Archive for category Advent

Have yourself an untamed Christmas

It’s been a dark year, wouldn’t you say, what some have called the year of fear – disease, wars, refugees, all too much ugliness, violence, and generally un-imrs.phpevolved humanity.

Into that story of darkness and fear, the world as we often experience it, comes God-with-us: the Christmas story in all its wildness and weirdness (yes, I love the bath-robed shepherds and rosy-cheeked angels but the nativity story is decidely not cute.  See this good piece on innocuous pageants and a call for a renewal of the arts to help us reclaim Christmas).




I often need help to scrape away the froth and cliche, bringing me back to the wild heart of Christmas. Poet Denise Levertov captures the right posture of realism and wild hope.

On the mystery of the Incarnation 

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Denise Levertov


Artwork credits:
Joyful Mystery (by Jim Janknegt)
Creadora de Luz (by Lalo Garcia)
Emmanuel: God With Us (by Laura Kestly)

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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 risinghomesick 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.

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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.

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Christmas: don’t be more spiritual than God

‘The Word became flesh,’ wrote John, ‘and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14).

The Nativity3.010That is what incarnation means.  It is untheological.  It is unsophisticated.  It is undignified.  But according to Christianity it is the way things are.

All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth-bound, are themselves denied.  Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it.  If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here.  And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth but our bodies and our earth themselves …

One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.    Frederick Buechner


Merry Christmas to all – enjoy the wonder of the “with-us” God.

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This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild.  Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d been no room for the child.  Madeleine L’Engle

Most of us have a favourite Christmas movie, one you haul out every Christmas holiday season.  Sure, part of the reason for Christmas movie watching is to disarm tense and awkward family dynamics during Christmas, but some of it is to enjoy a sense of wonder.  In our house, along with the annual Lord of the Rings extended version movie marathon, the top Christmas flick is Millions.  Christmas is meant to be a season of wonder and this movie will get you into that space.

Flowing from the beautiful imagination of director Danny Boyle, Millions is a quirky, lovely film that invites you to see the world through the eyes of the main character millions Damian, to view things from his child-like, faith-filled imagination – which is mostly the very thing I need to keep my faith alive and agile.

The story centers on the young Damian Cunningham, whose cardboard fort is smashed into by a duffel bag full of money (watch the movie to find out more of that story).  Convinced it is a gift of divine generosity, Damian dreams up ways of stewarding it for the sake of the poor.  However, his brother Anthony has an entirely different understanding of the money,  purchasing goods, favours and attention as well as plotting out how to maximize returns on the funds.

Damian is an emblem for the child-like faith Jesus urges in his followers.  His world is populated by the communion of the saints (great scenes with various saints especially the martyrs of Uganda), rooted in his robust belief that God exists and is working everything together for good. He’s so open to grace and miracle.  But it’s not childish – there’s a sturdy resolve in him, an awareness of the suffering of the world and a commitment to live out grace in that place. It’s a beautiful world Damian lives in – the enchanted world-view of Christianity that produces a generosity of heart, a joy in 02self-donation.

At the end of Millions we see Damian’s vision for generous living and giving come to life.  Damian and his family crawl into his cardboard fort/hermitage and are jettisoned off to another place were we catch sight of a different world through the child-like eyes of grace.

During the final scenes, Damian narrates: “This is my story.  This is where I want it to end.”  If it was his brother Anthony’s story, it would’ve ended differently.  But Millions is Damian’s vision for life, something closely connected to the Christmas impulse of self-donation, where streams of living water flow freely.

Millions is the story of our life, the story of Christmas, where we have been sent millions, treasures from heaven, infinite, lavish grace in Jesus.  And the question for us is how are we going to steward that treasure?  How do we want to see this story end?

Hope you have a chance to see it, enjoy the lovely wonder of Damian’s faith-filled vision for life, and continue writing the story of Christ’s vision for this world.

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Don’t mess with these grandmas

In our church during Advent we’re entering into the lineage of Jesus, dwelling with the stories of the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy.  As a disciple of Jesus, this is my family tree, my spiritual DNA, these strong women my faith grandmothers.  I love this genealogy, populated by wild and woolly risk-takers, most with the scent of scandal clinging about them.the women in Jesus family tree

I need to be reminded of this heritage because the slow drift of my heart is often towards cautious discipleship and a certain domestication of God.  When Christianity becomes enchanted by North American worldliness it quickly gets reduced to a consumer spirituality, cordoned off as a harmless private morality and drained of its unsettling agenda.

But that sort of thing is distinctly out of shape with the contours of the gospel.  Read Mary’s Magnificat and you can’t help but think: “Mary, Mary, little revolutionary.”  These grandmothers in the gospel remind me of Advent’s radical hope, one I clutch on to for our fragile world, the gospel’s alternate reading of reality that looks and longs for God’s good intentions for all human life.  These women lead me in a Jesus-way of life that counters both liberal and conservative ideologies, challenges both religious and irreligious, irks both traditionalists and relativists – and, consequently, a way of life that will run you into trouble with most people.

G.K. Chesterton, as he so often does, captures well the fierce faith of these women and the lovely paradox of living the gospel:

Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.

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Do not wait till the world is sane

First Comingthe-three-candles

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady,

and prisoners cried out for release.


He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine.


He did not wait till hearts were pure.

In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

he came, and his Light would not go out.


He came to a world which did not mesh,

to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

the Maker of the stars was born.


We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

~ Madeleine L’Engle

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