Free-falling into Advent

After the first snow of the winter I joked with my neighbour at the bus stop that finally the snow tires can get their first, real test. He looked at me – a younger-than-me, responsible father of two school-aged children – and said, “The real test happens when you’re sliding sideways down the road.”

He went on to say that, after putting on the snow tires, he normally finds an empty parking lot late at night to do some doughnuts and skidding tests – just to get the feel of the vehicle on the snow. In order to know at what speeds and angle his car points to keep control of the vehicle, he has to practice losing control to a degree.

And then I was reminded of those car commercials where you see a car careening around a course at high speeds, and the implicit warning comes on the screen that these exercises are done by professional drivers.

Indeed, professional drivers know how it feels to – in a sense – lose control. Good drivers have gone there. That’s how one gains confidence in one’s ability. They do that by going to the edge of their perception of being in control. That’s how you learn – with much preparation, practice, guidance, making mistakes and modelling – you go to the boundary of experience.

My palms were sweating when I watched a couple of months ago the video of Austrian Felix Baumgartner break all kinds of records jumping from the edge of space.

An extreme sportsman, he was experienced in jumping and falling. And for this world-record-breaking event he had prepared meticulously. This was not some reckless, un-thought-through, impulsive act. Despite the millions of dollars spent, the months of preparation, the state-of-the-art equipment used, and the hundreds of support staff employed …

It was still quite the risk. He still faced uncertainty as he looked out into the vastness of space from the safety of the tiny capsule some 39 kilometres above the earth’s surface. With only a parachute on his back, he stepped into ‘nothing’. My palms are sweating just imagining that.

He could have died, and almost did. After jumping from the tiny capsule, he soon went into a lateral spin. Because of the minimal oxygen in the air at that high level of the atmosphere, one small errant move falling out of the capsule determined his course. Unless he could come to control it, his lateral spin would render him unconscious. But he couldn’t know exactly how it would play out until experiencing the supersonic free-fall.

He made it, despite those first two minutes when he lost control and his life was seriously at risk.

Before he jumped, standing on the threshold of the capsule looking down, he mumbled something – I couldn’t exactly hear all of it – but something that sounded like a creed, a statement of belief that focused his vision in that moment of uncertainty; he said: “I’m coming home now.”

Writer Anne Lamott wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” True. The logic is pure – if we feel certain about the outcome of our actions, well, what is the need for faith? The practice of faith necessitates a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Evident in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (chapter 5) is the confusion of the early church about the coming of Christ. Therefore the focus of salvation in this letter is not on a past and accomplished act, but a continuing and future one (Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 1, p.16).

This focus adds to the ambiguity of the season. Because when we commit to a forward-vision of life, we cannot know exactly how that future will play out. There is a certain degree of uncertainty with which we must learn to live, and thrive. Such is the character of this season of Advent – waiting, and watching, for the coming of Jesus into our lives. But we know neither the day nor hour (Matthew 24:36).

The fact that the original hearers of the message of Paul were caught in this indecisive understanding of Jesus renders, in Paul’s words, something “lacking” (3:10) in their faith. Maybe they, too, sought a certainty of belief, demanded an unambiguous statement of religious doctrine about when and how exactly Christ would return. As a result, the community there struggled with conflict as different voices offered their own interpretation of how things should be.

But because something is imperfect about someone’s faith does not qualify them for ‘checking out’ from the enormous task at hand. Realizing the perfect scenario for religious life is not a prerequisite for living faithfully. Paul still encouraged the Thessalonians in faith, hope and love.

Just because you don’t think you are good enough for God and God’s church, or have a perfect understanding of the bible, just because you can’t recite scriptures from memory, just because the church is not unified around so many things – does not warrant pressing the pause button until things are perfect again, until you have it right, until all your problems are resolved. Living faithfully is not about standing in the shadows and not doing anything.

How can we make the best of an imperfect, broken situation, a ‘faith lacking’? How do we engage in living faithfully knowing that things in our own life and the life of the church are imperfect and incomplete?

This earliest writing of St Paul that we have in the bible was originally addressed to a group of labourers. Physical labourers. Paul’s message must have resonated among those labouring classes since Paul himself was a tentmaker.

The best way to wait for salvation, for the coming Christ, is to work at something simply, intentionally, faithfully and with discipline.

And so, Paul provides a way forward for a people waiting for the coming of Jesus. As we wait and live in the “already but not yet” in-between time of the ages, as we live in the imperfect times of our lives, we push on. We keep at it. We don’t give up. We remain faithful as best as we can. We do the work.

And the nature of the work is not sensational and complicated and extraordinary. The work is ordinary. The work is doing the little things, faithfully and intentionally.

