Can Giant Despair Beat Down Father Christmas, Or, An Upside Down Letter

Don’t you know what to expect in a Christmas letter! Christmas letters go over the doings of this and that member of the family. Vacation here. New opportunity there. Son overseas, now returned. You get the news in one swoop rather than as snips on a social media site. Refreshing to have the picture all together, with seasonal thoughts.

This is an impossible Christmas letter.

Let me start this letter with a question.

Suppose you are hearing a personal story, or thinking over an autobiography.

Could a person have his or her own life all wrong?

You could reply, No.

After all, she herself lived the life. She knew her situation from inside the skin and can tell what was happening, and at each key step what she was thinking.

Who can say more about a life than the person?

The idea that insiders know the story is why we are waiting for the autobiographies of say, Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney, or Mick Jagger. Then we will see the Sixties from the inside.

On the other hand, do you trust Bill Clinton’s autobiography? Richard Nixon’s? Julian Assange’s?

Ask yourself.

How much you believe an autobiography depends on who is writing it.

It depends on how truthful they are, and how self-aware.

The assessment of a life depends on the writer’s historical awareness too.

Do they know the times of which they are part?

Do they see that they added to “cultural capital,” aided and abetted the spirit of the age, went with the flow?

Or was he or she truly a counter-culture figure?

Think about how difficult self-evaluation must be. Take this case:

How would Jerry Rubin have assessed his own life? Would the hippy-leader turned-Wall-Streeter call himself a sell-out? Or would he write that he turned his considerable talents to make money, which was the only available option in post-sixties circumstances? Would he believe that he faced up to hard reality and converted from his previous hippy commitments?

Enough preamble.Here are two stories, then a reflection.

Story One:

Wanda, my wife of seventeen years, has not been well for a while.

For at least eighteen months, she had one medical problem after another.

First was acute sinusitis. Pain was severe enough that she went numbers of times to our general practitioner and to a specialist. They prescribed no fewer than four antibiotics. The first, the second, the third, the fourth did not work. Eventually the sinus subsided, slowly.

She had nosebleeds, which would not clear up easily.

She had weakness in her legs. She had been using a brand name pair of shoes that caused pain, and in reaction went to flat soles. Pain began and moved from feet up the lower leg into the upper calves and front muscles. It appeared that her arches had fallen. She moved in very short steps. Climbing stairs brought tears from pain.

It was always something.

In September this year, yet another sinus infection prompted another visit to the GP. The GP prescribed one more antibiotic. She also referred Wanda to the ear, nose and throat specialist.

The ear, nose and throat specialist had been seeing her each six months or so, and it must have occurred to him that what he saw reminded him of another chronic patient he’d had for some years. He requested a blood test. A protein tests positive when a certain disease is likely.

Apparently the test turned up positive, because on the next visit to the GP, the GP ordered a full range of tests.

Over the November 11th long weekend, the pain in the legs became crying severe. On Monday, Nov 14th I received a call at work from my fourteen-year old daughter Zoe. “I think you should come home Dad. Mom says she is going to faint.”

I drove Wanda to the appointment scheduled with the GP, who sent us to the emergency room mainly to facilitate quick scans, blood work, x-rays – the works.

It happened that the top rheumatologist of our region was in the hospital. Hearing the preliminary diagnosis from the GP, he volunteered to come and see us.

His diagnosis was Wegener’s granulomatosis with polyangiitis.

She should be hospitalized immediately.

The ailments since the middle of 2010 were connected to a single disease.

Wanda was in the city hospitals, first with lung damage nearly to a ventilator, then in weeks following with kidney failure.

The disease attacks little and mid-sized arteries. It can attack any organ of the body. The main organs it attacks are sinus and airways, then the lungs, then the kidneys. Other dire attacks in any and every part of the body are possible. Most sufferers get the airways; about half get the kidney failure (so I read).

GPA (Wegener’s) causes troubles.

Lungs stop working because nodules leak fluid into the lungs. Kidneys cannot filter because their little membranes do not allow filtration.

The problem is that blood cannot flow when arteries are inflamed.

The inflammation is not from any infection.

The body is mobilized — but no enemy is there to fight.

The antibiotics did not work because there was no infection, only inflammation.

