Nativity sets, paintings and written depictions of the Nativity Story typically describe a scene which is the very definition of peace itself. However, chances are, Christmas itself is very chaotic for all of us as we get mired down in the details of the season. Chances are equally good that the Nativity itself was actually just as chaotic as our lives are, if not more so.
My sermon for Christmas Eve is based on the Nativity Story as presented in Luke 2:1-20.
In a very real sense, the birth of Christ in history is not just restricted to a time and place some 2000-odd years ago. The reasons why we celebrate Christmas every year are as multiple and various as there are Christians, but at its root, the birth of Christ represents, if nothing else, the birth of the best of what humanity had and has to offer. Christ preached and practiced the values of compassion, peace, love, acceptance, forgiveness and tolerance perhaps more radically that any other human who has ever lived.
As such, every Advent and Christmas season, we are encouraged to venture into our own wildernesses, to get back in touch with those aspects of our spirituality, our values, our morals which may have become dormant in the interim. We are asked to reflect on what aspects of ourselves the birth of Christ is reminding us that we need to "give birth to", those aspects of ourselves that we need to bring into the world to affect positive change in our lives, our communities and in the world.
This was my sermon for the 4th and final Sunday of Advent this year. It is somewhat shorter than usual as we had to save room for the Christmas Pageant, which is always a chaotic and spirit-filled gong show:)
My sermon was based primarily on the Gospel reading for the week, Luke 1: 39-45.
Ruth 1: 1-18 The Book of Ruth is set in the time of
judges, between 1200 and 1050 BC, however it is obvious from later passages
that trace the descendants of Ruth and Boaz that book was actually written much
One of the shortest books of the Bible, the
Book of Ruth is nonetheless one of the best-loved. The best way to read the book is as a
poignant morality tale; a great dramatic story in which the reader is invited
to sympathize with the main characters and their plights.
Today’s opening passages of Ruth set the
stage. Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi has
been left a childless widow, which would have been one of the most precarious
social and economic situations for a woman of the time to be in. Naomi would have no means of support, either
now or in her old age.
Ruth, as a young widow, would have been
able to marry again, and indeed she should have in order to ensure her own
security, but she loves Naomi greatly and does not want to abandon her. Instead, she chooses to stay with her and
share her fate.
As readers of the story, we are invited
to reflect on family ties and personal values as opposed to financial and
Having established in earlier verses his
belief that Christ is an eternal priest and having compared His sacrifice to
the animal sacrifices performed by the earlier priests, the author of Hebrews
then explains how Christ has become the “mediator of a new covenant”.
He explains this by using an image of
the realms of earth and heaven which would have been familiar to Jewish
audiences: the image of these realms being similar to the inner and outer
courts of the Temple.
This image would have seen the earth as
the outer court and heaven as the inner sanctuary. Remember that in the Temple, these two courts
would have been separated by a veil, a veil which was either literally or
figuratively rent in two the day Christ died.
This image of the veil, although not
explicitly stated in this passage, seems to be present in the theology of the
author of Hebrews. The message is that
through Christ, that veil of separation from God no longer exists; that through
his sacrifice, the two realms of earth and heaven are no longer separate.
In a broad sense, the Book of Job tells the story of a man
who feels that he has been wrongfully persecuted by God, who turns against God,
and who eventually turns back to God.
Three other characters who play heavily in the Book of Job
are Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.
The bulk of the book consists of these three trying to convince Job not
to curse God for what has happened to him.
After lengthy discussion, Job ignores their counsel and curses God.
Ironically, the epilogue of the book which we read today
portrays God rebuking the three for having not spoken rightly of Him as Job had
done. In defending God, one would have
thought God would be pleased with the three, but this is not the case.
Some theologians feel that Job’s saving grace was that he
was honest with God. He was angry at God
and he let Him know it instead of trying to subdue his anger with religious
platitudes. This invites us to reflect
on the degree of honesty with which we approach God. Do we let Him know how we really feel?
