Advent is a season for broken hearts. In stark contrast to the holly and jolly of the cultural calendar, the church year reminds us that a few toys or presents are crappy substitutes for the bigger ache in our lives.
The Advent season is a time of hard longing for something more, something better than we now see. In Advent we take stock of our broken world, recognizing all that is bent, bruised, broken and unfulfilled. I’d rather look the other way because that is painful and leaves you with an ache for something bright to break all this shadow and decay.
But if I ever miss that mood of Advent, today is the day it smacks me straight in the face. Five years ago my nephew, returning home from writing a university exam, too tired to stay awake, was killed in a car accident.
I hate so much about this. I hate it that this glorious young life was snuffed out (David was such a beautiful soul). I hate it that he didn’t have the money for a coffee or think to take a nap. I hate the hideous power of death, how its strength lingers still. I hate the loss of so much promise, so much good never realized. I hate how grief has wrenched and contorted his family’s lives.
I struggle to find sense in this, and by extension, to all that is wrong with this world. Sometimes my heart can hardly stand it. Why God? Where is the purpose, the sense in this?
I feel this uncorked anger, something livid rising up in me every year this day. This is not the way things are supposed to be. Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children on a frozen December day. Parents of black teens shouldn’t have to coach them on how not to get killed when they walk the streets. Our society (and our own hearts) shouldn’t still be so unfathomably racist. Our justice systems shouldn’t protect the privileged and neglect the marginalized.
Advent is a time to hope but I don’t want to hope – hope feels too cheap in the face of all that’s wrong, like someone offering you a drug to medicate the sting. Instead of hope, I want to be angry, to rage, to swear and hit something hard, to do some damage, to make somebody pay!
And anger feels good for a while, but leaves me empty, sort of like getting hopped up on all sorts of Christmas candy out of the Advent calendar. But after the sugar high comes the crash. And after the anger, the real anger over my nephew’s death and then all my other moral outrage over all the endless crap in this world, I’m left empty, needing something more so badly.
I’m faced with a choice. Decide this world is completely screwed up with no good purpose and stick with some really good feeling self-righteous anger (and then probably act out in all the ways I rage about) … or let go, let Jesus take my anger, the sadness, let him change me. And then trust, trust that maybe there is something better, trust that this homesickness I feel for a world that works right actually corresponds to something real.
Hope is not a drug to keep you blissed out in the middle of misery; its actually the most awake, alive, alert posture you can hold. You’re awake to the deepest parts of your heart that is sick for a real place where all shall be well; you’re doing the harder thing of staying alert to the deepest echoes of reality that whisper some rumour of glory.
So though the evidence isn’t always convincing, though my heart isn’t always sure, today I choose to live with my homesickness for a world that works, and hope.
That’s no happy face there – it’s the current yellow badge, or Judenstern, of Iraq. The N’, or ن in Arabic, is the symbol used by the Islamic State (ISIS) to identify who is a Nazarene – a Christian. It has been drawn on doorways and painted on house-fronts in captured Iraqi cities, allowing ISIS militia to sort through identities and loyalties.
A number of months ago I met and listened to the Bishop of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White. He spoke compellingly of the persecution of the church he loved in Iraq. Recently he wrote that the end may be near for Christians in Iraq. Please pray for the persecuted Christians of Iraq.
This, or any, persecution is important for us in the West to pay close attention to, for a number of reasons. First, the persecution of Christians across the world is probably one of the biggest human rights issues that largely happens without protest. A Nov. 27, 2013 National Post article outlined how there have been more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in the 1,900 years that came before. And in 2010, the Toronto Star called Christianity the most persecuted religion in the world. On a large scale aimed at a specifically designated population, basic human rights are trampled but so little protest is raised. My stubborn agnostic friend, Richard Handler, writes a chastening piece here for all Christians, wondering why aren’t we raising our voices in solidarity.
Secondly, for the most part, Western Christians aren’t persecuted, and in order to maintain our identity as people of the cross it is good for us to keep in touch with persecution. Persecution sharpens your identity as a Christian. That’s how Jesus shapes his beatitude on persecution – it’s about Jesus and our identification with him. “Blessed are you when you are persecuted because of me.” Persecution is all about how closely we identify with Jesus.
Both reasons send me to my knees – the first in solidarity with brothers and sisters who are suffering horribly for the sake of Jesus. The second for myself, scared I don’t have a faith that’s even worth persecuting.
The great urbanist Jane Jacobs observed that the presence of children in the city is a sign of urban health. She was echoing the prophetic words of Zechariah who pictured God’s salvation in the earthy terms of a safe city: “The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” (Zech. 8:5).
That’s one of the reasons we’re raising our family in the city, encouraging other families to take the same adventure. I love the thought that simply the presence of my kids on the sidewalks and streets of the city is a witness, a little icon of God’s renewing work.
Which makes this photo a favourite.
