Tag Archives: Jesus

Birth-mas

birth-masI received the best stocking stuffer ever 19 years ago today.

My daughter fit nicely into this stocking on the day of her birth. She’s much bigger now—old enough to dub this time of year “Birth-mas” for herself.

Not that we ever gave her combined “birthday/Christmas”, or birth-mas gifts. No, never. We always reserved one room in the house for birthday decorations, and she received separate birthday presents wrapped in birthday paper.

We always thought this was an important thing to do, but we had no idea how important until she got old enough to communicate. Then we learned that months after the events had pass she clearly remembered which gifts were for birthday and which were for Christmas. In our minds those gifts were all jumbled up, but she had them carefully categorized.

We’ve made every effort to separate the two events, but the overwhelming entity that is Christmas interferes with the birthdays of those born any time near the event. So, birth-mas it is.

It’s not so bad really. After all, what is Christmas if not a big birthday party?

Christmas: Exceptions to the rule make the best stories

soul-eyesWe have faith in the unexpected. After every earthquake, for example, we pray for the exceptions—for people to defy the odds and survive under the rubble for days.

We hope for miracles. We pray the person we know with cancer will be the one to beat the odds.

We love exceptions to the rule, the people who make good against all odds, like a baby worshipped in spite of being born to an unwed mother in the harsh culture of patriarchal society.

That’s why we can’t stop telling the Christmas story. No matter how you interpret it, the story is about faith in the unexpected, hope for miracles and love for exceptions to the rule—all the things that captivate us. Now matter how you feel about it, we can learn from it.

No matter what you believe about how Mary came to be pregnant, she was an unwed mother in a time when unwed pregnant women were shunned or stoned. Neither happened to her. She was an exception to the rule. No matter what you believe about who Jesus‘ real father was, he was an illegitimate child at a time when such children would have few prospects. Even before he could walk or talk, Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus captivates us because he lived making exceptions to the rule. He ate with the unclean, walked with the lepers, preached on the Sabbath, and turned the tables on religious rituals that prevented everyone from participating. If there’s anything we can learn from his life, and it’s a lesson too many Christian churches today forget, it is that love is more important than rules.

When forced to make a choice between the most compassionate option and the most obedient option, Jesus chose compassion.

A woman gets pregnant out of wedlock? Love her anyway. A child is born out of wedlock? Love it anyway. A man is disenfranchised from society? Eat with him anyway. A woman has a communicable disease? Walk with her anyway. Someone wants to learn or play or work even though it’s a holy day? Teach them, laugh with them or help them anyway. And, for goodness sake, open your doors and your ceremonies with unrestricted compassion for all people.

The Christmas story, no matter how you interpret it, reminds us to value exceptions to the rule. They make the best stories, and who knows what greatness a compassionate exception might lead to?

____________________

1 Corinthians 13:13

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

“All heaven breaks loose”

look-upA man I know volunteers his time visiting people in hospital. He’s a member of the United Church of Canada (as am I), and he visits people who designate themselves as United upon their admission to hospital. Sometimes he knows the patients he visits, but often he has never met them before.

When he visits people he doesn’t know, he’s usually met with a wary reaction. “The people,” he says, “want company and comfort, but they are afraid I’m going to preach at them about Jesus or insist they pray.”

He begins his conversations gently. He makes it clear that he has no expectations about beliefs, or prayer, or hymn sing-a-longs. He says, “As soon as they know we can have a real conversation without judgements or preachy expectations, well, all hell . . .” He pauses to correct himself. “. . . all heaven breaks loose.” Quite often, in the end, they do pray, but on their own comfortable terms.

This man and I belong to churches that nurture us with joyful celebrations of spirit. Our churches don’t exclude people based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. These churches welcome questions and doubts. In our faith communities, we find heaven on earth.

We find it sadly ironic that the patients he visits don’t expect to find this in every church. We find it sadly ironic that so many churches, temples and mosques that purport to help us find heaven in another life have so many expectations, exclusions, and, worst of all, judgements that they rob us of heaven in this one.

Live joyfully, love expansively, laugh outrageously and, lo and behold, all heaven breaks loose.

_______________

Here’s my joyful church: Trinity United Ottawa

Here’s my Top 10 reasons to go to church: Top 10 reasons to go to church

What is so darned interesting about sheep, and why are they lost?

My blog statistics show that one item I posted almost three years ago gets more hits than any other. Every week that post attracts the highest number of readers to my site—still. And I didn’t even write it. (My ego tries not to take that too personally.)

The post entitled “When we are the lost sheep” includes a sermon written Rev. Ellie Barrington about the Luke 15 parable of the lost sheep.

Often I wonder what kind of readers land on that post. What is so darned interesting about sheep?

Is it people who feel like “lost sheep” and need some solace? Is it clergy seeking sermon ideas? Maybe some kids in need of a sheep picture for a school project? I don’t know, but it’s crossed my mind more than once that if I wanted to increase readership of my blog, I would just have to put sheep in the title (see above), write the word sheep often in bold letters (sheep, sheep, sheep,) and include sheep pictures.

lost-sheepTo my credit, the word sheep didn’t appear again in any of my posts until Tuesday when I wrote about desire paths.

