Sunday, December 25, 2011

The human face of the Divine

Text: Luke 2:1-20 (birth in a stable; shepherds and angels; Mary ponders)

Advent is over. Christmas is here. And so we listen again to the mysterious and joy-filled story of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.

Why do we love this story so much, I wonder? It tells of God's love come to earth. It doesn't come with great fanfare or terrible signs. God's Love comes as a baby born to a poor young girl in a humble stable.

In this baby -- Jesus the Christ Child -- we see the face of God. Like us, Jesus is born helpless and dependent. And like us, Jesus is filled with God's infinite potential.

Our human potential -- which is what marks us all as God's children -- flourishes in community. We grow in family, with neighbours, and in the wider society. Without care, love, and language, our minds would not reach their potential. But in the right conditions, all of us can participate in this world of wonders and experience the peace, love and joy promised to us at Christmas . . .

This Fall, on the CBC's The Nature of Things, I watched a story that intrigued me. It profiled a man from Montreal who was born blind. And it showed how well he was able to navigate the world with just the clicks from his cane. It even showed him skating around a rink in Montreal as the reporter interviewed him. And he seemed to navigate every turn and obstacle.

When researchers examined this man's brain with an MRI, they found that he was processing sound in the part of the brain that most of us use for visual processing. His brain had developed in a way similar to that of a bat. If this man had become blind as an adult, his brain would not have had the plasticity to shift sound processing to another part of his brain. But because he had been encouraged by his family to walk and even skate as a blind child, the potential of that part of his brain became a reality.

It is the same with all of us, I believe. We all begin life like Jesus as a helpless child. And then in the wonder and magic of caring families, in churches, in communities like this, and in the wider world, our minds and hearts grow and flourish.

Of course, our society not only provides us with caring conditions in which to grow. It also contains pain, conflict, sickness, and problems of all kinds. So even though we are all children of God born with unlimited potential, we cannot live up to this full potential without God's help.

And so we hear again the story that God came to earth as a child. We hear again that as Jesus of Nazareth he grew to be a leader. And that as God's son, he was arrested and executed on a cross in love and solidarity with us all. And so tonight as in any worship service, we remember how Jesus -- both as a baby born in a stable, and as an adult killed on a cross -- shows us a path to new life beyond the difficulties and pain of our society.

In the Christ Child, we see God's love in its most tender and gentle form. God does not overwhelm us with force. God does not compel us to worship him. Instead, God in the form of the Christ Child tends to overwhelm us with beauty and helplessness.

Remember times when you looked into the face of a newborn baby. Who has not been overwhelmed by love and joy -- and perhaps also fear -- in such moments? In a newborn child, we see all the wonderful if fragile potential of life and love.

For us gathered here tonight who have lived long and sometimes painful lives, God still calls to us as a baby. It is a call both to love God and to be loved by God. And so we hear the stories again and we sing the carols again. And we remember that God is with us. Emmanuel has come again. Light has come again. Love continues to lead us through life and then surely home to God.

Tonight in southern Saskatchewan as Christmas 2011 arrives, let us sense again how silently, how silently a wondrous gift is given. It is the gift of salvation, and it is born in us today. The gift is the birth of the Christ Child in hearts turned towards love on this night as on any night. It is the coming of God as a child, a child who is both a helpless infant and a saving King. It is the mystery, beauty and power of the Christmas story. And it is available to each and every one of us tonight in this little town.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

New life in a dark night

Text: Luke 2:1-7 (the birth of Jesus). Below is a liturgy of lighting Advent candles and a reflection offered last night at a "Blue Christmas" service at Wesley United Church in Rockglen Saskatchewan.

Over the last four Sundays, we have lit four candles on our Advent wreath. Tonight, we will re-light these candles one by one. As each one is lit, I have a few words to say on the theme of the candle. And after those words, I suggest that we take a moment in silence to think about the theme.

Our first candle represents hope. We value hope because there is so much suffering and loss in our lives and in the world. We believe that God in Christ offers us a firm source of hope. But it is a hope that lies in going deeper into life's valleys instead of avoiding them. Jesus is God with Us, which means that he is with us in life's despair as well as its joy. Let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's hope against the darkness of the difficulties in this world . . .