What is this character of this work, precisely?

“… may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all people, as we do to you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

The way to restore and complete the faith of Christians is in community. And not just any community – like a club, sporting venture, or social organization – but a community defined by people caring for other people, in the love of Christ Jesus. This is a community of faith that demonstrates mutual interdependence: Where one is weak, another is strong; where friends build each other up, helping one another, working together not apart.

And this kind of work requires preparation, attention, discipline, and commitment.

Paul calls the physical labourers to whom he writes to widen that circle of the faithful. This instruction is not only focused on that particular church in Thessalonica, but even beyond that for all people.

In this inspiring and vital letter Paul expounds the virtues of thanksgiving, boldness, joy and hope … despite evidence in the circumstances of life to the contrary, despite their faith continuing to “lack” in some way, despite living in the in-between time of waiting for the end time.

In truth, what the bible is clear in communicating through the prophets of old, the exemplars of faith, and disciples and apostles of Jesus is that complacency, withdrawal, cowardice, passivity, and despair are not useful nor helpful strategies for coping and growing and living through the present day, no matter what the circumstances of life.

Can we ‘free-fall’ for Christ? Can we do the work of love, be bold in whatever area of our lives needing the grace and healing power of God? Can we step out in faith – not without preparation, not recklessly – but firm in our faith that even though there is ambiguity and uncertainty and sometimes the fright of ‘nothing to hold on to’… ?

God is there. And God’s love knows no bounds. Even in space. Even in the vastness and emptiness of existence. In the poverty yet enormity of the moment when we feel like our life is on the line, the love of God and the love for which we work will surprise us with joy and eternal hope. That is the promise for which we live. And for which we love, and are loved. Forever.

The Grey Cup & Salvation

The Saskatchewan Roughriders were leading late in the Fourth Quarter by a couple points. The Montreal Allouettes had brought the football all the way down into the Saskatchewan end of the field in the dying seconds.

Time was running out for the Allouettes. The last play of the game would decide it. If their kicker could get the football between the goal posts in the Saskatchewan end zone, three points would win the Grey Cup for Montreal. The kicker missed by a hair in getting the field goal.

But it was not to be Saskatchewan’s day.

As soon as the errant ball was caught, referees’ whistles blew and flags went down. Even though Roughrider players and fans had begun to celebrate their seeming victory, suddenly the mood changed.

Too many men – that was the penalty. During the kick play, too many green sweater players had been on the field than was allowed according to the rule book. The play would have to be redone, this time 10-yards closer for Montreal.

And this time, the Allouette kicker nailed it. Three extra points on the board. Montreal wins the Grey Cup.

What so many remember about that 2009 Grey Cup Final was how Saskatchewan blew it. How they lost the biggest game in their lives, on a technicality.

You may think that this outcome was justified. The rules were broken. The referees caught the mistake. And justice was done. That’s the way the game is, right? Maybe the game of life, as well?

I often think about that game a few years ago as an example of how one wins in the kingdom of the world. The only way to win in the world is to earn your points, climb the ladder of success, or get lucky – and usually by either defeating others in your path on your own merit or by knowing the right people. Competition and a win-lose mentality under-gird these kingdom values.

When Jesus tells Pilate that if his kingdom was of this world his followers would be fighting to get Jesus out of his predicament and arrest (John 18:36), Jesus is describing how very different his kingdom is not only from the world of Pilate’s day, but ours as well.

So, what is Jesus’ kingdom all about? How can we find out about it?

One way of answering that question is to take the opposite of what the world is about. So, if in the world you lose or win on a technicality, in God’s kingdom you don’t. In fact God’s kingdom can be described as a win-win scenario for all the players – yes, that’s you and me and everyone. In God’s kingdom you don’t enter it based on how many points you have by the end of life, you enter it undeserving so, usually as a vulnerable baby in a baptismal font.

In short, God’s kingdom is about unconditional and undeserving love and grace. It’s about people, following in Jesus’ way, caring for people in mutual compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

There’s no being saved on a technicality here. Our winning salvation is not based on legalism and an appeal to the rule book. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17). Because our salvation is not about us. It’s about God – God’s love, God’s grace – it’s what God does.

The good news here is that even though we may think we don’t deserve the big ‘W’, even though our lives may be sordid with sin, even though we might not believe we have anything worthy of God …. surprise!

You are the greatest winner in God’s kingdom. Because Christ is King!

What is truth? Part 3: In the doing

Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). He answers his own question moments earlier by pointing to the power of action; Pilate asks Jesus, “What have you done?” (John 18:35).

