Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Well, so that is that...

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father:
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake".
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practise his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
~ W.H. Auden, from For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio (1941-42)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sufjan Stevens, Christmas Music, and the Apocalypse of God

A couple of years ago, I received a gift of Christmas music from a friend whose friend knows someone who knows Sufjan Stevens. This Christmas collection was released last year in a box set of 5 EP's.

It was only this year that I've actually read the liner notes for the album about why Sufjan decided to go ahead with this project.

Sufjan's ability to cut through the sentimentality of the season and get to the theological heart of what it is we 'celebrate' at this time of year is rare to find in the church, let alone in a musician. But Sufjan is unrelenting:

"What did the angels renounce in the wake of the shepherd's trepidation? 'Have no fear,' they petitioned with trumpet blasts and a garish display of constellations. But that's like waving a gun in a bank lobby and demanding: 'Everybody stay calm!'"

What Sufjan gets is that Christmas is an apocalyptic event; it's about the terrifying coming of God. Further along he confesses that "Christmas music poses a cosmological conundrum in requiring us to sing so sweetly and sentimentally about something so terrifying and tragic." That's Christmas; that's the demand made of the church: sing about the unsingable!

I'm reminded about Karl Barth's observation about theological speech: "We ought to speak of God.... We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance by comparison" (The Word of God and the Word of Man, 186).

This is Sufjan's way of recognizing both his obligation and his inability; his own attempt, while waving his gun around, to tell us to stay calm. So, steady yourself, await the coming of God, and STAY CALM!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Deluded About God?

To anyone who reads theology blogs: if you're reading my blog and have never read Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog, go there now! Every so often, a Yanke pastor whose managed to land in England by the name of Kim Fabricius posts his "10 propositions" on a theological issue. Some of my favorites are archived and linked on the right hand column. The most recent are Kim's props on Dawkins, Hitchens, and these so called 'new' atheists. It's a wonder-ful post, as always. For those of you in my book club at church, read these propositions and you'll see how closely they resemble Rowan Williams' moves in our book.

As our group will be going through Williams' Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief throughout advent I will post some of our thoughts and some issues raised from this provocative book.

That's all.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Advent Birds

A few days ago, as I was preparing for Advent celebrations in our churches, my carefully planned schedule was interrupted with a death in my parish. One of my parishioners lost his father, a man whom I had visited a few times since beginning ministry here. I was already overwhelmed with meetings, services and hospital visitations. I knew he was a special man, a man who lived his life in laughter; a man who lost his wife of fifty-seven years three-and-a-half years ago; a man who was waiting...who, in his terminal illness knew the reality of advent, of waiting for the unexpected.

As I busily prepared for his funeral, and for all the other services, I was overwhelmed with rushing around. The morning of the funeral, I was heading out to drive to the church and I noticed some snow falling from the trees beside our house. There was a group of birds eating from the pine trees. I grabbed the camera and I waited. I was reminded what it was to wait for something beautiful. I managed to get a few good shots, but I had to take the time to wait for the birds. I was a helpful and graceful reminder of what season was encroaching upon my busy existence. It was an advent moment.

For those interested, these birds are Pine Grosbeaks; I found that out at a dinner table with a theologian who, apparently, is also an avid birder. The beautiful rose coloured one is the male, the yellow one, female. Enjoy the pictures!

Waiting for God...

A Sermon preached at the Anglican Parish of Almaguin/Emsdale Dec. 2nd, 2007 Is. 2:1-5; Ps. 122; Rom. 13:11-14; Mt. 24:36-44

God who comes to us so unexpectedly, come to us this morning and so transform our lives. In the name of the One we expect, Amen.

This morning, we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year and it’s the season that asks us to prepare ourselves for the unthinkable: we are asked to prepare ourselves for the in-breaking, for the coming of God into our world. It is a season which asks us to anticipate, to sit and wait for the impossible, the unexpected.