Our second candle represents peace. We value peace because there is still so much conflict in our lives and in the world. We believe that God in Christ offers us the firm promise of peace. But it is a peace that comes from struggling with life's conflicts and not by avoiding them. Jesus leads us to peace through non-violent resistance to those who bully us and those who would take us to war. Let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's peace against the backdrop of conflict that still remains in the world . . .

Our third candle represents joy. We value joy because there is so much pain and unhappiness in the world. We believe that God in Christ offers us a sure source of unshakeable joy. But it is a joy that grows as we go deeper into life's troubles instead of avoiding them. Let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's joy against the dark backdrop of the pain that still remains in the world . . .

Our fourth and final candle represents love. We value love above everything else in life because love is the source of growth and healing. We believe that God in Christ offers us a sure source of love. But it is a love that grows when we accept Jesus' help to join him on the Way of the Cross. By dying to our old ways of life, Jesus offers us new life in Christ, which is a life of never-ending love. So let us now spend a moment in silence as we reflect on the light of God's love against the backdrop of the pain of dying to an old way of life on the Way of the Cross.


Every year, Christians around the world celebrate at the darkest time of the year. It is a celebration of God With Us, Emmanuel. It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem so many years ago.

But the scene at Jesus' birth is not a triumphant one. While we call Jesus the King of Kings, he is born in a humble stable to a poor young woman. Like all babies, Jesus is born helpless and dependent. He is also born as a fugitive. No sooner have the wise men and the shepherds left, than Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape a campaign of King Herod to murder newborns in Bethlehem.

The humble conditions of Jesus' birth as our Messiah link up in my mind with the very humble and painful conditions of Jesus' death on the cross thirty years later.

At both Christmas and Easter, we have good reasons, I believe, to celebrate the good news of God's solidarity with us and of our salvation. But the difficult and humble conditions of both Jesus' birth and death mean that our muted Blue Christmas service tonight is not out of place with either event.

The story of Jesus as the Christ is filled with as much hope, peace, joy and love as good news ever can be. And yet it is good news that comes in a minor key. And that is part of the reason why I feel drawn to the church and to Jesus. The God who is revealed in Jesus is a God who is Love, but is also a God who suffers, a God who dies, and a God who shows us a route to new life out of this suffering and death. And I detect a strong note of reality in this.

We are confident that our sacred values of hope, peace, joy, and love are the most important ones. But given the pain of individual life and the problems in society, the news that new life comes through pain suffering can be seen in two different ways, I believe.

One option is to be depressed by this supposed "good news." Perhaps it might lead us to abandon Christianity for a sunnier religion; or drive us away from religion altogether.

The other option is to be cheered by this good news. If new life can be found through pain and death -- including the death of Jesus on the cross -- then I can see hope for all of us. Life in Christ does not mean that we will never experience pain. It does not mean that we will never experience loss. What it does mean is that we can live each moment --  whether ones of pain or joy, of loss or gain -- in and with the God who comes to us as a baby and the God who dies in pain with us on the cross.

The night may seem long and dark, but God is with us. Life may seem painful given that the more we love, the more we have to lose. But God is with us. And that is why we offer endless thanks and praise.

The God revealed to us in Jesus is not an easy God, but He is a reliable one. Against the backdrop of darkness, He is a God of hope, peace, joy and, above all, love.

And so on this long, dark, and sacred night, we say again, "Come, Lord Jesus, Come."


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Songs of love and justice

Text: Luke 1:26-38, 47-55 (the Angel Gabriel; Mary's Song). Dedicated readers may notice that this sermon is a slightly edited version of one by the same title that I delivered two years ago in Didsbury on the same text. 

From the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2007, I sang in a choir in Toronto called the Bell'Arte Singers. We weren't a professional choir. In fact as with many community choirs, each of us had to pay an annual fee for the privilege of being a member. But I didn't begrudge the money because I loved singing in this choir.

