Friday, December 31, 2010
It was just over twenty years ago, I was privileged to take a six week study tour to the Middle East, and visit sites in Jordan, Egypt and throughout Israel.
During my time there I took over 1000 pictures, wrote copious notes in my journal, and collected a variety of mementos and gifts ... some, like the olive wood chess set, and the olive wood sculptures remain cherished items in my office and home, while others were given to family and friends ... To be honest, I've lost track of what I brought back and who was given what ...
Then this year, at our family Boxing Day dinner (our Christmas gathering) my cousins gave me a tiny wrapped parcel ... the driedel wrapping paper was beautiful, and their words to the effect of: "this is just returning something to you ..." were apt.
I opened the box and discovered inside a collection of tiny olive wood Christmas decorations I had given to my grand parents when I returned ... some hung over Grandpa's bed in the care facility that was his home for the last years of his life ... others hung at Grandma's on her tiny Christmas tree during the Christmas season, and on the living room curtains during other times of the year ... I had long ago forgotten about them ... but as I opened the box and peered inside I was stuck by a wave of memories ... memories of my Grandparents, memories of my trip ... memories of many bits and pieces of my life thus far ...
It was a splendid gift that borders on the priceless. And yet the ornaments themselves were purchased for mere pennies, and were given because they were cute and were something I could bring back for my Grandpa and Grandma ... and now, I have a reminder of them and of the gift they brought to my life and my world ...
Stay tuned ... the reading from Ann Weems will come soon ...(Peace on Earth – Ann Weems)
We are watching ... we are waiting ...
Around us the last scurry of activity and preparation is underway. Christmas parties and seasonal celebration have been happening for weeks, cards have been sent and arrive in our mail boxes, presents are wrapped and ready, and over it all comes the ubiquitious debate about the real reason for the season ...
Over and over you can, if you really to be part of it, find discussions and debates about what Christmas really means ... there are those voices who focus entirely on the story of the Nativity and tout Jesus as the ONLY reason for the season ... there are those voices who point and accusing finger at the unfettered commericalism of the season and in their best Scrooge like tone offer a ‘bah humbug’ at the seemingly boundless buying and giving of presents ... there are those voices who call for a simpler observation of the season, focused on family, and charity and expressing concern for our sisters and brothers ... there are those voices who whisper quietly from the margins, trying to avoid the hurts and sorrows that may mark this season for them ... and there are the voices who try desperately to render benign and neutral the religiousity of the season – stripping away any suggestion that Christmas might have a religion origin and be an observance of faith ...
Yet through it all, certain elements remain firm and strong ... the awe and wonder of the season ... It is at Christmas that ANYTHING is possible – Christmas is ALL about the transformation of hearts, minds, live and even the world from what is, to what God yearns it to be ... there is the positive energy that comes with the season ... the suggestion that we remember each other, offer a cup of kindness, show our care and concern for others, and focus on what’s really important rather than simply engaging in the consumerist frenzy that marks the season for many ...
And behind ALL of this ... in a place beyond the lights and the tinsel ... removed from the carols and the celebrations ... in a quiet darkened corner of the season lies a tiny frail and vulnerable new born baby, who remains the reason ALL of this – the good AND the bad – happens at all.
It is easy to lose sight of the manger and the stable and the cast of characters who make their way out of the shadows and the darkness to kneel at the foot of a baby.
It is easy to forget in the scramble and busy-ness of the season, that pausing in the stable to welcome God’s gift of love and life is the most important action we can engage in ...
And yet, to pause in the midst of the scramble that too often marks the christmas season is simple ... it’s easy ... it’s the heart of what we do here, and what we seek to offer the world around us ...
Christmas and Easter are often the times of year when we see those who have for any number of reasons been away from our congregations and communities. There are many theologians who write about the seasonal visitors and unfortunately take a less than positive stance in regards to those who feel the pull at Christmas and Easter to join in the fellowship of the season.
There is something deep and primordial in the observances of Christmas and Easter ... we may not be part of a regular worshipping faith community for the other 50 weeks of the year, but at Christmas and Easter we feel a deep spiritual pull to come back and to immerse ourselves in the familiar celebrations of life and love and community ... There is something comfortable in the stories of the Nativity ... there is something that touches us deeply in the familiar narrative of angels, shepherds, magi and the young girl who bears a child who is part of God’s plan for the cosmos.
And yet, in the midst of the story there is one character who in many ways stands out, but also blends in so thoroughly that we might completely forget about him ... Joseph is a key figure in the nativity story, but so much is focused on Mary, the baby, the shepherds and the Magi, that Joseph just fades into the background, standing somewhere in the corner patiently waiting to be rediscovered, yet remaining vigilant and watching protectively over his family and the fulfilment of the promises he himself carries ...
Joseph is a fascinating character for a number of reasons ... he is, as I’ve said simultaneously central to the story, but also almost entirely marginal to it. Joseph, like Mary struggles with the news that Mary will bear a son. Joseph like Mary recieves a divine visitor who reveals a truth about this child.
AND Joseph like Mary is told who this child will be. In Joseph’s case, the Angel who appears in the dream tells him that the child will be known as Emmaunel – God is with us.
Jesus will be known to the world as Emmaunel – God is with us !!
In addition to the many other titles and honours bestowed upon this child, he will be the incarnation of the Living God – he will come into our world to share a profound and radical understanding of God’s role in the cosmos, but more than that, he will be the very physical presence of God in our midst !!
How can someone who is gifted with this understanding of who Jesus is and will be, be marginalized to the fringes of the story?
Yet, Joseph – the father who protected his wife on their journey – Joseph the father who protected his family when strangers stepped out of the darkness babbling about angels and lights and stars and divine messages. Joseph who stood and took it all in, and saw the fulfillment of the promises offered to him and to his wife Mary – this Joseph, remains a marginalized figure because we fail to appreciate the importance of each person who gathered that night in the stable ...
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown and put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the creche,
background for the magnificent light of the Messiah?
