Saturday, 22 December 2012

Christmas Presents

"Presents!" The shout goes out. It’s so much fun to choose a gift for someone you love, or even for a stranger in one of the charitable Christmas drives. It warms your heart. If you’re there when the gift is opened, you look forward to seeing the recipient’s face light up. And no matter how old you are or how much you own, an unexpected gift is always a pleasure.
I hope your festive week holds many happy moments as you give and receive tokens of love.
Then again, have you ever been given a gift you didn’t like at all? It’s hard to smile sincerely and express enthusiastic appreciation to the giver. I laugh at the funny videos of children opening a present they didn’t want – a little mouth opening into a wail of disappointment, a cute child suddenly throwing the disappointing gift across the room in a tantrum. To be honest, my burst of laughter quickly turns to a headshake over these visuals of human ego at its worst.
Since an evil fairy attending my birth cursed me with the unwelcome gift of a mood disorder ( as they now call depression and its fellows), I have spent many years learning to appreciate the positive. Now that I’m mostly free from the curse, I write this blog to help me and others enjoy the bright side, to be thankful for the daily gifts that life offers. 

Indeed, in this season of giving and receiving, I am conscious of the gifts that even curses like mental illness can bring. One of God’s awesome names is “Redeemer” because of the way S/He brings value to the worst disasters by re-making, out of agony and loss, carefully crafted, valuable, treasure. You and I would far rather not get the painful and disappointing surprises in the first place, but since that’s not an option, I’m glad we can hand them to the Redeemer for transformation. 
I share with you a tough comment on gift-giving from William Willimon

“…I suggest we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people.
We prefer to think of ourselves as givers–powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. 
 [But in the birth of Christ] God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.

Party on, dear readers! No matter the messiness of your Christmas..or your life, celebrate the best gift ever!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Painful Paradox

The unspeakable news from a small town in Connecticut has slapped us wide awake again. Another wrenching tragedy has shattered any dream that the next self-help guru or political effort can save us. Like a poisonous snake, evil appeared in a primary classroom, spewing death and agony in all directions. Such evil lays bare the emptiness of our explanations for the way the cosmos works. Simplistic advisors and preachers stand exposed like the emperor in his so-called new clothes. This latest horror in a world of horrors silences any religious fantasies of a Santa Claus-God who will give us what we want if we’ve only been good enough. 

In the clarity brought by this appalling lightening flash we see our powerlessness to fix the dark side of human nature. Although there is the usual outcry for solutions and preventions, honesty demands humility, an admission that we cannot end evil. Nor can we understand why our Divine Creator does not intervene in ways that would seem obvious to us. Strike the shooter dead before he can shoot! Where are you, God?
Spiritual wisdom avers that the One who gave life to these sweet children and their teachers, deeply cherishes each one, including the young man who senselessly killed them all. How can this be?

Like Job, and David, we lament again, 
“How long, Lord? Will you forget us forever? 
How long will you hide your face from us?
How long must we wrestle with our thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in our hearts?” Psalm 13

Perhaps you saw the short video that I saw in the middle of hours of TV coverage. One young teacher told about her experience of sheltering several young children in a barricaded room. As the attacker banged on their door, she thought that hers might be the last words these little ones would hear on earth. Acknowledging that her action flouted the current restrictions on teachers, she admitted that she held each child’s face in her hands, looked into their wet, frightened eyes and said “I love you and it will be alright.” 
Awesomely, she embodied God’s loving presence in the midst of unfathomable terror and destruction. 

As the devoted teacher sensed, when fear and evil strike, we need to hear those words, once written by medieval nun, Julian of Norwich, “All will be well. All will be well.” 
A life of faith accepts the aching paradox.
There came a time for Jesus when his hard and complex teachings about God’s ways for human life drove away many of his followers. (John 6) 
He turned to his devotees and asked, “Are you going to leave me, too?” 
In the centuries since, most Christians have come to a similar crisis when things like Friday’s slaughter have happened. How can I trust a God who is beyond my understanding? After many tears and much soul-searching, after research into history and theology, eventually we reply like Peter, “Jesus, to whom would we go? You have the words of unending life.”

