Month: December 2015

Tree Lot on December 23

German ornament copy

Maybe one of the saddest things you can do, the evening of December 23rd, is to stand on a sidewalk and look at a Christmas tree lot. It’s like peering into the fairy-tale ballroom after Cinderella and the Prince have left. You see the evidence of something magical. But no actual magic. And no people. There are tags strewn about, needles stamped into the earth, bits of twine here and there from the wrapping machine, placards wired onto the fence advertising the prices– scotch pines, ten dollars a foot. A Big “Merry Christmas-Joyeux Noel” still stencilled on the entrance. But the party’s over. All that’s left is garbage.

Which is why it’s doubly hard to see a tree, on such a lot, hours before Christmas. A tree that apparently, no one wanted. I empathize with those trees. On the lot by the church in my neighbourhood last night, it was dark. The speakers on the lightposts in Verdun were still playing Christmas music: Jingle Bell Rock and Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. But on the lot, the lights had been put out. A half-dozen trees leaned forlornly against slat fencing. No one even bothered to guard them– the gate was wide open. You want a tree? Go on in and take one, someone would have said. If someone had bothered to be there.

The trees, so valuable just a few days ago – are now for the asking. The problem is, no one’s asking. The bubble of Christmas tree speculation – if we can call it that – bursts somewhere during the evening of, probably, December 21st. A Christmas tree alone on Christmas Eve is as unwanted as a turkey after Thanksgiving. Worse, actually. Because at least a turkey can stay frozen. People get hungry again. No one gets the urge for a Christmas tree in January. Not even a beautiful ten-foot balsam fir. And because they’re cut, the tragedy is, no one can replant them. These living creatures have been sacrificed for absolutely nothing. Actually, less than nothing. They’re a liability.

So there I was, my hands full with last-minute groceries, looking into the lot, hearing the carols, and thinking about Christmas. And abandonment. I was remembering all the times in my life I’ve felt like one of those trees. The times I’ve been at some conference and realized that all the important people around me were being taken up, disappearing one by one into conversations, lunch-plans, networking, wanted for their value. And I was left behind. The times, so many years ago, when I was a teenager, when I sat at home alone, my social capital less than nothing. Times have changed, in my life. That’s not true anymore. But my memories still remind me what that’s like.

And then I thought about my students. All those young people, on the day they start CEGEP or college, trying so desperately to figure out what might get them a job five years down the road. It’s such a crap shoot. The stakes are high. Some of them will get it right. They’ll be the ones snapped up like the premium Christmas trees at the beginning of December. Many of them will get it partially wrong. But they’ll get picked up just the same, like the tree that’s a bit quirky but just right for that family in the small apartment, or the one that’s sold for a few dollars less. But after that, a few students will see the promise, feel the action so close but so far, and for any number of reasons, they will be passed over. They’ll wind up like these trees. Those are the people I said a prayer for, standing there.

Then I thought about Luther. Because doesn’t a person automatically think about Luther, looking into a Christmas tree lot?  Luther LOVED the Nativity. But he said, and I quote: the birth was pitiful. There was no one –those were his words: no one – to take pity on this young wife who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition. She, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night. There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, no one offering her service. Luke says, in describing Jesus’ birth, that the family was painfully unwanted. Desperate.

And then I thought about my tree, in my apartment. With its lights it glows in the dark and makes me feel warm just looking at it. On its branches I’ve placed the memories of so many beautiful places and people and encounters. G’s friend came for a visit yesterday and said it smelled great. These trees, I thought, looking at the ones scattered and alone in the dark lot – they will never have that moment of beauty.

As I was standing there, a young man who had been loitering across the street from me, under the awning of the metro, sauntered across, hands in his pockets. He looked in at the trees, like I was doing. I thought at first that he had come to ask me for change. But he ignored me. To my surprise, he stepped right past me, into the lot, and up to the abandoned tree I was looking at. And suddenly there was an old truck there, pulling up to the curb, and other young people, two bearded fellows and a woman, gloves on. As I watched they began to load the trees onto the back of the pick-up.

Wait a minute, Hey, wait! I called out to the first kid. What are you doing with these trees?

We’re rescuing them, he answered, with a smile.

What do you mean?

