“I’m An Adult Now”

Text: Isaiah 60:1-5 (“Arise, shine, for your light has come!”)

Does anyone else here remember the 1986 Canadian rock hit “I’m an Adult Now?” This past Wednesday as I contemplated writing a Reflection for Epiphany and putting it in the context of my ancestry, the title “I’m An Adult Now” came to my mind.

So, I revisited the song and learned more about the Toronto-based group “The Pursuit of Happiness” that sang it. I learned that Moe Berg, the songwriter and lead singer of Pursuit, was born and raised in Edmonton. I was also reminded that many of the lyrics of the song are not exactly “Sunday-morning friendly.”

Still, I like the song and I stuck with the title. It is connected in my mind to a saying of my late father — that the people of his generation, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” had done a poor job of protecting the health of the earth. So, he was cheered by the thought that the next generation would use its vision and energy to fix things. By the next generation, he meant people like me, the Baby Boomers.

Unfortunately, the heyday of the Boomers has long come and gone; and now I occasionally hear others say words like my father’s: that while we Boomers failed to fix things, today’s youth are magnificent, and they will surely find a way to stop war, pollution, and poverty.

I hope so. All I know is that I’m an adult now, and not a young one. So, I pray that today’s young people will use their creativity, vision, and energy to build a world that is more sustainable and just than the one bequeathed to them by the Greatest Generation, the Boomers, and Generation X.

But even when I was a teenager, I was skeptical of the idea that older generations had failed and that it now fell to young people to make things right. While it can be useful to divide the population into named generations, they don’t constitute conscious entities. Generations don’t get together and make decisions

When I was young, there was no Boomer summit at which we decided to let the world population grow from two billion to seven billion; or to burn a couple of hundred billion barrels of oil to see what would happen to the climate; or to unleash a digital revolution that would put all the world’s knowledge and culture in every pocket. These things just happened, willy-nilly.

I would be thrilled if we could collectively solve problems like weapons of mass destruction, climate change, or poverty. This has been a dream of social reformers ever since humanity was first yoked together by European conquest and commerce 500 years ago. But so far, all attempts to create that level of consciousness and power have failed.

Instead, we gather in small communities to pool our knowledge and energy. This congregation is an example. We don’t have a lot of power. But as community members we can understand and act more effectively than we can as individuals . . .

Today I’m not only aware of my long-held status of adulthood; I’m also aware that, following the death of my mother on December 28, I am now an orphan. This is a status that many of us here today share; although once you’re over 50, can you really call yourself an orphan? My father-in-law John and mother-in-law Cecile are alive, so there is still a generational buffer above me. But with the death of my father Clare 10 years ago and the death of my mother Mary last month, I have now joined the ranks of the orphans.

In preparing for a Memorial for my Mom, which will be in Toronto next weekend, I have cast my mind back to the forces that formed her and my father. Both were greatly impacted by World War I.

Ten years before my mother was born, the man who would become her father, Mackenzie Rutherford, was wounded in France where he was fighting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After spending a year recuperating in a hospital in England, he worked a desk job for the British Forces for the rest of the War.

Like many of the millions who were caught up in The Great War, the horror of the experience turned my grandfather against imperialism — whether that of Britain, France and Russia on the Allied Side or that of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey on the Central side — and this pushed him to support radical social change.

When my grandfather died in 1970, my cousins and siblings scoured his bookshelves to see if we wanted any of his books. The one I took was a pamphlet from 1919. Published by the BC Federation of Labour in Vancouver, where my grandfather lived after WWI, it was titled “Who Are the Russian Bolsheviks?” To my surprise, it was a pro-Bolshevik publication, which my grandfather had preserved for 50 years.

But despite this brush with radicalism, in the early 1920’s my grandfather returned to the farm country east of Toronto where he had grown up, married Grace, my school principal grandmother, bought a farm, raised a family, and never lived in a city again.

My father was also shaped by World War I. None of his immediate relatives fought in the War. But his most influential teacher was a veteran of the War.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Tillich was a German Lutheran, who became one of the most well-known theologians of the 20th Century. After World War I, he helped to form the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in Germany. Tillich has the distinction of being the first non-Jewish academic to be fired by the Nazi government after it took power in 1933. So, in 1933, Tillich moved from Frankfurt to Columbia University in New York City, which was where my father encountered him in 1948 when he was taking a Masters of Theological Studies.