The book ends much like a familiar fairy tale, with Job
being rewarded and receiving much more than he had before all this began.
outlined and explained that Christ is a high priest, the author of Hebrews
places an emphasis on the perfection of Christ.
perfection does not seem to refer so much to the perfection of Jesus as a
person, but rather to the perfection of his sacrifice, as sacrifice which the
author links back to the animal sacrifices performed by the high priests.
author seems to indicate that the Law and animal sacrifices were unable to
bring perfection to the priesthood because the priests themselves were mortal
being eternal and being of one substance with God, was able to establish that
perfect covenant with God through his own sacrifice.
These are lofty
concepts, and difficult to grasp, but it must be remembered that Hebrews was
written sometime in the early 60’s.
While Christianity was at that point a movement distinct from Judaism,
many of its adherents had come from a Jewish background. With its consistent references to the Old
Testament, it can be deduced that much of the Book of Hebrews is an attempt to
reconcile the two thought systems.
This sermon focused mostly on the Gospel passage for this week, Mark 10:46-52
I have decided that as speaking rather than writing is more my thing, I will be recording and podcasting my sermons instead. I truly hope you enjoy them and I hope that they will generate some fruitful and respectful conversation on this page. Please feel free to agree or disagree with anything I or anyone else has said, but please be respectful and tolerant of one another.
One thing that I have cribbed from my colleagues at St. Mary's, Kerrisdale is the policy of situating and contextualizing Bible passages. Part of the problem with the lectionary is that we read Scripture passages in isolation from their wider context, and unless you are a Bible scholar, that often makes weekly Scripture passages difficult to understand. Therefore, I have taken in upon myself to write an introductory passage to situate each weekly reading, and this has been very well-received at the church.
As such, I will include on my blog links to the readings, my introductory "blurbs" and my sermon. I hope you enjoy them.
In last week’s passage, Job vented his anger at God for
treating him so unfairly. He finishes be
calling on God to respond, which God does, appearing before Job in the form of
God does not answer Job directly by addressing his
questions, but rather interrogates Job at length about the marvels of His
creation, asking Job if he is capable of doing any of the things God does.
The point of God’s speech is to remind Job and we, the
modern readers, of the mystery and grandeur of creation, and to remind Job that
he is one small part of it.
This may cause us conflict as it sounds as though God
is telling Job (and us by extension) that he is not important, but this was not
the intention of the book. Rather, the
book is meant to lead Job and the reader to embrace a wider view of the world
rather than focus on his own personal human sphere. Hebrews 5:1-10
At this point in Hebrews, the author has already referred to
Christ several times as a “high priest” without really justifying the statement
or explaining what it means.
The author takes the opportunity to explain just that in
He does this by hearkening back to Old Testament passages
which describe the qualifications required for being a high priest:
he be chosen from among the community;
he can be representative of the people because he shares in their human
he be called by God and not by his own choice.
The author then goes on to describe how Christ meets
all these qualification.
Daily, I am confronted by a staggering mass of Facebook pages, websites, publications, radio interviews, YouTube snippets, personal statements and a myriad other forms of communication talking about the apparent dichotomy between religion and atheism.
If I am to understand correctly, the line which divides religion and atheism seems to be science. To be religious, I am told, seems to require of me a complete and total repudiation of science, and to be scientific, I am told, seems to require of me a complete and total repudiation of religion.
Surely, I am not the only person in the world who is able to be both, and feel no apparent conflict.
This fruitless debate has all been recently brought to the fore for me by the rover landing on Mars. On the day this happened, I was at a barbecue and a rather drunk self-professed humanist (and don't get me started on the ego required to adopt that title) sidled up to me and announced that the recent Mars landing really challenged my faith. I laughed, as I thought he was joking. I don't know why I laughed, as it wouldn't have been a particularly funny joke even if it had been an attempt at humour, but when a drunk person cracks a joke, I generally laugh as that seems to placate them and they go away. But he was sincere. I inquired why he felt the landing should have any impact on my faith whatsoever. He replied, "Well, it's not like Mars is in the Bible". I replied, "Neither are Canada and barbecues, but here we are". He wandered off to freshen his cocktail.
