Ascension action

As you saw last Sunday, I had my canoe strapped atop my car. I was eager to put paddle in water and explore the waterways around Papineau Lake near the northern border of Algonquin Park, just south of Mattawa.

From Highway 17 at Mattawa, we turned south on a dirt road. The land there still thawing from winter’s grip, the snow-melting runoff left deep potholes and troughs across the narrow roadway. For about fifteen kilometres we traversed the rough and bumpy access road, thankful for the four-wheel drive.

Finally arriving at the end of the road at the shores of Papineau Lake, we still had to portage our gear about half a kilometer through the thick bush to the cabin. I thought to put the canoe in at the water in order to paddle my gear along the shore line and save the heavy climb carrying everything on my back along the trail.

But when I looked out over the lake, this is what I saw all over its surface: Ice.

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Despite the 20-degree Celsius air temperature by midweek, the persistent ice continued to lock out any hope of paddling into the lake. Until the fourth day of our camp-out, the ice prevented us from going to the deepest parts of the lake to fish for the coveted Lake Trout for dinner. We were limited to shoreline casts where a narrow band of water teased us into never-ending hope for a catch.

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After a windy and rainy day late into our stay, we awoke at long last to this glorious sight:

The ice was completely gone. Night and day. Needless to say, I was out on the water in my canoe, crisscrossing the lake and exploring new shorelines. The loons were back. The lake had awakened once more.

In these last few days, the church has recognized the Ascension of our Lord. Some forty days after Easter each year the church recalls when Jesus, after appearing to his disciples following his resurrection, ascends to heaven.[1]

Jesus, here, leaves them for good, so to speak. It is no wonder why the scripture texts in these last few weeks have gone back to parts of the farewell discourses from John’s Gospel, also appointed for reading before Christ’s death.[2]There’s a point to it.

Jesus prepares his disciples for his leave-taking, never easy – a second time, now. Both before his death, and now before his Ascension, Jesus needs to remind and console them – and us – that we are not left alone.

Despite his going away, Christ will come to them no longer in physical form but in the Holy Spirit. God is present now to us in each other– the community, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why did Jesus leave them? You might wonder: Why should Jesus have ascended to heaven and leave it all in his disciples’ hands? We don’t need to go far into Christian history to see the imperfection (to put it mildly) of Christians throughout the ages.

Jesus was alive and among them. Why couldn’t he just have stuck around – forever? Things would certainly have turned out better, no? Could you imagine how encouraging it would be for his disciples then and now to have Jesus appear from time to time albeit in his resurrected form to guide us, talk to us, lead us, comfort us, in physical form?

All the while the ice remained in the lake, we were confined to the shoreline. We could still fish, to be sure. But the real good catches were waiting for us out in the middle of the lake. For us to do so, we had to get out on the lake ourselves. The ice had to go, first.

If the Ascension didn’t happen, would the disciples ever really believe Jesus’ promise – or have to believe Jesus’ promise – that God lives in them through the Holy Spirit? Would the disciples ever do what Christ commanded them – to go “to the ends of the earth” to be Christ’s witnesses?[3]

If Jesus remained with them, wouldn’t they be tempted to look only to Jesus standing out in the middle of lake – even if there was ice covering it –  and not trust themselves enough to get ‘out there’ to do the job? Wouldn’t they become overly dependent on Jesus for everything and not embrace the gift within them?

“You are my witnesses, even to the ends of the earth,” Jesus says. We need to hear that first word in the sentence: You. Jesus speaks to each one of us here. Each one of us are Christ’s witnesses, now that Jesus is no longer present to us in bodily form.

And, that means, we have to follow through not only with words, but with deeds. When the ice melts, we are called to get ourselves out there into the middle of the lake and start fishing, with the gifts we have.

Over forty years ago, my father flew low over Algonquin Park in a single-prop plane. I was just a baby, and my mother was worried. You see, my father, the pastor of a church in Maynooth, was the passenger squeezed tightly into the small cabin of this plane. It was the pilot’s first solo flight.

The pilot was a member of his parish. Bill, we will call him. For years leading up to this event, my dad counselled Bill who struggled with many personal problems to say the least. Nothing was going right for this guy. At one point in their conversations, my dad asked Bill: “If there was anything you wanted to do, what is it you dream of doing?” Good, pastoral question, no?

Without much hesitation, Bill said he had always wanted to fly a plane. So, my dad encouraged him to get his pilot’s license. Which he did in short order. Again, good pastoral guidance. You’d think my dad’s job was done. Pastor School 101, check.

But when it came time for Bill to fly solo, he naturally asked his own wife to go with him the first time. She flatly refused, which worried my dad a bit. What was it about Bill that she couldn’t trust going into a plane with her husband flying it?

So, Bill came to my father. “Pastor,” he said, “you have been with me through it all. You said words that helped me in my despair. You listened to me when things weren’t going well. You helped me discover my passion. You encouraged me to get my pilot’s license. Now, I’d like you to go with me into the air, for my first solo flight. Would you please come?”

You could imagine why my mother was so worried. With two little baby boys to care for, she feared Bill would crash the plane and she would be left to parent us alone.

But dad went. He might have been justified in finding some excuse not to go with Bill. I think in his wisdom my dad knew, though, that his words had to be followed by actions.

I think in his wisdom, my dad knew that to be a witness to the gospel, it wasn’t merely about believing the right things and saying the right things. It had to be followed up by walking the talk. And this action involved some risk, to be sure, and a whole lot of trust.

May this Ascension Sunday remind us all that the God gives us the gifts we need to take the risk to get out there onto the lake and do the job that is ours, together in and through one another, blessed by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

[1]Luke 24: 44-53

[2]John 17:6-19 (Easter 7B), John 15:9-17 (Easter 6B), John 15:1-8 (Easter 5B) – These texts, part of the ‘farewell discourse’ of Jesus in John’s Gospel, are intended to prepare, encourage and empower his disciples prior to Jesus’ departure. The context of the farewell discourse is Holy Week, especially during the Passover Meal on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

[3]Acts 1:8

There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63