Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

A number of years ago, I was a student minister on a pastoral charge in the Eastern Townships. I was invited for a visit with one of the families who came to their cottage in that area every summer. At one point, the children and I had wandered outside. We noticed a number of mushrooms and circles around the mushrooms on the ground around their stems. I explained to the children that the rings were fairy rings. The children looked a little sceptical so I went on to say, “We seldom see fairies because they are so shy. At night, though, when nobody is around, they come out and dance around the mushrooms. They dance so long that they wear the grass down in a circle around the stems. In the morning, you don’t see the fairies but you see the rings. That’s how you know that these are very special toadstools and this is a very special place.”

The father of the children had come up to where we were and listened for a while. Then, he said, “We have told our children that there are no such things as fairies. We believe you shouldn’t teach children things that they will have to unlearn when they get older because those things were not true in the first place.”

As he talked, all the little fairies — who had just begun peeking their heads out from their hiding places — vanished in a second. We were left with quite ordinary mushrooms with rings around their stems for which I am sure there is a quite rational, scientific explanation.

Ever since then I have felt sorry for those children. I have often wondered about them. With their world rendered so flat and one-dimensional at such an early age, how would they ever learn to hear the songs of angels?

We have two mental operations that are meant to work in tandem: Explanation and Imagination.(Thanks to Eugene Peterson, in Subversive Spirituality, for these ideas.) Explanation pins things down so we can control them and use them. Imagination opens things up. Imagination makes connections between the visible and the invisible world. It helps us touch mystery. If you sever one from the other, you end up with a distorted view of reality. Human life and hope suffer.

Over the past hundred or so years, the balance tipped toward explanation. In the Western world, we were enthralled by what we could know and use and control. We were captivated by technology — the capacity to explain and manipulate increasing portions of the universe.

Few people noticed that a casualty of our rush to explain everything was imagination, and with it, our sense of awe and wonder at what we do not know and what is beyond knowing and saying.

I remember reading somewhere about a father who took his eleven year old son out into the backyard to look at the stars — to wonder at the immensity of the universe, at the beauty of the canopy that was spread out overhead. This was in the early years of space travel and communications satellites. The young boy looked up at the stars and only said, “So, which ones did we put up there?”

A theologian once asked some Amish friends, “Why don’t you have televisions?” She had assumed that they would say that they shunned all modern inventions. Their response surprised her. They said, “We used to have televisions. Then we noticed that our children were not singing songs anymore. They were not dancing and playing games. They were just sitting watching other people. So, we got rid of the televisions. Now, our children sing and dance and play again.”

The evidence is mounting that children who spend their days passively watching television end up with crippled imaginations. They have diminished capacity to envision something different from what is before their eyes. So much of the reality they see on television is violent and corrupt and ugly. Because their capacity to imagine a different scenario gets impaired, they believe society cannot change. The trouble is so big. The world is so out of control that nothing they can do will make a difference. They lose hope. They give up, turn inward, and focus on just taking care of themselves. They look for their own comfort or they act out in rage.

Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth tries to get our imaginations going again. That is not to say that what he tells us is just make-believe or made-up fantasies. Luke is saying, “Touch the mystery of God’s coming to earth in a baby born in Bethlehem.” There is something more going on here than what our five sense can account for. There is something happening in the world that cannot be fully explained.

We know he’s trying to touch they mystery because there are so many angels in the story. An angel comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth and tells them that they are going to have a baby — a baby that all the reason in the world says is impossible.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her she’s going to have a baby. Again, it is a pregnancy that defies rational explanation.

An angel tells Joseph that it is all right to take Mary as his wife. What is going on in her life and in his cannot be accounted for by everything he knows but he can trust it anyway because it is a holy work of God.

Angels — a whole host of angels, angel armies — announce to shepherds that God’s Messiah, God’s Saviour of the world, has been born in a little village outside Jerusalem.

All of this is unbelievable. It is unexpected. Yet, it is so true that two thousand years later we still tell the story and sing praises to the One that the shepherds and worshipped that night.

There are angels everywhere in Luke’s story. They are a healing balm for our imaginations. They open us to the possibility that, just beyond what we see and know, God is at work saving the world.

Did you notice that , in the middle of his talk of angles, Luke insert Governor Quirinius and Caesar Augustus and an explanation about Joseph and Mary heading to Bethlehem because of a royal decree and a census of the Jews? These are the folk who are trying to keep everything nailed dow. They keep adding up all the numbers, hoping that that will keep people in all their proper places. They have some power, to be sure. They saw a word and pregnant women have to travel across the country. But, says Luke, do not be so impressed by them. Luke spends 132 verse telling the story of Christ’s birth. Caesar and Quirinius together — history makers that they are supposed to be — get two verses. And, they don’t get any visits from the angels.

An old couple, a young girl, a worried man and a bunch of no-account shepherds get angel visits and songs and stories. The men who are running countries and empires get two verses and no angels. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Herod was dead in the ground. Quirinius was gone. caesar’s glorious Roman Empire was beginning to crumble and fall. It is the followers of that little baby born in Bethlehem that are making the empire’s foundations shake.