Getting back to the landing: as a science (and, I admit, science-fiction) geek, I am thrilled to see this feat of human ingenuity. The universe is such a vast treasure-trove of mystery and information, and human nature (whether you consider it to be divinely-given or a by-product of the process of evolution) is such that curiosity and the desire to know things make it nearly impossible for us as a species to restrain our efforts of discovery to one planet, to one solar system, to one galaxy, heck, to one universe, for that matter. If the opposite attitude had prevailed throughout human history, whole continents on our own planet would have remained completely isolated from one another because to bother discovering them would have been deemed a massive waste of time, money and boats.
That being said, as a person of religion, I am also keenly aware of the suffering going on on our very planet, and I am equally keen to do what I can to alleviate it. On our planet, there is no shortage of famine, hunger, addiction, abuse, political strife, pollution, sadness, depression, and war, to name but a few issues. I am not blind to the fact that this venture to Mars is largely superfluous insofar as the vast majority of people suffering in the world are concerned, and that the money could have and perhaps should have been better spent on alleviating the suffering of people in the here and now.
Before I go any further, I ought to point out that, yes, I am aware that I am unfairly polarizing the two philosophies of atheism and religion and their adherents. The truth is, most religious people I know are excited about the landing and about expanding the frontiers of science in general, and most atheists I know are concerned with the plight of the planet and its peoples, and they do their part to alleviate it.
But there seems to be an attitude which prevails among the least secure individuals in both camps, and that is that the opposite camp has its collective head totally crammed up their ass over the issues which concern their own camp. In other words, to be religious means you have no concern for science and that to be an atheist means you have no concern for the human race.
I would like to disabuse people of that notion. Yes, there are religious people who sit back and say "Atheists are evil and I hope they burn in hell" and there are atheists who say "Religion is evil and we should burn them all down in their churches". I know this for a fact because these are both verbatim quotes from Facebook pages dedicated to religion and an atheism respectively.
Adherents to both of these movements would claim and do claim that their movement is a force for good. I for one fail utterly to see it in those statements. While such comments are by no means unique, in my experience, these people are a small if aggravating and obstructive minority who need to be ignored for the purposes of rational and productive discussion.
The vast majority of people in both camps that I have met are actually sane, reasonable, secure indiviudals who are able to A: find some common ground such as "We both love our children, we both love our parents, we both like chocolate and the Beatles, hey let's be friends" and B: are secure enough in themselves that they don't need to join Facebook pages and comment threads dedicated specifically to crapping on other people's belief systems. Most people I meet from both camps are able to actually celebrate their differences, to see where the other person is coming from and to actually learn something about themselves from the other.
Imagine that, John Lennon.
I for one don't see a dichotomy between science and spirituality, what I'm being told is the battle line upon which atheists and the religious ought to form. I am a religious person and I am also a scientist. Religion is the philosophy which helps me look inward, to explore who I am as a person, and science is the philosophy helps me look outward, to understand the world and my place in it. What either does for you is your own business. Both perspectives I have found are necessary to my personal well-being, and to my development as a balanced human being.
Not that I could claim to be the most balanced person in the world, mind you. I, as everyone else, am a work in progress, but the two thought systems which I feel best help me make this progress (and which I feel are erroneously held by many to be contradictory) are science and spirituality. As a side note, spirituality does not need to be accessed or exercised within the confines of a religious institution, but mine happens to be fed and nourished by that, among other non-church activities.
If either is to blame for being a force of evil, it is due to this combative, adversarial, dysfunctional relationship that seems to have always existed between the two camps.
For example, when I meet someone who has different ideas than mine, I am generally delighted to hear about how they interpret the universe and their place in it. It informs my own interpretations and nourishes my soul and intellect to hear these things, regardless of whether they are strictly religious, strictly scientific or any permutation in between.
The only exception to this delight is if the person with whom I am conversing expects or demands that I adhere to their belief system, and that mine is inherently wrong because it does not conform with theirs.
