Cape Disappointment

How do we learn to deal with disappointment?

When health concerns mount? When there are cutbacks in the company you work for? When a relationship breaks down? When someone betrays you? When you fail to meet your goal? When you lose something precious?

How, as people of faith, do we learn to deal with disappointment? When what has happened does not make sense, when we can’t understand ‘why’?

In 1788 Captain John Meares named the spot of land overlooking the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment. He was disappointed that the Columbia River was simply thus, a river, instead of the fabled Northwest Passage which he was intending to find.

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Mr. Meares was obviously well off-course to his goal. We know today that the Columbia River begins its journey at Columbia Lake in central British Columbia, Canada, and winds itself south hundreds of kilometres into the states of Washington and Oregon before spilling into the Pacific.

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In keeping with the rather downer of name, the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment overlooks the hundreds of shipwreck sites off the coast. The United States Coast Guard recognizes this large area of water as the most dangerous among all the river outlets along the continental shores of the United States.

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Both the strong outflow of the broad and mighty Columbia competes with the powerful tides and winds generated by the largest ocean on earth. Crisscrossing currents of water create constantly shifting sand bars and opposite flow wave action that can confuse, disorient and ultimately undo any mariner navigating this passage.

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Add to this mayhem the fog which has an uncanny knack of coming in unexpectedly on the north breeze, disappearing under the burning sunshine as quickly as it appears. I stood bewildered in such a fog jam on the beach one day, unable to comprehend how a perfectly cloudless sky in beautiful sunshine can change so quickly. Signs are staked at entrances to the shores along the thirty-eight mile stretch of contiguous sand beach north of the Cape warning unsuspecting swimmers of rip currents and unstable sand conditions above and below the surf.

In short, while ascetically beautiful to the eyes, this small part of the world contains hidden, life-threatening dangers beneath the surface of things. Disappointing is an understatement when considering the potentially dire consequences of a mariner’s failed attempt at moving around the Cape, let alone dealing with the failure of not arriving at one’s goal.

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In the first reading for today[1], God responds to Jonah by asking questions, rhetorical though they are. Jonah expresses his anger at God for sparing the “great” city of Nineveh. God’s actions did not make sense to Jonah, even though Jonah confesses his belief in a gracious God who is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[2] He obviously did not think much about the people of Nineveh regardless of God’s mercy. Yet he is internally divided, unable to reconcile his belief with his feelings. He can’t figure it out. He is depressed. And wants to die.

If God says anything toward Jonah’s healing, it starts with a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” And when God provides a bush to protect and save Jonah’s life, a bush that then dies, Jonah is angry again. What does God say to Jonah’s outburst? Another question. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And to top it off, the entire book of Jonah ends rather abruptly, again with a question from God.[3] Questions. Not pat, cut-and-dry answers. Questions.

I wonder if we have tended to make God and religion into something and someone to give us quick and final answers. We demand ‘what’ from God when all along Jesus, in the wisdom tradition, is primarily teaching ‘how’. Out of the total of the one hundred and eighty-three questions that are asked of him in the Gospel, Jesus only directly answers three of them.[4] In the New Testament, Jesus’ very first words spoken to his disciples was a question: “What are you looking for?”[5]

Jesus turns the tables on the disciples, as he does time and time again. Rather than give them what they are looking for in a neat and tidy package of an easy answer, he throws it back at them. What do you want?

The first call of Jesus in our lives is a call to be honest with ourselves. Before we can do anything, we need to be true to ourselves. And commit to that lifelong struggle to move beyond our intellect and its insatiable compulsions for answers, towards actions that reflect a trusting heart. Because following Jesus in this world does not, most of the time, make a whole lot of intellectual sense. If we are being faithful.

It is not our job to know everything. God knows all. We don’t have to. Ours is a call to hold, not rid ourselves of, all the messy contradictions of our lives. Abraham, Jacob, Rebekah, Moses, David, Job, Esther, Jonah, Elijah, the disciples, Paul – they were not people who had all the easy answers to life’s complex questions. But they were trusting, obedient, and they acted. Sure, they objected to God at times. Yes, they made mistakes. If anything, the story of Jonah ought to reinforce the importance of a real, personal, topsy-turvy relationship with God. That is the stand-out characteristic of all the faithful.

During the years following the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, a common heresy re-emerged under the leadership of Eunomius, a bishop in Cappadocia (in modern day Turkey). Eunomius argued that we can understand the nature of God simply and clearly. Reflecting on what was the mystery of the Trinity, he implied that God was perfectly accessible to human intelligence.[6]

The Cappadocian Fathers, as they are called, reacted to Eunomius. Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa along with John Chrysostom insisted on the incomprehensibility of God to the human mind, and the necessary limits of theological discourse. Their position became the orthodox, Christian stance, ever since.