Understanding why my father took post-graduate studies in New York before his ordination also leads back to the War. At the outbreak of World War II, a group of 65 United Church ministers wrote a letter to The Observer criticizing the church’s support for Canada’s entry into World War II. They stood with the only Canadian MP, J.S. Woodsworth, the former Methodist minister from Winnipeg, to vote against Canada’s entry into the War in September 1939. Like my grandfather Mackenzie Rutherford, these ministers had been radicalized by the horror of World War I.

But their stance did not come without consequences. Most of them were removed from their pulpits. One of them was Rev. Dr. Oak who was fired by his church in downtown Toronto. From there, he accepted a call to a United church in a hamlet east of Toronto where my 16-year-old father was a member. Dr. Oak was a pivotal influence on my father. Not only did he inherit his library when Dr. Oak died in the 1950s, he also received encouragement from Dr. Oak to spend a year studying in New York City, which happened in 1948/49.

And that was where my father encountered Paul Tillich.

When my father died 10 years ago, I inherited his many books by Tillich. In one of them I found preserved a cover story about Tillich from Time magazine in 1959. In it, Tillich talked to the reporter about his experience of World War I.

In 1914 at age 28, Tillich joined the German army as a Lutheran chaplain. He said that in 1915 “a night attack came, and all night long I moved among the wounded and dying as they were brought in — many of them my close friends. All that horrible long night, I walked along the rows of dying men, and much of my German classical philosophy broke down . . . I well remember sitting in the woods in France reading Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra,’ as many other German soldiers did, in a continuous state of exaltation. This was our liberation from oppressive religion.”

My parents were born into the grief-stricken but hopeful aftermath of World War I. From my maternal grandfather, they inherited a sense of the horrors of imperialism and a hope that collective social action could fix the world. Through my father, they inherited the influence of a radical Toronto minister, who was exiled to rural Ontario, and a radical German theologian who was exiled to New York City. From both sides came an awareness of the intractability of war and greed and of the hope that humanity might find a way out of this mess, if only it could unite.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means an illuminating discovery. Today we heard an excerpt from Isaiah that is about the joy revealed by God’s light.

The revelation that came to both my maternal grandfather and to Paul Tillich in 1915 was that their British and German imperial misrulers had led them into senseless slaughter and that there might be a way for ordinary people to forge a world beyond empire that would finally make Isaiah’s dream of joy a reality.

My parents were born into a world stuck between these two epiphanies — that empire was destructive and that an international movement could free humanity from the evils of war, greed, and poverty.

Today, we still live in a no-man’s land between awareness of the sins of empire and the possibilities for liberation. While no generation has yet figured out how to move from one to the other, we continue to struggle in hope.

My parents did not grow up in the utopia fought for by radicals after WWI. But they were continuously touched by God’s Spirit; and so are we. Our lives are marked by many ecstatic epiphanies and moments of liberation; just as they are also marked by times of confusion and oppression.

One hundred years after World War I, we continue to struggle to understand the world and effect change in our lives, neighbourhoods, and world. This is a struggle that people like my grandfather, Paul Tillich, and my parents did not live to see completed. But it is struggle for Love and Justice that gives our lives meaning, purpose, and beauty.

And what could be better than that?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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“Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory!”

Text: Luke 2:21-40 (Jesus presented at the Temple)

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

This line, taken from the anti-slavery anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the last sentence of the last speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost 50 years ago. As I thought about today’s Gospel passage from Luke, I also thought of King’s famous speech from April 3, 1968.

Both Simeon in our reading and Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision of salvation; and this vision in and of itself seemed to heal them. Today, I put their visions side by side.

In the reading from Luke, an old man named Simeon is prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple in Jerusalem right after the first Christmas. When he gets there, he meets the infant Jesus. Simeon picks Jesus up, cradles him in his arms, and claims that in this baby he has seen Israel’s Messiah and the world’s salvation. Having finally met the Messiah, Simeon says that he can now die in peace, which I think is a remarkable thing to say after seeing a baby.

