Archive for November, 2013

The remedy of Advent

Looks like there’s a new tradition to ring in the Christmas season.  The newly popular custom is the traditional wringing of the hands over all the competing and corrupting agendas that have taken over Christmas.  Certainly there are explanations for this reaction – the season and its story have been shaped by a variety of different narratives, not all of them  helpful.  In some cases the story has been distorted (e.g. by the consumer narrative) but not all of what has happened to the season is charlie-brown-christmasbad (like making space in our pluralistic society during this public holiday season for the stories of other faiths).

So is it a lost holiday?  Shall we lift up a chorus of moans instead of tidings of joy?  I’m not willing to give Christmas up and I don’t think scolding is the best corrective.  I’m still holding out for something of the goodness of Christmas celebrations, our singing and decorating, shared meals and parties, giving and receiving, for throwing a good party and really celebrating the joy-filled story.  And here’s a critical learning for followers of Jesus – we don’t need to bash someone else’s celebration to enjoy Christmas.  This is not a zero sum holiday, no other contenders allowed.  That just puts a scowl over Christmas joy.

In fact, isn’t the best way to maintain the integrity of Christmas by celebrating it well and fully?

But we do need help and thankfully the church has an ancient resource that can focus followers of Jesus on the quite radical story of God entering time and space to redeem the world.  That good resource is this peculiar season of Advent.

Advent is the four week season of preparation that precedes December 25.  It’s a quiet, reflective and somber time.  That certainly seems out of sync with what happens all around is in the month of December and that’s part of its gift.

Advent is like a needed abrasive cleanser for our Christmas season, scrubbing away frothy sentimentality and confronting judgmental spirits.  It’s John the Baptist getting in your face, calling you to get in line with the way of Jesus.  It’s a time for repentance from all the ways we live out of sync with the coming King.  It’s the recognition that our need for help is way greater than we ever dared think.

It readies us to celebrate and embrace the story of God’s revolutionary hope in Jesus.

Somewhere in the bustle of wrapping paper, packed malls and the inevitable squabbling about “holiday trees” and “winter carols,” we’re missing out Advent lighton the wonder of God’s generosity, entering our darkness in Jesus, including us in his good plan to make all things new, bringing light and hope and joy to all.

I’m convinced that a focused Advent practice has the stuff to get us in the right frame of heart for a proper Christmas celebration, aligning us with God’s story of self-donation, allowing it become more than a footnote to the season but the rhythm of our lives.

And if not, maybe we should celebrate Festivus instead and hold Christmas in August.

P.S.  The publisher of my book Seeking God’s Face is making available the Advent season of readings for free.  You can download it here or buy it here.

Leave a comment

The wardrobe that keeps on giving

Today in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, a memorial will be dedicated to C.S. Lewis.  50 years ago today, the beautiful imagination of C.S. Lewis died.

For many, he’s helped see how you can be intelligent and Christian.  His writings are a constant reference for me, not only in the content but simply C.S. Lewisfor the sheer pleasure in the reading.  It’s not just the persuasive logic of his arguments, the clear and common observations of faith, but how he then portrays that truth through image and metaphor in ways that linger long in your mind, that help your heart grab hold of.  He both shows and tells in a unique way that’s still to be matched.

To celebrate and remember the gift of this wise apologist and winsome author, raise a pint in memory of Jack.  And enjoy a few memorable quotes from the wardrobe of his imagination (really, where do you stop?):

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”  The Four Loves

“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.”  The Weight of Glory

“If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?”  Letters to Malcolm

“No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.”  Till We Have Faces

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  Collected Letters

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” Letters to Malcolm

“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”  Mere Christianity

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”  On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

“There have been men before … who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.”  The Great Divorce

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  Mere Christianity

“The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” Surprised by Joy

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”  God in the Dock

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  The Weight of Glory

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”  Till We Have Faces

“The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”   The Great Divorce

“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” The Screwtape Letters

“The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.”  Collected Works of C. S. Lewis

“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”  The Last Battle


Mercy for the city

Mercy is a core Christian impulse; it’s part of the heartbeat of the gospel.  I wondered last week how mercy might play out in Toronto’s mayoral misadventures.  And while mercy may feel like folly, it is not at all incompatible with wisdom.

That got me thinking about another angle into this Toronto train wreck, now coming from the pool of wisdom literature of Scripture.  There’s a line of biblical wisdom that explores the fool.  According to ancient wisdom, there are wise, foolish and evil people, with parts of each playing out in all of us.  However, some people make a career of one of these.

In the wisdom literature, there are a variety of Hebrew words for our translation “fool.”  It doesn’t refer to someone who lacks the grey matter but instead one who lacks the appropriate heart matter; it’s someone whose deficiency is in moral humility and refuses to yield to God or others.  Ship-of-FoolsAnother word for “fool” refers to someone who will not receive truth, who when the truth comes doesn’t adjust themselves according to it but instead tries to bend the truth.  This person remains resistant to the advice of wise counsellors.  Another word for “fool” is someone who shirks responsibility, who makes excuses or externalizes (blaming) and complains of the barriers in their way.  And they get angry.

Biblical scholar Derek Kidner writes of the fool: “the root of his trouble is spiritual, not mental.  He likes his folly, going back to it ‘like a dog that returns to his vomit’ … he has no reverence for truth, preferring comfortable illusions.”

