Jesus

We Call it Winter

Today, with how cold it was, I got out the gear. Actually it was kind of fun. Snow pants, long special mitts good to -40 Celsius, thermal underwear, Russian-style hat, boots. Since this winter has been, generally, so mild, it’s okay – maybe even good – when every now and then the temperature drops. Nobody is complaining about the cold snap. So long as you’re prepared, you’re okay. Right?

Jesus, apparently didn’t have much preparation time for his excursion in extreme conditions. Luke says that Jesus returned from the Jordan river area and was led into the wilderness. Just like that. No prep time.

That word – wilderness, and the mental and physical and spiritual space it represents – is important. We Canadians have our own form of wilderness. We call it winter. We’re proud of it and scared of it, at the same time. Like the people of the middle east, or peoples anywhere, and their wild places. In the Bible the wilderness represents more or less what the hardest times of winter represent for us Canadians – a place of deprivation, but also of challenge, and survival. Also, and very importantly, the wilderness represents a place where Israel, and later Jesus, and later, the early Christians, consistently meet God. In that struggle for survival and meaning they define their true identity.

Interesting, how that works. It’s the HARD places, the difficult circumstances, where we tend to find our true characters under stress, AND where our Creator is to be found. The wilderness is a place that allows us, in fact, drives us, to meet our Maker. It’s just us and the elements, the most basic needs to survive. Lent represents our time in the cold. Our winter.

Really Seeing Harold

1507_1611harold_matthew_white_valley

This last summer on my pilgrimage across Saskatchewan, we walked an average of about 20 kilometres a day. The journey took place the end of July and the beginning of August. The days were boiling hot, 10 hours a day under a beating sun. The nights could actually get quite cool, in the hills down to four or five degrees. You had to be ready for anything. We faced heatstroke, cold, lightning, constant wind, limited water supplies, poorly-marked trails, and sore feet. So the last week when a senior citizen named Harold asked if he could join in, I was a bit skeptical.

It wasn’t so much that Harold didn’t look fit. He just looked OLD. I couldn’t tell how old, exactly. But old.

Are you sure this is going to be okay? I asked my friend Hugh. Hugh was walking the whole trail with me. Hugh was in top shape, had done most of the planning and had a good sense of what we were facing, better than I did. Don’t forget, I thought: any group is only as fast as its slowest walker.

It should be okay, Hugh responded. I’ve known Harold a long time. He might surprise you.

The first day Harold showed up, he came with an ancient orange back pack, the kind I had back in the 1970s. Oh no, I thought. Here we go. And he was slow – a bit. He lagged behind, a tad. But he never once complained. And when the rest of us stopped for a break, Harold kept going, so that he never actually slowed anyone down that first day.

The second day, Harold’s backpack looked different. What did you do to it, I asked him? I’m carrying more weight today, he said. And I’ll carry more tomorrow. My intent is to build up the weight until I can carry everything I need on my own back.

Now. None of us were doing that. We were ALL getting our tents and supplies ferried from one spot to another, just carrying our needs for the day. But Harold was determined to carry everything. And he did. Over the next five days he kept adding stuff to his pack until he was carrying his tent, his food, and all his gear.

And he got faster. By the end of the third day, I noticed that Harold was fairly consistently ahead of me. On the fourth day, we came to a set of hills. Where the rest of us took the lower route around, Harold looked up. “I’m a hydrologist,” he said. “As a scientist I’m really interested in rock formations. I’ll just go up these hills to have a look and meet you at camp.” And he did. We went around, he walked UP. And up. I could see him striding off into the distance.

On the fifth day, I was up early. Unlike the rest of us who had real tents, Harold slept in a sort of plastic sheet. As I watched, he came out it, and stretched, then sat on the ground and made himself tea. He didn’t seem to be half as sore, or as krinked up from sleeping, as I was, and the ground in that spot was NOT warm. He and I had become friends over the walk, so I walked over to where he was, and asked a question I’d been wondering for some time: “if you don’t mind my asking Harold, exactly how old ARE you?”

This man who had transformed, in those few days, into a master backpacker looked back at me and smiled. “How old do you think I am?”

Jesus, it says, was CHANGED in a wild and crazy X-files moment when Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared and the lights of heaven all came on. Transfiguration means changing. But instead of Jesus changing, maybe what really happened that day, what really changed, were the eyes of the disciples.

It’s like Harold. In the space of a few short days, a quiet, struggling elderly man had changed before my eyes. But my question is: did he change? Or was it really me?