I wonder, ever since the Reformation, the industrial, scientific revolutions and enlightenment era of the last few centuries in especially the western world, haven’t we slipped back into this heresy once again? Pretending, even though we may not be aware of it, that we should have answers to all of life’s important questions.

It is our natural humanity to strive to know everything. But if we are honest, our minds certainly cannot grasp fully such incomprehensible realities as the mysteries of love, suffering, death and God. Here, we must trust and let go of all our pretenses. “For,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”[7]

Disappointment in life is a doorway to a deeper awareness of God’s truth and presence in our lives. Our varied expressions of worship, of living out God’s call, our prayer lives – all these are not so much, then, a matter of petition, of doctrine, of rule-setting-and-following, of solving the discrepancies and inconsistencies of the bible and theological discourse.

Rather, our complex lives with all the joys and disappointments become the tableau, the canvas, upon which we discover we are not alone. And that God is ever present and faithful, regardless of what we do or think. You can’t make God love you one ounce more – by all your right thinking and having all the right answers – than God already loves you right now.

Often, the disappointments of our lives bring us to this realization more than all of our accomplishments and successes. Because if we are going to get anywhere in our lives, we need to hope and believe, despite the disappointing circumstances of our lives.

Cape Disappointment marks another very important place in the history of North America. It is not just a place that signifies disappointment, tragedy and danger. It is also the very spot where the famous Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. Yes, Lewis & Clark met with many a disappointment and setback along the 3700-mile route up the Missouri River, across the American Midwest, over the Rocky and Cascade mountains and down the Columbia River Gorge that took them a year-and-a-half to accomplish.

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On the journey, were they ever absolutely certain they would make it? As it was, they must have taken their disappointments in stride. For on an uncharacteristically calm day in a stormy November, they made their final push around the western Cape and finally met the limitless horizon.

Significantly, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was called the Corps of Discovery. Today, a 10-mile-long, well-groomed paved path winds through the dunes of Long Beach Peninsula and up into the forest of the Cape. It is called the “Path of Discovery”.

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Cape Disappointment is intricately tied to the Corps of Discovery, where both failure and success are entwined in a rich and diverse history of exploration. The spirit of questing celebrated on these shores includes and transcends both the unique events of human tragedy and human achievement. You cannot have one without the other. In one place. In one human being. Each of us is invited to the journey that includes, embraces and transcends disappointment and failure.

At some point along the journey, you need to have hope in order to continue. Even in the midst of all our unknowing, we can believe and trust in the solution, before it happens.

It’s called faith.

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[1] Jonah 3:10—4:11, NRSV, Proper 20A/Ordinary 25A/Pentecost+16

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 4:4,9,11, NRSV

[4] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), p.112

[5] John 1:38, NRSV

[6] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.105

[7] Isaiah 55:8, NRSV

photos by Martin Malina IMG_5940

The case of the missing pulpit

As we worship this morning, the sanctuary at Faith Lutheran Church building is gutted — empty, a shell. Not only is the cork on the walls now removed and the old carpet disposed. The light fixtures, most of the furniture, liturgical items and holy hardware is stowed away for the time being to be recovered, restored and positioned again in their proper place once the renovations are completed.

I know some of you who have been at the site in the last day or so helping to get it ready for the workers, have been asking the question: “Where is the pulpit?” I can see the title of the next best-selling mystery novel: “The Case of the Missing Pulpit.” Where is it?

What a mystery! Well, this is what happened …

Last Sunday afternoon as I was helping members of our altar care committee removing certain items, we ran into a little problem. Our pulpit is mobile; it sits on wheels. So, depending on the needs of the day, we move it around. 

Well, we moved it alright — all the way to the door of the sacristy where we were hoping to store it. Without doing serious alterations (and damage!) to the door frame, there was no way that pulpit would get through. And the cloakroom, where we normally store the pulpit at Christmas, was going to be filled with stacks of chairs. Where on an already compact floor space would we store a rather heavy and cumbersome piece of teak-wood furniture?

It was the spur of the moment when I offered to put the pulpit in my car. I had the back seats down anyway at the time, and the rear hatch opened just wide enough to allow the pulpit to slide in fairly easily. And I drove away with church’s pulpit in the back seat of my car! Truth be told!

During the 45 minute drive home to Arnprior, my mind raced: What would I say to someone who would behold this mystery! I was also wondering where on earth I would put it. I had no clue. There was room in our garage, but most of that space was already tagged for bikes, tires, canoes and garden implements for the winter season.