Take note of a few verses from Proverbs about the fool and you begin to sense an immediate resonance with what is playing out in Toronto.  The fool:

    • “despises wisdom and discipline” (1:7)
    • “the way of the fool seems right to him” (12:15)
    • “a fool shows his annoyance at once” (12:16)
    • “the heart of the fool blurts out folly”
    • “the folly of fools is deception” (14:8)
    • “fools mock at making amends for sin” (14:9)
    • “a fool is hotheaded and reckless” (14:16)
    • “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (18:2)
    • “It is a man’s honor to avoid strife but every fool is quick to quarrel.” (20:3)
    • “He who trusts in himself is a fool.” (28:26)
    • “If a wise man goes to court with a fool, the fool rages and scoffs, and there is no peace.” (29:9)
    • “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” (29:11)

A fool is a menace to the common good, fraying trust, trampling civility and sabotaging good will.  And sadly, it looks like Toronto has a biblically defined fool occupying the mayor’s chair, someone without the sense or good will for the common good and so holding the city hostage.

Without any political or legal recourse to remove him from office (which is not a betrayal of mercy but the one scenario where both mercy and justice seem to be fulfilled), all we are left to do is pray for mercy for our city.

And while we suffer under this ongoing circus, hold on to one more pithy Proverb, right now more a deep heart hope for everyone in Toronto – “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.”  (Proverbs 10:10)

May Toronto soon rejoice.


Mercy for the mayor?

Toronto mayor Rob Ford promised to end the gravy train at city hall but no one imagined a train wreck like this.

It’s been a scandal like nothing seen before in Toronto the good.   This past week there’s been a snickering snort in our noses and a condescending smirk on our faces as we speak of high-minded things of politics and corruption.  But every time I’ve joined the choristers of ridicule (and I’ve been a choir boy way too many times this week), I’m confronted, held back by myself.

I like to talk about the Mayor doing the right thing but the reality is that most of the time, in the ease and luxury of my privacy, I can hardly bring myself to do the right thing.

I want to be a voice for the higher ground but with every new revelation, every titillating video leak, I find myself a rubbernecking voyeur.

I’d like to voice some righteous rage but mostly what comes is a sad lament.  For the demons of addiction that shipwreck so many lives.  For all the ways that power corrupts.  For the public humiliation of Rob Ford.  For his wife and kids.  For the Mayor’s stubborn foolishness and all the so-called friends and advisors who encourage him to cling to power instead of seek healing.  And for the easy judgmentalism, the smug self-righteousness in me.  For all the times I hide and evade responsibility.  For all the ways I silently perpetuate the very things I criticize.

In the midst of this giddy Rob Ford pile-on, I was confronted with the biblical text that our church will be dwelling on this Sunday.  The timing of this fifth beatitude within this week’s political circus was astonishing.

“Blessed are the merciful,” says Jesus, “for they will receive mercy.”

Van Gogh - The Good Samaritan

Seriously Jesus, mercy?

In the face of these words of Jesus, I can feel a resistance movement organizing.  “What about justice?  Where is the accountability?  Isn’t mercy a free pass when something has to change?”

I’m struck by how deeply we trust condemnation as the most effective means for seeking and motivating change.  The desire for justice, honesty, transparency and good government are right.  Yet when those are threatened we resort to rejection and condemnation because we want no mistaking that what is happening is wrong.  We use condemnation, ridicule and harsh judgment as the means to insulate us from what is wrong and produce change in whoever is causing the problem, getting people to shape up through condemnation (really, now, has anyone been condemned into a better way of living?).

Think of the dynamic condemnation kick-starts – it forces you into a defensive posture, encasing you in a protective emotional armour, cutting you off from the possibility of receiving mercy.  Isn’t this the very situation Rob Ford finds himself in?  He’s been so pugilistic in his demeanor, polarizing sides and demonizing others, insulating himself from others and protecting his position so closely.  It’s left him incapable of receiving mercy, unable to see the mercy being extended to him in a resignation or a leave from office, only able to perceive it as a threat instead of a gift.

As I’ve lived with this beatitude, I recalled how Jesus was criticized for the company he kept.  And the company he mostly kept was the Rob Fords of his day: the loathed tax-collectors, the socially despised, the immoral, the outcast.  He was merciful to people who didn’t deserve it.

Mercy is not what Rob Ford deserves.  He deserves to be lambasted for the divisive folly of his leadership.  He deserves to be shown the door for demeaning the office of mayor and pissing all over the trust given through his election.  He has earned all the jibes and jeering sent his way for the absolute fool he’s made of himself.

But in the upside-down moral economy of Jesus, we don’t get what we deserve.  And so “Blessed are the merciful …”  Blessed are those who come alongside the despised, the outcast, the wretched, the foolish and extend to them undeserved grace.

The really unnerving thing about this beatitude is that it’s less about the recipient of mercy and more about the giver.  The crazy truth Jesus is exposing is that we need to give mercy as much as we need to receive it.  The giving of mercy to Rob Ford is the healing that might prevent us from finding ourselves one day in the same space Mayor Ford now inhabits.

But that’s so tough isn’t it.  Have you noticed how being merciful doesn’t feel very moral?  Come on, admit it – it feels really good to find some high ground, point fingers and get all righteously worked up.  It’s like some moral adrenaline gets mainlined in us.  But mercy – well, I’m not always sure what it feels like but what it does is put you at the same level as those you point the finger at.  That’s just plain humbling.  And that just may be mercy’s healing.

Obviously there are so many important questions about this whole mess that need answering, like why is the Mayor partying with alleged gangsters?  What is he doing in clandestine meetings with drug dealers? How can we trust a serial liar?  And there are questions about mercy too, like, how does mercy play out in the public square?  How can we give mercy without enabling?

But another important question I’m taking away is why am I so quick to judge, so wary of mercy’s power to season justice?

So while I remain longing for and insisting on so much better for Toronto, I’m praying mercy for the mayor.

Let me end with one of the best commentaries on this beatitude of Jesus, Portia’s mercy speech in The Merchant of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this –
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.