A Spring in my Step

While it has been quiet on my blog, it`s been hectic in my life thanks to three young adorable granddaughters who took up my time, energy and attention for nearly three solid weeks. I discovered that I can no longer mix writing and tending to the needs and whims of little disarming and enervating creatures.

But while my days were filled with laughter, summer fun and young charm, the world kept on `burning`: more police shootings in the US, another friend in palliative care with cancer, random killings by mentally unstable persons, 1/4 million civilians trapped in Aleppo, suicide bombings and a coup attempt in Turkey, break-in at a friend’s house, an ISIS terrorist attack in a parish in rural France killing an 86-year old priest, a friend struggling mightily with his son’s transgender orientation, a Husky oil spill in our own beloved North Saskatchewan river affecting 100,000 + people’s water supply, Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination and then angering his own constituency with discriminatory comments regarding a slain Muslim US soldier … and on and on and on …

It`s a sheer miracle that beauty and love, joy and compassion, mercy and justice still break through in this messed up world. Despite all the evil, the bad choices, the wrong-headed decisions, the undeserved pain and suffering, the natural disasters on all levels — personal, communal, global — God continues to remain intimately involved with us in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, even if evidence is hard to see.

Blessing and curse, good and evil, have always woven themselves into every corner of our existence. Charles Dickens said it well when he wrote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way.
~ Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

Still, if you’re anything like me, all the bad stuff around us makes me want to scream and storm heaven, demanding healing and justice and peace. But all we get is a call to foster a heart of peace, love and mercy after the example of Jesus. Much of the bad stuff is the result of evil finding a nesting place in hurting and vengeful hearts, and then growing to take up all that heart’s space, snuffing out any chance for love, mercy and peace. Evil always looks for a heart/spirit in which to make its home. The antidote to this, according to Brian Zahnd in his book Radical Forgiveness, is to absorb the blow without retaliation and without allowing it to damage, define or destroy one’s own spirit. This, according to Zahnd, is exactly what happened at Calvary when Jesus uttered, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As I am currently reading Zahnd’s book, a concrete example of forgiveness came to mind, one that has inspired me in many a hard time in my own life. Etty Hillesum left a few dairies after WW II, during which time she died in Auschwitz, and a huge witness to a spirituality of beauty and mercy that can rival any famous saint. If anyone had reason to hate and seek revenge, it was her. Yet, she didn’t let the horrors around her define her. No, her heart was committed to seeking beauty, love and mercy no matter how bad the world was. Just absorb her wisdom in the following words:

WalkingBarbedWire1“All I wanted to say was this: the misery here is quite terrible and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire and then time and again it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.  Against every new outrage and very fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness. … Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”  ~ An Interrupted Life, Etty Hillesum

One moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. The more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world. Thank you, Etty, for reminding us of the one important task.

While the world burnt, my heart/spirit drank in the love and hugs, the water splashes and fun with my dear granddaughters. I give wholehearted thanks for those energetic days of laughter and sunshine, for little feet dirtying my floor and leaving their footprints of love on my heart, and for the joyful exhaustion after all safely returned to their parents 🙂 It is little ones such as these that help shore up large amounts of the peace, grace and mercy needed to remain a whole human being in this beautiful yet broken world.

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Happy New Year

First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9–4:2
Luke 21:25–36

Happy New Year! No, I’m not a month early. Today is New Year’s Day in the Church. A new year – new possibilities, many new promises.

When we begin something new, we begin at the beginning, right? This new year will feature the Gospel of Luke. So it makes sense to start at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Yet that’s not where we start at all on this first Sunday of Advent. We hear a passage that is way back in Chapter 21 (of 24)! Seems a little backward, don’t you think?

And besides starting Luke’s Gospel toward the end, this new day in the Church year also starts out on a double note – one of hope and one of warning. We had words of warning on the last few Sundays of the old year. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel remind me of somebody else’s words written centuries later:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times;

it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness;

it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity;

it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness;

it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair;

we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us;

we were all going directly to Heaven,
we were all going the other way.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

The Scripture readings for this first Sunday in Advent have a double message similar to Charles Dickens’ words:

I will fulfill the promise,
and there will be distress among nations;
A righteous branch shall spring up,
and people will faint from fear;
Judah will be saved,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
How can we thank God enough for you,
while you will be confused
by the roaring of the sea and the waves;
You will be blameless,
but be on guard that you may escape all these things.

