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Feast Day – Holy Innocents

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When King Herod found out about a new king being born, he panicked – someone could overtake his throne? And so all baby boys under the age of two were killed. innocent lives were taken.

 
This is a part of the Christmas story that I don’t like and I would like to erase altogether. What tragic loss for all of the families that I cannot imagine. It does not seem fair at all that because the king was threatened by the Messiah’s birth, innocent babies are killed.
 
At the same time, there are innocent children around the world who are victims of violence – and victims of religious violence. One need not look further than Aleppo for evidence. I have known children and youth who have gone through things that no child should know about let alone experience. This feast day gives voice to children and youth around the wold who experience immense suffering at the hands of others, often in the name of “God”.
 
I think what this feast day says to me – is that God takes notice of the babies and children who are harmed or die at the hands of others. Even though we do not know the original victims’ names, God knows them and we remember them on this day.
 
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We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents Of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/24.html_)

Do Not Be Afraid

I have to admit – the past few days I’ve been a bit concerned about what is happening in the world. Trump and Putin talking about expanding nuclear weapons – whether this is a joke, a threat, or policy -has made me feel the darkness of the world in a new way.
 
Living in Canada, I’m pretty privileged. I am free to worship Jesus with fellow believers with the occasional jest made at my expense but nothing that really threatens my being. I really don’t know what it’s like to be a Christian in a closed Muslim country, a missionary to North Korea, a Syrian Christian in Aleppo. I understand from my Muslim friends that even fellow Muslims are not protected from ISIS attacks. I live in such privilege that I can choose not to even think about what others face.
 
But in the past few days, the topic of nuclear weapons has been on my mind. I read one article that talked about the capacity of these weapons to destroy – the capacity to decimate a large area and to cause 3rd degree burns in survivors. If the powerful countries with nuclear weapon capacity deploy weapons of mass destruction, the world could be a very different place. I shudder at the thought. I cry at the knowledge of how many nuclear weapons there are in the world – and these are just the ones that are known. And I fear. I fear the days ahead. The comments made by Putin and the President-Elect are not clear as what they would do with nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons may never be used. But the possibility that they could be – frightens me. Partly because of the world wide chaos that would ensue. But mostly because my own protection is not guaranteed.
 
Throughout the Gospel narratives, angels are telling people not to be afraid. Mary doesn’t need to be afraid because God has found favour with her. Joseph needs not be afraid because Mary is pregnant due to the hand of God and not infidelity. The shepherds don’t need to be afraid because the babe in the manger is the Christ child. In fact, one of the most common phrases throughout Scripture is “do not be afraid”.
 
I read the story on Syrian Christians in Aleppo celebrating Christmas (click here). In the midst of real danger – and danger from simply being Christian. And I am humbled. This is real faith. Faith in the midst of possibly losing your life for celebrating the birth of Christ. Faith that is determined to worship out of profound love for God and determination to not be afraid of man; The embody the words echoed throughuot scripture “do not be afraid”

It’s the messiest time of the year!

December 25, 2016 1 comment
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THE HOLY FAMILY – the nativity figures are hand carved from some place in Africa (which I realize really doesn’t tell you much, but I can’t remember which country). The doily is from Heidelberg, Germany – a gift from my parents when they returned from a trip to Europe when I was about 16 years old.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the messiness of Christmas.

A young unwed girl becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Today, we would either say the girl is lying or get her psychiatric help. Or both. Mary’s pregnancy could of left her poor and destitute at best, or stoned at worst. I can’t imagine travelling far distances on a donkey – but to do so 9 months pregnant?

Then to be turned away and offered a place with the animals to give birth. Talk about unsanitary conditions! The son of God could have been born in a palace – but a manger was his bed. I watched a funny video of children telling the story of Jesus’ birth and they commented on how Jesus probably “pooed” and it was probably very smelly. Having worked at farms, farm animals are kinda stinky! Not very king-like. Definitely very messy. The son of God not only took on human flesh, but came as a helpless baby, totally dependent on others for his care.