Bell'Arte had a Christmas concert the first year I was a member. One of the many things I liked about Bell'Arte was the program booklet produced for each concert. I found the notes to be quite detailed and interesting.

For that 2005 concert, the booklet commented on the meaning of Christmas and our hopes for a world of greater peace, joy and love. And that section ended with the sentence, "Another World is Possible." I was struck by this, since "Another World is Possible" was a key  slogan of the youthful anti-globalization movement of those years. You know -- the activists who show up for World Trade Organization talks like the big one in Seattle in 1999 and who protest against corporate greed.

A 2011 version would have meant trying to relate the concert to the slogans of this Fall's Occupy Wall Street movement.

Just before the concert began, I pointed out the line "Another World is Possible" to the conductor and asked if he had written it. He told me "no," but said that he agreed with the idea. In fact, he said that our concert that evening would prove the slogan right. Our Christmas Program that evening, he said, would nudge the world maybe a millimetre closer to its salvation. And while that might seem like an odd idea, I found myself agreeing with him! That night as a choir we were doing our small bit to help change the world one joyous song at a time.

When I began full time studies for a Masters of Divinity degree in the fall of 2007, I had to leave Bell'Arte because I was also still working full time, and something had to give. But I loved the Bell'Arte choir and it made me a better singer . . .

In our Gospel reading today, Mary, upon learning that she is to give birth to Jesus, sings a song. It is a song of joy, love, and hope for a better world. In her song, she rejoices in the mercy and justice of God and predicts that the hungry will be filled and that the rich and powerful will be brought down from their thrones.

This passage from Luke is one of the most famous of the entire Bible, and it is especially liked by musicians. Many different composers have set Mary's song to music, and such musical settings often have the title Magnificat because in the Latin translation of Luke's original Greek text, the first word of the song is Magnificat -- "My soul magnifies the Lord." The English translation is evocative as well.

And the hymn that we will sing after the sermon is inspired by Mary's Love Song.

But though Mary sang this song over 2,000 years ago, the world still has too many hungry people. And it also has too many rich and powerful people whom we would like to see thrown down off their thrones. So is there any point in singing such songs of joy, love and justice?

You may have noticed this summer and fall, that singing is really important to me. I love to sing, and  the most important part of worship for me is often the hymns. I am  pleased that singing is strong in all three points of Borderlands pastoral charge, and I have greatly enjoyed being a member in the Coronach and Rockglen community choirs this Fall. I will be sad after our final concert this afternoon at Grasslands Health Centre.

When I returned to attending church services regularly in 2001, singing in the choir was a key part of it. By joining the choir at my local church, Kingston Road United in east Toronto, I found a wonderful new group of friends. I found a place to sit each Sunday. I found a role in worship. And I found that worshipping each Sunday, and trying to express our faith in song, was starting to affect me quite deeply.

Perhaps the choir wasn't changing the world; but it was certainly helping to change me. And perhaps that was enough?

In worship in general, and in sacred songs in particular, we come together to remind ourselves of what we most value in life. This Advent, as always, we have used our Sunday services to remind ourselves of God's Grace under the headings of Hope in times of despair, of Peace in times of violence, of Joy in times of difficulties of all kinds, and of Love in the face of injustice.

When worship works to transform us as individuals and as a community, it can have many effects. It might mean that we work to feed people who are hungry and to comfort people who are feeling sad. It might mean that we protest unjust rulers as young Occupy activists do.

But even when worship doesn't have these clear or immediate effects in terms of actions, it can help restore our sense of priorities and our balance. When we come together to sing songs of God's love and God's justice, we both remind ourselves of the importance of beauty, and often create some of that beauty; we both remind ourselves that God's grace is always available to us and we sometimes experience an opening to that Grace in the moment; we both remind ourselves that God's reign will be one of equality and freedom for all; and we sometimes live out that equality in the sacred space and time of the worship service; and we both remind ourselves that our greatest desire and need in life is for love of God and neighbour and we often experience God's loving touch right here and now.

