One light in the dark world


The bible doesn’t always help alleviate a low grade angst growing at this time of year. Abduction-type images are splashed on the canvas of our imaginations: “one will be taken, one will be left” (Matthew 24:40-41). The notion of the Second Coming of Jesus can often arouse anxious feelings of impending doom and destruction. Certain Christian groups devise popular theologies that articulate with great detail and certainty how it’s all going to come crashing down on us some day.

And what is more, some will say the Bible contains implicit warnings (as in the Gospel for today, Matthew 24:36-44) that we can prevent it all from happening by our good works, by being ready, if only we can break the secret code, figure out the hidden message and solve the riddle — a la Dan Brown.

The way of Christ is never that easy. And the Gospel text will throw a wrench into any neat and tidy philosophy. In this image-rich text Jesus confronts our pretence. “You don’t know and you cannot know.” Neither did Noah when the flood came “unexpectedly.” “But about that day and hour no one knows … and they knew nothing …”

What is this ‘knowing’? If we cannot predict how it’s all going to shake down in the end – whether we are talking about world politics, climate change or our challenging personal relationships – what can we know? 

We do know certain things are best not known: How we are going to die. How the meat we are eating at the dinner table was actually produced. Many probably are better not to watch a YouTube video of the surgery they are preparing to undergo. In some facets of life, it’s simply best not to know.

And life will continue to remind us that it is futile to pretend we can: None of the pundits and polls — even early on election night in the U.S. a few weeks ago — could predict the actual result of the presidential race. 

And, in my generation it must have been the falling of the Berlin Wall which had divided Germany for over thirty years. Who could have predicted it, given the enduring and seemingly entrenched geo-political tensions of the Cold War, let alone begin in evening candlelight vigils held in German churches? A small, warm light started to melt the cold, dark and divided world.

The season of Advent fits like a glove; it gives warmth in the cold atmosphere of our lives. “Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … be ready, keep awake.” So we hear instruction from Jesus. Being ready and keeping awake are fundamentally about being aware. Awareness in the present moment.

What DO we know? Saint Paul, in an accompanying text for today writes: “you know now is the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers … Put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-14)

Putting on the armour of light is not a call to violent, combative behaviour, action which narrows the vision and snuffs out awareness. Putting on the armour of light does not constrict the soul into locked patterns of thought, but expands the scope to embrace the truth and vision of God right now.

You may have heard of the story: All along the Western Front in 1914, a few short months into a war that would eventually claim 17 million lives, a kind of miracle happened on Christmas Day – a rare moment of peace:

Trooper Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, recalls that special night: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land’.

It is estimated that over 100,000 troops from both sides honoured the Christmas Truce of 1914 that lasted some days.

Hearing the text today from the prophet Isaiah, you may have noticed some very familiar words and phrases. Because a few weeks ago, on All Saint’s Sunday, the words of Micah we heard: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3). Sound familiar?

Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah share precisely the same words. And, in Psalm 46 — the great “Lutheran” Psalm we heard on Reformation Sunday last month, and also on Christ the King Sunday last week — the Psalmist echoes the sentiments of the major and minor prophets: “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (v.9).

A major message throughout the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament envision wars to cease and violent divisions among people to end. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus preaches. (Mathew 5:9; Luke 6:27-31)

Knowing is not knowledge of facts and manipulation of data to suit one’s ideology. Knowing is not formulating intellectual and persuasive strategies that demonstrate airtight logic and rational impunity. Knowing is not about getting more information. This kind of knowing keeps one distracted, in the past or fretting about the future.

Knowing is more about living relationships of love, grace and peace in the present moment; this is the biblical understanding of ‘knowing’ – more a function of the heart than of thought.

Advent heralds the start of a new church year. This season calls us to watch, to wait and wake up to the reality of Christ in our lives, and Christ coming again. Like All Saints’ Sunday, in Advent the future and the past converge on the present moment. Now.

We can enter this season full of hope. Today, contrary to what the headlines imply, the earth is less violent than it was in the past. We are not living in dangerous times any more than what always has been. In fact, according to statistical trending over the past few decades, the world over is safer and more peaceful. (see Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s article “The World Is Not Falling Apart” (Slate: 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12 )

“Now”, Paul writes, “we are closer to salvation than before.” And, now, we are called to love others, to strive for peace and an end to all divisions — in the world, and in our lives. Even when it might appear hopeless. We are called, like the Germans and English during the Christmas Truce of 1914, to cross the dividing lines of our lives and sing together of a holy night, a silent night, a night still and always shall be bathed in the light of Christ.

Pray for peace. Commit to one small, act of kindness and generosity, especially to one with whom, for whatever reason, you have been estranged. Without any strings attached, no expectations of any kind about how the other ‘should’ respond, commit to an act of unconditional love. Because God is bringing all of history into the vision of peace and harmony reflected in the prophets’ writings. This is our hope. This is the present reality.

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.

God is action: a grammar lesson

God is an action Word. The English language, sometimes, does not do it justice. “The Word became flesh” is the theme of the Christmas-Epiphany cycle in the church year. Sermons, prayers, liturgies are all based on this message.

But the French language conveys the truth about God in a much better way. In John 1:1 — “Au commencement etait le Verbe, et le Verbe etait tourne vers Dieu, et le Verbe etait Dieu.” God, in other words, is equated with a verb — an action word. And, later in verse 14 the English normally reads: The Word became flesh. In French, again, “le Verbe s’est fait chair …” translated, the Action-Word made himself!

Thank God for the French language! Here we receive the truth about God and Jesus, flowing in continual action, movement. The status-quo does not belong in the vocabulary nor the kingdom of God!

The God-human relationship is clarified: God’s first job is to act; our’s is to just be a human (-being!). Jesus’ first words identified by the Gospeler Mark in the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:25) was not what Jesus was reading from the lectern; rather, it was his words to the man with the evil spirit: “Be silent!” Be … !

Stop talking! Stop doing what you are doing! When we can first be as we are, not as we think we ought, then perhaps we will discover the actions that correspond and are aligned truly with God’s action in our lives.

Someone recently joked that they say English is the language of heaven. Why? Because it takes an eternity to learn it!

In this case, better in the French.