Last week I visited the country home of a colleague. On my return trip along her remote gravel road, I drove beside sheep walking their desire path. First, I noticed the sheep. “Cool! Sheep!” I thought. (I don’t see sheep every day.) Second, I realized there was no fence on the field. “Geez, I’d better be careful a sheep doesn’t run out in front of me,” I thought.  Third, I took a closer look at them. The line of sheep followed a leader sheep, that followed the path, that led them to a safe place. “They are not going anyway but along that path,” I realized.

I started to wonder, if sheep follow one another blindly and stick close together, how does one get lost, and why does there need to be a parable about it? Every time I thought of the lost sheep parable before, I imagined a sheep just wandering off—going walkabout, if you will. But sheep don’t wander off, so why are they lost?

I did some research. Sheep101.com informed me that, indeed, the instinct to play follow the leader is hardwired into the brain of sheep. They don’t think about it. They can’t help themselves from sticking closed to the sheep in front of them. The paths they walk are not straight. They walk winding trails so they can see behind them, first with one eye and then with the other, to watch for predators. Their survival instincts prompt them to hang together in a flock to avoid these predators. “A sheep will become highly agitated if it is separated from the group,” the site says. And then there’s this: when threatened by a predator, sheep flee, and in doing so, sometimes a sheep gets lost.

The survival instincts of these social animals mirror those of humans. We stick together. We follow each other, even if it’s sometimes not the wisest thing to do. We walk a winding path and watch for predators. If threatened, our need to flee overrides all other survival instincts. In fleeing, sometimes we get lost.

Back to the parable.

Jesus is hanging with people of dubious character. The Pharisees (such sticklers about rules) do not approve. Through this parable Jesus gently tells them: “Look, we have some highly agitated people here. They had to flee because they were threatened. The rest of you have safety in numbers, so I’m not going to worry about you for a while. I’ll try to get these people back with us so we can celebrate walking the winding path together.”

Sheep on the path

Sheep on the path (Photo credit: Olivier Bruchez)

Grace, gratitude, and birthday parties

A family story:

One day, when my son was 10 years old, we were returning home from a shopping trip. We pulled up at a stoplight behind a car similar to one belonging to friends of ours. When I noticed the Jesus fish above the bumper, it confirmed it as theirs. (They have a more conservative take on Christianity than I do.)

“Yep, that’s them, all right,” I said to my son. “They have a Jesus fish.”

He considered this for a moment.  He said, “When I went to his [the son of the family] birthday party, they said grace before we had cake.”

“Really?” I said. This struck me as surprising and funny, so I laughed. Then I realized I shouldn’t pass judgment on the religious practices of my son’s friends, so I said, “I shouldn’t laugh. That’s not funny.”

I couldn’t help smiling to myself. I sat there thinking about it and smiling. After a few minutes, I looked over at my son, who was also stifling a laugh and peeking out of the corner of his eye at me. We both cracked up.

My son said, “When he [the father] finished saying grace he said, ‘Amen,’ and most of the kids at the party were just like, ‘Huh?'”

“Did you say ‘Amen’?”

He gave me a scornful look, like I had asked him if he liked chocolate. “Yes,” he said. “I know how to say grace.”

“Maybe someday you’ll thank me for all your spiritual instruction.”

“Yes,” he said. “But I won’t say grace at my kids’ birthday parties.”

I grew up in a family that said grace every day, so the practice feels comfortable and familiar to me. My husband, my children and I don’t say grace every day, but we do at Sunday dinner, on holidays and at other times when it just feels right. Sometimes we have friends over who have a strong faith tradition, so they join in with no problem. Other friends don’t feel so comfortable with faith, so we make sure to phrase it as “Let’s take some time for gratitude.” I don’t address the grace to anything or anyone in particular. Even then, I can tell it makes them squirm.

An expression of gratitude shouldn’t be so laden with uncomfortable expectations and limitations. Grace should be just that: grace-full.

Everyone, no matter what they believe, benefits from taking time for gratitude. So, let’s peel off some of the layers that don’t need to be there. Take time for gratitude. Address your thanks to God, or the universe, or the farmer, or the cook—whatever makes you comfortable.

And at a birthday party, maybe a might shout of
“THANKS FOR THE CAKE!” would work best.

birthday-cake

Easter Saturday: overlooked but, oh, so important

hummingbird-of-hopeOne of the most memorable Easter sermons I ever heard preached had nothing with Good Friday and the complexities of who killed Jesus and why. It didn’t mention the empty tomb or celebrate the renewed presence of Jesus on Easter morning. It didn’t really have much to do with Jesus at all. It was about Easter Saturday and what the people did in the time in between.

Really, it was about us, and what we do with the overlooked but, oh, so important time in between tragedy and triumph.

Easter Saturday: the metaphorical day after loss. The day when the pain is raw and fresh, and we don’t know yet about the joy to come. During the time in between we can’t see joy. We can’t see how it will take form in our lives. We look to the future and see more of the same.

The preacher of this sermon urged us to remember the Easter story during difficult times. When we survive the initial shock and turmoil and find ourselves in the desert of grief that follows, we can keep the flicker of hope alive.

Be watchful. Look for it. Joy will come with the dawn some Easter morning.