Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Starlight

It's shining all over the place this month:

- a seven year old boy’s giggle at the way the nutcracker soldier spurts out peanut shells from between his painted wooden teeth
- a neighbour’s gift of baking, apricot-coconut cookies, tightly wrapped, and an I.O.U. for a homemade pie, on request.
- the car radio broadcasting classical hymns of praise to the Mystery who came in baby Jesus.
-  winter sunrise in the southern sky, sparkling the frosted garden's dead stalks
- cheerful clerks and customers exchanging patient smiles despite long line-ups, wishing each other a merry Christmas
- choirs, choirs, and more choirs, offering, like the angels, their Hallelujah song, ”Don’t be afraid; there’s good news!” 
- sweet sounds of Salvation Army bells, still caring for the poorest of God’s children 150 years after the Booth family first enlisted platoons of helpers
- baby-faced toddlers lolling on a stage, dressed as adorable woolly lambs in church pageants…each faithfully rehearsed by eager, tired parents…all to help tell the old story again
- thousands upon thousands of volunteers handing out gifts to needy families, serving turkey dinners to lonely folks on Christmas Day, packing boxes of encouragement for women’s shelters and prisoners’ children.
- gentle “Blue Christmas” services, lovingly designed for those who grieve at this time of year…so many clergy, musicians and lay leaders serving with compassion.
- a five year old grinning delightedly over secret presents she has hidden for her grandparents

These shining star-beams are easy to spot during December in Canada.

Wise seekers watch for other stars, too. Hiding in the everyday dark are a million lights invisible to you and me. 
Lights like:

- a man who gives away thousands of dollars every year because he is so grateful for what the Christmas infant/God incarnate has given to him.  
- a woman who frees Thai children from brothels because, through Christ, she has found personal freedom. 
- a brave few who reach out to their enemies because Jeshua of Nazareth broke down barriers between Jews and gentiles.
- many more, whose faith in Jesus, Friend of the poor, moves them to befriend the unpopular, the odd, the criminal and the emotionally needy.
- intimate moments of forgiveness offered by folks who choose God's way: "Forgive each other as God has forgiven you."
- Christian counsellors and therapists who do more than listen supportively, because when the moment is right, they can whisper good news… there is Someone who will never desert, never abandon, never ignore aching wounds.
These lights gleam in secret, every day, all year round.

We Christ-followers would be fools to claim to shine brighter than others at acting justly and loving mercy. That is not true. 
What we gladly affirm is this. Any flickering light we shine, comes from the Eternal Light who blazed into human life as a fragile newborn. We are merry because God so loved the world.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


The impressive stone building sits on a hill surrounded by old trees, one of the few city churches that still have their own cemetery. Father Martin presides over the “highest of high” Anglican service. He and his servers bow to icons and waft enough incense to choke you.
This weeknight service is held entirely in candlelight, the sanctuary so dark that you grope cautiously to find your way to an empty pew. Out of the darkness come exquisite voices, a cappella, leading our worship mostly in Latin. One feels time–transported to a medieval monastery. The hour is a feast for the senses and a respite for the soul. 

 One night during Advent my husband and I drifted outside after the service, half drunk on tranquillity, and headed for our car. A voice spoke from behind us, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you, but…I need help.” 
We turned to see a pretty woman in her thirties, waiting in the dark. I was expecting her to say that her car wouldn’t start but instead she continued, 
“I don’t have anywhere to sleep.” 
She gestured to the black garbage bag on the ground beside her,
“I’ve been homeless for a year. I’m really cold and I just wondered if you might have some change.”

Sadly, in Toronto we’ve become accustomed to sidewalk beggars, briefly offering them a friendly smile or a couple of dollars before we hurry on, but this wasn’t a busy downtown street. We were in our own neighbourhood. The contrast between the lush service and a poor woman’s destitution was jarring.
We listened as Rochelle introduced herself and told us her story of a dangerous ex-husband and lost jobs. We were jolted into facing the disparity between our comfortable life and her situation.
We discussed Missions, City shelters, the Out of the Cold program, women’s shelters. Rochelle replied with all of the reasons that these programs hadn’t worked for her. We were stymied. Handing her some money, we offered to pray with her. Rochelle joined in our prayer, talking to God in a way that showed her own Christian faith.

The experts tell us that it would be naive to believe a panhandler’s story, so we were sceptical. We couldn’t trust that she was honest, so we didn’t dare invite her to come and sleep at our house. In any case, one overnight might not be a problem, but then? Did we want to take on responsibility for this woman who has no home or job? No. Was she an addict, a con artist, a thief? The risk was too high.

“What would Jesus do?” That facile question was no help at all. Jesus’ circumstances were entirely different from ours. He didn’t even have a home he could open to others. We know we want to follow His teaching of love, but how could we put love into action with someone like Rochelle? Where was God in this?

Our conversation slowed to a halt. We’d come to the end of ideas. It was time to say goodbye. It felt useless, but we promised to keep praying for Rochelle and gave her a hug. There she stood, alone in the damp, cold, dark. Aching, we had to literally turn our backs on her and walk away.