Feed your imagination with Luke’s stories. Learn that you cannot tell what is really going on merely by reading the news. God is at work in unexpected places among the most unlikely of people, bringing new possibilities for which we had not planned. Because God is at work, hope stays alive. Corrupt systems will not last forever. The wicked will not always prevail.

Because God is at work, no situation is irredeemably hopeless. A light shines, even in our darkest nights. There is a force loose in the world that is greater than we are. That force gives hope that is stronger than our despair. It brings peace that is stronger than our conflicts. It gives joy that is stronger than the sadness. There is love that is stronger than all the forces of hate.

On that first Christmas night, we learned that that force is not an impersonal power. That force has a name: Jesus, God saves. Emmanuel, God with us. We know the name because the angels told the shepherds and they were not ashamed to speak of things they could not explain.

Make room for imagination in your life and in the lives of the children you encounter. Help them see that a vast, amazing reality hovers just beyond their sight. Show them a world brimming with glory so that they fall to their knees in wonder and in awe. Encourage them to stay open to the unexpected. Tell them the stories of God’s intrusion into our world. Give them eyes to see and ears to hear the angel’s songs. Tell them, “Unto you is born this night in the City of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” This is good news which shall be for all people. Though many do not see it now, one day, all creation will cry, “Glory!”

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A meditation for Christmas Eve


“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.  They were sent to the house of an old professor who lived in the heart of the country….”

So begins C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The ‘something that happened to them’ was a series of adventures in a magical land called Narnia.  The way into Narnia was through an old wardrobe in the spare room of the old professor’s house.  It was not always possible to get into Narnia through the wardrobe, but sometimes, they would open its doors, push their way through the fur coats that were hanging there and, instead of coming up against the back of the wardrobe, they would just keep on walking.  Soon, they would find themselves in the middle of a forest in a place very different from England.

For one thing, in Narnia the animals –some of them anyway – were able to talk.  For another, time passed differently in Narnia.  The children might spend months in Narnia but, when they made their way back through the wardrobe and tumbled out its doors into the spare room, they would discover that only a few seconds had gone by back in England.

There were two worlds existing side-by-side.  The four children moved back and forth between them, sometimes living in the ordinary world of school and homework and games and arguments with each other, and sometimes having amazing adventures with talking beavers and fauns and a wicked queen and a mysterious lion called Aslan.

The analogy isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t do justice to the story, but in some ways, Christmas Eve can feel like the border land between two different worlds.  There is the ordinary world of getting ready for Christmas – decorating, shopping, travelling, all mixed in with children’s hockey games and doctor’s appointments and shovelling the snow.  Then, we make our way into the night for the Christmas Eve service.  We put aside the busyness, the candles are lit, we sing the carols and we enter into worship.  We sense that we are in the presence of mystery – mysteries we cannot explain or really understand.  Mysteries we can only enter into.

Those mysteries speak to the longings that are deepest in our hearts:
for someone who will bring peace on earth;

for things that are beautiful and holy and true;

to live for the things that matter;

to be what we were created to be.

Sometimes, in a moment haunted by grace, we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Luke tries to help us touch the glory.  He fills the story of Jesus’ birth with images that are large — larger than life.  There are angels, but not just any angels.  There is the “angel of the Lord” who makes even hardened shepherds ‘sore afraid’.  The skies explode with a “multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in highest heaven.’”  For a few moments the night is filled with light from a world beyond our own.  We touch the mystery of things holy and eternal.

Then, Luke draws us into the glory in another way.  He shows us a scene of profound simplicity.  Two ordinary peasants, far from home, arrive in Bethlehem to pay their taxes.  While they are there, they welcome their first-born child in very humble surroundings.  They wrap him in swaddling clothes and use a manger for a cradle.  It is all so ordinary.  It’s not really worth taking notice, except that Luke makes sure we know that here the Saviour is being born.  This common, ordinary place is full of the glory of God.

In C. S. Lewis’ story, England and Narnia don’t intersect.  The children venture into Narnia but creatures from Narnia don’t come into England.  The children talk about their adventures in Narnia only with each other because they are pretty certain that people in England would neither believe them nor understand.  The two worlds are split apart.

But, that’s not the way it is with the story Luke tells.  Here, as we stand at the borderland between two worlds, we are given startling news.  In the baby born in Bethlehem this night, God has put our two worlds back together.  God  has traveled across the boundary between the two worlds and has taken up residence in our midst.  In Jesus, God brings God’s glory and God’s Goodness and God’s beauty and God’s holiness into our ordinary world.

Most of us have few dramatic, extraordinary moments in our lives when we glimpse glory or touch holiness.  We long for it.  We spend our lives searching for it.  But, for the most part, it’s not part of our experience.

