How is God Faithful? – Despite Us

How do you like your water? Do like it rough? Or do you like it calm?

In the Bible one of the most popular images of water is from Psalm 23: “He leads me beside still waters.” We say that still waters run deep; and indeed, it is true. In baptism, we sprinkle a few, tiny drops of water; or, we pour a small, shell-full of lukewarm water on the infant.

And so we sometimes and naturally receive these images and rituals as prescriptive of a rosy, comfortable, and easy existence with God and the Church.

Therefore, we may come to expect and even crave an easy life, saying it is the will of God. Conversely, when bad things happen or life challenges us to the core, is it because God has abandoned us, or is punishing us? Has our faith been lacking?

In reality our lives our often marked by a rushing torrent of roiling, turbulent, frothing white-water. Being faithful to the baptismal life in Christ is often descriptive more of being in a full-blown hurricane on the ocean.

I love the image of Jesus sleeping in the back of the boat while the disciples get anxious and fearful (Mark 4:35-41). To me, Jesus’ response suggests that in all the storms of our lives, Jesus does not diminish in any way the normalcy of the stormy life as part and parcel of faithful living.

The implication of this is counter-intuitive: It is precisely when life gets unnerving that faith makes any sense at all. Faith isn’t faith until it’s all you’re hanging on to, when the storms of life rage close by.

So when everything is calm, enjoy the moment because there will be more white water soon to come (if we are being faithful, that is). Because when we know God to be near, what we think is reliable and safe is shaken up. Whatever we presume is unchanging, constant, safe …. Beware! If Jesus comes close to that, you may be in for a ride! Because in Jesus’ presence we realize we really cannot control or fix those seemingly stable, controllable things on our own. And this is admitedly a scary prospect.

I’m not a white-water kayaker. But I do enjoy paddling in our canoe or kayak on relatively calm waters. Last weekend I got out on the river for the first time this season. And I was reminded again of the “Rules for White-water Rafting” described by Bishop Pryse at the last Synod Assembly in Toronto a couple of years ago.

He had eight rules for white-water. But I just want to highlight a couple. One rule, which is actually a combination of two of them, is: Never stop paddling, even when it seems hopeless, even when the boat doesn’t go where you want it to go. Never stop paddling.

This is so very important! One of the biggest challenges we face today is that of not giving in to cynicism which Martin Luther reminds us should be counted among, “doubt, despair and other shameful sins.” We need to keep paddling. We need to keep believing. We can never give up.

What did the disciples lack? If anything, they didn’t believe Jesus could do anything, that Jesus could actually provide a way through the storm.

But just as much as we need to keep paddling even when things aren’t going our way, at another level and in other circumstances we also need to be able to let go and stop trying too hard.

I’ve discovered that when docking or pulling away from the dock, all efforts to overcome wind and current by simply trying harder generally do not work. Far better than fighting wind and current is to position myself so that those natural forces will in their own natural way aid rather than frustrate my intent (p.229, Edwin Friedman A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 2006).

I know this especially to be true when solo-canoeing. Even when heading out onto the river, if I don’t have my canoe aligned at the right angle vis-à-vis the direction of the wind, no amount of paddling on my part will achieve anything except frustration.

Alignment. Positioning. This has everything to do with the relationships in which we find ourselves. When we discover a need to realign ourselves vis-à-vis others, ourselves and God, the first step is to “take off the tires” that need re-alignment. For a complete re-alignment job, all tires have to be detached from the vehicle, rotated and then re-attached and balanced. In other words, letting go of our emotional grip on things is the first step.

Another one of Bishop Pryse’s rules for white-water paddling is: If you go under – which is a normal occurrence when white-water paddling – let go of everything; eventually you will come back up. An essential quality of faith is the willingness to let go of anything that we’re holding onto tightly. What are you holding onto so tightly? Resentment? Impatience? The need to be right? The need to be needed? The need to be in control?

Golfers, table-tennis, baseball and hockey players can attest to the one indicator that they are in a slump – what are they doing? They’re holding onto their club, racket, paddle, stick or bat too tightly.

If you want to get out of your slump, one thing to consider is “loosening up”. This is risky and scary. The stress of doing that can be sharp, but short-lived. Because once you have the courage to let go we discover an amazing truth, one that David I believe experienced on the battle field (1Samuel 17).

David could have gone home. David could have used the armor Saul was intent on giving him to fight Goliath, the giant Philistine. Yet, David did neither “safe” option. He was determined to trust in God by trusting in his own gifts of a sling and pebble – even when the facts appeared to suggest he was doomed.

We already have everything we need. We have enough; we don’t need to toil and strive to be something we are not. God has already given to us what we need. All we need to do is trust that God will not let go of us, and that ‘resurrection’, so to speak, will take care of itself.

For me it puts things in right perspective knowing that, regardless of what happens, we will most certainly come back up when we let go.