In the Sustainability and Diversity class I teach at Concordia one of our readings is by a scientist by the name of Marten Scheffer. Scheffer describes a mechanism of perception that is almost universal in nature. It has a technical name, but we can call it “locking in perceptions”. It’s a way of quickly assessing sensory inputs. What happens – whether you’re a human being or a frog, apparently – is that if you see something that LOOKS like something you’re familiar with, your brain jumps to “lock in” that image or perception quickly, so you can react. We see what looks like a bear and our adrenaline kicks in, before we necessarily get all the information to fill in our initial sensory impressions.

That’s a good mechanism for survival. But not necessarily for judgment.

Often we just don’t see others for who they are. Most of the time, we don’t even see OURSELVES for who we are. When we do, it’s so shocking and so rare we call those moments “revelations”.

Does anyone see in you evidence of the little girl you once were in the old country? The little boy who used to shine his father’s shoes? Is there anyone in this world who can look at you and see the time you travelled, or the books that changed your life, or the time you won the swim meet, or that evening you skated in a magic winter landscape when the trees were frosted, or the key shaking in your hand when you bought your first house, or when you went through that terrible winter, or you shared that wonderful love, or whatever it was that has happened to you to make you the person you are? It’s not a mistake that that’s one of the lines of “Amazing Grace” is exactly that. “I once was blind, but now I see”. Enlightenment means starting to see each other and our world, in an Amazingly Graceful way. Seeing this way means seeing not necessarily the way things are but the way things REALLY are. Behind and through failure, and brokenness, and death, and suffering, and decay. Seeing the life that God is calling up, that we can’t even guess at. The parts of us still hidden in the cross.

So how old do you think Harold is?

I’m 79, he said to me, slowly. I was a rock climber, for years. I was a field scientist for decades. And now, he said, as he shouldered that heavy backpack, and started off ahead of me: I guess I’m a pilgrim, too.

Our Creator promises to see us the way we really are. NOT with the limits and prejudices and preconceptions we normally exercise. How wonderful is that. And what a great and graceful Transfiguration.

1507_1563pilgrimage_white_valley_sk

photos by James R. Page

Love Love Love Love Love, Actually

“Funeral held yesterday for La Loche shooting victim” CBC News.

“Over 40 dead after migrant boat sinks off Turkey” Huffington Post.

“Increasing concerns over Zika virus is changing tourism patterns in Central and South America” CBC Online.

“Thousands of complaints about the behaviour of physicians lead to very few cases of discipline” CBC News.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

“Nova Scotia winter storm leaves thousands without power this weekend” The Gazette.

“Scientists find genetic link to Alzheimers.” The Daily Telegraph.

“Genetic law urgently needed to keep insurance and other companies from discriminating against those with previously hidden flaws, says watchdog” Yahoo Canada News.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

            “Republican candidate Donald Trump says he’s looking forward to Iowa debate.” PBS Public Radio.

“Man in Oshawa Ontario legally changes his name to ‘None of the Above’ so that voters can choose ‘none of the above’ in the Ontario provincial byelection soon to be held there.” CBC News.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my very body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient, love is kind…” We really know those words. They’re some of the most famous from the Bible. Thanks to weddings, even people who never go inside a church know these words: “Love bears all things, hopes all things…” However, they don’t much sound like words from the news. “Love is not envious, or jealous or boastful…”

Love, love, love, love, love. Saying it is all very pretty, but when you get right down to it, what does love mean? This is a bit of a problem when it comes to actually applying what Paul has so beautifully expressed.

He wrote: “Earnestly desire the higher gifts”. And we should answer: of course! The problem is, love isn’t something any of us actually disagrees with. I mean, EVERYBODY thinks love is good. If we hired a survey company to phone a thousand people and ask them about this, 990 would all say the same thing – that yes, love is a very, VERY good thing.

And Jesus too said it: Love one another as I have loved you.

But do we or can we even agree on what this ‘good thing’ actually looks like? How we live it out? Practice it?

There are least two quite different ideas about love. We’ve probably agreed with both at one time or another.

Number one assumption about love is this: we tend to love – and SHOULD love – what we’re used to. As in, only someone like me who grew up in Saskatchewan loves that desolate prairie landscape. Or more seriously: if you were a child who was abused or beaten by your dad, how could you ever come to love a god who sometimes goes by the name “our Father”?