Instead of the elites coming to praise and worship this king, shepherds – smelly, dirty, poor shepherds were the invited guests. I remember reading somewhere that they would not have been allowed into the temple – but they were invited into the miracle and mystery of God becoming flesh.

Then King Herod gets wind that there’s a new king born. He is so intimidated by a little baby, that a massacre of male babies under two is commenced. The “holy innocents” as the church calls them and their families bear the price of human sin, pride and power. Jesus escapes – but as a refugee in another land. Less than two years old, his life is wanted. It definitely wasn’t “the most wonderful time of the year”

This is how God sent his son into the world. Jesus took on human flesh and experienced the vulnerability and messiness we face as humans. This is such a mystery to me that God would choose such a messy way to come into the world. And yet, it is such a comfort and hope to me for Jesus knows my messiness – and believe me, I’m messy! Ultimately Jesus redeems that messiness through the Cross. But I think one of the mysteries of Christmas is that Jesus not only knows our messiness but it experienced it.

And so as I – and people I love – face messiness in our own lives – I take comfort tonight in the mess Christ chose to be a part of out of love for you and me.

 

A Light in Darkness

December 24, 2015 1 comment

 

IMG_0654.jpgThis was a message I shared at a gathering that marked and remembered that Christmas is difficult for many.

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I belong to several Facebook groups and decided to share that I was gathering with some friends tonight to mark that Christmas is difficult and to welcome them to join us. Between the various groups, I got over 100 likes, comments and private messages. Christmas is hard for many people.

Hallmark, TV and the stores try to sell us a story that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year – that if we by the right present, hang out with the right person and wear the right clothes this Christmas will be the best Christmas we’ve ever had. And if you can’t do this – Santa will. I remember feeling shocked at a modern Christmas song that says that Santa is the answer to the prayers I’ve had all year. A bit of a strange thought to think that Santa knows my inner desires that well and rather disappointing to think that Santa – the great giver of gifts – will put something under my tree that is the answer to prayers of deep longing.

For any of us who are struggling with loss, depression, estranged relationships, poverty, illness and a whole host of other things life deals us, that kind of Christmas is empty and leaves us wanting. To quote the Grinch – maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe it’s about something more.

I’ve been thinking about the story that is the reason for the season. One of the words of wisdom we read talked about the life-light coming into the world. Christians believe that was Jesus. But what I love about the words that follow the ones we read is that God in Jesus moved into the neighbourhood. God subjected himself to be born of a woman – an unmarried Mary. Stigma and judgment still exist today when a young girl becomes pregnant but back then a woman could be killed. Without Joseph keeping his commitment to marriage, Mary and the baby would have become destitute. He was born in a manger which I am sure looked different than our tidy nativity scenes. I worked on a horse farm for a few years and while these horses were well kept, the barn stunk and I went home smelling like the stinky barn. The first visitors to great this life-light were a bunch of shepherds – people who were so poor they had to sleep out in the fields with their sheep. More than that – they also stunk and were so dirty that the temples would forbid them from entering.

Jesus had a messy start to life – not quite the beginning we would expect for God coming to earth. But the messiness didn’t end there. Around age two, Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt because the king in charge felt threatened by this young child and was out to kill him. Jesus as a young boy taught in the temple and his own parents didn’t understand him. He healed the sick and fed the hungry and the religious rulers of the day plotted to kill him.

Jesus lived in the darkness that we live in. He knows what it is like to hurt, to be sad, to be alone. He knows what it’s like to not have a roof over his head. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood by his family. He knows what it is like to be rejected by his friends. He knows political injustice that kills innocent people because of unfounded fears.

As Sufi poet Rumi says, The wound is the place where the light enters you.

