Thursday, 26 January 2023

Where to start

If you’ve not heard of Micah, the 8th century BCE prophet in Judah, don’t be surprised. In Hebrew scripture he’s one of the “minor” prophets and he’s a contemporary of Isaiah, a heavyweight among prophets.

Micah doesn’t seem to have had a lot to say. At least, he probably did, but not a lot was reported: his book is a slim seven chapters. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t important. In fact, the Twelve Minor Prophets are called that because of the length of their stories, not the importance of what they had to say. And Micah had some good stuff.

Micah talked a lot about the people’s relationship with God, how they know God and connected with God, or, more significantly, didn’t. In typical fashion, he prophesied the destruction of the nation, but also offered hope for its restoration. He lived in a time of conflict and imminent war, he spoke out about ethical and socioeconomic issues, criticizing government corruption and dishonesty in business. He railed against injustice and cruelty and called the people to change, not their behaviour, but their hearts. 

Yes, Micah didn’t see a complicated situation requiring complicated solutions. He saw people. He saw people who were adrift and broken and he offered them this: God has shown you what is good. And what does God look for from you? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Much like Jesus would later, Micah questioned the sincerity of the priests in the temple and the value of the many rituals and offerings they made to God. God isn’t looking for empty rituals, he’d say, God’s looking for us to be who we truly are, made in God’s image, made of love, made to be good. 

Justice, kindness and walking with God. Not the God of institutions and structures, but the God that is in every heart, every living thing, every atom of creation, the God that is the very energy of life. That God is everywhere we are and invites us into a relationship, just as God invites us into relationship with each other.

Yes, relationships are complicated and the world is a complex, challenging and often confounding place. I think Micah knew that in his day, just as we do, infinitely more so, in our own. But imagine what the world could be like if we began, in hearts and minds, with that simple wisdom of doing justice, being kind and walking with the spirit of love and all that is good. Our complicated journeys would begin on the right foot.

I think Micah could see that kind of a world and offered the hope of it in the future. He didn’t call for giving up the rituals or the government or the business of the world. He called for each of us to live what God sees in us: justice, kindness and living in love. A message of hope for his day and ours.

Thursday, 29 December 2022

Endings and Beginnings

When ‘The Mood of Christmas’ was published in 1973, Howard Thurman was already a legendary theologian, preacher and teacher. He taught or influenced leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, many social justice movements and inspired the not-so-famous as much as the famous.

Many more of his books and writings are much better known and more influential, but every Christmas I like to take some time with a short poem in this one called The Work of Christmas. Especially in these days after The Big Day, it’s an important reminder that Christmas isn’t over, it’s just beginning.

I don’t mean the tree or the decorations or even a creche, if you have one. By all means, put those away when you’re ready, and you may be ready on Boxing Day. The scraps of wrapping paper and natural trees are often out the door first. You might do the Twelve Days of Christmas or somewhere in between. Put the stuff away when you’re ready.

But, at its best, the stuff can draw us into the story and give us signs and symbols that remind us of special moments. What’s at the heart of the story can’t be put away with the stuff because what’s at the heart of the story is a beginning. A new life is begun in that stable, yes, but also a way that is true and life-giving. The child will grow up to show us that we are filled with love and light, grace and kindness and how we might live that into the world, too. That’s how “the work of Christmas begins” now.

As we come to the end of a calendar year, there is an ending and a new beginning there as well. Perhaps it’s also a good time to consider what we might be putting behind us and what we might be stepping into, what things we might put away and what work needs to be done. Perhaps Thurman’s words aren’t just about the Christmas story, but our own stories too. Here’s what he wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and the princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flock,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among brothers,

to make music in the heart.

Thursday, 22 December 2022

It's what Christmas is all about

This isn’t the first year that I’ve had to concede that I might look a little like Santa Claus. White hair (what’s left of it) and beard, I wear reading glasses that sometimes sit on the end of my nose, my face is a little red - let’s say rosey cheeks - and, of course, most importantly, I might be a little round. Not “like a bowlful of jelly” round, but round enough. Throw a red hat on that and I could be Santa.

I’m pretty sure I don’t meet the minimum “jolly” requirement and my “ho, ho, ho” is weak, so I haven’t been asked to stand in for the real thing. Although, I feel pretty certain that I could. So could you. I’ll come back to that.