This is what we could call the “natural” ideal of love. We love as we’re able. Love is one of our self-expressions, and as such it is limited by our experiences.

So far so good.

However, there’s ANOTHER idea about love, and it can’t be stressed enough that this second idea about love isn’t the same. In this idea, love doesn’t necessarily come OUT of who we are and what we experience. Rather love goes INTO who we are and what we experience. In other words, if we love in ways that don’t necessarily come naturally, perhaps what is natural for us will change.

Consider again Paul. The guy who wrote: Love is patient and kind.

Paul? Anybody who’s studied the man knows that patient and kind are not the first words you’d ever use about Paul. It doesn’t sound much like the sarcastic apostle who told his opponents in the book of Galatians that if they wanted circumcision so badly they should just go all the way and castrate themselves. Frankly, he could be quite nasty at times. It sounds to me a bit like Paul was hoping someday he might live up to his own words.

But would that be so bad? Maybe, instead of love being what comes naturally, sometimes love has to be what is actually a stretch.  Most of us can be, and often are, basically kind people. But it’s harder to be loving and caring about some Christian we don’t know, who speaks a different language and has a different culture, who is a refugee from Syria. Or, even more, the Muslim refugee from Syria. That’s the kind of love that takes, not just a natural rush of sympathy, but several days or weeks or months’ worth of conscious caring.

Sometimes we get the idea that the opposite of love is hate. We’re wrong. The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s caution. It’s half-heartedness, fear, and distance.

Maybe, if we think biblically, we’re cautious of the kind of love Paul describes because we realize, down deep, that to love that way might be the end of us. Literally. Like it was the end of Jesus.

Since we ALL say we believe in love, we’d better know what it is we’re agreeing to. Paul leaves no doubt. Real love, he says, follows Jesus, who was not scared to show it. Real love results in the destruction of the old self and in the creation of a new self.

Love, in other words, is scary.

And that, as it turns out, is exactly how God loves us. Despite our faults, despite our failings, despite years and years of minor or major betrayals, there is a hidden subject behind this passage. Our Creator still bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things about us.

You and I are called to learn to love as does our Lord. Not as we can. But beyond what we can.

And these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Paul Did Not Convert

St Paul at St James church

In the calendar of the western church, today is the feast-day of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a bit of a problem. Especially, it’s problematic for any Christians who happen to be biblical scholars. It should be a problem for everyone who still marks this day. It’s pretty much accepted, now, at least in academic circles, that Paul didn’t convert. That is, on the road to Damascus, whatever happened to the extremist Saul of Tarsus (between horses in the paintings, no horses, voices from heaven, no voices, scales on his eyes and assorted other details one can take Acts to task for, since Acts repeats the story several times with variations) Paul didn’t stop being a Jew and suddenly become a Christian. Perhaps the easiest objection is that he couldn’t have! There was no such thing as Christianity for Paul to be converted to.

But there are other, more substantial issues. For one thing, in his own writings Paul never says he converted. Rather, he presents himself very much like an Old Testament prophet, called by the God of Israel (not some new deity but the one Paul knew all along), to proclaim that God’s Messiah, Jesus. The fact that so many Jews in Paul’s own day didn’t think Jesus was the Messiah is, in this case, beside the point. All of them were thinking of Israel’s God, no matter their disagreement on whether that God was, or wasn’t, responsible for the crucified teacher from the Galilee. Paul was a Jew, a Jew who believed with every molecule in his body that the Messiah had come, and that Israel’s God was about to change all of human history. In what he believed was the world’s defining moment, he thought his particular task, as a faithful Jew, was to invite the non-Jews into the family of Israel as they were, as non-Jews.

So Paul was not a Christian. This, by the way, is the title of Pamela Eisenbaum’s book on the subject. Perhaps there will someday also be a book with a title something like “Paul is not a (contemporary) Jew”. Judaism, like Christianity, has changed since the first century. Both contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity are children of a heterodox first century faith that no longer exists.

Paul once wrote: “I have become all things to all people”. Well, he got what he wanted. Paul has been made and remade so many times in our images it’s hard to know what he ever really was. The poor apostle’s been co-opted by supercessionists, by gnostics, by anti-semites, conservatives, liberals, sceptics and humanists alike. He’s been promoted as everything from the first liberated male of western religion to the one person responsible for everything bad about Christianity. The truth, as always, is probably not just in between, but lost, lost somewhere way back there, in the first century. However, there’s one thing we can be fairly certain of on this Feast-Day: whatever else he did, Paul did not convert.

