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-evolved 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,
Joyful Mystery (by Jim Janknegt)
Creadora de Luz (by Lalo Garcia)
Emmanuel: God With Us (by Laura Kestly)
Frank Constanza was a minor prophet of sorts. He anticipated the popular new custom to ring in the Christmas season. It’s the now traditional “airing of the grievances” over all the competing and corrupting agendas that have “taken over” Christmas (think faux-outrage Starbucks red cup guy).
Maybe there are some explanations for this new tradition – the season and its story have been shaped by a variety of different narratives, not all of them helpful. In some cases the Christmas story has been distorted (e.g. by the consumer knock-off narrative), but not all of what has happened to the season is bad. In our pluralistic society, during this public holiday season, isn’t making space for the stories and celebrations of other faiths a good thing?
Here is a critical learning for followers of the one we celebrate at Christmas – we don’t need to diminish someone else’s celebration to increase our enjoyment of Christmas. This is not a zero sum holiday. Neither do we need people of other or no faith to be coerced into a celebration that is not theirs. All of this just puts a scowl over Christmas joy (again, think the tempest in the Starbucks red-cup).
So is it a lost holiday? Shall we lift up a chorus of moans instead of tidings of joy? Hardly! But all this finger-pointed scolding is not the way to a better celebration. Isn’t the better way to maintain the glory of Christmas by celebrating it with full hearts and with such beauty that others would want to join in the celebration?
Author Madeline L’Engle gets it right in Walking on Water:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
We need help to celebrate appropriately, and thankfully the church has an ancient resource that can focus followers of Jesus on the unimaginably good 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 stated today). It’s a quiet, reflective and somber time, which certainly is out of sync with all the glittery, syrupy happenings on offer in the month of December.
And that’s part of its gift. Advent calls the bluff on all the shiny, merry sentiment around us. The “against-the-grain” way of Advent is to name all that’s wrong, to admit to the shadow over life. It’s the recognition that our need for help is far greater than we ever dared think. We need the anticipation of Advent to enjoy the wonder of Christmas. We need the “in-your-face” call to repentance before we can appreciate the good tidings of great joy that God has come near to us in all of our brokenness.
Somewhere in the bustle of wrapping paper, packed malls and the inevitable squabbling about “holiday trees” and “winter carols,” we’re missing out on the wonder of God’s generosity, entering our darkness in Jesus, including us in his good plan to make all things new.
The ancient practice of Advent has the stuff to get us in the right frame of heart for a proper Christmas celebration. It aligns us with God’s story of self-donation, allowing it become more than a footnote to the season but the rhythm of our lives. It readies us to want that light so lovely we find in Christ.
And if not, maybe we should celebrate Festivus instead and hold Christmas in August.
Advent begins the Christian calendar, which is the way Christians mark time. Advent starts the annual march through time by naming all that’s wrong in us and this world, connecting us to deep hopes and longings that remain unfulfilled.
Advent is a season for broken hearts. We take stock of our broken world, recognizing all that is bent, bruised, broken and unfulfilled. We wait and want for something bright to break all this shadow and decay. In stark contrast to the holly and jolly of the cultural calendar, the Christian year reminds us that a few toys or presents are crappy substitutes for the bigger ache in our lives.
As the season begins, I’d like to add The Decemberist’s A Beginning Song to your Advent playlist. No doubt Colin Meloy (lead singer and avowed atheist) didn’t it write it as such, but that’s the wonder of God’s common grace: we can find so many resonances and reflections of God in the work of non-Christians, all part of the bigger reality and story that God is working in this world. God has this lovely knack for employing all sorts of people to reflect his glory and get his work done.
But why use it for Advent? Give the song a listen (see video below) and let’s walk through some of the lyrics, listening for some of the cadences of Advent in the song.
But first, there’s the placement of the song on their album “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world” (a telling title in itself). A Beginning song is the last on this album. It comes right after12/17/12, which is a mix of melancholy and anticipation for a child about to be born in the midst of a chaotic world (the date of the title is days after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings). The song captures the disturbing paradox of life and death, beauty and tragedy living side by side in this life: “Oh my God, what a world you have made here / what a terrible world, what a beautiful world / what a world you have made here.”
A Beginning Song comes as a response to the baffling incongruity of what sort of world we inhabit. Against the backdrop of anticipating a baby in a broken world, like the season of Advent, A Beginning Song gives us a way to enter and respond to this terrible, beautiful world.
