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Archive for December 2016

Finding Christmas in Dark Times

~ Ronald Zajac/The Recorder and Times

Recently, I had to introduce myself to a group of people and my turn came after a friend who was described as “the life of the party.”   I was not yet in a festive mood, so I reverted to my favourite refuge of irony.

“I’m a journalist and I tend to talk a lot about politics, so I’m usually the death of the party,” I quipped.

That’s right: At any given family gathering, I’m the guy who is likeliest to “go there.”  But this year, “going there” has reminded me more intensely of what Christmas really is.

The truth is, my thoughts, like my social media feeds, have mostly been hyper-political this year, and, if left unchecked by my better angels and a watchful editor, I could easily turn a Christmas column into the death of the Christmas party.

So, if you’re still with me at this point, let me go as far as this: The Year of Our Lord 2016 has not been kind to people of my  political inclinations. Those of us who sincerely fear for the fate of democracy have transitioned, in recent weeks, from despair to gloom to resignation to a nascent resolve to suit up for a fight, because we expect, soon enough, to see the fight come to our own corner of the Earth.

Christmas is supposed to be a beacon of light in the darkness, but this year that darkness has become particularly perilous, with intolerance of the racial or ethnic variety on the ascendant.  And so I hear the kind of sappy Christmas pop tunes I disdained in this same space last year and I think to myself: “What an   unforgivable waste of time.”

These are not the merry thoughts that go down smoothly with eggnog, but then, the original Christmas has about as little to do with eggnog as the original Easter has to do with the bunny rabbit.

I was reminded of this at what has become a favourite pre-Christmas ritual: Covering the Gathering for Peace at Christ United Church in Lyn.   To a Christian, at the heart of Christmas is the biggest contradiction in the world: A tiny, vulnerable child born in abject conditions in an occupied country, who also happens to be King of the Universe.  I was reminded of this by Reverend Wendy MacLean, who told the gathering that our presence at Christmas is a testament to how the birth cries of that child still call to us.  That is my own faith tradition, and suddenly it seems more relatable than ever.

When times are dark, I reflected, maybe the embers of hope that remain deep within us are a bit like that child: At once vulnerable and all-powerful, a contradiction of mortal flesh and immortal spirit.

The point of the gathering was to bring together many different faith traditions, something MacLean considered particularly important, coming on the heels of a small uptick in racist vandalism in nearby Ottawa. When people feel the need to be hostile, she said, it has to be challenged.  And it occurred to me that challenge is nothing grandiose or spectacular, but, like Christmas itself, something that starts small, like a gathering of three dozen people in a village church, but which has the potential to grow into the most important thing of all.

This is Christmas, stripped of the sappy music and consumer goods and endless parties: A light in the darkness that grows, a burst of good news in the fearful silence, the one time of year when, for a fleeting moment, “Peace on Earth” may have the potential to be more than an inscription on a greeting card.

And so, while for some of us the gaudiness of the holidays is something that is easily skipped, Christmas remains essential, a celebration of the light to come.

December 23, 2016





Today’s Newsletter



by Kate Matthews

At Christmas, we gaze at the manger scene, we sing songs and re-tell the ancient story of the birth of Jesus: we celebrate, filled with joy at that amazing gift of God so long ago. However, our psalm reading for this day, Psalm 98, calls us to sing “a new song” not only because of what God has done in the past but   also because of what God is still doing today and will continue to do in the future. At the core of their religious observance, the people of Israel remembered God’s faithfulness in their past, but also recognized the presence of God in their present, in their midst at that moment, judging the people, judging the world God had created: in a sense, then, continuing to create and      re-shape, to re-create it all along.

We might be jarred by this notion of judgment entering our Christmas celebration, but Beth Tanner reminds us that the warmth of the Christmas season “gives way to the long, cold winter,” a good time to “change how we live so that others can live.” (This seasonal reference may not apply to churches in, say, Australia, where my grandchildren have 90-degree Christmas weather, but changing our lives in the new year certainly does.) Simply put, Tanner says, “The psalm calls on us to party for the equality of all.” That approach brings our Christmas celebration into the same rhythm, and singing the same melody, with the same harmonies, as God’s song of justice and healing and peace, not just for some, but for all of this world that God loves so well.


Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 20th century

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning–not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”


Hamilton Wright Mabie, 19th century

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”

Philip Yancey, 21st century

“Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.”

Bess Streeter Aldrich, Song of Years, 20th century

“Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart… filled it, too, with a melody that would last forever. Even though you grew up and found you could never quite bring back the magic feeling of this night, the  melody would stay in your heart always–a song for all the years.”


