funeral sermon: with 4 wheels on the ground

I remember that winter day. It was -20c and the roadways were covered with snow and ice. And yet, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Coming into the west-end near Stittsville, the Queensway was empty. And it was mid-morning on a weekday!

I was powering it through! A little snowfall wasn’t going to impede me. I was going at my regular speed in the passing lane and was wondering why very few were venturing onto the highway. And then I saw a car had spun out, resting against the guardrail perpendicular to me at the side of the 417 in front of the Canadian Tire Centre. And a little farther I witnessed another car spinning out of control.

I decided to slow down, and tapped the brake. Mistake #1. I felt the wheels begin to float underneath me. I then stepped on the gas to try to get grip. Mistake #2. The fish-tailing was starting to feel like a swan dive. I was losing it!

Thankfully in that moment, I remembered what my drivers-ed teacher taught me thirty years ago: Step off the gas! I think we instinctively associate stepping on the gas with more control — in all circumstances; the more I give, the more I expend, the more I put myself out there — the better it’ll be.

But in this case, the solution was to let go and just keep the steering wheel pointed forward. And as soon as I let off the accelerator, the four wheels found purchase, and I was able to recover. It is a little bit counter-intuitive for us in our get’er done culture to divest ourselves of the belief that doing more about something will save us from whatever predicament we find ourselves in. Sometimes, in tough situations, we just have to let off the gas, a bit.

When a loved one dies, we must do what might feel counter-intuitive to what love is. We need to let go. To let-go takes love.

Life came to a crashing halt for you last week. The shock, the heaviness, the sudden change in your lives now that Mark is gone—all threaten to overwhelm you in grief. Maybe these days all you can do is bring to mind memories that stand out.

One very clear memory from your life with Mark is at the racetrack. Car racing—whether at Capital City before it closed, or Cornwall and Brockville—brought you together in the enjoyment of life.

God created each one of us to have 4×4 capability, to drive on the road of life. If you have four-wheel-drive, you normally have the option, when you need it, to engage all four wheels in the power-train instead of just the two front wheels. Four-wheel-drive comes in handy especially in snowy, icy winter conditions, or when you drive off-road in mud, over rocks and in fields.

Now, I believe most of us who have this four-wheel-drive option don’t really need it for 99% of the time we drive, even in winter. For most of our lives, things may go reasonably well for many of us. Life is good. We get by. We may even enjoy many of the blessings of a good life.

But there will still be times in our lives when we will suffer. There will be times in our lives when our health will fail and we come face to face with our limitations. We will suffer loss and even tragedy. We will suffer the pressures and stresses of family and work and the conflicts of being in relationships with others.

And when we do, we will need the four-wheel-drive option that is built right into our make-up. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage the off-road bumps and potholes. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage those slippery, icy, even dangerous road conditions.

Yes, using four-wheel-drive burns more gas. It’s not the most fuel-efficient way of driving. We use up more energy. It will be difficult, trying, even exhausting. Working through our grief pushes us past our comfort zones, to be sure. But we do have the capability, this gift, and we should use it. Try it.

And here’s the wonder of it: When we must engage the four-wheel-drive option and drive down that unknown, sometimes scary, road, being jostled about on the uneven, narrow way, we discover that God sits right beside us in the car.

You see, the engine won’t ever fail, because the capability for off-roading is a quality of God’s love. Love is the fuel, the energy, the power behind this effort. And this love is shown to us by God. God loves us, even when we make mistakes, when we falter, even when crash, even when we will have an accident. God is with us. And God’s love and unfailing presence sustains us.

In the scripture I read, I hope you heard those words from Saint Paul: “Salvation is nearer to us now, than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). When we first become aware of the love of God for us, maybe a long time ago, that is great! This may be some significant turning point, or an incredible experience when the beauty, joy, peace and glory of life radiate all around us.

That was then, this is now. Since then, we may have thought little about God and dismissed any notions of participating in the life of the church.

It doesn’t matter, now. Because the point is, right now you are off-roading. And now that you may be using that 4×4 capability on the rough patches of the road of life, God is even closer to you.

Regardless of our past. Now that we may be suffering and enduring the pain of loss, God is even closer to us. It’s built right in. God “… will not forsake his people; God will not abandon the work of his hands” (Psalm 94:14).

God created Mark. God has not forsaken Mark in his time of greatest need. God has not abandoned Mark at his most vulnerable moment of life and death. And God will not abandon you.

After all, God is right next to you on the road of life.