Tonight we train ourselves to see that glory and to touch that holiness in the midst of the mundane.  We listen to the story that points us to the glory in humble circumstances.  We come to the table to receive ordinary bread and drink that have been made holy by the presence of Jesus Christ with us.  Then, we begin to realize that it wasn’t just a story that happened long ago.  Because of what happened that night, we can know that God’s salvation is being born in our trips to the hockey arena, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, around the supper table, in our schools and in our places of work.
The wonder is that we get to participate in the holy work God is doing in our lives. It is a gift, which means that what is required of us is simply to open our eyes to see it, our hearts to cherish it and our hands to receive it.  As we leave this place, the taste of grace lingers in our souls.  We return with the shepherds to our ordinary lives, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.

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This is the seventh in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous post and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining. Part of the decline reflects a larger cultural drift away from certain kinds of organizations, in particular, organized religions and service groups,

Some of the decline is the result of cultural shifts which make the Christian message less appealing. As the alliance between the Church and the power centres of culture disappears, it becomes increasingly evident that the gospel, when taken seriously, is profoundly countercultural. The Church’s story has always been in tension with the world’s story. In post-Christendom, that tension becomes more apparent. The gospel invites you to lose your life in order to find it (Mark 8:35). Summoned and gathered by a God of suffering love, the Christian community has the cross of Jesus Christ at its centre — a symbol not of worldly success but of suffering and rejection and sacrifice for the sake of others (Douglas John Hall, “Suffering: The Badge of Discipleship,” The Living Pulpit, Inc., 2005).

Christians are “buried with Christ by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4) so as be freed from being pre-occupied with their own self-preservation or self-fulfillment and, thus, free to be concerned for others. Christian faith embraces disciplines and practices that form communities with the courage they need to confront the powers that rob humans of dignity and freedom. Christian spirituality is primarily communal: a matter of being found by God in the midst of messy, difficult, challenging human relationships. Such a gospel will find it hard to gain much traction in a culture that elevates consumerism, hedonism, and individualism as the highest values.

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Sally Longfellow is a minister in the United Church of Canada. Years ago, when her children were still young, she would give them “the speech” every year at Christmas (Christianity Today). “Remember,” she would tell them, “Jesus only got three presents, and none of them were toys, so don’t be disappointed by what you get.”

One year, during a worship service after Christmas, she called the children of the congregation forward for the children’s time. She asked them about their Christmas celebrations. They told her about all the presents they had received. She asked, “What do you think Jesus would say to Santa Claus today?” Her daughter answered, “Jesus would say, ‘How come I only got three presents and none of them were toys?’”

In the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we celebrate God’s choice to come to us in a most unexpected way. God, Creator of the cosmos, full of power and might, chooses to be born to two Jewish peasants on the fringe of the Roman Empire. The Holy Spirit, free and wild, chooses the limitations of human life.  The God of  unimaginable glory shows up in the midst of ordinary human beings who are confused and frightened and not at their best.

The mystery we touch in this season is that God uses such unexpected people and such unexpected methods to get near to you and to me. Ever since that first Christmas, God has been gathering together people who have been surprised by Jesus and who are open to the mystery.

I have a friend, a minister, who sometimes prays in worship, “Lord, let something happen in this service that isn’t printed in the bulletin.” He wants to leave space for God to break into the familiar routines. He wants to leave space for the Holy Spirit to break into places where the congregation had stopped expecting anything significant to happen.

It is a great mystery — that through the unexpected God brings new life, and hope, and salvation. Jesus often gets born into places where you are confused or broken, frightened or uncertain.

Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem”, is a beautiful, haunting song about God’s intrusions into our hurting, broken world. The chorus says:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

There is good news: even when life has not met your expectations, you are not abandoned. God is not absent. God has not given up on you. Look around — look closely: even in the darkest night, the presence of Jesus the Christ still shimmers there. The darkness has not overcome the light of Jesus.

God’s path to the future opens in unexpected directions. Stay open to it. Your life, your Christmas, don’t have to be perfect or good enough or right enough. In Jesus, God offers you three gifts and none of them are toys.  In Jesus, God offers you God’s own presence — full of mercy and grace and love. Receive the gifts and you discover they were what your heart wanted all along.

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Lord of extravagant promises

and surprising invitations:

you summon us to journey

beyond our comfort zones

if we want to see the ‘great things’

which you are creating in our midst.


We are a people much attached to our comfort

and fearful of newness that we cannot control.

Yet, we are Your people,

claimed by you in our baptism.

Your steadfast love and faithfulness

has been our constant companions

every step of the way.


So, today, we dare to trust you again.

Lord Jesus,

show us the mangers where you are being born

in our time and in our place.


We bring before you our hopes and dreams

for a world where people may live in peace;

where justice is done;

where human communities flourish;

where joy marks all our days.


And we bring before you

the world as it is

— beset with worries about an economic meltdown;

— teetering ever more dangerously at the brink of environmental crises

— uncertain of how to find a way forward

into a good future for all people.


Speak your word

once again into the space

between our yearnings and our fears.

Open our eyes to the light that

your Spirit is shining

– the light that the darkness cannot overcome.


Then, grant us courage and grace

to journey with you,

speaking Your Word in our lives.

We pray in your name,

Wonderful Counsellor,

Mighty God,

Eternal Father,

Prince of Peace. Amen.

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