I believe that Jesus came to earth as a helpless babe in a stinky manger worshipped by the outcasts and lived a life as light in the darkness so that wherever we are at, we can know a God who understands our deepest pains and longings. I believe that as we open our wounds to a God who knows us and knows what we are going through, the light enters us.

But more than that – Jesus was not overcome by the darkness of this world. The religious and political rulers of the day had their way in putting him to death on the cross. But he overcame death in his resurrection. The light overcame darkness.

And I believe that the light can overcome the darkness in our own lives. That as we let the light into our wounds, that light will fill us and we will become light. We will have opportunities to be light and show light to others walking in darkness. In the end, darkness does not win.

So we gather tonight, in brokenness and pain as Christmas draws near. As Leonard Cohen sings, there’s a crack, a crack in everything. We are not alone in our brokenness. But let us remember that while that crack is there and we may not be able to do anything ourselves to change that – the crack is where the light comes in.

Providence

December 12, 2013 1 comment

Yesterday, I stood in a children’s store looking at the beautiful clothing and cute outfits and started to think of the children I know and love. I walked around a few other stores for other gift ideas. I found things within my price range. But the conclusion of my mini-spree is this: It’s Christmas: the time when my heart is bigger than my bank account. I love to give but this year the budget is smaller than usual and I’ve had a few days of counting pennies. Ironically, I am planning a Grinch party and have been reminded of the words, “Christmas doesn’t come from a store; maybe it is something more”.

Christmas on a budget. I have to say, I’ve done really well. I’ve researched ideas to make this Christmas special on a low budget. And I’m doing it. Christmas doesn’t come from a store – but the laughter and joy from hosting a few parties and giving what I can to neighbours and family and friends will happen and my heart is warmed by this. Christmas in my family growing up was always a big extravaganza – I have yet to meet someone who does Christmas anything like what we had. There was so much generosity shown at Christmas – so many presents under the tree. I recently read an article that was called something like Doing Christmas on a Shoestring budget of less than $250. I laughed – seriously? Yes, seriously – I have done that.

I’m not bragging. It’s been a necessity. I don’t even have a credit card to pretend that I have something more to give than what I have. I’ve had to be frugal as groceries need to be bought and bills paid. Today, I had a moment of wondering if I could really handle hospitality on my budget – and for the first time in a what seems like a long time, my stomach felt the worry of money.

And then I felt God say to me: “Elizabeth, have I ever left you stranded?”

I’ve been out of work. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been in need. And somehow, God provides. Always. I’ve never slept in a shelter and I’ve never gone to a foodbank. I’m thankful for these services and thankful that I haven’t had to use them. I admit a little pride, though I do not think less of my friends who have or still need to use them. I think that speaks to God’s provision in my life. I have been very close to needing both. And not just once. Yet, God always seems to provide. Sometimes in the very last possible moment. Always in more ways than I have asked or imagine.

I received a letter today from a rather unexpected source with a Christmas gift of money.

I have known poverty; but I also know God’s providence.

It’s that time of year again

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you “Be a good cheer”. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the hap-happiest season of all. With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call. It’s the hap-happiest season of all.

Um no. It’s that time of year all right. It’s the time when everyone appears to have happy families. It’s the time of year when I most face my own reality and broken family. If I want to, I do well most of the year in making references to my family. There are many wonderful aspects. I love them dearly. I have some good memories. But inevitably the awkwardness begins.

So are you going home for Christmas, Elizabeth?

No, I’m staying put.

Oh — where does your family live?

About an hour and a half away.

That’s right. A bus ride away and I’m in Toronto for Christmas. For the past eight years, I have not gone home for Christmas. The close homeschooling family picture that I often paint diminishes this time of year. The pieces no longer make sense. These are inevitable conversations. These are hated conversations. I have limited them to once season of the year.

Not everyone needs to know my story. But every year I wrestle with how do I answer these questions? Something just doesn’t fit. I’ve learned to answer these questions matter of factly so as to get the conversation diverted as quickly as possible. But there is pain inside. Great pain. Pain I try not to let people see. Even eight years later.