The Messiah was to be the long-awaited King of Israel who would bring Israel back to the glory of its days under King David. And yet Simeon somehow can say that in the baby Jesus he has seen this King. And further, Jesus will not just to be the ruler of Israel, but will also be a light of revelation to the rest of the world.

While Simeon’s vision is healing, it also contains the shadow of the cross. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and then says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon’s blessing is one that comes with a cost!

In a nutshell, Simeon has laid out the entire Gospel. The good news says that all of us are blessed by the coming of the Christ, but that a sword will pierce our souls and that his coming will lead to the falling and rising of many. The falling is the cross and the rising is new life in Christ.

Somehow, in holding this newborn baby in his arms, Simeon experiences salvation in an instant. It involves dying to an old way of life, which can feel like a piercing sword. The good news is that after dying to our old way of life, we are free to rise to a new one, which is a life in which we are healed.

Simeon does not need to live another 30 years to see what the adult Jesus will do, to puzzle at his parables, or to experience Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Simeon, it has all happened in an instant when he sees the face of a baby.

Simeon’s epiphany is also ours. In the faces of one another we can see God and meet our own salvation. This is an epiphany that we can experience each time we look at one another with love.

But the salvation found in the face of Jesus can also disappoint. God has come in Jesus as a helpless baby. But even thirty years later, when Jesus has grown to be a charismatic teacher and healer with a large following, he is powerless in the face of the might of the Roman Empire. He is killed.

Nevertheless, the dream of a new king David refuses to die. Jesus promises to come a second time. The next time, he says he will come “in clouds and with great power and glory.” This is also the vision captured in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which looked at the Civil War in the United States 150 years ago through the lens of the Day of Judgement. At the Second Coming, Jesus will be carrying what the Hymn calls “a terrible swift sword.” Nevertheless, almost 2000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are still waiting for this terrible and glorious event.

I prefer the epiphany of Simeon and Martin Luther King Jr., that salvation can happen long before Jesus’ terrible swift sword brings justice to the earth. It is not that I am opposed to justice. Rather, brief moments of healing teach us that we do not have to wait for the final vindication of God’s power. Healing is always here for us, graciously available in everyone we meet and love.

It might be easiest to see divinity in a baby. But we can also see the face of Christ in seniors, in mid-lifers, in youth, and in children. Simeon saw it, I see it, and you see it. At worship each week, we remind ourselves of this reality and we celebrate the divine Love that flames inside each of us.

And so, we read again the story of Simeon and Jesus in the Temple. It is about babies and salvation; piercing swords and crosses; a fearful old way of life and a trusting new way.
The same truths found in the story from Luke can also be seen in a modern-day Simeon — the African-American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and cultural hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the spring of 1968, King was in Memphis Tennessee supporting a group of public works employees who were on strike. On the day before his murder, King delivered what became his final speech in the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ.

It is called the “Mountaintop Speech” because King says that he has been to the top of the mountain and has seen the Promised Land. His vision is of a time without racism and of a world of peace and justice. In the face of many threats to his life, King realizes that he may not get to the Promised Land. But just as it was with Simeon, for Martin Luther King Jr., the vision is enough. In fighting for this vision and believing in it, he has been healed and freed.

So, I close with the end of King’s speech from that night 50 years ago: (9:31)

“I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats that are out there. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So, I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”


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The stillpoint of the year

Text: Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus)

Was 2017 a good year for you? As always, I found much to love in pretty much every day of the year now passing, even as I found it filled with many things I didn’t like.

But whether you felt extra showered by blessings or extra aware of the forces of violence that can traumatize us, 2017 is now almost over; and it is Christmas, a time when I like to stop and reflect in awe and wonder.

At the winter solstice, the sun seems to stop in the southern sky, and the world seems to pause. So, it makes sense to me that the church of the fourth Century set the celebration of the nativity of Jesus at this time. Partly because of its timing, the holiday that surrounds Christmas gives us chance for pause and reflection if we let it.

Christmas is about the divinity of a baby; about the spiritual power found in the poorest and most marginalized of society; and about the beauty of a young family creating love in difficult circumstances.

