Archive for category Advent

Sick of all that’s bent, bruised and broken

“Father, I am weary of all that is wrong with the world – murder of the innocents, a smeared and wrecked creation, tyrant-oppressed poor, hunger-withered children, exploited women, forgotten elderly, invisible candleshomeless.  I long to see that all these enemies – yours and mine – will be, once for all, condemned, and all things crooked made straight.  Set me to making a way for your justice with renewed vigour.  In Jesus our Deliverer’s name we pray, amen.

Seeking God’s Face, prayers for Advent, Day 9.

For ravaged lives and broken hearts – in Connecticut and Calcutta, Regent Park and Ramallah, East Hastings and Ethiopia – come, Lord Jesus, come.



Friday photos – “the age of decay”

“The age of decay” – that’s what a prophetic friend of mine calls the time we live in now, the harsh, mostly unwelcome recognition that entropy wins.  What is will wilt and fail us – our bodies, this groaning creation, the ones we love, the treasured dreams we clutch in this world will all break down and rot.

Not quite the jolly Christmas sentiment is it – but whoever said following Jesus was a cozy, sentimental thing.  And no matter how you feel about that, it’s the perfect Advent posture as it shifts our gaze from our hopes coming undone here to the dear desire of every nation – the coming of Christ again, who will usher in a stronger, more beautiful world, better than our deepest imaginings.  That’s why followers of Jesus always side with hope, living out the deep magic of God’s Kingdom already at work in this age of decay.

And hope give us the eyes to behold, even in the midst of decay, there is beauty.

A few images from the beautiful decay going on in my backyard – for you Paul.

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A saint, a dude and an ordinary joe

A saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects. G. K. Chesterton

No, Virginia, that paunchy, red-suited, white-bearded stranger who breaks into people’s houses once a year is not real – he’s an imposter, a sham and serves as st-nickthe front-man for the consumer empire we live in.

But yes, Virginia, Saint Nicholas is real – the real deal and tomorrow, December 6, is his day.  I know, it’s not Christmas – and that’s the whole purpose.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is perfectly timed to get us in a generous, Jesus way of being, giving us the space and time to focus in on the gift of Jesus at Christmas.

And even if he wasn’t true, you should want him to be.  Think of the differences between these two polar opposites:

  • Santa is the ultimate moralist, keeping his harshly judgment “naughty/nice” list on everyone – St. Nicholas got the gospel groove and poured out his resources for others, no matter how badly they lived.jvanovsky6-sm
  • Santa won’t let you be emotionally authentic (better not pout, better not cry); St. Nicholas heard the cries of the poor and was moved by compassion.
  • Santa Claus is a jolly, ho-ho-ing fellow who isn’t insulted by whatever you might believe about Jesus, or for that matter about anything; St. Nicholas is a dude who will pop you if you pull any of that historical revisionist schtick on Jesus (see video below)
  • For Santa to do his thing, traveling across the globe in a single night, he has to break all known laws of physics.  For St. Nicholas to do his thing, it requires a broken heart.
  • Santa teaches kids that their role in life is one of consumption; your primary function is to simply open up all the goodies that magically appear at no cost to you.  St. Nicholas teaches that a life of gratitude is lived in service to others.
  • Santa’s favourite hangout is in climate-controlled, highly polished malls; St. Nicholas was mostly found on the mean streets with the poor.
  • Santa is the patron saint for mass consumerism; St. Nicholas is the patron saint for compassion for the poor.
  • Santa has a massive marketing network in operation; St. Nicholas preferred to do things on the quiet.jvanovsky-12-sm
  • Santa has elves working as slave labourers; St. Nicholas was an early crusader against human trafficking, paying the debt of a father who was about to sell his daughters into bondage (doing so by throwing gold coins in through a window where they landed in stockings hanging out to dry).

Yeah, I hear you – “but he’s a saint, a mythical, air-brushed image of perfection that you could never be even if you tried really hard.”  And sure, there’s some legend that’s grown around Saint Nicholas.  But let’s think for a bit about saints.

Popularly understood, a saint is a spiritual superhero who has lived a life of uninterrupted virtue.  But the bible and church history point other ways, showing us that a saint is one whose life is a virtuoso display of God’s grace in a sometimes muddied and muddled life.

The genius of ordinary joe’s like Nicholas lies not in their unattainable virtue or heroic devotion but a grace that is available to all of us.  As poet Margaret Avison writes: “The best / must be, on earth / only the worst in course of / being transfigured.”

Saints like Nicholas are a witness to the truth, they are, as Kathleen Norris writes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.”   They offer you and me a fresh display of what this Jesus life looks like in everyday living.

imagesAnd they give us a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace.  In our “shopacalyptic” consumer world, Saint Nicholas offers a sharp prick of Kingdom reality to our understanding of a gospel life.