Paul statue

For now just carry the water

Image result for Orit Shimoni

This last week a friend of mine, Orit Shimoni (http://www.oritshimoni.com/), came to town to perform. She’s also sometimes known as Little Birdie. Years ago she did graduate studies at Concordia, which is where I met her. Now, she tours all over the world playing her music. The place she sang at last Wednesday was a café on Cote-St-Luc road (not very far from here). It’s a small venue – fits maybe thirty people. She did the set with just a guitar and nothing else, so the words were really clear. Orit’s got kind of a theological bent to her music, which is one of the reasons I like it. One set of lyrics in particular struck me. It was about Cana, sort of.

Apparently, in Cana, in Galilee (that is, in the north of Israel), Jesus and his disciples were attending a local wedding. During the reception, more by chance than anything, Jesus performed his first miracle. He turned water into wine. But for her song Orit turned the words around. “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang, “you would not be alone.” Wine into water? What did she mean? “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang again, “a path to you I’d find.”

Oh, I thought. Oh.

There’s a tragedy behind that song. I didn’t ask her, but I think it’s about alcoholism. Orit sings a lot of sad songs, and songs with bite. But this one in particular has a ring. IF I could turn wine into water. Meaning: I can’t. And even though I don’t know the details, and I don’t know if it’s even about Orit: whoever that song is about couldn’t make a miracle. That’s what the song is about. That person couldn’t stop the alcoholism. Couldn’t turn wine into water.  And so now, instead of singing about a happy future, the song is about regret.

Makes for a great song. But a sad memory.

In the Bible story, the bride and groom, in fact, the whole wedding party, are headed for a disaster. Not an earthquake, ice-storm, tsanami kind of disaster. But the small kind of disaster we all run into every day and all hate: a major glitch. A screw-up: the wedding reception was about to run out of wine.

Now. This is not the worst thing that could ever happen. But if you’re the bride and groom, or the person responsible for the reception, it’s bad enough. No wine means unhappy guests. Probably guests leaving. So it says that Jesus’ mother stands up from where she’s seated, and makes her way over to see him.

The writer makes it clear that Jesus and his disciples were at the wedding in Cana, NOT to face any tests, but just to enjoy themselves. It’s not even clear if Jesus knew the wedding couple. I imagine in the hills of Galilee, it might have been a bit like some Italian weddings I’ve been to, where the whole neighbourhood is invited.

In any case, when we meet him Jesus is off in a corner, well-hidden. He’s out of the spotlight and wanting to keep it that way. But then the wedding runs out of wine.

Mary’s clearly a mother who knows her own kid better than he seems to know himself. She comes to his table and announces: “they have no more wine.” As if the next step is obvious. “They have no more wine – now, do you want to leave your own mother without a glass of Chardonnay?” Quite naturally, Jesus responds: “what does that have to do with me?” I love that. This is NOT the pious, angel-faced, head-upturned or downturned Virgin Mary we see in statues so often with her hands clasped meekly at her side. This is a tough Jewish mother who knows what her son is capable of, and won’t take no for an answer.

You would think that the Lord speaking should be enough for any human being. But no. Mary ignores Jesus completely. The Son of God, the Lord of Life, and what does she do? She goes back to her own table. And tells the servants: “do whatever he tells you.” She KNOWS he’s going to fall in line! The fact that the Bible treats a lack of wine as a disaster is already interesting. But that’s NOT the main point. The main point, at least in my thinking, has to do with the water.

You can imagine Jesus sighing and shaking his head. Once a kid, always a kid, even Jesus. Do you see those stone jars over there, he tells the servants? Fill them to the brim with water. Then, he says, go, take a jug, and fill it up from those same stone jars, and take it to the chief steward.

And so, timidly, one of them does.

This is where you and I come in. You and I are that one scared servant. Like the woman my friend Orit was singing about, you and I don’t have the power to do miracles. If we could, we would.

All we can do is carry the miracle. Every time we get together, every time we pray, and especially every time we go OUT in Jesus’ name and try to do something for the world, we’re the poor, terrified, uncertain servants. Just like at Cana, it’s all simple stuff – water, bread, wine. Or maybe in our cases, it’s a hug, or a song, or an ear, or a moment’s time, or a few dollars, or a few words. Now draw it out, Jesus tells us, even though it looks like simple water, and take it to the world.

