Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve 2006

Isaiah 9
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death [a]
a light has dawned.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, [b] Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

This year the Humbug Award goes to the Disney Corporation for asking a portly fellow with a white beard and a red shirt to alter his appearance or leave the park. It seems James Worley is often mistaken for the jolly elf this time of year, and when some kids at Disney World asked him if he was Santa, he gave them that distinctive “ho ho ho.”

The problem began when some parents complained that Mr. Worley was confusing the kids. Park officials soon intervened and demanded he stop. Trying to understand the exact harm of being confused with this Christmas icon, Mr. Worley was told that it was against park rules to impersonate a Disney character. Imagine being the PR person who has to explain away the suggestion that somehow Disney owns Christmas.

Call it the “twelve grumpy days of Christmas:” the time when follish people and the news media conspire to provide yearly examples of the controversial side of the holiday. Christmas tree or holiday tree? Creche or no Creche? Christmas decorations in airports, courthouses or schools? It seems we are compelled year by year to define again the limits of a secular society and the extent to which one culture or tradition can be dominant. As they say in the news business, it makes good copy.

It makes good copy, and it also points to something deeper: symbols have power. An ordinary object, such as a tree, set in a particular context or described in a particular way takes on meaning and assumes the power to delight or inspire or offend. Something can be regarded as a neutral symbol by some, and a red flag for others. Red flag: it’s hard to even talk about symbols without using symbolic language.

Christmas requires what Northrop Frye described as an “abstract approach” to symbols. You take an idea such as the birth of a Saviour, and you try to find a concrete way to represent it. Suddenly you end up with a plethora of symbols: some drawn from scripture, some from tradition and some borrowed from pagan sources. Meaning and importance vary from place to place and within each interpreter. The object that says “Christmas” to me may not say it to you. You see the problem.

The root of all this confusion is the subject at hand: how do you represent a mystery? Incarnation, the belief that God has entered the world in Jesus, is a mystery. What does a mystery look like? You can’t see it, it has no form, it comes without description: it is mystery. Listen to Isaiah as he tries his best to describe this mystery:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, [b] Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

As soon as he begins, he switches into symbolic language. Phrases like “Prince of Peace” already had symbolic meaning to his listeners, and Isaiah uses this phrase to add power to his description. The fact that he tries to describe this birth in so many ways and with such powerful words, only highlights that this mystery is hard to describe. In our heards we may know Isaiah comes close, but ultimatley he cannot describe the indescribably.

Tonight I suggest we do some “desymbolization,” a word that I wanted to believe I coined until I googled it and found out otherwise. I suggest we strip away all the alyers of symbols that have accumulated over time, all the pictures and phrases, even setting aside Matthew and Luke for a moment and concentrating on the one thing that we learned in our last hymn: “He is born, little child Divine (sic “the divine child”).” (Il est ne, le divin Enfant.)

Setting aside the weight of all those symbols, and we are left with a baby. Reduced to its essence, you have a newborn. And what do newborns represent? (new life, hope, the future, etc.)

Now, the problem with my attempt at “desymbolization” is the very thing that makes us human: we can’t help but make symbols. We can’t help but ascribe meaning. As soon as we desymbolize, we resymbolize all over again. This birth is related to all births. It is the birth of hope, it is the potential for new beginnings, it represents the future. It is also power in vulnerability, as each new life beings in an equally fragile way.

And this is the heart of the day: God entered the world in the most fragile means possible, and in so doing set about to experience all of human life. God experienced the joy of family, the pain of separation, the sting of injustice and the agony of death. And in doing so, new symbols were born: Tonight we will share the simple elements of bread and wine, body and blood, and share together a sacred meal of symbol and meaning. It is fitting that we should gather at this table: it is the thing Jesus most treasured in life, and a perfect representation of God’s desire to enter our lives.