So let me be proactive. I am not going home for christmas. I will not see my parents or my siblings. I do not like Christmas. it is a difficult time. I’m tempted to hop on a plane and go to Cuba or something to escape all the reminders of how it is not the most wonderful time of the year. In fact, this time of the year sucks. I have good friends and relatives who have brought joy and laughter into the pain. But it is still hard. I still hate it when December 1 roles around. It is not the most wonderful time of the year.

But then…

… was the birth of Christ?

Surely something spectacular happened that night. Angels announced it. Kings came from far. God became incarnate. So that hope, healing and salvation could come. So that our relationships with God and others could be restored and forgiveness granted. This IS wonderful.

But a young girl betrothed and pregnant. As her belly grew, I wonder how many people bought the story that she became pregnant by the holy spirit or that she was a virgin. If a youth told me that today, I don’t know how I would respond. Joseph didn’t want to disgrace her, being a righteous man. Disgrace or hand her over to cruel punishment with being pregnant out of wedlock. An angel appeared to him to tell him not to be afraid. But did doubt creep in his mind as his buddies noted a very pregnant fiancee.

Then a long donkey ride very pregnant. I don’t think pregnancy or donkey rides are all that comfortable – both? and for such a long time? the most wonderful time of the year?

And then the son of God is about to be born and no one can find a decent place for him to be born. How’s that for hospitality. I can find room for an awful lot of stuff. And easily the Christ-child takes second-spot.

the most wonderful time of the year was when the son of God was born into a stinky stable in the midst of animals. If you’ve ever been in a barn, you can easily challenge the santized nativity scene pictures we are so accustomed to. Talk about gross. I wouldn’t want to sleep there, let alone have a baby. And that was the best that could be offered to the King of Kings.

and then there was this King Herod dude. Jealous of an infant. So he killed all the boys under the age of 2 just to make sure that no one would usurp his kingdom.

And if homelessness was not enough at birth – the God-man became a refugee before he reached the age of 2. He had to hang out in a foreign country because his life was sought. Most wonderful time of the year?

All the things I have come to loathe about Christmas – are not part of Christmas. Christmas isn’t this perfect time of constant happiness and laughter. Christmas is messy, stinky, unsanitary and risky. Christmas isn’t this time when we are one big happy family and life is wonderful. Christmas is homelessness and rejection and fear and estrangement.

But Christmas is more. Light came into the world that night. In the stable, surrounded in manure. Hope – deep hope – of life beyond the stink and the mire. Joy that comes only from knowing God through His son. Peace with God as the God-man reconciles us. Peace that the world cannot give – but a homeless baby whisked away because of a death threat – brings peace, peace that we cannot understand or fathom.

So it’s that time of year again. I’m not pretending it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Instead, I am embracing it for what it is – a night when light entered our darkness.

A different sort of Christmas

December 26, 2012 1 comment

Growing up, Christmas was the highlight of the year. We started listening to Christmas music in September and the tree was up sometime in november. We baked, hosted many events, sang at various places and then feasted and delighted in Christmas day. Christmas day started very early (there were times my mom was so excited that she had to wake us kids up!) with opening stockings and family gifts. One of the most beautiful things about how we did Christmas was that we took this part very slowly and everyone was keen to watch the other open the gift they picked out for them. We would then have breakfast and clean up. Then the grandparents would arrive, and the tree was filled again. The rest of the day was spent feasting, chatting and singing.

Since I left home, I have tried to recapture my family Christmas even though I could not partake. I’ve tried many different ways but the problem is no one does Christmas like my family does. And no matter how wonderful the various celebrations were, they were missing something very dear to me – my family.