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

Becoming the new

I spend a lot of time in the car. With over 30 years of driving experience, I pride myself in being a good driver who is well-prepared and always thinking ahead. 
Especially when it comes to fuelling the car. In fact, I have rarely ever let the gas gauge go much less than half full. Whenever I’ve noticed others pushing their car to the gas pump, I would secretly harbour disdain for them: “Stupid! Why would you even let yourself run out of fuel when you know you are running out of gas?!!! Plan ahead, idiot!” 
Others have loved to road trip with me because I am the one always thinking ahead, anticipating and watching out for where we could stop for cheap gas along the journey — I am the responsible car operator! 
Until this past week.
There are at least two ways to tell how much fuel you have: First, there is the traditional gauge with the little red needle that fluctuates between F for full and E for empty. In the new cars you can also toggle a button on your dash displaying how many kilometres you can still travel on the amount of gas you have. And it was this latter feature — this guidance system — that I chose to depend on in planning my road trip to Waterloo.
I filled up at Costco Monday morning and flipped the switch to show that I could travel 570 kilometres before I needed to refuel. According to Google Maps, the distance between Ottawa and where I was going in Kitchener was 528 kilometres. So, I concluded, I could make that trip on one tank of gas, especially since the gas station I was aiming for in Kitchener had the cheapest gas in the region. Sounds like a good plan, right? I wouldn’t have to stop. I could make better time. I wouldn’t have to pay the exorbitant gas prices along the 401.
As I travelled throughout the day I noticed the red needle make its slow but steady plunge towards the E. By the time I arrived in Cambridge (between Toronto and Kitchener) the trip counter showed I could still go 30 kilometres before I would run out of gas. Okay. But I was embroiled in one of those famous car parks along the 401. Happy to say, it didn’t take too long, even though by now the red needle was sitting on E. As I was flying along Highway 8 in Kitchener a handful of kilometres from the cheap gas station, the indicator still had me for 19 kilometres. My other eye kept looking at the red needle, which hadn’t moved at all still resting on empty.
I stopped at a red light very close to that gas station. I was still good for 19 kilometres. I looked around me and the other cars in the intersection waiting for the light to turn, feeling smug that everything was going smoothly according to my plan. Then, I looked down at the trip-counter, and to my horror it read: “0” kilometres left. How did it go suddenly from 19 to 0? I figured, I still had a few hundred metres to go. I would be running on fumes. And I just made it, without having to push my car to the pump. It was close!

It is vital to know which way of thinking, which guidance system, is informing our behaviour and the decisions we make. My decision to trust the trip counter instead of the fuel gauge made a difference in the way I experienced my journey.
What beliefs, what values, which guidance systems are informing the decisions you are making now in your life — especially in the midst of stress, loss, and increased anxiety? It’s important to step back and uncover this stuff.
What we do is based on beliefs that go deep. Often, like an iceberg, those beliefs are hidden, unacknowledged, under-the-surface — even though they constitute the main part, the main reason, for what we do. For the most part, we deal with what’s above the water line. This is where we operate most of the time. Without going underneath the surface, we end up leading shallow lives, simply reacting to what happens and going in circles.
I’ve quoted Albert Einstein before: “you can’t solve a problem with the same way of thinking that caused the problem in the first place.” 
Admittedly, this is how we normally have done things: we react, we knee-jerk, into similar, surface kinds of responses based on assumptions closer to the surface. We respond to a stupid remark by giving an equally stupid remark. When there is a disagreement, we jump into a relational food-fight to see who can yell louder — as if this is supposed somehow solve the problem. 
When I took history in public school, it was still during the Cold War; my teachers described the problem that the super-powers were caught in by calling it: “Mutually-Assured-Destruction” — the slippery slope to an unsustainable reality. How would it stop, when both sides stockpiled more and more nuclear weapons to show their enemy who was stronger? The anacronym for mutually-assured-destruction is true: It is MAD! It doesn’t lead us anywhere constructive. In fact, it is the path towards the demise of all that is.
Are we aware of the ordinary patterns of our thinking? If so, to begin with, we can give thanks. To a degree, those ways of thinking may have served us well throughout our lives, to a point. Without ditching them altogether, are we at the same time aware of deeper currents and other ways of approaching life’s challenges? I would hope so, because when life happens and we run low on gas, we have decisions to make. The question is: According to which way of thinking?
Paul concludes in the passage we read from his second letter to the Corinthian church: “We regard no one from a human [read, ‘ordinary’] point of view … So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
How do we get to the ‘new’? I don’t believe we have to wait until we die, to get to the new. Someone wise once said, “The truth will set you free. But first it will make you miserable.” Whatever good, whatever new life we receive is necessarily preceded by some pain and what some have called: “necessary suffering.”
We resist this, quite naturally, in our personal lives and in the life of the church. And yet, the truth stares us in the face: No pain, no gain. You cannot circumnavigate grief, for example. You cannot trick life by avoiding conflict, another example. You cannot grow and mature without first letting go of something that is holding you back. All this causes some pain, yes. And on the other side of that suffering is the new creation.
This takes courage, resolve and determination to behave according to a different mind-set. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul writes to the Roman church (12:2). Renewing the mind involves taking some risk, responding differently from your usual pattern, stepping out of our comfort zones into places of discomfort. It may even feel like a momentary affliction. I had to experience the unexpected anxiety of trying another way of planning my road trips in order to learn something new, so that I am better equipped to plan for fuel stops along the way, next time I drive to Waterloo.
Talking about the new thing, wanting it will not make it happen. We first need to face the harder truth. Neale Donald Walsch writes: “Yearning for a new way will not produce it. Only ending the old way can do that. You cannot hold onto the old while declaring that you want something new. The old will defy the new; the old will deny the new; the old will decry the new. There is only one way to bring in the new. You must make room for it.” (nealedonaldwalsch.com) 
Making room will not guarantee anything. Making room will not make it happen. An yet, making room creates the space in our lives for grace. I think in the parable today (Mark 4:26-34), we can place ourselves in the role of the ‘someone’ who scatters the seed — the seed being the work we do and the hopes and dreams of our lives. You can call it, our work to surrender ourselves. 
We scatter the seed — our prayer for letting go for the good to come. We have to give it away. The results, the sprouting and growing, are beyond our doing. And then, the miracle happens. Then, the smallest seeds of our hearts become, with God’s work, something wonderful and great where even “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

That’s what we can look forward to.

New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder what would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!