“Let’s commence to coordinate our sights / get them square to rights.” – Advent is a beginning, the start of the Christian calendar, a time to reorient ourselves. As we remember the coming of Christ into our world, we realize so much is still so wrong. We’re left wanting for something more, waiting, hoping for Christ to come again. Advent is a season of longing and hoping for a world that works, a world set to rights, a teim to calibrate and coordinate our vision of the world with God’s vision for the renewal of all things in Christ.
“Condescend to calm this riot in your mind / find yourself in time, find yourself in time” – in the Incarnation, God comes to address the chaos of sin that runs riot throughout our world. In Jesus, God condescends to our place, finding himself in space and time, coming among us, to renew all things. In worship, as we remember and rehearse God’s story in Jesus, we get oriented within God’s accounting of time rather than our culture’s rendition.
“I am waiting, should I be waiting / I am wanting, should I be wanting / when all around me” – this chorus repeats throughout the song. Advent is a season of waiting. We celebrate the first coming of Christ but we’re left wondering: “should we still be waiting, wanting when all around me is like Sandy Hook, like Paris and Syria, a world of brokenness and terror?”
“Document the world inside your skin” – the foreground of Advent is the first coming of Christ, who moved into our neighborhood. The incarnation (literally “in flesh”) is God taking on skin and shin and limbs, entering into the frail and fragile world of human flesh. It is the mystery of God not just becoming like us but actually one of us, fully human.
“the light, bright light / and the light, bright light / bright light / bright light / is all around me.”
The song ends, answering that lingering question of the repeated refrain “I am waiting, should I be waiting / I am wanting, should I be wanting / I am hopeful, should I be hopeful / when all around me …” Is there something around me in this world the might call from me more than despair? At this point, there’s a hush that enters in, slowing down the pace of the song to allow for wonder, but then building up to it’s conclusion, singing out the beautiful Advent answer of hope – “when all around me … “the light, bright light / and the light, bright light / bright light / bright light / is all around me / it’s all around me / all around me.”
Advent, coming at the darkest time of the year, reminds that in a world of shadow and decay, there is light and hope – the bright light of the coming Savior, Jesus Christ. And the Decemberists give us a good song to begin it all.
I’m a follower of one who began his life as an asylum seeker. I’m a member of a family of faith whose history stretches back to Abraham, and is summarized in refugee terms: “my father was a wandering Aramean.” The God who has called me has this penchant of binding up his life with those who are on the margins, with the vulnerable and the weak. To take on the name of Christ, then, is to bind your life with the plight of those very same people.
So it is no surprise that Jesus calls people to a care and compassion for others, regardless of the differences and circumstances. Every person who takes on the name of Jesus isn’t afforded the option of turning away from outsiders. In fact, our very reputation and the name of Jesus is wrapped up in that sort of generous care. “Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation … do everything that the immigrant asks.” (I Kings 8:41ff)
The plight of refugees has never been more stark, obvious and in your face. And, no doubt, the complexity of the situation is vexing: the instability of Eastern European and Middle-Eastern political climates, the risks and dangers of radicalized jihadists, the sheer scale of the need.
So what do we do? Listen to the refugee-Jesus, where we find the simplest, clearest of wisdom. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
But that sounds too basic for this crisis, too simplistic for global geo-political problems, right?
I’m convinced that the Jewish carpenter is actually the wisest, smartest being to live, and so I’m persuaded that his deceptively simple words are actually the wisdom of the ages, something that is meant to play out in personal relationships and between global neighbors.
It’s often called the Golden Rule, and thought to be another version of something repeated within different religious streams. And while a semblance of it is seen in other religious contexts, what Jesus says is unique and transformative. We see forms of this Golden Rule in eastern Confucianism (Confucius urges, “do not do to others what you would not wish done to yourself.”); among Greek philosophers (the Stoic Epictetus said “What you avoid suffering for yourself, seek not to inflict on others.” and Socrates wrote “What stirs your anger when done to you by others, that do not do to others.”); and in rabbinic Judaism (Rabbi Hillel said “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.”). These versions are both negative and passive. Avoiding or refraining from something I would not want done to me is a different standard of action than actively pursuing the thing I wish for myself for the sake of the other, which is the life Jesus invites into.
The brilliance of Jesus’ wisdom for how to respond pretty much to any situation is this: make it personal. The gold standard for moral action is to remove it from abstraction, from the pointed-finger deflection of “what others should do,” and from the resigned shrug of “it’s too complex so let’s leave it to the experts.” Instead, Jesus makes us the authority on how to respond to our friends, neighbours and global, geo-political issues: do to others what you would have them do to you.
Forget the professors, pundits and policy wonks; check your own heart.
