Ready for Christmas?

It doesn’t matter where – in the checkout line-up, at the pool, at the post office, even in church. Everyone asks the big question, often in a hurried tone of voice: so,  ready for Christmas yet? I’m supposed to answer: no I’m not, too many gifts to buy and wrap, cards to write and to send, goodies to bake and decorations to hang up. I’m not ready!

Odd isn’t it? I mean this type of reply. I’m ready for Christmas, because I take the question to mean something quite different. Quiet daily prayer is enriched with the Advent wreath – lighting one more candle each week, keeping me anchored in essentials without drowning in waves of excessive consumerism. Dreams and yearnings are allowed to rise up in my heart, as God’s gifts growing in the womb of my spirit. Christmas baking gets done by loving hands way more competent than my own from annual Christmas bake-sales, filling the freezer (and eventually our tummies) while supporting a good cause.  We strive for quality time with our adult children and their families even with the challenge of irregular work hours; looks like a chess tournament is on the radar this year. Yearly donation checks are off to various charities, however small. Sharing is good for the soul and a blessing to others. Ready for Christmas? Yep.

Because our family Christmas takes place when everyone can make it, Jim and I have become regulars at the annual Community Christmas Dinner on December 25, organized by our friends from the local Soup Kitchen. A weekly meal free of charge is hosted throughout the year for anyone who needs food and company. You can find us there most Tuesdays, hanging out with a motley crew. We go not because we are “hard-up” but because we eat with friends who’ve expanded our notion of family. Helping out at the Christmas Dinner therefore is not only a great way to spend the holy day of Christ’s birth, but it is truly a day with family.

We do appreciate receiving Christmas letters from beloved family and friends; letters full of the latest travel adventures and the year’s achievements of children and grandchildren, and sometimes including the latest health challenges. Such letters are a great read. It’s the yearly catching up on news in the lives of loved ones.

But we don’t travel a whole lot anymore, and don’t even miss it. There’s hardly anything left on our bucket lists. We are most content and comfortable in our own bed, our own home, our own routines, our own garden and backyard (not fancy, just … lush). Do we sound like old folks set in our ways?? Or is it the quiet contentment and joy that comes from truly living a simple, modest life we both love and have no need to get away from? We do regret not seeing our granddaughters as often as we would like due to distance and work commitments. They are each growing way too fast into three lovely individuals, each with their unique personality. But we are grateful for photos on Facebook and video-calls. And we’ve been relatively healthy (not counting the hearing aids I’ve had to acquire this year), rarely accessing the health insurance we’ve been paying into for so many years — touch wood! So there isn’t much news to share.

Or maybe there is …

We learnt new things this past year, found new questions, gained new insights into relationships and into living a full life. We enjoy many blessings, right in our own home and community, even in the hardships. Once again we learnt that it’s not what happens to us that brings blessing or curse, but how we live what happens to us:

