Driving me crazy

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There are times in life that come our way to remind us that something is ending. And even though at some deeper level we know it to be true, we hesitate to face that ending, whatever it is — the end of an era, the end of the life of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of youthful health and energy, etc.

How do we face these movements in life?

In planning our family vacation to Italy a couple summers ago, we decided to rent a car. Our host family lived in Naples. So, right off the plane, we jumped in our small Fiat, yours truly engaged the manual shift, and we immersed ourselves in the mayhem of driving in Naples.

What added to the heightened anxiety of driving in the sprawling metropolis, was that I had to follow our friends from downtown to the suburbs – no short jaunt ‘round the corner.

Not only did I have to deal with the speedy and crazy driving conditions, I had to slice through the haze of jetlag in my mind, and pay attention. I had to keep up to our host family already long acclimatized to the riotous driving culture there.

What is more, shortly after recovering from the stress and thrill of that first-day drive from the airport, the next day, in our separate cars we took to the winding and narrow road along the Amalfi Coast. To get there, we had to cross Naples first. Been there done that. No small feat.

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Then, once on the rocky Amalfi coastline, my face was practically pasted on the front windshield. I had to make constant reflexive maneuvers rounding blind, hairpin bends. At relatively high speeds I squeezed our little Fiat between oncoming Vespa scooters, ginormous tour buses and sleek, racing, tinted-windowed Audi sedans. All the while wiping the spittle from the glass in front of my mouth emitting profanity after profanity.

 

Caution thrown to the wind, I threw myself into it without thinking too much. Reactive, assertive and confident driving skills required! Since I didn’t exactly know the route we would take, I had to focus on what was directly in front of me. I had to pay attention and respond not only to the immediate conditions I found myself in. I also had to keep an eye on the dark blue Hyundai some car lengths in front, leading the way.

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Following someone in another car, requires certain skills best developed in the context of faith. Let me explain.

First, you have to trust. You must trust that the One you are following knows what they are doing and where they are going. You have to believe that following them faithfully will take you to where you want to go. At some gut level, you have to relinquish your claim to knowing better. And trust the other. And believe that they believe in you and your skill, too.

Second, you have to pay attention. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, even though the distractions and obstacles are frightening. As with driving in general, you can’t be looking inside the car or admiring the scenery to the side or behind you. Rather, you have to remain focused on the road ahead. Better yet, for as smooth a ride as possible, you have to envision yourself already being a certain distance down the road.

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Third, you need to act on in-the-moment decisions. Following another car is a whole different way of driving then when you are on your own. On your own, you can stop whenever you want, you can go however fast or slow you want to go, and you are not accountable in any way to another vehicle on the road.

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All that changes as soon as you say, “I will follow you.” If you don’t want to get lost, you have to keep up. You have to do it. You have to match the velocity of the lead car, whether they speed up or slow down. You have to drive in a way that will keep you within eyesight of the lead, which will affect how you negotiate traffic signals, lane changes, roundabouts, traffic jams, and toll gates.

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Finally, in order to follow another successfully, you have to take the primary focus off yourself. And fix it on whom you are following. There is no time to dwell on your past mistakes – the guy you cut off coming onto the expressway, your cursing a fellow driver weaving across multi lanes going 130 kilometres an hour, or the slight yet growing pressure you feel on your bladder from all the espresso you drank earlier in the day.

There is no time for self-indulgence of this kind. There is no time for regret, guilt or self-absorbed mental gymnastics. There is no time to stop to lick the wounds of obsessive introspection.

Because your energy is required now for the task at hand: trust, focus, action.

Jesus describes at least two opposing lifestyles in the Gospel reading for today.[1] The sheep are on Christ’s right hand – they are the good guys. The goats are on Jesus’ left hand – they are the bad guys. I suspect we can relate to being both a goat and a sheep at different times and conditions of our lives.

Either way, both groups are surprised to hear Jesus’ answer to their question: “When did we see you …?”[2] Both groups failed to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.

The only difference is that the sheep already happened to be serving those in need, before they heard this news, before they had a chance to think about it too much, strategize and create impressive mission plans. That group was visiting the sick and tending to the needs of others as a matter of course, moved by a simple compassion for the needy. Doing so was part of their regular routine of life.

On the other hand, the goats apparently never thought nor believed that their very salvation depended on helping others, going to the poor, attending to the weak and vulnerable in society. Instead, they must have made life predominantly a game of ‘who can get the most stuff and be most comfortable and take care of their own first.’ Their faith must have been assigned to a God who existed only in their minds, in abstraction, a matter reserved only for intellectual discourse,polite company, and board room strategy sessions.

At this turning point in the calendar year, we shift gears and look ahead. We leave behind the relative calm and ease of the long summer season after Pentecost, and enter the fray of the holiday season. How we drive through and around the many distractions, noise, pace and twisting corners of our lives in the coming months will reveal a lot about who we follow or whether we are following anyone at all, let alone Jesus.

So, let’s not forget where Jesus goes. Let’s not forget what he was all about, whom he visited, whom he cared for and where he spent his time. This is our focus. Let’s trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about and the path he takes, even though God’s reign feels countercultural and unpopular in a season of getting more stuff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps we will need to practice looking for Jesus on the streets, in the hospices, the safe-injection sites, the social housing units, the shelters, the refugee lines and immigrant ghettos in our city.

