I woke up and looked out the window one day early this summer as a mysterious pale yellow hue hung in the sky, casting a sepia tinge over everything. Wow, I thought, it's like the backdrop of a Renaissance painting. Then I got a faint whiff of something like charred wood.
The news was that 100's of forest fires had been ignited in areas of British Columbia and Washington, some in temperate rainforests nearby that average 200 cm of rain a year. Our rainforests had turned into a tinderbox in the middle of a 3-month drought. In the weather reports, we began to hear a new and recurring descriptor: "smoky," or levels of smokiness, along with "mostly sunny." Reports came in of homes and camp grounds being evacuated and some overcome by the flames. The images from the TV screen were apocalyptic.
The smell and the haze continued over Vancouver until the wind finally shifted, dispersing the smoke somewhat, and my mind began to clear a little. Questions of "why" arose. If I didn't know better, I'd say this was God's day of judgement. Or, man's judgement on himself. Or, perhaps, as some would say, a summer simply when "shit happens."
Whichever view you take, there is no question our "smoky summer" raises feelings of vulnerability. Even in this pristine home of abundant rain and lush green, everything could be lost. The water supply is not limitless, even here, more so with more and more people finding a comfy harbour in this quiet little Lotus Land on the shelf of the Pacific.
The smoky haze draws me inward to a more tremulous awareness of the tenuousness of life. I cannot speak for those who have lost everything. That is just disheartening and leaves anyone at a loss for words. But for me, I rarely feel this reluctant awareness that has been forced upon us, and this awareness is the good that has come from a summer of so much destruction.
Yes, I think about what we've done to bring this on ourselves and what we should be doing to change our lifestyles to make such events less likely to happen in the future. I hope we all would. But more so, I've become aware of what I love most, and I hold those things more closely while holding everything else more loosely. I am more aware that my life does not consist of the abundance of my possessions and worldly dreams. It's foolishness to put my confidence in things that are not eternal. These temporal things God gives as quickly as they can be taken away. My life with God and those I love are eternal. That's all that counts in the end.
And I remind myself, too, that in the end, in spite of droughts or other calamities, the earth and all God's children will be satisfied. In his own death, Jesus identifies intimately with the longings of the land, absorbing its sufferings in his own body, when he utters, "I thirst." And the promise of relief for this parched land is embodied in his resurrection.
My wife's parents called from Manitoba. They say their summer has been one of the most productive they can remember because of the abundant rains, with farmers harvesting bumper crops. And this morning on a late day in August, here in Vancouver, the skies have finally opened up and let go with a good, steady rain. The ground, the trees, the very walls of the house are drinking it in like thirsty nomads on the verge of death. Our moods have brightened, and we are dancing in the puddles. "Keep it coming Lord, please, more... more... more," is our prayer.
I love the book of Ecclesiastes. It helps put this summer into perspective for me. "There is a time for everything, and a season for every event under the sun . . . a time to mourn and a time to dance . . . ." Ours is to take it in with the life we have. Amid all other responses to bewildering events such as our summer's drought and fire, this is the best response I have while I hold onto Christ, who feels our thirst and will satisfy.
Maybe it's just the heat, but I've been thinking a lot about the desert lately. Or maybe it's because recently I've been thinking a lot about my brother, whose health has been faltering. I've always loved getting out on the desert with him. There's always a new canyon to explore, a gargoyle rock formation, a stunning vista. Whenever you come to rest, you're overcome by a similar impulse: silence. The endless space births it and demands it. At times the desert landscape sucks the breath from your chest, and any words you dare speak are lost into the vastness the moment they leave your mouth.
The desert, I learned, is a place to listen. If you're patient, you may eventually hear the brief call of a bird, the scurry of an insect, the click of deer hooves on stone, or the wind through a crevice. But most of all you'll hear nothing but the deafening silence. It may frighten you at first. But if you have the courage to rest in it, you can get beyond the noise that's been echoing inside yourself for far too long. You'll look beyond yourself at the endless skies, and you may begin to feel very small. A bigger perspective takes over. If you manage to stay long enough, beyond the silence you may be privileged enough to hear the voice of God, saying simply, "I am God, and you are not." Okay, humbling, but for someone like me it's not a bad thing to feel at a loss for words.