I’m on a bit of a mission this year to remind people that Santa is part of the Christmas story. Maybe not the biblical one, but the bigger one, the one we live every year.

There are a variety of traditions that give us the features of the Santa we know, but most of them stem from St. Nicholas. Nicholas was a bishop in the late third, early fourth century in part of Asia Minor that’s now in Turkey. He was born into a wealthy Greek family, but his parents died in an epidemic when he was young. He was devoutly religious and the idea of Jesus as a loving servant, who cares for others and gives all that he has, inspired him to travel, giving generously from his wealth. The legendary stories of his gift giving became the most significant part of his later incarnations, along with Sinterklass in the Netherlands and Father Christmas in Britain and other local traditions.

So: Santa Claus was inspired by Jesus.

I doubt Clement C. Moore was thinking that in 1823 when he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“Twas the night before Christmas”). It certainly doesn’t seem to feature in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer or any of the more recent incarnations, like the “Santa Clause” movie franchise. And then there’s all the other “traditions” we’ve added since to liven up our Christmas season. They seem to lead us further away from that night in Bethlehem. 

Hang on a minute, though. Do they?

The Christmas story is about love and hope. It’s about the birth of a child, in the most unlikely of circumstances, who will be something special. It’s about wonder, and a joy that finds its way into a dark stable in a remote corner of an occupied country, celebrated by people on the margins of society and honoured by the wisdom of magi. It’s about the promise of God’s loving presence in our lives.

However you might know God, by whatever name or however you might describe God, God is love. God is kindness and caring and grace and the spirit of life, not just one day but all days. That’s the thing about Christmas. The promise of that night is revealed in the life of Jesus. Sure, the teaching and preaching and healing and all the stories, yes, but the point is in the living of it. Jesus shows us the love that’s in all of us, and what great love we are capable of in our own lives.

Set aside the commercialism and the stuff for a minute. Santa’s about giving. Santa’s about the good that’s in all of us. Santa’s about kindness to others. It seems like Santa does it all in one night, but it takes a whole year. Jesus isn’t just about one night, either, but every day, every night, every moment being filled with wonder and love.

Thursday, 15 December 2022

How I hope it would go here

If the author of the gospel of Luke were here today, and the Christmas story was happening here today, where I live, I wonder how they would tell it … (Luke 2:8-20.)

And there were, in the same country, cattle farmers, keeping watch over their cattle by night. And lo, an angel appeared unto them and they were not so much sore afraid as they were just sore. Long day.

The angel is understandably surprised. So far, having an angel suddenly appear before you has made people fearful and perplexed. “Why aren’t you afraid?” the angel asks, “I’m an angel.” And one of the cattle farmers replied “oh, we see angels every day. This is Bashaw, the church here has this Angels Among Us thing that reminds us who the real angels are in our community.” The others all nod. “Hey, if you help us out, we’d nominate you and you could get a cool toque and a little angel with your name on it tied to the rail of the church. And then everyone knows you’re an angel. It thanks folks and inspires others to be angels, too.” Another looked up from their camp fire. “Maybe, that way, people will be less afraid of you all the time.”

“Oh, that does sound tempting,” replied the angel. “Okay. I can help you: I have news.”

“We were hoping for something to eat, or a warm beverage.”

“Nope,” said the angel, “it’s news. Big news. Good news, even, tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the town of Bashaw a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, bundled up against the cold, with his parents, in an old car that’s out of gas, parked in front of the Bashaw and Area Community Resource Centre. They’re not from here, they just got here, they don’t have any money, and they’ve got no place to go. They’ll be easy to spot.”

And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest! Peace and goodwill to all!” And then they were gone. 

“They were really good,” said one cattle farmer. “Like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” said another. “Hey, I think we should go check this out,” said a third, and they all jumped in a nearby truck and drove into town. 

They pulled up in front of BCRC and got out. There was no one there.

And lo, an angel appeared unto them again, this time wearing a pink toque with the Angels Among Us logo on the front.

“Hey guys, sorry, they’re at the hotel. Yeah, it turns out the folks at the Bashaw and Area Community Resource Centre saw them and helped them get a room at the hotel, some food and a couple of gas cards.”