Worship doesn't just involve singing, of course. It also involves spoken prayer and times of sacred silence. It can also involve dance, meditation, drumming, sharing circles, and  drama. And it often involves wordy sermons, in which we sometimes lose the thread that connects us to the Divine instead of grasping that thread more firmly!

But it usually involves at least some singing. And even for those of us who don't like to sing or don't feel confident about our voices, I imagine that the impulse to burst into song still sometimes happens. Singing involves the movement of the spirit in our bodies until it unites word with breath, bone and muscle to express ideas and emotions that are difficult to express in other ways.

And so when Mary accepted the difficult and amazing news of the Angel Gabriel, it makes sense to me that she sang a song. And it makes sense to me that it was not only a song of joy and of thanksgiving, but also a song that called for food for the hungry and for the rich to be thrown off their thrones.

But simply by singing her song, Mary didn't make God's reign appear right then and there. Nor did Luke, by writing it down many years later, make the world right just by that fact. Even the coming of Jesus, which Mary's song is about, didn't end all problems, or end all pain, or bring the reign of God to earth.

Or did it? In some ways, singing song's again like Mary's remind us both that we have a lot of work to do as individuals and as a church to make the world right; and that in that moment of singing, in that act of worship, in that reminder of what we value and want, the reign of God is right here -- Jesus is right here, in this moment, this breath, this sacred act of worship and remembrance. Another world is not only possible. Another world, God's world, the world we want -- it is right here, right now.

So this week, as Advent ends and Christmas comes again, and as we sing those familiar, wonder-filled and joy-filled carols, let us do so aware that we are joining with Mary in her song of love and justice.

On Christmas Eve and for the rest of the season, we will sing carols. In those carols and with God's help, we will remember again the hope that we feel even in dark times; the peace that we experience even in the face of conflict and violence; the joy that we feel even in the midst of life's ups and downs; and the love of God that we experience in this song, this breath, this moment, both now and always.

Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

A year without Christmas?

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (Rejoice!); John 1:6-8, 19-28 (testifying to the Light)

Not everyone loves Christmas. Despite the hope, peace, joy and love we are supposed to experience during Advent; despite the celebrations of the coming of God's light into a dark world; and despite all the parties, meals, and gift-giving, some of us may not feel much like Christmas this year.

Maybe we are already busy and don't want a whole new round of Christmas activities to add to our calendar. Maybe we are grieving a loss and don't feel particularly peaceful or joyful. Maybe we are not getting along with some of our family members and don't look forward to big family gatherings. Maybe our budget is already tight before the annual ritual of gift-buying. 

And so, maybe this year we would rather join with Ebeneezer Scrooge to say "Bah, Humbug" instead of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

If we feel this way, could we just skip Christmas this year?

This idea of skipping Christmas came to my mind because our weekly Scripture readings do not include a reading from Mark today or for the next four weeks. The list skips over Mark even though we are just three Sundays into the Year of Mark, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. 

We have temporarily abandoned Mark because Mark's Gospel -- unlike Matthew's and Luke's, whose Gospels form the spine of the other two years, Years A and C -- does not tell the story of the birth of Jesus. This week our Gospel reading is from John, which also contains no birth stories. And for a reason that escapes me, today's reading from John closely parallels the reading we heard from Mark last week about John the Baptist. 

Next week and until mid-January, we will switch to Luke. And next Sunday we will also finally come to something related to Christmas in a reading about the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. To celebrate Christmas at Sunday worship services this year, we leave Mark behind for a month.

But what about a radical alternative? Instead of padding Year B, the Year of Mark, with Christmas stories from Luke, could we not just skip Christmas every third year? Do we really need to celebrate it every year, especially since so many of us have trouble with the hoopla around Christmas?

I imagine that it might seem odd to hear this idea from a minister; and it is not one that I seriously propose. I raise it today for a few reasons: to give some background on the puzzling selections in the Lectionary, to highlight the sadness many of us experience at Christmas, and to ask the question of how we can experience true joy at Christmas instead of the forced joy that sometimes marks this season. Joy is available to us this Christmas as at any moment. But what is a sure path to it?

