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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Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

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Truth – A Relationship

A few personal challenges of late sent me reflecting on truth again. Some of our loved ones confronted us with some difficult positions on important moral and family matters. It’s all I could do to keep conversations open and respectful, while working hard to share my opposing perspectives in non-judgmental ways and in a manner that deserved equal openness and respect. Maintaining open and loving relationships in times of disagreement is so heart-wrenching.

And then a peculiar thing happened. As if the ears of my mind and heart were sharpened by my own painful experience of discord, I heard and saw the same pain in so many places and over so many issues: disagreements over assisted suicide, disputes over the need to reconcile with our First Nations sisters and brothers, deep differences over the definition of marriage and how the church ought to care and seek justice for the LGBTQ community, strong disagreements within First Nations jurisdictions over allowing mining on their territory or not, a family feud over an estate, debate over whether to sit or kneel at the consecration or the place of the tabernacle (really!), sharp divisions over the peaceful nature of Islam,  vastly opposing opinions on how to eradicate racism and violence in the US, in Canada, in the world …

Sometimes I wonder: “How can we ever sort this out?” Is it even possible to reach for higher conversation standards; are there others who are dissatisfied with entrenched polarizing positions on controversial questions? The extent of volatile conflict near and far is scary; even disputes within churches sometimes resemble more a vindictive culture war than the Gospel.

What is so hard about acknowledging our vulnerability and awkwardness while affirming goodwill and desire for wholeness in every person? What is so hard about living God’s truth, Jesus’ truth, in the quality of our relationships, challenging ourselves to deliberately choose love as our foundational orientation? I sadly acknowledge the reasons for violence, war, and discords of all shapes and sizes. But are we doomed to live with this alienating way of relating to one another? In all these examples, a battle for “the truth” rages. I find myself asking Pilate’s ancient question again: what is truth?

As if an answer to the pleading prayer in my soul, along came the words of Pope Francis:
The truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So the truth is a relationship! Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives…. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective; quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. ~ Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari, Nov. 9, 2013

What if this is true? I mean, what if truth is first and foremost a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity as the ultimate communion of love (long before it is a set of intellectual dogmas and beliefs), and is given to us always and only as a way and a life? If indeed this is true, that has enormous implications for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, the incarnation of that truth. We cannot ignore today’s local, national and international conflicts, both within and between our churches and in the wider world. Nor can we retreat in ideological fortresses of our own making and say to the rest of the Body ‘I have no need of you.’

But we desperately need to adopt conversation models “in a new key” so to speak, models which can equip us to listen without fear or prejudice and seek a better understanding of ‘the other,’ whoever that may be in any given situation. At best we can only change ourselves, and only if our Christian discipleship summons us to do so. In other words, the most life-giving reason to desire change is to deepen our capacity to love as God loves. I know that I need to change daily, as I struggle with difficult people, new issues and moral dilemmas. We may not agree, but can we be committed to hold together in love, and through that commitment, see the face of Christ in one another while inching ever closer to realizing God’s Kingdom on earth?

I read echoes of this same diagnosis and a desire for fostering a higher standard of discourse through the quality of how we relate to one another and the world in Fr. Richard Rohr’s words in Breathing Under Water (pg. 62):
The longer I live the more I believe that truth is not an abstraction or an idea that can be put into formulas or mere words. Our real truth has to do with how we situate ourselves in this world. There are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating . This is our real, de facto, and operative “truth,” no matter whose theories or theologies we believe. Our life situation and our style of relating to others is “the truth” that we actually take with us to the grave. It is who we are, more than our theories about this or that. 

Jesus himself holds us to this higher standard, and yet we forget as quickly as water passes through a sieve. We keep making a categorical mistake, i.e. that loving and honouring our opponent implies consent and support for something that risks violating our conscience. But far from condoning sin, pain and woundedness, Jesus’ capacity to love unconditionally and show generous mercy had a radical life-changing effect on persons. His love shed clear truth-filled light into burdened souls, spontaneously exposed the darkness of sin and healed open wounds, while restoring dignity and honour.

Simply by experiencing the honour to be worthy to host Jesus, Zaccheus confessed of his own accord. (Luke 19:1-10) Simply by being in his presence, the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, evoking from Jesus the words: “Her sins, which were many; have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In the parable on the weeds and the wheat, Jesus cautioned about pulling the weeds before harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). Even the Syro-Phoenician woman, an outcast by all social standards, felt the power of divine love, and claimed it for her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Simply put, the sheer power of divine love does the sifting and sorting, the healing and restoring; no need to add judgment or condemnation, no need to fear, dispute or despise. That is why St. Augustine said in his famous sermon on love:

Human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Contrary to earlier reports, it became clear this morning (July 12, 2016) that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada did pass the motion last night that will change the definition of marriage. While many are grateful and relieved there is also much pain over this decision across the Anglican and ecumenical landscape. Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? The most striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, soon-to-be the new principal at Emmanuel St. Chad College in Saskatoon:

The irony is that before the whole synod started, people were saying it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Everybody knows what it feels like now. Both sides have understood now what it feels like to lose, if you have to use that word. One side ends up not getting their way, but the other side knows what it feels like. For a day, they felt that, and I hope that that will help us.
The most important thing going ahead is that we bring those two groups of people together, that people see the leadership of those two groups working together to find one story for our church. It would be terrible if there were two stories of this synod, because two stories lead to two churches. We need one story, one church. But to do that, people have to see that both sides are working together to tell that story.
Why did it happen this way? There must be something for us to learn from this … (Anglican Journal, July 12, 2016)

My heart hurts and my spirit weeps as one group cheers and another group breaks. Can we take seriously Pope Francis’ words that each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives? Are we willing to look for “Holy Ground” in another’s painful life story? Can we let God’s love purify all our hearts so that love’s divine power can truly flow through us all freely, confidently and generously? For the sake of the world, create a clean heart in me, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of
the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.
~ St. Benedict

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