With my first foray into central Saskatchewan I witnessed a part of the Province at once unexpected and lush. I now retract all those youthfully snide comments I made as a boy every time I came to Saskatchewan and proclaimed it the flattest, most featureless place I’d ever seen.
Prince Albert in particular, where I had gone to preach at a sister church, was surprising. Understated and pastoral, she offered herself to me in all her “boreal transition forest” splendour. A landscape not terribly unlike the north of England quietly strut her stuff and I was impressed.
Saskatchewan, I apologize. I was a kid; ignorant, wrong. You are gorgeous. As were the good folks of Gateway Covenant Church with whom I shared and among whom I lived for a couple days. What follows is the edited version of my sermon with some music from our service on Sunday, August 8th, 2021.
Don’t make the mistake I made when I was growing up and decide something is the sum total of one’s limited experience. Wait. It just might surprise you!
I continue to be amazed at the generosity of friends and total strangers alike as they sign on as partners for our upcoming ministry to the UK with Serve Globally of the Evangelical Covenant Church. See below how you can do so, too.
Much has been written about this period of the holy story the church has called Christmastide. We hear words like waiting, longing, anticipation, inbreaking, birthing, hoping, emmanuel, and sing of shepherds and sheep, angels, alleluias and announcements, mangers and mangy stables and , all in voices bright sing gloria in excelsis deo (glory to God in the highest).
Consumer culture rides its coattails toward a bloated bottom line. Corporate culture plays with its nuances to encourage warmth of feeling and brand vibes. Christian culture uses it to battle their annual “war on Christmas.” Cancel culture uses it to remedy the former. And, Hallmark culture uses it to sell Thomas Kinkade paintings (I have nothing against him, I promise!). Such a tangle of ideas and emotions, all running rampant…at Christmas.
Even in an arguably post-Christian culture, it is challenging to share anything particularly new about a story this well known. For those of us tasked with its telling it can be especially difficult to reverse the potential for a familiarity-bred contempt, both in the church, and in the culture at large. But tell it we do. Every year.
The stultifying caprice of our COVIDays, coupled with unparalleled political farcity seems to have diminished our ability to see any hopeful horizons and consequently, ravage our capacity to dream. One wonders if one can ever again, wonder. As the writer of Proverbs once observed, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12).
But, dare we think ourselves alone to be the hope-starved? Those to whom the heavenly babe first came were far more so.
Read appropriately, in its original context, the birth narrative of Jesus would have sounded incredulous. A questionable yarn akin to UFO talkies or gu’rmint conspiracy theories in the local version of Bethlehem’s National Enquirer. ‘Twould have been anything but a family-friendly, consumer-ready tale fit for animated movie screens and glittering holiday bling.
Instead, the Hebrew nation fixated on their lot as Roman-branded religious fanatics and kicked against the goads of military occupation. And, theirs was an occupation not just politically by the Romans, but theologically and morally by religious leaders pretending to follow Torah but largely interested in political safety and the biggest voice at the table (sound familiar?).
Long had they given up hope that anything would actually change. That their station might somehow improve. That, in great, great grandpa’s memory was something about messiah, the line of David, and covenant promises, among other fantastical things. They had done what almost every other conquered people has always done – settled into the long night of mediocrity and acceptance. Their survival mode button was stuck in the ‘on’ position.
Oh, there were outliers for sure. History is replete with them. There are always a remnant of stalwarts who refuse such resigned demeanour.
For example, Anna, whose long and lonely life had been given to prayerfulness and presence. Simeon, similarly, happy just to die having seen the fulfillment of a promise. Zechariah, whose priestly advocacy over Israel was well-known and whose doubts equalled his dedication. Elizabeth was giddy just to be pregnant in old age (God rather fancies such stunts), let alone with the New Testament’s resident off-the-grid hippy. And, of course, Mary. Aw, Mary – sweet but strong, young but wise, believing but thoughtful. Mary, perhaps more than anyone, understood the full importance and impact of what was told her by the angelic messenger. Apparently yes, she did know. ; )
“My mind is blown and my heart is full. Okay, so if I’m hearing you correctly, God’s finally doing something? Not just anything, but making the cosmic statement that the lesser is the more, the small leads the great, the poor rule over the rich. It’s all been upended, and you remembered everything that you’ve ever promised to me and my people? I’m in!”*
It is on the one hand a strength that such a story resides deep in our shared memory and finds revered place in our common consciousness. But, sometimes the familiarity of character, plot, and setting can sublimate the luminous mysteries at work under the surface. We kinda know the story but it doesn’t move us anymore. The aha! has been lost in the constant retelling that lacks reliving.
We can attribute much that is warm and good and beautiful to our affixation with the Christmas story. We still value the notion, however vague, that love lies at its heart, that forgiveness has at least something to do with all this, that family and community somehow matter, and that God doesn’t mind getting his hands (and diapered backside) dirty.