God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph listened to angels,
and it was he who named the Child EMMANUEL (God is with us)
Is this a man to be stuck for centuries in the back of the stable?
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings.
When he wasn't in the doorway,
he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,
gently covering her with his cloack,
assuring her that he would watch the Child.
Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly,
until he closed his eyes.
This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed the Christ Child.
As a gesture of gratitude,
let's put Joseph in the front of the stable,
where he can guard and greet,
and cast and occasional glance at this Child,
who brought us LIFE!
(Getting to the front of the stable – Ann Weems)
Everyone there had a role.
Everyone there had a reason to be there.
Everyone there represents us – the people of every time and place – and the living out of our invitation to come and stand in the stable and behold the arrival of God’s chosen One – the Messiah, the wonderful counsellor, mighty king – Emmanuel/God is with us !!
God is with us !!! – Let us go into the world proclaiming THAT message, and giving and rejoicing over that GIFT!!!
May it be so, thanks be to God ... let us pray !
Thursday, December 23, 2010
In his book Bent Hope, Tim Huff shares the experience of having left a typical Christmas gathering at his church to return to his ministry field in the dark forgotten corners of down town Toronto.
Tim took with him this particular night a collection of left over cookies and home baked treats that had been part of the feast enjoyed by his home Congregation. Tim made his way to a gathered group of homeless teens huddled under one of the off ramps into the downtown. He approached them and held out his package of baked goods and said – “homemade treats!”
He notes in his book – “Home – the word least spoken, and most longed for. The dream of what it could and should mean.”
“Made – created for enjoyment. Intentional. Detailed. Prepared with care.”
“Treats – something extra, something special. Something beyond basic survival. Something with a nod to feeling like a child again.”
“All put together – home made treats – at that time, in that place, they were the happiest and saddest words ever to have met.”
Tim then goes on to describe the gathering of teens – a tiny fleeting glimpse of who they are, where they’ve come from, what’s brought them under that concrete ramp – alone, frightened and homeless.
Tim shared the cookies with them. One – Sarah took a cookie and said “my mom used to make these” and she held it like it was a treasure to be guarded not eaten, then she added, “it’s about the only thing I can think of that I miss.”
The cookies opened a door of remembrance and as much nostalgia that street hardened teens are capable of experiencing ... the conversation flowed into talk about Christmas and the traditions and habits and things that stand out in the season, even for homeless youth.
“I’ve never been hugged ...”
Sarah – 17, a hardened street kid who Tim described as “hard the way people paint portraits of old sailors on weather beaten vessels” – Sarah made a comment that hung in the air ... Tim likened it to the cascading truths that Henri Nouwen spoke of when he noted that happen in moments of silence when we are accompanied by a friend who doesn’t need to speak, but rather remains present in the moment no matter what storm might be unfolding around us ... Sarah’s comment hung in the air ... the background noise of the expressway filling the void ...
Then another teen asked out of curiousity – “never? Not by anyone?”
Sarah snapped back “never!” then sadly and softer “no never ...”
Tim describes sitting in a place of profound sadness thinking about his own daughter and the love and affection she receives every day and how unthinkable the tragic circumstances of Sarah’s life truly were ... as he sat the other teens suddenly stood up and stepped towards Sarah, and one by one embraced her in their arms and without saying a word hugged her.
These teens dubbed by many as misfits, delinquents, beggars and losers became christmas angels by enacting a tiny Christmas miracle spoken through thier hearts.
Tim summarizes the experience well when he observes Sarah melting in the arms of her friends: “A tiny Christmas miracle in the hidden winter shadows of absolute compassion. No twinkling lights, no presents, no music. Just some left over baked good, four priceless children and a man who witnessed Christmas angels revealing themselves eight feet below the rusty steel girders of an ancient motorway.
A silent night.
A holy night."
In this season, we are waiting for something ... a miracle ... a star ... an angel ... this is the season of waiting. But what we need to think about is – WHAT are we waiting FOR?
The challenge when we approach the Christmas Story with its shepherds, angels, visiting magi, and the other characters who fill the nativity scene, is how do we balance the story without assuming a literal interpretation of the events that requires us to say “this cannot be true.”
Factually, the Christmas story may not be true. Even the esteemed Catholic Theologian Raymond Brown acknowledges that the Christmas Story is almost entirely untrue, but vitally important. Theologians like Brown, Bishop Spong and others have all argued in recent years that the factuality of the Christmas story is not the issue – they tend to agree that the story is not factual, but where they ALL agree is in the importance of the story to convey a truth.
The gospel writers sat down and wanted to tell the world how important Jesus was – how utterly and completely momentous his life and ministry was, and so Matthew and Luke started at the beginning ... stars, angels, heavenly proclamations, visitors from near and far ... the scene was carefully cast and scripted to reflect the importance of Jesus and to portray a truth beyond what we can research, study or even experience ... the christmas story is about conveying to the world – to us – to ALL of us – a truth about love, acceptance, forgiveness and the availability of these truths to ALL.
The Truth of the christmas story is found in the proclamations by the angels that echo through the world and invite everyone to come and experience the Good News revealed and embodied by Jesus !
The truth of the Christmas story is about the power of God ... the power of the Christ Child ... the power of love ... the power of life ... and it is ALL revealed in the Christmas story if we dare to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts and our souls to it ...
Ultimately the Christmas Story is about experiencing again and again and again, the kind of miraclous moment of transcendence and transformation that Tim Huff witnessed that day because of a simple plate of left over cookies ... Tim notes of his experience:
There are precious moments when frailty and brokeness are
revealed, completely unguarded: an authenticity like I’ve found nowhere else, and with no one else. Moments when full disclosure of the heart and soul are more brilliant and more costly than gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Those are the moments we should be waiting for – those incredible breath-taking moments when God’s Holiness pours into the world and our lives and utterly transforms what’s before us into an echo of the christmas story.
