Driving me crazy

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There are times in life that come our way to remind us that something is ending. And even though at some deeper level we know it to be true, we hesitate to face that ending, whatever it is — the end of an era, the end of the life of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of youthful health and energy, etc.

How do we face these movements in life?

In planning our family vacation to Italy a couple summers ago, we decided to rent a car. Our host family lived in Naples. So, right off the plane, we jumped in our small Fiat, yours truly engaged the manual shift, and we immersed ourselves in the mayhem of driving in Naples.

What added to the heightened anxiety of driving in the sprawling metropolis, was that I had to follow our friends from downtown to the suburbs – no short jaunt ‘round the corner.

Not only did I have to deal with the speedy and crazy driving conditions, I had to slice through the haze of jetlag in my mind, and pay attention. I had to keep up to our host family already long acclimatized to the riotous driving culture there.

What is more, shortly after recovering from the stress and thrill of that first-day drive from the airport, the next day, in our separate cars we took to the winding and narrow road along the Amalfi Coast. To get there, we had to cross Naples first. Been there done that. No small feat.

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Then, once on the rocky Amalfi coastline, my face was practically pasted on the front windshield. I had to make constant reflexive maneuvers rounding blind, hairpin bends. At relatively high speeds I squeezed our little Fiat between oncoming Vespa scooters, ginormous tour buses and sleek, racing, tinted-windowed Audi sedans. All the while wiping the spittle from the glass in front of my mouth emitting profanity after profanity.

 

Caution thrown to the wind, I threw myself into it without thinking too much. Reactive, assertive and confident driving skills required! Since I didn’t exactly know the route we would take, I had to focus on what was directly in front of me. I had to pay attention and respond not only to the immediate conditions I found myself in. I also had to keep an eye on the dark blue Hyundai some car lengths in front, leading the way.

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Following someone in another car, requires certain skills best developed in the context of faith. Let me explain.

First, you have to trust. You must trust that the One you are following knows what they are doing and where they are going. You have to believe that following them faithfully will take you to where you want to go. At some gut level, you have to relinquish your claim to knowing better. And trust the other. And believe that they believe in you and your skill, too.

Second, you have to pay attention. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, even though the distractions and obstacles are frightening. As with driving in general, you can’t be looking inside the car or admiring the scenery to the side or behind you. Rather, you have to remain focused on the road ahead. Better yet, for as smooth a ride as possible, you have to envision yourself already being a certain distance down the road.

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Third, you need to act on in-the-moment decisions. Following another car is a whole different way of driving then when you are on your own. On your own, you can stop whenever you want, you can go however fast or slow you want to go, and you are not accountable in any way to another vehicle on the road.

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All that changes as soon as you say, “I will follow you.” If you don’t want to get lost, you have to keep up. You have to do it. You have to match the velocity of the lead car, whether they speed up or slow down. You have to drive in a way that will keep you within eyesight of the lead, which will affect how you negotiate traffic signals, lane changes, roundabouts, traffic jams, and toll gates.

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Finally, in order to follow another successfully, you have to take the primary focus off yourself. And fix it on whom you are following. There is no time to dwell on your past mistakes – the guy you cut off coming onto the expressway, your cursing a fellow driver weaving across multi lanes going 130 kilometres an hour, or the slight yet growing pressure you feel on your bladder from all the espresso you drank earlier in the day.

There is no time for self-indulgence of this kind. There is no time for regret, guilt or self-absorbed mental gymnastics. There is no time to stop to lick the wounds of obsessive introspection.

Because your energy is required now for the task at hand: trust, focus, action.

Jesus describes at least two opposing lifestyles in the Gospel reading for today.[1] The sheep are on Christ’s right hand – they are the good guys. The goats are on Jesus’ left hand – they are the bad guys. I suspect we can relate to being both a goat and a sheep at different times and conditions of our lives.

Either way, both groups are surprised to hear Jesus’ answer to their question: “When did we see you …?”[2] Both groups failed to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.

The only difference is that the sheep already happened to be serving those in need, before they heard this news, before they had a chance to think about it too much, strategize and create impressive mission plans. That group was visiting the sick and tending to the needs of others as a matter of course, moved by a simple compassion for the needy. Doing so was part of their regular routine of life.

On the other hand, the goats apparently never thought nor believed that their very salvation depended on helping others, going to the poor, attending to the weak and vulnerable in society. Instead, they must have made life predominantly a game of ‘who can get the most stuff and be most comfortable and take care of their own first.’ Their faith must have been assigned to a God who existed only in their minds, in abstraction, a matter reserved only for intellectual discourse,polite company, and board room strategy sessions.

At this turning point in the calendar year, we shift gears and look ahead. We leave behind the relative calm and ease of the long summer season after Pentecost, and enter the fray of the holiday season. How we drive through and around the many distractions, noise, pace and twisting corners of our lives in the coming months will reveal a lot about who we follow or whether we are following anyone at all, let alone Jesus.

So, let’s not forget where Jesus goes. Let’s not forget what he was all about, whom he visited, whom he cared for and where he spent his time. This is our focus. Let’s trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about and the path he takes, even though God’s reign feels countercultural and unpopular in a season of getting more stuff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps we will need to practice looking for Jesus on the streets, in the hospices, the safe-injection sites, the social housing units, the shelters, the refugee lines and immigrant ghettos in our city.

Let’s trust that Jesus’ way will lead to our resurrection and transformation in this life as much as in the next. Let’s pay attention to our surroundings and the various ways God encourages us on the way. Let’s not remain idle, nor get stuck in self-centred living. Let’s not coast nor ride the clutch too much. Because we’ll stall the car. And stopping is not good on the highway of life. In fact, it’s dangerous.