If we leave them they’ll just go into some landfill. The City has a recycling program, but they don’t come here. So we’re taking them. Why? Do you want one?


He shrugged, Okay. Better for us. We can use them. These ones are the best. They’re not plugged up with tinsel and all that other crap (actually, he didn’t use the word crap).

What do you do with them?

The young man evaluated me, but only for a second. With my hands full of shopping bags, and my Anglophone accent, it was pretty clear I wasn’t some sort of city authority.

We take them to our farm, and we grind them up, he answered. Well, not all of them. The really misshapen ones we use as bird-feeders. They’re perfect, like this guy here – he indicated one particularly straggly, ugly tree. We’ll hang bags of suet from his branches and the birds will just love to make a home in him.

The other ones – he nodded to the rest – well. He hoisted one in his hands. They’ll give their wood to mulch and their needles to the strawberries. They don’t make good Christmas trees. But they’re far more valuable for us. They’ll help new life grow, by sheltering the berries under their needles.

And then the fellow jumped in, and the truck took off, and I was left alone again. And I stood there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, and I thought about Christmas again, and about the angels above the hills of Bethlehem, and what it was they were actually singing to the shepherds. About a God who picks out – and picks up – ESPECIALLY the unwanted and the abandoned. The ones left behind. Who uses even that, even loneliness, and death, and injustice and oppression and the stripping away of beauty, as a way of bringing new life to the world. Who has never stopped, as it turns out, being the Creator. And I realized that there is more than one way to be noble. And many ways to be of service. And that the true message of Christmas is in a refugee child, leaning against a fence, forgotten but not alone, whose life means hope and whose death shelters new life, again and again, always Christmas. Always, evergreen.

candles in the snow

Who’s Missing at Christmas

Chagall Chicago Art Inst of Design

I have a confession to make. I haven’t made a parcel for my son D. yet this Christmas. This has been on my mind a lot the last few days. I haven’t gotten something together and baked cookies and wrapped up little reminders of home and sent it all away via Canada Post. Christmas morning will come, and way off in England somewhere, D. and his girlfriend E. will wake up, and brush the sleep out of their eyes, and get some fresh coffee, and stretch and yawn, and then they’ll sit and open presents. And there won’t be anything from Daniel’s pappa. Me. And the worst part is: it’s too late now. I could make all kinds of excuses: it’s final exam marking time, there are so many emails going back and forth about the Finnish and Estonian churches, the research for the book on pilgrimage is taking too long. Things were crazy-busy at the university. All true. But really, is any of that an excuse? I just haven’t been paying enough attention.

At this time of year, one of the questions that comes up, in very many families, is who will be missing this Christmas? We don’t just decorate the table – we start to think about who will be around it. And who won’t. Sometimes it’s because of a death. This is the first Christmas for me without my mother. Some of you have lost loved ones in the last couple of years. You know how hard that is. Sometimes it’s because of distance, as it is for me with my middle son. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Children grow up and go to their partners’ parents, or have Christmasses of their own. Sons or daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, are off at school, or away traveling. Maybe there’s been a rupture in the family. That’s especially difficult it seems, at Christmas, in what is supposed to be a season of love and forgiveness. There’s a reason that this is also the season of greatest depression and anxiety. “I’ll be home for Christmas” isn’t just the title of a song. It’s a feeling we have in our heart. It’s an urge, almost instinctive, to be home, wherever we feel home is. It’s an unconscious, powerful urge to gather in loved ones under our wings.

One of the ironies of Christmas, is that that warm, family, clannish keeping track of who is home and who is away is actually not very Christmassy. If, by Christmas, we mean the first one.

The first announcement wasn’t about pulling the family all together. It was, instead, about expanding the very notion of family. Blessed are you among women, cries out Elizabeth, as if she can’t help herself: and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why? Because Jesus was going to help his family? Actually, no. As it turns out, he was about to tear his family apart. And a sword will pierce your heart also, the old prophet Simeon warns Mary about her future. This kid will be trouble. But for humanity – well, that was something different. This child was born to expand the whole concept of family, to include, in the sense of all the prophets of Israel, all those people traditionally left out.

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. NOT the rich. Not the upper-class. Not the influence-peddlers and intellectuals and business-people. For the mighty one of Israel has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things – even better than a Canada Post box from home – and God has sent the rich away empty.

