Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Post

Christmas isn't about giving. It's about receiving.

I've heard many a sermon, not to mention a Christmas Special, about the season of giving. Charles Dickens may be the one who really popularized the idea of Christmas as the season of giving. I heard an (otherwise fairly good) sermon on Sunday that ended by saying: "If we know that giving makes us happier at Christmastime, we should know that we can be happier all year by giving."

I also heard a study on CBC radio that said there is now scientific evidence that giving makes the giver happier. We give, and it makes us feel good.

But Christmas isn't the season of giving. It's the season of getting.

Have you ever gotten a present from someone you didn't know very well, or didn't like very much? A present that was so much better than what you'd gotten them that you didn't really know how to react? Did it make you grateful, or embarrassed? How do you respond when someone you didn't get anything for gives you the best present of the year?

Christmas is about that kind of receiving. On Christmas we remember that we have received from God, not only all of creation, and not only our own life, not only the promise of peace on earth and goodwill among people, but the gift of the incarnation--God With Us. As we remember the birth of Christ we remember also the life, the teaching, the death, the resurrection. God has given us a gift beyond measure, so far beyond our ability to reciprocate that we must be only receivers, not givers.

Merry Christmas
Thanks be to God

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How to Write A Major Paper: The Paul Method

  1. Read the assignment instructions carefully
  2. Re-read the instructions
  3. Have you written anything else for this professor? If so, read the comments from that paper.
  4. Choose your topic
  5. Choose an appropriate number of sources. Make sure you use some current sources. Check JSTOR or some other academic database for online access to current journals.
  6. You need a break. Watch TV, or even better, download an episode of your favourite TV show onto your computer
  7. Make an outline
  8. You need a break. Go for a walk
  9. That outline doesn't look any good. Rewrite it
  10. Re-read the assignment instructions
  11. Write your first paragraph
  12. That looks great! You're on a roll!
  13. Update your facebook status to tell everybody about your great success so far at writing this paper
  14. That first paragraph sucks. Rewrite it
  15. You need a break. Surf the internet for awhile
  16. Write steadily for 20 minutes
  17. You're doing great! This is an easy paper to write!
  18. How many pages?
  19. Three! Awesome! That's practically done!
  20. Wait. How long does this paper have to be again?
  21. Re-read the assignment instructions
  22. THAT long!?!?
  23. Panic
  24. You need a break. Go buy some junk food, and eat it while staring at a blank page
  25. Write a paragraph
  26. That paragraph sucks. Delete it.
  27. Update your facebook status to show that your previous enthusiasm is waning
  28. Re-read one of your sources
  29. Stare at a blank screen
  30. You need a break. Watch another episode of True Blood
  31. Okay. Focus.
  32. Man, it's late. You'd better get to bed
  33. Next day: re-read what you have so far
  34. Update your facebook status
  35. Write for 20 solid minutes
  36. Wow! You're amazing!
  37. Update your facebook status
  38. You've earned a break. Surf the net for awhile
  39. Update your facebook status
  40. Re-read the assignment instructions
  41. Re-read what you have so far
  42. Check the time
  43. CRAP! The paper is due first thing tomorrow, and you're only halfway done!
  44. Panic
  45. Update your facebook status
  46. Write steadily for 20 minutes
  47. Re-read what you have so far
  48. ... I guess it makes sense if you move THAT part over HERE
  49. Now just add a conclusion
  50. Conclusion...
  51. Stare at your paper
  52. Update your facebook status
  53. Re-state your introduction
  54. Go to bed
  55. Wake up
  56. Shoot! You need a bibliography!
  57. Panic
  58. Assemble and write your bibliography
  59. Print your paper, and hand it in
  60. Update your facebook status

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A slightly abbreviated version of my sermon for the first of Advent

We have a rule in my house.

We don't start preparing for Christmas until the First of Advent. No Christmas carols, no decorations, not even any eggnog.

I made this rule up myself—though sometimes Jan has to keep me from buying eggnog—because I can't wait for Christmas.

Growing up, my family were never much for waiting. We didn't open our presents on Christmas morning, we opened them whenever my oldest sister decided to start opening hers. Which, since she's lived away from home, has usually been the minute she walks in the door. As I kid could never keep myself from eating all the chocolates in my advent calendar, all at once. I was the kind of kid who tried to find my presents and open them even earlier, and to be honest I still do that. When I get birthday presents in the mail, I always open them right away—even if they say “Do not open until your birthday”.

But a few years ago, after I started to fall in love with the Anglican church and its liturgy, I started to realize that Christmas, like Easter, is too important to rush into. Advent, like Lent, is a fast period that lets us get ready for the feast that ends it.

