Free-falling into Advent

After the first snow of the winter I joked with my neighbour at the bus stop that finally the snow tires can get their first, real test. He looked at me – a younger-than-me, responsible father of two school-aged children – and said, “The real test happens when you’re sliding sideways down the road.”

He went on to say that, after putting on the snow tires, he normally finds an empty parking lot late at night to do some doughnuts and skidding tests – just to get the feel of the vehicle on the snow. In order to know at what speeds and angle his car points to keep control of the vehicle, he has to practice losing control to a degree.

And then I was reminded of those car commercials where you see a car careening around a course at high speeds, and the implicit warning comes on the screen that these exercises are done by professional drivers.

Indeed, professional drivers know how it feels to – in a sense – lose control. Good drivers have gone there. That’s how one gains confidence in one’s ability. They do that by going to the edge of their perception of being in control. That’s how you learn – with much preparation, practice, guidance, making mistakes and modelling – you go to the boundary of experience.

My palms were sweating when I watched a couple of months ago the video of Austrian Felix Baumgartner break all kinds of records jumping from the edge of space.

An extreme sportsman, he was experienced in jumping and falling. And for this world-record-breaking event he had prepared meticulously. This was not some reckless, un-thought-through, impulsive act. Despite the millions of dollars spent, the months of preparation, the state-of-the-art equipment used, and the hundreds of support staff employed …

It was still quite the risk. He still faced uncertainty as he looked out into the vastness of space from the safety of the tiny capsule some 39 kilometres above the earth’s surface. With only a parachute on his back, he stepped into ‘nothing’. My palms are sweating just imagining that.

He could have died, and almost did. After jumping from the tiny capsule, he soon went into a lateral spin. Because of the minimal oxygen in the air at that high level of the atmosphere, one small errant move falling out of the capsule determined his course. Unless he could come to control it, his lateral spin would render him unconscious. But he couldn’t know exactly how it would play out until experiencing the supersonic free-fall.

He made it, despite those first two minutes when he lost control and his life was seriously at risk.

Before he jumped, standing on the threshold of the capsule looking down, he mumbled something – I couldn’t exactly hear all of it – but something that sounded like a creed, a statement of belief that focused his vision in that moment of uncertainty; he said: “I’m coming home now.”

Writer Anne Lamott wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” True. The logic is pure – if we feel certain about the outcome of our actions, well, what is the need for faith? The practice of faith necessitates a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Evident in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (chapter 5) is the confusion of the early church about the coming of Christ. Therefore the focus of salvation in this letter is not on a past and accomplished act, but a continuing and future one (Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 1, p.16).

This focus adds to the ambiguity of the season. Because when we commit to a forward-vision of life, we cannot know exactly how that future will play out. There is a certain degree of uncertainty with which we must learn to live, and thrive. Such is the character of this season of Advent – waiting, and watching, for the coming of Jesus into our lives. But we know neither the day nor hour (Matthew 24:36).

The fact that the original hearers of the message of Paul were caught in this indecisive understanding of Jesus renders, in Paul’s words, something “lacking” (3:10) in their faith. Maybe they, too, sought a certainty of belief, demanded an unambiguous statement of religious doctrine about when and how exactly Christ would return. As a result, the community there struggled with conflict as different voices offered their own interpretation of how things should be.

But because something is imperfect about someone’s faith does not qualify them for ‘checking out’ from the enormous task at hand. Realizing the perfect scenario for religious life is not a prerequisite for living faithfully. Paul still encouraged the Thessalonians in faith, hope and love.

Just because you don’t think you are good enough for God and God’s church, or have a perfect understanding of the bible, just because you can’t recite scriptures from memory, just because the church is not unified around so many things – does not warrant pressing the pause button until things are perfect again, until you have it right, until all your problems are resolved. Living faithfully is not about standing in the shadows and not doing anything.

How can we make the best of an imperfect, broken situation, a ‘faith lacking’? How do we engage in living faithfully knowing that things in our own life and the life of the church are imperfect and incomplete?

This earliest writing of St Paul that we have in the bible was originally addressed to a group of labourers. Physical labourers. Paul’s message must have resonated among those labouring classes since Paul himself was a tentmaker.

The best way to wait for salvation, for the coming Christ, is to work at something simply, intentionally, faithfully and with discipline.

And so, Paul provides a way forward for a people waiting for the coming of Jesus. As we wait and live in the “already but not yet” in-between time of the ages, as we live in the imperfect times of our lives, we push on. We keep at it. We don’t give up. We remain faithful as best as we can. We do the work.

And the nature of the work is not sensational and complicated and extraordinary. The work is ordinary. The work is doing the little things, faithfully and intentionally.

What is this character of this work, precisely?

“… may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all people, as we do to you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

The way to restore and complete the faith of Christians is in community. And not just any community – like a club, sporting venture, or social organization – but a community defined by people caring for other people, in the love of Christ Jesus. This is a community of faith that demonstrates mutual interdependence: Where one is weak, another is strong; where friends build each other up, helping one another, working together not apart.

And this kind of work requires preparation, attention, discipline, and commitment.

Paul calls the physical labourers to whom he writes to widen that circle of the faithful. This instruction is not only focused on that particular church in Thessalonica, but even beyond that for all people.

In this inspiring and vital letter Paul expounds the virtues of thanksgiving, boldness, joy and hope … despite evidence in the circumstances of life to the contrary, despite their faith continuing to “lack” in some way, despite living in the in-between time of waiting for the end time.

In truth, what the bible is clear in communicating through the prophets of old, the exemplars of faith, and disciples and apostles of Jesus is that complacency, withdrawal, cowardice, passivity, and despair are not useful nor helpful strategies for coping and growing and living through the present day, no matter what the circumstances of life.

Can we ‘free-fall’ for Christ? Can we do the work of love, be bold in whatever area of our lives needing the grace and healing power of God? Can we step out in faith – not without preparation, not recklessly – but firm in our faith that even though there is ambiguity and uncertainty and sometimes the fright of ‘nothing to hold on to’… ?

God is there. And God’s love knows no bounds. Even in space. Even in the vastness and emptiness of existence. In the poverty yet enormity of the moment when we feel like our life is on the line, the love of God and the love for which we work will surprise us with joy and eternal hope. That is the promise for which we live. And for which we love, and are loved. Forever.