Still snowed in – Lent 5

Even though it’s now less than two weeks till Easter Sunday, our Christmas tableau is still snowed into our front yard.

At least now — surprise! — we can see what’s there, what has been hidden deep under the snow for over three months.

The journey of Lent continues. More and more snow is melting. Much too slowly. The holy family and Christ child are now revealed, bit by bit.

Still not able to free Jesus from the frozen earth, I can recognize the gift hidden deep within a heart frozen in grief, in loss, in suffering.

And what a joy to discover that all along, Christ is there with me, even through the travail of a long winter’s journey in my life.

Snowed in: Lent 4

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The snow still covers most of the story from our awareness. Buried deep within our hearts the fullness of all that makes us who we are is waiting to emerge. On the slow and steady movement on the Lenten journey to the springtime release and new life, we must embrace what is revealed, good and bad.

The first figure that I recognize is Joseph, praying. Joseph, the father of Jesus. Joseph, the father. What in my soul does ‘father’ mean to me? My father, Jan, died this winter. His memory resonates in my heart and I still feel the pang of grief. What is his legacy– as father, pastor, male– in my life? Faithfulness. Vulnerability. Physical strength. Passion. Feeling. Human-ness …

What does the revelation of the springtime structures within your heart tell you about you? About God? About your relationship with others, this earth, and Jesus still waiting to be released from what binds him on earth? Jesus, still waiting to be expressed and resurrected in your heart anew?

On the journey, even though the snow still covers so much (in Eastern Ontario anyway!), let us be buoyed by true signs, indeed, that the snow is surely melting away.

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.

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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.

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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

Throwing snowballs to get the message across!

We threw snowballs in worship last Sunday. 

Well, they weren’t exactly real snowballs. It’s Ottawa, after all, in December — and there’s still no snow on the ground! Just paper crumpled up into a ball. We’re warming up for the winter still-to-come. 

At the beginning of worship the children threw about a dozen of these ‘snowballs’ into the congregation. And those who caught them were instructed, during the time leading up to the children’s chat later in the service, to get pen to paper.

The Gospel texts these Sundays in Advent focus on John the Baptist (Luke 3). John’s job was to get the message across that the Messiah was coming. In truth, that is generally the job of the prophet: to tell the people what they need to hear in order to prepare for what God is about to do.

In our day and age people everywhere are preoccupied with their smart-phones and social media — to ‘message’ their friends. Messaging is now cornerstone of our culture. What we message — for better or for worse —  is vital to maintaining our relationships. 

So, we were going to practice what we ‘message’ to one another in the church, and to the world. Those who caught the paper snowballs wrote a short message that the children would later hear read out loud. What message would children hear, this Advent as we prepare for the coming of the Lord?

Here is what members of the church wrote on their snowballs:

1. Wishing you peace, hope and love at Christmas

2. Remember Christmas is not about presents but about spending time with those who love us

3. God loves us so much that he sent us Jesus

4. Show your friends love like you show your family because they love you too

5. Stop! Look! Listen! Feel the love!

6. Share with your friends

7. Every day say thank you for something that you are really thankful for. Especially for the little things that made you smile

8. Jesus is coming and is in your heart

9. God gave his only Son for you!

10. Rejoice, for Jesus is coming 🙂

Of course, at the end of children’s chat, those who wrote these messages delighted in throwing the snowballs back at the children. “If you’re going to give it, you also have to take it,” we said.
True prophets in this crowd!

Not all wanderers are lost and alone

The pathways through the forest are tricky, these days. With winter and spring battling it out for seasonal supremacy, the snow-melt leaves walking paths uneven and icy. It’s a challenge simply to keep on the path.

I make my way through the Grove with a destination in mind. But the forested parkland is marked with a web-like array of criss-crossing trails of dog-walkers, ski-enthusiasts, snow-shoers and joggers. So I leave it up to the inspiration of the moment to choose which path I take, keeping in mind where I eventually hope to end up.

