As Christmastime wraps up, many of us going through the simultaneous sad pangs of letting go of our favourite Christmas songs for another ten or eleven months–I have a #sorrynotsorry soft spot for Trans-siberan Orchestra “Christmas Canon Rock”–and thrill of freedom from our least favourite Christmas songs–no more getting judged by hipster friends for disliking Sufjan Stevens’ album, no more heretically bad incarnational theology of “Away in a Manger” claiming baby Jesus didn’t cry, and thank God no more “Little Drummer Boy.” But before the Twelve Days of Christmas end, let’s discuss the viral carol sensation of these past few years. Continue reading
I wish you a Merry Christmas. But on this Christmas Eve Eve, before the tidal wave of culturally and liturgically mandatory joy sweeps over us all, may I whisper a secret. I wish you a Merry Christmas, but it is okay if it is not all merriness for you.
If your Christmas appears to be on the verge of a Hallmark card brought to life, perhaps this blog is not for you. I am happy for you. Your merriness makes me merrier. There no shame in exuberant joy! The lights, the food, the music, the holy story, the companionship of loved ones can come together these December days in a whirlwind of profound happiness. I have experienced that. I have been blessed with many truly merry Christmases.
This Christmas is will not be one of them, at least not in that unmitigated idealistic sense. I have so much for which to be grateful. And I am grateful. But this is also a year of mourning for me, too. My circumstances are imperfect, and I am a human responding to them.
This past Sunday I visited a conservative Baptist church in the United States. I am by ordination Baptist and by birth American, but only seldom called conservative. The pastor started his sermon in a place I found profoundly insightful, but veered into what I found profoundly blasphemous and hurtful. He began by saying we set ourselves up for disappointment when we place our trust in human things, and that Christmastime disappointments are rooted in trusting in things we cannot ultimately trust. Crass commercialism will not bring lasting joy. Amen, brother. Even seemingly nobler expectations around time with friends and loved ones will disappoint. Again, a harder truth, but a true truth. Only Christ’s coming itself can provide us with lasting joy. We must focus on that. I was still with him. But then he argued we are to blame for our own unhappiness, because if we truly had faith in Christ, we would not allow anything else to make us sad.
I am going through divorce, and after years of believing I was with someone who would love me forever, I am not. And it hurts. It has hurt all year. And in the onslaught of happy family pictures on lovingly sent Christmas cards, it is hurting even more at Christmas. I count my blessings. The first two are my children. Even while I am devastated by the loss of my marriage, I will not call it a failed marriage when it gave me the gift of the two greatest blessings I have on earth. I try to console myself, believing their love is all I should ever want or need. As a pastor, more broadly as a Christian, it is my vocation to love others, and I am blessed to receive back more love than I could ever give. Some of my Roman Catholic and Anglican colleagues who feel called to celibacy tell me that such love is more than enough. I admire them. But my experience with lost romantic, companionate love is nonetheless one of profound pain.
And yes, I believe in God. Yes, I believe a holy infant entered this world humbly to overturn this fallen world. And those are glad tidings of great joy. Shouldn’t I be ashamed of myself for daring to sit under the lights of my Christmas tree, beside the crèche, and instead cry quietly, feeling so profoundly alone? I’m a minister, after all. I should be a good Christian, the best Christian, and good Christians are happy during Christmas, no matter what. No. The impossible expectation that clergy ought to be perpetually joyful is an idolatry of clergy; the expectation that all people of faith ought to be to be perpetually joyful is an idolatry of joy.
The persistent idea floating around Christianity that a knowledge of the truth would lead the truly righteous to a endless high of smiles and optimism, right now in this earthly life, is a lie. A damned lie. It idolises emotions, mistaking the sensation of happiness for the author of true joy. It falsely condemns sorrow and the sorrowful, heaping religious guilt upon those who are already suffering. It allows the (self-)righteous to feel they are being faithful when they are lacking empathy.
The Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger,” succumbs to heretical nonsense with its simple assertion, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” #docetism Sit down you blasphemous anti-incarnation hymn, and prepare yourself for some Bible Truth. The Bible’s single most succinct verse of Truth, in fact:
Did Jesus weeping mean he sinfully lacked faith?
Jesus wept. Baby Jesus screamed like a baby because he was a baby. Adult Jesus wept because he was a human. At every age, Jesus lived the human experience with its attendant sadnesses. If we believe in Christ the perfect example, we cannot claim that sorrow or weeping are faithlessness. Yes, the Bible tells us not to fear, not to weep, not to despair, but if we are to reconcile those commands with the idea of Christ the sinless example, we must see those verses as encouragements not judgments, as the hand of God rubbing our backs as we cry, not striking us while we are down.
The promise is not that we will never suffer, but that we will not be abandoned:
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Do we imagine the first Christmas was joyful? Of course.
But why do we feel so tempted to imagine it was only joyful? Perhaps Joseph and Mary cried as the inn doors closed on them one after another. Even the gratitude for being offered a stable perhaps was met with a teary-eyed sigh, sitting on straw, realizing this was where the birth had to happen. Why do we insist in our imaginations that the animals were silent, that the night was still, that Mary had no pain, that Jesus did not scream? Could it be that we are idolising every circumstance around Jesus’ birth rather than living into the more likely truth that this joyful moment came, like most human moments, in a whirlwind of mixed emotions?
This is not my first mixed emotion Christmas. Eight years ago, my own twins were born very early and spent weeks in hospital before we were allowed to take them home. And then on the 23rd and 24th came the Christmas miracles. First one daughter was sent home. And then the next. We awoke on Christmas morning, and it was the first day our two children were home. And we tired. And we overwhelmed. We did not, could not, cook an elegant dinner. Christmas is the story of a birth, after all. Joyful, of course, but exhausting and scary, too.