We are waiting for God to reveal to us the truth experienced, revealed, embodied and celebrated in the Nativity scene.
We are waiting for God to transform a mundane ordinary moment into an experience of Grace ... Tim brought cookies and look what happened.
Our challenge is to embrace those mundance moments with trust – trusting in God to reveal love, grace, acceptance, and forgiveness in abundance.
Today we are waiting to experience the gift of White Gift ... the gift of giving ... by opening ourselves fully to the Spirit we are open to the possibility and the promise that even the smallest things we do this season(and throughout the year) are opportunities to suddenly find ourselves overwhelmed by God’s holy presence ... The gift of white gift is the promise of transformation when we least expect it ... Tim Huff experienced it under an off ramp with an unlikely group of teens because of a plate of left over cookies ... you and I might experience it any where and any time through our gifts and offerings ...
All we need to do is trust in God in to guide us to a silent and holy night, wherever it might be ...
May it be so, thanks be to God, let us pray ...
This is a funny time of the year ... liturgically it is ALL about waiting ... preparations for the Christmas Services are pretty much done, and it is only a matter of waiting for them to begin ... On the home front, the shopping is finished except for the last few tiny items that were overlooked or forgotten ... and now there is only the waiting for services, celebrations, gatherings, and the inevitable quiet that settles in when everything is done and we can put our feet up for a moment and simply enjoy being ...
But then, inevitably, real life breaks through ... the weather remains changable and unpredictable ... a phone call spins things in an unexpected direction ... news that someone is in the hospital, or something has happened comes and all the preparations seem to be for naught.
Yet, in this waiting ... in the pause before the proverbial "storm", one can find a place of peace and comfort that defies words ...
I think I stumbled into such a place this morning ... it began quietly while I put out the garbage and the recycling, then fed the birds, let the dogs out, and settled in with a cup of coffee ... it continued as the house awoke, and I was able to claim a special time before leaving for work ... then as I came to the Church to prepare the sanctuary for tomorrow's Christmas Eve service, I felt a sense of calm that has been lacking for many weeks ... setting up the candles, moving the furniture, envisioning the flow of the liturgy brought a smile to my face and a serenity to my being ... watching Oboe do laps around the sanctuary, barking at pews, furnishings, sounds, and even the enormous floor vents brought it all together ...
I ended the service on this past Sunday reflecting on the role of the Shepherds in the Christmas narrative, and offering them up as our entry point to the story ... they sat on the hillside tending to their flocks, going about their daily lives when suddenly, unexpectedly and amazingly, their world exploded in a barrage of sights and sounds, with celestial visitors, heavenly proclamations and most importantly the invitation to come and see what God has brought to pass in a tiny backwater corner of the world ...
Today, I understood that invitation ... when we least expect it, God breaks through with a gift and an invitation ... it is not always with angels and stars and booming choruses from heaven ... sometimes it comes quietly and unbidden in the most unlikely of moments ...
In the coming hours, may you experience anew, the gift of the Christ Child, who brings light and love, peace and joy, hope and faith to one and all ... may your waiting be rewarded with the Blessings of the Season !!!
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
We’ve heard that the people of the time
Had certain ideas about the Promised One,
Thought the Expected One would be born in a palace
Or come down from Heaven on a cloud,
Never expected the Messiah
Would be sent as a baby to people like Mary and Joseph ...
Our question is this:
What is our expectation?
What promise do we hold to our hearts?
Who is this Messiah born to us?
(The Promised One, the Expected One, the Messiah – Ann Weems)
This past week from a conversation about the Russel Williams, the disgraced Commanding Officer of CFB Trenton and his horrific crimes, I found myself revisiting a reflection piece written in 2001 by David Ewart, a United Church Minister in BC. David, offered a theological response to the events of September 11th, and the horrific consequences that unfold that sunny September morning when the planes were flown into the World Trade Centre.
He began with the simple question – what does God do with a dead terrorist?
The common assumption – and indeed, the ideal that many of us cling to in the depth of our being – perhaps not even consciously, is that God would deal with them harshly. They would pay for their actions. They would be punished ...
David doesn’t disagree ... he sees a punishment for the terrorists and their callous and deadly actions ... but it is not the punishment we might first envision.
David writes: “I imagine God will greet each terrosit, and, in a gentle, loving way walk with him through every moment of his life. But with one critical difference. Instead of seeing his life through his own perspective, the terrorist will now see his life from God’s perspective, through God’s eyes; through eyes of love.
Each terrorist will now see each person on the plane, each person in the buildings, each police officer, fire fighter and rescue worker as God sees them: Infinitely precious and dear to God’s own heart. The terrorist’s own heart will now be filled with the same love for these people as God’s own heart ... he will experience, one by one, what each one felt and experienced that morning, moment by moment. Not as an outside observer, but as one living through the experience itself !
And then God will also have him live through the experience of the survivors. The husbands, the wives, the daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, friends – everyone.
In other words, the terrorist will live through hell. Seeing what he has done. Feeling it. Living it. ... Surely, the terrorist would want to fling himself into the eternal torment of hell itself than continue in relation with God – continue to see things through the eyes of God, through the eyes of love. ... He will beg for the pain to stop ...
But there is more in store for the terrorist ... God will then, through love and care strip away all of the old aspects of the terrorist and his life – God will strip him of his anger, resentment, hatred by allowing him to meet and see the transformed souls of those who died that morning ... souls made whole and transformed by the love of God – souls that are forever changed by the fullness of God’s promises and God’s presence ... in that moment the terrorist will stand vulnerable and changed and feeling utterly alone ... because, to quote David - “There is no place in heaven for hate”
Yet, in that moment God will step in and ensure that the terrorist is not alone ... not forgotten ... not unloved ... in that moment – that supreme moment, all the values we so easily speak of when we prepare for Christmas and hear the promises of the prophetic voices like Isaiah’s, the values we affirm when we hear John calling from the wilderness, the values we celebrate when we bring together the hope and dreams inherent in the season – in that moment ALL of those things will bear down fully on the terrorist and his punishment will be complete ... he will not be left in a place of eternal damnation, but instead will be in a place of inexpressible love and care ... a place of boundless and transformative welcome. A place that is the EXACT opposite of the anger and hate too real and present in our world.