Ours is an age of anxiety; we idolize security, seeking to live ruling out risk or failure. Exhibit # 1,043: helicopter parents hovering protectively over their children’s bubble-wrapped lives.
Doesn’t that seem a bad way to live? Jesus seemed to think so. I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus’ parable of the talents, the master says to the cautious, one-talent servant “It’s a crime to live cautiously like that.” In the end, the Master did away with this servant: “get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.”
Why? Because risk seems to be an important part of God’s economy of love; because you can’t love without risking; because love is the power that cannot co-exist with anxious fear – it drives it out. In God’s Kingdom, there’s a shocking freedom to risk because there’s nothing that can put you beyond the reach of God’s scandalously beautiful grace. I’m so easily seduced into thinking this is a dangerous world. There’s a weight of evidence that leads to question there is a good God at the helm. But Jesus keeps telling me the Father is good and keeps calling me to follow, to risk, just like God.
Because God is love, God risks. Didn’t God take an awful risk when he created us in the liberty of love, free to love and follow him or free to flip him off and reject him? Crazy risk; crazy love; crazy, beautiful God.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asks a question I need to pose every day to myself: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”
Think about that … and then watch the Flight of the Frenchies below. You won’t catch me walking a slack-line over a mountain gorge but the Frenchies remind me of the freedom that comes from living with a powerful awareness that I am held in the hands of a very good God.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/31240369″>I Believe I Can Fly (Flight of the Frenchies) – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/chamonix”>sebastien montaz-rosset</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
A few weeks ago Pope Frances canonized two pontifical predecessors, Paul XXIII and John-Paul II. In my last post on Saints, I looked at the fairly chronic aversion to saints and yet explored the warm biblical use of the term and concept of saints. Ok, so what now? How then might saints function in the Christian life? How can we recover the promise of saints without abusing or discarding them?
The most basic response is to recognize who we are. Here’s the truth: you and I, we are saints – St. Jeremy and St. Jane, St. Theresa and St. Todd. More often than not, that’s hard to believe about the cranky senior, the mother who makes her children the target of her temperamental anger, the middle-aged man who creates discomfort among young women with his breast-high gaze or the sullen teenager. Yet by naming you and me as saints, the Bible provides a lens through which we can being to see one another more clearly. Recovering the status of saints trains us to see in others more of God than of the sin that smudges our lives and trips us up.
But what about the larger company of saints: all those Christians who have gone before? Is there a place and a role for them in the Christian life? Indeed, saints can function in a way that is analogous to good theology. We value and appreciate the health demonstrated in clear, sharp thinking about God, which, in turn, helps us to respond in love to God. Sharp theological understanding is vital to the life of faith.
Equally indispensable are the courageous examples of gospel lives that the saints provide. As one character notes in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “What is Christ’s word without an example?” North America has a cultural pantheon of celebrities and politicians who give polished performances in how to live badly (remember now, I live in the city of Toronto). In this “bad as you want to be world” of Charlie Sheens and Rob Fords, we could use a few saints to show us how to be as holy, gracious, and human as Christ calls us to be.
Saints, then, are witnesses to the truth. They call our attention to the gospel in the ordinary conditions of human living. They are, as author Kathleen Norris notes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.” (The Cloister Walk). They offer fresh demonstrations of the holiness and grace of God in the everyday moments of our lives.
Very often, however, the life of a saint is rather unsettling, which may explain some of our wariness about them. Saints of the past have been misunderstood because, to be honest, they are a rather curious crowd (think, for example, of the pillar of peculiarity, Simeon of Stylites, who sat perched on a pole for 30-odd years).
Saints are very much like the characters in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, who suggested that for people to hear the truth, she had to create exaggerated characters. Similarly, G.K. Chesterton once noted that “a Saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.” Take Therese of Liseaux, for example. In our success-oriented age of “bigger is better,” Therese’s obscure and apparently insignificant life teaches us of the beauty in simplicity and smallness. Or what about Francis of Assisi, who demonstrates a life of abundance not in material wealth but in the sheer goodness and bounty of creation? Saints from ages past provide a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace. They offer a sharp prick of Kingdom reality to our understanding of the gospel.
We need the saints. They are gifts from God to the church, teaching us how a holy life works, showing us the exuberance of a gospel life. The wonderful biblical truth is that God has placed us in a long and large historical community of believers, the “communion of the saints.” It is a bloodline of sorts, a family tree filled with a fantastic collection of wild and wooly characters, all animated by grace.
So while the Roman Catholic Church officially declares of John and John Paul II to be what the gospel proclaimed they already were in this life – saints – why not locate a few saints whose lives freshly demonstrate the gospel in beautiful ways. Take a moment to inventory some of those people whose lives are the gospel brought to life – who is on your list of saints? Thank God for their lives and let them challenge you to more grace-filled living.
But better yet, go to your church, reminding yourself of what the gospel declares of these people and yourself, and enjoy the company of the saints right around you.