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

           

Daily Halos

Homily, Christmas Eve

Our secular culture seems to have decided that religion is not good for us. Religion is unhealthy, old-fashioned and certainly hostile to the human body. Religion is considered the enemy of fun and freedom and fulfillment. If you are among those who think that religion is something best to avoid, then tonight’s news is for you.

Because tonight’s news is pretty darn radical and pretty darn awesome. Believe it or not, but Christianity is based on the goodness of the flesh/our body. We haven’t always communicated that very convincingly, but it’s true. Think about it, if human flesh was good enough for Jesus, why should we reject it? To be human is to be flesh. To be holy is to glory in it.

The very scandal of Christianity lies in the fact that we see God/divinity in … humanity. Every major religion acknowledges the role of the Creator in the development of life, of course. But the Creator in life? Part of it? Identified with it?! Only … Christianity … makes the crazy claim that the Creator … has taken on … the flesh and blood of creation in order to connect us to the divine in ourselves.

In that forlorn stable in Bethlehem, God became helpless and vulnerable, and adorable and lovable in … greeting us in a small baby. A baby makes heads turn and hearts soften – that’s our God. The good news of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, gives all human beings dignity and inherent beauty, capable of holiness in and through our bodies and in and through the ordinariness of life.

And so tonight, on this Holy Night, I’d like to illustrate this claim through the words of a dear friend. Not because I couldn’t come up with my own thoughts, but because Leah is a young mom expecting her next child. Leah’s words paint a vivid picture of what the beauty of God/Christmas looks like, feels like, tastes like in our own lives – the sacred of God in the small and ordinariness of human flesh. Leah’s words reveal the possibility of … halos … in our everyday existence:

Preparing a place is one of my favourite things.
We love having the guest room full,
the bed made and food planned,
the anticipation of time spent with people we love.
Preparing makes space, in our home and inside of us,
for those who are coming.
And this year, for the second time,
we are pregnant at Christmas.
It’s a beautiful connection
to the ancient Story of God coming as an infant.

I have a rounded belly growing full of mischief.
I feel exposed and empty as I prepare for this Christmas.
The year has been one from hell:
We have crawled through a miscarriage,
a season of unemployment,
and the cavernous murder of my own twin sister,
my own flesh and blood.
The planting work of living, of daily meals and tidying,
of tucking in and washing hands was laboured and late.
We showed up and watered and fed
with all the strength we had and it was not much.
The fall harvest was spotty at best.
There was more grace than we put in, and that was a miracle.
The stubble that is our family
lies poking through the snow; we survived, barely.

We have had so little to give;
Now I see that nothing … has given us … everything.
All the years spent preparing for guests
actually taught us how to let people into our lives.
This year, so many friends and strangers
have walked into our mess with food and cleaning supplies,
with hands for folding laundry,
with a willingness to be with us in tears and big emotions.
The bathrooms have not been as clean as I would like them.
The kitchen counters are littered with paper and toys.
The drawers and closets are getting out of hand.
Yet people who love us, our people, came anyway.

Jesus is coming, again, to our messy world.
He chooses us over and over again.
And He’s the kind of guest that comes regardless of the mess.
If we are willing, Jesus will stay all year.
He doesn’t care about unpacked boxes,
the mess in the junk drawer,
or the toothpaste clumps in the sink.
Actually, Jesus finds treasures
in the very mess I am trying to hide.
Jesus pulls joy out of my sadness,
finds space and meaning and possibility in my emptiness.

Preparing readies my heart to be broken open by love.
Jesus came to an unwed, teenage mother
and a foster father who risked faith.
He came in a stable and their little family
became refugees in Egypt to flee a massacre of infant boys.
Jesus wept for my little Claire (lost in miscarriage),
held us in job loss, wailed with me at the murder of my twin sister,
and now sends us every gift in death and grief,
in our next-awaited baby.
Jesus is not a stranger to our raw and exposed wounds.
From the moment of his birth,
Jesus knows emptiness too well
and loves us in the emptiness we feel.
He comes to us again as we are.

Preparing my heart and my home
requires a recognition of what I can do
without becoming resentful,
or burdened by my own unrealistic expectations,
and distracted by the unnecessary.
The straw and the snow and the sky
are a stark and simple beauty.
I am learning to prepare with some more slow,
some more gentle, some more kind.
Preparing from emptiness feels shaky and weak.
I only ever have myself to give anyway.
When I am empty there is more space for the ones coming.
Christmas is about the simplest things:
God in this time and this place;
generosity and hospitality,
hope in struggle,
light in overwhelming darkness.

