Twelve Days

Merry Christmas everyone! Walking the dog through our neighborhood on Boxing Day, I can’t tell you the number of Christmas trees I saw already bundled up on the street corner ready for the rubbish bin. A sad sight indeed. We pack the weeks of December (and, if we’re honest, November too) with so many events and concerts … yet we don’t even give ourselves the chance to relax and fully enjoy the fully season of Christmas while it’s here.

In the spirit of the 12 Days of Christmas (and the spirit of my imminent departure to parts South and consequent separation from the laptop), I share these two Christmastide poems. They formed the basis for our Christian Education talk last Sunday, so if you didn’t get the chance to join us they are well worth perusing. Written by two contemporary women, they are reflections on the birth of Christ that evoke in us more than that mere tranquil manger scene. Please enjoy:

“The Risk of Birth” by Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

“Descending Theology — The Nativity” by Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

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The Neverending Advent

I often find Advent the most elusive of all the liturgical seasons. All the other celebrations and observations in our Christian calendar are, relatively speaking, pretty clear-cut. Christmas is the festival of the Incarnation. In Lent, we give ourselves over to a time of fasting in preparation for the joyful season of new life in Easter. Even the summer so-called “Ordinary Time” afford the church an opportunity to focus on our need for everyday, “ordinary” spiritual nourishment. But there is something so much more … abstract about Advent. Is is joyful? Is it penitential? Yes. No. … Maybe? We read about the prophesies of Jesus’s second coming at the end of history … yet Advent is the start of a new liturgical year. So … is it an ending or a beginning. Yes. Both … Maybe?

And so let us consider The Neverending Story.

There are times when it is best for me simply to accept that I am a child of the 80’s. For better or for worse, my world will be shaped with reference to really, really cheesy fantasy movies. (For the record, I also make quite a poor hipster because I confess to loving such whimsical cinematic creations wholly un-ironically).

adventfrontalSo, for example, I find myself often unable to look at our Advent altar frontal without immediately thinking of The Neverending Story. Specifically, the part at the end, after the Nothing has finally obliterated the magical realm of Fantasia and the human child Bastian finds himself with the Childlike Empress holding out one last glimmering fragment of her former kingdom against the darkness that has consumed it. (Check it out here, if you are not up on your 80’s classics). That tiny fragment of Fantasia becomes the seed from which is born a new, glorious wonderful world from the wishes of Bastian. The end becomes a new beginning out of a formless void.

It is that image of the void, the chaotic nothingness, that I see in the swirling blues and voilets of our Advent frontal. The void which cries out for the presence of God, which is promised … but not quite here yet. At the same time, though, we see the glimmer of a form about to take shape. Something is happening, even if it is not quite completed.

Perhaps this “already, but not yet” is where we find ourselves liturgically on this final Sunday of Advent when the church typically invites us to reflect on the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin Mary: “Greetings Mary, Lord is with you … You will conceive and bear a son.” The Sundays of Advent are filled with the voices of the prophets: whether it be Isaiah’s call for God to tear open the heavens and bring down his presence to earth or the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. All those longing and all those promises now find their fulfillment in the words of a single young woman in a remote town in Northern Israel: “I am the servant of the Lord.” Just like the world of Fantasia is born again through the small seed a little boy’s hope, so the Kingdom of Heaven begins with those first words of obedience and faith spoken through the virgin Mary.

We know that God’s full redemptive plan for his creation is far from completed. The recent news of the hostage situation in Sydney (which left 2 people dead, in addition to the hostage-taker) and the horrific account of the school children murdered in Pakistan makes it all too clear how desperately our world remains in need of salvation. And yet, the story of Mary promises us that the salvation has begun. God has acted. And there is more to come.

 

All Dogs (may) Go to Heaven

It goes without saying that the news has been a little dour of late — from racial tensions in the states, to unveiling of the use or torture on terror suspects, to the ongoing reports of violence against Christians in the Middle East. Such events certainly give extra weight to cries of “Come, Lord Jesus” in this Advent season. Perhaps, though, I might be forgiven from letting up a bit on the weeping and gnashing of teeth to focus on some happy news that for once breaks through the media din — Pope Francis, it seems has made news yet again with his recent declaration that all animals may, indeed, go to heaven.

Even this guy can be redeemed in God's new creation?

Even this guy can be redeemed in God’s new creation?

Francis’s comments are more appropriate than you might imagine in this season leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In an time before Starbucks started pushing its Gingerbread Latte on November 1, Advent was not a time of joyfully awaiting the birth of Jesus, but a time of sober reflection on “the four last things”: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment. Suffice it to say, these topics don’t get top billing in December church services anymore. But Francis’s comments offer food for thought on these oft-neglected seasonal topics.

First, lets be honest. Despite the way it is being reported, Pope Francis didn’t really say anything so simple as “All Dogs go to Heaven.” The actual quotation is: “The Holy Scriptures teach us that the realization of this wonderful plan covers all that is around us, and that came out of the thought and the heart of God … heaven is open to all creatures, and there [they] will be vested with the joy and love of God, without limits.”

Perhaps more interesting than the Pope’s pronouncement itself is what the media’s overly simplistic coverage reveals about the unnuanced way in which we as a society are conditioned to think about salvation. We think of salvation so often in black and white, highly individualistic terms. If indeed we think about theological concepts such as “salvation” at all, our concern is for who gets to go to heaven, and who finds themselves condemned to hell. From the progressive to the conservative ends of the spectrum the answer of who falls into which camp might be somewhat different. But we’re typically still working with the same question–who’s in, and who’s out. We can see this concept of salvation at work in the secular blogger who criticized Francis for saying “animals go to heaven, even as some humans are supposedly sent to hell.”