St. Paul in our reading from First Thessalonians today urges us to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances." And when life goes our way, it might seem easy to rejoice. If our family is happy, our community peaceful, our bank accounts full, the weather fair, and the economic outlook good, who wouldn't want to rejoice?

However, our household may not always be happy. We may be unsuccessful in finding love or companionship. We may be sick. We may not have recovered yet from the floods of the spring. We may be worried about agricultural prices or the job outlook. We may be thinking of moving to the city because there are still no doctors in this region. The list could go on. 

If these circumstances are ours this year, is it still possible for us to rejoice, pray and give thanks? I believe that we can do so when, with God's help, we also look deeply into our troubling circumstances. And that is a good reason, I believe, to hear the Christmas stories every year, even in the Year of Mark.

The stories of the birth of Jesus remind us again that everyday and difficult conditions are those in which God's help is most visible to us.

At Christmas, we remember that God comes to us in the form of a helpless baby who is full of the promise of light, life, and love. Christmas, like Easter, reminds us that God's strength lies in weakness, that love and grace lie in ordinary conditions and that God is with us even in the most humble of circumstances.

And so most of us look forward to Christmas regardless of how the rest of our year has gone. We look forward to the star, the stable, and the birth of God's son to a poor young woman and her carpenter husband. We connect the beautiful and humble beginning of the life of Jesus with the terrible and humble end of Jesus' life on the cross. Jesus is God in solidarity with us. Like us, he is born as a helpless infant who is filled with God's infinite potential. Like us he dies in humiliation and pain. And like us, he is raised by God to new life through the power of God's Spirit.

St Paul urges us not to quench the Spirit, to heed the difficult words of prophets like Isaiah and to test everything. Testing everything might include questioning some of our Christmas traditions. It might involve wondering about the differences between the birth stories in Matthew and Luke and their absence from John and Mark. And it might involve going deeper into our sadness, pain and loss at Christmas instead of immediately focusing on joy, wonder and praise.

Many of us, I believe, feel drawn to pray every day, to worship every Sunday, and to celebrate Christmas every year not because our situation is wonderful but precisely because it is not so wonderful. It may be tough times that prompt us to try to pray, worship and celebrate.

This is the case with St. Paul, I believe. Paul often writes of his suffering. He writes of his fears of attack, arrest and death. He writes of his disappointments in congregations that he helped to create. But he has been healed by his encounter with the Risen Christ and he lives in the sure hope of life in Christ in any moment and at the end of life. And so Paul rejoices, prays and gives thanks. 

I am glad that the early church set the date of Christmas at the end of December. You know, 90% of the people on earth live in the northern hemisphere where Dec 22nd is the shortest day of the year. So many of us crave a celebration of the return of light at this time of year. There is nothing in the Bible that says when Jesus' birth occurred. But it makes sense to me that we celebrate it at the end of December.

I am also glad that our churches more and more recognize the difficulties some of us have with the hype and forced gaiety of Christmas. One of my favourite services each year is Blue Christmas, where those of us who are mourning or dealing with sadness in our lives -- and who would not be included in that group? -- gather to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child in a sombre and reflective way. 

This year, we will hold a Blue Christmas service at Wesley United Church in Rockglen on Thursday December 22nd at 7:30 pm. And if anyone from Coronach or Fife Lake would like to come to that service, please let me know. Perhaps we could car pool there.

At that service, we will not skip the candles nor hopes for peace, joy and love in our lives. But we will search for God's hope in failure as well as success, for God's peace in families and communities that sometimes suffer from aggression and hurt, and for God's joy and love in hard times as well as easy ones.

If some years we skip the decorations, gifts, and big family meals with all the trimmings at Christmas, I could be OK with that. But during any Christmas, I try to remember God's solidarity with us in Christ Jesus both as a helpless infant and as our Redeemer on the cross. At Christmas as at any time, God in Christ comes to us humbly to help turn loneliness into soulful solitude, pain into perseverance, hurt into love, despair into hope, and fear into an unshakeable joy.
And so this Advent as we wait again in hope for peace and joy, we repeat the refrain . . . 