As we journey through Advent and hear the promises of God’s new way of envisioning and experiencing the world we are left in a place where the reality of that Kingdom leaves us truly breathless with awe ... things will not be as we expect.
Often though, we hear the promises to Isaiah from a triumphant point of view. We’ll speak of peace from the place of victory on recent battle fields. We’ll speak of justice from a place of luxury and comfort. We’ll speak of righteousness from the comfort of our safe and secure worship sanctuaries.
But events like December 6th’s Ecole Polytechnique, 9/11, the horrors of people like Russell Williams, and countless other events that flash across our media and our minds, challenge us when we hear the words of folks like Isaiah and John and the promises that are very much part of the Christmas narrative ... we are not just talking about the arrival of a cute and cuddly baby, we’re talking about the arrival of God’s chosen one – the expected one – the messiah, the one who’s mission is to transform reality.
Transform reality ... to envelope ALL that is with a boundless and limitless love ... there is no room in heaven, or in the Kingdom of God for hate.
The reality of the Christmas story is that people were expecting a Messiah. They wanted a military leader who could depose the rule of Caesar and the Roman empire. They wanted someone who would arrive with legions of angels bearing flaming swords that would drive the unfaithful into the sea. They wanted something flashy, powerful and awe-inspiring.
So, as the authors of the Gospels sat down and prepared their texts to tell the world about Jesus and what he meant and represented, they chose thier words carefully ... Son of God, was a DIRECT challenge to Caesar who was called “the son of god” ... All of the phrases connected with Jesus – light of the world, saviour, prince of peace, King – ALL of them were about subverting the dominant consciousness of the day.
What we so easily say today – some 19 centuries later – were in their day tremendous statements of defiance against the order of the day.
To call Jesus the son of God, the saviour, prince of peace, the king, the light of the world, was to posit him DIRECTLY in opposition to Caesar and Herod and the other rulers of the day.
The Christmas story was not about just a gentle sweet baby arriving in an idyllic setting surrounded by shepherds and angels and sweet farm animals ... the Christmas Story is about subverting completely and utterly the domestic order – taking the way things are, and recreating reality in a bold new way that simply defies our understanding and ALL that we’ve experienced.
The Christmas Story is about committing to God’s way – this new way – that is all about enveloping creation in love ... what does God do with a dead terrorist? God evelopes them in a transformative love that strips away the hatred and the anger and all that created a heart and soul full of revenge ...
We see glimpses of this in today’s world ... Greg Mortenson, the author and activist who is building schools through the remote and forgotten corners of Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan has witnessed the stirrings of this when he described the bearded mujahadeen warriors playing on monkey bars, slides and swing sets for the first time, and who readily embraced the terms of building schools in their villages providing their schools have the SAME playground equipment.
I’ve encountered it in the writings of people like Greg Paul and Tim Huff, who dare to see and experience and LIVE hope on the streets of Toronto among the marginalized and broken who lurk there on the edges of our awareness – homeless, addicted, frightened and alone ... there in the streets, Greg and Tim and others find the transformative power of love real and present !
We see glimpses of this transformative process when ordinary people do extraordinary things to make their corner of the world a better place ... mittens on a mitten tree ... a cup of coffee with a friend ... putting a present under an angel tree ... a donation of time or resources to a charity ... speaking up or speaking out ... whatever it is – it is the Kingdom of God – the promises that are part of this baby’s arrival that was ALL about changing the way things ARE by directly confronting and subverting the consciousness and understanding of the world ...
The challenge we face in the Advent Season is the realization that the familiar words and ideas that we so easily toss around as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, are ideas and concepts that have explosive possibility for our lives, our community and our world.
The ideas behind David Ewart’s “what does God do with a dead terrorist” are where the theological rubber hits the profane road of reality ... welcoming the Christ Child is not just snuggling a meek and mild newborn baby – it’s unleashing the transformative power of God’s love in our world:
(God So Loved the World - pg 76, Kneeling in Bethlehm by Ann Weems)
May it be so, thanks be to God, let us pray ...
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Monday, December 06, 2010
I replied, "um, it's almost 9:30, I think you're staying home ..."
In disbelief he said, "Really !! Wow, it doesn't feel like 9:30 !!"
Since then, he's been busy wrapping and packing presents to send back to his Manitoba friends, and Ms H has watched videos, facebook'ed and played with the dogs.
I took advantage of the snow day by spreading my Advent and Christmas resources out on the table and tackling the ever lengthening "Worship 2 Do List" that has many details that need to be addressed before the Christmas Season fully unfolds upon us ...
I sat down and sketched out a preliminary Christmas Eve Service, outlined the Longest Night Service, reviewed Eugenia United's Candlelight Service for the 19th, and roughed out the White Gift Service for this coming week ... I sent my Christmas Article to the local paper, cranked off a half a dozen emails about various matters before us, and managed to start on the bulletins for the 19th and the 26th !!
All in all, a reasonably productive day ... now, alas, the falling snow and the blowing wind has meant there are sidewalks and driveways to clear, and Noahkila and Ms H both have presents to mail off ... time to bundle up and head outside !!!
Friday, December 03, 2010
Mary, Nazareth girl:
What did you know of ethereal beings with messages from God?
What did you know of men when you found yourself with child?
What did you know of babies, you, barely our of childhood yourself?
God Chosen girl:
What did you know of God
that brought you to this stable blessed among women?
Could it be that you had been ready
For the footsteps of an angel?
Could it be there are messages for us
If we have the faith to listen?
(Mary Nazareth Girl – Ann Weems)
In preparing for the begining of Advent, I uncovered in my files, an older reading entitled “A time for active waiting”. It is a reading that offers up a wonderful metaphor for the Advent Season and for the tasks that we have before us as we begin to make the journey towards Bethlehem.