In our cynical moments, if nothing else, it keeps us looking for good deals at Walmart and happily arguing over Starbucks cups. And who doesn’t love that after fighting winter traffic for two hours?
But, upon reflection, guided by the Spirit who guided the star who guided the wise men who guides us still, we confess Christmastide to be a picture of heavenly surprise. To retell such a treasured tale should be of all things, an exercise in practicing surprise.
And everyone loves surprises.
A happy and surprising Christmastide to each and every one of you!
*Rob’s take on Luke 1:46-55, often called “The Magnificat” or simply “Mary’s Song of Praise.”
Rarely has anything been so easy for me as giving thanks this year. Rae and I continue to see plans unfold to pursue life and ministry in Britain. We are now both citizens of the US, complete with passports and the added blessing of participation in the democratic process. And, not a moment too soon!
With the help of our son, Calum, a host of other blessed volunteers and contractors, and moneys from very magnanimous congregants, we spent half a year refinishing floors, painting every available surface both inside and out, adding new carpet, a new HVAC unit, hot water tank, oven, and rebuilding an underground sprinkler system.
We sat, biting our fingernails, for four very tense months. But, with mere moments to spare, we finally sold the house we’ve called home for fourteen years to an utterly delightful young family. We got the exact figure we’d known all along we’d receive. And, best of all, we sold to genuine people less interested in bricks and mortar as emotionless investment than they are in growing a family in a house uniquely designed for such a thing.
I write this not from typical chair but from a lazy-boy recliner not my own in a basement suite kindly offered us by good friends as we prepare ourselves for UK living. 3400 square feet to about 800. We love it! We’ve become rabbits, rather comfortable in a small burrow – safe, well-lit, warm, and wonderfully cozy. We say we’re “practicing Europe” right now.
Despite being officially unemployed for ten months, my wife’s job continues uninterrupted. I’ve never been more thankful to have a desperately over-qualified life partner to help make the trains run on time as I putz around town pressing flesh (more virtual these days), writing, studying, reading, or doing important stuff that often doesn’t look important. She has single-handedly kept us afloat since January. Thanks, babe!
We’ve stood back in wonder, COVID-19 obstacles notwithstanding, as our sons have become young men of character, maturity, courage, and integrity. Their lives aren’t perfect, which places them in good stead with the rest of humanity. But, they’re content – and intent – on building their own futures, eyes cast on their own horizons. They may be our sons. But, they’ve become our friends.
I continue apace toward my late-in-life milestone of ordination. It never really interested me before because I hadn’t found a collective sufficiently aligned with sufficiently enough of me with whom to marry. That marriage will happen, virtual of course, by the will of God and if the creek don’ rise, sometime next year.
The multiple contingencies required of viral lockdowns have forced a certain quietude upon my otherwise taut persona. Long coffeeshop days spent poring over my journal, whatever book currently captivates me, and various meetings with friends and colleagues has deeply simplified. Now, it is hours spent sitting in my chair cyber-reaching out to potential global ministry partners and investors. Telling our calling story. Sharing our vision, our hope for the future.
Let’s be honest, it’s always a much simpler affair to offer thanks when one sits in a place of relative comfort, devoid of excess chaos, and brimming with possibility. I write as one healthy enough to do so, without the pressing concerns many are forced to endure.
In this unprecedented (a word very much overused, but still helpful) time, many have lost loved ones to something unseen, insistent, insidious. Others, through measures taken to curb this invisible enemy, have lost livelihoods, family businesses, self-respect, and more.
The socio-political timbre of our age has turned watercooler conversations into sparring matches with those we once thought odd, but still our neighbours. Friendships once held together by something much deeper have been rent asunder through clouds of suspicion, name-calling, or suspected ideological “abnormalities”.
“As for me and my house,” said Joshua so long ago, “we will serve the Lord.” Sounds straightforward enough. But, if the past few years have taught us anything at all, it’s that how this looks in real time can be quite different for each of us.
This Thanksgiving I am choosing to revise Joshua’s statement of intent, weaving it with an even better statement of Jesus. For the manifold blessings of this year and the still greater currency of God’s ongoing presence, I submit, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord by loving God completely, and our neighbour as ourselves.”
Will you join us?
On this Thanksgiving Day, 2020, I wish much love and light to you, my dear reader community!
*If you’d like more detailed information on our pending ministry ventures in Britain and/or would like to join our prayer/financial team, message me on Facebook, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I found this prayer on a favourite Facebook chatroom this morning, “Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality.” It comes from Dr. Lou Kavar. I don’t know Dr. Kavar, but if the following gorgeous prayer is any indication, he’s likely one we should get to know! Read this prayer slowly, intentionally, communally, and often, especially as we struggle together in difficult times.
Sir, I thank you for this. My readers will as well I am sure.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Pandemic
Author of Life:
In your wisdom, the cosmos was born filling the expanse with immense diversity.