Who is missing this Christmas is an issue that has to do, not with sentimentality and longing, but with who we see and who we ignore.

Christmas, according to Luke, is NOT about happy faces around a table where everyone is related to us. We know that. Of course. But it bears repeating. Christmas is much tougher, and more real. It’s about raw power. It’s about justice, and injustice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And God’s choice, this Christmas, is as it was the first Christmas, is NOT for US. It’s for the refugee, and the migrant, and the outsider, and the poor, and the working poor. God chooses to lift up, not the rich, not the happy, and not even the middle-class. God’s incarnation was and is, to lift up the lowly.

Blessed are you among women, says Elisabeth. Because God is doing something important through you. In you, God is already lifting up the lowly, and remembering the long-standing promise.

Mary is, in a Biblical sense, the spoiler. When you think about it, she’s a lot like the whole Biblical nation of Israel wrapped up in one person. For just as God once chose a weak, insignificant nation of slaves, so God once chose a weak, insignificant girl.

Firstly, she was a girl. At a time when women were property only one step up from the furniture, God chose of all people, a woman. In addition, she was young – we don’t know quite how young, but young. And finally, she was caught in a scandal, in a society not so different from the societies today where a young woman in Mary’s place would be murdered brutally by her own family for so-called shame of getting pregnant.

This was the one God chose as the theotokos, or: “God-bearer”. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, she replies to the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

The message for us is this. If God chose someone as weak and insignificant as Mary for something so important and powerful, then SURELY God continues to choose the weak and insignificant around us. And we need have no shame when we feel that way. AND: we should be ashamed when we ignore the theotokai – the weak and insignificant – who are the prophetic witnesses to what is important and real in our own world.

In the Paris climate talks that just wrapped up, one of the things we learned is that climate change isn’t just about protecting ourselves. It’s about justice. Because it’s more often than not the poorest who are the first to feel the effects of unstable climate. So climate change is once more, a question of how we work out our faith, or fail to.

In Judea, in Paris, in Montreal, wherever you are, God is in the business of using nobodies to perform powerful foolishness. Like Mary said: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has helped this servant, in remembrance of such a great mercy.”

My urge, this Christmas, like yours perhaps, is to bring the family together as much as possible. I want to know who’s missing at Christmas. Somehow to include my son in England. And that’s not a bad thing. But God wants me – God wants us – to think even BIGGER. Who’s missing at Christmas isn’t just the son who isn’t getting a parcel on time. It’s the one who never gets a parcel, the one who waits at the border, the one who lives on a reservation without drinkable water.

What can we do?

We can say with Mary my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God. And then we can let justice be born in us. Even when we are nobodies, worth almost nothing, we CAN do that, with love for Christ and for each other. For we are like Mary in one last, important way. When we think we have and are nothing, but we are open to the announcement of the angel, that’s when God can use us most of all.

The Stranger who travels with Us


I recently heard a story about a Norwegian acquaintance of mine. She was in Germany at a conference, and when one of the German academics first met her, she told her: “oh, you’re from Norway! I’d love to visit Norway someday.”

That’s nice. Right? Norway is a beautiful country. Nothing strange about what this woman said. Presumably, lots of people would love to visit the land of fjords and mountains. But what was a bit jarring was what came next. “My grandfather always told me stories, as I was growing up, about how lovely a country Norway is,” this German academic told my friend. “So I’ve always had this image of your homeland as a very special place. He said that in the early 1940s he spent some of the happiest years of his life in Norway.”

My acquaintance was a bit nonplussed. Did the German not realize what she was saying?

Yes, World War Two is long over. Yes, now Norwegians and Germans are neighbours and, very often, even friends. Yes, there are lots of German tourists welcomed in Norway every year. But did the German not realize that the ‘happiest years of life’ for her grandfather, who almost certainly was in Norway as a soldier during what was a brutal occupation of the country, were not exactly the happiest years of Norwegian history?

Countries, like people, don’t mature and grow up without suffering, and sometimes, without causing suffering. And the church is the same.

Perhaps no institution in the western world has been the cause of so much growth and help, relief and education and hope as the church. Perhaps no institution in the western world has been the cause of so much misery and pain and ignorance and hate and death, as the Christian church. So when we hear the words of the prophet: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the Way, we need to start by being a LOT more sensitive than that German academic. We have to ask ourselves exactly how we, personally, might be implicated in the message. Is Advent good news, or bad news?