But there are options. I’m reminded of the Psalmist who doesn’t just talk of one path describing the Lord’s way, but of many: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 25:9-10). And so I have some fun deciding which path to take; that is, which one is suited more to my abilities and interest on that day.

In describing the kingdom of God to Nicodemus, Jesus talks of salvation, and being born again (John 3:1-17). In case Nicodemus is tempted to believe life events such as birth and re-birth are something he can direct and control, Jesus talks about the nature of God’s work in the matter: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (v.8). There’s a wild, free, untethered quality integral to the journey of life and faith.

To be sure, some pathways are easier — wide, flat and well-trodden. Others require me to focus more my attention on where I place my feet, lest I trip over an exposed tree root or sink into foot-deep snow. One thing is for sure: It’s very satisfying to discover a new path I never knew was there, a path that gives me a new perspective on the forest, regardless how uneven or narrow it is.

To the casual observer I may appear directionless, lost, wending my way around and through the Grove. Some may wonder what I’m doing in there. Is there not something more productive I should be up to rather than wandering in the forest? Sometimes going to worship, participating in activities of the church, engaging the ministry and mission of God in the community may seem rudderless, unproductive.

This faith journey can appear to some rather cavalier and pointless — a glorified hobby of self-indulgence and of no real consequence: Because Christians like everyone else suffer and experience the difficulties that everyone does. What sets us apart? Why bother?

When the hardships come as they do to us all, the journey of the faithful starts to nudge at something deeper inside us. Deep down, though on the surface it may look otherwise, we know we are not lost in our wandering. We look up, from time to time. When the journey gets difficult, it’s natural and rather tempting to look down all the time, to be constantly turned in on oneself, to see only one’s own problems and disregard altogether the world ‘out there’.

When the journey of life gets difficult, our hearts are nevertheless open and free to accept the gift of faith. This gift of faith declares in our hearts the conviction that: I am not alone, in this dark, dangerous forest of my life. I am not alone.

There is a broad consensus that Psalm 121 was not expressed in the faith life of ancient Israel by individuals, on their own, by themselves. In other words, these words weren’t spoken originally between one person and God. It’s not about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It was a song sung responsively as a congregation, an assembly, a caravan, on the road together from Jericho — some 1500 feet below sea level — up to Jerusalem where God’s presence awaited in the temple of the Lord. The structure of the poem suggests a question-answer kind of liturgy between various voices — voices assuring one another of the hope they had on this dangerous road. A hope they would find by lifting their gaze towards their destination.

In this stance to life, individuals would be guarded against falling into the trap of feeling isolated in their suffering. At the same time, the different voices would challenge any potential “misery-finds-company” quality in relationship. Ample differentiation in the community encouraged the paradox of ‘hopeful realism’ on the journey of life; that is, on the one hand not denying the pain of the journey; but, doing so in the conviction that ‘death has not the last word’.

The predominantly old-growth stand of Hemlock trees in the Grove through which I wander contrasts with the white of snow on the ground. Even during the brightest part of the day, this is a relatively dark spot in the forest. And I can’t see where the path leads through the thick, coniferous growth. Nevertheless, I can’t help but occasionally look up, with a smile on my face. The trees reach to the sky, reminding me of the direction of our faith.

When we step out on our journey — whatever that journey is — we can do so with confidence and trust in the One who calls us and sends us out on the path. You may be embarking on a new journey in your life — a journey to change jobs, move to a new home, a journey of exploring a new relationship, or renewing old ones; your journey may be a challenge to live with the reality of increased physical limits, or, dealing with a newly diagnosed illness. You may find yourself at a cross-road in your life. So, what do you do?

At those moments of decision and sometimes despair, think again when you are tempted to feel that you are lost, and that you are alone on this journey. Because you belong to the church — the Body of Christ — to share in prayer and song on this road we travel together. And you know, in faith, the end of the story, the end of the road — which is good.

Some helpful thoughts on the journey of faith come from Charles Foster’s “The Sacred Journey” and  Alan Roxburgh / M.Scott Borden in “Introducing the Missional Church”

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