The author likens Advent to the waiting that is part of pregnancy and anticipating the arrival of a baby. He even notes that often in such times like anticipating the arrival of a newborn, we hurry up and make all the preparations weeks and weeks in advance, then are left with a time of anxious waiting ...
The intent of the article is to refocus our advent journey on what needs to be done, and to create in Advent, a place of actively waiting. Actively waiting which means not getting too far ahead of ourselves, or the season.
It is too easy to rush head long into the season, and make the jump straight to the streets of Bethlehem and immerse ourselves in the familiar sights and sounds of the Nativity story ... it’s easy, but what is needed is a slow and steady journey, taking time to let the season unfold ... taking time to enjoy the events as they happen.
If we take time in Advent to wait for the coming of Christmas, we have the opportunity to rediscover the meaning of the season and to be open to new discoveries and new experiences in the midst of a familiar and comfortable time. I have liked the view of Christmas that Bishop Spong, the controversial American Episcopalian Bishop has offered of the Christmas Season.
Spong welcomes the traditional Christmas celebration with its familiarity ... the stories, the music, the traditions, the observances – ALL of it very familiar – ALL of it very comfortable – ALL of part of the fabric that unites us as a people and as a culture ... yet, in the comfortable familiarity Spong says that allowing it to wash over us and immersing ourselves fully in the Christmas Narrative and its tale of awe and wonder will take us back to the place from which it arose ...
Much of the Christmas story stretches our ability to accept and to believe it ... it is in the fullest sense of the word – a myth. Yet rather than dismissing it as simply a myth, Spong and others would challenge us to reclaim the formative power of our myths and ask WHY were they told and retold and passed on from generation to generation in the first place?
What is the TRUTH that the Christmas Story seeks to tell us?
Think about the cast of characters that peoples our Christmas narratives ... Scrooge, The Grinch, George Bailey, Virginia O’Hanlon – all of the stories that we associate with the Christmas season, including those that are part of our Canonical story are about the transformative power that is possible if we simply dare to believe. Christmas is about transforming our world – our lives – through the power of God’s presence and love.
And so, in the Advent Season, our preparation is not just about hanging the decoration and putting up the lights and getting the christmas cards sent. It’s about readying ourselves for the transformation that is imminent to this moment ... the reading I rediscovered this week notes that Advent is traditionally about three things.
We remember Jesus coming in the past, we look forward to celebrating his presence in our midst in the present, and at Christmas, and we hope for his return with the fullness of the Reign of God at the end of time. He notes that active waiting is the unifying characteristic of these three meanings in the Advent Season.
So, what then is active waiting?
How do we engage in active waiting as we begin and continue our journey through Advent, and as we encounter again, the familiar stories, traditions and happenings in our pending Christmas Season. To quote further from the reading:
“God’s people are committed to seeking what God wants in the world ... our preparations for Christmas cannot be passive. We should prepare with our whole selves, and such preparation involves not only parties and gifts, but also a renewed reception of Christ into our hearts. As we look for Jesus return at the end of time, we know that somehow we must enter into preparing for that return by working to enhance human life, here and now, in our world.
Yet, in both Advent and pregnancy, active waiting is colored by ambiguity. Both are expereinces of exhilaration and of sadness, of joy and of fear. In a pregnancy, the prospect of new life is a great gift, yet it is also an immense responsibility. A couple’s love has, in a real sense, become incarnate and is celebrated. Ironically, the very incarnation of their love will now change – and perhaps even threaten – the intimacy of their life together. At any rate, life will never be the same for them because of the new life in their midst.
Advent carries the same ambiguity. Even as we look for Jesus to enter our lives ever more powerfully, we realize that real openness to him demands repentance and change.
This is even more true when we hope for the coming of the fullness of the Reign of God as the end of time.”
The writer then goes on to lift Jesus’ Mother Mary as the example of active waiting, and sees in her an example of how that active waiting can and should happen ... “Mary is understandably troubled and afraid.” He notes. Mary is very very young, she is unmarried, she is pregnant and as a result is facing the harsh judgement of her family, her small community, and her entire world ... BUT ... Mary opts to chose GRACE as her entry into the active participation in God’s work. She engages uncertain waiting that trusts fully in God despite her difficult and ambiguious situation.
Mary trusts in God fully to carry her through this moment, and to allow her to be part of the unfolding of God’s plan for humanity ... in this Mary avoids the danger of trying to bring the Kingdom of God into being by our own effort and our commitment “to do it myself”.
Instead, Mary offers up her life and the child she is carrying as her contribution to the coming of the Kingdom, and she steps back from actively trying to bring about the Kingdom in its entirety. Far from simply being passive, Mary opens herself up to the work of the Spirit within her, but allows this present moment to unfold as it should and as it needs to ... she waits ... actively, attentively, and with awareness – trusting in God in every moment.
At the end of the day, the process of active waiting means trusting in God while we wait, and being open to the moment in our lives when God’s grace gives birth anew to the Word of God in our midst that heralds the coming of the Kingdom.
Our scripture readings today, and our candle lighting liturgy that began our service are ALL about actively waiting ... preparing, waiting, anticipating and standing fully in the presence of God and trusting wholly in the promises that are part of the season.
Actively waiting means curtailing our enthusiastic action that tries to bring about the coming of the Kingdom, and simultaneously doing more than just twiddling our thumbs and waiting for things to unfold ... it’s standing in the middle place of balancing work and waiting ... preparing the way but not being so involved in the preparation that we get in the way of the Spirit ...
In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
an inn where we must ultimately answer
whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we can no longer look the other way
conveniently not seeing stars nor hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily
tending our sheep or our kingdoms.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
and see this things that the Lord has made known to us.
In the midst of our shopping sprees
let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,
let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places.
(In Search of our Kneeling Places – Ann Weems)
May it be so, thanks be to God, let us pray ...
