Even among the lost

I hear Simon’s despair, tainted with frustration and even anger, when he reacts to Jesus’ instruction to put the nets in deep water to catch the fish in Lake Galilee.[1]

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” He’s trying to make a point that there is no use to doing what Jesus asks of them. After all, they did all they could do. They employed all their resources, knowledge and effort into catching fish that night. But to no avail. Understandably frustrated, Simon scoffs at the futility of doing what Jesus asks. As if he knows better. There is not point to it all.

This is not the first time we hear Jesus say or do something that mystifies us. Earlier in this season after Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus being baptized. Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River often confounds our sensibility. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Aren’t we the ones that need to be baptized? Not God!

So often we find salvation in what we do, and the meaning we attribute to what we do. In the church, we often do exactly what the crowds at the Jordan did: We come to worship, pray the printed confessions of sin, receive Communion and hope that these liturgical acts will wash away our sins. And make life right.

Then, we also have other programs for self-improvement, such as trying a new diet, cutting down on drinking and smoking, or finding someone who will love us just right. But these things are all futile for making real change in our lives, for making our lives right.

But Jesus walks into our lives just as he waded into the Jordan to be baptized by John. If Jesus was to walk into our lives today, he could just as well arrive at our job interviews, wedding receptions, or retirement parties. He could just as well stand in the long lines with us at the Tim Horton’s or sports venues. Jesus could just as well join us in all our driving around town to this and that – and the next futile thing we are trying to do in order to make life right.

Yes, I could feel the futility behind Simon’s statement—but we fished all night and caught nothing. Would Jesus step even into that despair?

When work seems futile. When other people frustrate us. When life seems pointless. When what we do appears to have little purpose, meaning or utility. When we fail. When despair sinks in.

Or, not far removed in the face of uncertainty, we clamber and clamor for the next shiny, new thing. We distract ourselves. We fall into mindless routine or stimulating addiction, to occupy our minds or numb them. And escape reality. Even just below the surface of seeming industry, there broils a fearsome anxiety.

Yes, I hear Simon’s despair. But I also see Jesus, right there.

What is Jesus up to here? Getting baptized. Going fishing with his friends. Going to weddings. Hanging out in the streets. What is Jesus up to here, living the life we all live?

For some reason, Jesus is taking on our lost condition. Jesus participates in our lives, doing what we do, engaging our routines, our work, our lifestyles. And, as we become more aware of Jesus closeness to us in our successes and our failures, we discover the Gospel truth: that salvation comes not because of our activity, our brains, our efforts. Salvation comes through a loving Savior who finds us and takes on our lost condition.

So maybe our job is not to explain the mystery, but simply to obey the seemingly pointless, futile instruction from Jesus. And act on it, as Simon did. “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”[2]

Visit the sick. Befriend the poor, the outcast, the refugee. Accompany the vulnerable, the weak, the dying.

After selling their large house where they called home for decades, Jack and Betty moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in town. Once settled in, they invited Craig, a church friend, to dinner in their new home. Craig was happy to oblige.

After all, on Sunday mornings they would sit together in worship. They didn’t say a lot. Betty might say something odd, but her countenance was so bright. Jack seemed always bothered by something, like he was scowling. But the couple was always together. And they liked each other.

Craig tells the story of his experience visiting Jack and Betty. He writes,

“Once I arrived at their apartment on the appointed evening, it didn’t take me long to realize that Betty had Alzheimer’s disease. It now seemed so obvious that I felt foolish for missing it earlier. Jack never let her out of his sight. It was then that I realized that he hadn’t been scowling for the last couple of years. He was just worried.

“Before I even had my coat off, Betty took me by the hand and led me to the painting above the sofa that depicted their stately old home. She became a bit more lucid as the stories of the old place tumbled out of her soul. I felt her squeeze my hand as she talked … [as if she were trying to say], ‘There is more to me than you see now.’ … Jack stood behind us and allowed his worry to ease a bit with a tender smile.

“Dinner was interesting. Betty couldn’t be allowed near the stove, and Jack wasn’t about to learn to cook. So he had asked their housekeeper to make them an extra-large omelet before she left that afternoon. When we were ready to eat, Jack put the egg dish in the microwave, then cut it into thirds and served it on Betty’s best china. For desert he brought out Klondike bars that we ate using the good silverware, which wasn’t easy. Several times during the meal, Betty got up and wandered around the apartment a bit. I was impressed by Jack’s ability to maintain our conversation, which was always of secondary importance to him, while always watching his wife.

“Throughout the evening I kept thinking that I needed to say something useful. After all … [isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with others?] But how profound could I be with Betty, whose mind was too clouded for conversation? What would I even say to Jack…? I could try, ‘Keep up the good work’ or ‘This must be really hard,’ but that would be so inane.

“After dinner, we left the old dining-room table and made our way back to the living room sofa, where I sat next to Betty. Jack took the chair across from us. I began to talk, trying to speak of …[relevant] things, but I wasn’t doing well. [As a Christian friend, from church] I knew that I was called there to be a blessing to them and … to witness to Christ’s presence among them. But how? I felt like a pilot circling above the clouds, looking for an opening to land. Soon Betty got up and wandered off again.