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Peace, inside and out

Text: Mark 1:1-8 (John the Baptist prepares the way)

Peace begins with us, it is often said. And I am sure there is truth in that statement. The more each of us can adopt a peaceful attitude in everyday life, the more peaceful our families, communities and the world will be. The other side of this states that when bullying or violence erupts around us, we are likely to suffer more inner conflict.

The first statement describes a virtuous circle: inner peace leading to less violence, leading to more inner peace. The second statement describes a vicious circle: external violence leading to inner conflict, leading to more violence.

So here is some good news on this Second Sunday of Advent. Some analysts suggest that violence is less prevalent today than at others times in history. Despite continuing brutality and war, the number of victims of war is relatively low and in decline. And violent crime in countries like Canada is also on a long and steady decline. It could be that we are living in some of the most peaceful conditions people have ever known.

This relative decline in violence, does not mean, of course, that all war or violence has disappeared. For instance, there will be approximately 500 murders in Canada this year. But the rate of murder and other violent crimes has been decreasing for decades now in Canada . . .

One thing that struck me when I moved to Borderlands five months ago was the lack of concern about crime here. We usually don't lock our houses or cars, and crime rarely makes it into the local papers.

But although we feel quite safe in southern Saskatchewan, our province does have the highest rate of violent crime in Canada. This fact might be connected to another one, that Saskatchewan also has the highest proportion of First Nations people of any province. I hasten to add that I do not believe that First Nations people are more likely to commit crime than other groups. I say it simply to point out there is often a connection between social misery and crime.

And as the news reports this past week about the terrible living conditions in the northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat this week highlight, First Nations people continue to live in conditions that are much worse than those of many other groups in our country.

Housing and health conditions like the ones in Attawapiskat reflect not only the legacy of the defeat and conquest of First Nations. They also reflect ongoing racism and social barriers faced by native people, I believe. The news this week from Attawapiskat also reminds us that violence not only takes the form of crime and war but also that of social inequality and lack of opportunity.

Nevertheless, crime rates continue to drop everywhere in Canada and in much of the world. These declines lie behind the controversy about the federal government's new crime bill. All the crime experts that I have heard speak on the issue fear that this new law might increase crime rather than decrease it even as it will greatly increase the amount of money the state spends on courts and prisons.

But despite what the experts say, our government forges ahead to build more prisons, increase sentences, and focus more on punishment than on crime prevention. And since the government now has a majority of seats in parliament, this new bill will become law next week . . .

The decline in military violence came to my attention in a Remembrance Day sermon I read by Vancouver minister Rev. Bruce Sanguin. His sermon centred on a new book by Stephen Pinker called "The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined." Pinker presents statistics that show the percentage of people who are now victims of war is lower than at almost any time in history. And other forms of violence, such as police brutality, torture, and domestic abuse, are also lower today than in the past.

Of course, it would only take a "minor" war involving nuclear weapons to overturn Pinker's statistics. Nevertheless, I was cheered to learn of his book.

War does continue, of course. There is continued fighting in Afghanistan. Israel  threatens to attack Iran. There are several bloody conflicts in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And massive resources continue to be poured into the military worldwide. Canada, with its impending order of 65 fighter jets at a cost that may approach $50 billion, is no exception.

As well, state violence such as arbitrary arrest and torture continue in various countries. We pray for democracy across the Arab world after this year's uprisings even as we watch in dismay as people continue to be killed in substantial numbers in countries like Egypt and in huge numbers in countries like Syria and Yemen.

We are often told that the main ingredient of democracy is free and fair elections. But perhaps an even more important factor is human rights. A country can only be considered democratic if demonstrators are not shot, journalists are not arrested, and torture chambers are closed. We pray and work for this reality to spread to Egypt and all countries in the world even as we mourn the current victims of state violence.

And even as family violence rates decline, I am still struck by how many of us come from backgrounds scarred by minor or major neglect, abuse or bullying. The numbers of us who struggle all our lives with the legacy or present reality of emotional or physical abuse remains far too high.