O come, Christmas Baby, God of all that is, abide with us who mourn in lonely exile here. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Neverending Advent Calendar

Three little faces watched the computer screen, a rare treat while visiting grandparents. An online Advent calendar offered wonderful animations set in the city of London, England.  Nine December days had already passed so there were nine windows to enjoy.
The children eagerly mouse-clicked on numbered Christmas balls to open up charming vignettes. There was a comic restaurant scene, a dog and cat chasing each other onto the London Eye Ferris wheel, a white cart-horse munching on Covent Garden vegetables, and three ships sailing one after the other under the Tower Bridge.
On one date the calendar allowed the user to decorate a Christmas tree over and over. On another page, the children took turns designing a snowflake of their own that then magically fell across the sky in the city scene. 
This interactive gift from our friend, Vi, was created by artist Jacquie Lawson

Three small bodies bounced with excitement after seeing all nine. “Let’s do the next one!”

Uh-oh. Hard truth strikes again. This is an Advent Calendar. You can look at all the days that have passed and you can enjoy today’s treat, but you are not allowed to open tomorrow’s scene. Little faces went blank. The children wriggled down from their chairs, turned to their grandmother and said, “Oh, okay. What are we going to do now?”

What a great idea Advent Calendars are, teaching children to wait, practicing when they’re young. When they’re older they’ll understand that life is like a bawx of chawclits, and also like an advent calendar that goes year round. We can’t know what tomorrow’s mouse-click will reveal. Meanwhile we wait. 
Waiting feels so unnatural to us that one man I know starts huffing and puffing if a red stoplight lasts longer than he thinks it should. My beloved knows that eventually the red will turn green. Even so, he finds it hard to wait a few extra seconds. 

 The church’s season called “Advent” reminds us of a cosmic waiting. The four weeks are meant to be suffused with hope, hope based on a promise we find hard to believe. We know that the prophesied baby arrived, but will there yet be peace on earth? When one of our own days is filled with more of life’s rotten tricks than it is with treats, patient waiting is almost impossible. As Margaret Atwood wrote, 
“The facts of this world, seen clearly, are seen through tears.” 
Can it be true that God will one day wipe away the tears from all weeping eyes once and for all? 

God doesn’t seem to act the way traffic lights do, no matter how hard we wish. God is way more unpredictable, as far as timing goes. But if the promises are true, then the Christmas angel’s reassurance makes more sense. “Don’t be afraid, there’s good news!”
 Maybe, like the three wise children, we can surrender to the hard facts of life, and turn to God, “Okay. What are we going to do now?” 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hard to Shake a Ghost

Every year at Christmas some famous Canadian actors and CBC radio personalities give performances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as fundraisers for local charities. Although one of the performances is at my own church, I just wasn’t interested. That story has been done to death, I thought.

I looked forward to other Christmas events and planned to kick off my Christmas season with the neighbourhood BIA-sponsored concert. Several local church choirs join with a string ensemble to make heavenly music. 

After eagerly arriving early to get a seat I scanned the programme in my hand. Groan. This year, between selections from Handel’s Messiah, there were going to be readings from Dickens’ famous novella! Oh drat. I was further annoyed when, at the last minute, an usher pushed in a hefty (late) woman to sit beside me, jammed up against my own hefty self. 
The combo of physical discomfort and Dickens, sent me out the door early, feeling cranky instead of jolly.

The next evening, again anticipating a meaningful occasion, I spent a confusing two hours at a fundraiser for a stranger that combined a tragic story, tango dancers, a sexy bar singer, some ballet, and a scriptural benediction. Long story. I left feeling cranky again.

Oh well, I knew that the Salvation Army’s annual concert in the magnificent Roy Thompson Hall would not disappoint.  A week later I settled in my seat near the rafters and looked at the programme.
WHAT? This can’t be.
Tucked between various musical numbers that promised delight, the programme listed readings from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol!
What was going on? Never mind the ghost of Christmas past, Dickens himself was haunting me.

My next evening out had been advertised as a concert by one of my favourite recording artists. Dickens didn’t show up, but most of the evening turned out to be a plea for charitable donations topped off with a sermon. I tried to be positive but I couldn’t keep from grumbling about sneaky organizers who publicize one thing and intend another. 
Crank, crank, crank, 

One morning, I sat in discouraged silence. The Christmas glow had vanished. 
“Okay, God, very funny. I’m trying to celebrate Your incarnation on earth, “keeping the Christ in Christmas”, as they say, and all I’m getting so far is disappointment and Dickens, of all crazy things.” 
After a few minutes, a light bulb went on. 
With shock I realized that I, myself, was acting like Scrooge! I was the one saying “Bah!” as I attend one disappointing event after another.
I finally surrendered to the Ghost and read A Christmas Carol.
There was a vivid description of Ebenezer Scrooge:
“a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”
When his cheerful nephew says to him, “Don’t be cross", he answers, “What else could I be when I live in such a world of fools as this?” 
Oops, my recent sentiments exactly.
For two weeks I’d been hungrily trying to consume merriness and Christmas inspiration. Smug about not spending extravagantly on gifts, and planning my lovely Advent events expectantly, I hadn’t noticed my self-centred greed for tradition, beauty and pleasure at this time of year. Thanks for the wake-up call, Mr. Dickens.