King David cried out the “How long?” lament above, but afterward went on to write,
“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.” Psalm 13

Dear Readers, through tears of empathy for those poor families, colleagues and emergency workers who could not save the children, I echo this confession from the Jewish scriptures, and gently offer the testimony that follows: 

“My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not occupy myself with things too great or too mysterious for me.” 
“But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content. Psalm 131

May the hurting folks in Connecticut, and we, fully grieve evil, keep working to bring healing, and yet find God’s peace in the midst.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Wise Encircling

       Advent season begins for me on December 1, when I get out all the Christmas decorations and turn on the seasonal music for a day’s pleasure. One of the best parts is setting up five unusual Nativity crèches, none of which I bought. 
One is a sorry little scene I formed out of homemade playdough, decades ago - three sheep, and the Holy Family. When the figures were baking they puffed up so much that when one sweet relative saw them she exclaimed delightedly,
“Oh, an Eskimo crèche!” 
A prettier grouping comprises several fragile figurines, painted white and gold, packed home from Mexico by a kindhearted friend years ago. 
Then there are the four wise men from Thailand. A tiny peach-coloured stone nativity was a thoughtful present from my brother and his wife, who live in Vietnam. The “lowing” animals include an elephant and a water buffalo, complete with nose-ring.
An African creche made from glowing acacia wood, takes its place on the fireplace mantle. Accompanied by camel, lamb and donkey, the human figures are six inches tall, their carefully carved faces tipped skyward as if in awe at the mystery. A long-time friend astonished me with this loving gift one Christmas after she returned from helping out at a hospital in Angola.

The lowliest of nativity scenes in my living room is a tacky little plastic set two friends gave me as a joke, insisting I unwrap it while they watched. The set came in a small drawstring bag and my friends could hardly contain themselves, waiting for the punch line, as I drew out one ugly piece after another:  two white sheep, two cows, black and brown, one shepherd, three kings, Joseph, and Mary, all cheaply moulded and prosaically coloured. At the bottom of the bag, my fingers finally found the baby in a manger and when I saw it I yelped with laughter. The baby was covered by a pink blanket, obviously a daughter. We three feminists enjoyed a long hilarity together. 
“Why do all the statues of Mary show her with a bowed head and somber face?”
“Because she wanted a girl!” 

I’m grateful for this happy variety of crèches from around the world. Most of them are too breakable for children to touch, but the other day, during the chaos of a family visit, my three-year-old granddaughter was getting bored. I pointed at the plastic set strewn on a side table and told her she could play with them. Our adult conversation continued and it wasn’t until hours later that I saw the arrangement she had left behind.

There was the plastic baby, surrounded by a perfect circle of sheep, cows and humans, all facing the newborn miracle. My heart caught for an instant at my grandchild’s intuitive wisdom. I believe that God sees you and me the way I see my African crèche, as a carefully crafted work of art, rich with meaning, a cherished treasure. But sometimes we feel and act more like ugly bits of plastic trash. At least I do. 
I sat still for a moment, taking in the message. Whatever the colliding realities of life, the Christmas baby should be at the centre. 

“Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, 
did not consider equality with God
something to be used
to his own advantage; 
rather, he made himself nothing 
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death
—even death on a cross! 
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge 
that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Sad Day Every December 6

I guess I was 40 in 1989 when I heard the horrifying news from Montreal. It made me sick with rage and grief.

As a younger woman I had been forbidden certain roles within the church, although  my brother was invited to fill them, roles of leadership and preaching. When I got married I was expected to quash my own preferences and personality in order to encourage and support my husband’s (not by him, mind you). As a mother of three young daughters I suffered with them when they hated their hair or felt too fat, knowing that they had imbibed our culture’s stupid emphasis on women’s appearance. It has never been easy to be a woman in a world still led mostly by men with traditional male values, like competition and coercion.