My wife and I sat in the living room that evening scratching our chins and trying to come up with solutions. But to no avail. I guess I would drive around with a pulpit in the back seat of my car for three months! A mobile preacher who comes with his own pulpit! What a deal!

Barbecuing on the back deck that evening, I looked above the tree line and my eyes rested on the steeple of a church, just around the corner from our place. After making a phone call, and depending on the good will of their pastor and the muscle of a couple of their men from that community — and our pulpit now has a resting place. 

So, if anyone asks: Our pulpit is in the safe-keeping in the building of the good people of St John Lutheran Church in Arnprior. Let it be heard! “The case of the missing pulpit” … mystery solved!

I’m usually the kind of person who wants to have a plan, to know how things ought to go and what the end result should be, before doing anything. This is also usually a good thing. Driving away with the pulpit without any clue as to where it should go, was a little unnerving for me. It was, nevertheless, a good exercise for letting go and trusting that a solution would present itself. And it did, in a most gracious, natural and expedient way.

Some of you know that I am planning to go on a sabbatical next year. The theme of my sabbatical is ‘pilgrimage’. And part of the experience is to walk an ancient path, some eight hundred kilometres long, on the north coast of Spain on the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I’ve read that a majority of people who start the pilgrimage — hundreds of thousands every year — don’t finish it. Many pilgrims give up, some even just 25 kilometres into it. 

What many successful pilgrims learn is that all that is required is to remain committed to the journey itself. What is needed, is to unlearn deep-seeded attitudes about what justifies us, as human beings. To persevere in that un-learning process over six-weeks, even against all the challenges of the trail. To learn that all that is required is simply to put the next foot forward. To not give up, to not lose heart. And to pray always.

To dial it down to accepting that it’s all about taking the next step faithfully — nothing more, nothing less. Although simple, it is not easy for most of us to comprehend let alone do: Just walk. Eight hundred kilometres. Because it’s not about our ability and resourcefulness in the end. It’s not about rushing to the next distraction, checking off the next thing on our list in a busy, hectic lifestyle. It’s about something much bigger than us and our ‘stuff.’ A pilgrimage can teach us that.

That was the message from last week’s Gospel from Luke 18:1-8, to pray always. The most important thing is to remain focused on staying the course, to do the prayer. The solution — the answer, the benefit — will present itself as long as we remain committed to the journey, the adventure. 

Last week, we learned to persevere in prayer. This week in the story that follows we learn how to pray. And I want to reflect David Lose’s perspective here (1), to watch for the trap that Luke sets for us readers. Remember, the Gospel of Luke is full of reversals — the song of Mary, the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ conversation with the thief hanging beside him on a cross, etc. Luke, it seems, delights in setting up his readers with presumed expectations, and then pulling the rug from under our feet.

It’s too easy merely to paint the bad guy as the Pharisee. Because don’t forget, the Pharisee is law abiding, has fulfilled all the demands of his religion, lives a pure and righteous life. Isn’t this what faithful living looks like? After all, we shall know others by their fruits, no? The Pharisee does a lot of things right. Except for one thing:

The Pharisee, while living the right life, has forgotten the source of his life and all the good in it. Otherwise, he would not despise another whom God loves. He falsely believes it’s all about him and his efforts alone. He falsely believes others who are not like him, need to be, in order for them to be good people.

And, it’s too easy to side with the ‘humble’ tax collector. Let’s not let him off the hook too easily. The tax collector only recognizes that all he is about is depending on the mercy and forgiveness of God. That’s in good contrast to the Pharisee, yes. And that’s the challenging starting place, to be sure.

But nowhere do we see a sign of his repenting. Does he desire to have his life turned around? He may very well be as self-engrossed as the Pharisee. Just the other side of the same coin. The tax collector strikes me as one who might remain stuck in cycles of self-pity, negative self-talk and depression. 

He might be one who goes back every Sunday to remind himself how bad he really is. A false humility, we may call it, where it feels good, actually, to put yourself down before others. “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t have a strong faith.” “I can’t do this or that.” 
Will he not hear that God’s forgiveness can lift him out of what may appear a chronic negativity? Will he not hear that he is not all of the time all worms and dirt and badness within? Will he not hear that God has given him a great gift within himself, in himself?

No matter with whom we relate, or cheer for, in this text — the Pharisee or the tax collector — we run into a wall with both of them. And I believe this wall is meant to test to what degree we focus too much on ourselves in the practice of our faith and in our prayer, and not on God.