It’s interesting Jesus, after stilling the storm and bringing peace and calm to the situation asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid?” (Mark 4: 40-41) His question doesn’t refer to their fear during the storm, but after it was over: Verse 41, where the NRSV translates that the disciples were filled with “great awe”, is literally translated they were “fearful with a great fear” for what Jesus did. Why were the disciples as afraid – if not more afraid – of what Jesus accomplished to bring calm to the water than when the storm was at its peak?

Was it because they knew now there was no longer an excuse for not acting in bold, nervy, trusting, faithful ways DESPITE their fear? Truth be told, sometimes people want to remain stuck, holding on too tightly to that which they know is not good. Better the devil you know, right? The unfortunate result, however, is remaining stuck, cowering in despair and using fear as an excuse not to do the right thing.

But it’s not about us. While Jesus doesn’t diminish the reality of the storm, Jesus also demonstrates an everlasting, unshakable commitment to his disciples. Despite their unbelief and fear, Jesus is faithful. Jesus’ faithfulness is NOT conditional on the strength of our faith. This is good news. Jesus doesn’t abandon us in the storm. Jesus is not punishing us on account of the storm – whatever the storm you face. Jesus believes in us, even when we don’t have the courage to believe in ourselves.

One of the most honest, authentic prayers and confessions in Christianity is from the Gospel of Mark: “Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief” (9:24). And so our prayer today may echo the great prayer of the father whose son was healed by Jesus: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” For your homework this week, I invite you to read that 9th chapter of Mark leading up to that father’s statement. And read Martin Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism, where he writes: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ … or come to him ….. but by the Holy Spirit.”

Reflect on those words and examine your capacity to trust and wait for God’s Spirit. And examine your capacity to be decisive; to be decisive with honest awareness of your limitations and despite your fears. And in all that reflection, remember the most important thing – God is faithful!

Amen.

How is God Faithful? – Surprise!

I don’t like surprises. Never have. I am impressed when families can pull off those surprise anniversary celebrations or birthday parties. Perhaps I’m even more impressed by those who are the recipient of the proverbial “Surprise!” How do they keep their composure? Especially when all of a sudden their day and plans are turned upside down – how do they go with the flow?

But maybe I need to open myself up more to being surprised. Because I suspect being surprised is a basic quality of faith. And maybe that’s what I like about that hymn: Great is Thy Faithfulness. Since the first time I sung it, it always catches me and invites me to ponder – life is not about my faithfulness. I remember as a teenager believing mistakenly for a while that this hymn was about affirming the faithfulness of one another in the church. This hymn title suggested to me it was about my growth, my faith and the faith of those I admired in the church.

Anytime we encounter one of these parables about seeds and planting and growth (now that we’re in the season after Pentecost) the temptation is to dwell on and maybe even obsess about what we need to do, how we should respond in order to make things happen in our lives, in our church and in our world.

The Gospel text for today (Mark 4:26-34) nevertheless points to another reality we so easily miss in our striving and toiling, in our compulsions and in our hard work: God is faithful, despite all our efforts. My life is about God, and God’s ways. Not only that, it is the manner in which God is faithful that surprises me.

For fun I have been reading the trilogy of popular books about the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. During the first time the main character, Katniss Everdeen, competes in the deadly competition to survive she is saved by someone who no one expected to live long in the games, by someone no one really took notice of when the games began. In fact, no one even noticed her because she was the smallest, youngest girl, until….

One fateful night Katniss is trapped high in a tree while her enemies simply wait her out camping at the base of the tree. Before dawn she is wakened by some rustling of leaves and branches in a neighboring tree. Looking over she sees the little girl, Rue, who points to a large bee’s nest indicating a way out of her predicament. Acting on Rue’s cue, Katniss drops the entire nest on the unsuspecting group below, scattering them and giving Katniss opportunity to escape.

This seems to be God’s modus operandi: God chooses that which the world presumes unqualified, even undesirable, to accomplish God’s purposes. God will demonstrate God’s faithfulness by sticking by us, especially in our weakness and among those who are marginalized on account of their ‘unwanted’ qualities. When everyone else loses their faith in someone or something, watch out! It is precisely in those circumstances and with those people where God might be working to demonstrate God’s faithful, life-giving, gracious and powerful purposes. Echoes of Paul’s words in his letters to the Corinthian Church sound here: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

I think we can see this operating in the choosing of the smallest, ruddiest shepherd boy David to be the next King of Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The family doesn’t even have him around when all the boys of the family are lined up before the prophet Samuel who comes to appoint the heir to the throne. The older, taller, powerful brothers were exceptional candidates, right? That’s how little faith they had in David’s abilities and gifts. How can God choose such an inexperienced youth, after all? Someone we push around and give all the crappy farm-hand jobs to do?