Our neighborhood is pretty quiet by urban standards. As I sit outside in the early hours writing this, the only sounds are cyclist peddling by, the occasional car, and the crescendo and decrescendo of a horde of crows. It's quiet, but it's not the remote, deafening silence of the desert. Only a few steps inside from my tranquil writing spot, or out to the streets, I'm deluged again by the noise of email, gadgets, and people wanting something. Then I long for another desert trek with my brother.
The other night, I was reading a bedtime story to my four-year-old. She was distracted by her older sister who was also reading aloud in another corner. I stopped and asked if she wanted to listen to her sister's story or to mine. She said, "I have two ears. I can listen to both." My, how early and how subtly it starts.
In this grand cacophony of voices you are born into, which ones do you listen to? How do you focus in on that one still voice in the silence from beyond eternity? Most of us cannot simply go to the desert on a whim.
When I was doing my masters in theology at Regent College, among the treasure trove there, I was introduced to some of third-century Christian monks of the Egyptian deserts known as the Desert Fathers. They completely fascinated me. They were thoroughly versed in the Christian scriptures, and knew God's voice there. But they wanted to remove themselves from the vices and voices of civilian life to the desert to seek solitude, not for asceticism's or solitude's own sake but in order to attend more fully to the voice of God.
Reading some of their wisdom (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), you soon see that they not only heard God speak directly into their lives but also heard God speak to the concerns of the thousands who sought them out. (I wonder at the thought of what must have become of their solitude.) Their movement grew, the first Christian monasteries arose, and they became the inspiration for much of early Christianity.
The story of the Desert Fathers makes me realize this desire to hear God's voice runs very deep in most people throughout the ages. The challenge becomes finding his voice among the many -- kids, phones, collectors, tasks to be done, not to mention the liars and counterfeit gods -- that demand our attention. And then, are we ready for what we might hear, even if it is as simple and startling as "I am God, and you are not"?
Perhaps we don't have to go very far to find the desert. There are many deserts, metaphorically, in our lives. I think of friends in financial difficulty or in troubled relationships. I think of my brother, and of my brother's family, as they see him slip away from them. When everything feels stripped away and we're looking into the vast unknown, and when all other voices become mute to us and the silence at times becomes deafening, perhaps then God speaks most clearly. Call it grace. We may hear him directly, or we may hear him through another who has been in the desert, but when God's voice does come, the moment will be a gift given at the appropriate time.
A few weeks ago, our church pastor said something that has been echoing in my mind since. He warned us to "keep a soft heart" and not let ourselves become jaded and "indifferent to the world's pain." This is quite a different message from the triumphal, pull-up-your-bootstraps faith-and-determination types of messages you might be used to hearing when it comes to crisis and suffering.
This pastor's words -- keep a soft heart -- strike me as so apt for today with the relentless news of the world's pain, from wars and rumours of war to the ravages of a climate seemingly going haywire. But you don't have to go that far. You'll find poverty, conflicts, loss, and illness close at hand, as they have been always.
Indifference and triumphalism are two increasingly common and opposite responses to the pain of the world, but both wrong. The one is a callous turning away and the other a haughty imposition, but both void of feeling or understanding. Yet, when you look around, these tend to be the most obvious and frequent responses:
"Nothing you or I can do about it, just forget about it and take care of yourself."
"Why can't people just believe and live the way I do? Then they wouldn't have those problems."
I am guilty of both. I have a family with two young kids. The tendency is to turn away and simply take care of my own. Our property is hedged and fenced in, and I sometimes wonder if this barrier is symbolic of my own heart towards others. Then I realize, what could be more contrary to nurturing my family's growth than to demonstrate this private and impervious attitude to the world? There are few things I want more for my kids than that they develop empathetic understanding and caring of others, a goal far greater than all other things we typically call "success." The pastor said we would "become less human if we let ourselves go down the road of indifference." A warning worth considering.
