Singing through the turn

Today we sang Mary’s words – traditionally called ‘The Magnificat’ – in response to the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. “My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord!” Mary sings. And so do we.

In that song[1], we find these verses describing a God who turns the social order upside down:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.[2]

This is what Jesus Christ is all about. The Advent of the Lord means things are turned and the rug is pulled from underneath all our expectations. 

One of my favourite hymns using the same tune as the one we just sang is called the “Canticle of the Turning”. It describes a God who keeps the world turning. The fourth verse goes:

Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, till the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.[3]

The turning is not only turning things upside down. There is also a turning of direction. Often in the bible we hear the prophets, poets and preachers call people of faith to turn away from what is not good and turn toward God.[4]Turn. 

The act of turning speaks of movement that changes our direction. We turn, like paddling with or against a headwind, like following the centre line whilst driving around a bend in the road. Like leaning away or towards something or someone. Turning requires attention, intention and concentration. It is not going with the flow or giving up. It is hard work.

Significantly, then, when you turn, it is not sudden nor momentary. Not always but most often the turning is not pivoting in one spot. It covers some distance. And takes some time.

And, perhaps most importantly, the kind of turning that will have lasting effect, spiritually speaking, always happens in the dark and emerges from the dark. That’s why I like the words of that hymn. The Canticle or Song we sing at this time of year – in Canada around the winter solstice when darkness dominates each day and so much in our world is in crisis. Yet, it is during this dark time when we celebrate the light that is coming into the world, the light of the Christ that shines in the darkness. 

Perhaps the only thing we are now anxious to turn is the calendar. We are seeing a light at the end of a long, narrow and dark tunnel. The COVID-19 vaccine is slowly but surely trickling into the country starting a long immunization campaign that will last most of the coming year. The COVID-19 era is not over. It won’t be for a long time still.

The ship is turning, slowly. We might not immediately experience or feel the difference at the start of a new and promising year. But the turning is nevertheless happening. And we need to embrace, learn to live and work with it.

In the darkness of the times, we are like in the womb. And like gestation, the dawn cannot be forced. New life cannot be prescribed. In the womb, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, we can only support and watch for whatever happens, however small and however incomplete it may first appear.

Socially, we may be self-conscious of singing out loud in the physical presence of others. In a packed room we may feel uncomfortable with silence. Self-consciousness is the blight of the spiritual path. Learning a new spiritual skill is difficult when we are self-conscious. So, perhaps there is an opportunity here during a socially-restricted Christmas.

Perhaps you have this time now to exercise important yet simple spiritual skills this season. Spiritual muscles that have not often – or ever – been exercised. So at home alone, sing out loud. At home alone, sit in silence and stillness to pray. Exercise your innate spiritual capacity to be aware of God’s presence all around you. This is crucial, gestation time for God’s Spirit to energize you as we move and turn into a new season.

Each time we sing or pray in silence our hearts proclaim a steadfastness, a faithfulness, not only of our commitment to the long journey forward but of God’s. Because each time we pray we confess the God who is turning the world around. So, may our hearts sing … for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

[1]Luke 1:46-55

[2]Luke 1:52-53

[3]“Canticle of the Turning” #723 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006) OneLicense #A-732801.

[4]Psalm 85:8; Isaiah 45:22; Acts 3:19

You are not alone this Christmas

“A witness to the light … coming after me”[1]– two phrases from the Gospel reading today I invite you to consider: “Being a witness to the light … coming after me.” In the context of the reading, these words refer to John the Baptist, the prophet crying in the wilderness who prepared the way for Jesus. 

Of course, pretty much every year since that first Christmas Christians have celebrated Advent and Christmas. There’s something about Christmas that beckons to be repeated, that needs to be recognized again and again. We don’t just decide one year to suspend Christmas – even though 2020 would maybe qualify as one year to just forget it.

In one life we have only so many Advents and Christmases. Maybe especially because of COVID, this season calls us not to approach Christmas the usual way – with sentimentality or nostalgia. That approach might just make things worse. 

Instead, maybe this year it is time to slice through the superficial and lay hold of what is real and true about God coming to us. Maybe this year we are called to approach Christmas as a rediscovery and rebirth.

The word, Advent, literally means ‘coming towards’. I suspect when we first hear that phrase, ‘coming towards’, we see it from our viewpoint. We must go towards God in our preparation and diligence during the Advent season. It starts with us – getting ready, cleaning house, decorating, making it happen. If we didn’t do any of these things, would Christmas still happen?

Flip the meaning of the word to go the other way, in the opposite direction. Advent is essentially not about us coming towards Jesus or God. It is about God coming towards us.

How does God come towards us, year after year at Christmas?

The speed of light is incomprehensible. Light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second! It takes just one second for light to travel from the moon to the earth, just eight minutes for light to travel from our sun to the earth.[2]

Despite the incredible speed of light, the source – the starting point – first produced and sent its light long before we respond to it. Long before we can marvel at it. Long before we can choose to do anything about it – good or bad – it’s already been travelling towards us.

