It’s ok to fall (1): Jesus lets us

There’s a bouncy feel to the rhythm of Mark’s story-telling. I can track the Gospel of Mark on a chart in terms of highs and lows:

The highs are the remarkable, miraculous, inexplicable even sensational events witnessed by story-tellers. Beginning with the baptism of Jesus in the first chapter (v.9-11) — voices from heaven, clouds parting, dove descending.

Then, mid-way through the Gospel Jesus goes atop a mountain and turns into this divine, ethereal being before the disciples’ eyes (Mark 9:2-9). Giants from Hebrew history — Moses and Elijah — appear out of thin air, clouds roil and again a voice from heaven. And, in the last chapter (16:9-20), of course, the brief but significant mention of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead. These are definitely ‘highs’.

The lows are a bit more tricky. They represent the down-side of Jesus’ ministry — the temptation after forty impoverished days in the desert, the scrutiny of the Pharisees, all culminating in the Passion of Christ: his betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, death and burial. Some original manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end on a ‘low’: “So [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (v.8).

Talk about bouncy, like what often happens with the outdoor temperature when seasons change!

These lows are tricky, because, as we shall see, they are not really ‘lows’. At least, they are not the final word in the story of faith. There is always an upside past the low. The troubling truth is that the high will not happen without the necessary, preceding low. In other words, before we rise we must know to fall.

I told this story already once before but it bears repeating. It illustrates the point rather well. And it is a summer-time, water-play story — and my imagination goes there frequently at this frozen time of year.

I was learning to water-ski. In fact, it was the first time I ever tried it, at age thirty. Jessica and I visited with some friends who had a cottage on a small lake nestled in the Bruce Peninsula north of Owen Sound.

It was a good lake to learn on. Few cottagers, even fewer boaters. A quiet, round lake. And my friend, John who drove the boat, assured me that we would just circle the lake a few times and when I wanted to stop, just to wave my arm and he would bring me close to shore.

John’s family, gathered with Jessica at shore to watch me. They assured me that it was normal to fall the first time on skis. In fact, they said they didn’t remember anyone ever being able to lift up and out of the water the first time without falling, when the boat accelerated. I think my friends were getting ready for a long afternoon of fits, stops and starts.

Well, were they in for a surprise. Including myself. Well, not really. Because, darn it all, I would employ all my strength and stamina NOT TO FALL!!!!

I was sitting with my skis submerged in the water, when John hit the gas and I felt the first tug. I gripped the tow rope handle with all my power and pulled myself out of the water, and voila! I was skiing! I briefly heard the cheering of my friends on the shore behind me before we were out on the open water and the waves were peeling off the sides of my skis. I enjoyed it for a few minutes.

But then, my back started cramping up, and my thighs began to seize up. We were around the lake a dozen times before I fully realized I was in some incredible pain. But I never wiped out once! It wasn’t until afterward that I came to the conclusion — after impressing everyone, I think — that I never relaxed into the experience. I was so tight because I didn’t want to fall.

And yet, I needed to fall. I needed to just let go into the water to know how it felt. My enjoyment of the experience was dampened because of an unrealistic, and inhuman (I might add) expectation of myself. Even though I never fell waterskiing that first time, even though I was ‘perfect’ at it — have I ever wanted to go again? No.

When I recall, as a child, those times that I truly enjoyed playing in the water — it was those times whenever a huge wave caught me off balance and threw me head over heels onto the beach. Those were the times I jumped up and ran back in with glee. It’s the same thing with water slides, and why we will run back up the steps all afternoon long. There is something important about sliding under the surface of the water, losing control, falling into grace, letting go into the sometimes tumultuous waters of our baptism.

This is the first movement of anyone’s true, journey of faith. The pull of the current is downward. Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness” (cited in Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 2011, p.153).

What I am learning over time is that we are the cause of our sinning more than anything or anyone else. Because it is natural to fall, from time to time. But we don’t allow ourselves, give ourselves permission, to do just that. We resist, deny, suppress this movement downward. Part of the Lenten journey, I believe, is to reflect on why it is we don’t allow ourselves to just let go into the arms of God, and simply trust.

Admittedly our human nature is such, that we would rather avoid the low and shoot straight for the high. I get that. It is also true, we are up against a giant. We build our lives up against the fear of falling. We are a success-oriented culture. We construct our fortress of security, we incessantly compare ourselves to others and measure our self-worth against some notion of success plastered on the front covers of magazines and echoed through the voices of our sports’ heroes and business tycoons. We are an upwardly mobile culture, valuing even yearning for this trending in our own lives. ‘Up’ is the only way to go! What else is there to do?

