Monday, 30 December 2013


It’s been trying to creep in, the “morning after”, let-down feeling. 

No matter how hard I try to lower my standards and minimize stress, the merry Christmas season is more tiring than peaceful. 
Sure, it’s fun to choose surprising gifts, and to decorate the house with coloured lights, candles and crèches. There are exquisite concerts and moments of awe at the incarnation story. Time spent with family, friends and neighbours is rich with laughter and love. 
But still the intense celebration makes for an after-effect of fatigue. 

I was glad to find the video below, where a baby adds her voice to her Mom’s, as Francesca Battistelli sings a song that imagines Mary singing to baby Jesus. (apologies for the abrupt deejay’s patter when the song ends…but it’s sort of another life metaphor)

The song, along with the baby herself, reminded me that the excesses of what we call “Christmas” have little to do with the best news ever. 
No matter what 2014 brings, we are not alone in a mindless universe! 
Despite life’s frustrating questions, despite our despairing “Why?”, we can choose to hold onto the hand reaching out to us in Jesus.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sidewalk Sister

Cold, white beauty poured down over the city, ideal snowy weather for the Christmas season. After a sweet day of family love and the fun of decorating our IKEA-bargain fir tree, we looked forward to Saturday night downtown. In a rare indulgence we planned to eat out before we would head to the concert hall. The pub was jammed with people but a server led us past two bars and a pool table to a quieter room at the back. Ahh, bliss. I ordered minimally, not wanting to feel over-full, but the food I did eat tasted delicious. The whole day had gone well. I ruefully admit that such comfort is my idol.

An hour later, with happy tummies, we slid our way through the slush on King St. In the snowy air we heard a brass band playing “O Come All Ye Faithful”; it was an idyllic Canadian Christmas moment. Five shivering members of the Salvation Army offered an outdoor musical welcome to all of us arriving for the Army’s annual concert at Roy Thompson Hall.  “Salvation Army” – what an embarrassing, out-dated name! They still wear military-esque uniforms, more than a century after their Victorian founders declared war on poverty in Jesus’ name. Despite the quaint style, their social activism is admirable and their music first-class, so I was excited to go inside.

Sure enough, it was a spectacular evening. What a soaring sound three hundred voices can make! Expert musicians accompanied the choir with brass and piano. From traditional carols to a swing arrangement of “Let it Snow”, the show was a feast. We revelled in some creative musical arrangements and the soloist’s strong, pure voice singing  “Breath of Heaven”. We tried to think kindly of the tambourine dancing girls (I kid you not) and the brief sermon. The skilled singers included Toronto Northern Lights, a men’s chorus whose exquisite harmonies in “Mary, Did You Know?” were transporting. In awe we gave thanks for God’s miraculous Christmas message of love.

After the concert we bundled up, and, full of comfort and joy, walked out into the still blowing snow. 
There, smack in the middle of the wide sidewalk, sat a woman, cross-legged, with a begging cup in her hand. It was bitterly cold and the snow was thick. She was crying, sitting there facing down all of us who were hurrying home after a beautiful evening of music. Well, now. Could you walk past a sister in tears, sitting alone on icy cement in the middle of a winter storm? 
I bent down to her, at a loss for appropriate words, said, “What are you doing?”
Close up, I could see that she was much younger than most street beggars and without their usual alcohol-creased face. She looked up, sobbing, “I need money.” 
Trying for an honest conversation, I asked gently, “Why don’t you have a job?”
She answered, “You can’t get a job when you don’t have an address.” 
Of course I have learned about the complexities of our homeless population. I know that there are many causes and mostly inadequate solutions. I’ve seen friends pay a painful price when they have risked reaching out to needy individuals. And any stranger on the street could be a scammer. But still.
“I guess you’ve tried all of the shelters?” I said, feebly. 
My husband dug through his pockets in the wild weather and tucked a bill into her cup. She twisted to see where the money had come from and thanked him. 
She went on, “I’m only forty! I have nowhere to sleep.” 
My husband and I crooned in sympathy and patted her back.  Helplessly, we said stupid, useless things:
“Oh, Honey, I wish I had a magic wand to fix your life”
“God loves you; God bless you.”