It is also about lights in dark nights; about songs of hope and peace in a world with too many lies; and about practicing generosity and solidarity in the face of greed and exclusion.

It becomes Christmas when we welcome refugees. It becomes Christmas when we widen our family and church circles to include people of all nations, creeds, and colours. It becomes Christmas when we put love at the centre of our accounting and not money or power. It becomes Christmas when we seen God in a baby and the face of Christ in all of our neighbours.

The beauty and cold of a winter night becomes Christmas when we remember the spring growth lying dormant beneath the snow and frozen earth. It becomes Christmas when we embrace our loved ones regardless of any difficulties that challenge us. It becomes Christmas when we see divine potential in a newborn child and then remember that that same sacred potential lies within each of us.

Tonight, my prayer is that we will find peace and quiet amid the busyness of family and commerce and stop to look at the stars in wonder and into the face of our loved ones in awe.

Tonight is the stillpoint of our year. It is Christmas Eve. And into this dark sacred night, I say once again, “Peace on earth and good will towards all.”

May it be so.


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Music of the spheres

Text: Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus)

Some churches and faith traditions don’t sing. One wing of the Reformation argued that only the 150 Psalms of the Hebrew Bible could be sung in church. Happily, most churches sing and this one is no exception.

For many of us, singing is the most important part of the service, both what the music leader and the choir offer us and what we sing together as congregational songs or refrains. And at Christmas, singing becomes even more important. Most of us love to sing old familiar carols.

We began worship this morning with all four verses of a carol we have been using as we lit the Advent candles this year. Called “Dream a Dream,” it was written 21 years ago by Shirley Murray of New Zealand.

Just before we heard the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke, we sang the African American Spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which is at least 150 years old, and which was sung a lot during the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s.

We will close this morning with “Joy to the World,” which is from the 18th Century; and tonight, we will close with “Silent Night,” which according to legend was written on guitar 200 years ago in Austria when a church organ broke down.

When we serve the elements of communion this morning, the choir will sing a 14th Century Christmas dance tune, “Down to Earth as a Dove.”

Singing helps us to celebrate and express our joy and to mourn and remember. Songs don’t have to be explicitly religious to be spiritual. Any setting of word, rhythm, and music that moves our hearts and bodies and encourages us to sing can lift us out of everyday unconsciousness and raise our spirits closer to the Divine Light from which we have come.

At Christmas, I enjoy the jazz music from “A Charlie Brown’s Christmas” as much as I enjoy Handel’s “Messiah.” I am as enamoured of “Winter Wonderland” as I am with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I enjoy “Barbara Allen” at the end of the 1951 move version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as much as I like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which is sung earlier in the movie.

It makes sense to me that in Luke’s version of the first Christmas, Mary sings a song of thanksgiving and liberation upon hearing she will become a mother and angels sing to the shepherds “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

This is yet another reason, I believe, why most of us prefer Luke’s version of the nativity to Matthew’s. It has all the good songs!

During the sacred season of Advent, we sang throughout the journey. It helped us stay in step with one another. It expressed our hope in times of troubles; our desires for peace in times of busyness; our joy in the face of new life; and the love that is always our guiding star. And now that Christmas is here, we are singing carols this morning and tonight that help our hearts vibrate with merriment, joy and endless praise.

When in doubt, sing, I say. You can’t go wrong.

This is Christmas Eve 2017. Mary and Joseph have made it to Bethlehem. The baby Jesus — God With Us — is about to be born. The Spirit of Christ is being reborn in all our hearts.

And so, we cannot keep from singing, to which I can only reply, “Hallelujah!”



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Fools, feasts, and games of thrones

Text: Luke 1:26-56 (the miraculous conception of Jesus)

“You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.” Every December, we hear these words of Mary as she prepares to give birth to Jesus. Her words connect Christmas not just to birth and light, but also to hopes that justice might be visited upon the rich and good things might come to the poor.

When Luke wrote the story of Mary’s pregnancy, the world had about 200 million people. Most of them lived in extreme poverty and were ruled by despotic kings. The most powerful of the latter was the Roman Emperor, who ruled over Palestine and the rest of the Mediterranean. But scattered over the world were hundreds of other kings with realms large and small and who lorded it over 99% of the population.

