Advent – in the cold and the dark.

I hadnt’t thought about it, but a friend asked me today if I was going to write something about Advent, which, I guess, starts this coming Sunday.

I find Christmas a very challenging time. For those of us who are essentially ‘on our own’ in life, it’s a hard thing. There’s a call to return to the heart of the family, deck the halls, bring out the old Christmas decorations and comment and remember, “Oh yes, this is the one you brought home by mistake from the Christmas party” and “Oh, right, that’s the one we bought in the antique store”. Eggnog maybe, and a few carols. Trim the hearth and set the table.

But I’m increasingly trying, or pretending I’m trying, or even just thinking about trying, to detach all of that from the birth of Jesus. The pagan festivals are lovely, the pomp and candle-light and solemn joy of them. But Jesus was born in a chilly stable on a winter night in a hard country. The shepherds who heard of it were huddled together on a cold night. Christmas is out there in the cold and the dark.

And even for people in the heart of family, at the end of the day, the turkey carcase put away, the gift wrap all recycled or burned, I think there’s often this feeling of “Is that all there is?’”. Something missing. All the build-up and the shine and the golden fanfare and the doors flung open, and a sense of loss.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” the carol says. It’s frightening to go too deep into the silence and the darkness – we may just find our own broken heart there. Maybe a little less fruit-cake and egg-nog, and a little more locusts and honey?

On the other hand you might say, though you’re probably too kind and I’d best say it for myself, “Billyboy, if you hadn’t wrecked your life maybe you’d be building a golden Christmas in the heart of a family, nodding off by the fire waiting for Santa to come.”

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Pain, Trauma, and the Ocean of God

It’s been a rough week. I’ve had to do some medical investigation. Some of it has been painful, invasive, and traumatizing. Some of it has raised questions where I’ve needed to look at difficult decisions. I often entertain the idea of death. I don’t think I’m afraid of it. But then I realizine that no one is probably afraid of death. It’s the dying part that scares us. If God could just come quietly in and say “All right, child. I’m going to put out the light now. Just snuggle in,” I think that might, for me at least, be fairly easy to accept.

Almost three years ago I lost my right eye. It was trauma for sure, and the anaesthetic did, I believe, a lot of damage. Six month’s later I couldn’t walk a block. Had to send apologies and not attend my lovely son’s wedding. Six months later, still very ill, I quit eating altogether for two months. Though I wasn’t praying much at that time, I kind of said “God, heal me or kill me, okay?”

At the end of that two months I was taken to visit a Christian holy woman living in a cottage on the lake. She prayed intensely over me, and I swam. When I came back she gave me a little ice cream.

And from there we’ve never looked back. She took my hand and led me into Christian community, and while it’s been a complex relationship, it only gets better. It’s many years since I felt so well. I have hard days, still, and I am never quite able to distinguish physical from emotional issues, nor to tell when I’m dealing with a dark night of the soul, and when it’s just depression. But my body is stronger than I maybe can remember it being in the last five years. I have appetite and gusto and life has become a bright, clean, colourful living space. I don’t want to see that go, slip into illness, loss of joie de vivre, slipping into chronic illness and then . . . .

But while I was going through the hurting and scary part of the medical investigation I had a strong experience of being held. I lay down one afternoon and just let go and dropped, no fighting, just let it come. What I experienced was myself as a kind of scrim, a sigil or a hieroglyph written on dark water, written in white fire. The fire was intense, as were the pain and the trauma (the medical procedure woke old and difficult physical memories, old trauma) but below them was a vast darkness, kind of like ocean. Dark not as in evil or sinister, just dark as in other.

As I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been coming to understand that God is outside of my sensory range. That’s going to translate, for me, as darkness, as other, as non-phenomenal or something. I pray into a huge silence. To find Heaven among us we need to surrender to the What-Isn’t, into what is in the dark. Again, dark not as evil, but as not available to five-sensory perception. As I lay on that difficult afternoon I was aware of riding a great ocean of Love. I saw that things may indeed hurt, may finally hurt quite a lot, be written in letters of fire, but that always there’s something vast that bears us up even when we are lost in pain. It says “Of course it hurts. Never mind. I’m here.” It doesn’t, in my experience, lift away the pain. It kind of recontextualizes it.