One of the cattle farmers gives the angel a friendly punch on the shoulder and says “I told you, there’s angels everywhere here.”

“So I see,” said the angel. “And they’re sure needed. That’s what this child is all about: showing people how important it is to love and care for each other. They’re getting a good start here. And a good thing, too, because things aren’t merry and bright for everyone, especially these days. We need more angels.”

“We should go see how they’re doing,” said one of the cattle farmers, “see if there’s anything we can help with.” “And we should call some friends, too,” offered another. “Maybe they could bring some gifts.”

Thursday, 8 December 2022

In the Voice of a Child

Is there any better way to hear the Christmas Story than in the voice of a child? Some people might like to hear the words of Luke’s gospel - in the King James Version, of course - intoned by candle light on Christmas Eve, but, let’s be honest, who doesn’t prefer Linus?

Remember that remarkable moment in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Charlie Brown asks “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” “Sure, Charlie Brown,” replies Linus, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” And he steps out onto the stage, asks for “lights” and proceeds to recite Luke 2:8-14, simply, innocently, as only Linus can. The animation of his face and hands, the moment he drops his security blanket when he gets to the angel saying “fear not,” the joy of “for unto you is born this day …” That’s what Christmas is all about.

For me, it’s a tradition to watch that every year. Another tradition, in many churches, is to have a Christmas Pageant, a dramatic re-telling of the story, more often than not with children playing the key roles. It’s sometimes organized, scripted, prepared and rehearsed. Other times it might be intentionally not any of those things and a little chaotic. It might be dramatic, it might be a little comedic, it might be musical, it might be a little messy, but, with children, it will be full of hope, joy and wonder.

It will also be full of the unexpected. Things always are with children. They have questions and they have their own way of seeing things, their own way of doing things. And, like the rest of us, they might be nervous in front of people, they might not remember everything, they might not always follow instructions exactly, they might not always react the way we expect.

But the story’s like that, too. Mary didn't expect what happened, Joseph sure didn't, the innkeeper was overwhelmed, the animals might have been put out, the shepherds were surprised, Herod was nervous and you can bet the magi wondered what kind of king was the son of poor people. And that’s just the people we hear about. What about the families of Mary and Joseph? The people they meet on the way to Bethlehem, the townspeople or the people the shepherds share the news with? What about anyone else who saw the star and wondered what it could mean?

In the midst of all the unexpected, there seems to be one constant: don’t be afraid. The angel offers that each time they appear. But imagine how often Mary and Joseph might have said it to each other, how often the shepherds reminded each other. I imagine the magi sharing that assurance frequently on their journey there, and home again.

 God is in every moment of the Christmas story, just as God is in every moment of our lives. Knowing God is with us empowers us to face the unexpected, to engage the challenges of our lives knowing we are not alone. And I think that knowing God’s presence in our lives frees us to wonder, just as children do. Later in his life, Jesus will remind us that we need to come to God with the wonder and openness of a child. Perhaps that’s why I love to come to the Christmas Story as a child. I don’t want to be afraid of the unexpected in the Christmas Story. I want to wonder at how an angel might bring messages from God.  I want to wonder at how that message might be for those who, on the surface, seem the least deserving. I want to wonder at how the creator of all things might choose to come to us as a weak, fragile, needy baby. I want to wonder at how that was revealed to those wise enough to see. I want to wonder at what this birth might mean for me, today.

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Let it begin with me

If you’re looking to find peace in the Christmas story, you might be tempted to just head straight to the manger. The one represented in so many creches, paintings and stories, is a beautiful pastoral scene where everyone has gathered with the baby Jesus, quietly enjoying the starry night sky. Beautifully backlit, somehow, the shepherds are there resting in awe, the animals are there quietly sleeping, and “the little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” It’s truly just like the carol “Away in a manger.” It’s a lovely sight.

And there’s a place for that. It invites us to wonder and reflect on each of the characters and how they made their way there. It invites us to rest with them a moment - just a moment - from our own busy journeys. It’s “the solemn stillness” of “It came upon the midnight clear.” Is that the peace we’re looking for?

The reality might have been very different. Birth’s aren’t quiet and peaceful. New born baby in a rough blanket, lying in straw? There’s going to be some crying. If there were animals about, they sure wouldn’t be quiet about having company. And the visiting shepherds and magi would have had questions, surely, and I hear there was even a kid playing a drum. Or did we add that? Anyway, it might not have been quite so peaceful. But is that the peace we’re looking for?

