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

           

Urgent Reclaiming

Heard of the Season of Creation? Well, yes it is harvest time right now, and several of my parishioners are spending Sunday mornings worshiping God on the combine. But matching this glorious abundance of the fruits of the earth is a call from the churches (nine this year) to focus our worship specifically on the created world. This new liturgical season, inserted into Ordinary Time, began on September 1, the World Day of Prayer for Creation, and goes until October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. During this time our prayers, hymns, Scripture readings and preaching are to assist the faithful to reflect on the gift of creation, the perilous state of our natural world today, climate change and the urgent call to a radical shift in lifestyle and economic priorities for the sheer survival of the planet and all living things.

In a way it seems odd that creation needs a special season to get our attention. For the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that tender and loving stewardship of all living things on earth is our duty and our purpose. But we have been so enamoured with modern living, consumerism and materialism that the intimate bond with creation is in dire need of serious repairs. Even scientists are beginning to acknowledge that the environmental problem is much bigger than they can address from their vantage point: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (Gus Speth, environmental scientist and advocate)

We have so betrayed God’s original Biblical command to care for the earth, that those seeking a spiritual connection to the land and ecological living now often turn to non-Christian sources of inspiration and support. Last winter a radio program featured an Anglican priest who embraces certain aspects of pagan spirituality in an attempt to restore the Biblical imperative to commune with nature. The interview caused a stir among well-meaning Christians, who seemed completely unaware that this priest might be motivated by a deep desire to bridge the divide between Christianity and ecologically-minded adherents of pre-Christian and non-Christian religions.

Incredibly sad and even dangerous, that too many of us fail to reflect in our daily living a deep and reverent connection with and responsibility towards the created order. Anyone delving into our Christian heritage will discover that there are many connecting points between the demands of Christian stewardship of creation and pre- and non-Christian paths which emphasize the same.  Spiritual paths that place care for creation front and center need not be mutually exclusive. The problem with Christianity is a massive neglect and collective amnesia on such matters, matters which now push us to take note for the sake of the planet’s sheer survival. For example, many elements found in neo-paganism are/were at one time part of the Christian understanding of the universe/creation but have been buried, neglected and forgotten. The book Saving Paradise provides a fascinating, and sad, account of how we lost touch with the beauty and splendour of God’s creation.

Written into creation and the created order is the challenge to live respectfully together on this planet, and to care for our common home. God has given us this challenge. Scripture tells us that when God created the natural world, he saw that it was good (Genesis 1:25). It has long been a fundamental teaching of  Christianity that the physical universe plays an important role in God’s plan. Our faith in spiritual things does not mean a rejection or devaluation of material realities. Christ came to raise up humanity, and all of creation with it, to the Father. As human beings created in God’s image, we have a unique responsibility to safeguard the created world and to treat it with respect. This fact lies at the centre of our obligation to lovingly tend and treasure both creation and each other. Unique among the creatures of our planet, we are created to be, and to love, like God. We manifest this love towards our fellow human beings and towards every creature God has made.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si – On Care for Our Common HomeWe forget too easily that we ourselves are dust of the earth, our very bodies are made of the same elements as all living beings. We breathe the same air and we receive life, refreshment and nourishment from the Earth’s waters and vegetation. 

What will it take to reclaim these elements pertaining to the stewardship of God’s world in our own Christian tradition? Besides a growing, albeit slow, awareness that we do need to turn the Titanic of unbridled consumerism around, leading theologians and church leaders are increasingly joining the calls from scientists and environmentalists. Quantum theology and a new cosmology are being explored by scholars such as Diarmuid O’Murchu and Illia Delio. Theologians are taking a new look at the works of Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, who was also a biologist and paleontologist, and whose insights the church and world were not ready for in his lifetime. But we can go back even further than that, to beloved saints such as Francis of Assissi and Hildegard of Bingen? What can we learn from them as we hold them up to the neo-pagan understandings of creation?

I see a most fertile field of research and reflection here. Is it possible, for example, to communicate neo-pagan concepts using such Christian voices? Would such an exercise create more openness and understanding between Christian spirituality, neo–pagan practices, and other non-Christian paths that foster an intimate bond with the created world ? For the sake of the planet’s health and survival, for the sake of Christianity’s integrity and authority, this seems to me to be a most pressing task.

Our collective ignorance of our own Christian theology, history and spirituality is now rapidly creating a noose around our fragile planet, ready to choke life itself. Our great and loving God has written a most precious book called Creation. From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe, continuously revealing the hand of Divine origin. To sense each creature singing the hymn of its own existence freely and without concern is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope, towards God’s purpose and meaning.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, we are people of the Incarnation  – do we really realize the consequences of this statement of faith as it relates to the entire animated world/creation? When it comes to lovingly stewarding the created order, the command of our Lord to serve and care and restore and heal applies equally to creation. Genesis One and Two together provide the spiritual foundation to do so. The care of creation, our common home, is to be intimately near and dear to our faith. Our worship and work and witness will be incomplete until our responsibility to care and cherish, to restore and conserve the glorious, God-given diversity of the earth’s creatures becomes second nature.

Bishop Mark MacDonald wrote a poignant reflection on this urgency.

A new concept of “Wild Church” is developing

A lovely account of an event in Saskatoon

Prairie Encounters

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