The issue is this: the above-mentioned small, aggravating and obstructive minority of religious people claim that if atheism and/or opposing belief systems could be wiped out overnight, Utopia would ensue. The small, aggravating and obstructive minority of atheists claim that if religion and/or competing belief systems could be wiped out overnight, Utopia would ensue.
This is the point which really needs to be understood: this is the same as blaming a gun for a murder.
Yes, religion has been used as a force for oppression, coercion and control (the Spanish Inquisition, the religious oppression happening in many areas of the Middle East today). That much is beyond question. But so have a variety of philosophical and political movements with ostensibly no religious connection (communism, Marxism). So has atheism (modern-day North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge). So has science, or at least the claim to scientific validity (Hitler's eugenics program).
To frame the point somewhat differently: some of the preserved remains of various prehistoric stages of the evolution of homo-sapiens show evidence of death by violence, undoubtedly by human (or pre-human, if you prefer) hands. So evidently, we were kicking the shit out each other well before the creation of religion, atheism, politics and British football.
If someone has hatred in their heart, the simple fact is that no belief or thought system is actually required for them to act on it. Yes, it might give them some twisted sense of peace or justification; it may provide a convenient platform from which they can pounce on their fellow human beings, but a heart full of hate is still a heart full of hate. If we were to remove religion or atheism from the mix, that heart could, would and historically has fallen back on racism, sexism, sexual orientation, language, elitism, political inclination, education, or any of a limitless number of differences in order to justify their treatment of another human being or group of human beings.
Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the true powers-that-be, those who are actually oppressing others through their own individual action love the fact that we are wasting time publicly debating the inherent goods of our own system and the inherent evils of another system. It takes the focus off of them.
I mean, you do realize that, right? That this whole debate is about as useful as comparing the objective merits of cork versus rubber stoppers while your boat is currently sinking? That this whole debate actually keeps us spinning our wheels while real problems go unsolved? That corrupt leaders can and will use anything to control the easily led, whether it be religion, politics, atheism, self-help books or the media?
The point I would like to drive home is that none of these particular belief systems is inherently good or evil in and of itself. None of these movements inherently makes a person or a people informed or ignorant. None of these particular modes of morality guarantees sanity or insanity in either a culture or an individual. If anything, history has amply proven and continues to prove that no thought system is the sole purveyor of love or hate, good or evil, morality or immorality.
To blame a philosophy for anything is irresponsible. We as individual human beings are the sole purveyors of any of these characteristics. We only accept as true what we accept as true. We cannot blame anyone for forcing a belief system upon us. We must take responsibility for accepting that. And if you can't accept that someone else has found a truth other than the one you have found, you may want to re-assess how secure you actually are in what you believe. It is insecurity which compels us to enlist others and to vilify those who don't adhere.
In the end, it is not religion or politics or philosophy which damages ourselves, others and the world. It is greed, fear, insecurity, anger, hatred. No religion, no philosophy, no political persuasion is responsible for that.
Ok, so only a month and a half has elapsed this time. Getting better...
I am actually getting better since my last post about depression, and I am grateful to be able to report THAT news! I have been on a Lenten journey through my own wilderness, and I am pleased to say that it has been beneficial and life-giving. But my gradual road to improvement has given me pause to reflect on the importance of self-care insofar as anyone involved in a helping profession is concerned.
Self-care is perhaps the most important aspect of your job and mine. The fact of the matter is that if we do not practice self-care, we will tank...hard. So it behooves us to take care of ourselves.
To the uninitiated, that may sound selfish at first glance, but there are parallels in daily life: there is a reason why they always tell you on an airplane to put YOUR mask on first in case of a loss of cabin pressure, and THEN help others. The reason is that if you black out from a lack of oxygen, far from being a help to anyone else, you will actually be a hindrance. Similarly, to say that someone would "give you the shirt off their back for you" implies that they must first be wearing a shirt...that is what self-care is all about.
Here are some things I have been doing to practice this:
1. Surrounding myself with people who charge my batteries to offset the people that drain them.
I hate to compare human interactions to monetary transactions, but every time someone leans on you, it takes a bit out of you. As a priest, it makes me feel good to know that even Jesus was aware that "transactions" of this nature had this effect. I'm thinking here of the Markian account of the woman who touched His robe and He is aware that "power had gone out of Him".