Tomorrow, when you sit at your table, may it be an extension of this table. May you be fed, then and now, and may you experience the new life that finds us in the mystery of communion and the mystery of incarnation. Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 3
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

It seems there are a lot of people who believe in destiny. Some surveys put the number at nearly sixty percent of the population believing that their fate is determined, or it was destiny that they arrived where they find themselves.

Some speak of their “lot in life,” as if there is some giant drawing of lots and each of us picks a length of straw that determines the outline of our lives. It is a compelling idea, and an idea with some formidable lineage. Remember the Fates? The Greeks gave us the Fates, your destiny represented in three women: one spun, one measured, and one cut.

The idea of your lot in life, however, goes much deeper than a woman with big scissors. It touches on how people perceive their place in the world or how the world places people within it. Case in point. Not long ago, women who pursued higher education were largely relegated to education or nursing. Their lot in life was predetermined not-so-much by any cosmic factors, but rather the limited imaginations of those who maintained societal norms. In other words, everyone. It was only through the gradual breaking down of these limitations that teaching and nursing became choices rather than the destiny of educated women.

Taking this topic a little further, is seems that researchers have found a link between how people perceive their lot in life and how well they heal. From the University of Bath, a study that reveals that people who report that they are content with their lot in life are less likely to be readmitted to hospital following surgery. They conclude:

"In a nutshell, quality of life is about people's perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns".*

In other words, it is not your actual situation that determines well-being so much as how you perceive your situation. The scientists concluded that feeling “fed up” with your situation is more dangerous than your situation itself.

Suddenly you are looking for the segue and the remote possibility that the preacher is saying that those who don’t have their Christmas shopping done should simply accept their fate and live contented. Not at all. The segue, if I can be so bold, is in you. Do you believe that you have a “lot in life?” If so, have you accepted it? Or do you prefer to believe that each day brings a random series of events that form the general outline of your life but have no overall direction or conclusion?


7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

John the Baptist didn’t have a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How it Win Friends and Influence People.” He was a prophet, some argue the last great prophet, who took on the task of “telling forth” the unpleasant news that those around him needed to hear. Set up there in the desert, he was open to all comers. He preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and made it personal.

Like all good prophets (or parents), he anticipates the excuses before they arrive. ‘Don’t start by saying ‘We have Abraham as our Father’ or some other lame excuse related to lineage. God doesn’t care a whit that you’re children of Abraham: God could turn these stones into children of Abraham and they would have as much to brag about.’

As excuses go, however, it was a good one. Then, as now, we establish our lineage to establish our place. Or we establish our lineage to establish our credibility. I love Queen’s University, but I didn’t love the fact that the most common “getting to know you” question among undergrads was “what does your father do,” because the question summed up all the questioner needed to know about my family and me. By happy coincidence, when I started at Queen’s my father was briefly out of work, and so I had the pleasure of introducing the “human face” of unemployment to Canada’s next generation of leaders. Call me the snob anti-snob (anti-snob snob?).

What the religious leaders confronting John were on about was the abiding belief that your heritage defines you. It was their lot in life to be born pious Jews, and to become learned teachers, because that is what their fathers did and their fathers before them. Beyond that, the whole system was based on the belief that being born into the Covenant was enough to set you on a path to righteousness and faithful living.

Call it theology good and bad. On the good side, we have the belief that we are God’s and God has known us since the moment of our inception. Psalm 139 says “you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” This is the kind of intimate relationship we enjoy with the Maker of All Things.

On the bad side, we have a bunch of scholars and religious leaders around John the Baptist claiming that their religious ancestry gives them immunity and supercedes any need to get right with God. To this Jesus would later inject the ultimate leveling aphorism: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Mark 10.31). John first, and Jesus after him, would reject the idea that birth defined who you are, or that your fate is somehow sealed.

Tertullian, a second-century Father of the church, famously remarked that “Christians are made, not born.” In other words, you can’t be born Christian in the same way Windsors are born royal or Mac users are born better than the rest of us. It’s an interesting question, and I think Tertullian has been fighting an uphill battle from the beginning. Even our long-helm belief in infant baptism is a subtle claim that we are somehow born Christian and the rite simply bears that out.