Today, most countries are republics. But today’s seven and half billion people are still divided into rich elites — the so-called one percent — and the 99% of us who have much less wealth and power.

For this reason, we may identify with Mary’s wish that the mighty be deposed from their thrones and the lowly raised to high places. We may also feel discouraged that oppression continues 2,000 years later even as we may be inspired by her words to continue our struggles for justice.

Sometimes, it seems rulers will never be deposed from their thrones. Then there are times when it becomes commonplace. One hundred years ago as World War One moved to its close, many monarchies in Europe fell. In 1917, a revolution in Russia deposed the Czar. In 1918, defeat deposed the emperors of Austro-Hungary and Turkey and revolution deposed the Kaiser in Germany.

The British monarchy survived the devastation of World War I, but today it has little power.

Two weeks ago, Netflix released the second season of “The Crown,” a soap opera about the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the British Royal Family. Season Two covers the years 1956 to 1963; and as with Season One, I loved it.

Besides family drama, “The Crown” highlights issues like the independence struggles of British colonies in Africa; the decline in the authority of the Church of England; and the dissolution of old moral rules in the face of social development.

But despite the persistence of constitutional monarchy in Canada and Britain, those who struggle to depose the mighty from their “thrones” today usually target the authoritarian leaders of republics like Russia, China, and the United States. Unhappily, they can be just as hard to depose as old-styled monarchs.

So, it was with relief that many of us got news on Tuesday that the U.S. President’s preferred candidate for a Senate seat in Alabama, Roy Moore, had been defeated. Not only is he credibly accused of sexual misconduct and assault of teenagers, he opposes the rights of Muslims, LGTBQ people, and women. Still, despite his lamentable character and bigoted views, Moore lost just by 1.5% of the vote.

Moore got virtually no votes from Black people, but a big majority of the white vote. The latter reflects the support Moore received from the U.S. President and the white evangelical church.

I am glad that Moore narrowly lost the race even as I am disheartened by the willingness of many church leaders in the U.S. to support people like him.

Their hypocrisy may lead to a crisis in the church. The magazine “Christianity Today” is one of the evangelical voices that has come out against support for the U.S. President, Moore and others like them.

“Christianity Today” was founded by televangelist Billy Graham in 1956. Today, Billy Graham’s ministry is led by his son, Franklin Graham, who is one of the leading cheerleaders for the current U.S. Administration and its anti-Muslim policies. This makes me even more grateful that the editors of “Christianity Today” have taken a principled stand against leaders like the U.S. President and Roy Moore.

Billy Graham showed up in an episode of this season’s “The Crown.” During a televised crusade in Britain in the late 1950s, Graham caught the eye of the Queen, who then invited him to preach at a Royal Chapel. This episode highlighted the loneliness of the Queen in her role as Head of the Church of England.

After the Reformation of the 1500s, British monarchs took on the role played by the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church.

In Medieval Europe, the Pope was the most powerful monarch in Europe. In those years, the retelling of Mary’s story and her song of love and justice inspired an Advent celebration called the Feast of Fools. In this Feast, ordinary people play-acted as the Pope and his archbishops. When Mary’s words “You have brought down the powerful from their thrones” were read, the crowd threw these mock leaders off their thrones.

Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has a scene in which Quasimodo plays the Pope in a “Feast of Fools” celebration in Paris, including in the 1996 Disney animated film version.

These staged rebellions illustrate the desire of common people to see Mary’s prediction of the humiliation of the rich come true; and the sad reality that Mary’s hoped-for social revolution has yet to happen.

Today some of us still foolishly listen to Mary’s words and seek love and justice on the path of Christ the King.

Christ’s path has always been a foolish one, I believe. Christ comes to us as the helpless baby who as an adult is killed by the Roman Empire after a brief ministry of healing and teaching.

