Of Despair and Holy Babies

“On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” ~ Michael Gerson, Washington Post, December 5, 2019

This is not the Christmas reflection I planned to write. But faking joy is not in my tickle trunk. I might be heading into a full-blown crisis of faith. Being a priest, that’s a very risky thing to confess, especially in this jolly season. But even us professional believers don’t have a corner on trusting God in all things. Christmas cards have been arriving in the mail (yes, snail mail cards are still popular) with lofty lines such as “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World” and “God Became one of Us.” These sweet words fall on deaf ears in an ever darkening world, and not just because of the natural darkness in the northern hemisphere at this time. Against the backdrop of the world’s evil forces small and big, the well-intentioned greetings sound hollow, making a mockery of the meaning of the season.

The daily news cycle of doom and gloom for way too many good people is chipping away at my dreams and hope and desire to keep working for a world where it is easier for more people to simply be good and healthy and happy. The other day my morning prayer featured the account of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary she would give birth to Jesus. In the story the angel says: “Nothing is impossible for God” (Lk. 1:37). I usually love this story. But this time my cynical thoughts twirled into: if nothing is indeed impossible for God, then how come God doesn’t relieve the suffering of the undeserving multitudes? Then I read the Psalm which says, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor, blessed is the Lord” (Ps. 34). Really, do you, Lord? You’ve got to be kidding me. “The Lord answers those who call upon him” (Ps. 145) Oh, tell that to the millions of displaced people running for their lives. Tell that to the multitudes who scream to the heavens for mercy and deliverance because their suffering is beyond endurable and certainly far from noble. “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Ps. 19). Well, they won’t be much longer if we do not curb the accelerating climate change crisis. And on and on it went.

Every holy word, every Christmas greeting card, every spiritual thought brought an onslaught of doubt and skepticism, of despair and disbelief. My spirit spiraled into an abyss, making me wonder if it’s time to leave the planet (metaphorically, not suicidally). The world I thought to help build does not seem to have materialized; time to check out. As far as I can see, God has abandoned us to our own devices, and it shows. Or have we abandoned God? Maybe we deserve to feel the consequences of our own reckless behaviour.

How did we manage to create such a global monster? The kind which pits people one against the other, the kind which allows climate change to drown island nations and burn up land with fierce wildfires and soaring heat, the kind which allows greed and lust for power to increase the mass migration of refugees and displaced peoples, drowning either in the Mediterranean or on land in misery? And the young seem to spend more time on cell phones and social media than with grandparents and extended family (many of whom are living in their own unhealed brokenness). The young, those fresh shoots of life full of passion and zeal, of dreams and visions, are meant to carry the torch and embody the hope of the old. Instead, they seem to be drowning in an unprecedented epidemic of depression and eco-anxiety, with a good measure of identity confusion and growth-stunting life-choices thrown in. Having lifted the anchor from the wisdom of ancient traditions, the young seem lost on an ocean of unlimited possibilities.

I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, and who leads you into fullness of life (Is. 48). Now I could imitate some of my friends who have made a conscious decision to fast from the daily news. But that comes with other risks, most notably one of creating an increasingly tiny island of what matters, eventually fostering tunnel vision and uncaring. But I do understand why some opt to keep their world small, shutting the ears and eyes of their hearts to the pain and agony of others. In this age of social media and global communication, the flood of information simply gets too much, overwhelming our little brains with impossible processing demands. The same goes for opening our hearts unreservedly to the pain of the world; we risk feeling flooded and might drown in the agony of suffering, humanity’s and all of creation’s.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. (Acts 4) Over two thousand Christmases later, has Christ’s coming made a difference? Over two thousand Christmases later, has the Word truly and fully become flesh in us, those who profess him as Lord and pattern for living? I want to believe it has, but the evidence often points to the contrary. Endless in-house quarreling still leads to ecclesial break-ups and new alliances, continuing to fracture the Body of Christ. Denominational identity markers still get hauled out to keep us apart from “them.” All the while we shamefully ignore Christ’s own burning prayer on the night before his death, namely that we be one as he is one with the Father. Our sins of betrayal, abuse and cover-up have sent Christianity to the gallows. In the affluent west we have sold our souls to the capitalist system of consumption, trampling down countless of God’s cherished little ones in the process. And the Holy Book is pretty clear about what God thinks of those who cause little ones to stumble (Mt 18:6) and who refuse to welcome the stranger and care for the orphan and widow (Jer. 22:3, Mt. 25:35–36).