  • Ordinary days in our prairie towns (Humboldt and Watrous) burst with extraordinary little rays of light and joy, of love and of mercy. The abiding faithfulness of friends is nourishing food for the soul. New friends keep sprouting from the stubble of prairie fields, each one bearing gifts of vision and compassion, of invitations into new discoveries and into exploring different worlds.
  • On the other hand, our quiet community was rocked to the core last April by the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Shock and grief have never been so close to home, never been so deep and so widespread, galvanizing the attention of the world. But even in the darkness of that tragedy, blessings were hiding: see Grieving in Community and April in Labour. For the first time I preached on empty, only to nd discover that tears in the pulpit sometimes preach more effectively than words.
  • We learnt that discord with loved ones, whether friends or family, is best lived as an invitation to look inside — how have we contributed to the breakdown? The resulting honesty, vulnerability and humility can then turn into a healing blessing. Own up, fess up, repair it — these virtues are keepers. Or when unjustly accused or treated, draw the boundaries firmer and forgive; don’t let anger poison your heart.
  • Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it moral, ethical or desirable. We’re keeping our fingers crossed about legal pot, and other questionable practices. The best (and healthiest) highs come through healing hurts, cultivating a curious and open mind, and from seeking meaning and purpose in all things every day, good and bad, ugly and beautiful.
  • In our age of fake news and the crumbling of old certainties Pilate’s ancient question, “what is truth?” is ever so relevant again. Even the Church is not spared this piercing question as it grapples with massive loss of members, credibility, and revelations of abuse. What if truth resides in the quality of relationship — to life, to this planet, to one another? I’m trying this out for awhile.
  • Electing our new Indigenous bishop Chris was a great experience; his arrival as a messenger of reconciliation and a bridge-builder bodes very promising for our Anglican diocese and beyond.
  • Living below one’s means creates a freedom the world truly cannot give. It’s oddly easy to stay clear of the traps of over-spending and consuming when it’s an attitude/perspective fostered over a life-time, not to mention the light ecological footprint and the effect on the wallet. It does lead to an odd problem, though: we don’t create enough garbage or recycling materials to fill the bins we pay the city for! But we admit, it takes all kinds: the economy would be in even worse shape if it depended on frugal spenders such as us!
  • Being a country priest with a dedicated band of Anglicans and Lutherans is all and more than I had imagined, and Catholics are coming along for the ride. Weekly Eucharist and preaching, ecumenical studies and worship, baptisms and funerals (no weddings yet), hosting weekly (free!) summer BBQ suppers for the town, pastoral care and counseling — a rich spiritual harvest. Good energy among parishioners, renovating the church hall, planning for great things in the new year.
  • Not everything was roses. The murder of our cousin Kim’s husband shook us all to the core. No amount of tears can hold the sorrow and loss.
  • Our God-daughter Josephine married Brody this past summer, inviting me to preach holy words at their celebration. Blessings of joy galore and a great wedding party on the farm.
  • Jim is still helping Rachelle with the seed business, but managing a slower pace while mentoring his young, energetic and passionate successor. Some of our kids have discovered a new role for their night-owl Dad: they phone him on late nights, sometimes  to be accompanied on long drives.
  • I saw signs of limits to inclusiveness; some call them boundaries, others call them barriers. Why does including some often seem to happen at the exclusion of others? There’s got to be a better way.
  • Year-round exercise of choice: lane swimming. I’m the slowest swimmer in the pool, so every 20 lapse feels victorious, rewarded with time in the hot tub!
  • Two weeks in Israel with my bishop and clergy colleagues was a true gift — walking where Jesus walked, getting to know my colleagues better (a glass of wine in a warm climate does wonders!), and growing a disturbing realization of the plight of our Christian sisters and brothers: The Not-So-Holy Land.
  • Even with my Sunday church duties, Jim and I enjoyed a record number of four Christmas concerts in one weekend, each one outstanding. What a talent on the prairies!
  • My first meeting with the national Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada (ARC Canada) in Ottawa was substantial, inspiring and so much fun, including a surprising renewal of old friendships. Working for Christian Unity continues to be my passion, integral to my ministry and my vision of church.
  • The best bread in town is still the one kneaded with my own hands, with flour milled from Jim’s home-grown grains, and coming out of my own oven — oh, that smell … it’s the one foolproof baking I can muster.
  • Praying for others is powerful and rich, esp. when writing down the daily intentions and mentioning others by name. Pray for people far and near, for victims of disasters and violence of all kind, and for friends and family struggling with too much, helps keep helplessness and despair at bay. Praying for others grows our heart softer, bigger and more compassionate, fostering real-time connections, collapsing all distance.

We are painfully aware that life delivers too many blows to too many people, stretching to the breaking point one’s capacity to see and savour blessings. In this year’s season of Advent waiting in hope, we have learnt of a suicide, a stripping of job and reputation, legal challenges in a custody case with devastating effects on the children, a tumbling back into alcohol and drug abuse after a 10+ year sobriety, betrayal by church leaders, painful diminishment in aging, terminal diagnoses, all within our own circle of love. Not to speak of the horrors millions face daily across the globe. Life is fragile, vulnerable as we all are to unexpected and unmerited chaos and disaster. And yet, as I wrote in my previous blog post, we need a vision to inspire us, to motivate going on living. The birth of Jesus still gives us this vision.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we hold in our hearts and minds both the pain of the world and the vision of God in Jesus. In the birth of Jesus God became one of us – that is the most radical and most beautiful gift the world has ever received, no matter how much the Church has tainted this message with its own sinfulness. Divinity came among us as a tiny, helpless baby for whom there was no room anywhere. Born to a young teenage virgin and a dedicated foster father forced to take his little family to Egypt to protect the child from brutal murder — not unlike millions of refugees on the run today. A teenage mother, an outcast from birth, a refugee in infancy – that is our God, throwing in his lot with all the scrawny and needy ones among us.

This is the vision going with us into 2019. This vision is our prayer and our wish for us all. Ready for Christmas? You betcha!

Marie-Louise and Jim

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Not of This World

What is truth? … Truth and power are on trial these days. Each seem to get more corrupted by the minute. Kings and presidents, religious and secular leaders,  have their truth and power scrutinized and tested, judged and betrayed, condemned even. Fake news and cover-ups are swirling around us like uncontrollable tempests and hurricanes, messing with our head. Nothing seems certain anymore, nothing seems truly true, even on the religious front. Nothing seems spared this dizzying unravelling of securities, of stability, and of clarity.