For a moment, as best as you’re able, enter into the story of a refugee. If it was your home that was riddled with bullets and bomb fragments, your neighborhood a rubble, with neighbors and extended family killed; if you had no money because the local economy was devastated due to the instability; if your children went to bed hungry; and if you made the sane but crazy decision to get out of dodge and walk to wherever was safe, how would you want to be treated? If you were stuck for years in the purgatory of a refugee camp, watching your children sink into the despair of a hopeless future, facing some Escher-like bureaucratic government approval process, how would you want to be treated? If you lacked all access to a flourishing life, far from any semblance of home, dependent upon the goodwill of others, how would you want to be treated? Think of the hopes a refugee has for their lives, for their family. Imagine the fears that dominate their lives? Then think, “if I was in that person’s shoes, what would I want?” What would you hope for from foreign countries and governments when yours was corrupt or impotent to do anything to help you?
See what Jesus is doing? He taps into our own natural, God-given instinct to care for ourselves but then pulls the most liberating, redemptive move. He takes that inward-looking instinct but pivots us outward, redirecting all those good instincts for care and protection towards the other. Whatever we hoped and wanted others would do for us, he now commands us to go and do that for others.
And did you notice the first words: “in everything.” That’s pretty comprehensive scope. Don’t try to limit this wisdom for small-scale issues. “In everything.” This is not a kindergarten lesson in niceness. It is the wisdom of the ages, saving us from inward-focused fear and self-absorption, aligning ourselves with the grain of the universe, which is God’s self-giving love, his fondness for the least, the last and the lost.
A refugee is not a problem but God in disguise. They are a gift for anyone who carries the name of Jesus, helping us to know the meaning of that name and calling.
I hate that I had to tuck my kids into the darkness of a terrible world this weekend. I could see fear creep over them as they witnessed the dark hearts of men drunk with hatred, propelled by the power of distorted ideas. It broke my heart to see them instinctively gather extra blankets, trying to find cover from an inscrutable world.
What sort of world do we hand to our children? Where ordinary public spaces, like restaurants and concert venues, are targets and good ordinary things, like planes and bodies, are bent into instruments of death through some sin-warped imagination, where Jihadi Johnny is not a sick character in an ugly film but a real person doing unthinkable things.
I wish for a different time for my kids but the truth is that what has played out in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris is simply more of the tired story of sin in our beautiful but broken world. I can’t avoid it so I wonder, how do I equip my kids to live in this moment, to rise up to the call to live well in these times we are given?
I’m hopeful for what I see in them, the deep-in-the-bones awareness that these acts saw against the grain of the universe. I’m glad they find it incomprehensible that humans can do these things. But I wish I had better answers for them about what to do. These realities are so daunting, so overwhelming.
And yet, I also don’t want them to feel powerless in this world, to live as if fear rules or that they have to possess political clout or position to make a difference.
In one of his letters, C.S. Lewis writes, “Lord, how I loathe big issues!” It was an echo of a stream of wisdom in the gospel. Jesus repeatedly highlighted the remarkable potency of small things; whenever he spoke of God’s Kingdom at work in the world, he used images like salt, children, yeast, and seeds.
I’m finding in the small, ordinary practices of Jesus a way for me and my kids to protest violence. I do believe there’s a limited place for the larger exercise of force to curb evil, and I pray for those leaders who bear the weight of the world, praying for a wisdom beyond themselves to guide and direct. Those big acts of savvy diplomacy and military engagement are necessary as corrective responses to a world that has lost its way. But the foundations of a world set right are found elsewhere, in smaller, ordinary acts and practices.
Small acts are so needed because they possess a nuance that the big can never deliver – and the complexity of our world demands subtlety and nuance. An institutional response or national action just doesn’t communicate the needed relational subtlety and personal nuance that a face-to-face conversation or act of hospitality does. When I listen to the story of a refugee instead of the chatter and rage of social media, I’m thrust into a very nuanced and personal engagement. There’s nothing abstract in the personal act of extending and receiving forgiveness – the up-close tears and expressions of regret are part of the reweaving of a frayed social fabric.
So I’m encouraging my kids to respond in small acts as a way to respond to this world they’ve inherited:
Turn me tender: when we prayed as a family this weekend, it was the most basic and important small-act response: to pray for all those who vandalize goodness and are enemies to peace; to pray for the hurting, the victims; to pray and long for a world where there is peace for all. It looks, even feels, so small, so useless. But as we bring our aching hearts, our bruised hopes, our rush to judgment before God, what happens is our hearts are turned tender, to borrow a line from folk artist Martyn Joseph. Our world doesn’t need more brittle hearts and curdled spirits – praying keeps us humble, inviting God to be the judge on the injustice we see all around us, freeing us instead to pursue the singular call to love.