This Christmas will be merry and sad. It is not an either/or for me this Christmas.
We have no Biblical or historical reason to assume we know the day of Jesus’ birth. But I believe this is the best time of year to celebrate it anyway. The one we Christians call “The light” breaking into this world during this, for the northern hemisphere, literally darkest week of the year, is a perfect reminder that joy comes into our darkest times. But we don’t have to pretend there was no darkness to celebrate the light.
May you have a merry Christmas. May you feel joy even if, maybe especially if, this year’s merry comes in a mixed emotion package.
This picture, taken by Jason Pickering, is the most popular picture I have ever posted to Facebook. I even have cats, who I photograph often, but not even my kitten pointing longingly at Jesus matched the likes and shares. Contrary to your first impression, no, we are not supermodels, though I would argue we are all fearfully and lovingly made by our Creator.
We are real religious leaders. Rabbi Anna leads the Glebe Minyan in Ottawa; Imam Mohamad Jebara is the scholar-in-residence and chief imam at the Cordova Spiritual Education Centre in Ottawa; Elder Albert Dumont “South Wind” is a Algonquin elder, activist, storyteller, healer, and author; and I am the Anglican-United Christian chaplain at McGill University and the Montréal and Ottawa regional youth and young adult minister for the United Church of Canada. It was staged in the sense that we scheduled a time with the photographer and went to his studio, but our journeys as faith leaders, our actual personal interactions with one another, and the friendship and reconciliation work amongst the communities we represent are all very real.
They say a picture is worth a 1000 words. A compelling argument not to write this blog, I suppose, but knowing how it came about does not and should not diminish what this image means, both intended and the just-as-true meanings others have found in it.
One gentlemen who shared this on Facebook captioned it, “what a wonderful world it COULD be”. I agree with his hopefulness. I agree with his idealism. But I want to note: this is not an image of only what could hypothetically be. It is an image of what already is. For those of us in the picture, we are not dreaming of a world in which people of different faiths and backgrounds come together in peace and friendship. We’re doing it. We are not doing it perfectly, and we have not finished it. But it is happening. And it is not just the four of us doing it. We are stand-ins, leaders deliberately dressed as ostentatious, conspicuous representatives of thriving communities of people already doing the work of neighbourly love and cooperation. I want this image to promote interfaith cooperation as something which must be done better and more, but which is already happening.
Last spring, the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa organized a youth weekend and invited Imam Mohamad, Rabbi Anna, and I as speakers for a question and answer period called “Faith Leaders in the Hotseat.” Teens were invited to ask us anything. The depth of the questions, both deeply intimately personal and broad questions of global issues, was astounding.
I mentioned that those of us in the picture represent larger communities. One way this was patently obvious is that we did not know one another before this youth event last spring. We met because Anglicans living in Ottawa hold already been engaged in the interfaith community enough to know a rabbi, to know an imam, to a know youth ministry-focused guest preacher from Montréal. We met because people of faith were in connection first.
As that youth discussion unfolded, Anna, Mohamad, and I quickly developed a rapport of humour and friendliness. We did not and do not agree on everything. Speaking at least for myself, that was never a goal of mine. But what talented and insightful storytellers and thinkers they are. I was honoured to be on a panel with them.
A few months later, I read about a Belgian postage stamp featuring a rabbi, bishop, and imam:
I told Imam Mohamad, let’s make a Canada version. He immediately and enthusiastically agreed. I liked the Belgian stamp, but it was only men, and not all religious leaders are men! It was important to us that our “Canada version” be a bit more diverse, and having already had a great interfaith experience with Rabbi Anna, she was the first rabbi we asked!
In interfaith work, because of intertwined histories, common stories, and the conflicts that are so prominently in the news, we three monotheistic Abrahamic Faiths or People of the Book sometimes forget the other faiths. We wanted a simple picture that showed interfaith cooperation, but no one image can represent all good intentions. Nonetheless, Imam Mohamad said that any “Canada version” ought to acknowledge whose land we stand upon. We all agreed enthusiastically, and Elder South Wind agreed to participate!
As an aside, the Facebook comments have been overwhelmingly positive, but some have lamented that ours still has too many men, or not enough religions. We have four religious traditions. We have only one woman. We have some racial diversity. The picture includes one immigrant. (And I suspect some may be prone to guess the immigrant incorrectly. It is actually the white Christian who was not born in Canada!) I hope those critics will do what we did about the Belgian stamp: Make more art! Take more pictures! Find more people! The simple message of love and peace cannot be overdone.
After the photo shoot, South Wind headed home, but Mohamad, Anna, and I went to Mohamad’s home for tea. The most sacred moment I experienced that night was not with four religious leaders in a photography studio. It was with a small snack and an imam’s children. I spent my drive home so emotional from that simple time at Mohamad’s table that I had to pull over to type this Facebook status:
May we all learn to hold hands and give thanks for one another.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver
I spent last Thursday morning revisiting the holy sites of my childhood and adolescence. I spent my high school years in the coastal suburbs south of Boston, quaint New England villages warring with the creep of McMansion construction. My favourite childhood toy store, now a luxury real estate agency. My favourite childhood stop for penny candies, now another luxury real estate agency. People are so eager to spend money to live somewhere so charming that they will drive out the charm to make sure their realtor has a convenient office location. At thirty-two, I have already become the grumpy old man, waxing nostalgic for the good old days of 1995. Ageing, at all ages, is the act of confronting inevitable change. Sometimes growth, sometimes deterioration, but our bodies and our surroundings are defiantly refusing permanence. Continue reading