The worst of times, the best of times all right … The Good News of God’s coming is a Christmas present wrapped in predictions of doom. Hmm, ironically this fits well with today’s global terrorism …

This vision of the coming of Christ seems to clash with the meek, gentle, infant Jesus. It seems worlds away from sweet Mary and Joseph huddled in the stable. Light years away too from our culture’s mad rush to decorate everywhere, and buy everything all before December 25th, so that in a few brief moments presents get unwrapped and the meaning of the season thoroughly ignored.

But, in fact, the best of times and the worst of times have everything to do with our preparation for Christmas. Advent indeed announces God coming into our world. But Advent is not only about God coming like a cute little baby. Advent is about two kinds of “comings:” The birth of Jesus into human history – yes. And it’s important to remember that holy moment over 2,000 years ago. But Advent also announces that Jesus, that same “baby” Jesus, will come again in glory at the end of time.

So Advent kind of puts us in a time-warp between past and future, the infamous “already-not yet” mode of waiting and watching.

Life in fact occurs in between only two realities: between birth and death, between light and dark, between past and future, between hope and despair. Life always happens in the best of times and in the worst of times, both at the same time.

The news media give us a daily diet of good and bad times: Flooding and power outages are reported alongside finding a child missing for several years. Suicide bombings and war atrocities flash across our screens in between good news stories of local ordinary folk. Police raids and murders are reported in between ads offering us promises of the good life with Coke, with a certain deodorant, or with just the right insurance. Every day, somewhere in the world, somebody lives acutely in “end-times” conditions. The loss of home, children and family, the sudden diagnosis, the loss of dignity and worth. The current streams of refugees live in an eerie resemblance to the features of end times described in Luke’s Gospel today. So did those who experienced the tsunamis of 2005 and 2011 – talk about the roaring of the sea and the waves, and the powers of heaven and earth shaking, trembling, cracking.

At the same time, somewhere in the world, somebody lives in the best of times: the birth of a new baby, the accomplishment of an arduous task, the healing of memories, or the reunion of old friends will bear resemblances of the best Christmas ever.

The best and the worst of life are constantly mixed in a messy blend of despair and hope, of dark and light, of birth and death. In and among the dire predictions there are, however, some very reassuring messages in today’s holy Word.

First, God speaks hope into a very dispirited people. Just when we’re tired and discouraged, God breaks through and holds out for us the promise of new life. God did this with the people of Israel time and time again. And God will break through with each of us in the time of our greatest need. God will break through, maybe not in ways we expect, but always in ways we need.

Second, Paul emphasizes to the Thessalonians the importance of the love and care they share. Within the Thessalonian community, as within our own communities, at the dawn of this new year of faith, God reminds us anew to nurture relationships, to breathe hope and encouragement into one another, to celebrate and pray together, and to attend gently but faithfully to resolving tensions and disputes.

Thirdly, Paul deems us all capable of holiness. Despite our propensity to make our own suffering worse, God says – turn to me; turn to me and find me in your deepest desires and yearnings. Turn to me, says God, in your heart and find there the way to perfection, the way to living fully and faithfully, both in good times and in bad.

Fourth, Jesus is right; we are indeed capable of reading signs. We do it all the time with the seasons and with the earth. We do it with the stock market and  business trends (well, we try). We do it with relationships; we know what the signs are of healthy and wholesome living, and which signs alert us to danger, problems, crisis. And so Jesus reminds us: use that skill of reading the signs so that your hearts will not be weighed down.

Fifth, God’s Word says that God believes in us. Despite the suffering, setbacks, loneliness and pain of the present, God reminds us that we can stand tall and confident, that the despair of the moment does not have the last word in our heart. God believes in us, even when we stop believing in ourselves.

These are Advent gifts given with good cheer by a loving God who both desires our salvation and warns us of danger. Advent – full of double messages of hope and despair. Advent announces that God cherishes each of us so much that the Eternal Word took on human flesh, and continues to take on human flesh still today.

Two features of Advent: birth and death, light and dark, despair and hope. They go hand in hand. Merging the full despair of reality with the unbridled hope of faith; that’s the message of the Gospel. In the midst of this life and the many events that evoke despair, it is the seed of hope in a bright future, a future in which God is made manifest, that provides a sense of confident faith.

I will fulfill the promise,
and there will be distress among nations;
A righteous branch shall spring up,
and people will faint from fear;
Judah will be saved,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
How can we thank God enough for you,
and you will be confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves;
You will be blameless, but be on guard
that you may escape all these things.

Happy New Year!

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