For those of us in helping professions, yes, it may feel good and invigorating to be of service to your fellow person, but whether you are aware of it or not, something has been taken out of you. This is not a bad thing, the person is not a leech (well, some people are, and it behooves us to be able to recognize these people and eliminate them from our lives or at least limit their impact on us), but it is just the nature of human interactions.
Those of us in these professions absolutely MUST find people to lean on in return. We need people who will recharge our own batteries. Ideally, we can lean on some of the people who lean on us, such as family, friends, spouses. But obviously, we cannot lean on parishioners, clients or cases. For non-judgmental support, nothing beats a professional counselor or qualified spiritual advisor.
2. Preventative maintenance.
I had a friend whose philosophy of life was "Turn up the good, turn down the suck!". It sounds like something from Wayne's World, but sage advice nonetheless, and very much in keeping with the tenets of self-care. He was aware of good things in his life, and he accentuated them. He was aware of negative things in his life as well, and he tried to eliminate them, minimize their impact, or he sought advice on how to manage them. It is good folk wisdom that I have successfully employed in my own life before, and am doing so again. This has the net result of reducing the chances you will ever drain yourself.
I could also have called this "Rewarding yourself". My own experiences and the experiences of others have taught me that we helpers often don't feel worthy of a little treat now and then, that we don't deserve the same rewards others do, that we don't have the right to achieve the things we often encourage other people to strive for. But we are, we do and we do, respectively.
In keeping with that line of thought, I have put in my paperwork to do my PhD (which has long been a dream of mine) and I am taking a vacation in Costa Rica with an eco/adventure tourism outfit, something I have been promising to myself for a long time too.
This is where my Lenten journey has been taking me. I actually really like Lent. To non-Christians, Lent looks like self-imposed misery and punishment as most people give up something they really enjoy during this season. They don't get it. It's not a punishment or self-flagellation for me at all. The time, effort and money I would otherwise use obtaining that which I have given up for Lent I instead devote to feeding myself with things which, while being somewhat less tangible, are nonetheless much more life-giving in a spiritual sense than chocolate, ice cream, etc, etc could ever be.
As a practicing Christian, I am fortunate in that the Christian calendar includes several seasons throughout the year where we are called to reflect on ourselves, on our relationship with God and on our relationship to the rest of the world. Whereas to the uninitiated, Christianity seems like a big guilt-fest, we're actually big on self-care in that way.
So it's been almost a year since my last blog. What can I say? I've been busy.
OK, that was flip, but I actually have been busy. Since my last post, I have pulled stakes and moved to the other side of Canada altogether. Yes, Concerned Internaut, I finally did extricate myself from an unhealthy work and living situation and got another job all the way out West on the Sunshine Coast (which I have since discovered is an ironic name) of BC.
Despite these positive changes in employment and living arrangements, somewhere along the way, I got horrifically depressed. I don't know when and where it happened (if I did, I would report the location to CAA), but it did.
I should probably back up a bit and clarify that I have been battling major clinical depression (and a strongly correlated anxiety disorder) for about 12 years. That is to say it was diagnosed 12 years ago...if I look back on the 25 years of my life before that, I think it would be fair to say that I had probably been suffering from it long before it was diagnosed.
Since my first major depressive episode in the winter of 2000 which required me to quit my job, leave my apartment and move back in with my parents, I have had several major episodes which have forced me to decommission myself from various important aspects of life to varying degrees and for varying lengths of time. These major episodes have been interspersed with varying degrees of down-ness, but during those times I have always managed to discharge my professional and personal duties.
That in and of itself is an interesting and rather telling turn of phrase: "professional and personal duties". You can accurately infer from my words that I did not enjoy anything I was doing. I was just doing it because it was expected of me or because I knew I had to.
This is what happened to me when I moved out West recently. I am still trying to piece together what happened exactly, and I am making good progress towards that, but many things are still large question marks.