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Instead, let’s act faithfully in small, concrete ways that make a difference for the better in the lives of others in need.  Let’s do so assertively and confidently, knowing that we don’t travel alone; there are others in the car with us and on the highway around us. Because despite our many failings, and the mistakes we will make along the way, God continues to have faith in us.

There is too much at stake. And no time to lose. Still today, in our country – Canada – and in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there are still over 10,000 households needing adequate, safe and affordable housing.[3] And, 15% of the population in the whole province of Ontario still lives in some kind of housing need.

Where is Jesus? The bible makes it very clear. The better question is: Will you follow?

Recently I came across this anonymous quote about the merits of volunteering in ways that can reflect the reign of Christ in our lives and in our world:

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections … [once every four years], but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

When you volunteer for good causes you add value to the vision of God in earth. The Reign of Christ is about the kind of world God wants us to live in. Where is Jesus? Will you follow?

We end today a church season. This annual observance can remind us that endings only herald a new beginning just around the corner.

[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] verses 37 and 44

[3] check out http://www.multifaithhousing.ca

Remember hope

In “Saintly Connections” I wrote of how playing Scrabble with my brother was often derailed by arguments over whether or not a word one of us placed was in fact a real word. We were distracted – taken off course – in our gaming by these time-and-energy consuming debates. We spent more effort, it seemed, in proving ourselves ‘right’ instead of focusing on the essence of the game – using most of our letters to maximize the points in a single move.

Our readings today put these ‘distractions’ in proper perspective. Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ questions about the resurrection – which they did not believe in – suggests we are lost when not grounded in the present moment. “Now, he is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38). Indeed, the Gospel focuses on what directly concerns us, now. Everything is focused on today, as the acceptable time – in the present moment.

In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian church, the people are encouraged “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thess 2:2) by claims of the end times. Paul is doing here what authorities in October of 1938 had to do; police logs across the United States chronicle the chaos of people who had heard the Orson Welles radio program “War of the Worlds” – and thought it was a true news story! A tremendous amount of energy and damage control had to go into calming people down.

Indeed, we are a people easily distracted. Consider this fact alone: Let’s presume the amount of information available to the ordinary person at the time of Jesus as one unit; it took until the year 1500 (around the Reformation) for that to double. After the invention of the printing press at that time, the amount of information available to the ordinary person doubled every hundred years, then every fifty. Then, in the 1900s every ten years. At the turn of the second millennium the amount of information available to the ordinary person has doubled every seven months (p.39, Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs). Our problem is not that we need more information. We may feel overburdened with so much information that we are understandably confused and conflicted! Any wonder we are anxious and distracted?

Is it any wonder that we struggle to find meaning in our short existence? There was a movie some decades ago called “Amadeus”. It chronicled, in a creative and entertaining way, the life of music great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was by any standard, a genius, who started at age four playing several instruments and created at least 528 musical compositions over the course of his life. His music is still enjoyed the world over centuries after his death.

The film ends showing Mozart’s undignified funeral: The scene is dark and dreary, and his composition, The Requiem Mass in D Minor, provides the sweeping, emotionally dense yet majestic background music. He is carted to his grave in a blizzard. Only the grave digger and wagon driver attend, mindlessly going about their jobs. There is a trap door at one end of his plain, wooden casket, and they dump his body through that trap door into a giant hole in which there are several other bodies. And then they quickly depart. He was only thirty-five years of age – a prodigy.

What a waste, we might think, that he should have died so young. Imagine if he had the years most of us enjoy – what he might have accomplished! And it makes us wonder, does it not – is this life all there is? In our information-over-loaded age we can see real-time images of starving children, millions displaced by civil war, political corruption even in our own country. What a waste of precious resources, energy, stress and life! Or, remember as we do these days the many military service men and women who have died in the wars of the last century – people so young and healthy. And we think of those who still die today in senseless killings, wars and accidents.

Is this life all there is? What a waste! What is the purpose of it all?

As the father of theologian Adolf Schlatter lay dying, pious friends stood around his bed trying to comfort him with reassuring and edifying thoughts such as: “Soon you will be in the golden halls of Zion gazing across the crystal sea. Soon the radiance will surround you.” And so they talked and talked and talked, mainly comforting themselves, it seemed. Finally, the dying man raised himself up and snapped: “Shut up! Don’t bother me with all that talk! Just show me a picture of the Father embracing his prodigal Son. I only want to embrace my God.”

Even on the darkest day of our lives, may our focus be God’s loving embrace reaching out to us. Everything we do and are in this world stems from what God has done and is doing for us.

The story is told that one day back in early Puritan New England a couple of centuries ago there was a major eclipse. The sun was blotted out, the day turned dark, and people were terrified. “The world is going to end. What shall we do?” One insightful man replied, “Let us be found doing our duty” (p.282, Neta Pringle, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 4).

Questions about the after-life and end times may understandably consume our imagination and get us thinking about so many things. People have written and talked and speculated about how things are going to be and to watch for the signs of the times. We have so much information about all this. But underlying and motivating all of this chatter, is there not a lot of fear and anxiety?

The Gospel resists this kind of distraction. The bible is hardly ever really clear on all the details anyway. We are called, instead, to focus on God’s abiding presence, God’s promise and grace, and God’s mission. “Give thanks,” Paul instructs the fearful Thessalonians (2 Thess 2: 13-17). See the big picture.

If our remembering this Remembrance Day causes us to be afraid, disturbed and anxious about the ways of the world, remember above all whose we are! “God chose you for salvation!” Paul exhorts the church. “Stand firm in faith” and remember that God “loved us and through grace gives us eternal comfort and good hope.” So, “comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

Our job, it seems, is simply to keep on keeping on. No matter what.

And leave the rest in God’s hands. That is all.