Turning into the wind

We were just down the street from Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Late in the evening after the first day’s sessions at the Synod Assembly last week, I walked along Dixon Road which goes right to the airport. 

At one point on a bridge you can stand directly underneath the path and roar of landing planes. You look west in the direction of the landing, and you see the long runway lighted brilliantly for the descending jets touching down. You look in the opposite direction towards the east, and you can see a long line of planes taking their turn in the landing rotation, the dots of their lights extending in a straight line far into the distant sky.

It was a windy day, the gusts reaching over 50 km/h from the south. What impressed me was how each plane’s nose was turned slightly to the left, towards the south, as they made their final approach. The planes were coming in on a straight line, yes, but turned towards the wind in order to keep their landing true. At the last second before touching down, the jet would straighten out.

Wind, like currents in the water, is a significant if not main factor in affecting the flight or sail of the airborne or water craft. In order to land safely and soundly, the planes had to face the challenging issue head on. In the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, the problem must be “detected” (Galatians 6:1) and exposed. 

You will get nowhere in a plane or boat unless you ‘dance with the devil’ so to speak. Unless you look your problem square on, face it and name it, and change your position accordingly. If the landing planes insisted on keeping their plane aligned straight on their approach, they would not have made their landing on the runway, but somewhere to the north of it!

Our guest at the Synod Assembly, Bishop Munib Younan (president of the Lutheran World Federation) spoke of Lutheranism. He warned us, that in these Reformation Anniversary years, we do not celebrate ourselves. We do not pretend that God couldn’t have done anything good without us. We are not the perfect church, but always reforming.

Being Lutheran, he said, is a call to humility, not a spirit of triumphalism. We dare not make an idol out of Martin Luther or his legacy in us.

Paul strongly exhorts the Galatian church to proceed with one another in humility and gentleness, not lording it over others who are ‘sinners’. Because we ourselves are no better. We must learn to face our own demons. This is what is meant by his words: “All must test their own work … for all must carry their own loads (v.4-5).” We dare not point fingers without first acknowledging our own stuff.

This is then, how we bear one another’s burdens. Amidst the conflict wreaking havoc in the early church in Galatia, Paul encourages the people to persist in not losing heart, to have courage and not give up.

As the Gospel text for today describes (Luke 10:1-11), the work of the church doing God’s mission in the world will result in friction and struggle. You cannot follow Christ and not encounter conflict and adversity in your life. 

The famous Psalm 23 so often associated with bringing comfort and evoking peaceful, calming images includes this disturbing verse: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Psalm 23:5). It feels like this verse doesn’t belong beside still waters and green pastures along paths of righteousness. But it does belong! It means that God gives us the gift of grace in the presence of all that challenges us, all our demons internal and external, everything that we may not like in our lives — not apart from it.

Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by focusing our attention on the cross of Christ (6:12,14) — the symbol of death and suffering of a God who goes the distance to love us. This is the only reality about which to “boast”. Why?

There is a treasure in the midst of the suffering. We may not see it right away. Yet, our struggle does yield something good, something meaningful, something liberating. Yes, we are liberated by God’s grace. 

Liberated however not by ‘nicey-nicey, goody-goody’ — a phrase our Bishop Michael Pryse used at Synod to describe an approach to church life that just keeps us stuck. Liberated not pretending to live a charmed life. Not by everything working out perfectly. But liberated through what may be a terrible suffering, a loss, the very pain that would otherwise destroy a person altogether. There is a treasure therein.

That is why we boast of the cross, and nothing else. How can God be found in the painful letting go that marks the various stages of life? How can we even sense or feel God’s presence in the midst of a grief too heavy to bear? How can we move on through the turbulence of change and transformation?

In his short book, “Rules for a Knight”, actor-writer Ethan Hawke recounts the last words of instruction by a renowned knight, Thomas, to his children:

“There is a memory that won’t let me go,” Thomas begins. “Last summer all you children were playing by the ocean. We were with your mother and her sister’s family, do you remember? The weather was sublime, streaks of sun and a deep blue sky. You four and all your cousins were building castles with the warm, muddy sand. Each of you kept your castle separate, announcing, ‘This one is mine!’ ‘That’s yours!’ ‘Stay away from mine!’

“When all the castles were finished, your cousin Wallace playfully stepped on Cven’s. Lemuel, you flew into a protective rage. You were only looking out for your sister, I know. Mary-Rose, you thought Lemuel was over-reacting, and you threw him to the ground. Next, everyone was fighting, throwing sand, howling with tears, and pushing one another. Young Wally had to be taken home, sobbing in your aunt’s arms.

“When he was gone, you all went back to playing with your castles for a little while but quickly moved on to swimming. It grew cloudy, and soon it was time for us to begin the journey home. No one cared at all about their castle anymore. Idamay, you stamped on yours. Cven, you toppled yours with both hands. We all went home. And the gentle rain washed all the castles back into the surf.

“Please be kind to one another,” Thomas concludes. (1)

What are the castles in your life? Things or issues that in five to ten years won’t really matter anymore? Things for which you might lay your life down now in heated, compulsive reaction, but really won’t endure — material possessions, opinions that merely shore up a vulnerable ego, beliefs that have outlasted their use? A spirit of judgement and condescension towards people who do not experience life like you do? A reputation to defend at all costs? etc. etc. What are your castles in the sand?

“My friends,” writes Saint Paul, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Around the same time Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Turning into the wind may be a basic operation for landing a plane. When I face the wind and continue paddling or cycling into it, tears will come to my uncovered eyes. There are tears that come in the face of God’s Spirit, a Spirt that will blow down castles built in the sand.

This wind also has the power, like the Spirit of God, to build endurance, strengthen my inner life and take me where I need to go. If I stay with it, often more rapidly than I would on my own!

May God’s wind blow surely and true in your life this summer. May you receive grace in turning to the wind.

(1) – Ethan Hawke, “Rules for a Knight”, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2015, p.148-149

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137