***
So far Leah’s musings. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Earth is crammed with heaven.” Gerald Manley Hopkins said the same: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. The human body was good enough for God in the baby Jesus. Our bodies, and our daily lives, however messy and painful, are “crammed with heaven” – all the time. The halos, the kind we can see around planets and constellations through a telescope, exist around each one of us. The halos, imprints of God’s loving kisses, are everywhere. As Leah’s musings show, we just need eyes to see and a heart to love. God is our glory. God is our power. God shows up in our emptiness and fills it with love, joy and beauty through the babe born in  Bethlehem. That is the Good News we celebrate tonight. May we all be blessed with a beautiful and grace-filled Christmas. Amen.

  • Leah’s original blog can be found here. 

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Eucharisteo – Give Thanks

What to say in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas? What to say to the friend who is worrying himself sick about the relatives devastated by the hurricanes in the Carribean? What to say to the woman whose husband got killed in a roadside bombing? What to say to the friend whose twin sister got murdered by her common-law partner? To the father whose daughter succumbed to fentanyl? What to say to the boy featured on the news: no family, missing a leg, begging on the streets? To the neighbour who got laid off way too soon? Oh yeah, Canada is having its Thanksgiving weekend so let’s be thankful…

In the face of so much pain and death and suffering, saying thank you is not only getting harder; for many, it becomes downright impossible. How to give thanks when so many hearts scream in pain?

Yet, giving thanks we do, every year at this time in Canada. We give thanks even in the face of great pain. Sometimes we hurt so much that we need another’s help to give thanks; then so be it. But give thanks we must. Why is it so important to live with a grateful heart, no matter how difficult that can be under certain circumstances? Why is giving thanks such a deep and lasting tradition?

God is bringing you into a good land, says the writer of Deuteronomy (8:7-18). God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, says Paul to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 9:6-15), and to us. If this sounds insulting to those who are hurting today, don’t dismiss these words too quickly. Giving thanks gives life, even in times of trouble. We don’t have to wait until everything is rosy to give thanks.

At the end of the Second World War, when Europe was a wasteland from the war, a young man called Albert Camus returned from France to his native Algeria. Camus wrote, “In the light cast by the flames of destruction, the world has suddenly shown its wrinkles and afflictions, old and new. It had suddenly grown old, and we had too.” Camus was spiritually and morally exhausted, and he returned to his village by the Mediterranean – Tipasa, which was as beautiful as it was poor. Camus wrote again, “Poverty taught me that all was not well under the sun, but the sun taught me that poverty was not everything.” (Return to Tipasa, Camus) In the daily miracle of creation, Camus found new energy. “It was as if the morning stood still, as if the sun had stopped for an immeasurable moment. In this light and silence, years of night and fury slowly melted away.” And so Camus could begin again, and continue as one of Europe’s most beloved writers.

Even in the greatest despair, every day can spring forth as God’s great gift. Life is gift, breath and sight are gift, food and love are gift. Salvation in Jesus is pure gift from a generous God who loves us without fail.

I’ve been re-reading a book that affected me deeply when I first turned its pages – 1,000 gifts by Ann Voskamp. Weighed down by the excruciating pain of childhood tragedy, Ann begins to muse how to live in gratitude. She combs the Scriptures and stumbles on a word that we are all so familiar with – Eucharist.

Ann discovers that the Greek word eucharisteo means ‘giving thanks.’ Jesus took the bread, the wine, and “gave thanks” – eucharisteo. Slowly, Ann begins to grasp that giving thanks for everything brings joy. And joy is what her heart yearns to have more of, a lot more of. As long as thanks is possible, the miracle of joy can happen, Ann learns. All this is encapsulated in that lovely word eucharisteo – Eucharist. So Ann set out to accept a friend’s dare: to list 1,000 gifts to give thanks for, and thus make giving thanks a way of life. This book is the fruit of that commitment, a commitment that changed her heart and brought her closer to God through Jesus, who himself lived eucharisteo to the full.

In the person of Jesus, we see and touch one who lived in gratitude and generosity and … joy. Jesus knew that he had been born of God, that he was a child of God – as each of us is a son and daughter of God. But more than any of us, Jesus lived this knowledge in a profound and radical way. He understood his origins: he was with God always and everywhere. And that being-with-God always and everywhere was his particular form of power and source of love.

