Archive for category Joy

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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The crime of living cautiously

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=”″>I Believe I Can Fly (Flight of the Frenchies) – Trailer</a> from <a href=””>sebastien montaz-rosset</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>



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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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 flip side of “why me?”

Human suffering is the great gadfly for every philosophy, worldview, religion and person.  How each responds to the problem of suffering is emblematic of its spiritual depth and humanity.

Whenever suffering intrudes into our lives, a very personal question quickly surfaces – “why me?”  Why is the universe picking on me, hand delivering this misery?  It’s not a whiny question to pose but an honest query in the posture of lament, a cry for some rational grounds to the seeming senselessness of suffering.  We insist on a justification when everything looks and feels all wrong.  Pastor Tim Keller recently wrote a good piece on the question “why me?”   (you can read it here), a sound, sensible apologetic for the reality of God amidst human suffering.

But I’m curious about the other side of this question.  It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and it finds me thinking about the flip side of “why me?” which is not “why shouldn’t suffering happen to me” but “why should I experience goodness at all?”

Why do we ask the “why me?” question mostly (only?) when suffering comes?  What is the foundational belief that demands a rationale for the suffering we experience?  Why aren’t we so insistent for an explanation when the providence of God brings good and life blows sunshine our way?  Curious that no one asks “why me” then.

It underscores the basic logic we assume, that the experience of goodness is rational, and therefore expected, whereas suffering is alway posited as senseless.  Perhaps it also points out a deep seated desire we carry for shalom as the normal mode of existence, some ingrained gene memory in all of us that harks back to Eden and points forward to what we’re meant to enjoy.

It’s something to wrestle through, especially for Christians who can easily use “blessing” as an evidence of God’s presence.  Or the assumption that goodness or blessing any of us experience is evidence of personal moral goodness.  Both are patently untrue and tragically bad moves – talk to Job to dispute that one.

So what if we pose the “why me?” question not to our suffering but to our experience of goodness?  What if we demand a justification for any instance of well-being and joy?

I wonder if this is a way to prepare ourselves to make sense of the inevitable seasons of suffering – to ask, in times of joy and goodness, “why me?”  Why is such senseless goodness lavished on me?  What did I do to deserve today?  Why should I have been born to parents who fed and read to me, loved and nurtured me?  Why might I have the lucky luxury of being born into one of the wealthiest countries on the face of the earth?  Why should I enjoy the indulgent choice of what to do and where to work instead being shuffled into indentured servitude? Where is the justification for me having a full belly in a hungry world?  Why me that I should be loved so well, by God, by family, and friends?  Why the gift of breath?  Why so much colour and beauty to be ravished by?  Why should I ever get to laugh?

In typically fine form, G.K. Chesterton sums up the posture of both gratitude and sanity (which are inseparable):

Here ends another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me.  Tomorrow begins another day.  Why am I allowed two?

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