But the next day, I might react in an equally bad way. I might take a judgemental, self-righteous posture until I'm nearly yelling at the news as it comes over the TV, instructing the TV on the exact course of action to correct this or that social ill. Why can't they just apply some common sense and goodness like I would? Needless to say, meanwhile, I know little of the background and real circumstances of the particular situation, and I'm obviously still sitting in my chair.
A soft heart, the pastor said. It allows the pain of the world to come inside to where we feel it. When we feel it, we can live the pain along with those who suffer, and even with those who cause suffering, because we realize we are not all that different. Coming this far, we become truly responsible, and only then are we able to truly respond because we know we are part of the problem, not outside the problem. We can no longer either hide behind our hedges or stamp our feet from our soapboxes.
But where does this softness of heart come from? How can I get it? My pastor would say a soft heart is a gift, not something we work up within ourselves. It has to be given, and what we have to do is ask God for it. But this is a proposition that requires humility, which is not a common posture for a society bent on self-sufficiency. But if we were all bold enough to ask and then accept the gift of a soft heart, I wonder what courageous acts of compassion and healing would follow.
At a church retreat recently, I was asked to speak on the question “What are the sacramental moments in your life?” I somewhat messed it up. Should have written it down, I guess. But I was forgiven by the smiles and forward leaning support of my church friends, by their thanks, and by the fresh mountain air. The advantage of a blog like this is you get a chance to redeem yourself and say what you wish you had said.
What I meant to say was how much I have come to appreciate the mundane cycles of life.
When I was unmarried and had no kids, I never had a five-year plan, always looking for something new and adventurous. Now I’m on a family tenure track that will take me at least 15 years into the future. Maybe it’s the artist in me craving structure, but somehow I'm finding satisfaction in the everyday hum drum. Life’s regular patterns seem more acute than they used to. I feel more attuned to the rhythms of the day, the month, the year. Instead of making me restless for change, these rhythms put me at rest like the hum of a familiar lullaby.
One way I see these rhythms is in the church calendar, a cycle that could be considered a prototype for all others. I used to view the church calendar as simply a convenient contrivance to give the pastors something if they didn’t know what to talk about. Looking at it more closely, I found the church calendar takes us through an experience of the gospel narrative: the anticipation and birth of Christ in Advent and Christmas; the revelation of Christ in his life and words in Epiphany; Christ’s suffering and death in Lent and Good Friday; the resurrection in Easter; and new life and restoration in Pentecost. It is an annual re-enactment of the gospel with Jesus and us as the players. And this play has no closing night. You repeat the story every year and it's a new experience every time. It's sometimes a mess and sometimes a feast. If you screw up your lines, you always get another chance.
We can find this “gospel cycle” – birth, death, redemption and restoration - repeated in our daily lives. I see it in my girl’s initial excitement about learning to ride a bicycle and minutes later the cries from her first fall, and then her struggle to get back on her bike again. I see it in my wife’s bringing to life a new recipe she’s wanted to try and the subsequent joy, sometimes disappointment, over the dinner table. I see the gospel narrative relived in family conflicts that need daily resolution and forgiveness. And I see restoration in a simple family outing.
On any day, you may find yourself at any given point in this gospel narrative. It's easy to become myopic, focused only on our personal situation. But the church calendar reminds us of the bigger picture, of the grand narrative arch, and the end of the story is quite sweet.
The gospel story is full of dramatic events, which to most of us seem fairly rare. But looking for the spectacular, we sometimes miss the very down to earth, ordinary qualities of the gospel. Most of our lives are lived by rather mundane rhythms. I wake up, take the dog out, look at the weather, go to work, pick up the kids from school, play, have dinner, put the kids to bed, take in the news, crawl into bed, try not to wake up Diane, think, pray, and sleep. Repeat. But in these ordinary rhythms, I'm caught in a cycle of quotidian love.
Even at work I can see the gospel cycle. Each new semester I walk my students through a progression of activities that will hopefully, eventually bring them to being better users of the English language. I tell them something as seemingly mundane as punctuation helps you feel the rhythm of language and brings understanding of the text. Interestingly, I notice I’ve come to prefer periods over semi-colons because periods offer a longer pause for rest between thoughts. They’re like a “language Sabbath.”