Let’s trust that Jesus’ way will lead to our resurrection and transformation in this life as much as in the next. Let’s pay attention to our surroundings and the various ways God encourages us on the way. Let’s not remain idle, nor get stuck in self-centred living. Let’s not coast nor ride the clutch too much. Because we’ll stall the car. And stopping is not good on the highway of life. In fact, it’s dangerous.

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Instead, let’s act faithfully in small, concrete ways that make a difference for the better in the lives of others in need.  Let’s do so assertively and confidently, knowing that we don’t travel alone; there are others in the car with us and on the highway around us. Because despite our many failings, and the mistakes we will make along the way, God continues to have faith in us.

There is too much at stake. And no time to lose. Still today, in our country – Canada – and in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there are still over 10,000 households needing adequate, safe and affordable housing.[3] And, 15% of the population in the whole province of Ontario still lives in some kind of housing need.

Where is Jesus? The bible makes it very clear. The better question is: Will you follow?

Recently I came across this anonymous quote about the merits of volunteering in ways that can reflect the reign of Christ in our lives and in our world:

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections … [once every four years], but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

When you volunteer for good causes you add value to the vision of God in earth. The Reign of Christ is about the kind of world God wants us to live in. Where is Jesus? Will you follow?

We end today a church season. This annual observance can remind us that endings only herald a new beginning just around the corner.

[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] verses 37 and 44

[3] check out http://www.multifaithhousing.ca

Christmas in July


This past summer my family visited friends in Italy. We spent three weeks touring around mostly the southern half of mainland Italy — Naples and the Amalfi Coast especially. In this region in summer, the weather is tropical. Palm trees, humid air, full sun and temperatures soaring. We wore shorts and sandals, t-shirts and hats the entire time.

One of our highlights was visiting the Green, or Emerald, grotto near Positano on the Amalfi Coast. We had to take an elevator down from the snaking roadway to the water line. Then, we entered small boats for a tour around the cave.


The grotto was named “Emerald” for the incredible colours that filter from an underground opening and fill the cave with intense nuances of green. The inside of the cavern is filled with stalagmites, stalactites and beautiful works of art created by time and nature.

Near the end of the tour when the boat was paddled close to a wall of the cave, our tour guide asked us to look down into the sparkling, luminescent water on the one side of the boat. “What do you see?” he prompted us. For the longest time, I could see nothing, just the rippling waters.

Then, as the light continued to play on the currents swirling some ten feet underneath us, I saw it:

The grotto is home to an underwater nativity scene, made by a ceramics artisan from nearby Vietri in 1956. Since that time, divers from all over Italy come to pay a visit to the Holy Family at Christmas. But it wasn’t Christmas.

For me, the traditional nativity set felt out of place – a kitsch decoration in a natural, marine setting in a tropical paradise. From my Canadian perspective, it felt all wrong. This didn’t belong here.

It was the least-expected time and place to be reminded of Christmas. Christmas in July, where temperatures were well into the 30 degree celsius range, far away from home on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. On vacation. Christmas was the farthest thing from my mind!

In the Christmas children’s book by Eve Bunting, entitled, “We Were There: A Nativity Story”, she illustrates how the least expected animals very likely also attended the birth of Jesus: a snake, a frog, a scorpion, a cockroach, a bat, a spider and a rat.

It is written from the perspective of these least likely characters who are thankful for the more popular donkeys, sheep and cows who are “so generous to share their place” by the side of the manger. She concludes:

No one will look beyond the light to darkness
and the corner where we watch, unwatched.
They will not know or care.
But we were there. (1)

This children’s book makes a deep, theological point! The problem: We don’t see that God is there. We only expect to see God in certain places, at certain times:
Only at Christmas once a year in a crowded, decorated church;
Only in warm, comfortable stables where clean sheets and cutesy animals surround a quiet baby lying in the arms of a domicile Mary;
Only when good times roll with egg nog at the hearth of a roaring fire sitting in your favourite chair;
Only when choristers sing your favourite carols;
Or, only when everything is perfect.

We’ve locked God into the proverbial box.

The good news: God blows all our contrived and constricted expectations. God comes to us in all times and places, especially when we least expect it, even when we are not thinking about it, or planning for it.

While the dominant Christmas culture depends on our planning and organizing and ‘setting it up’, God comes to us despite all our fussing and fretting.

In truth, God is already there, just beneath the surface, out of the reach of the light, in the shadows where no one is looking or even caring.

Our job is not to make God happen by all our toiling and efforts to create the best Christmas ever. We don’t achieve God’s presence. Our job is simply to recognize where God is already present. Our job, simple though not easy, is to surrender to God who is already there. And this takes practice and intention.

So, this Christmas holiday, take a walk downtown where street people continue to ask for money. This Christmas holiday, search out an old friend with whom you haven’t spoken for a long time. This Christmas holiday, do something that you normally would not do, for the common good. This Christmas holiday, recognize the gifts you already have, not just in those presents packed under the tree.

Give thanks for the gifts you enjoy every day of the year — friends, family, love, community — the blessings that come from learning to want what you have instead of having what you want. Exercise the skill of seeing where and what many will not.

The joy of Christmas be with you. The gift of life and love in Jesus is born anew in our very lives. Today. And no matter where you are and whatever the circumstance of your life. God is already with you, waiting to be seen.

(1) – Eve Bunting, “We Were There: A Nativity Story” (Clarion Books, New York, 2001)