Happily, this path helps idols like nationalism and racism die within us. This frees us to rise to a new life closer to the God who is Love. God’s Love calls to us from the manger at Christmas and from the cross at Easter. It inspires us to be holy fools who seek justice in a world of misleaders.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate Christ’s birth with great joy in a Feast of Fools. But it won’t be play-acting. It will reflect the reality that sovereignty doesn’t rest with monarchs, popes, or authoritarian despots. It rests with God and the inner Christ that flickers within each of us.

Our Prince of Peace might be a helpless newborn and our King might have been killed on a cross. But Christ is a King who is reborn in our hearts, at Christmas as at any time. Not only does new life in Christ give us the courage to struggle for peace with justice. It gives us the victory right here, right now.

Advent is nearly over. Christmas is almost here. So as holy fools, let us now finish our journey to Bethlehem in joy.


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Advent without ceasing?

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:5-11, 16-18 (“Pray without ceasing”)

Every Advent, the following debate surfaces: is Christmas secular or religious?

Today, we are in the middle of Advent, a season that includes the four Sundays before Christmas. And while the retail and entertainment industries try to conflate Advent and Christmas, they are two distinct seasons. Advent is a month of prayer and repentance before December 25 while Christmas is the 12 days from December 25 to January 6 in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The differences between the two seasons are evident in carols. Christmas carols celebrate the nativity of Jesus while Advent carols focus on preparation for the coming of Christ. Some Advent carols like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are beloved while those that focus on judgement and the prophecies of John the Baptist like “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness” are not as well-known or liked.

This Advent, the debate about the place of secular and religious elements in Christmas has been joined by a new movie about Charles Dickens. I haven’t yet seen “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” but I look forward to it.

The movie is based on the notion that Dickens’ popular 1843 book “A Christmas Carol” helped to establish many of today’s Christmas traditions — things like turkey, Christmas trees, and family gatherings on the secular side and a turn from greed to selfless charity on the spiritual side.

“A Christmas Carol” also illustrates the connection between Advent and Christmas, I believe. While all the action takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, the bulk of the story has an Advent feel.

It begins as the protagonist Ebeneezer Scrooge eats a lonely and meager Christmas Eve meal where he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. Marley says that Scrooge will see three more Spirits during the night.

The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his childhood with his late sister Fran and of his failed engagement to a woman named Belle.

The Ghost of Christmas Present presents Scrooge with scenes of happy family meals and of the terrible suffering of the poor.

The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge the funerals of two people: one friendless and unloved — Scrooge himself — and one beloved –Tiny Tim, who is the crippled child of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit.

Only when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning does the mood change. When Scrooge realizes that he has time to turn his life around, he joyously repents of his selfish and ungenerous ways.

Because most of the action is with four ghosts, one could rename Dickens’ book “An Advent Carol.” The ghosts lead Scrooge on a painful spiritual journey that begins with prophecy and that is heavy with the threat of judgement and death.

As a child, I loved watching the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” every year even if it frightened me. It gave me a sense that Christmas was not all tinsel and parties. It was also a time to confront life’s shadows and an opportunity for spiritual growth.

I was also glad how the story knit together the secular and the religious aspects of Christmas, the soulful and the spiritual.

The reading we heard this morning from St. Paul leans more to the spiritual than the soulful. He writes about light, wakefulness, and prayer.

Paul’s words about praying without ceasing connect to the concept of mindfulness, which is about being aware of one’s feelings, thoughts, and perceptions from moment to moment. As followers of Christ, we can use such awareness to give thanks for God’s Grace and to pray for healing, peace and justice.

Achieving a high level of mindfulness can lead to a kind of ecstasy — what Paul calls rejoicing always. But as anyone who has tried to develop a meditation practice can attest, it is a challenge to be awake to the flow of every moment. Much of the time, we drift into unconsciousness, and every night we fall asleep. Prayer without ceasing is a wonderful goal, I believe, but few of us can achieve it.

The good news is that seasons of prayer like Advent have both a beginning and end. We began Advent two weeks ago with a service focused on Hope. We will end the season next Sunday with a service focused on Love. Then Christmas will follow, an annual celebration of birth and light that weaves together the spiritual and the secular in the most wondrous ways.