At a recent Emerging Spirit workshop I began with the question “how old were you when you first entered the church and did you walk in or were you carried?” Of the twenty of so in my worshop, only two could claim to have entered church under their own steam for the first time, but quickly admitted that they were too young to actually remember the event. See the problem? There, in a workshop meant to train people to welcome adults coming to a church for the very first time, not one participant had the experience of actually coming to church as an adult.

Truth be told, I have been asking this question in a few places for a few years and have discovered that the vast, vast majority of people I have polled grew up in the church. It is familiar to them. They feel at home. It is their place and they have a very difficult time entering the experience of the people out there who see an aging brick building and feel intimidated. What are the equivalents? Remember the first time you flew? The first time you went into a funeral home? The first time you were confronted by a crying infant with the words “congratulations, some day this baby will be a teenager”?

The truth is, we need to go out and find the most alien and most unfamiliar activity we could possibly dream of and then we can understand why most churches don’t grow. And we can also understand why the churches that do grow have very intentional programs that require members to bring people to church. “Come with me, don’t be scared, there is nothing to be afraid of, not even the preacher.”

So if John is right, and lineage counts for nothing, and Tertullian is right, and Christians are made and not born, than what are we to do? First, give thanks. Give thanks that our fate is not predetermined and each and every person can enjoy a relationship with Jesus Christ. Second, give thanks. Give thanks that we don’t have a predetermined lot in life that limits our ability to become the people God wishes us to be. At this moment, somewhere…

Someone is giving thanks that the church is a place of new beginnings, where old ways of being and old perceptions of self can be left behind.

Someone is giving thanks that the church is a caring community where expectations of perfection and self-reliance are set aside.

Someone is giving thanks that this church provides help for those in need, regardless of creed or custom, and will continue to do so until Christ returns.

Someone is giving thanks that the church is place where they have found acceptance for who they are and who they chose to fall in love with.

And someone is giving thanks that Christians are made and not born, that they can find a place in this community of faith and know that lineage does not determine status, and that all of us are God’s children.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

First Sunday of Advent

Luke 21

25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Word association time: give me a one-word response to the word “Christmas.”

In the land of mixed emotions, I give you Christmas. Call it the ultimate subjective holiday, where each of us has a different experience based on countless factors: childhood experiences, family situation, belief system and more often than not, economics. All of this occurs in the context of fatigue, with many of us arriving at the special day completely exhausted. Is it any wonder that Christmas is the holiday of mixed emotions.

One of the exciting moments for me is the moment when Christmas decorations find their way from the secret hiding place in the basement (secret to me because I forget where they are). Year-by-year I experience those moments of recognition when well-worn decorations that emerge from the big container cry out for a place in the upcoming celebration.

The other thing that emerges from the big container is last year’s Christmas cards received. Like finding a treasure trove, these cards transport me back to the places and memories that word and picture provoke. Opening them again, there is great diversity: simple greetings, perhaps a line or two, or long epistles and sometimes a picture sent to provide a more comprehensive festive greeting. Some are religious, some not. Some are hand drawn, some are fancy, some relate to a cause or charity, some are clearly dollar store. All express some form of warm greeting.

Reflecting on this intersection between memory and emotion and the passage of time I came across the work of educator Karen daSilva and her writing in the area of memory and meaning. As a resource teacher, she sets a context for the activities children do and how they aid in learning. In her description, she explains an exercise with eight and nine year-olds called “reading a picture”:

I find a work of art that I'm really attracted to, and I spend time reading it or staring at it, and thinking about what I notice, think, remember and wonder. Sometimes I even find myself thinking of a story. If I really want to connect with the picture, I'll draw it Copying the picture helps me have a physical and mental contact with it. I can make connections. Drawing helps me to see the picture and begin to find my own meaning in it.*

This is also the moment that memory can come. What comes to mind? Do you find yourself in the present moment or transported somewhere in time? The author couples this with comments from kids and recorded this one from fourth grader named Hilary: "I looked at the art card and it was like a memory vacuum was sucking all of the memories from my mind."