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
1) Fresh roast Colombian Dark Roast Coffee Beans from Level Ground Trading Ltd.:
2) Place a generous portion of coffee beans in the grinder (repeat if necessary!):
3) Place fresh ground in coffee make with cold filtered water:
Monday, November 29, 2010
Back in September, I was honoured to be asked to Preach at the 170th and FINAL Anniversary Service for Lingelbach United Church (formerly Lingelbach Evangelical and Lingelbach Evangelical United Brethren Church).
It is a small yellow brick building that stands on the North-West Corner along highway 7&8 between Stratford and New Hamburg ... on the South-East Corner sits the Cemetery where my father, his parents, brothers, and many members of our family tree ... on the South-West Corner sits the farm that was for almost 140 years, our "home" farm ... It's a significant place in my memory and in my axis mundi ...
To be asked to come and preach at the church where 40 some years ago I was dedicated, and where in the years prior my parents were married, my father was buried, and my grand parents attended, supported and were buried from, was significant and poignant.
The service was noted previously in an earlier posting ... it was a wonderful moment that I will forever be thankful for ... In addition to reaquainting myself with my roots, seeing family members I haven't seen in too long, and being immersed in the place that ultimately gave rise to my present ministry (along with Centennial United in Stratford - also a former Evangelical and Evangelical United Brethren Congregation !!), I left that morning with a special memento of the Church and my family connection there ...
Ms. H. found a copy of the 1958 EUB Hymnal that had been donated by my Grandparents Alvin and Erna ... but what made it extra special to me was the pencilled noted alongside the dedication plate ... I can picture my Uncle John, probably about seven at the time, taking exception to being left out of the dedication, and deciding to surreptiously include his name while no one was looking !!!
For over 50 years that hymn book served the people of Lingelbach with its quaint dedication ... and now that Uncle John, like Uncle Jim, Uncle Bruce, Uncle Glen, Uncle Earl and my dad Sam have all gone, that simple pencil inscription becomes a precious (and precocious) memento of the past !!! I may never sing from this hymn book again, but every time I open it, I remember where I come from, and I reaquaint myself with my history and heritage.
I'm proud to be an Ankenmann. But I'm even more proud to be a child of the Evangelical United Brethren Church !!! (and to be completely honest, I likely would have done the same thing Uncle John did !!)
Since then, the dark roast whole bean Cafe San Miquel has been my coffee of choice ... a choice, I've shared with numerous others who have come to have the same appreciation of a fine cup of java !!!
I've organized sales of Level Ground's coffee, sugar and dried fruit at no less than three separate congregations as a fund raising opportunity for thier life and ministry. For a time the Mayor's Office in Brandon even used Cafe San Miquel in their coffee pots !!!
Tomorrow, after an absence of almost five months, the Colombian Coffee (Dark Roast Whole Bean) returns to my coffee pot !!!!!
Not only that, but I add two more congregations to my tally of congregations where Level Ground Trading Ltd Coffee will be available for sale !!!! To do my part to help Eugenia United Church and St John's United Church, the Ethiopian and Colombian Coffees will be for sale through the Church office !!!
I'll openly admit my motivations are twinged with my own selfish coffee interests ... but fortunately, as I am able to quench my coffee craving for the Colombian Dark Roast, others are able to share in the enjoyment of one of Canada's BEST fair trade coffee ... stay tuned, I've even enquired about making the coffee available thru the Resource Centre at Central Westside United Church in Owen Sound !!!!
A GOOD Coffee MUST be shared !!!!
Oh, and it makes an absolutely FABULOUS Christmas Present for those 'hard to buy for' folks on your list !!!
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
This morning after a night of blowing snow, we awoke to the proverbial marshmallow world in the winter ... BLAH !!!!
It took an hour of shoveling to get the driveway, the deck and the entrance cleared ... it does look lovely, especially with the sun shining so brightly ... I guess it's safe to say that winter has finally arrived ... apparently we have a snow warning still in effect for our area, so it may mean MORE shovelling ... but for the moment, the snow is shovelled and a brunch of french toast from fresh baked bread and hot chocolate made the work worthwhile !!!
It is quiet ...
Standing at the kitchen window, I watch the snow plough pass the house for the fourth time.
The wind outside it blowing, moving snow from here to there ...
It looks cold ...
Everything is blanketed with a layer of fresh white snow.
An occassional car passes, its wheels sloshing through the snow and slush.
I can't help but wonder who is out driving at this time of night, and where are they going, or where are they coming from ...
The only sound in the house is the rhythmic 'tick-tock' of the clocks, and the occassional groan or creak from the house as it bends and flexes in the wind.
It is dark ...
It is quiet ...
It is late ...
I should be in bed, but I've been awake now for almost three hours ...
Faint hunger pangs drew me to the kitchen in seach of a little something ...
I found a couple of chocolate chip cookies, and a glass of milk.
I enjoyed them standing looking out the window, watching the plow and the wind.
Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie,
but sometimes it is a chance to stand and reflect on life and the path we've trod ...
Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie,
but sometimes it is a chance to enjoy the moment ...
Friday, November 26, 2010
Thursday, November 25, 2010
One of the privileges of ministry is meeting people and having them share their journey and their reflections with you ... once in awhile you meet someone who has a special story to share, and who have found a means of sharing something unique and special ...
Sharon, a member of Eugenia United Church, is just such a person. She has in recent years discovered her voice, and has put to paper and CD her poetry. Her words reflect a deep spirituality, and a quest to share her words with others.
Sharon has a webpage to connect with her ideas and her poetry, and I would encourage folks to go and check out the web page AND Sharon's words ...
You'll find it at: poetryspeaker.com
There is a story about a monastery in France that was renowned for its deep spiritual life. People flocked from all over Europe to share in the inspiration that it offered. People yearning to experience the presence of God came to the monastery to encounter the Holiness that was part of the place and its spiritual life ...