If Pilate wondered what the truth about Jesus was, he nailed it — perhaps instinctively — by laying this abstract question about truth firmly in the realm of behavior and action.

“They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love” goes the popular song. They will know who we are by what we do. The truth will be told more as a reflection of what is done than by what is believed or thought of.

Jesus healed the sick. Jesus spent time with the outcasts. Jesus crossed the boundaries of social norms to speak with women and touch lepers. Jesus broke laws which were stupid. Jesus spoke of God’s truth and love.

Truth is something we do. While intellectual truth can be stimulating, it does not fulfill all of our needs. God calls us beyond mere understanding and words and translate those thoughts into concrete action in the world. Meaningful engagement with the world is a prescription for truth-discovery.

What action stands foremost in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate? And how does this action reflect the truth about God? In this scene between Pilate and Jesus, Jesus invites Pilate to belong by listening to Jesus’ voice (John 18:37). We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? — Listening to Jesus’ voice …

Read John 10:1-16. There, Jesus describes himself as the loving shepherd who takes care of his sheep. He calls them by name, and they know his voice. Jesus is the good shepherd who wants his followers to have life, and have it abundantly.

Even to Pilate, Jesus gives himself to be his good shepherd. Even to the man who has power to condemn him to death. Even to those who hate and kill and are so lost in sin, Jesus offers himself in love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.

This is always Jesus’ invitation to us, and to all people. Jesus invites us to belong to his community. Jesus invites us to the truth which we will know in his love, compassion and grace.

We will know that truth in the loving actions of those around us, belonging in community. And we will receive that truth when we come home to ourselves and face the truth about our lives. And we are called to live as active witnesses to the action of God in the world.

What do you see God doing in the world around you and in the lives of people you encounter today? And what does this action reveal about God’s truth?

What is truth? Part 2: Belonging to community

I remember when I was ten years old I wanted to run away from home. My brother and I fought with my Mom over watching a TV show. Our disagreement led to this radical solution.

My brother and I packed our little red wagon with pillows, blankets, some twinkies, and a bottle of milk. I informed my Mom, and we were on our way.

We pulled our wagon down the sidewalk in silence. When we reached the first cross street a block away from home, we stopped. Without saying a word, both of us turned around and headed back with heads hung low.

In discovering the truth, not only must you come home to yourself and articulate your own desires, motivations and unique identity, you need to land in a community. This is the important second movement in answering: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

At some point in the process of discovering the truth, we need to acknowledge the communal nature of truth-telling. It’s one thing to say discovering the truth is a personal journey; but it’s also a path that takes you beyond pure individualism. In other words, you can’t celebrate the truth of anything by yourself. In community we are greater than the sum of our individual parts. The truth can only be ascertained and arrived-at in the midst of others.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus relates the truth with “belonging” (18:37) — belonging to a community. Whether that community is a family, a church, a nation, God, our belonging is often tested. When things don’t go our way. When we don’t get want we want in that community. When others disappoint us. When there is disagreement. When we suffer. There are a host of circumstances that may lead us to question our belonging.

And when that happens, what do we do? Do we leave? Do we, as I tried to do with my red wagon and twin brother in tow, run away? Do we isolate ourselves behind fortress walls of fear and intransigence? What do we do when our belonging is severely tested?

Jesus hints that the kingdom of which he speaks transcends the self. When Jesus says that he was born for the purpose of testifying to the reign of God (John 18:37), Jesus is pointing to that which is larger than any individual, including himself.

We don’t exist unto ourselves. The sun doesn’t orbit around our individual planet; rather, we orbit around the sun! Our lives are meant for more than mere self-indulgence, self-acquisition, self-amelioration, self-justification.

When we discover the truth together, we’re not denying our individual, unique perspectives. We are not hiding our true colours from one another. We are simply affirming that if we are to find the truth, we will only do so together.

Belonging is not so much about individual decisions as it is about collective participation in community. That is why we make major decisions as the church, or as a nation, or even in families together. We share our differing thoughts and opinions with the awareness of our belonging to one another and to God, whether or not that unity is challenged or visibly shaken.

The movement towards community in discerning the truth calls for humility and attentiveness to those around us.

Where do you belong? Give God thanks for your belonging.

What is truth? Part 1: Coming home to yourself

The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) read like a religious manifesto for truth-seekers. Those four books in the bible can be summarized by the question: “What is truth?” which Pilate asks rather dismissively at the conclusion of a spirited conversation when Jesus is brought before him to answer to the charges brought against the purported “King of the Jews” (John 18:38).

More to the point, these stories about Jesus life, death and resurrection describe a process for discovering the truth, in three discernable movements.