Swift to understand: every morning as my kids head off to school, I tell them: “Learn lots but love more.” That’s not a little pep talk for them each day but a reminder of a good way to live. Those small acts of understanding – taking time to listen well, becoming students of those different from us, listening to and telling the stories of our lives – all are catalysts for compassion, respect and goodwill.
Love generously: and then, even when they don’t understand, I hope my kids will show generous love. This is hard, especially when something like hate or fear feels so much stronger and real. So I hope they practice love, small acts of love for others even when they don’t feel like it. Those regular acts of love, civility and common courtesy shape a disposition of good will towards others and help establish a wider common good.
Delight as defiance: Could it be that our best protest to all that is evil and wrong is to deeply delight in all that is good? Here’s the thing about evil – it only exists as a parasite on the good in the world. Evil is a vandal of all that’s right in God’s beautiful world. A defiantly good protest to evil, often the antidote to fear, is to delight in what is good.
The day after the Paris attacks, I was driving my son to his ball hockey game. We were listening to the Vinyl Cafe (a Canadian radio show of story and music – Americans, think Prairie Home Companion) and we laughed hard and long at the cracking good story of Stuart Mclean. It was a joy that tapped into something truer than evil, something deeper that heals.
Isn’t this part of why Jesus invited us to be like children, because their small acts of delight and beauty form a counter witness to the violent cycle of insult, offense and harm.
Perhaps the most subversive act is beautiful and small – to go play hockey on the street; read stories that delight; sing (it’s really hard to remain enemies with people you’ve joined in a song) and dance (same for those you’ve linked arms with in a dance) and enjoy a good meal (and same for those you break bread with). Defiantly play, create and laugh – because joy is stronger than evil, love always bests fear, and as the story of Jesus reminds us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
And here is that beautiful song of Martyn Joseph, “Turn me tender.”
In Canada, we know the old, old story well. It’s a story we love to tell because we know its true. It’s the secular story, of how religion is finally the casualty of the forward march of human enlightenment, ushering us into a non-religious, bias-free and objective space to live. It’s a story hummed in choruses of John Lennon’s Imagine, peddled over unexamined water-cooler conversation and perpetuated by caricatured conventional wisdom of religion.
Trouble is, its bogus.* The popular story of secularization is a myth. It’s what Charles Taylor calls a subtraction story where the secular space we have is the distilled good of a society that has jettisoned belief, superstition, and religion.
The secular story is insisted upon with increasing vehemence. Methinks the secular Emperor protests too much. And as, Jamie Smith notes, the brash, loud, aggressive secularism we see may likely be the last gasps of an imploding worldview.
While vocal secularists protest too much and too loudly, many people remain quietly living out their faith, and with verve, in this secular age. I saw glimpses of this vibrant faith reality the other night at the launch of Faith in Canada 150. Held in the lobby of the CBC broadcast center in Toronto, Faith in Canada 150 is an initiative celebrating the role and telling the story of faith in Canada. It builds on the words of the first Prime Minister Trudeau, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who declared that “the golden thread of faith is woven throughout the history of Canada from its earliest beginnings up to the present time.” It’s a winsome reminder to a nation that loves to tell the old secular story that there is another story.
The keynote address was given by Kevin Vickers, former House of Commons Sergeant-at-arms who is hailed as a hero for ending the attack on Parliament Hill on Oct. 22, 2014. Vickers talked of a mostly unseen quiet life of faith lived out in the world of law enforcement. He told how his faith enabled him to be a man of peace, how as a homicide investigator he treated the worst of offenders with human dignity, how prevention, education, compassion, empathy, and facilitation are vital tools in law enforcement, and how enforcement is last tool you want to pull from the policing toolbox. He told one story of policing an aboriginal conflict in New Brunswick, ordering a few pots of coffee to be sent to the warriors, and when no progress was made, at the end of his rope for what to do, he sat in a vehicle with the warrior leaders. All he could think to do was pray the rosary, and strangely he found them responding and praying with him. Then as he talked about the attack in Ottawa by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, he spoke of regret, wishing he never had to do what he did, and then of saying a prayer for Michael, and for his own forgiveness.
If it wasn’t for the brazen public nature of the violence, you and I would likely never know the name of Kevin Vickers. But that wouldn’t mean his life of faithful service would not exist. His daily, faith-motivated service would still be very much woven into the fabric of his country. All we would know was the common goodness of the ordinary common good we enjoy everyday.
He lived out the simple scriptural wisdom of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
Isn’t that such contrarian goodness – nothing showy about a life of faith. In following Jesus, there’s no room for theatrical religion that seeks to justify your existence by how big the audience or how great the applause. Jesus has a blunt word for that – hypocrisy. Instead, Jesus calls people to simply live out faith, modestly and unobtrusively, working mostly behind the scenes.