The Rev. Kathryn Matthews ( retired in July

after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel

at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio


Today’s News Here



Volunteer, verb – To choose to act in recognition of a need, with an attitude of social responsibility and  without concern for monetary profit, going beyond one’s basic obligations. 

~ from the Introduction to By the People:

A History of Americans as Volunteers

by Susan J. Ellis and Katherine H. Campbell.

Volunteering is held in high esteem in the United States. It’s the backbone of support for countless churches and other nonprofits and is viewed as a good use of personal time. Volunteering can boost the efforts of many programs, from food drives to tutoring and fundraising, not to mention creating personal connections with others in the community. Many colleges place a high emphasis on volunteering among teens who apply to their schools, and for many volunteering continues into other phases of their lives.

Unfortunately, volunteering is in a bit of decline since 2002.  It’s only lower by 2 to 3 percent (depending on which poll you follow) but there are a few reasons to be concerned about the overall drop in volunteers. For one, based on 2014 data, it seems like the drop in volunteering could be the start of a larger trend. Another reason is that certain subsections of volunteers, namely those with more education and likely higher pay, are also reporting fewer volunteer hours.

Additionally, in California alone, just a few less hours by each of the over seven million volunteers here equates to millions of dollars  lost each year by the work those volunteers would have completed.

Looking at other California statistics, we see that volunteers spent a median of 52 hours on volunteer activities during the period from September 2014 to September 2015.  Among those who volunteered, median annual hours spent on volunteer activities ranged from a high of 94 hours for those age 65 and over to a low of 36 hours for those under 35 years old.  

It’s also interesting to note that nearly 60% of Californians who volunteer also participate in informal volunteer efforts such as doing favors for neighbors, etc.

Of course, volunteering is not just about the statistics.  All humans have a basic need to respond to the needs of others.  And as Christians, our need to help burns even brighter.  As it says in I Thessalonians 5:15, “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”

~ Kathie

My Benefits of Volunteering

“Each one should use whatever gifts he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”    ~ 1Peter 4:10

I learned, first hand, that the benefits of volunteering are good for your mind as well as your body. I got very depressed after a move to Reno NV in 2007 and started volunteering at a Faith based Clothes Closet.  After being there a while, my problems didn’t seem so big any more and the store became my “Happy Place”.  I soon was offered a job to run the front of the store and had to step out of my comfort zone of the “worker” and become the “manager”.

My husband of 43 years and 3 children and I have lived in one  foreign country and four states. I volunteered in each place.  One of my children gave me the title of “Professional Volunteer”.  I am new to Redwood City; the benefit of volunteering here is making new friends that are like-minded. I am learning my way around town and making connections with this community.  I found Street Life Ministries (SLM) by happy accident with  God’s intervention.  The Clothes Closet is allowing me to share and use my knowledge from my experience in Reno, and I am learning how SLM runs its Clothes Closet.

Another benefit of volunteering is the fun, fulfillment and work it brings to my life.  I went to a SLM volunteer BBQ before I ever did any work for them and had great fellowship and wonderful food. Chris Kempton and I have worked hard to organize a clothing drive.  I have never written nor received so many emails – or had so many meetings to make contacts, inform people and local churches, and find volunteers—-It’s coming together nicely.

Volunteering has a happiness effect for all involved. It fills my need to serve others, to do something for myself, to keep busy, to feel needed, to feel appreciated and to socialize.   I like the feeling that I am making a difference in people’s lives because I gave them some clothes, a sleeping bag or a hygiene kit.  I like thinking because. I spoke with them, shook hands with them, hugged them, made them smile, or laugh, I am bringing them happiness, It makes me happy.  I also love the interaction with the other volunteers on Monday nights.

I challenge each of you to think about the benefits you receive from volunteering.

When I get to Heaven, I’m looking forward to hearing   “Job well done good and faithful servant” Matthew 25:23

~ Joyce


Today’s Newsletter




Rev. Dawn Hutchings

December 1, 2016

There was a young woman who lived in an apartment, in a very rough neighbourhood. It was the east end of a very large city. Many of the people who lived in this neighbourhood got by on welfare, others earned their living any way they could. The young woman moved into the apartment because it was close to the office where she worked, the rent was cheap and quite frankly she was young and foolish. She ignored all the warnings of her family and friends and moved into the apartment convinced that she could handle anything that came her way.

Her neighbourhood contained the most unsavoury of characters. The office where she worked was just down the street from her apartment and every morning as she walked to work she would meet some of her neighbours returning home from an evening of plying their trade on the streets and in the alleys. Each morning, she would be met at the entrance to her office by an old man named Ed.