So. If we’re faithful, if we’re trusting, and more often than that, even if we’re doubting, we do that. We draw the water out of our unremarkable, unmiraculous lives. Because ultimately, THAT’S ALL WE HAVE. Then we go. We carry what we fear might be way too ordinary, to a world that doesn’t expect or believe in miracles, but like the wedding guests need them just the same. And if it turns out that the water is just water, then, like St Paul said, we’re the greatest fools of all.

It took faith for whoever that first nameless servant was, to take a jug of what he or she was pretty sure was worthless, and take it to the head steward of the whole feast. And it takes faith for you and I to do OUR simple commissions, with our simple lack of resources and abilities. But we have to. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That is how we will be judged.

And just in case you and I think we have nothing to offer, we should think of the news story from CBC this last week. Did you hear about it, or read about it? There was a fourteen year old kid who was begging on the street, saying he was homeless, and in the midst of that terrible cold of this past week, although a few folks gave some change, guess who was the ONLY person to stop and offer this kid a coat – in fact, the coat off of his own back? The only person to help was another street person, an Inuk man, Putulik Kumaq, originally from Nunavut, but homeless on Montreal streets for the past 17 years. It turned out that the 14 year old kid was doing a school project and was being filmed secretly by his brother, which is the only reason we know about this selfless act.

Anytime we say we have nothing to give, we can remember the servants, who were just asked to carry water, and we can remember Putulik, who said “it’s cold, and I had a feeling he needed help”.

On the third day, it says, there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and here, amid the food, and drink, the visiting and gossiping and the stuff of life, Jesus did the first of his signs.

Wine from water is just the beginning. That is the real point. In your life and mine, wine from water is nothing, compared to what our Creator can do. You are carrying miracles, if only you know it, says the Creator of singers who come to Montreal, of street people and poets, of Putulik and Paul, and of you and me.

 

 

 

To see Orit playing the song, watch:

To hell and back

highway hearse 2014

I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital once and was completely thrown by what I discovered when I walked into her room.

Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Someone had told me what this woman was in for, I remember that. But I’m afraid it had gone straight in one ear and out the other. So when I walked into the hospital room, I was surprised to discover there was no bed. Instead there was this thing in the centre of a large space. It looked like some kind of miniature circus ride. Or a space-ship pod, or a climbing frame or something.

Hello? I said, tentatively. I stopped in the doorway. Was I in the right place? Then from the middle of the tubing and bars I heard the small voice of my parishioner: “hello….I’m down here.” I peered closer. Near the floor. And there she was, strapped right into the middle of that contraption. Hanging upside down.

I walked up to it. There was a bed there, all right. I could see it at this point. But it was an upside down bed. There was also a chair beside it. When I sat in the chair I couldn’t see the woman at all. It’s called a Stryker frame, she informed me dryly, while I sat down, got up again, and then kind of wandered in a circle around her, looking for some way I could actually make eye contact. Are you having trouble, pastor?

Obviously, it should have been me asking HER this question. But there we were. I have a spinal cord injury, she told me, while I dithered and fidgeted. I’m going to be in this thing a month, at least. My poor husband’s stuck at home working his job and taking care of three kids. We’ll be lucky if we’re still together by the time I’m out of this thing. You can stop shuffling around like that. She sounded annoyed. I’m not going anywhere.

I stopped shuffling around.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m okay, I answered her.

Well, I’m not, she said. Welcome to my own personal hell.

Now when all the people were baptized, it says, and when Jesus likewise had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

So pleased, apparently, that God would lead this Beloved Jesus, also, to his own personal hell, tortured and dying, on a cross. Someone once said: beware of being one of God’s favourites. It gets you into trouble every time.

And when you think about it, isn’t that true? Martin Luther would’ve been burned at the stake if they could’ve gotten hold of him. Or Martin Luther King, shattered with a bullet for speaking up for justice. Or Thomas a Becket, run through with a sword right there, on the steps of his altar. Or Saint Paul, persecuted and ridiculed and shipwrecked and murdered. Or any of a thousand Syrian Christians right now, in a country that was one of the first blessed with the Gospel, fleeing desperately to save their lives.

With you I am well pleased. That’s what the voice said to Jesus when he was baptized.

It’s an odd sort of pleasure.

In trying to understand the mystery of why Jesus was baptized at all, I think about the woman in the hospital, who told me she was in her own personal hell. Or the comment I saw on Facebook yesterday, congratulating another woman on her first cancer-free diagnosis. After five years of hell, said the Facebook post, finally free!