Walking around the retreat grounds, I was taken up by the mountain air slowly warming in the spring sun. Kids and adults played in an open field. The peaks struggled to shake off clingy clouds, and down below a breeze shook poplars into holograms of translucent greens. It seems the more we persist in our efforts to destroy our planet, spring is even more irrepressible and resplendent. The natural world repeats God's story "in ten thousand places," as G. M. Hopkins puts it.
Everywhere, the gospel echoes through the years, the months, days and hours. Surrendering to these ordinary rhythms, I feel more deeply grateful. I am at rest. I am cared for. I am cradled and rocked to a familiar divine rhythm.
My 6-year-old daughter looks down at the dolly in her hands meditatively. “Jackie likes my things more than she likes me,” she tells her mom sadly.
A show-stopper of a comment. Jackie is her best friend. Her mom and I look at each other. Kaitlyn notices that when her friend comes to the house, she’s often so preoccupied with the dolls and toys that she forgets Kaitlyn is there. She’s hurt. Many parents will relate when I say I felt her pain more acutely than if the pain were my own.
There comes a time when you have to acknowledge the hard truth with your kids: Yes, you should expect your best friend to love you more than anything they can get from you.
I like to think I’ve grown up a bit, but Kaitlyn’s comment made me wonder if people ever say that of me. How much do I use people for my own ends and how many use me? Who have I schmoozed with – at work perhaps – to get something I wanted? Who have I left hanging when his need was so great that I had to turn away, realizing that helping him required an investment of myself that I could never expect to give me a fair return? “Love is its own reward” is often not enough to sway me. The pain and stress that love involves are sometimes more than I can handle. So I walk the path of least resistance in the other direction, assuming the person will get help or get over it, or thinking I’ll just pray for him.
I ease my conscience by reasoning that even Jesus withdrew from the crowds in order to pray on occasion. He didn’t give in to people’s demands to perform like a non-stop spigot of healing water only so they could leave after they got what they wanted and forget about him. But it seems from the record that not many people forgot about Jesus once they really met him.
But why did they follow him in droves? Many may have been initially attracted to him for what they could get out of him, but these people would have been sadly disillusioned when they found out what he was really about. He didn’t exactly offer them a life featured in Western Living magazine.
So why did they, nonetheless, go after him so? There must have been something in the way he healed people. I don’t get a picture from the gospels of Jesus doling out miracles indiscriminately and impersonally. You can read it for yourself, but it seems his words and acts of healing are always very personal. People must have noticed and were attracted by this, beyond the sheer amazement over his miracles. He looked people in the eye; he breathed on them; he touched people, even lepers; he washed people’s feet (if you really want to know what vulnerability feels like, try this with a friend); he took his time, mixing his own saliva with earth elements to make a poultice; and he spoke directly and specifically to their need as if he saw right into their hearts. I think this is what marks Jesus’ brand of love as genuine and of God. Going after him for what one could get out of him would not have the staying power that a personal interest in them would have.
Our tendency, when we meet people, is to silently gage what we might get from the relationship. And when we help people, we often tend to assess them first as a set of needs to be satisfied or problems that need to be fixed, and then determine the payoff. There is little compassion in this. No wonder we feel weary and anxious in well-doing! With this “exchange” approach, either side may get what we want, but the relationship may not have much staying power.
When we see to the heart of a person, and understand love as attending to people first rather than to their needs first, a transformation happens, in ourselves and in the persons we love. And they will come back to us, more likely because of who we are than because of the things we have. It’s not only kids who have to learn this.
You may have seen this photo. It went viral a couple weeks ago. Normally, when I come across viral content, I might cast it a cursory glance and then quickly ignore it as more space junk. But this photo made me take notice.
A man sits on the bow of his yacht with his eyes glued to his phone, apparently oblivious to the dramatic event happening right beside him--a whale surfaces as if to say "Hello?" to the man who remains submerged in his own world. The irony could hardly be lost, you'd think, on even the dullest of yacht owners with a smart phone.
