. In short, we are called to appeal to the higher self – the best – within us in the decisions we make and how we relate to those around us. We are called to live in the light.

But how can we do that, especially when times are tough, as they are now in the throes of a world-wide pandemic? When the fissures in our lives seem bigger and our problems are magnified?

The early Christians grappled with their expectations of Jesus’ immanent return. They were convinced that Christ’s return corresponded with the end of history. Therefore, these writings emerged out of anticipating the end of time. That’s the context: expecting that the world was going to end soon and very soon in a flaming ball. How could those early Christians deal and cope with the anxiety and fear of ‘the end’?

Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians a few short decades after that first Easter morning. And as the early writings of the New Testament show, the way these Christians made sense of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection was an image of light. 

In his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, for example, the only way Paul could describe the risen Christ was “a light from heaven” that flashed around him, and from which the voice of Jesus spoke.[3]Beforeencountering the light of Christ, Saul was breathing threats and killing Christians. Afterseeing the light, Saul became Paul and the most influential apostle for Christ, for all time.

For the early Christians, before literal, bodily descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection took hold in their imaginations, their experienceof the living Lord played a larger role. Their experience was more a vision and inner connection to light. They were indeed, “children of the light”. On this basis, then, they could follow in the way of Christ and not fear the tumult and suffering of the end.

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, is a lawyer who climbs the social and economic ladders of success. He prides himself on being cheerful, capable and dutiful.

One day, he has an accident hanging curtains and hurts himself while falling awkwardly. Over time, the pain grows worse and although he is only forty-five years old, it becomes apparent that he is dying from his wound. The end is nigh.

As he lies in bed at home, he realizes how unhappy he has become. His professional success now feels trivial, and his family life and social interests seem fake. Ivan notices also that his wife loathes him, and both his daughter and son are distant. He becomes resentful, and on his deathbed the thought occurs to him, “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done?”

Suddenly, Ivan feels a strong jolt in the chest and side, pushing him into the presence of a bright light. In this light, his bitterness toward his family falls away, and he is filled with compassion. With a sigh and a burst of joy, Ivan stretches out and dies.[4]

It is God who awakens in us this light. “Whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him,” Paul promises.[5]In the end, the point isn’t whether we are asleep or awake, or who’s in and who’s out. Because we all struggle in the tension between darkness and light. And because God’s ultimate aim is for all of us to live and die in the light. 

And we have something to do about that, this side of eternity. In order to live in the light, God gives us the gifts of faith, hope and love. The community of faith is awakened by using these gifts in the world. These gifts are powers that allow us to move from a self-centred, private existence out into the open. 

In the open light of day, we accept responsibility to do our part for the good. In the light of day, we don’t hide. In the light of day, we accept the responsibility for exposing and unmasking the powers of darkness – all the lies and false ways in which we live – starting with ourselves. In the light of day, we act boldly in faith, hope and love.

[1]1 Thessalonians 5:6, Epistle reading for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Revised Common Lectionary)

[2]1 Thessalonians 5:5; Paul’s term for those who follow Christ

[3]Acts 9:3-4

[4]As described by Ken Shigematsu in Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a. World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.178-179; Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (Waking Lion Press, 2006).

[5]1 Thessalonians 5:10

God is free, and so are we

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke to his disciples near the end of his life. And so, his preaching here considers the end of things and how to live with the end in mind.

This story about bridesmaids waiting for the bridal couple to arrive to the wedding reception party can lead us down tricky paths if were not careful.

For one thing, it’s not about remaining in a constant state of vigilance. Because those five who had enough oil for their lamps had just enough for themselves. They hadn’t stockpiled oil enough to cover more than one night. Even these ‘prepared’ ones didn’t take into account all the contingencies. What if the bride groom wasn’t going to make it till the next day? What if the guests got their days mixed up? 

Clearly, in the story, the bridegroom is delayed. But for how long? No one knows. The Gospel’s point, in the end, is that “you know neither the day nor the hour.”[1] God is free.

At the same time, the story here revolves around how we live in a time of unknowing. There’s something to be said about looking ahead and getting ourselves ready to the best of our ability for an unknown future. 

It’s not uncommon to have heard this assessment about resilient individuals and resilient communities during the pandemic:

Those individuals who had already been practising healthy lifestyles before the lockdown earlier this year – such as regular exercise, diet, personal hobbies, prayer practices – were better poised to endure the limitations on social gatherings and sheltering in place. In contrast to those who were ‘forced’ into doing some of these things after the restrictions were imposed.

Also, those communities, organizations, businesses, charities and churches who were already ‘pro-active’ in best practices and ahead of the curve in terms of financial and technological innovations were better positioned to weather the storm and not only survive but thrive. In contrast to those organizations who had to do a whole lot of catching up to implement technology, websites and procedures in the midst of the crisis.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for folks who are grieving is never make a major decision about changing something significant in your like – like selling property or moving – when the pain of grief is still raw. Making changes to your normal way of doing things in the midst of a crisis is never nearly as effective as continuing best practices and healthy disciplines that you already were doing to some extent before the crisis. 

They say how you die reflects the way you lived; that is to say, the attitudes under the surface that have always been there but never maybe addressed, or the values on which we have oriented ourselves in all our activity – these are exposed and emerge at the end. Unresolved issues will catch up to you. So, it’s best to start putting into practice now life practices that you know are healthy and good but for whatever reason may be tempting to leave until later. Because, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It is how we live in uncertainty, that is the point of the Gospel. The story Jesus tells suggests it is wise to bear down and do what we can to meet the day given to us with the best of our consciences and abilities. But it is here where our Lutheran instincts kick in, and we may object: We are not saved by our good works; we cannot earn God’s favour by working harder. And I agree.

Because God doesn’t need the product of our labour. We delude ourselves in believing that God needs the results of our hard work. But God doesn’t. What God does care about deeply, I believe, is what we do with the freedom we have. God is free, yes. But so are we. 

And so, our focus then becomes not whether what we accomplish is worthy or perfect; rather, we pay more attention to our intentions, and how we live, in truth, and do the work we do.

Otherwise, we do nothing. The striving after perfection often keeps us paralyzed from the good. No matter what we do we can never completely solve the problems in the world and in our lives. In all our preparations, there is always a space left incomplete, imperfect. And this gap is what God alone can fill. And will, one day.

The bridegroom’s delay doesn’t mean he will not come. The bridegroom’s freedom also means the party will not really start until he arrives. The Gospel asks us to live in hope for what has been promised and what will be but is not yet. 

While it is wise to fill our lamps with good things, these good things are for use this side of eternity. There is, after all, enough light for everyone at the banquet. So, for now, let us do good. Let us work with the uncertain future in mind using the good tools of knowledge, faith and love.[2]

And let God be concerned about the rest.

[1] Matthew 25:1-13

[2] Mark Douglas “Matthew 25:1-13” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011)  p.284-288.