For one thing, it means, without apology, that it’s okay to be political. The first words we hear about John the Baptist are political: in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Luke writes, naming the dictator of the day: when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… You can’t escape it. Advent always comes to us in the midst of politics.

This year, the politics are again brutally obvious: more and more and more shootings, most recently in California, and all the while some Americans saying that there’s nothing to be done. Rivers of blood staining the streets in Syria. Extreme weather events killing people and creating refugees globally – even as world leaders gather in Paris, in a city so recently scarred by the awful terrorist murders of innocent youth, to debate whether the climbing thermostats will make the world uninhabitable for our grandchildren. Millions of people flooding across borders and across oceans. A mass migration of misery. Children dying. Drones dropping bombs. Changing governments, a plummeting dollar, financial insecurity, increasing surveillance, and everyone uneasy.

Prepare the way of the Lord. As if we have time and space and hope enough for that, we think. Make God’s paths straight.

The most basic thing these words tell us is that something IS happening. We can’t put our heads in the sand. Changes are coming – have always been coming – and we can’t pretend otherwise. The world is changing. We are, as individuals, as institutions, and as families, facing massive upheavals. Our bank accounts, our homes, our educations, will NOT be walls high enough to save us. None of us will be the same ten years from this Advent. We can’t escape.

We are heading down some sort of path, into this hard environment, what the Bible calls this desert.

Making paths STRAIGHT seems to be about how we go forward, which is a matter of justice. When it comes to refugees, it’s clear, in recent news, that we can either straighten refugee routes, or we can block them. Between those two options, the Bible is quite clear. Hospitality to the poor and the oppressed is not just expected. It’s demanded. I was naked, and you clothed me, says Jesus, in Matthew, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was on the evening news huddled in the rubble on the newsfeed, and you did something. Whatsoever you have done to the least of these, you have done for me. To prepare the way almost never seems to be about protecting our own interests. Far more, it’s about allowing into our shelters and onto our paths those who need it most. I do not desire your offerings, says the LORD in the Hebrew Bible, but let justice roll down like streams. And yet. And yet we ALSO need to have a good solid sense of ourselves to undertake that prophetic work, otherwise what we do will be insincere and superficial.

And maybe this is the other part of the story. It seems like a paradox, but it’s a basic truth: the more comfortable we are with our own selves and with our own place, the easier it will be for us to travel through the coming desert, to face adversity and to make the paths straight for others. Our basic equipment, so to speak, is how we feel about ourselves, and what we know ourselves to be.

If we FEEL loved, we are better able to love. If we know that we are valuable, it’s easier to value others. If we learn to be gracious and forgiving with ourselves, we will, in most cases, have an easier time being gracious and forgiving with others. So our first task is to remember – and to remind ourselves and others – that WE are valued creations, loved, and accepted, just the way we are. Then we can treat others that way.

We are ALL strangers, and preparing a way means making that highway through the desert big enough for everyone.

There was a lovely video I saw recently about the settling of Saskatchewan. It was so well designed and shot. It talked about how life was hard for the European pioneers, but how life got so much better, and about how prosperous most of those families are now. In one sense, there was nothing wrong with the video at all. It was quite beautiful. But when it was done, I thought the same thing as that Norwegian academic I started out describing, thought of the German: do they not realize? Yes, the pioneers – among them my grandparents – worked hard. Yes, prosperity came. But at what price? The film, meant to be so inclusive, never once mentioned the First Peoples, and the disaster that European settlement was for them.

For us to celebrate an anniversary, or to prepare a way through the wilderness, two things must come together – a commitment to justice AND a sense of our own fractured and imperfect belonging. My friend Kathryn recently posted a quotation from a 4th century ascetic, Amma Syncletica, about how we develop a relationship with our Creator. Amma was a desert woman herself, and she wrote: In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: At first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.

The desert is not ahead of us. It is where you and I are traveling already. There will be cold nights and hunger and difficulty. As we journey, we can either take note of our fellow travelers, or not. When we do, and when we welcome them, and work for justice, and share love, we are already making the paths straight – for the Creator of all, the One who calls us, is already that stranger who travels with us.