This year has been very different. I finished an intense load of courses and exams on the 19th. But the post exam relief was short as I was diagnosed with liver disease a few hours later and the following day found out that my dad will begin to serve his sentence. yes – the court stuff is finally over. This is worthy of a separate blog and I have found myself without words to express myself. My point is there has been plenty to distract me and plenty of reasons to make this a very unhappy time of year.

Sunday night, Chris and I sat down and decided that we were going to do Christmas differently. we made a list of things that we wanted to do. And then the time morphed into things we didn’t expect but beauty was splashed into the past two days.

On Christmas eve day, Chris and I braved the grocery store picking up the items for the meals and treats we had planned. Our splurges included a few ingredients for Christmas baking and a ridiculously sweet cereal for Christmas breakfast. We then began to make soup – curried squash and pear soup – and bread. I drew on my experience of baking bread and morphed a few recipes together and added some special touches to make a flax seed bread. While we were cooking, I heard from my good friend Maria and we invited her to come over and join us. As you probably know, cooking is something I find relaxing, therapeutic and joyful. There was no rush, no fuss. No spending money I don’t have. Just joyful chatting.


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The doorbell rang – with a special ring that we knew immediately who was there waiting and both Chris and I were excited. Bob came to spend the evening with us. So we went from being just ourselves to having two guests unexpectedly. Bob cut out Christmas trees and Reindeer and decorating every room on the main floor. Then the doorbell rang, and it is our friend Peter who was also looking for someone to be with. So there were then five of us.

After cleaning up, we decorated my Christmas tree and dressed up my cat as Santa (he was less than impressed). We then sang Christmas carols.

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Bob left early as he was getting tired. Peter, Maria, Chris and I went to the other side of town to my friend’s church for midnight mass. How lovely to be part of a service that I am not involved in planning or executing (yes, I realize this is a totally different sentiment than my recent questioning of what is the church… another topic for another post). How even more lovely to arrive in a church in which I am a stranger and to be greeted so warmly. The sermon focused on the history of St. Nicholas which is pretty inspiring and so not anything like the Christmas traditions we associate with him.

We spent the subway ride home in the wee hour of the morning laughing hysterically over I don’t remember what. I’m guessing people thought we were either drunk or crazy when neither is the case. Well, maybe we are a tad crazy.

I thought it interesting that a group of “orphans” were strangers in a church on the night we celebrate Christ’s birth. Made me think of Mary and Joseph looking for a place. But more than that, I felt completely known and loved by God as I was surrounded with good friends and all of us struggle with Christmas.

Today, Christmas Day, I slept in even though I planned to go back to the same church. I did not sleep well, as my heart and mind were on my family. Often I feel the pressure to forget my family and move beyond. But – on a holiday that is so enmeshed with family – it is unrealistic to ask me to not think of my family. Add to it my great concern for my mom and siblings and the heartache of not being able to hug them as they have to face a reality that did not match the dream they’ve been holding out on, and it is no surprise that sleep was hard to come by. Chris and I had our special cereal – cinnamon toast crunch – it is actually amazing. I made my very first latte which was quite good.

Then we hobbled over to watch the Hobbit – something that I never thought would be part of my Christmas. Wow – now that is an amazing film. We saw it in 3D which was quite spectacular. There are themes in it that I want to think about further and I definitely want to read the books over the holidays. While we were killing time we passed someone asking for money and offered him some clementines and his smile is still on my face. We came home and ate left over soup – soup grows better with age!

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Then Chris and I sang some taize songs with candlelight and read the account in the Gospel of Luke of Christ being born and the shepherds coming to visit. My reflections on the passage are also another great post idea so I will save that. And then we baked zucchini chocolate chip loaf and shortbread.

A different sort of Christmas for sure.

But it was real. We were removed from the commercialism, the pagan roots, the panic and stress. Our focus was on simplicity. But there was profundity in the simplicity. There was joy in the midst of sorrow and pain. There was peace in the midst of anxious hearts. There was laughter in the midst of tears.