The important questions during Advent are not: What must I do to come towards Jesus? How do I find Jesus? These questions betray a way of thinking that suggests it’s up to me or us to generate the release of God’s love, a way of thinking that suggests we can never be good enough. That we don’t have what it takes. And never will. We are perpetually stuck.

Rather, as Henri Nouwen suggests, the better questions are: What am I doing that prevents me from recognizing this gift, a gift that has already been given to me, a gift that has been coming towards me year after year – long before I was even aware it was being granted to me? How am I blocking the light? How do I hinder myself and others from receiving it?[3]

The COVID pandemic of 2020 has exposed our resistance to this gift. It has exposed our self-absorption. By remaining stuck in ways of thinking that keep us fixated on beliefs that are not true. You are worthy, beloved, child of God! You have what it takes! Don’t let the voices in your head and in the world tell you otherwise!

Exposing such lies has ironically made many of us uncomfortable, edgy, unravelled. The social restrictions that have, to varying degrees, forced us to limit our urges and compulsions. We’ve needed to bring focus to what we are really all about – forced us to look in the mirror. And we are faced with whether or not to accept the truth that has always been there but for whatever reason we’ve put off. It would be easier to get back to normal so we may continue distracting ourselves.

As Bishop Michael Pryse writes, “One should never waste a good crisis!”[4]Don’t forget what you are learning about yourself and about our community during this desert experience. Because herein lies the key to a deeper receptivity of God’s coming to you and to me, and to us, as a church. Here is the opportunity to make the necessary and healthy changes, letting go of habits of thought and behaviour and traditions that keep us stuck and fixated.

Because what is coming at us this Advent, at the speed of light, is therefore already here. What does preparing for it mean, except realising the eternalbirth of the Word, the Son of God, within the historical birth in Bethlehem and, crucially, no less in our ourselves, and at this time. What is coming towards us is here already.[5]We need the ritual repetition of Advent and Christmas, year after year, to accept this truth over the course of a lifetime. We have every opportunity to slowly but surely melt our cold hearts and bask in the eternal, self-giving light and love of God.

In other words, we are not alone. Never were. Never will be. No matter how much darkness surrounds us in the foreground. The light of Christ lives and shines within and through you! The dawn comes again just over the horizon. This is good news, full of hope. 

So, we can risk it. We can do the right thing. Because God giving us love and light does not hinge, does not depend, on whether we get it right or wrong. We have nothing to lose. 

The two largest planets in the solar system, Saturn and Jupiter, have been aligning since this past summer. And on December 21st, the winter solstice, those two giants in our solar system will be the closest they’ve been together since the Middle Ages, hundreds of years ago. When they do so, they will form what looks, from our perspective, like a double planet. This celestial event has been dubbed the “Christmas star.”[6]

The universe, God’s creation, is communicating hope for us. Hope, that recognizes our need for a little more light. How about a lot more light in the darkness that seems especially heavy this year. The conjunction of planets provides a convergence that we cannot miss: 

The light of the world is trying again to get our attention, ye people of faith!

[1]John 1:7,27 – from the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (Revised Common Lectionary)

[2]Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth; Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p.250.

[3]Henri Nouwen, “The Heart of God” in The Return of the Prodigal Son (Toronto: Image Random House, 1994), p.105ff.

[4]Bishop Michael Pryse,  “Return to different” in Canada Lutheran Volume 35 Number 7 (Winnipeg, ELCIC, Oct-Nov 2020), p.30.

[5]Laurence Freeman OSB, “First Week of Advent 2020”,

[6]CTV news “Christmas Star”

The church is not closed this Christmas

Isaiah 40:1-11

    1Comfort, O comfort my people,
  says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
  and cry to her
 that she has served her term,
  that her penalty is paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand
  double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out:
 “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be lifted up,
  and every mountain and hill be made low;
 the uneven ground shall become level,
  and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
  and all people shall see it together,
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry out!”
  And I said, “What shall I cry?”
 All people are grass,
  their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades,
  when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
  surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades;
  but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain,
  O Zion, herald of good tidings;
 lift up your voice with strength,
  O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
  lift it up, do not fear;
 say to the cities of Judah,
  “Here is your God!”
10See, the Lord God comes with might,
  and his arm rules for him;
 his reward is with him,
  and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
  he will gather the lambs in his arms,
 and carry them in his bosom,
  and gently lead the mother sheep.

Making a rough place level is not easy. To lay a railway bed across this country a couple centuries ago was a formidable task. To our modern sensibilities, even incomprehensible.

I remember driving through Rogers Pass in British Columbia just west of Revelstoke. Here, “The Last Spike” marks the place where the coastal railroad line finally in 1885 met up with the Canadian Pacific Railway whose armies of workers dug and blasted their way through the Rocky Mountains. Historians consider this joining of the line as the moment when national unity was realized. Establishing an economic and cultural link gave access to more and more people moving across this vast Canadian land.