Instead of swearing at us or punching us in the face for our platitudes, she thanked us over and over again, still crying.  Heartsick, we turned away and hurried on toward the subway train station. An hour later we arrived at our merry, sparkling house with its vacant guest room in the basement.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Christmas Pigs

The letter carrier handed me a large cardboard box – how exciting to receive an unexpected parcel in December! So many of us hardly ever mail packages any more because the mailing often costs as much as the gift inside.

I looked at the return address – yes, I knew who it was but we don’t exchange Christmas presents and rarely see each other due to distance. I cut open the taped seams to find a bunch of styrofoam peanuts and many small wrapped presents.
What on earth? 
I rummaged until I found an envelope to explain the lovely surprise. The very funny card was a reprise of a “pig” joke that started decades in the past. 

About 25 years ago, a beloved young couple stayed overnight at my house near Christmas time and they gave me a collection of unusual cookie cutters. Since I knew they’d be stopping by on their way back home, I made gingerbread cookies using the pig-shaped cutter, the one most amusing to me. I labelled the tin, “Christmas Pigs.” After checking to make sure that I wasn’t implying anything by such a choice, they began the pig game.

We have never lived nearby and our visits are random, but once in a while one of us has found something oinking and bought it for the other.  They have given me stainless steel pigs for salt and pepper, a gaudy mauve and gold china porker, a grinning Santa-pig cookie jar, and once, a soft, stuffed piglet and piggy storybook for my new grandbaby. The list continues, more faithfully on their side than on mine. I’ve had a 3D pig magnet sitting on my desk for years while it waits to travel across the country, but I’ve received many more pigs than I’ve given.

Why this big box this year? 
Inside the card was a note: “The twelve pigs of Christmas”. What?! My excitement rose along with my laughter. Sure enough, besides the card there were eleven other wrapped goodies, from miniature flat somethings in pale pink or rosy tissue paper, to larger rectangles and squares tightly covered in glossy red, and long rocket shapes exploding with silver and hot pink sparkles. White tissue paper covered one small box, topped with a shiny red bow. What a glorious pigapalooza! I grinned from ear to ear, astonished at the effort and expense offered on my behalf.

After the laughter came tears. I felt overwhelmed by such an expression of thoughtfulness and generosity, not even from a spouse or a close friend, but from a relative who is distant in both geography and connection.

The words “grace” and “agape* came to mind. There is a certain kind of generous love that has nothing to do with a gift exchange. It isn’t based on romance or obligation, and certainly not on selfish desires for appreciation or admiration. 
My sty-ful of presents from out of the blue felt like agape. Because I’d done nothing to deserve such kindness, it reminded me of the Christmas baby, God’s mindboggling gift of incarnation in Jesus. 
He would spend his life showing that we are valued by God beyond what makes any sense, not because we’re good, or because God wants praise or gratitude, but just because that’s the way God is. All we can do is rejoice and spread the love around. 

* agape:  Greek word for the selfless love of one person for another (especially love that is spiritual in nature)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Murders and Mother Mary

Every December I’m hit with the same incongruity. The lovely pre-Christmas season of Advent includes the anniversary of one of the saddest days of my life. Today I’m thinking about how to put these jarring opposites together. 

On December 6,1989, I was a 40 yr. old mother raising three daughters, when 14 young women were shot dead inside a Montreal College. That day, as I sat on my couch watching the news, I wept and howled over injustice and hatred. I was infuriated by these murders, the latest horrifying example of what patriarchal conditioning produces. Now, in 2013, men are still murdering women and girls who won’t obey them.

Like all women, I have experienced my share of sexist insult, hearing males sneer at a lousy baseball pitch, “Ya throw like a girl!”, and being shut out of various “No girls allowed” clubs. Over my lifetime, I have learned how the cultural lie of male superiority has wounded boys and men, also. 
Continuously, since the Garden of Eden, evil has put enmity between women and men. The same evil has estranged humanity from a living connection with our Creator. We want our own way more than we want to learn God’s ways. 

But then there’s Christmas. December arrives and the nights sparkle and neighbours get together and choirs sing and charity increases and our anticipation of the merry miracle rises again.