I think Francis’s comments point us to a whole different concept of salvation that is not about the eternal fate of individuals but the work of Christ to redeem ALL of creation. We render salvation such a small thing when we make it a matter of me, or you, or the fate of my poor dog Bilbo.

The book of Revelation paints for us a picture of a “new heaven and a new earth.” As Christ sits on his throne in that coming kingdom, he declares: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). Salvation is a gift Christ holds out to the whole of creation. I see no reason why Bilbo would not be a part of that new world where we are assured that the lion will lie down with the lamb. Indeed, maybe he won’t even bark at passing joggers in his redeemed state.

The point of Francis’s statement is this — salvation/redemption/the full revelation of Christ kingdom is bigger than us, and it is bigger than anything we can imagine. To suggest that Christ’s redeeming work cannot extend to all creatures seems to me … a lack of spiritual imagination. And perhaps what sets us apart as human being graced with reason and free will is not that we are somehow uniquely capable of experiencing salvation. But we are uniquely the set of beings who can actively choose to be a part of the redeemed creation … or not.

As we await the coming of Christ, it is worth considering how we can participate in that mystery of the redemption of God’s creation in the world around us. Especially when it comes to loving our animal companions.

Silence is (em)Power(ing)

“There is a big difference, after all, between being silenced and silencing oneself … In silence, I had found a reservoir of strength that, if I could just learn to draw from it, could make my words weightier. In silence, it seems, I had finally found my voice.” (278)

Rachel Held Evans’ words on the power of silence are perhaps the most evocative part of her challenging book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. There is, after all, such a grand tradition of willingly silencing ourselves in our Christian tradition. We need only think of the seemingly endless exhortations to silence scattered through the book of Proverbs. Indeed, “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace” (Proverbs 17:28).

In recent weeks, Rachel Held Evans’ comments on the gift of silence have risen again in my mind. I have been pondering on the gift of silence that someone like me — a privileged white Christian — can offer to other, perhaps more marginalized voices. The role of “white allies” has been debated hotly and controversially of late in light of the issues raised by the Grand Jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. I don’t want to re-hash my thoughts on that subject. Those in church on Sunday heard enough about it in my sermon. But there is an issue in how white Christians (such as myself, and, I imagine, the majority of people who read this post) can best serve as allies to the black community who, understandably, feed an form of outrage at the moment we cannot ever fully understand.

An anecdote: Several (white) people I know went down to the Toronto Consulate last Tuesday night to protest the Ferguson decision. Apparently, the white allies in attendance were asked to stand behind the black protestors and also not to talk to the media but instead point reporters to interview the black leadership. This request, it seems, outraged many, and at the very least confused this reporter from the CBC. Lets all just pause for a moment an ponder the irony of a reporter producing an article about why white protestors were asked to “silence” themselves that fails to interview a single non-white protestor.

Why are would-be white allies asked to silence ourselves when attempting to fight for a just inclusion of people of colour in all levels of our society? It is precisely because our white voices are heard all the time. We do enough talking about our non-white brothers and sisters. It is time for us to step back, to silence ourselves especially when we are addressing the experience of people of colour. We do not know what it is to have our basic humanity debated by the people around us. And when we stand up to talk about our experience of racial issues we (perhaps not intentionally) make it all about us and detract attention from the voices that desperately need to be heard–lets just go back to the CBC article, shall we?  We need to let ourselves be told by people of colour what they need from us. We need to be told how we can best be servants to their need in this time of (their) deep pain. Because we cannot share their experience. This is not an issue of “reverse racism” (not least because reverse racism cannot exist). This is not an issue of white people being unfairly “silenced” in favour of black voices.

Rather, we have come to a point where we as white people (and, in the context of the church … white Christians) need to consider silence as power. At this time our collective silence is the greatest gift we have to give people of colour and especially the American black community at the moment. Willingly silencing ourselves so diverse voices and experiences can be heard and–God willing–begin to bring about a more truly just society.

Now, I am aware that I am very non-silently addressing the need for silence on a platform I speak from every week (not that it is really a very big platform, but still … the irony is not lost on me). And I will admit, recent events have made me far more mindful of how many white faces appear on the list of people I follow on twitter, and how many white authors’ works sit on my bookshelf.  With that in mind, I would just like to point out a few black voices that are well worth following–voices I am striving to be more intentional about listening to. Some within the church, some not.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the Atlantic–I’ve been reading him for years. The man speaks some harsh truths about the black experience in the U.S., and the ways in which white Americans continue (consciously or not) to benefit from a system rigged in our favour.

Colorlines — This is a handy news source for getting news coverage on racial issues that sometimes fly under the mainstream radar.

I’ve been following Christina Cleveland for awhile, and she recently co-authored this fantastic piece with several other black evangelical leaders Austen Channing Brown, Drew Hart, and Efrem Smith.

I’ll confess I haven’t read many of her columns at Sojourners (that I’m aware of), but Lisa Sharon Harper as been an illuminating new voice on my twitter feed.

Then, there is the delightful Medieval People of Color tumblr, featuring the non-white faces that go unstudied in medieval art. Well worth checking out.

I admit it’s a woefully short list. If you’re reading this and you know of good people I can start following/reading — please let me know!

Let us consider how we can give the gift of our silence to others. Not just people of colour but to any who may have a different, less empowered, less privileged experience than our own. In so doing, it may be that we come closer to the image of Christ dwelling within us, the example of whom calls us “in all humility to think of others better than ourselves, not thinking of our own interests but the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Let us silence ourselves so that we may empower others.