Personally, I don’t see a great need to draw a line between the secular side of Advent, which includes gift-shopping, tree decorating, and stringing lights, and the religious side, which is about repentance and prayer. Both sides can yield joy, although the secular joys are more oriented to soul and the religious joys are more oriented to spirit.

Nor do I see a great need to draw a sharp line between the secular side of Christmas, which includes parties with family and friends, and its spiritual side, which is about the birth of Jesus and the coming of salvation. Both sides of Christmas feed us, with the secular side leaning more to comfort and the spiritual side leaning more to joy.

Nor do I see a great need to separate the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Advent is a time of discovery in which we journey in a prayerful spirit of repentance. Christmas is a time of celebration as we arrive both at Bethlehem and at family dinner tables to relax, feast, and revel in love. Both seasons influence the other, and I find it understandable that each year they bleed into each other.

Finally, I don’t see a great need to “put the Christ back in Christmas” anymore than I see a great need to “Keep Christmas out of Advent.” However we prepare for the rebirth of Christ in our hearts this year, and however we celebrate the coming of the solstice, we will inevitably blend the soulful with the spiritual and combine elements from our pagan and Christian roots with popular traditions of the last 150 years.

Advent doesn’t last forever anymore than our prayers do, regardless of what St. Paul suggests. In the yin and yang of Advent and Christmas, I am glad that the soulful and the spiritual sides weave together to make communities that are both human and divine and that provide both comfort and joy.

For all of us this Advent and Christmas, I pray it may be so.


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“Keep calm and carry on”

Text: Mark 13 (“the Little Apocalypse”)

One of our highest spiritual goals is to wake up. This is a theme found in today’s apocalyptic reading. Jesus tells his friends to stay awake to the possibility of disaster, judgement, and salvation.

Keep watch! Stay alert! Stay awake! says Jesus.

OK. But what will help us accomplish this goal?

One way to stay awake is through fear. If we can generate enough terror in our hearts, we are unlikely to fall asleep.

This past year, I have sometimes been kept awake by fear. With the success of racism as a political brand, I have found it easy to be freaked out about what is happening in our world and what might happen next.

But you may be glad to know that I don’t support this as a tactic for staying awake. Not only is terror unsustainable in the longer term, I am confident it is not what Jesus is talking about in this passage.

Jesus invites his friends to stay awake not out of fear, but out of faith. He knows that some of their fears will come to pass, things like war, earthquake, and famine, which he mentions earlier in this chapter. But he also tells his friends not to be alarmed, because at the deepest level all is well and all will be well.

Instead of being freaked out by all the incredible changes in our lives and in the broader culture, Jesus recommends that we relax into alertness — to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as a British wartime slogan urged.

Today on the first Sunday of Advent, our focus is on hope, which is usually directed to the future. For example, I hope for gifts at Christmas; for encouraging lab test results; and for fewer wars.

But there is another aspect to hope. Hope is also a blessed state that floods over us when we are focused on the present and not on our regrets about the past or our anxieties about the future.

None of us have had the past we wanted in all respects. Nor will any of us get the future we want in all respects. All of us have suffered at least some neglect, loss, and pain. All of us are fragile and mortal.

But when we look to the depths, we remember that we have come from Love, and it is to Love that we all return. This faith can help us stay awake to the present moment, to keep watch for the beauty and truth in front of us now, and to be alert to all the sensations and feelings of today.

This vision of hope reminds me of an ancient Hindu saying that I first heard from United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal on a canoe trip in 2002. Called “Salutation to the Dawn,” it goes like this:

Look to this day
for it is life,
the very life of life.
In today’s brief course lie all the verities and realities of existence —
the bliss of growth and the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well-spent makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope . . .
Look well, therefore, to this day.

I love this poem. Regardless of what we regret about the past and fear about the future, we only have now to give and receive love. We only have now to communicate and grow. We only have now to experience beauty and healing.

We don’t know what will happen in 2018 anymore than we knew what would happen in 2017. But whatever happens next year, each day we are granted will grace us with the opportunity to look well to its eternal moments.

So, this Advent, I pray that we will keep calm and carry on. May we look well to each day and so turn all our yesterdays into dreams of happiness and all our tomorrows into visions of hope.

May it be so. Amen.

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