I could allow the barrage of bad news to feed cynicism, anger and callousness. But then I may well become impossible to live with. I could adopt an attitude of the “glass half-full,” finding the bright stories of love and mercy and hope. And yes, they do exist, this one in particular. But, and there’s always this annoying but, to do this might lead to ignoring the pain and the cries for help. What has God decided to do — to enter deep into human misery through Jesus, and to redeem that misery from the inside out so it loses its death-dealing power. Or, as my dear friend Leah says so well in her Christmas reflection this year, God risked dropping anchor in a world that could hurt his Son. What a risk, much greater than any listed above… I’m hanging on to this holy child’s tiny finger for dear life. Not because I get paid to do this, but because my hope for the world is still stubbornly staked on this holy birth.

The Risk of Birth – Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth …

The Coming of God — Ann Weems

Our God is the One
who comes to us
in a burning bush,
in an angel’s song,
in a newborn child.

Our God is the One
who cannot be found
locked in the church,
not even in the sanctuary.

Our God will be
where God will be
with no constraints,
no predictability.

Our God lives where our God lives,
and destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop
the living.

Our God will be born
where God will be born,
but there is no place
to look for the One
who comes to us.

When God is ready
God will come
even to a godforsaken place
like a stable in Bethlehem.

Watch … for you know not
when God comes.
Watch, that you might be found
whenever
wherever

           

Union Differentiates

“It’s just another day, another year,” says my matter-of-fact husband. Well, no, it’s not. When my husband turns 75, I’m “only” turning 64 this month 🙂 and our marriage turns 40 (and my priesthood turns 2) within a matter of days, there is definitely reason to pause and ponder.

On December 1, 1979, we said “I do.” 40 years married. There it is — 40 years. Hard to believe. Where has the time gone? And where have the three adorable little ones gone — off to create their own families. We’re still together Jim and I, as different and as committed to love and unity as we always have been, forged in this crucible we call marriage. Difference and union, separateness and communion, make for wild, stormy seas and the happiest oases both at the same time. Tears of joy and sorrow, tears of frustration and resolution, of anger and reconciliation have watered 40 years of growing in Jim and I, yielding a reasonably healthy centered self (give or take the usual slip-ups) alongside an ever maturing capacity for loving selflessness for the sake of the other.

Strange really, this marriage stuff. Ever witnessed the ritual of the unity candle at weddings? Yes, it is a lovely ritual but it doesn’t really reflect our experience of 40 years when the ritual ends with blowing out the individual candles. In fact, it even smacks of incorrect theology. Every time I see that I have to suppress the urge to rush to the front and relight those individual candles.

Why? Because marriage does not mean that we cease to be our own person, rather the opposite. Married love is intended to create a oneness in the two-ness, yes, but never at the expense of each individual’s personal flourishing. Marital union and loving is not about dissolving one into the other, but rather to press one another into becoming more and more ourselves, to empower one another to grow to our fullest potential and stature. After 40 years of married life with Jim, I dare say that we have learnt a few things, often the hard way. Marriage has invited us to grow in both oneness and two-ness.

In the big scheme of things, ours is a relatively healthy marriage. We have been blessed with good health, not counting the aches and strains of aging creeping in now like thieves in the night. We have been spared trauma and tragedy, so far anyways. But that’s where the good fortune ends, because Jim and I are complete opposites in just about every imaginable way: in background and family history, in character and relational styles, in interests and professional occupations, not even to mention that we grew up on different continents, with different mother tongues and in different cultural contexts.

Jim’s spiritual/emotional roots go down deep in the beloved prairie soil of our family farm. I grew up living above the store of my parents with asphalt both front and back. We carry such family histories our entire lives, consciously and unconsciously. For 25 years we lived at the end of a dirt road with a gigantic garden from which Jim made his living. I worked off the farm, and needed an active social life. Jim’s home was the land and its sacred solitude. My call to ministry grew steadily over many years of Catholic and ecumenical engagement, until I moved into the Anglican tradition, and was ordained to the priesthood, while Jim has remained Roman Catholic.