So, beware of this prejudice against falling before we start! I ask you to consider all these real and important concerns we have in our culture against falling — whether they are physical, emotional, spiritual — and hold them before you, carefully, during the coming “down” season.

The glorious, divine vision of Jesus is hard to explain. It is a miracle way beyond human understanding. We may say that this event was meant to encourage and empower Jesus for his coming journey to the cross. We may say that we need to be reminded again of the divine nature of Jesus. We may say that what this text tells us is to be obedient, and “listen” to, Jesus, the Holy One of God.

But I like how the story ends. Mark, in his brevity nonetheless, does take intentional note of the movement of the disciples with Jesus “down the mountain” (v.9). This is the sounding bell for Lent. We are now ready to begin the journey downward, into the valley. We are now on a downward trajectory.

And the real question is: What will we do with that? Will we distract ourselves even more? Will we intensify our addictive behaviour and buy more toys to keep the pain at bay? Will we pretend that ‘all is well’ when it is not?

Or, will we face our fears, confront our internal poverty and our crisis, with courage? And I say, with courage, because there is reason to hope when we stand on the edge of the abyss. There is reason to persevere through the fall.

In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (17:1-8), describing with even more detail than Mark all that happened in this incredible mountain-top scene, the disciples who go with Jesus to see this heavenly vision and hear the voice of God from the bright, overshadowing cloud — what do they do? “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (v.6). They fall to the ground. And not only that …

Jesus’ lets them. He doesn’t scold them for falling down by saying something like, “Hey, buck up; you are standing on holy ground before Elijah, Moses and my divine being! Don’t fall down and grovel in the dirt! Pull yourself together! You’re my disciples, after all! Show some respect!” No, he doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus let’s them be humbled before his divine presence. If but for a short moment, Jesus allows them their humanity. And then he says with encouraging, inviting words, “You don’t have to be afraid, get up” (v.7).

I hope you can join me in the coming Lenten journey, taking great comfort in the Good News of Jesus. I can almost hear Jesus’ loving voice whisper in my ear, next time I risk getting on water skis again, “It’s okay to fall, you know. You don’t have to be afraid.”

Transforming vision

One of the most impressive cinematic visual effects in recent years comes from the “Transformers” film, when for the first time we see how a yellow Camaro is transformed before our very eyes into the character, Bumblebee – the mechanical, robot-like giant. Every part of the sports car shifts, rotates, elevates, turns and clicks into a new position in matter of seconds, revealing a completely different being – from car to robot.

But that’s just it: Every part of the car is necessary in the transformation. In other words, each piece of the car finds a place in the robot: the fender becomes the forehead; the headlights become the eyes; the tires become part of the joints in elbows and knees, etc. Nothing is discarded. The automobile – literally – is just changed, seen in a new light.

I suspect sometimes we resist the notion of our transformation because we anticipate or feel un-genuinely forced into becoming someone we are not. Especially in the church. On the other hand, we may resist the notion of our transformation because we are so convinced that there’s nothing good in our lives to begin with. So, what’s the point?

Because of these hang ups, we may give up. And we discard altogether the notion of ‘change’, defending the status quo of our lives even when we are not happy with the way things are. We justify philosophies that insist that human nature never changes; people will always be the same. And what is more, our nature is evil and beset forevermore with sin. If there is any good within us, it doesn’t last long and we cycle back into sinful patterns. Cynicism reigns supreme.

We can’t, however, ignore the witness of the Holy Scriptures. I don’t have to give you a complete catalogue of examples from the Gospels that shows how people around Jesus change. Whether directly the recipients of Jesus’ healing touch, which is obvious; or, the way the disciples – by the end of the journey with Jesus do exhibit moments of ‘aha’! Just read again the Easter stories such as the Emmaus walk (Luke 24:13ff), and the confident confessions of faith from the disciples – the likes of Nathanael, Peter, and Martha (Matthew 14:33;16:16; John 1:49;11:27).

It is evident from the witness of Scripture that if the disciples are not completely changed by the end of the story, they are certainly a journey that is changing their lives, forever (i.e. transformation).

But it takes time. It is a journey, after all. If the disciples are like the yellow Camaro in the film, “Transformers”, changing into Bumblebee, their transformation is more like what happens when you hit the slow motion button at that moment in the movie!