An obvious caption for this photo could read, "Are we missing anything?" According to social commentaries, we're missing less and less these days. At no other time in history have we been so informed about everything. Yet, we are consumed with a fear that we might miss something, and to allay our fears we carry our info gadgets with us everywhere, constantly groping for them as insurance against potentially being out of touch and out of the know.
Apple is well versed in how to capitalize on this fear. Today they're feeding our obsession with "being in touch" with the their new Apple Watch. The watch (not the first of its kind) does many of the things our cell phones have been doing--taking phone calls, sending messages, connecting us to www, plus a few added tricks. For example, it can tell us when we've been sitting too long. (too long watching our watches?) How thoughtful of it. But the real breakthrough, according to Apple, is that "It's not just with you, it's on you!" Glory! What used to be at our side like an old friend (the cell phone) is now physically right on us like a lover. If we could make love to a gadget, apparently this is the ultimate experience.
But while we're being persistently seduced by the touch of this "smart" technology, are we, as many have argued, increasingly out of touch? There's a reason one of these famous gadgets is called an I-phone. It's all about me, according to Steve Jobs. Nothing else matters, only the touch of the phone. Hand in hand with it, we're blissfully isolated from all else.
I find myself playing "what if" scenarios as I see this photo. What if this man could not afford a cell phone? (Yes, there are those people.) Or, what if he voluntarily gave up his cell? Let's say he tries going without it for three hours a day. He starts to notice things. He feels the power of the ocean like he hadn't before, tastes its salty brine more acutely, and feels his heart leap as a whale breaks the surface just a few feet away. The experience of raw unfiltered life awakens something in him and causes him to seek out similar experiences in the real world. He feels the urge to have more face to face time with the people he supposedly loves. He finds himself holding the hand of a friend in need when he would normally just shoot off a text, "How r U?" He feels a greater need for physical presence.
He begins to realize that this is a spiritual issue. What started for him as a deeply terrifying proposition turns out to be a bargain--his cell phone in exchange for the world--as he realizes he feels more whole, he feels like he owns the earth as his home again. He recalls a line from Jesus: "Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth."
He thinks about people who live without a lot of technology. They seem much closer to the earth, to each other, and more content without lots of hi-tech gadgets constantly wedging themselves between people and the land. They're the ones really in touch. They're the wealthy ones! The man wonders if he should make himself wilfully impoverished in order to "inherit the earth." He is feeling more connected without his phone 24/7, and he wants more of this.
Detachment from our things is a scary, radical prospect, especially if this means letting go of something we've held as close as a brother. But detachment seems to be what Jesus was after: to disown encumbering distractions in order to own the earth and have a more abundant life. Essentially, we're being called back home to what we were made for, to the earth and to God, not by voice mail or by text but by Spirit. If that means becoming impoverished of things that are interfering with real life, as painful as it may be, so be it. In the end, we won't be missing anything and gaining everything.
...we went ahead and got a puppy. Bernie is 4 lbs. 10 oz., part Shi Tzu and part Yorkipoo -- hypoallergenic and non-shedding -- our own designer lap dog. Now if they could only design one that won't poop on the designer carpet. Other than that, he's charming and congenial enough. The tail does wag the dog in this case.
I grew up with dogs. Can't remember ever being without one, sometimes two, until my last year in high school when Skip wandered off and we found him dead on a country road, victim of a passing car, and we never replaced him. Our dogs were mongrels many times over, bred by a casual encounter in a vacant lot. In our small town we had no leash laws and no fences, and you would never pay mega-bucks for a dog as you could always get one from someone who handed you an extra pup, whether you wanted it or not. If you said no thanks as you couldn't take another dog right now, you might get a scowl and something about how you'd better take it, seeing it was likely your dog that knocked up theirs.
Our dogs were free roamers, and the house was clearly "no trespassing." They had normal dog names like "Spike" and "Chase," not "Wilson" or "Hollingsworth." When we heard something like "our dog is really a member of our family" or "he's our baby," we'd roll our eyes at the anthropomorphisms -- the ridiculousness of some people who couldn't distinguish between man and beast.