So, Virginia, tomorrow, mark the day and celebrate the real deal – St. Nicholas, the saint, the dude, this ordinary guy.

And let me help you get into a St. Nick state of mind: before you head out tomorrow, grab a fistful of loonies and twoonies ($1 and $2 coins) and give them away to anyone (I mean anyone) who asks.  Stash a few extra bills in your wallet or purse for the sole purpose of giving them away to help someone in need that day.  Do something kind for another person; sponsor a child ( or; call up that lonely person and just listen; get informed on the reality of human trafficking; find out what IJM is doing about women sold into sexual slavery; buy some groceries for the homeless guy; encourage someone – and do it all secretly.  But mostly, have your heart broken for all things God’s is.

And one more thing – a life of justice and compassion feeds and is sustained on God’s goodness, so treat yourself to a chocolate or two as a reminder of that  (a good tradition my Dutch tribe celebrates on Sinterklaas).

Go for it now – be what you are, a saint.


Sought After

So long as we imagine it is we who have to look for God, we must often lose heart.  But it is the other way about – he is looking for us.

Simon Tugwell, Prayer

The eyes have it.Isn’t this the heartening hope, the deep gladness of Advent?  It’s not up to us; this salvation business doesn’t depend on you or me.  Ever since Adam and Eve, we’ve been evading and avoiding God but in Jesus God has come in search of us.

This is who you are, your identity – sought after.  The prophet Isaiah says: “They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you will be called Sought After.” (62:12).

Today, enjoy the Advent reminder that we have always been known, loved and desired from eternity, that God has turned his face towards, seeking us out not with malice or judgement but with the shining eyes of grace.

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Ready my heart

Advent lightToday begins the Christian season of Advent and here are a few words of introduction to Advent from my book Seeking God’s Face:

Advent (from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival”) is the four-week season of preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. A good celebration requires proper preparation for us to fully enjoy it. During December, however, we mostly confuse helpful readiness for the hustle of Christmas shopping, parties, and preparations. The Advent season, more reflective in nature, can feel out of sync with all this noise and busyness.

John the Baptist has always felt like the right person to get me ready for Christmas—he’s the anti-Santa needed for our day. Trade the jolly laugh for an in-your-face intensity, the twinkle in the eye for a wildness about to interrupt your life, commanding our attention but always redirecting it towards Jesus. “Prepare the way for the Lord” is the Advent call to get ready for the coming Messiah.

But how do you prepare for a surprise? More than just remembering Christ’s first arrival, Advent hopes for Christ’s second coming.  Advent is a season of expectant waiting, tapping into the sense we have that all is not well, the longing for the world to be made right again. It’s a season for restless hearts and people weary of a broken world who want, with all our being, to know there’s more than this.

Advent cultivates in us a discerning eye, helping us to spot the sin that clutters our lives and notice all the ways we need to be saved. By helping us to hope intensely for restoration, to feel our own need to be saved, Advent prepares us for genuine Christmas joy and faith in the One who saves us from our sin, Jesus.

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The wonder of a preposition: God with us

I hope it’s quiet where you are.  I love Christmas Eve: all the hustling around slows, the stores are closed, the traffic empties, and it’s still.  

Tonight, in churches and homes, we light candles in the darkness.  We acknowledge that our world is broken and recognize that God in Jesus can set things right again.

In a world that’s seem as cold and cruel as the one into which Jesus was born, we spark not just a candle but a deeper hope that God will not allow the world to remain this way.  Someone is doing something about it – God has come in Jesus.

Incarnation; God with us – this is is the wonder we’re invited to ponder; this is the God we’re called to worship.

Think about the marvel of the nativity.  How did God fit all of his divinity into a fresh, dimply baby?  How did deity and DNA mix and mingle?  And what kind of God would do this?  What kind of God entrusts himself to a teenage mother, who comes near to us by letting us hold him, who is so vulnerable and risks letting us hurt him?

Of course, the more wonder-filled question is why would God do this?  Why would God come to us this way?  Why would God set aside his greatness and majesty, humbling himself to come to us as an utterly dependent baby?  Unless this is greatness and majesty.

Merry Christmas to all. May the bright hope, wonder, and joy of God with us in Jesus be with you and yours.


Christmas tunes – rant and raves

Do you hear what I hear? A whole lot of bad holiday music, that’s what!  Let me play Scrooge for a moment in order to save me from having to run raving mad through a mall food court if I have to suffer another of these saccharine seasonal songs.