On that Wednesday, Dec. 6, 1989, I gasped with true shock at the report of a young man's killing of 14 female engineering students at  Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. I watched the TV coverage all day and cried. One of my daughters still remembers sitting beside me on the couch, worried by my tears. A high school student, she had just learned that engineering was a field she would be suited for. 
Almost immediately after the murders were reported, I heard first-hand denials and dismissals: “This crime had nothing to do with …” gender, or feminism, or the injustice of our political, corporate, educational and social systems. Despite what the shooter, Marc Lepine, had written and said about hating women, many men and some women willfully closed their minds to making any connection between this event and our cry for change in attitudes about boys and girls.

To me this event was a blatant, dramatic expression of the thousand cuts girls and women receive from the day they are born into patriarchal cultures.
My 3 yr. old granddaughter is already being taught that to be considered “pretty” is  very, very important, since strangers constantly tell her that she is. My grandsons don't get the same comments. Toy stores are worse than ever with their “Girls Toys" aisles drowning in pink and purple and princess, "Boys Toys" aisles filled with camouflage-coloured guns and monsters. A more glaring example is the heartbreaking story of Malala Yousafzai, the  15 yr. old who agitated for the education of Pakistani girls, and was shot recently by angry men who wanted her to shut up.

On many December 6ths since 1989, I have wept again as I listened to the reading of at least 20 new names, the names of women killed by their partners just that year only in our province of Ontario! I’m not crazy about the word “feminist” since it has been twisted into a mean-spirited caricature. But none of us should forget that boys and girls are still being treated unequally, a habit that warps and stunts both genders, and hinders the shalom we want for our human family.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Mixed Feelings

It happened again today. 
I got on a crowded streetcar and as I moved down the aisle, a young man looked up from his seat, stood, and motioned to me, “Sit here”. I’ve heard others complain that no one ever offers a seat anymore on busses and subways. They say that such etiquette is a thing of the past. Not true when I travel. This experience isn’t even unusual for me, despite how little time I spend on public transit. Sweet and thoughtful people look at me kindly and rise to let me sit down. 

I can only assume that it’s because they have noticed my white hair. My brunette hair began to grey in my 30’s and it’s been white for years, although I haven’t yet reached retirement age. I’m healthy and without physical disability. Caught off guard by their gesture, I usually say, “Oh, thank you, but I’m fine!” with an appreciative smile, but they insist, and their faces are so eager and solicitous that I take their place even though I don’t want to. Today, after the young man had vacated his streetcar seat and I, just to be agreeable, sat down, I then had to crane my neck awkwardly and raise my voice to continue the conversation with my still-standing companion. She’s young and blonde but no one relinquished their seat to her so that we could chat comfortably. Why would they?

 Truth be told, I enjoy the swaying sensation of standing in the rocking vehicle’s aisle, hanging onto a support pole, because it’s a rare chance for me. I am not employed and when I travel by mass transit, I’m happy to leave any available seat to the poor souls who endure tiring commutes between home and office.

 I feel heartened that folks are so generous as to offer their respect and consideration. I’m also grateful because whenever this happens I get another chance to practice patient humility as I thank them and obediently sit down.
And then there are some other emotions, like chagrin. These friendly folk don’t suspect that they are betraying how elderly and feeble I appear to them. I imagine their thoughts, “Poor old thing!” Their motives are purely kind, but they leave me wondering. Did I not leap up the bus stairs fast enough? Was I slouching? Am I wearing outdated clothes? Have they not seen anyone under ninety with natural grey hair? Should I get a brush cut and streak it with bright orange? Tattoos, maybe? Some chains, piercings and black leather pants? Is it make-up I lack? A facelift (shudder)?

Mixed feelings.