Advent is the time for waiting, waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, God’s breakthough into our human dilemma. Maybe the mournful anniversary of the Montreal murders reminds me that we’re still waiting for Love to finally win.

Young Mary was minding her own business when a wild and wondrous surprise arrived. An unearthly creature appeared, immediately reassuring her, as angels seem to do. 
“Don’t be afraid, Mary, God is pleased with you!
Breaking news! You will conceive and bear a son,
and you will name him Jesus.
He will be great,
and will be called the Son of the Most High”

Mary’s reaction was “WHAT?”
“How can this be, when I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her, 
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be holy;
he will be called Son of God….
because nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary had no idea of the agony and joy her son would bring her. Nor could she know God’s historic plan for rescuing the human race from self-destruction. But somehow, Mary recognized truth when she heard it, and made her choice.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.” 

Without understanding, she surrendered to God’s weird ways.
As it turned out, her son would be a famous feminist, so counter-cultural in his relationship to women that 2000 years passed before most of his followers understood the sinfulness of patriarchy. 

Over the centuries of our waiting He has been the source of hope and healing to millions. He is the one who moved Wilberforce to fight slavery, Martin Luther King to protest racism, and Nellie McClung to insist on women’s equal rights.

Yet still we weep and wait.
Still we need to support the Dec. 6 Fund for abused women, work for justice, and struggle against our own self-centredness. 
And while we wait, we can choose to surrender to the puzzling ways of a God we don’t understand. 
We can sing Mary’s song: 
“My soul rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for God has done great things for me
and holy is God’s name.”

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Quit It!

I wish y’all would quit changing bits of our common language. It’s bad enough that the fickle gods of planet www. keep us confused and pathetically helpless, struggling with endless program updates and new devices as we beg workers in Pakistan for tech help. It’s bad enough that long time favourite restaurants, mechanics and florists vanish into thin air. Change is the norm – I get it. But my mother tongue? Is nothing sacred?

For instance, it used to be that when we said we had the “flu”, we meant that we had a stomach upset, with the nasty feeling of nausea and its subsequent disgusting regurgitation.
A “cold” was the term for sinus congestion, a sore throat and/or a cough. 
In the last few years, however, we’ve been urged to get “flu shots” so that we won’t transmit our colds to vulnerable babies and elderly folk who might be prone to pneumonia. Who changed the terminology?

Have you noticed also a change in the phrase “a couple of”, referring to two members of a category? Even in edited and proofread books and articles, I have begun to see sentences like “He’d been there a couple times before.” and “She stuffed a couple shirts in the backpack”. Who decided to drop the preposition “of”?

The once precise and slightly esoteric expression, “begs the question”, has been trashed by its now common misuse. Casual listeners assume it means that something “demands” or “raises” the question that they are about to ask, and they proceed to use the phrase because, well, what a fancy new thing to say! Wrong. 
When the word “begs” is used in this expression, it means “avoids” and its particular use of the word “question” means “the issue at hand” or “the point under discussion”.
In other words, when Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, keeps saying in self-defense, “Well, everyone gets drunk and uses drugs” he is begging the question of his own guilt. He is avoiding his accusers’ argument that he has a  unique responsibility to be a sober, law-abiding mayor, regardless of what he mistakenly believes that everyone else does. It’s unlikely, however, that the phrase will recover its original meaning. Sigh.

It used to be that I needed to buy “running shoes” for my three children (please don’t ask them about the epic fit I had one day in a shoe department). Does anyone else still say “running shoes”? Nowadays it seems to be either “runners” or “sneakers”, although of course there are also the options of “trainers” and “jogging shoes”. Maybe I’ll start referring to them as “plimsolls” to completely confuse any fellow North Americans who don’t read British novels.

Cutting short this lament that I could easily continue, I’ll leave you with two last words that have been ripped out from under my… 
Women used to wear “slacks” and “brassieres”. Now we wear pants and bras. I still remember the boys in my high school English class snickering one day when Mr. Cole pronounced Shakespeare’s word for a barbecue, “brazier”, like we pronounced the word, “brassiere.” Fifty years later, my adult daughters snicker at me if I forget that the new word is “bra”.
Quit it!