Subsequent to that day I’ve had to look at the possibility for some fairly dire outcomes, and I’ve been comforted and held by what I felt and knew that afternoon.

Along the way, Christian friends have been praying hard for me, waiting with me while I waited for outcomes.

I may never in my life have wanted to live quite so much as I want it now.

Remembrance Day

It’s Remembrance Day here in Canada. It’s when we remember the people who have died in war. All my life I’ve rejected it. When I was eleven our teacher mentioned something about crimes of war. I put my hand up and asked “Isn’t all war a crime?” No one had told me this; I just knew it.

As the war in the Middle East continues, and there are more than a thousand ‘advisors’ on the ground in Iraq, one remembers, if they are as old as I am, the ‘advisors’ in Viet Nam.

It’s too easy, too essentially a lie, to say that Corporal Fred Wiggins died for freeom and democracy, just because we sent him off. We need to take a look at what ‘dying for democracy’ looks like, to know what really happens to a young man when an explosive device blows away the lower part of his body, or when mortar fragments blow off his face and it takes him two days to die. Or perhaps take a peek at what the local civilian population might be doing, and watch a six-year-old boy tie to exctinguis the screaming ball of flame that was once his mother.

There’s no goodness in any of this. We throw living flesh into the meat-grinder of geo-politics and spend a few minutes in early November standing about and proclaiming that they died for ‘democracy’. It’s possible that war is hard-wired into humans, the same as it is into ants, and that we have no choice about it. If that’s so, let’s at least tell the truth, and admit that we’re caught in the teeth of a biological imperative that no longer serves us.

Jesus made it very clear. “Love one another”. This is very difficult, but it’s not ambiguous at all.

Radical St. Paul: Romans 7

I’m reading the Epistle to the Romans and it’s going off like bombs inside me. Not every word of it, sometimes Paul goes places where I wonder what was going on. His stuff about obeying the law, respecting authority and trusting the police seems to me perhaps to have something to do with the context he was writing in. Were the early Christians debating what exactly they should be rendering unto Caesar? In my time I have known of police urinating on teenaged boys, and with my own eyes have seen them beat a mentally ill man into an epileptic seizure and then stand around him drinking coffee and laughing. I have seen welfare workers bully and terrorize people with mental illness. I have seen medical authorities turn a very young man out of the hospital at six a.m. with a roughly stitched throat wound, no analgesic, and into no one’s care but the street, where he had no money even to get home. As Canadians we all know what residential schools were, and what our own home-grown genocide looks like. There are places where one has to work with St. Paul, come to the core meaning and not get hung up. But this, for me, isn’t one of them. The man who threw government-licensed money-lenders out of the Temple and called religious authorities “whited sepulchres” was likely a supporter of civil disobedience.

On the other hand, in Romans 07 Paul lays out a framework that is, at least to me, absolutely revolutionary. Do all Christians know this? Is it a closely guarded secret? Or do many prefer not to follow it to its logical conclusion?

The quote is as follows (King James Version):

“Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law:”

This takes my breath away. No Law, no Sin. Once there is Law, Sin becomes inevitable, and we will do those things we will not to do, and vice versa. The Enemy uses the Law against us, and it becomes death.

It follows from this that our preoccupation with sin, with rules, with governing our sinful natures and fearing God, all of it just becomes a bulwark between us and the love of God and the freedom of living in Christ. Paul is saying that it’s no longer necessary, or even sane, to obsess over what we should and shouldn’t do. All the laws are subsumed into two: love God and love each other.

This is, relatively speaking, easy to say, but terrifying to do. It suggests that I can’t even know for sure what the rules are. It calls for a different kind of obedience, and absolute trust. As I do this, things I haven’t much liked about myself seem to disappear, and desires to do things that are, in important ways, really not good for me, just stop being there. It’s an astonishing (to me) concept: don’t be struggling to do what’s right, or fighting with desires to do what’s wrong. If you do, you’re working with the wrong road-map. Really there is no road-map, just the compass of God’s love.