Honestly, where do you witness such unadulterated, sappy sentimentality and insanely stupid lyrics as in so much “holiday” musical fare?  And consider for a moment the irony here – helping us to deeply celebrate the radical love of God in Christ are merchants and marketers piping in and broadcasting these jingles, hoping to hop us up on a seasonal high, the unconscious accompaniment as we spend far too much on things we don’t want or need.

Let’s set aside the musical quality for a moment and simply focus on the lyrics, which are often sternly moralistic (be merry and light-hearted or look out).  They have invitations to outright denial (Have yourself a merry little Christmas’s line about “All our troubles will be far away.”  Really, and that’s why the family Christmas celebration is known as the peak of family dysfunction!) or teach cozy revisionist theology (Away in a Manger’s cute little heretical statement about “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  Oh, that’s right, he wasn’t really human after all; that body thing, just a good get-up to trick us all).  And yes, let’s talk about the bad musicality, the absence of most any originality or the lifeless, sometimes awful, singing of much of it (O holy Crap, you completely missed those high notes).

And yet I love Christmas music.  I listen to it before Advent hits and continue throughout the year.  It’s music that reflects the reality of life as we live it and yet the bright hopes of the gospel.  And what puts a smile on my face is how many of these overt gospel songs ring out through the voices of artists who profess no Christian faith (you really need to read a good article on this by Paul Vander Klay at

So let me recommend a few of what I’ve come to love.  These versions are frequently changed from what you might usually hear, which is also what breathes new life into them.  Here’s what I think is a great Christmas playlist, a few covers of carols and original songs that get played again and again on my Ipod.

  • O Come, O Come Emmanuel – Sufjan Stevens (from vol. 1 of his 5 volume Christmas set – quirky, spare and nicely timed)
  • Mary Had a Baby – Bruce Cockburn (from arguably the best Christmas album in recent memory, this song has the craziest line – “the people keep coming but the train is gone.”  I want to hang out with whoever wrote this one at a Christmas Day worship service)
  • Magnificat – Steve Bell (I love the whole album, The Feast of Seasons, and prefer this over the traditional Ave Maria)
  • Good King Wenceslas – The Skydiggers (this has to be my all-time favourite Christmas cover – the studio version is brilliantly harmonized but you can see it live below.  Great last line – “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing”)
  • Winter Wonderland – Harry Connick Jr. (a finger-snapping instrumental cover, from the When Harry met Sally soundtrack)
  • Christmas Song – Dave Matthews band (the master Matthews in top form, musically and lyrically)
  • I pray on Christmas – Harry Connick Jr. (OK, now we’re unwrapping the real-world hopes of Christmas.  Even if you don’t believe in the Christmas story, you’ll wish it were true once you listen to this song)
  • It came upon a midnight clear – Bruce Cockburn (the depth and aching beauty of the lyrics are breathtaking and simply putting this carol into a minor key transforms it into magic – and then there’s Cockburn’s guitar and harmonies with Sam Philips)
  • Santa Claus is coming to town – Bruce Springsteen (well, because he’s the Boss)
  • What Sweeter Music – Vancouver Cantata Singers (for a complete change of pace, try out this hauntingly gorgeous a cappella album of Christmas material.  You can’t listen to this in a mall; you have to light a few candles and be still)
  • Jingle Bells – Barenaked Ladies (because my kids go crazy for this version and it’s appropriately silly)
  • What child is this – Sarah McLachlan (elvish, not in the Will Farrell vein but more what I imagine Galadriel might sound like singing a Christmas carol)
  • God rest ye merry gentlemen/We three kings – Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan (another one of the best covers of a Christmas Carol – infectiously fun and worshipful at the same time, the perfect joy-filled pair for the holiday)
  • Maybe this Christmas – Ron Sexsmith (what’s not to love about Mr. Sexsmith – one of the best songwriters who captures the hope of Christmas)
  • Christmas is Coming and Skating – Vince Guaraldi (two Christmas classics introduced through the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Original music, fine jazz musicianship, communicating the hope and expectation of Christmas without a word)
  • The Rebel Jesus – Jackson Browne with the Chieftains (my favourite non-carol, a John-the-Baptist like prophetic “calling the bluff” of every Christian looking for Jesus and celebrating Christmas)
  • The Friendly Beasts – Sufjan Stevens (I love Sufjan and this pitch-perfect performance; a better “Little Drummer Boy” that makes me willingly want to be a stable animal, like an ass)
  • Cry of  tiny babe – Bruce Cockburn (a fresh retelling of the Christmas story – love the line of how “redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe”)

Do you have some favourite covers?  I’d love to hear from you (but can we all agree that anything by Justin Bieber is disqualified from the get-go?).

And here is where you can view the Skydiggers live performance of Good King Wenceslas (but do yourself a favour and download the studio version).