You might step back a bit and look at the shepherds “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock.” That seems quiet and peaceful. Assuming the shepherds weren’t fighting off any animals or thieves. And then there’s that “multitude of the heavenly host.” If you’re looking for the word “peace” it’s right there in their song. But, a field in the middle of nowhere or angels singing about it, is that the peace we’re looking for?

Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem might have been quiet, even uneventful, but was it peaceful? Not a comfortable trip for a pregnant woman under any circumstances, and they were poor. And they were not yet married. It’s complicated. 

And what about that story of the angel’s visit? Mary was scared and she was “much perplexed” by the angel’s words. “Don’t be afraid,” says the angel as they explain, a phrase we’ll later hear Jesus use often. When Jesus said it, he didn’t mean flick a switch and stop being scared. He meant to acknowledge the fear and remember: it’s okay to be scared, just know that God is with you and will be with you whatever comes next.

Mary certainly seems to have heard that because, by the end of her encounter with the angel, she says “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In that, I hear more than acknowledgement and acceptance, I hear her embracing God’s presence in her life. Later, Luke says she sings of her joy in God, in what God is doing through her and through the world. She knows. God is with her.

Is this the peace we’re looking for? Not just wonder and awe, not just quiet pastoral beauty, not just an easy time of it or the absence of conflict in relationships or in our world, not just relief from fear, anxiety or trouble, but something more central. Something that’s at the heart of those things, connects those things, empowers us to engage those things and embrace those things.

It’s love. God is love, and that’s already in you. The child we come to find in that manger will show that love to the world, show us how to find it in ourselves and how to live it, too. Don’t be afraid. True peace begins with you.

Thursday, 24 November 2022

There's More to the Story

The season of Advent begins this week. That’s the four weeks before Christmas that many churches observe as a time of anticipation and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It’s often seen as a time of reflection, a time of stillness and peace, a time of shadows and darkness into which breaks the Light of the World on Christmas.

Or. It’s a hectic time of shopping, concerts, parties, baking, wrapping, decorating and Hallmark movies and the shadows and darkness have been lit up like a Christmas tree - literally - since November 12.

Well, it’s not “or” at all, is it? It’s “and.” The reality for most people is that Advent will be a time for all those things. And more.

Some will also struggle with grief and mental health in a season that seems to demand as much as it offers. It can be a time, not of peace, but loneliness, not a time of busy-ness, but of pressure and anxiety.

A very long time ago, the prophet Isaiah said that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined” (Is. 9:2). For Christians, Isaiah is an important part of the Christmas story. He foretells the coming of Jesus, the light that lightens our darkness. He has more to say about Jesus and also about another character in the Christmas story: John the Baptist, the voice calling “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3).

As an adult, John will call people to repentance and to be ready for the messiah, but he’s part of the Christmas story, too. The gospel of Luke tells that John’s mother Elizabeth is a cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke writes that, before going to Mary, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah, John’s father, to tell him that they would have a son who would be very important - he would call people back to God and to be ready for Jesus. Since Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and unable to have children, he was more than a little surprised. Amazed even. Sound familiar?

There’s more to that story, but that’s just my point: there’s more to the story. We might want to jump to that wondrous tableau so beautifully represented in the creche: the baby in the manger, all the other characters there, the star lighting things just right. But there’s more to the journey there. And it’s not all darkness.

Each week, we light a candle to light the way: lights for hope, peace, joy and love. Lights that remind us that the light of Jesus is already here, alive in us, and we can live it each day, not just in anticipation of the one day each year we might celebrate the coming of the light.

They’re lights that remind us that there’s more to the story. There’s the hope of Elizabeth and Zechariah, patiently waiting (Luke 1:5-25). The peace offered by angels to the shepherds, the first to hear the news of Jesus birth (Luke 2:8-20). The joy of Mary, singing a song of celebration and praise to God when she visits with Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55). The love of God come to earth in Jesus (Luke 2:7).

They’re lights that remind us there’s more to our story, too. They’re lights that guide our journey, through anxieties and peace, through hectic preparations and moments of rest, through joy and grief. Lights to remind us to to make the time to engage our whole story.