What did Jesus do with that awareness? Easy: instead of boasting or having it inflate his ego, Jesus freely and simply gave … himself … away … in eucharisteo – thanksgiving. In loaves and fishes, he taught that whatever we give away multiplies, ignites, feeds and sustains. One good word spoken into tragedy, Jesus showed time and again, grows into a symphony of love and truth. One small hope whispered in the terror of the night can grow into a great tree sheltering hurting hearts and producing fresh blossoms of new life. Jesus spoke of lilies and good fruit and birds in the air, all are blessed because they simply are. Jesus set the supper table with his body and blood and secured in this lavish gift eternal life for us all. Life doesn’t get more radical in gratitude than in Jesus.

The Jewish people have a wonderful prayer of gratitude which they sing at Passover. In the song they recount the events through which God liberated them from Egypt and led them to the promised land. The refrain of this song can be translated as it would have been enough and it goes like this:

“If you had only led us to the edge of the Red Sea
but not taken us through the waters,
it would have been enough.
If you had only taken us through the Red Sea
but not led us through the desert,
|it would have been enough.
If you had only led us through the desert
but not taken us to Mount Sinai,
it would have been enough.

What would our song sound like?
If I had only been born but not have parents,
it would have been enough.
If I had only seen one snowfall
but had never seen the pink sky on a prairie night,
it would have been enough.
If I had only known love for a short while,
but not had my beloved children,
it would have been enough.
If only I had beloved children,
but not had good health,
it would have been enough.

Try this some time – it’s a good exercise. To live with “enough” is to live in the great economy of God’s grace – eucharisteo, and the miracle of joy will surely follow. It means not to take the earth for granted, not to take our own life for granted, not to take loved ones for granted. To live with “enough” means that we have plenty to give away every day: joy, comfort, laughter, tears, forgiveness and compassion, hope and gratitude. When all is said and done, these … are the only commodities that have eternal value.

The day after the Las Vegas massacre, my son David posted the following on Facebook: The world is not a tragic and terrifying place. Tragic events do happen and there are terrifying places, but THE WORLD is not a tragic or terrifying place. I live my life,  knowing and working and understanding that others live in a world that is far from my own reality. For many, what took place last night in Las Vegas – the senseless murder of innocent people – is common place. It is an everyday fear. If/when my time comes, where I am face to face with an unthinkable tragic event that I do not understand, I plan to treat it as a sobering reminder that not everyone lives the life of comfort that my family and I are afforded. For some, daily fear for ones life isn’t a choice, but an everyday reality. Until then – taking nothing for granted – I will greet each day, thankful for the world I live in and thankful for the worlds I am able to help shape… the worlds of my family, friends, work colleagues, clients, neighbours and every single person I am privileged to interact with. And I will remember that tragic events do happen and will happen and yes, there are terrifying places out there, but the world as a whole, is not a tragic or terrifying place. Stay safe. Be thankful. Life is beautiful.  

As David articulates so well in his words, to live in gratitude is a choice, a hard choice some days. But thanksgiving makes the miracle of joy possible. And that is enough. It is enough that there are always more new beginnings, more new life, than the sum of our sorrows.

Ever since I first read Ann’s book 1,000 Gifts I’ve given numerous copies away as gifts. Reading Ann’s book for the second time, I realized it’s time to begin my own list of 1,000 gifts … a good sleep, a glorious fall day, a phone call from our daughter, sitting with a friend in distress, new hymns to sing, vine-ripened tomatoes, the end of the gravel detour … (I keep hoping) etc. Ann’s witness is teaching me to give thanks in every time and place. In turn we can help each other to give thanks and praise to the God who has saved us in Jesus the Christ the One who lived Eucharisteo – thanksgiving – to the full, even in death itself.

Oh, and my friend whose twin sister was murdered by her common-law partner? Here’s her Thanksgiving entry: Leah Perrault. Read her achingly piercing pieces (listed in the right column of her site) in which she struggles with her profound loss:

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Barefoot and Preaching

I wish I had come up with this title, but I confess one much smarter — and younger! — than I is to be credited with this captivating name for her new website/blog BAREFOOT AND PREACHING.  My dear friend and sister in faith and ministry has just joined the cyber-publishing world — welcome Leah! Do check her out, she’s a force to be reckoned with:

BAREFOOT and PREACHING

Prairie Encounters is my little site where I share my ministry ware.

By way of exception, I will not add a comment section, as this is simply a joyful “birth announcement” 🙂 🙂 🙂

I have another entry in the draft section, so stay tuned. It should be up in a couple days.