In time though, the brothers became proud and began to take themselves too seriously. Instead of living in humility, they became proud of thier humility, and slowly fewer and fewer pilgrims came to seek out their wisdom and guidance. Fewer monks came and joined their order. In time the brothers became rigid and worshipped the way things were ... their order and their monastery was dying physically and was spiritually dead. The monks were old and in a few short years the monastery would be nothing more than a memory ...
Then one day a scraggly stranger came to the door of the monastery. He was dirty and obviously homeless ... he smiled as he asked the monks for a place to rest for the night. The monks reluctantly invited him in, and set a place for him at the table.
Over their simple supper they enjoyed his presence, laughter and spiritual stories passed back and forth across the table. The monks sensed a spiritual depth in this stranger, and lingered til late in the night savouring the visit and the conversation ...
The next morning as the stranger prepared to leave the monastery and continue on his way, he thanked the Abbott profusely for the kindness of the brothers, then whispered in to the old man’s ear:
‘I need to tell you a secret ... one that God has given me with the permission to share with you ...” with a smile and a twinkle in his eye he continued: “Christ is here in your midst !! The Messiah is masquerading as one of your brothers !!”
The Abbott was shocked ... “The Messiah is here?? The Messiah? Here?? ... In this place ?? No !! That just isn’t possible ...”
Yet after the stranger left the Abbott shared the revelation with the other brothers ... and like the Abbott they couldn’t believe it either.
BUT, then they began to think about the revealed secret ... could it be brother John? No, he’s too selfish ... but it might be Brother Peter? No, he’s too clumsy ... they looked at each of the monks sharing the Monastery with them and wondered ... could he be the Messiah?? Could he be pretending to be selfish, or clumsy, or unlike what we’d expect of the Messiah? Could the Messiah be masquerading as the least likely of the brothers, pretending to be something that he is not to open our eyes and hearts and spirits to the possibility?
They then started to treat each other differently. They recognized the possibility that one of their brothers could possibly be Christ, and so they acted accordingly ... AND they recognized that with the Messiah in their midst they had to be more vigilant about their spiritual life too ...
Soon they lived an engaged and enthusiastic spiritual life ... they read scripture and prayed and worshipped with fervor ... the no longer took their spiritual life for granted nor took their humility for granted either. Soon people began to make their pilgrimages back to the monastery to learn from them and to share in the spiritual wisdom that was once again vibrant and dynamic in the ancient stone walls ...
New Monks began to join the order and it once again became a centre of spiritual life ... ALL because they became open and alive to the possibility of Christ in their midst.
They opened themselves to the possibility of Christ being present in their order ... they became a manifestation of the Kingdom of God not just to the world around them, but to one another and to themselves. They remembered their purpose and their vocational call !
We are called on the Reign of Christ Sunday to pause before we begin our Advent Journey to Bethlehem and the events of the First Christmas, to pause and remember our vocation and our calling. We are being called to remember our vocation as members of the Kingdom of God resident and incarnate in the world.
This past week I re-read a passage in a book that rattled me in a good way ... Graham Standish, a Presbyterian Minister writes in his Book “Becoming a Blessed Church”:
Many of today’s mainline churches are wandering aimlessly in the desert wondering what to do to inject new life into their congregations. I’ve talked to many pastors and leaders of these churches in my work in retreats, at Conferences, and as a spiritual director. They struggle painfully as they try to find the RIGHT approach, the RIGHT programme, the RIGHT system, to get their church moving and growing. They go to Conferences and workshops that promise them a fast-growing, healthy, church if only they do this or that. They resturn from the Conference or workshop armed with new ideas and renewed energy, only to find three months later that they are back where they were before – demoralized and drained of energy.
Remembering our vocational calling – to be the Body of Christ is the first step.
Remembering that we may encounter Christ in our midst is the second step. And to ground everything we do in prayer is vital to all of it ... without prayer, the Kingdom of God will never come into being.
Without prayer there is no vitality,conversation with God. and there is no life in the ministry and work of the Church ... the challenge as we acknowledge and accept the Reign of Christ and posit Christ in the place of ruler and King over us in turn offers a challenge to embrace the fullness of prayer, not as petition, but as an ongoing conversation with God that emphasizes experiencing the Holy and the very presence of God.
One author notes, somewhat facetiously that Homer Simpson, the patriarch of the Cartoon family The Simpson’s is a typical of most North Americans when it comes to things spiritual and religious.
Homer goes to church mainly because Marge drags him there ... one of my favourite episodes involves Homer sitting watching a football game while Reverend Lovejoy offered his sermon ... the end of the sermon coincided with a crucial touch down on Homer’s tiny tv, and his exuberent reaction was NOT for the sermon ... Marge’s “Oh Homer!” summed the moment up very nicely.
Homer also prays. But he only prays when he needs or wants something. His prayers on the show have been summarized as “Oh God, it’s me Homer ... I know I don’t talk to you very much, but if you give me this, I’ll be better about my faith ...”
In many ways, Homer is US ... he is what many of us in our culture are like. We forget about things spiritual and religious until we have a crisis, or we face something scary and frightening – then we remember God.
Yet, what prayer is, is NOT petition. It’s something far more. It’s a conversation with God that is not asking for something specific, but is engaging in an ongoing conversation with God AND most importantly, standing fully in the presence of God.
Years ago I remember being in a Conference AGM in BC when the worship service lead by the First Peoples of the Coast challenged us to move through the world KNOWING that everything around us is Holy Ground and infused with the very presence of God.
“take off your sandals,” enthused a button blanket wearing elder, “you’re standing on holy ground ...” and he went on to describe Holy Ground as being ALL around us, not seperated from from us.
Prayer is the same ... it is not about drawing into God’s presence periodically in isolated moments and locales, it’s about being in God’s presence ALL the time.
Prayer is simply being present with God and knowing that our thoughts and our words are heard and answered ...
One last idea to consider when it comes to prayer ... In the movie Evan
Almighty there is a scene that I’ve used as semon illustration before.