Now, you are not likely going to have the time to redraw all of last year’s Christmas cards, and in fact some of you have may already been conscientious and recycled them. I know, however, that even the simple work of unpacking those decorations constitutes a “memory vacuum was sucking all of the memories” from your mind. Where do they take you? What is the abiding theme of these memories? What connections do they make to your present situation or your future hope? What is the meaning in your memory?


25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

Advent one is always about the end of the world. It seems it always has been. Long before seasonal readings were set down for us there was a connection drawn between Advent and the end of time. You can imagine the sweat pouring off preacher’s brows as they are confronted year-by-year by the “little apocalypse” found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. What possible meaning could we find for post-modern, 21st century, liberal mainline Protestants who likely never had a sense that the end of the world is coming?

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

The very fact that Jesus got this wrong seems reason enough to discount the entire “end of the world” genre. Paul made the same bold claim that his generation had better prepare for the end that was near. We know from history that when it didn’t happen, the followers of Jesus simply adapted their focus from specific waiting to a more general awareness that the quality of this life was something worth pondering.


When does it feel like your world is ending? I had one of those moments of critical insight on the occasion of the last Board meeting I went to before I left Cliffcrest. Looking around the room at twenty individuals, I was struck by the fact that every one of them had experienced some trial or loss in the eight years I was there. Some were touched by the sting of death, some experienced broken relationships, some illness. There were enough hips and knees replaced to make any orthopedic surgeon happy. Enough “pastoral care” had happened to convince anyone that suffering and loss is at the heart of the human experience.

This is what we would call the “low point” of the sermon.

“Hey, what did your preacher say on the first Sunday of Advent?”
“All of life is suffering and loss. Yours?”

I’m certain I’ve mentioned the book “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst, one of those books people read and recommend to people who are experiencing significant life changes. Someone did it for me, and the book was a helpful reminder that all of life is an endless series of beginnings and endings, joy and sorrow, discovery and loss, etc. The endings began the moment we left the womb and the beginnings began at the very same moment. It never ends.

It only feels like the end of the world, we might say. Or the opposite: this may feel new, but it has happened before and will happen again. Such is the way all things, including the holiday that looms before us: it has happened before and will happen again. Or perhaps: it happened, it keeps happening, and will happen again.

Back to the exercise of exploring memory for meaning. When we open the floodgates of memory, when we engage the “memory vacuum,” we quickly discover that time is distorted. What is past is real again. What once was becomes as present as the day it passed into memory. Future hopes and expectations form as the meaning of experience finds a setting in our present situation. Time is rendered meaningless.

This is not meant to negate the sense of loss we bring to the holiday. Quite the opposite, the process of finding meaning in memory is not to render it into something else but to allow it “to speak” to us in a new way. Imagine that each day is a rebirth. And also imagine that each day is an ending, best described as “bittersweet.” Taking a moment or two to find meaning in memory we may be confronted with surprises. From Karl Durckheim: “The first and most vital practice in everyday life is to learn effectively to value those moments in which we are touched by something hitherto undreamt of.” **


These are the words Jesus speaks to his disciples just before he describes the calamity to come:

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

The end of the world for the disciples, arrest and persecution, was not an end at all. It was a beginning. It was the beginning of the time when all they remembered of Jesus words, and all they experienced in the presence of the Risen Christ would come together to give them words to speak. This is meaning in memory and the power of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing to prepare in advance, no clever words to memorize because all they needed was already in memory and ready to be encouraged by the bidding of God’s spirit.

I encourage you to follow the disciple’s path. Draw on your memory to find meaning in the days ahead. Reflect on seasons past and prepare for the time to come. Reflect on joy and sorrow and resolve to create meaning in your life and the lives of others. And wait. Wait for the rebirth of hope that happened, it keeps happening, and will happen again.

** The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise (London: Allen & Unwin, 1988) p. 27.