We’ve spent 40 years dancing with our differences in every respect. We always agreed on the big stuff; it’s the little stuff that creates regular havoc. Jim still puts stuff in the “wrong” place, Jim still defies my second-guessing, Jim still irritates me with habits that just won’t vanish or change. Jim’s intellectual acumen is still superior to mine, and we still read vastly different books. Jim’s sense of order still equals my definition of chaos. I plan the future and look ahead, while Jim lives more fully in the present. I play endlessly with words, while Jim plays endlessly with seeds (and stamps on Sunday). And even after living with this seedy character for 40 years, I still cannot begin to match his love for the land, his commitment to gardening and his genuine wonder and curiosity about seeds. The reason we enjoy home-grown produce all year round is because Jim first lovingly tends the garden before I can preserve our winter supply of veggies. Yes I love him, and he loves me with my own myriad of quirks and irritating behaviours (darn, I just forgot to check his pockets again before washing clothes — soaked papers!!). Fortunate for us, we both like red wine and cribbage (no matter who wins). We are passionate about all things church and Jesus, we share a strong commitment to simple living, we enjoy live concerts by local talent, and we’ve brought three adorable children into the world who have turned into amazing adults.

Each time relational disaster looms, we have learnt to dig deep into our marital vows to find our unity. Thus an intricate web has woven itself slowly, painfully at times but surely, a web of honouring the other in his/her uniqueness as fully as we possibly can, and concretely supporting that uniqueness even at personal cost, while hoping that married love can hold us both. In turn this crucible grew in each of us more patience and respect than frustration and anger, grew a deeper abiding respect than rejection and hatred. But that growing is not automatic or easy and remains costly — at every turn and challenge, we need to freely choose between life and death in our relationship.

The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls this relational movement an evolutionary dance present in all living things. He discovered a fascinating paradox, i.e. that union/communion grows deeper and stronger in and through differentiation: “The more closely an entity or group is united, the more differentiated its parts become.” (Together in Christ, page 28) As couples work through the challenges and tensions in their common life, they grow an increasing emotional, spiritual, intellectual capacity for compassion and joy, forgiveness and generosity. When a couple is most fully in love, De Chardin claimed, the partners become most fully themselves. Looking to our 40 years of marriage, I can now see this as true. Even the entire universe itself displays a differentiating thrust in communion: God and the entire cosmos are about two things: differentiation (people and things becoming themselves) and communion (living in supportive coexistence). Physicists and biologists seem to know this better than theologians and clergy.  (Richard Rohr)
The whole universe story has come into being because God is a hidden treasure who longs to be known. And the way—the only way—this knowing can be released is in the dance of unity-in-differentiation which is the native language of love. (Cynthia Bourgault)

Sharing daily ups and downs with someone who’s so totally other as my own Jim the seedman, and who will always remain a mystery, has hollowed out a large space of grace in my heart and spirit where love grows despite differences. While I often fail to afford Jim the grace he deserves, I’m wondering now if growing this large space of grace has nevertheless equipped me in no small measure to embrace an ecumenical vision for the church. This vision embraces the diverse strengths and gifts of the various members in Christ’s ecclesial family, a vision that is as deep and wide and challenging as my love for Jim.

And if that is true, then the analogy of De Chardin’s evolutionary dance also applies to the diverse Christian traditions. We have come a long ways since the hostile exchanges of the 16th century. What began as reasons for parting company, have over time developed as unique strengths in each tradition, making us realize more and more that we truly need one another to embody the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Can we see our baptismal vows on par with marriage vows, bonding us to one another in the Body of Christ while bowing in reverence before the mystery that enfolds us all?  Do we have the desire and willingness to dig deep into these baptismal vows so that our differences can be held in unity by an ever-deeper abiding love and regard for one another, mirroring the communion of the Trinity itself?

But as Fyodor Dostoevsky said so poignantly: love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. 40 years of marriage has proven the truth of these words. While we claim to love Jesus and want to be his disciples, all of us fail miserably, and often, at growing this ever deeper love. It seems easier to turn our backs on one another and to see differentiation as insurmountable division, even heresy. It seems easier to part company, to limit Eucharistic hospitality, to feed mutual distrust, and to follow Christ without meaningful engagement with “those others,” even though all of these choices betray the unity Christ won for us.

Just as the unity candle at weddings only makes sense when both individual candles remain burning, the unity of Christ’s Body on earth, the Church, shines most radiantly when each tradition lets its witness shine in concert with all others. The sum is greater than its parts. In order to know Christ, in order to witness to God’s love in our fragmented and hurting world, we do best by uniting our lights into one flame, fed by the flames of our varying traditions.

ML_Jim2

While historic barriers between churches are slowly dissolving, healing even, new ones are emerging to the detriment of our common Gospel witness. There is no shortage of conflict and dispute in our diverse church family as there is in most marriages. Yet each painful crisis continues to come with the same choice: grow deeper in love or part ways. Which will it be today?