“When she returned, she stood behind the chair where Jack was seated and put her trembling hand on his shoulder. And as only old lovers know how to do, he reached up to take her hand as if it were the first and millionth time he had done it. I stopped talking as they both smiled at me.

“Well, there it was – the blessed presence of Christ. Then I knew that I wasn’t there to say a thing. My calling was to behold and be amazed. It was as if their mutual smile said, ‘Don’t you dare pity us. We are blessed.’ Beneath the gentle act of holding a trembling hand lies the mystery of … [love].

“In the end, this is as good as the calling to love can be. …There is just the holding of hands …”[3]

There is neither brow-wrinkled explanation nor fear-induced despair.

There is just the smile of God in the face of another.

 

 

[1]Luke 5:4-5

[2]Luke 5:5

[3]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) p.97,103-105

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.

IMG_6939

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.

IMG_6935IMG_6931

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

What is hope?

I remember a friend — intelligent, thoughtful, deeply spiritual — who claimed that to hope was to be delusional. Hoping, to him, was a distraction, a pointless waste of time — like fantasizing. To hope was to be ‘faking it’, to be unreal, to be in denial of the harsh realities of life.

I begged to differ with him, especially as I would at this time of year — the Advent season — which is my favourite of all liturgical themes: waiting for the Lord, hoping, anticipating the ‘almost there but not yet’. During Advent, we commit to a kind of “imperfect fulfillment” (Richard Rohr) — this keeps us open to a future created by God, rather than ourselves.

My friend may nevertheless have a point to his objection about hope, if having hope means we demand satisfaction of one another — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand that our anxiety or troubles be taken away — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand a resolution and completion of history — on our own terms.

Our Christian faith has understood the ‘coming of the Lord Jesus’ in not just one, not even just two, but at least three ways: Not only is this time of year dedicated to waiting for the time at Christmas (December 25) when we celebrate that first coming of baby Jesus born into the historical world of 1st century Palestine over two thousand years ago; not only do we, at this time of year especially, and as many of the assigned scripture readings suggest — including the Gospel for today — the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. But we also affirm in Advent our faith in the living Jesus who comes to us NOW — today, every day, whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Table, whenever we greet another as if we were encountering Jesus in all our expressions of love, forgiveness and service.

Hoping, in this sense, is not just about yearning for a better future whose circumstances are easier, more comfortable and without the suffering of the present. The point of faith, hope and love is not to somehow realize an absence of the difficult challenges we may currently face; it is not daydreaming or fantasizing. But it is to recognize in the present moment, and in our very selves — ‘as is’ — the grace and divine Presence.

It is to live in patience and trust without closure, without resolution — and be content, even happy, because we know the one who makes all things right, in the end.

This experience of grace often comes as a gift, when we least expect it, when we aren’t ‘trying too hard’ and when we learn to accept in ourselves and in the world — today — all the paradoxes, inconsistencies and ambiguities of modern life.

Remember, what were some of Jesus’ last words spoken from the Cross? “It is finished” (John 19:30). It is completed. It is accomplished. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — all was accomplished that needed to be accomplished for all time — for our salvation, for our health and wholeness, for our eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Tag! Now, you’re it!” Our task, our vision, our dreams would be better served when we approach ‘moving forward’ from an attitude of abundance and “all-is-already-completed” rather than from an attitude of scarcity and “things-should-be-better-before-anything-good-can-happen”. After all, and the truth is: the problem has already been solved.

The lesson, I believe, from the Gospel today (Mark 13:24-27) comes from an image right in the centre of the text: Focus on the fig tree. As Jesus says, and whose question is implied: What will you focus on? Will you focus on the fear, uncertainty, the pain and the suffering which is so much a part of our lives? (which presumes that we are the masters of our own destiny) Or, will you focus on the tender branch of the fig tree, watching as it puts forth, in its own time, fresh, new leaves?

When we focus on the life around us — what is positive, what is good, what is growth and transformation and the NEW thing — then we will know, says Jesus, that summer is near, that God is near — right at the gates! God is already with us! Without needing to deny nor gloss over the “momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Because the problem has already been solved.

Vivid images and visions in the bible — such as what we receive in today’s Gospel — are applied to new situations in our world today. The point is not to use these texts to predict specific events in the future. Rather, we look to see God’s mighty acts in the past as a way of understanding how we can respond to our present circumstances, dark as they may be (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, eds. Bartlett & Taylor, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.64).

This requires from us a different kind of waiting, rather than fantasizing or daydreaming about some utopia in the future. Some waiting is passive. But there is also active waiting. “A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is a passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation.

“At the pool of his favourite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing all the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear” (Martin Copenhaver, ibid., p.70-71). His focus is on each task he must do presently in the boat, in order to best position himself whenever the fish may bite.

Hope is for now. Right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. The promise of God that undergirds this hope is not that all the problems will go away, down the line. Nor complaining about something that happened in the past, as if doing that would somehow distract us from taking responsibility for the present circumstances of our lives. This is the false hope of which, I believe, my friend spoke.

The promise of God to come again, and again, and again, is that we will grow to discover Jesus even though things may be going to hell all around us, even though we will suffer and die. The promise of God’s grace in Jesus coming into our hearts is that we will be able to recognize the Christ child in all of life’s troubling moments.

So, stop, and take a good look around you. Jesus is being born in your heart and in the world any time, soon.

This is true hope.