And what about that tiny seed? A theme throughout the Gospel of Mark is ‘secrecy’ that is eventually unveiled. For example, often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus instructs those who witness a miracle not to tell anyone about it, for the truth about Jesus must be disclosed at the right time – at the cross and empty tomb.

The character of the kingdom of God emerges, comes out. And the kingdom of God matures and grows not because of our efforts but because that’s its job, like a seed. A seed is not forced to grow, or told to grow. It does what it has been created to do, naturally, and on its own timetable.

The nature and function of the kingdom of God on earth starts – covered, veiled, hidden, unsuspecting; but once it starts, you can’t stop it. Because a mustard plant is invasive, like a weed. Nobody wants a weed! Nobody would expect God’s truth, God’s power, God’s ways to come about from something like that, eh? Just like people in Jesus’ day never believed anyone or anything good would come from Nazareth, right?

Surprise! God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

One way our toiling and striving can get in the way and get us stuck is our obsession with gathering more and more information. As if our salvation rests on more and more knowledge. We live in an age of data-obsession. For example, whenever we encounter a challenge or ambiguity or a question, what is the first thing we do? We collect data. We take surveys. We gather information so that we’ll have an answer to the question. The result, often: we get stuck –in the numbers, the facts.

Edwin Friedman in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix discusses Europe’s rather sudden conversion from being depressed (Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493) and having a lack of hope and vision, to flowering in religious, artistic and scientific revival. The turning point? The discovery of the New World. And what characterized those who discovered the New World was that they had the nerve, the courage and spirit of adventure to go beyond the boundaries of the accepted data of the day.

The sanctioned cartography of the day described the Atlantic Ocean as the only ocean on earth; there were no land masses south of the equator; and, California was an island. If Columbus and other sea-faring adventures remained ‘bound’ by the data they would never have made their discoveries; Europe would have remained ‘stuck’ and ‘depressed’.

I suspect as important as data-collection can be to any vision, this approach can also only serve to squeeze out of our consciousness the vision of adventure, of the beyond- ourselves, including some ambiguity, including God’s ways, God’s power.

The parable of the mustard seed asks us not to close our imagination. This parable asks us not to close our sense of a vision beyond what is immediately apparent and measurable. In short, this parable invites us on a journey of life and faith in which we are open to be surprised by God’s grace. How can we be surprised if we know everything – or pretend to know everthing?

Great is Thy Faithfulness, O God! How can we practice being surprised by God’s unsuspecting faithfulness to us? Well, let’s first narrow our scope from New World discovery to our experience of worship: Ask yourself, why do I come to worship? Where do I expect to encounter God in the worship service?

And let me suggest that you are open to experiencing and encountering God not just where you might expect – the usual suspects: in the sermon or in the music, for example. Let me suggest that God may bless you and move your heart in another place in the service where you didn’t expect it – perhaps in the lifting of the bread and cup at the Eucharist, perhaps in one of the petitionary prayers, or merely one word in the prayer of the day, or in sharing a cup of coffee with another person following the service, or in one line of a hymn, the sound of a musical instrument, the voice of the choir, the reading of scripture. And that can change from week to week!

God is faithful. God can come to us not only in any and all of these parts of the liturgy but in any part of our day from Monday to Saturday where we least expect it. And God comes to us faithfully in order to sustain us, empower us and inspire us with His Spirit. On our way rejoicing!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Leadership: Adventure before Safety

The problem in North America today: “civilization influences our thoughts and our leaders toward safety and certainty rather than toward boldness and adventure.” p.33

“What our civilization needs most is leaders with a bold sense of adventure.” p.193

Qualities of mature, imaginative and adventurous leaders: they “cherish uncertainty”, are “willing to encounter serendipity”, and “expose themselves to chance …. Related here is the necessity of preserving ambiguity … if the viewer’s imagination is to flower, it is important not to solve the problem in advance.” p.46

Leadership = “individuals who were willing to go first.” p.187

“The ramifying power of emotional barriers [is] to restrict both the imaginative capacity and the adventure necessary for freeing the imagination…” p.48

“Sixteenth and Seventeenth century adventure was an open-ended search for novelty rather than a driven pursuit of truth.” p.45

“If society is to evolve, or if leaders are to arise, then safety can never be allowed to become more important than adventure … Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization, including the discovery, exploration, and development of our country, came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety.” p.83

~ Edwin Friedman (A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix) Seabury Books, New York, 2007

A Holy Re-Orientation – Pentecost 2B

Mark 3:20-35

My experience at Luther Hostel last week reinforced some things that I think many of us who care about the church sense at some level – that something’s wrong with the church, and that something’s going to have to change to turn the ship around!

I don’t need to list all the evidence that is pointing to a diminished institution as we know it. What do we do to prepare ourselves for the changes – even transformation – to which we are heading whether we like or not?