For four weeks all of creation holds its breath. Waiting.

Tomorrow is Advent. Tomorrow I get to start waiting. One of the beauties of the Church Year is that the church, in its wisdom, knows about the need to prepare.

Advent is a time of preparation, a time of renewal, a time of waiting. It is, like Lent, a time of penitence, and though it is a time of hope, it is also, a time of mourning—for even the most hopeful future means the loss of the present. In advent we do not only prepare for this coming Christmas—getting ourselves ready, decorating and buying presents, counting down the days until the party, and we do not only celebrate the first coming of Christ—putting ourselves in the mindset of the Jews under Roman rule, yearning for a long-promised Messiah who would at last set things right, waiting with breathless anticipation with Mary and Joseph, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, who knew that the time was at hand, but didn't know what to expect, and who could scarcely allow themselves to believe it—we also celebrate—we also prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ. And though we look with hope toward the world to come, the new heaven and the new earth, we are also looking forward to death, and to the end of this earth. In advent we are waiting for the coming of the apocalypse.

In advent we wait. We wait for the master to return and set all things right, but what will we do if when the master returns, we aren't ready? What if when the master returns to set all things right, we are still wrong?

In the aftermath of World War One, the London Times wrote to several eminent English thinkers asking for essays on the topic: “What's wrong with the world?”

G.K. Chesteron responded:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G.K. Chesterton.

In our Gospel reading for today—as we enter Advent—Jesus talks about the end of the world. His imagery is not particularly reassuring. Jesus says:

"In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

The “suffering” that Jesus mentions here is the apocalypse he has been speaking of just before this passage begins. Jesus warns of wars and rumours of wars, of desolation and sacrilege, of false Christs and false prophets, and trouble such as has not been seen from the beginning of the creation. Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jesus gives his disciples a warning that should be especially poignant to Winnipeggers: “Pray that it may not happen in winter”.

There are two possible errors that arise from Apocalyptic passages like these—prophetic passages that gives us signs of the end of the age.

The laundromat across the street from my building has a tv that is often set to a Christian tv network, and the show that airs some show I don't know the title of, but the thrust of the show is to use news items to predict the end of the world. With a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other. they draw connections between current events and the books of Revelation or Daniel or Ezekiel. The goal of this show, and others like it, and countless books since even before Jesus' first coming—is to pinpoint the exact moment of the end of the world. It is about putting God on a schedule—or more charitably, trying to understand God's schedule.

But Jesus explicitly says that we don't know when the time will come:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

“You do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow”

So attempts to pinpoint the exact date and time of the second coming are futile, and the more literally we take this text the more literally we must take Jesus' extortions that no one knows about the day and hour.

The other error is complacency. To dismiss these apocalyptic messages as irrelevant to our world, as purely symbolic. To act as though this life were all that matters—were all that exists. To behave as though this world in its current incarnation were eternal. To live without hope, and without fear.

But Jesus tells us, in verse 23, just before our reading for this evening: “But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand”. And at the end of our gospel reading he says:

Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

The King James translates “keep awake” as “Watch”. Eugene Peterson translates it as: “Keep a sharp lookout”.

Jesus does give us signs that we may recognize. He gives us something to wait for. And he gives us instructions.

The two errors have both the same result—and ultimately the same goal. The desire to pinpoint the exact moment of Christ's return and the desire to deny the possibility of that return are both attempts to avoid the responsibility of waiting.

When I was in high school my parents would sometimes go out for an evening, and leave me with a list of chores to do before they came home. There were two basic ways the evening might go for me.

If they told me they would be home by 10:00, I would goof off, read, watch tv, until about 9:30, then frantically try to do all the chores before they got home.

If they didn't tell me when they would be home, I would try to guess, and then do the chores at the last possible moment.

Of course, what I should have done, was finish the chores immediately, and make sure that no matter when my parents came home I would be ready for them. And what is it that God demands of us? What does Jesus command us to do so that when he returns we will be ready for him?

Watch. Stay awake. Keep a sharp look out. Wait. Wait actively.

This kind waiting is harder than it sounds. For two thousand years we have been awake, and waiting. Longer. The reading from Isaiah already sounds like someone tired of waiting.

Like our reading from Isaiah, we feel sometimes that we live in a disenchanted world—a world devoid of God's presence.

And even though our inquities, like the wind, carry us away, and even though we may recognize, like G.K. Chesterton, that we are what is wrong with the world, we wait in hope. For when Christmas comes, when the Messiah comes, when Jesus Christ comes to us to make all things right, he will make us right also.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.