Ed had been living on the streets for years. He was very hairy, very dirty, and he tended to rant and rave a lot. Ed was a wild man. He slept on the doorstep of the young woman’s office because it was somewhat protected from the winter weather. Even though Ed made the young woman nervous, she got used to seeing him in her way.

Ed always gave the young woman a warm welcome when she arrived. He knew that when she got inside, she would brew fresh coffee. He used to tease her that, she was a sucker for a sad face as he waited patiently for her to bring him a cup of coffee. They never talked much, though. Ed would just rant and rave about the injustices of the world. The young woman never found out how Ed ended up on the streets. She didn’t know how he spent his days.

As Christmas approached the young woman became very busy with her preparations for the holiday. This was the first year that she had more money than she needed to celebrate with.  She decorated her apartment, she bought all sorts of gifts and spent hours wrapping each one.  This year she wasn’t going to be rushed. She wasn’t going to miss out on anything. Christmas wasn’t going to come and go without finding her in the Christmas spirit.

That year the young woman had drawn the short straw and had to work on Christmas Eve. So, before she left her apartment, she packed a small package of goodies for Ed. She was delighted that she was so well prepared that she could take time for others. But when she got to the office, Ed was no where in sight. She asked some of the women who worked the streets if they had seen old Ed. But no one knew where he was.

The young woman went about her duties and soon forgot all about old Ed. She finished her work early and went off to celebrate Christmas Eve with her friends. She had been looking forward to Christmas for weeks and was eager to celebrate.  Together, she and her friends shared a fine Christmas goose with all the trimmings and then they went of to a candle light service. The service was beautiful. They really pulled out all the stops, great music, lots of activity. The preacher even managed to keep his sermon brief. But somehow the young woman was left feeling like there was something missing.

The next morning she celebrated with her family. Her nieces eagerly unpacked dozens of presents and on the whole the family managed to keep their disagreements down to the minimum that year. But the young woman felt detached, like she was just going through the motions. Despite all the elaborate trimmings, she felt like she had missed out on her fair share of the Christmas spirit.

As she drove back to her apartment in the city she found herself wondering if this was all there was to it. Christmas had come and gone and she didn’t feel like anything had changed at all. By the time she had parked her car, she was feeling quite depressed. Christmas was over and nothing much had changed.

When she got to the entrance of her apartment, she saw Ed. She had never seen him anywhere near her apartment before and it made her more than a little nervous. She wondered how he had found out where she lived. Indeed, it frightened her that Ed had taken the trouble to find her apartment. Ed looked very agitated.  Nervously the young woman greeted Ed and asked him why he was at her doorstep. Ed explained to her that he needed her help. The young woman became very uneasy. The odd cup of coffee at work was one thing, but this old man showing up on her door step was quite another. And now he wanted something. Ed asked the young woman if she would come with him to the park. Caught off guard, the young woman reluctantly agreed. When they arrived in the park, Ed introduced the young woman to Karen.

Karen was a very scared looking teenager. She couldn’t have been more than about fourteen years old. Ed explained to the young woman that Karen had run away from home on Christmas Eve. He said that lots of kids ended up on the streets at this time of year and there were usually lots of unsavoury characters to meet them when they arrived. When Karen arrived at the city bus depot, Ed had spotted her. From the moment she arrived, Ed had carefully watched over Karen, making sure that she came to no harm in the city. Karen’s two days on the streets and Ed’s gentle persuasion had convinced her that she should really go back home and try to work things out with her parents. Ed explained to the young woman that Karen needed money for a bus ticket home.

After they had called Karen’s parents and safely loaded her onto a bus, the young woman asked Ed if he would come and share a meal with her. Ed refused the offer of a meal but agreed to share a cup of coffee with the young woman.  In the coffee shop, I took a long hard look at old Ed. That night in the coffee shop, I looked into the eyes of a wild man. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, in his own way, Ed had helped me to prepare the way for Christ. Ed was the prophet who pointed to Christ. I had almost missed it. Christ had come. I was so busy looking up that I had forgotten to look around me.

Christ came to me in Karen. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Christ comes to us in the most unlikely of places wearing the most unlikely of faces.

Just as Advent moves us toward the remembrance of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in the first century, it also reminds us that most of the world was preoccupied and utterly unprepared for that first Advent and many missed the whole thing. The question is: “Will we miss the whole thing again?” For we do not know the day or hour, no one knows.

Therefore keep awake–Christ may come suddenly and find you asleep. So be prepared. Keep awake! Watch for we know not when Christ comes. Watch, so that you might be found whenever and wherever Christ comes. Prepare the way for Christ.

Read more of Rev. Dawn Hutchings’ writings here.


Today’s Newsletter