The trap is to call us out whenever what we do or what we decide as communities of faith is more about our own stuff, than about the bigger picture, the holy and wonderful mystery that is God.

At least one item from our worship practice is not in storage, but stands in this place alongside yours — the Paschal Candle. It is called, ‘paschal’, because it describes the ‘mystery’ of Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We call it, ‘the Paschal Mystery’. 

We are not talking here about a mystery like ‘the case of the missing pulpit’, where it is simply a question of information about something that is already known, just not to everyone. “Mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand”; A mystery, in the holy sense, is as Richard Rohr puts it: something you can “endlessly understand” (2). We never ‘arrive’ at a complete knowing, this side of eternity, of what God is all about. We never completely ‘get it’. We are always growing, changing, discovering, adventuring.

It is natural to seek signs. The Pharisees and disciples demanded Jesus: Give us a sign! And the only ‘sign’ that Jesus was willing to give them, was the “sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29). Many of us know that story from the Old Testament, where Jonah fights against God’s will, refuses to follow where God calls, doesn’t want to do it! 

Only by spending time in the belly of a whale for a few days, where he can do nothing, does Jonah become aware and accept that it’s not about him, or his mission, but about God’s purpose, God’s call, God’s mission. Doing God’s mission will call us beyond our own agendas, preferences, and even personalities. Not that those things are bad. But this is about something a lot bigger than our resumes, list of accomplishments, or even our baggage and painful histories.

We are on a journey moving forward, a pilgrimage, to discover what God is about in this holy space and in the world around us, now. We already received signs of God grace — your authentic and heartfelt welcome and accommodating us, for starters. This beautiful space and hospitality we can share. This is God’s good work among us and through you. Thank you!

We might not know what this will look like at the end of the journey together as Faith Lutheran Church worships alongside Julian of Norwich Anglican Church over the next few months. “I’ve got this pulpit in the back seat of my car, and I have no idea where it’s going!”
We might not know where this adventure leads.

But we don’t go alone. We travel this uncertain road together, side by side. We may suffer through some moments together as we figure things out, as we feel our way into this journey, as we learn and perhaps go through some growing pains together on these first few steps.

But let us be encouraged by the Paschal Mystery, which points to the way of Christ, the self-emptying and giving that leads to a marvellous and wonderful resurrection from all that is passing away, transforming us into the new thing that God is doing. The light of Christ shines ever and ever, even in the darkness and through our most challenging journeys. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.


(1) David Lose, “The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation”; Monday, October 21, 2013; http://www.workingpreacher.org 

(2) Richard Rohr, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” (Whitaker House Publishing, Pennsylvania, 2016)

Jonah and the Call

When the waves started crashing over the deck of the ferry, I knew something was wrong. I remembered reading somewhere that the Baltic Sea can get unpredictably dangerous in the Fall of the year. So true.

When my grandmother — we called her “Oma” — and I sailed from the protected harbour, the waters looked calm. But once we hit the open water, the winds picked up, and I had to hang on for dear life!

I’m not sure the story of Jonah came to mind at the time, but the similarities are striking, when I reflected on that turbulent time in my life. I had just arrived in Germany for a year-long exchange student program during my seminary education. This was what I felt “called” in my preparation to be a good, Lutheran pastor — spend a year in a Lutheran university, in the very place Martin Luther argued with other reformers about Holy Communion.

But it was the first time I would spend significant amounts of time in a foreign land trying to function in a foreign language, by myself, without family and friends. And within the first couple of weeks after I arrived at the university in Marburg, Germany, I knew this was not going to be easy.

If fact, I remember coming soon to the conclusion that all I wanted, was to escape Marburg — the lonely dormitory room, the solitary walks to the lecture halls, the silent dinner times in the corner of the cafeteria. I’m an introvert, so this was really bad! Because I felt completely disconnected from everything and everyone.

Oma lived in northern Germany. And I think she wanted to help me, so within two weeks of my arrival she invited me to hop on the train and visit her for a couple of days. She wanted to take me on a ferry boat ride from just across the border in Denmark back to the seaside city in which she lived. Part of the deal was to enjoy a schnitzel meal before the boat left that placid harbour. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea!

But she tried to make me feel more ‘at home’. Just before we boarded the ferry she had handed me an envelope containing a thousand dollars. “Use this to help you this year in Germany,” she said, looking at me with her sparkling eyes, “in whatever way you see fit.”

I did. The answer was not Marburg. It was Vancouver! Yes! The timing couldn’t have been better. I was less than an hour’s train-ride to Frankfurt — and the paid-for plane ride outa here! Besides, I had a close friend studying in Vancouver at the time — nothing like a girlfriend to distract and motivate a young man desperate for a change in scenery.