Waiting can be a really frustrating experience as I experienced all week waiting for our lovely national treasure, Bell Canada, to fix the church’s phone line. You call, you get put on hold, you get automated message after automated message and finally you get a live person only to find out that you’ll have to wait 24 to 48 hrs for the line to be fixed. And, when it is, you realize that there are a host of other problems and you have to call them again, and the season of waiting begins all over again. Even as I was writing this sermon, I was sitting, waiting for Bell. We tend to get impatient, frustrated, and even angry (though, I would never, never get angry with Bell Canada). We want things now, we don’t want to wait; we want instant gratification.

When we lived downtown in Toronto, we had a Shoppers Drugmart directly across the street. One night, the eve of Halloween, we needed some medicine for William because he was running a fever. So, I went across the street. The store stayed open until midnight and I was the last one to walk in as they closed the doors behind me. The scene that greeted me literally made me take a step back. All the employees of the store were taking down the Halloween decorations and products and replacing them, row by row, with Christmas ones. Astounding! “What the rush?”, “Why so quickly?”, I asked myself. There were Halloween pumpkins sitting beside and amongst Christmas wreaths and bows—a sure sign, if there ever were, of our culture’s obsession with immediate indulgence; a symbol of our collective inability to wait! The night of Halloween, we were thrown, headlong, completely unprepared, into the season of Christmas. How maddening!

And so, unable to bear the burden of waiting, we enthusiastically enter into this consumer Christmas, which has turned into a time of setting our cultural and societal coping mechanisms into play. We’d rather not take the time to wait; we get busy, we hide behind the season, we’d rather build fantasy castles around ourselves, decked out with plastic angels and candy canes than to . We lull ourselves to sleep, we numb ourselves in our shopping, we cope in our busyness. But advent, this season of delay forces us to wait, to take the time to anticipate, to prepare, to steady ourselves for God’s coming to us.

And notice that our readings this morning don’t circle around God’s incarnation in Christ, but around Christ’s coming again, his Second Coming. St. Paul writes “now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”…and Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, “keep awake, for you don’t know when the Lord is coming”…”you must be ready, for God in Christ is coming at an unexpected hour.” So the church is asked in this season not only to recall God’s adventurous coming in Christ but to prepare for Christ’s return…to anticipate his coming; to expect the impossible, to await the unthinkable—Christ’s advent, his coming to us. But what does that mean? What does that mean for the church, on the ground?

It means wholeheartedly and assuredly that waiting is an exercise of hope; it is the church’s exercise of hope; waiting is Christian hope in action. It's not wishful thinking, but hope in the One who has come and who will come; it is an active belief that God’s justice will prevail and that we are called to embody that justice in anticipation through our actions toward each other and toward our world. This means that waiting is not a passive activity but a wholly active one. Waiting is a restless, impatient act. Our children have a thing or two to teach us about the posture of waiting; “are we there yet?” is a common enough, but profound refrain; or you may remember what it was like as a child, waiting for Christmas morning—eager, impatient, restless, active waiting…this is what the church is called to do.

But this active hope requires that the church not fall asleep in its anticipation of God’s coming. But how easy it is to be lulled in this season!—how can we not when we’re bombarded with the synthetic images that float across our television sets, that greet us in our newspapers and magazines that demand that Christmas be a time of consumption and not a time of expectation; a time of gratification and not a time of preparation?

And when the church buys into this it neglects its prophetic call to stand in our culture as a beacon of hope, a place of peace in a world of violence, a light of justice in a world where it’s a rare gem. But when we wait, when we wait impatiently like a child awaits the wonder and mystery of Christmas morning, we can participate in the change that comes to our worlds; we can play a part in bringing God’s advent light to shine amidst the darkness that threatens our world.

So we prepare for God’s coming in this season of advent. And we actually expect that God will come to us. How foolish of us, how absurd, how impossible, but oh how marvellous and miraculous!