In your creativity, a blue planet with unique life sustained by water and a perfect atmosphere came together from particles of cosmic dust.
In your compassion, life evolved to enable human beings to be conscious of the great expanse of the cosmos and to stand in awe at the wonder of being alive.
Sustainer of Our Being:
In this pandemic, we’re facing the fragility of life in a new way.
In this health crisis, our concerns for our future have confused us as we’ve struggled to respond to a new illness and, at times, have diminished our own well-being.
In this global crisis, our desire to maintain the ways of life we have known has prevented us from acting wisely.
Source of Compassion:
Today, I am mindful of all those who suffer because of COVID 19, who fight coronavirus infection in their bodies.
Today, I mourn the loss of hundreds of thousands of people who have died alone struggling for breath because of this strange illness.
Today, I join with those in grief who have lost loved ones, often without the opportunity to be with them as they passed or to bid them farewell.
Pillar of Justice:
Move the hearts of lawmakers whose desire for political gain prevents them from acting to promote the common good.
Bend the hearts of those who scheme of ways to profit from the suffering of others.
Melt the hearts of those who in their fears and uncertainty cling to conspiracies that endanger them, their loved ones, and their communities.
Fount of All That is Good:
Give us wisdom to protect ourselves and to live healthy lives during this pandemic.
Give us reverence for the lives of others as we wear masks in public to lower the rate of viral infection.
Give us patience as we adapt to new ways of living, working, learning, and sharing in daily activities.
Give us the faith to understand that you are with us through every moment of life, both in the blessings and in the challenges.
It is in trust of your goodness that we pray this day, affirming that life itself is truly an amazing gift, both today and every day. Amen.
Some of it reasonable I suppose. Some of it, well, shit. Not because I’m stupid or otherwise callous. Maybe because I’m oblivious to all the information required to make believable judgements on things. Perhaps I just like the sound of my own voice. Either way, I muster the faith available, mix whatever humility might be kickin’ around, and offer this hopeful scenario and prayer to help ease our collective pandemic pandemonium.
After weeks of isolation, riots, racism, growing suspicions, job losses, and a general fear of everything, it is hardly a surprise that the faith of many grows cold. Two things should, by now, be evident: humanity is more blind and broken than we’d even suspected. And, two, if God is sovereign, where the hell is (S)he?
In such a broken, sick, divided hour, can hope still be on the table as a viable option? When everywhere one looks the gloves are off, all manner of gauntlet thrown down, ideological lines drawn in neighbourhood sand, trigger fingers itching and ready, ideological (and, for some, real) guns cocked, barrels loaded and pointed, each of us in someone else’s crosshairs, can we still see another human being as worthy of concern? Equally broken? Equally beloved?
These days, our days have intrinsic meaning not because we can count on them for all the reasons we once did – a routine, a schedule to keep, pants awaiting your legs (not a given during lockdown!), coffee waiting to be made, a family awaiting their breakfast, a job awaiting our attention, responsibilities, decisions. Instead, these pandemic days must find their meaning in more faith-led ways; because of their place in the God-created, God-loved cosmos.
We could choose to do nothing at all from beginning to end of day and it would still be sacred. But how creative, how “productive”, how formative a day can be rests in our hands. Each day can move from intrinsically meaningful to prophetically responsible as we awaken to its possibilities.
Let today, this day, be instantly recognizable as a gift. Are we grateful to arise to its potential? Can we place ourselves at God’s disposal to hear and delight in whatever we hear? Can we trust enough in the Divine initiative to carry our lack of it into good places of prayer and friendship and encouragement? Can we lay aside the weight of our own pandemic pandemonium enough to hear that of another?
“Let my love, demeanour, and trust carry the wonder of these days to others. Let my faith be the harbour into which lonely, fearful souls find safety and rest, a place to rebuild. May there be enough faith in me today that, after it spills out to those around me it may grow to encompass my own fears and insecurity. Today, I choose to sublimate all fear under the embrace of a much greater God whose arm remains strong against every storm.
We all need reminders, in the Corona-daze, of Gospel basics. We leave outside (where they belong) the blustering prognostications of the fundamentalist naysayers and return to the simplicity and impossibility of eternal grace. The Gospel, birthed not in shame, but in love (remember John 3:16?), is a never-ending well of nourishing goodness and hope.
In times of darkness and light, chaos and calm, we look to our artists to be our comforters, our prophets; those who bring light into dark places. They remind us of our shared humanity. They point us inward where we find the Christ within. They point our heads upward away from our pain. They point us outward away from our self-absorption and into the great, wide world whose pain is greater still.
Carrie Newcomer is one such artist. As we look at each other both askance and with a curious mixture of suspicion and longing, may this song and the spirit which inspires it, become the growing embers of hope. More than anything else, may we be to each other, a refuge. In this storm, and any other.