GPA (Wegener’s) – the name is in process of being erased because the namer turned out to have been a Nazi doctor in Poland in the early 1940s, close to one of the ghettos – okay, GPA (W) is an immune system over-reaction that can kill the patient. Wegener’s used to do so all the time.

Happily, there isn’t a lot of “all the time.” Two or three or so cases a year happen in our city of 150,000. The hit rate is one in 25,000 or so. More Caucasians get it, and more northerly latitudes are correlated. There is no known cause.

People used to die. Before Dr. Wegener’s pioneer diagnosis, they died of unknown causes. They died within weeks or even days. After Dr. Wegener, they died of a named horrible cause — still without cure.

In the 70’s and 80’s steroids like cortisone, and then chemo drugs like cyclophosphamide came in. These pushed the reset button so that remission occurs and the patient can patiently recover over time.

Like, two to six months.

The disease never leaves, and can flare up again. We’ll all be watching, though, and a relapse is likely to be less acute than the first crisis.

After thirty days, Wanda is home, being cared for.

Story Two:

On November 14th, the same day that we spent in the emergency room, our son Nathan, aged fifteen, transitioned from eleven years of homeschooling into Grade Eleven at Moncton High School.

This story, if fully told, would be longer than Story One.

Neither of the stories is yet at its denouement.


You might say, “Never know what a day will bring.” Or, “If you have your health, you have a lot.”

You might understand that my ability to believe in God is under attack.

Where is God in this mess?

If I am a churchgoer, how can such disasters happen to a person?

In 1755, a great earthquake, fires, and then a tsunami destroyed Lisbon. Thousands of people were in church on a saint’s holy day. The huge churches collapsed on them. The question, “Where was God,” was everywhere for decades afterwards.

After the Haiti earthquake of 2010, some asked the same question — or offered simple answers.

Our family situation is “micro” compared to Lisbon or Haiti, but the question is the same.

Is it possible that an event of intense, “unfair,” suffering can strengthen one’s faith?


Job, the Old Testament saint and the first “patient,” learned something worthwhile by intense sufferings. He lost family, fortune and reputation. After discussing the theology and ethics of suffering with his three pastoral counselors, after hearing from God himself from the whirlwind, Job said,

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

He had a surface view before and a depth view after. Not by three easy steps but still

Habbakuk, prophet with an impossible name, wrote

The fig tree has no buds, the vines bear no harvest
the olive crop fails, the orchards yield no food
the fold is bereft of its flock
and there are no cattle in the stalls
Even so, I shall exult in the LORD
and rejoice in the God who saves me
The LORD God is my strength;
He makes me as sure-footed as a hind
and sets my feet on the heights.

Jesus died on a Roman cross. Some have asked, “How could God allow such a thing to happen? A supposed son crucified, naked, exposed to mockery and shame? What kind of a god would allow such a travesty?”

But that way is only toward despair. The world becomes an absurd world out of control. Why complain about pain? How find meaning through anything?

On the other hand, you can hold on to the reality that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. God entered time. God became one of us. Jesus the innocent one took on the shame that is mine and yours and theirs. Three days later, God raised Jesus from the grave, alive.

God made life and keeps on sustaining it. Resistance to God and distrust, and sins in the plural springing from those roots, bring on alienation from God. God in Christ was the root answer to the world’s problems.

The mysterious ways that God works is part of the deep magic of the Christmas season. “Deep magic” –that was the magic in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. It led Aslan to give himself up to pay for Edmund’s betrayal of his family. By his forthright action, Aslan reversed the curse.

Christmas is for celebration. Christmas is an occasion to celebrate the unexpected — unscientific, outside of usual causation, unlooked-for — event of God sending his one and only Son to do deep magic with and for humanity. Humanity was worth so much.

Back to the start: “When a person writes an autobiography, is it possible that he or she has the whole life wrong?”

More than possible.

Until the end, who could know what God was up to?

Until the ultimate assessment, judgment of our lives is premature. We hardly see ourselves. We are immersed in our time.

We hardly have a clue.

We have the option of holding onto the thread of hope that comes through Israel’s history to Christ the Messiah of Israel, to the gentiles, nowadays from one side of the world to the other — to you and me. A thread of hope.

Christmas and Easter confirm that hopeful thread.

I say, Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year — to you and your kin. May we learn the thinness of the ice we all walk over all the time, and about ourselves with a truly faithful God.