I mentioned Jonah, because during my three-week hiatus in Vancouver I read Eugene Peterson’s book, “Under the Unpredictable Plant” (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992) — which is basically a reflection on the Jonah story:

God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh; but Jonah hesitates and would rather go to Tarshish. On the boat ride to Tarshish he encounters a gale storm threatening the lives of all aboard. He realizes the impending calamity is probably his fault, and sacrifices himself by jumping into the sea, where he spends three days in the belly of a whale. We pick up the story in the first reading today (Jonah 3:1-5,10) after the whale spits Jonah out; God calls him a “second time” to go to Nineveh — and he finally relents, and goes to do God’s will.

When I was in Vancouver I seriously toyed with giving up on my pastoral vocation; I remember thinking that I did not want to return to Marburg, and that I would use this opportunity in Vancouver to inquire about the School of Architecture and City Planning, programs which had intrigued me at the time. The dark, depressive notion of returning to Marburg (a.k.a Nineveh) was the farthest thing from my mind. I would start all over, in Vancouver (a.k.a Tarshish).

There’s something important about Jonah’s experience — Jesus likens his three days in the tomb to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale (Matthew 12:40). It’s that time of incubation, of waiting, of not being in charge. It’s the grass under the snow and ice, the seeds of the daffodils hibernating in the frozen ground, waiting until the right time that comes from outside of one’s individual initiative and control.

Those three weeks in Vancouver, the long walks on the beach — by myself, I might add — this was my time in the belly of the whale to discern and reflect on the truth of what I was called to do and be. I thank God for that time ‘in the belly’, where I could ruminate and come into myself as I truly was, and am.

It was during that time when I realized what I needed to do: I was called to return to Marburg, and I felt convinced in my heart that all I was asked to do was finish the year abroad. That’s all I had to do, and not worry about ‘what after?’. That’s where, despite my fear and anxiety about returning to a place where I would have to confront my demons, I knew was my next step.

You may notice how immediately Simon and Andrew leave everything behind and follow Jesus’ call (Mark 1:18). In last week’s Gospel, Philip and Nathanael so quickly respond to the invitation to “come and see” Jesus (John 1:43-47). Abraham went immediately, “as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4). There is a prevalent understanding to lift up an idealistic, immediate and righteous response of Christians to the call of God. I can see why.

But then there is also Jonah, who resists. There is the great prophet Jeremiah who when God first appears to him and appoints him a prophet, he rejects the call by throwing up excuses: “I do not know how to speak; I am only a boy” (1:6). And it takes two whole chapters in the book of Exodus for God to finally convince Moses to do God’s bidding to confront Pharaoh and free God’s people from slavery in Egypt.

Moses’ excuses run like a litany: “Who am I?” (3:11); then, “What should I say?” (3:13); then, “But suppose they don’t believe me?” (4:1); and, “I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech” (4:10); and finally, “Please send someone else!” (4:13). To each of these successive excuses, God shows incredible patience to nurture Moses into fulfilling his task. This is the same God who is patient with Jeremiah and Jonah.

If I take the bible witness as a whole, it appears some followers of God respond immediately, without question or hesitation, dropping everything and going. And then there are some who resist, who complain, who self-doubt, hesitate and try to deflect the call of God.

In the world of mathematics, integers and fractions, these numbers would cancel themselves out. In other words, what is most important to focus on here, is not our human response to God. Because our responses will vary as many as there are people on this planet Earth. The starting point, is not how we should respond. But the way God is.

God is merciful. If God changes in anything, it is only in the direction of judgement to mercy. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8).

God is persistent with us. God is the hound of heaven. God has a plan — one we can never know completely, because we are not God. For whatever reason, God is acting to fulfill something that is beyond all of us. All we are called to do is to participate somehow in God’s mission on earth. God won’t give up trying to get that message across to us.

God is faithful to us. As God was faithful to all the prophets and disciples in the bible, God will not give up, abandon and discard the “work of His hands” (Psalm 138:8). God is with us, regardless of whether we need a little more convincing over time or not.

With wobbly knees I disembarked from the ferry when we finally landed safely in the German port following our harrowing ride on the angry Baltic Sea. I walked quietly beside Oma back to the car, stomach churning yet grateful to be alive. Even though my heart, at the time, was set on Vancouver, I already knew that God had given me a second chance at life. And deep in my heart, I knew that God would continue, no matter what I did, to be merciful to me, to be patient with me, and never give up on me.