In the movie Evan Almighty, former newsbroadcaster Evan Baxter, has been elected to the US Senate and when he arrives in Washington DC finds himself called by God to building an ark and save humanity from a pending flood. Evan endures incredible ridicule of his neighbours and his community while his wife and sons struggle to make sense of his inexpicable behaviour.
Evan’s wife has finally decided she needs to just leave Evan to his insane quest, and get away ... she and the boys end up in a diner where she has a conversation with the waiter who also happens to be “God”.
After confessing to who her husband is, God replies that he likes New York Noah and thinks what he is doing is a love story about believing in each other ... he explains by asking: “If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience, or does he give them the opportunity to be patience? If he prays for courage, does God give them courage or does he give them opportunity to be courageous? If someone prayed for family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?”
Prayer is not about asking God, but rather living that love story between ourselves and our creator.
As a Church, we are called to be the Kingdom of God in and to our world ... we are called to acknowledge Christ as our one and only King ... we are called to share our faith.
AND all of that begins in, and is ground with prayer ... prayer that envelopes us in the very presence of the Holy, and sends us into the world without fear to face what we’re called to transform through the resurrection.
To turn back to Standish for a moment. The calling of the brothers in the Monastery we began with is the same as our calling – to Be Alive with and to the very Presence of Christ in our midst.
And remarkably, when we’re aware of that, “All that matters is that we do what we are called to do, how we are called to do it, and where we are called to do it!!”
May it be so, thanks be to God, let us pray ...
In doing my prep for Sunday morning I found a passage in Eckhart Tolle that caused me pause ... In the Advent season of waiting and anticipating, one can easily get too caught up in the preparation and find one's self in a place of anxiety waiting for the unfolding of Christmas, or one can be so fearful of the season that one can find one's self in a place of anger, resentment and negativity. The challenge for the season, and indeed the calling of faith that resonates as we make our way to Bethlehem is to be present to the moment in which we stand, and to wait actively for the events to unfold ... we can neither hurry, nor tarry, but instead we need to simply make the journey both through Advent, and in our daily lives, step by step:
Negativity is not intelligent. It is always of the ego.
Whenever you are in a negative state, there is soemthing in you that wants the negativity, that perceives it as pleasurable, or that believes it will get you what you want. Otherwise, who would want to hang on to negativity, make themselves and others miserable, and create disease in the body?
So, whenever there is negativity in you, if you can be aware at that moment that there is something in you that takes pleasure in it or believes it has a useful purpose, you are becoming aware of the ego directly. The moment this happens, your identity has shifted from ego to awareness. This means the ego is shrinking and awareness is growing.
(Eckhart Tolle - Oneness With All Life, pg 117)
The Advent Season is a reminder to engage in active waiting by living in full awareness of this moment ... this moment is ALL there really is.
I got an email from a friend and a reader of my blog that I felt compelled to share ... it made me blush, but also helped me appreciate the deep care and support this friendship has brought to my life in the last ten years ... So, good, bad or indifferently here's what was offered by an old friend who has been there through thick and thin:
Just thought we'd write and tell you we think you are already a Blue Jay .
Only a couple of items didn't ring true......obnoxious and stunningly beautiful ( sorry)
But you ARE bold, have a loud booming voice when you want to use it, you love to eat and you are intelligent.
So you more or less fit the bill.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
A long time ago, one of my mentors and inspirations in ministry used to neatly, and carefully clip quotations and passages out of books he was reading to save them for posterity, or future use ... whichever came first ... in time, a couple of his books made their way into my library, and every time I encounter the void in the middle of a page in the midst of a book, I think of Ross and smile at the thought that somewhere this paragraph was dubbed valuable and was dutifully clipped and saved for a sermon, or an article or some creative expression that flowed from his life and ministry ...
The biggest impact Ross had on my life was a passion for books ... I still remember the very first book he gave me ... it is sitting on the shelf in my study, and every time I catch a glimpse of it, I think of him and the collection he and that single tome started.
This past week I've been reading the book "The Parboiled Pastor" by Steven McKinley and found within it, one of his collected columns that was about the role books play in the life and ministry of clergy and church leaders. McKinley's words resonated with me, and with the feelings I have about books ... he spoke of not being able to loan out books for fear of getting them back (something I can REALLY relate to) ... but it was his view of the ROLE books play in our preaching.
McKinley talked about his mentors speaking of spending time in their Study - not thier office, their study ... I have always taken time in my sermon and service prep to read and truly research my themes and topics ... to some, it is a waste of time - there is no direct contact with people, and so it is not considered part of ministry ... but those who understand like McKinley (and others) note that time spent in study is time spent refreshing one's batteries spiritually, intellectually and physically, and it is also time spent reinforcing and expanding one's understanding of ministry and calling.
Sitting amidst various books and resources may not seem to be valuable time in ministry when emphasis is placed on visits, services, and other more physical actions, but without a grounding on a solid theological foundation, none of the work will amount to much, and the dynamic transformation we are called to embody and share will instead wither and die ...
The resurrection is not an intellectual exercise, nor can it be fully appreciated and proclaimed without a good grounding in the literature and theology of our culture and our world ... having a physical space called a Study, where we sit and do the necessary work of ministry that is far more than just reading, is about finding that balance point and preparing ourselves for the vocation that is ministry.
I am deeply appreciative to finally have a space within our house that is a dedicated "study" ... I share it with the felines of our house, but it is where for the first time in almost four years, my books are out and accessible, and I can step into it and immerse myself in the process of study and the gift of the Spirit it entails ...
It may not be pretty, or neat, but my Study is MY space ... and for that I am thankful.
Where there's a will there's always a way !!!
This guy is DETERMINED to get the peanuts in the bird feeder !!!
He has to jump up almost a metre on to the deck, then up another metre to the railing, and finally up in excess of a metre to reach the feeder ... and his final acrobatic stunt is dangling upside down while his back claws grip the feeder top ...
He's earned his peanuts !!!!