Finally, there is popular culture. It continues to trade heavily on depictions of violence. Can we imagine a culture in which the latest CSI episode showed police officers waiting in boredom because there were no murders to solve? Or can we imagine a first person shooter video game in which the protagonist searched in vain for a monster or bad guy to attack? Unfortunately, I find it hard to imagine such things happening anytime soon.

So even as crime, war and family conflict decline, our world has a long way to go before all of us can live with the security, freedom, and peace that we want.

Perhaps there is not a lot any one of us can do about war, brutality or violent crime. We can and do pray for peace with justice. We can and do speak out for nonviolent conflict resolution between countries. We can and do strive for a world order that is based more on cooperation and human rights than on competition and war. But our efforts as individuals only take us so far . . .

Our Gospel reading from Mark this morning points towards God's Holy Spirit as a key resource for peace in the world. In the reading, John the Baptist proclaims that when Jesus comes, he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Mark says that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So even as we try to turn towards God's light this Advent, our reading reminds us that we have already been baptized into new life with Christ. And all of us continue to be supported by God's Spirit in any moment of crisis.

One of the many fruits of baptismal life in Christ, I think, is greater inner peace. Baptism helps to lift the burden of positive or negative judgement from our shoulders. When life disappoints or hurts us, Christ's solidarity with our suffering means we do not need to label ourselves as bad. Likewise, when life pleases us, our life in Christ means we do not need to label ourselves as good. In happy times, we can give the glory to God in Christ. Likewise, in painful times we can leave judgement to Christ our Saviour.

Of course, none of us lives fully into our baptismal status every moment. We often do judge ourselves or others as bad or good. And while such positive and negative judgements are a mistake, in my opinion, personally I have found it very difficult to tame my inner judge and turn it into a more honest and Christ-like voice.

In any life, there will be things, events and people that we like; and there will be things events and people that we do not like. And while likes and dislikes often lead to us to judge, this leap to judgement is not a necessary one. I try to not judge, though often I don't succeed. Still, I try. I see it as a spiritual practice that might help tame my inner critic. Instead of judging, I try to always keep my reactions at the level of likes and dislikes.

Judgements are debatable while likes, dislikes and feelings are above debate. Take the simple example of a movie. One person may like it. Another may dislike it. Neither reaction proves that the movie is good or bad. They simply tell us something  true about the two people. Tyring to go further to agree on the so-called objective value of the movie is neither necessary nor desirable, in my opinion.

I hope that by only speaking about likes, dislikes and feelings in little things like movies, I might also remember not to judge myself or others in bigger things.

When we leave judgement to God, we relieve ourselves of the need to bolster or attack our egos. Long ago, we were baptized by the Holy Spirit into life in Christ. This new life in Christ means that our identity is found in Christ and not in our egos.

In moments when we feel secure and happy, we can give thanks to God and enjoy inner peace. In moments when we feel under attack or in pain, we can try to leave judgement to God. And with God's help, we can try to maintain inner peace as we work toward a resolution to our problems.

Christ lives in us. Christ is in solidarity with us. And so we are freed to live with self-respect even when our circumstances are difficult or oppressive.

And what about those times when we forget our baptismal status? In such moments, we may judge and perhaps get caught up in conflict. Well, the good news is that the Holy Spirit is always present to wake us up again to the reality of our life in Christ.

These wake up calls restore inner balance even when we are in conflict. In such moments, the Holy Spirit helps us move from the vicious circle that spirals downwards to violence and back to the virtuous one that spirals upwards to peace . . .

This Advent as we wait and prepare for Christmas, we give thanks for the relative peace that reigns in our families and in our world. We also pray and work to end all bullying, all crime, and all war.

God's light is about to enter the world again as the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit helps us turn towards this light and reminds us that we have been baptized into new life in Christ. In this new life, we are freed from the judgements of our egos and opened to the peace and justice that is our birthright as children of God.

And so this Advent as we continue to hope and pray for peace, we say again . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, come.