But what really changes? Are they still not the same person? After Jesus raised from the dead, the disciples went back to their day jobs – fishing by the Sea of Galilee; though they have seen and touched the risen Lord, were they not still the same people? When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his facing shining after being in the presence of God – he was transformed, to be sure (Exodus 24:16-17;34:29); And yet he was still Moses – every part of him! When Jesus was transformed into a shining, glowing being on the Mount of Transfiguration, was he still not Jesus – every part of him (Matthew 17:1-9)?

An ex-soldier reflected with a concerned friend how war affects people in different ways: “Most soldiers get sick on the spot after killing someone for the first time; for others, it just whets their appetite for more.”

“Combat changes people,” the friend said trying to explain the traumatic effects of the battlefield on the human psyche.

“No,” the veteran replied. “Combat reveals who they truly are.”

Perhaps we have misunderstood this notion of ‘change’. In our linear, logical ways of thinking, we have perhaps overlooked a deeper dimension of our lives. Jesus changed, yes, on the mountain. But he didn’t really change. He was revealed, if but for a moment, as he truly is. Admittedly, as a mystery to us. And yet, we, with the disciples, get a glimpse of his divine nature, in this story. We don’t see a different Jesus. We just see a little more of who he really is: Someone beyond all human understanding, at very least.

This may not appear a satisfying answer for inquiring minds. Neither was it for Peter, James and John. At first, Peter belts out in pious bravado: “It is good Lord, that we are here!” (Matthew 17:4) It doesn’t take too long for Peter and his cohorts to fall trembling, flat on the ground, terrified of what they are seeing (Matthew 17:6).

How do we make sense of this incomprehensible God? What do we do when all our assumptions are shaken at their core? Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is happening, here, in my life?

I consider this story of the Transfiguration of the Lord a template, an allegory, for most experiences of our lives that we would view as ‘life-changing’ – good and bad experiences. Any event of our lives that brings us to our knees in fear and uncertainty: whenever we find ourselves wondering, “Why, Lord?” Or, on the other hand, whenever we are able to raise our hands in praise of God’s goodness, standing before a wondrous act of God.

In either case, the end of the story is more about God the Creator and Jesus, God’s Son. When the disciples are slain in fear on the ground after witnessing a most spectacular special-effect display of divine mystery and wonder, when Jesus notices the trauma of his friends ….

It’s as if, suddenly, all is quiet and all the ‘special effects’ of the Transfiguration melt into the background. Two things come into focus at the end to help the disciples gain their feet again: Jesus’ gentle words: “Do not be afraid”. And, his loving touch.

The disciples, who have just witnessed Jesus, as he truly is, are on the path of discovering who they, truly are in God’s eyes: Loved and touched by the hands of the Creator, soon to be crucified – a touch to ensure them that no matter what – even through death – they will never be alone. God is with them, “Emanuel” (Matthew 1:23), God with us.

We come into our true selves because of who Jesus is, as a reflection of the mystery of the divine. Like a tiny acorn holds the full capacity of being a giant tree, we hold the capacity of everything we yearn to become – because of Jesus. His light shines on us, warms our hearts, and causes our emergence.

It’s our relationship to Jesus, then, that defines our transformation. Listen to the words of Maryetta Anschutz who describes an artist’s creation: “An artist knows that everything he or she creates depends less on the subject matter and far more on the subject’s relationship to the light. In sculpture, photography, painting, or drawing, the artist simply depicts the reflection of light off an object or an idea.

“The still life of an apple can be flat, dull, and uninspiring, or it can evoke emotion, reaction, and transcendence. What evokes the response [the change] is not the object; it is how the artist presents it in the light …” (p.456, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 1, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, JKP Kentucky, 2010). We are transformed, each and every ordinary one of us, into the beauty that Christ sees in us, and that we are.

Perhaps the challenge and call upon our lives from this holy story, is first and foremost a call to exercise the vision of God. That is, we are challenged to see anew all that is – the ordinary, the common place, the routine, the unspectacular, the every day. We are called to look upon one another, one self, each other, the people on the street upon the highways and byways of our regular lives – in the light and perspective of God. Not to deny the blemishes that are ever present – the cracks, the brokenness, the sin. But to appreciate the beauty of the way things already are, in the sight and vision of God the Creator, the master Artist.

In this way, then, transformation is neither a threat nor a fright. It is permission to become, and let emerge, what is already there. Hold what is there to the light of Christ, who stands always beside us, beckoning with his loving touch and assuring us, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Thanks be to God.