-Ted Newell, Dec 24, 2011







Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album and the hidden power of deep tradition

I remember when Bruce’s Christmas album came out in 1993. I was a foreign Canadian in Philadelphia, USA, and one of my mates mentioned it. Bruce’s voice is distinctively Canadian besides being distinctive, period, and I wasn t sure Bruce on Christmas would be a hit. Since Bob Dylan has now done a Christmas album, clearly, even talk singers can do one. Nat King Cole rules no more.

It’s been four or five years since finally I got the Bruce album and I like it better every year. Bruce’s album is catholic in the sense that catholic means “universal.” He covers an array of cultures and dives down into time as well, so you have the church across the globe and across times singing with him. Christmas has been celebrated in Quebec with the Huron, in the South — and Bruce thows in no sleighbells sentimentalia. The album is straight celebration and worship.

Open a new tab and listen to snips at

The songs I m appreciating most this time around are the medieval ones. Check out “Down in Yon Forest.” Here are the lyrics:

Down in yon forest be a hall
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
‘Tis is coverleted over with purple and pall
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, in that hall is a pallet-bed
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
‘Tis stained with blood like cardinal-red
Sing all good men for the new born baby

And at that pallet is a stone
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
On which the virgin did atone
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Under that hall is a gushing flood
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
– From Christ’s own side, ’tis water and blood
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Beside that bed a shrub-tree grows
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
Since he was born it blooms and blows
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, on that bed a young squire sleeps
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
His wounds are sick and sick, he weeps
Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, hail yon hall where none can sin
Sing May Queen May sing Mary
‘Cause it’s gold outside and silver within
Sing all good men for the new born baby

The Cockburn project page at  says this is not merely Renaissance era or medieval but positively ancient. Since the blood of the king is to be spilled to fertilize the ground, I daresay it plugs into traditions predating Christianity by thousands of years.

But the point for me is that the world of the song is Christianized through and through. I would argue that it is not syncretism, though I can imagine someone thinking so.

If the history of the world up to Christ prepared for Christ, then prechristian traditions can be restated in fully Christian dress. Christianizing was the Christian strategy for Hallowe’en — and for December 25th itself! Old time refusniks like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or independent Baptists or the teenage me refused its legitimacy, but the older me thinks that if the church could truly christianize Plato and stage a cultural takeover, then why should I object to the Northern tribes receiving the same treatment. (I know, deep waters here.)

The reason why enacting the Christian story has now become important is because Christians need to recover a zone in which they act out the reality of their faith.  I ve been impressed for five years plus by “How the World Lost Its Story,” the Robert Jenson’s 1990s article in First Things. Jenson is a Lutheran, meaning that formal worship and the seasons of the Christian year are regularly observed. The Reformation put away all those Catholic images and even the reality of the Supper in exchange for a spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper. True!

Yet maybe Christians all need to think again. In giving up much of the embodiments of the faith, Protestants left themselves without key resources that make the church a real counter-society, not merely, as the Protestants willing became, a chaplaincy to a society thought to be Christian.

(“How the World Lost Its Story” is at )

There is a deep well in Cockburn’s song selection. Sing these songs with Bruce and you are transported to a world where the next big thing is nowhere near as important as the One Big Thing, that is, salvation, Christ, God, redemption, love, hope, trust, keeping faith.

Even Christmas is a holdover from an earlier era. It is like a white-wedding-dress wedding. Both are still done, regularly, every year, without comment, accepted, expected. But the spirit has mostly gone out of both.

In our utilitarian culture, Christmas is the time that retailers make the bang that’ll keep the stores open through to June. We all need R n R, and Christmas is that — an end of year time for family and friends to renew acquaintance and hoist some brand names together. -Too rich a statement you think?

How much more profound is the real Christmas, precursor of the real Easter. How miraculous, so far from the merely mundane? How much more identity-and-life-affirming are Bruce’s songs compared to “Dashing through the snow…”

To get through the present confused era, believers will need more and more retrievals — dustings off, refurbs, re-statements –as well as active resistance movements in the form of freshly imagined songs and enactments of our faith. Doing it alone is not going to cut it for believers. Too bad we can’t get a bunch of us together and sing Bruce’s songs in the flesh with a guitar or two and a ginger ale. The order of the day is real celebration.