First, the gospel stories reveal several encounters between Jesus and various individuals, engagements whose primary effect is to recall those individuals back to themselves.

When I meet someone I don’t know, or who appears powerful, or who for whatever reason emanates presence, it is easy for me to lose sight of myself in the encounter. In the presence of greatness, we can easily lose our groundedness and be motivated to appear that which we are not — maybe out of fear, or out of social pressure, or out of trying to please others, etc.

That clearly was Pilate’s problem. He so desperately wanted to please the religious leaders in order to keep a semblance of political power. He evidently went against his own intuition, his own experience of Jesus (“I find no case against him” he confessed later — v.38) in his desperate effort to stay in control. In that weighty exchange, if anything, Jesus invites Pilate to be transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (v.34)

The first step in discerning truth is to be clear yourself about your motivations — from where you’re coming. When the first two disciples started following Jesus on account of John the Baptist’s public declaration (“Look, here is the Lamb of God!” — John 1:35), Jesus asks them: “What are you looking for?” (v.38). Here, Jesus invites them back into themselves. He doesn’t want them to follow merely, as a parrot would, by repeating what someone else says and do what someone else tells them to. Never mind what other people are saying, what are YOU looking for?

In another encounter of healing, Jesus asks the blind man what he wants (Mark 10:51; Luke 18:41). Why? It goes without saying, right? He wants to see again! But perhaps Jesus asks him this to help him freely name for himself his deepest desires.

In the same way at the beginning of his ministry Jesus confronts the Samaritan woman at the well: While she give him all the ‘right’ answers and doctrinally correct formulations, Jesus goes straight for her heart and invites a true, transparent confession (John 4:1-30).

And when Mary is overcome with grief she does not see Jesus for who he truly is outside the tomb that first Easter morning (John 20:16). She is so distracted by disbelief she thinks he is the gardener. Only when Jesus says her name, “Mary”, does the veil of distraction lift, and she recognizes him and confesses with her own lips the truth of who Jesus is.

We can’t do truth unless we first come home to ourselves. Jesus helps us — even Pilate, in a tense life/death exchange — to articulate for ourselves who we are, what we see, and what we want. It’s so easy to get distracted from ourselves in our noisy, busy world. It’s so easy initially to focus on some external reality upon which to heap blame or praise for all that happens in our lives. Coming home to ourselves is a necessary first step in discovering the truth about God and the world.

Pray for the eyes of your heart to see, hear and know the truth.

Children’s chat: We are not dolls

My eight year old daughter nearly trembled with excitement opening a birthday present to reveal something she had wanted … Harry, from One Direction (a boy band from the UK)!

Earlier in the week during parent-teacher interview night I stood in the hallway outside her classroom door surveying the bulletin board upon which were posted, in creative depictions, what her classmates wanted to be when they grew up. She had drawn a colorful picture of herself on stage dancing and singing under the lights, with words written underneath in her chalky printing style: “When I grow up I want to be a rock star.”

I figure we make dolls in our very own image! Just like God made us in God’s own image (Genesis1:27). Each of us reflects and manifests a unique imprint of the Divine character as much as the dolls we want to play with reveal something important about ourselves.

But with one big difference. While we can manipulate and control the dolls we create – moving their arms, legs and heads, making them do what we want them to do and when we want them to do it – God does not force our hand as if we were puppets on a string.

God loves us. And because God loves us God will not control nor manipulate us. Otherwise it wouldn’t be love.

Even though God made us in God’s image, we are free to make our own decisions, even bad decisions.

That is why we need to take care in the life choices we make. And whenever we do fail, we need to remember that regardless of whatever decisions we make we still reflect God’s image. We never lose that, no matter what.

So why not let your true colors shine, be yourself and celebrate the good that is in you?

After all, you reflect God’s glory. You are beautiful. And God loves you!

Combatting the virus of perfectionism

I watched the TV news reporter stand on the side of a busy, ice-packed highway last week when Western Canada was getting walloped by the first major snow storm of the season. Behind her all manner of vehicles were exiting off the Alberta highway onto the off-ramp. What caught my eye was a large transport truck identified by its insignia – the company name: SYSCO.

SYSCO is a company in the food-marketing-transportation business operating throughout the country. And immediately who came to my mind was the chair of our council here at Faith Lutheran Church Ottawa who works for SYSCO. And my thoughts then went to wondering how she and her young family were doing that day.

Interesting how branding has such power over us, how seeing the company sign thousands of kilometers away on a transport truck in the middle of a snow storm could lead me to take a moment in my day to send her a short email.