In the midst of this confusing ethical, cultural and moral tsunami comes today’s account of Jesus before Pilate. Two kings, two rulers, in a showdown of power and truth. Jesus’ truth and power was completely other. And deep down Pilate sensed it. Pilate so sensed how completely different Jesus’ power and truth were, that his nerves … trembled … Even Pilate’s arrogance couldn’t hide his inner shaking. “Are you the King of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not of this world …”

In the wake of fake news, in the wake of never-ending revelations of failures and sins by leaders in all spheres of life – politicians, teachers, principals, religious leaders, business giants – we celebrate today’s Feast of Christ the King. We, foolish followers of a King, dare to claim that in this King lies salvation, in this King lies the way to fullness of life even in death. What a ludicrous claim in the face of today’s world!

How do we respond as followers of Christ, this new King? Our response truly sounds ludicrous. Our response is a king hung on a cross. A king on a cross … not a popular answer right now. Yet that’s our answer, the only answer … A king – himself a victim of the atrocities we inflict on one another, no matter whether committed in secret behind closed doors in family homes and workplaces or on a world stage in government offices and churches.

Pilate agonized, pacing back and forth as he questioned Jesus. He agonized, because here before him was a man who puzzled, scared and intrigued Pilate. Pilate is aware on a subconscious level that his power and authority is really just an illusion. That illusion gets challenged by this weird prisoner. And that makes Pilate very nervous. And so he should be. Because the power and authority of Christ the King, what makes Christ King is indeed a power “not of this world” meaning, completely counter-intuitive for us humans.

What makes it so? Because unlike the increased show of force called for by world powers today, and the cacaphony of voices claiming truth, for the very first time in human history, and so far the only time in human history, someone DARED to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. Someone, with a power not of this world said: the buck stops here. In this determined non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s …. what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

Richard Rohr describes it as follows:
God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things—exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion is at the same moment the worst and best thing in human history. The cross reveals a cruciform pattern to reality. Reality is not meaningless and absurd, but neither is it perfect and consistent. Reality, life, is filled with contradictions. Jesus was killed in the collision of opposites, conflicting interests, and half-truths. This King of Glory hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.

The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus broke down the barriers of hostility by creating one humanity where formerly there had been two – and he did it this “by reconciling both [sides] in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death.” (Ephesians 2, 16)

How? How does the cross of Christ kill death itself? Ron Rolheiser, theologian and author, replies as follows:
Jesus on the cross took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back … graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back … blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back … big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back … forgiveness.

Jesus revealed the deep secret, the key to salvation. And that is to absorb and hold within ourselves all that divides, all that brings strife, all that sows hatred, to hold it long enough so that it gets transformed. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison relationships, that destroy communion, both in the human family and in the natural world, and give back only graciousness and openness, give back only compassion and care, to everyone and everything. It’s the only key to overcoming division.

We live in bitterly divisive times, paralyzing every sphere of life with half-truths and fake power, polarized on virtually every sensitive issue of politics, economics, morality, and religion. That stalemate will remain until one by one, we each transform rather than fuel and re-transmit the hatred that divides us.

We see in the person of Jesus a strange power at work, a power clearly not of this world … the power of God’s unmerited and merciful love. We claim Jesus as King of Glory, and that he is. But besides claiming this and adoring him, we are also called to imitate him. While fear can choke our compassion and generous loving, our world is famished, starved, for peace and reconciliation, for inclusion and equality, for love and grace and mercy.

So how serious are we about embracing this kingdom of Jesus not of this world? Living by Kingdom ways still comes at great risk, just as Jesus learnt from his experience on the cross. Can we, will we, like Jesus, become signs of dangerous hope for God’s world, possessed by a power not of this world? I think it would surprise and scare and intrigue the world, just as it did Pilate, when he faced that unusual character. We can only profess Christ as our King if we allow God to change us, from the inside out, so that we become the water filter sifting out human impurities, toxins and poisons. As God’s water filter we are transformed into beacons of hope and grace, of love and mercy – all those things for which our world is starving.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace; in his flesh he made us into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … He created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility, division, strife, jealousy, and enmity. (Ephesians 2:13—16)

Homily preached on the Feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Ephesians 2:11—22; John 18:33-38
* I am not real happy with this sermon. Not that anyone criticized it, but as I preached I felt it — it was too wordy, too repetitive and lacked story. Just goes to show I can’t always be at my best.

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