Yes, I think. I understand hell, when you put it like that. Probably all of us do. Certainly any of us over – I don’t know – 40 years of age. You don’t make it that far without a few cuts and bruises: cancer, divorce, separation, child problems, parent problems, dreams lost, dreams found. Who knows? Life, we eventually realize, isn’t what we do when we’re not suffering. Life eventually becomes, more than we might think, the ways in which we DEAL with suffering. Live through it. Rise, not above it, exactly, but with it. Sometimes, even, because of it.

So maybe the baptism of Jesus makes sense if we think of baptism, not as something that leads away from suffering, but something that leads straight through it. And then, if that’s it, the fact that Jesus was baptized means that he was willing to take on, willingly, the kind of voyage into hell that the woman in the Stryker frame was talking about, or that the Facebook post person was just getting over. The human condition.

I felt like such a fool for the first few minutes I was visiting that woman in the Stryker frame. I just stood there, towering over her while she complained bitterly and then cried about what she was going through. I felt completely out of place, awkward and embarrassed. It took me forever to realize the simplest thing: that I didn’t need to be standing at all. Eventually, when the nurse came in, she found me where – if I’d been sensitive enough to realize it – I could have been from the beginning: on my back, on the floor, parallel to the bed, looking up at this parishioner. Sharing her perspective.

What really pleases God, it turns out, is solidarity. That’s what the baptism of Jesus is probably really about. For Jesus emptied himself, Paul writes, taking on the form of a slave, and in that form – on the floor, lying beside our human suffering, he became obedient, in love, to the human condition, even death on a cross. Only then was he raised. Like Jesus, it will be for us only when, trusting in the compassion and community we see in the cross, and finally beginning to understand this strange way of being God’s favourites, that we too, through death, in solidarity with the one who went first, will know what it means to rise again.

Which Star We Follow

De L'eglise after snowstorm

It’s January third. And I think it’s safe to say that this year, there’s not a lot of optimism. New Year’s Eve I was at a small dinner party. One of the people there had prepared some lovely cards with questions on them that went around the table and we all had to answer. When the questions were about last year, each of us shared warm memories. It was great. Lots of laughter. But then came the question: “what significant happenings do you expect on the world stage in 2016?” And all of a sudden, you could feel the chill. Each of us had wonderful recollections of the year past. But most of us were quite apprehensive about the year coming. War, violence, financial crisis, disease, climate change, breakdown. One after another we laid out forecasts of doom. That’s what we saw in the stars.

When the Magi heard the king, it says, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they’d seen at its rising.

Apparently, not all stars say the same thing. At our dinner party, we saw bad things. Trouble, and difficulty, and pain, and disaster, despite our fairly rosy personal stories. But according to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi also followed a star, right to the Messiah.

So which is it? Will our coming year be guided by a star of great difficulty, or a star leading to Bethlehem? Which ways are we being led?

Epiphany is such an important moment that every year it surprises me we don’t make more of it. It’s huge. If it wasn’t for Epiphany, there’d be no Christian faith, as we know it. Without the kind of trip commemorated today, those of us from European ancestry, at least, might still be worshipping the god of some oak tree or other in the vast, dark, northern forests.

To put it another way: Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. That is fact. Insofar as anyone in his day believed he was a Messiah, it was a Jewish Messiah. “Born to set his people free” as the old hymn says, emphasis on HIS people. That we who are non-Jews got in on the Jesus thing is actually kind of surprising. If wasn’t God’s plan – which of course, Christians believe it WAS – then it’s one of the greatest ironies of history (as Nietsche believed!). Christianity is what happens when Israel’s Messiah comes and everyone believes it BUT Israel.

We Christians are not the originators of the Christmas story. And we’re not even its first and most important recipients. Yet, according to Matthew, we were at least invited to the party. How do we know this? Because of Epiphany. Because of the Magi, the first non-Jewish worshippers, following the star to find the baby, born in Bethlehem.

So the very first image we get of our own spiritual ancestors is that they were pilgrims (which is, of course, great for me to be able to say!). They were outsiders, and foreigners, and seekers. They were also a little bit lost.

I started out asking which star you thought this year might be hanging in our skies: a star of difficulty and danger, or a star leading to the love and transformation of the Christ child. The irony is: they are probably both the same star. And isn’t that a pretty good description, maybe, of who WE should be, following it? Pilgrims, outsiders, foreigners, and seekers – despite often being a little bit lost.

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?

No.

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

Dovrefjell

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.