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

Getting drenched

Nine, good people praying and studying in the church were brutally murdered this past week in Charleston, South Carolina. What tragedy. What loss. What a deep wound inflicted on our society. What awful pain the Christian community has suffered for the loss of those individuals, and for the loss of feeling secure, in church and in public.
In reaction to such horror, our ‘fear-meter’ may very well continue to rise. The storm clouds are thickening. We fear for others lives’ in a culture still troubled by racism. We fear for our own. Why would anyone ever want to enter the public square anymore to study the bible, pray and engage in social interaction? In reaction to the increasing anxiety in us, we may bolt our gates shut, close our borders completely, and cower to any anticipated conflict with others on account of our identity as Christians, as white people, as black people. This, too, would be tragic.
What the gift of faith does not do, however, is dis-spell fear. Having faith does not get rid of the reasons for being afraid. Rather, faith helps us cope with the fear and insecurity we must live with. Notice in the Gospel text for today, Jesus does not say, “Have no fear”; instead he says, “Why do you fear?” (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus does not deny there very well may be good reason to be afraid in life; at the same time, he suggests that faith gives us reason to embrace our fear with hope. And then act boldly, despite that fear.
Faith gives us reason to see beyond the fearful circumstance. The purpose of faith is to live with the hope that the present circumstance, fraught with anxiety and fear, has not the last word on our lives. Only by going through it, risking vulnerability in that circumstance, is the way to that hope, on the way to that new day.
I can imagine when Jesus calmed the storm and the wind ceased, the clouds above them broke open and they saw the sun shine again. Faith is about painting the sun-shine picture in our hearts, minds and souls, while in the middle of the storm. Faith is singing with confidence while the rain is falling (modifying slightly the words of an old song): “Someday when our crying is done, we’re gonna walk with a smile in the sun.” (A-Ha, “Crying in the Rain”)
When we are tempted in our fear not to do anything.

When we are tempted in our anxiety to turn a blind eye to the racism that continues – evidently – to be a blight on our culture.

When we are tempted in our fear to build fortress walls around us instead of welcoming the stranger …
The disciples were afraid, not awed, by Jesus’ calming the tempest. A better English translation of the Greek (phobos megas) in verse 41 is “being filled with a great fear”. Why? Probably because they knew deep down in their hearts, that living in the presence of Jesus will change them, will challenge them and cause them to behave differently in the future: boldly — no longer according to their fears, but taking risks of reaching out based on the faith — the vision — of the kingdom of God where all people are welcome.
Don’t forget that the journey across the lake was more than simply a change in venue. When Jesus said, “Let’s go to the other side”, he had in mind the actual geography of the place. He wanted to go to Gentile territory, the “country of the Garasenes” (5:1) — this is the context of the story that follows the Gospel for today. And, this represents Jesus’ first visit to what would likely have been considered a dangerous, risky mission field. Coming from his Jewish background, this would even be considered an inappropriate destination.

All this is to say, following Christ means, reaching out to others despite our fears and amidst of the storms of life. And doing so, never letting go of the vision and promise of Christ-with-us.
On my way home from Kitchener-Waterloo last week I chose to go the longer route north through Algonquin Park — and yes, I stopped at Gravenhurst to fill up with gas! I was looking forward to ‘try before I buy’ a canoe I had researched. They had a demo for sale at a reduced price, and I wanted to take this canoe for a test-paddle. I wasn’t making a commitment either way. I wanted to be open to not buying, or even finding another boat there that may have been more suitable. So, I had packed all my gear and was ready for a morning paddle in Oxtongue Lake near Dwight.
It was raining. And it wasn’t just a passing shower. It was a steady downpour. When I mentioned to the sales person that I really would like to paddle this canoe, he looked at me and smiled — “That depends”, he said, “on whether you are ok getting drenched.”
Earlier that morning when I had got up and looked at the weather forecast, I was a bit discouraged. It was cool and wet and dreary outside. And the forecast had promised a day-long rain. I hummed and hawed for a while. “Is it worth it?” “I could wait until the end of summer for the end-of-season sales.” “I don’t have to buy now”. 
Then I brought an image — a vision — to my mind. I imagined paddling this canoe on a sunny, calm-water day in some of my favourite places. I imagined the joy this would bring me, the adventure and the peace of mind and heart. Holding this vision before me, I decided it would definitely be worth the test paddle in the pouring rain.
I realize how easily discouraged I could be if the present circumstances are less than ideal. I realize how so much of life is led from the perspective of the stormy seas — as if that is the only reality we know. I also realize that if I were not able to hold firmly the vision of hope and faith and goodness before me, how life can be a negative and rather sad existence. Imagine the joy I would be missing out on had I listened to the voice of fear rather than the voice of hope.   
Another lesson I learned from my new solo canoe, is the vital importance of relaxing, of trusting, into the insecurity and uncertainty. You see, for the first time I have a canoe with a tumblehome design with no keel underneath. In other words, it is a flat-bottom boat with sides that bubble out before coming in to the gunnels on the sides. 
What this does, is make the boat extremely tippy. Unless you are sitting with your weight centred in the exact middle of the craft, you will start rocking back and forth. Unless you ‘settle down’, you will get wet quickly!
This boat is like a horse. I am told horses can read, intuitively the anxiety level of the rider. If the rider is nervous and anxious, the horse will respond in kind. The result can be an unpleasant experience for all concerned. The key, is to relax into and trust the experience. And when I do, this canoe can track with speed and is very good to manoeuvre in tight.
The Gospel for today opens to us the possibility of living through the storms of life holding onto the vision of Jesus. The only ‘condition’ of faith, is the presence of Jesus, quietly and faithfully resting in the back of our minds, in the bottom of our hearts, at the core of our being — always there, always pointing to the sun shining even above the storm clouds.
Thank you, Jesus. Help us act out of hope and faith knowing you are always there for us, always bidding us to reach out, to take the risk, and from time to time, getting drenched in the process. Amen.