The beautifully hopeful realization for me was that the CBC lobby was filled with people like Kevin Vickers – people of faith placed within Canadian culture and society (most in significant places and influential positions) but largely unknown, hidden from the public eye. They were CEO’s and homemakers, musicians, professors, therapists, and accountants; people in business, media, law, the arts, government, entertainment, social services, education, engineers, development workers, investment brokers, and so many more. A handful you might recognize but most of them you would never spot on the street. Yet all quietly living out their faith, weaving together the common good we call Canada.
There’s the dilemma for people of faith living in a culture that tells the old story of secularism – how do you respond and remind people of the living faith tradition that has made Canada what it is without then resorting to self-promotion?
Of course, that doesn’t mean you say nothing, hiding your light under a bushel. But mostly, it is found in leading “a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior.” (1 Timothy 3:2).
That sort of faithful living should also bring steady encouragement because you really don’t know how many of God’s people are at work as salt and light, preserving and conserving, building and growing, for the good of all. Those people are far more than you think.
* I’m not here denying what Charles Taylor names as Secular3, the reality that we do live a time when belief in God is not axiomatic.
Did you hear this one: “two gods walk into a Toronto bar …” The makings of a bad joke right? Add in talking dogs and it gets even worse. Scooby-doo meets Percy Jackson.
Thankfully, Giller Prize short-listed Fifteen Dogs is none of this but rather a inventive, thoughtful wisdom romp (it’s an apologue – think Aesop and Animal Farm) through what it means to be alive and human.
I really loved this book in all sorts of ways. I love dogs and this is a dog book. The story is set in Toronto (right in my own neighbourhood of Roncesvalles). And its a provocatively thoughtful book.
It opens in Toronto’s Wheat Sheaf Tavern where Greek gods Apollo and Hermes wager one year’s servitude on a Sleemans-fuelled bar bet – if animals were granted human intelligence, would they die happy? Wandering into a nearby veterinary clinic, they decide to settle the matter by changing the lives of the fifteen dogs in the kennel, giving them human consciousness and intelligence.
The rest of the book is both wonderful and strange, heartbreaking and hilarious as the dogs begin to see the world through new eyes, all the while keeping their dog essence. A few examples:
- One of the first flickers of consciousness for Rosie, a German shepherd was to wonder “what happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them.”
- Atticus, a Neapolitan Mastiff and leader of the pack, finds that “all the old pleasures – sniffing at an anus, burying one’s nose where a friend’s genitals were, mounting those with lower status – could no longer be had without crippling self-consciousness.”
- Benjy, a resourceful beagle, immersed in the dog-eat-dog, status-ordered world of canines, wished “for a place where the echelon was clear to all, where the powerful cared for the weak and the weak gave their respect without being coerced. He longed for balance, order, right and pleasure.”
- Majnoun, a black poodle, after watching a movie with a human friend was strangely unmoved: “It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in films. It was that he could not stand to see so many distant worlds without being to smell them.”
These dogs encounter deeply human longings – for love and friendship, the ache at the beauty of language, the challenges of knowing and being understood, the nostalgic or fearful wish for the way things were. Creative in entering the world of dogality (as Calgary artist Caroline Stanley calls it), Fifteen Dogs is one of those lovely thinking books, a rich consideration of what it means to be human.
Because consciousness is the air we breath, the water we swim in, we rarely stop to consider it. Author Andre Alexis helps us to rediscover the wonderfully perplexing reality of intelligence and consciousness by transposing it into these 15 dogs. What does it mean for a dog to have a soul? (I wondered if 15 was a reference to the debunked work of Duncan McDougall who weighed dying patients, finding they were 21 grams lighter after death, and then conducted the same test on 15 dogs and finding no difference, thus without souls).
The transposition of human intelligence into the sniffing, panting, humping, chasing world of dogs provides a sometimes jolting window into what it means to be human. At times you catch a renewed sense for the wonder and nobility of human nature as it’s discovered in the life of a dog. But then you find yourself shocked at the base, bestial behaviour as it’s set within human consciousness (it’s humbling to remember our real animal connections and also ugly to see when we descend to live like dogs).
In the end, we learn we are what we love and we are because we are loved. It’s like a little bit of Augustine set in a dog park, and the mash-up is beautiful.
* (As for the artwork, Andre Alexis mentioned that “If I had to name a visual artist who influenced the writing of the novel, it would be Vittore Carpaccio whose painting “St Augustine in His Study” (with its charming maltese dog listening to the voice of God) was an inspiration to me.”)