And then I wondered how this works for Christians. By what visible sign will anyone watching know who we are? By how you and I behave in the daily course of our lives outside of Sunday – even in areas of our lives far removed from our Christian home here in the church – will people take notice and say to themselves: So, there’s a Christian! How will people know we are Christian? And how will they know what our purpose in life is?

If we’re not going about the purpose of our life, then what’s stopping us? Even though we are assured by Scripture that “our hearts are sprinkled clean from evil” (Hebrews 10:22) because of Jesus Christ, why do we hold back our generous and public witness of being a Christian? Even though we read in today’s Epistle that Christ makes perfect what we cannot, do we still delude ourselves into thinking we first have to get it right – get it perfect – before we get to the business of whatever business we’re supposed to be getting to? I sometimes wonder whether we are not, in the church, infected with what Order of Canada recipient Laurence Freeman calls “the virus of perfectionism”.

Christians at this time of year in regular worship services are pondering the “end times”. The end of another church calendar year looms – in just a couple of weeks. And so the bible readings are apocalyptic in nature; that is, they describe the trials and tribulations preceding that ‘end’. Christians are called upon to watch for the unsettling, even painful, signs the end is nigh.

In one of those texts, Jesus describes the events surrounding the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and subsequent wars, earthquakes and famines (Mark 13:1-8). To characterize this foreboding end time, out of the blue he uses the image of “birth pangs”.

Jesus uses the phrase “birth pangs” to offer us so much more than mere doom-and-gloom resignation to some random fate. He is offering his frightened disciples a way through their fear, anger and anxiety. Jesus is giving them hope in a particular vision for life and death.

“Birth pangs” refer, of course, to the labour pains a woman must endure – sometimes lasting days – before the expected baby is born. A woman suffers, prior to the birth of a new life. The product of that suffering is normally something immeasurably wonderful, beautiful and precious: the gift of a child.

Jesus gives that image to us to remind us that our weakness, our imperfection, our broken nature is not really the end, but rather a sign that new life is on the way. Here is something painful that would bring about something better.

If we want to bring something good to birth in our own lives, there will be pain. There is a necessary connection between pain and new life. Sometimes that means the pain of vulnerability. Sometimes that means the pain of losing something that we thought was important. Sometimes that means taking a risk and making a mistake. Sometimes that means the risk of failure.

But this reality in which we live ought not to keep us from putting off something we need to do now – even if it means putting yourself on the line and feeling a bit uncomfortable for a time being.

The time will never be perfect. If we are waiting for the perfect timing, it’ll never happen. In another apocalyptic biblical text, Jesus says that we will never know the exact day or hour when he comes again (Matthew 24:36). Jesus description of the birth pangs should, if anything, illustrate how imperfect from our human perspective time and history play out: lots of wars, mistakes, destruction, missed opportunities etc. It’ll never be perfect!

But that shouldn’t stop us from still doing the right thing, whatever it is: whether it is reaching out graciously to that estranged family member; taking a little extra time with someone; saying the words that need to be said; proposing a plan that may not be the easiest way, but the right way, etc. – you can fill in the blank for your own life of work, family, marriage, whatever.

If you enjoy working with your hands – carpentry, crafts, building something – you might understood the struggle with perfection. When you make something with your own hands, you have to come to terms with what mistakes you will allow and which mistakes mean you have to start over.

I read recently of a tradition faithfully employed by the native Navajo people of the south-western United States (Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation, p.170):

When the crafters of the community knit their rugs, there is always and intentionally one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of the traditional rug. Not only is this done to remind one another of who they are as a unique community.

But the imperfection in the rugs, it is believed, is precisely where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug! It is through the hole where the Spirit enters and moves. Without the imperfection, the presence of God would be missed. It is the acknowledgement of the imperfection that creates the space for what will be good.

Perfection from a healthy spiritual tradition is not the elimination of imperfection. True perfection is not the denial and exclusion of our failures, mistakes and weaknesses from our life narrative. Divine perfection is, in truth, the ability to recognize, forgive, and include imperfection – just as God does with all of us: By forgiving us. By loving us. By holding us and embracing us, just as we are.

And that calls for a bold response from us!

Those who make the rugs in the Navajo tradition don’t end up keeping it for themselves. They make it for others. They give it out even though those rugs are marked with imperfection. In fact, those rugs out there in the world are signs of God’s presence precisely because they are not perfect.

We are called as Christians to be out there in the world, even on the snowy highways and byways of life, even far away from home. We are called to show, even and especially in the storms of our lives, the love of God for the world. No matter how good or how bad it gets, we take who we are and all that we have, trusting that the outcome of our work and being is not in our hands, but in God’s.