And now that my family has our own hybrid puppy, a part of me still feels the same way. Little Bernie is darling and affectionate and entertaining, but if he ever becomes my "best friend," someone please send me to the shrink. On the other hand, I do find myself talking to him sometimes as if he's human, and he does seem to know when we're talking about him, cocking his head a little with curious, baited breath. My daughter is making him a Valentine's card. Cute, but I did draw the line at the suggestion we get him a Seahawks T-shirt.
What is the impulse that drives us to imbue a dog with human characteristics with terms like "naughty" or "neurotic" or "baby" or the name "Bernie" (officially Bernard Lee Petersen)? On the other hand, why should a little anthropomorphizing bother me?
I think both instincts are good ones. First, to draw the line between man and beast is to recognize our uniqueness and honor the created order. Keeping the distinction also acknowledges our first God-blessed mandate, a place of authority, which in part involves naming the animals, that is, affirming their dignity as God's creatures. It means investing a personal interest in them and celebrating each animal's distinguishing traits and their unique place in God's world. We're also given the responsibility to care for them and protect their well-being and survival, tasks often referred to as "stewardship."
Taking a dog, as well as our long-term resident blind hamster, into our home reminds us of the God-given relationship we have with animals. By extension, our dog also connects us to the rest of creation by getting us outdoors more often -- to walk, run, smell the air, and watch for what he might be rooting up in the dirt. Having animals to attend to and be attended by helps soften a paved-over and increasingly digitized world. Our dog earns his keep by drawing us back to creation and the Creator.
But what impulse drives us, even from our youth, to lend human traits to animals? Are we so ego-centric that we can't help imagining an animal as one of us? Well... yes, it seems so. Stories and fantasies, in oral and written traditions, abound with animals that possess distinct personalities, characters capable of thinking, feeling, and talking like humans, portraying our most heroic and nefarious inclinations. As projections of our imaginations somehow these animal characters help us understand ourselves and our world more fully. These portrayals also bond us more closely to our fellow non-human creatures. Reading stories like Aesop's Fables or Charlotte's Web can cultivate empathy and compassion even for a spider. After reading Watership Down, I'll never be able to see rabbits without thinking about social conflicts - theirs and ours. After such immersions of the imagination,
it's impossible to look at animals purely with the distant, scientific gaze of objectivity. And after having an animal live with us, it's easy to start seeing some similarities. We realize the distance between us and animals is not as great as we may have once assumed. The result is we become more respectful and loving of animals.
So, my rational mind helps keep me and beast in our distinct and rightful places, and my imagination helps me love them as I ought.
I'm thankful my kids have an opportunity to grow up with a dog. Besides the entertainment and responsibility Bernie brings to our home, he also keeps us mindful that we and the animals are really integral to each other's kingdoms, all of which is God's kingdom. My only concern is that my six-year-old is starting to take on the personality (canine-ality?) of the dog.
I was listening to CBC-AM on my way home the other day, and over the air waves this hit me:
We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles. We are more powerful than ever before but with little idea what to do with all that power. We are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?
Yval Noah Harari (commenting on his book, Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.)
If a statement like that doesn't throw you back, few things will. Hearing this honestly made me tighten my grip on the steering wheel in holy terror. I wondered how much I've bought into this line of thinking that we're "advancing" as a people without any moral principles to guide us other than "we can do it, so it must be fine."
Are we as a human race too drunk on the possibilities of our own power to give a dam about the consequences of our choices for ourselves and the world? Or is it simply that we can't do anything to stop it, so we may as well hang on for the ride? And if we question such "progress" and our perpetual running after "comforts and amusements," by what authority do we do so? With increasing capabilities easily comes the belief that we are gods and can therefore make our own judgements of right and wrong. Democracy doesn't help much because our decisions come simply from a consortium of gods, decisions which may change with the winds of place and time.
The conundrum screams for some guidance from outside of ourselves.
As recently as the Middle Ages, theology used to be the pinnacle of human inquiry. The desire for God and understanding his ways was considered both the sail we held up for divine power and the rudder that kept our ship on a true course. And as we became aware of what was possible when we were untethered from these theological moorings, humans gradually supplanted God as the centre of the universe. We became the universe's sole guardians and arbiters of its use.