The most infuriating part of it is that I have absolutely no reason to be depressed. Good upbringing, well educated, gainfully employed, in excellent health, lots of toys and hobbies, etc, etc. My job and my personal relationships are rewarding. I don't worry about food, shelter or personal harm. I have no reason for it. But there it is.
Here is the thing about clinical depression: it does not respond to reason. It does not need a reason. As an emotional entity, it is so badass it just shows up and makes itself at home, unbidden, uninvited and unwelcome.
There are things in life that are, for lack of a better word, worth getting depressed about: the loss of a job, the death of a loved on, the breakup of a relationship. These things suck, and they can leave you feeling very down for a very long time, indeed. What these experiences and feelings have in their favour, however, is that they are discreet.
What I mean is that, generally speaking, your normal person loses a job, gets really down, maybe even for a few days (or even a couple of weeks if they actually liked their job), but then is able to scrape themselves off the floor and print up some resumes. They are generally able to say to themselves, "That was one job, there are lots out there, I am a qualified individual with talents and skills and something will turn up". It is an event that happens once, and that is that. Well, OK, you may lose another job down the line, but a normal person will simply do the same thing over again.
I know this because I was normal once.
Well, I was probably normal more than once, but who's keeping track? What I mean is that I have, in a normal state of mind, been able to weather some fairly traumatic events, such as the loss of a job, loved one and relationship. These events were all discouraging, frustrating and even heartbreaking. But as I was in a normal headspace, I managed to cope with those feelings and move past them.
Not so when I am in The Valley. When I am in The Valley, braving the distance between my bed and the bathroom first thing in the morning is an impossible task fraught with peril. In The Valley, picking up a phone is a terrifying prospect, social interaction is an impossibility and personal relationships become unbearably onerous and draining. Being hungry makes me panic, but no less so that the inability I feel to actually prepare food for myself or to go out in search of it. It is a horrific, draining, frustrating, depressing, ugly, insidious and terrifying cycle.
Perhaps the worst thing about it is that it is not like other ailments or diseases one could have. If I break my leg or pull my shoulder, its pretty straightforward: wait for it to heal, do these exercises, and that's about it. It may be a drag, but I know it's just a matter of time.
I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of any other disease, infirmity or ailment, incidentally. I am merely pointing out that when I am depressed, I lose all memory of ever being well, all recollection of ever having been sane, capable, responsible, respectable, worthy, loveable and good. All I can call to mind are the times when I have felt the exact opposite, and I am firmly convinced that I am just always going to feel that way, no matter what I do.
I think most people are blessed with the ability to control their emotions to a certain extent, and usually so can I. To those of you who can do this and who have never suffered from this disorder, the foregoing may sound totally alien to you. You may wonder (and some people have actually asked) why I can't just "snap out of it", why I can't "just focus on the good things", why I can't just "take a nice hot bath, get a good nights' sleep and things will be better in the morning". Someone even told me once that I had no business being a priest because my depression was indicative of a lack of faith and hope in God.
With the exception of that last person, I know you mean well when you say things like that, but you're actually making things worse when you do that to a depressed person. That is akin to telling someone with cancer that if they just prayed hard enough, it would go away, or telling an insulin-dependent diabetic that they can and should be able to go without insulin if they just "thought positive".
The fact is that clinical depression is a disease like any other. It is not due to a lack of character, moral fiber or emotional strength. It is caused by an excess or a dearth of certain chemicals in the brain. This disease manifests itself emotionally rather than physically, but it does manifest itself and can disrupt ones quality of life like any other disease.
The depressed person is not to blame. I say this as much for the depressed person as I do for those who are not.
But there is hope. Fortunately, although to my knowledge there is no cure for depression as such, there are a number of treatments, both in the form of medication and the form of therapy and/or support groups.
If you are reading this and you are suffer from depression, I want to affirm a few things that I was told when I was first diagnosed with this disorder. I did not believe them, but they have turned out to be true:
1. You are NOT crazy.
2. You are NOT alone.
3. It gets BETTER.
You may not hit on the right medication right away. You may not get the right therapist right away. You will backslide. Be patient with yourself, be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to feel the way you are feeling.