Probably encouragement. Maybe even challenge. But I suspect some comfort as well.

I’m not going to articulate in this sermon what that specific mission will be because quite frankly I don’t know. In this congregation I’m the new kid on the block and I’m still in information-gathering mode. I’m learning about your history and just beginning to get a sense of what makes you tick, what inspires you, what your passions are in all things church-related. And this is where we’re going to have to start in determining what that mission will be.

But I do believe I know how some of that transformation might take place.

Two things happened on the first day of Luther Hostel to me that may illustrate how new life will come to our lives, our community, our church.

Because early on the first day we traveled on a school bus over an hour to the Six Nations reserve in Brantford I held off my first coffee before the trip. I didn’t want to suffer the bouncing need to use a washroom during the drive. Been there, done that. Not again.

But I also (falsely) assumed that upon arriving, there would be coffee somewhere. As it turned out I didn’t have my first coffee of the day until supper time.

The other disorienting experience was I realized I wasn’t going to be doing any driving, not only that day but for the whole week. As one who now averages about 500 kilometers a week behind the wheel, I didn’t know what to do with myself!

Being without those two, simple, routine comforts disoriented me.

But I soon realized that feelings of withdrawal were a precursor for something good, even better. What initially disoriented me prepared me for a holy re-orientation.

I had to let go of something for the sake of what was happening that was more important. The wider truth of my discomfort is to say that ‘life begins at the end of our comfort zone’ (thanks to @soulseedzforall for that pearl!). Life begins at the end of our comfort zones.

On the first day of Luther Hostel a bunch of us mostly white, ethnically northern Europeans visited Mohawk Institute — the first residential school in Canada. We heard about the painful stories of abuse suffered by the aboriginal, First Nations, children at the hand of church and government leaders there. In the sharing and storytelling I was nevertheless encouraged by our meeting with traditional native peoples. Because the circle of this story-telling was expanding.

There was something going on here that was much bigger than me. I couldn’t let my banal neediness sabotage the important things that we needed to learn that day, however difficult. My life was enriched by that learning — no coffee aside. At some point that morning I had to surrender myself to the experience. It was a giving it up — sort of like in Lent, a discipline. And I realized by the end of the day I didn’t really need that morning coffee.

Jesus often does this to get his point across. He ‘breaks things down’ before presenting the new thing. He disorients his listeners in order to REorient them. In so doing he is consistent with the biblical tradition:

The prophet Jeremiah often uses the language of “plucking up” and “breaking down” in his poetry; he refers to the Israelite need of giving up the securities of land and religion to prepare for God’s next great act in their lives: exile – not something, by the way, they at first welcomed.

In Jesus’ day loyalty to family was the backbone of society maybe even more so than today. But I think we can feel the offense in his statement implying that his own family is inferior. Could he even be universally denouncing the traditional, family unit? We could think so, when he asks rhetorically and maybe even facetiously, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

But for Jesus to describe the new family his kingdom stands for — inclusive of all people including those at the margins — he first needs to shock us out of our assumptions of what family is. He needs to de-construct ‘family’ before rebuilding it.

Not that he is anti-family. But he holds out for what is better in the long run. What will be rebuilt is much better than what has been.

But first we need to let go. And that’s the hard part, to be sure: In our personal lives do we want things to change for the better? In our economy do we wish for better days? In our church do we want to include more young people? In all these and other areas, in our yearning for the new, the better — what first do we need to question, to let go of, to de-construct?

If the prospect of letting go of something or someone precious frightens us to the point of paralysis, take heart people of Faith!

At the point of Jesus’ deepest letting go, at the point of the ultimate ‘break-down’ of his life on the Cross, he demonstrates a profound love for his mother.

Jesus does love his family. From the cross he prays for his Momma, that she be taken care of (John 19:26-27). In his dying breath he prays for her. At the point of God’s very own death Jesus does not forget us. There is indeed nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Saint Paul, Romans 8:38-39).

But Jesus’ vision is greater than us. Jesus’ ‘breaking down’ is for all people. His kingdom includes those whom at first we might consider outsiders, lazy, second class.

The Cross, according to German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, represents a momentary ‘crack’ between the Father and the Son, revealed in Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) There appeared a break in the Trinity, a crack in the divine relationship, in which Father and Son suffered mutually.

But this crack opened the possibility for the Holy Spirit to enter and bind the Godhead together. So, the triune God experienced a separation of sorts before unity was to be re-established. And God accomplished this reconciliation for the sake of Jesus, and resurrection — new life — for everyone!

At the end of that first day at Luther Hostel, I SO enjoyed my next cup of coffee. And I appreciated the privilege to drive my vehicle. I approached these simple routines with renewed gratitude.

And I look to God’s gracious leading us, in little and maybe big ways, to the end of our comfort zones. To see what happens where life begins anew.

Amen.