The vision Isaiah puts before the people walking in the darkness of Babylonian exile 2500 years ago is similarly incredible. How could “every valley be lifted up and every mountain made low”? How could “the uneven ground become level and the rough places plain”? How could a small remanent return to Jerusalem across a vast and inhospitable land, not to mention leave a society in which they had grown accustomed over a generation?

It’s as if God was presenting a scenario that is without question impossible for human beings to accomplish on their own. They may have had resources – people power, willpower – to build impressive buildings and accomplish great things in their time. 

But as with so many if not all human achievements there is always that elusive element – call it luck, serendipity, grace – just out of reach of human agency, control and effort however impressive. Just ask anyone who is willing to give an honest answer to account for their success.

A.B. Rogers had to trek over the avalanche-prone Selkirk mountains not once but twice to confirm what he suspected: that there was a way just beyond the next ridge. After having to turn back the first time, he went back the following year from a different direction to verify that there was a tributary of the Columbia River in the valley beyond. Indeed, there was. That river valley had always been there. A given.

But we often find it hard to believe the grace is so close to us. The mental stumbling block for the exiled Israelites was this belief that they could only have a meaningful connection with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Jerusalem, in the holy temple. The physical separation by a vast and dangerous desert – created, you can imagine, a great challenge and crisis of faith: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”[1] they cried. How could they access their God, when they lived in exile so far away from their place of worship? 

These days when so many places of worship are empty, when gatherings are severely limited and space is not being used because of the pandemic, it’s common hearsay: “the church is closed for Christmas”. If we can’t gather together in one, specific place and sing the favourite carols at the top of our lungs, shoulder to shoulder; if we can’t light candles together in the darkened sanctuary; if we can’t give each other hugs and wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ face-to-face … well, then, what’s the point? 

Indeed, it feels like our traditions are ‘like grass’, they have withered and faded in 2020. Despair remains a hair’s breadth away. COVID-19 has devastated all our good efforts in accessing what is important to us in connecting with God. If we can’t be physically in the building with other people to worship God, then it is lost. Our access to God cut off.

And then we hear voices saying that the church is not closed this Christmas. The buildings are closed. But not the church. Access to God continues in various ways. Of course, access to the church is not perfect, especially for those who do not connect with others on the internet these days.

But access to God and God’s people has never been perfect, even pre-COVID. Those who work shifts on Sunday mornings, people with physical disabilities not being able to access buildings with stairs and narrow halls and doorways. Others who don’t access places of worship because of perceived and real judgement laid against them by those who are there. Access to God has never been easy or perfect. We are like grass. Our efforts always fall short. 

But more than that, those voices today continue to say – do we hear them? – that access to God during COVID has never been so broad and far-reaching because of the internet. The people tuning into broadcasts, online services, live streams and zoom gatherings, the coming together of the faithful from different congregations for a weekly event – these far outnumber those who have ever sat in our chairs in the building. People are participating in the life of the church like never before!

What this COVID time is doing is challenging our perceptions and expectations of where we meet with God. The message of Advent is the call to work at re-defining the parameters for ourselves. Advent is this time of active waiting for God, doing different things to help pave the way through the mountain passes of our lives. It is a time for resilient, determined never-give-up-ness. 

How can we nurture this courage and resilience from within?

The latter part of the poetry in this passage from Isaiah contains a promise that we know to be true. Historically. But also, personally. We know that King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and freed the people in the sixth century B.C.E. This liberation was not engineered by the people. And still, the exiles who had spent years far away from their place of worship were now free to return to Jerusalem. King Cyrus made that possible.

Personally, Isaiah’s poetry reflects imagery of the caring shepherd. We know that Jesus was the shepherd whose voice the sheep that follow him know. We know that Jesus is the shepherd who carries the lambs – the sheep who are most vulnerable, most in need, most in despair, most afraid and anxious – in his arms. And he will feed us, give us what we need.

Not only that, God has a special promise to those who feel responsible for others’ well-being. The shepherd will also “gently lead the mother sheep”. Isaiah’s message is not only to those who are dependent on others in dark times. Isaiah’s promise also includes a word to those who feel the emotional if not practical burden of responsibility for others when times are tough. That mothering instinct to find solutions, say the right things, solve problems and be there for others – here, too, God’s promises give permission to take a load off. God will enfold and carry the ones who normally lead.

In the end, the question is not so much about how we access God, and where we need to go. The Gospel message – the good news – is that God accesses us, wherever we are. God will come, God will find a way, into our hearts and into the hearts of those we care for this Christmas. We have to believe that.

We don’t have to have all the solutions, the strategies that work, the answers to what challenges us in COVID times. We don’t need to always feel that burden of responsibility for the fact that many church buildings are closed this Christmas. Because, we know and believe, the church remains open to hear God’s voice and trust in God’s promises – to come to us wherever we are.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Psalm 137:4