But we have repeatedly shown that we are discontent with this new arrangement. We are restless, never feeling we have achieved our utopia. Even those of us who claim to be happy with our lives--our new homes with central air, new SUV's and low gas prices, new updated versions of smart phones, or new light-weight bicycle we use to defy the onslaught of human progress--when asked about the ultimate purpose of it all, sit somewhat stunned, babbling only half-baked answers. Our minds are not trained to think theologically because we've taken God out of the picture.
Harari eloquently states a legitimate fear we should all be confronting: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"
We need to put theology front and centre again. This doesn't mean we all need to go back and get another degree (although I found it can't hurt). It simply means we need to start asking, regularly, the right questions: If there is a God, who is he or she? What does he want with this world and the human race that seems to be restlessly running it on their own? What do we want with God? How can he answer our deepest desires for happiness, love, justice, peace? Until we get back to pursuing God, we'll never be satisfied pursuing anything else and we'll never have an answer to Harari's heart-stopping proposition.
The other night, my six-year-old suggested for her bedtime story that Santa go to church. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath for some inspiration, and tried a story on the requested theme. Here's a more polished version of our story that night...
One year, Santa had to stay for breakfast Christmas morning because he couldn't get back up the chimney. When Kaitlyn came downstairs rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she found him half-way up the chimney with his bum sticking out of the fireplace. She pulled and pulled until Santa popped out.
When Mom came downstairs and saw Santa sitting dirty and exhausted by the fireplace, she said "Oh dear."
"Your chimney's a little too small," Santa said.
"And you're a little too big," Kaitlyn laughed.
"Yes," he said sadly, "you're right. Too many cookies."
"You poor thing," Mom said, and while they were on the topic of food, she added, "Why don't you stay for waffles and bacon?"
"Well, I am feeling a little peckish for something more wholesome than cookies."
So Santa stayed. Kaitlyn and Karis showed him all their toys, which Santa had delivered the last couple of Christmases: little stuffed animals, a snow globe, a flashlight... Santa yawned but tried to look interested. "Oh, yes, I remember those," he lied.
Dad came trundling down the stairs in his pajamas whistling "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" just as Karis announced, "Dad, Santa's staying for breakfast!"
"Oh brother, what now?" Dad said.
"He got stuck in the chimney because he ate too many cookies," Kaitlyn said, "and I pulled him out!"
Soon waffles and bacon were being passed around the table, the syrup was poured, and lips were smacking.
"Do you suppose I could have one more of those," said Santa, licking a finger. In fact, he said it nine times, and after his tenth waffle he let out a loud burp, rubbed his stomach and groaned. "Sorry, bad vice. And if I'm not careful, the vice might put a grip on my heart." And he tried to laugh, but instead of coming out "ho, ho, ho" it came out "he, he, he."
"What does vice mean?" Kaitlyn whispered to her dad.
"Bad habit," Dad whispered back.
Then Kaitlyn saw a tear come to Santa's right eye. "I know I eat too much," he said. "'More' is my middle name, I'm afraid. Santa More and More Claus."
Mom cleared the table of left-over waffles and bacon before Santa could take another bite. The family hurried to get ready for the Christmas morning church service, except for Kaitlyn, who stayed talking to Santa.
"Why don't you just eat one or two then instead of ten?" Kaitlyn asked.
"Oh, I could never eat just one or two. If I did that, there would eventually be no more Santa, and no one would ever stand for that. You see, if you take the "More and More" out of Santa Claus, you have nothing left -- no Santa and no dolls, no bikes, no TV's or anything-- except for maybe one or two things you get from your parents."
"That reminds me," Kaitlyn said. "I lost my Barbie you got me last Christmas and now I only have eleven left. Could you get me another one?"
"Yes," Santa said with a big sigh as if the weight of the whole world were on his shoulders, "I suppose."
There was a long pause, and then Kaitlyn said, "Do you have any kids?"
"Oh, no," said Santa. "I'm just too busy with all the kids of the world. But I don't often have waffles and bacon with any of them." He smiled at Kaitlyn as if he'd met a long lost friend.
Mom, Dad, and Karis appeared, dressed for church. "Can Santa come to church with us?" Kaitlyn asked.
