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

Sailing Across

Imagine standing at the shoreline of a great ocean. Linger on the span of the horizon, the boundary between water and sky. What kind of weather day is it? Is it windy? Are the waves crashing at your feet; is the ocean choppy, cresting with millions of whitecaps as far as the eye can see?

Or, is it a calm sea today? Just a gentle, rhythmic slapping of water on sand at your feet? Is the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky? Or, is it overcast — greys washing away any colour distinctions in your line of sight?

The lectionary brings together some bible readings for this Sunday in the Easter season that make an outrageous claim: God is in us. For, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit — the Advocate — “will be in you” (John 14:17).

Christian apologists in the last centuries have guarded against modernist, “new age” beliefs. They describe that Christians have always held the distinction between God and creation. Conservatives, especially, have been nervous whenever anyone suggests that a bit of God is in us, because that can easily slip into an unorthodox, pantheistic blending of boundaries. In other words, we humans are not God.

It is an important distinction, to be sure. It echoes Martin Luther’s emphasis during the Reformation on the supremacy of the grace of God. Similar to new-age doctrines whose ultimate meaning is found in the human self, ‘works-righteousness’ — that which Luther fought against in the sale of indulgences — implies the onus rests with us, when it comes to our salvation.

Works-righteousness means that we have to earn favour with God in order to get to heaven. It’s all up to us — what we decide, our good efforts to do the right kinds of things; the result of our works, therefore, determines the course of whether we are made right with God, or not. Luther, of course, argued against this line of thinking and acting.

So, standing at the ocean’s edge, would you venture out using a motorboat or a sail boat? Which kind of boat is a better metaphor to describe a life of faith? If our intention and hope was to land on the distant shore of complete union with God — or however you want to describe heaven — how do we get from here to there? On the one hand, will we ride the ocean of our lives using a motor boat?

A motor boat would certainly be the easiest method. We just aim in a straight line and power up. We would have control over the course; we would decide when to ease up on the throttle, for a break; we would decide when to give it gas, and race. We’d be in charge. Even against the wind and waves, whether in a stiff breeze or on a cloudless, placid sea, our direction is certain.

I suspect this is the preferred methodology, even when it comes to being the church and living our Christian lives. The onus is on us. And it’s up to us to determine the course and be in charge of our destiny.

I also suspect we would recoil against the notion that driving the motorboat is just like the kind of heresy the reformers of yesteryear and today rail against. Because ultimately our life, our death, and our salvation is not dependent on our doing, our agency, our efforts, our decisions — as good or as bad as they may be.

A sailboat, on the other hand, calls forth a different kind of skill set. It’s not that a sailor has no work to do. But this work is different: Without the benefit of an engine to drive, regardless of wind speed and direction, the sailor must be able first to pay attention to what is happening on any particular day.

Once wind speed and direction is observed, the riggings and ropes and rudder must be properly aligned in order to make any kind of headway.

At first, you may need to head in the opposite direction. Tacking into the wind is counterintuitive – sometimes you need to move away from your destination in order to move toward it.

Sometimes, tacking with the wind may mean heading right into an unattractive bank of dark, storm clouds. Sometimes relying on the wind means leaning your body in an uncomfortable position to maximize the best weight distribution. In truth, sailing is tough work.

But using this method of crossing the ocean, as inefficient as it might sometimes seem, is better suited to describe Christian discipleship. Even though doing the right thing sometimes may mean an inconvenience, even though following God’s call may be uncomfortable for us, even though being faithful may mean facing our fears and confronting head on that which we would normally avoid. Because we must depend on God. Our work is more in response to what God is already doing, and then trusting in God.

Those scriptures we hear today were given in the general context of Jesus leaving the disciples at his ascension. The Gospel is part of the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus gives his disciples — words of encouragement and empowerment and promise. Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples who now have to continue doing Jesus’ work on earth.

But they are not alone in this work. It’s not up to them, alone. Jesus assures them they will do even “greater works” (John 14:12) than himself, but not without his presence in them through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God blows as it wills, because God is in charge. And because the presence of Christ lives IN us, the promise of God is true. We don’t have to be in control because not even death stands in the way of the promise and truth of God.

We need only pay attention to what is already happening around us, and respond accordingly. Even if at first the way appears inconvenient, counterintuitive, or cause us to be afraid. We can even sail right into the sunset of our lives, knowing that God awaits us on the distant shore.

Let us pray:

“Not as the world gives do you give,
O Lover of Souls,
For what is yours is ours also,
if we belong to you.

“Life is unending because love is undying,
and the boundaries of this life are but an horizon,
and an horizon is but the limit of our vision.

“Lift us up, strong Son of God,
that we may see further.
Strengthen our faith that we may see beyond the horizon.

“And while you prepare a place for us,
as you have promised,
prepare us also for that happy place;
that where you are we may be also,
with those we have loved, forever.

Amen.”

(Bede Jarrett in Flor McCarthy, “Funeral Liturgies” Dominican Publications, Ireland, 1987, p.181)