"You'd better ask him if he wants to," Mom said.
"That would be marvelous," Santa said. "Never been to church before."
Santa insisted he drive them all to church with his sleigh and eight reindeer. So the family piled in with Kaitlyn and Karis sitting on the seat beside Santa, and Mom and Dad sitting atop his enormous pile of presents and hanging on for dear life as they lifted off into the sky.
At church, Santa attracted lots of attention, of course, and all the kids had to touch him and say "hi" and tell him "merry Christmas" with big smiles. Some even gave him candy canes. Santa had never felt so loved. They sang "Joy to the World." The pastor told the Christmas story about when Jesus was born and the poor shepherds saw him first and then ran all over town telling everyone. He said how Jesus was the best gift ever because he was God's love to the whole world, and that was all anyone really needs. At this, Santa's ears pricked up, and with a very calm smile on his face he let out a long sigh. This time it was not the weight of the world ON his shoulders that he felt but the weight of the world falling OFF his shoulders that he felt.
After the church service, Santa gave Kaitlyn a big hug. He said, "You gave me the best gift ever, better than any gift I've ever taken down any chimney. My middle name won't be 'More' anymore. It will be 'Enough,' Santa Enough Claus." Kaitlyn laughed. "Can I come visit again next Christmas?" Santa asked.
Kaitlyn glanced at Dad who smiled and nodded "yes."
Santa jumped onto his waiting sleigh. He waved good-bye, and as Kaitlyn watched him go into the sky, she noticed lots of boxes and bows falling from Santa's sleigh like rain all over Vancouver until his sleigh had less and less and was finally completely empty. As he went, everyone heard him howling louder than they'd ever heard before, "Merry Christmas, everyone! Ho, ho, ho!"
I've noticed a recurring theme in church recently coming from our pastors: all of life is a sacrament. Hearing this blesses like fresh water. And it reaffirms one of my greatest takeaways from my studies at Regent College: a sacramental view of life.
If you have a church background, you were taught that there are either seven sacraments (Catholic) or two (Protestant). These are sacraments the church has formalized, and I'm thankful for them. But deeply imbedded in Christian orthodoxy, I believe, is the belief that all life is sacred (belonging to God) and therefore should be lived sacramentally.
So what does this lofty statement mean? I understand "sacrament" as a thing or an event that helps us in two ways. First, sacraments help us understand God and how he engages with us and the world. If God made the world, it reveals something of himself. If God made us in his likeness, we can learn something of God from looking at ourselves (both what he is and what he is not). Just as viewing an artist's work tells us about the artists, so studying the world tells us something about the Creator. Secondly, a sacrament invites us to participate in God's life and death.
If you've been reading my blog posts, you will have noticed various examples how I view all of life as a sacrament: a tree in the back yard, morning sunlight in the park, a song, a book, pigeons mating, things kids say, smart phones, and even mass killings.
But wait, you say, how on earth can you see bad things as sacraments? Are you some kind of sadistic nut job? Surely this is heresy. But let's not forget the church's highest sacrament, The Lords Supper, celebrates the worst of all events, the death of Christ, which is also the best of all events. Within the bad events of our world, like mass killings, is Jesus' own death because God suffers with and for the victims of these tragedies and also the perpetrators. These horrible events should remind us that God does not divorce himself from suffering and death but rather he absorbs in his own suffering the evil of the world. And, these events call us to participate in this same suffering by our compassion, our outrage, and also our confession. Do these kinds events bring us to our knees in grief over our own acts of hatred? Do they cause us to combat evil? Do they move us to care for the suffering? Yes, even bad things can be sacraments which draw us to participate in the life of God.
Some church liturgies use the phrase, "the gifts of God for the people of God," when serving the bread and wine for The Lord's Supper. Essentially, this is where sacramental living starts: a sacrament is a gift by which we commune with God. We receive the gift of God in his son -- in his life and his death. Jesus' life among us affirms Gods total involvement in our world. He's in, with both feet and with every fiber of his being -- loving it, celebrating it, struggling with it, dying with it, and resurrecting it. His sacrament is an invitation, every day and in all things, to participate in his life.