It’s ok to fall (1): Jesus lets us

There’s a bouncy feel to the rhythm of Mark’s story-telling. I can track the Gospel of Mark on a chart in terms of highs and lows:

The highs are the remarkable, miraculous, inexplicable even sensational events witnessed by story-tellers. Beginning with the baptism of Jesus in the first chapter (v.9-11) — voices from heaven, clouds parting, dove descending.

Then, mid-way through the Gospel Jesus goes atop a mountain and turns into this divine, ethereal being before the disciples’ eyes (Mark 9:2-9). Giants from Hebrew history — Moses and Elijah — appear out of thin air, clouds roil and again a voice from heaven. And, in the last chapter (16:9-20), of course, the brief but significant mention of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead. These are definitely ‘highs’.

The lows are a bit more tricky. They represent the down-side of Jesus’ ministry — the temptation after forty impoverished days in the desert, the scrutiny of the Pharisees, all culminating in the Passion of Christ: his betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, death and burial. Some original manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end on a ‘low’: “So [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (v.8).

Talk about bouncy, like what often happens with the outdoor temperature when seasons change!

These lows are tricky, because, as we shall see, they are not really ‘lows’. At least, they are not the final word in the story of faith. There is always an upside past the low. The troubling truth is that the high will not happen without the necessary, preceding low. In other words, before we rise we must know to fall.

I told this story already once before but it bears repeating. It illustrates the point rather well. And it is a summer-time, water-play story — and my imagination goes there frequently at this frozen time of year.

I was learning to water-ski. In fact, it was the first time I ever tried it, at age thirty. Jessica and I visited with some friends who had a cottage on a small lake nestled in the Bruce Peninsula north of Owen Sound.

It was a good lake to learn on. Few cottagers, even fewer boaters. A quiet, round lake. And my friend, John who drove the boat, assured me that we would just circle the lake a few times and when I wanted to stop, just to wave my arm and he would bring me close to shore.

John’s family, gathered with Jessica at shore to watch me. They assured me that it was normal to fall the first time on skis. In fact, they said they didn’t remember anyone ever being able to lift up and out of the water the first time without falling, when the boat accelerated. I think my friends were getting ready for a long afternoon of fits, stops and starts.

Well, were they in for a surprise. Including myself. Well, not really. Because, darn it all, I would employ all my strength and stamina NOT TO FALL!!!!

I was sitting with my skis submerged in the water, when John hit the gas and I felt the first tug. I gripped the tow rope handle with all my power and pulled myself out of the water, and voila! I was skiing! I briefly heard the cheering of my friends on the shore behind me before we were out on the open water and the waves were peeling off the sides of my skis. I enjoyed it for a few minutes.

But then, my back started cramping up, and my thighs began to seize up. We were around the lake a dozen times before I fully realized I was in some incredible pain. But I never wiped out once! It wasn’t until afterward that I came to the conclusion — after impressing everyone, I think — that I never relaxed into the experience. I was so tight because I didn’t want to fall.

And yet, I needed to fall. I needed to just let go into the water to know how it felt. My enjoyment of the experience was dampened because of an unrealistic, and inhuman (I might add) expectation of myself. Even though I never fell waterskiing that first time, even though I was ‘perfect’ at it — have I ever wanted to go again? No.

When I recall, as a child, those times that I truly enjoyed playing in the water — it was those times whenever a huge wave caught me off balance and threw me head over heels onto the beach. Those were the times I jumped up and ran back in with glee. It’s the same thing with water slides, and why we will run back up the steps all afternoon long. There is something important about sliding under the surface of the water, losing control, falling into grace, letting go into the sometimes tumultuous waters of our baptism.

This is the first movement of anyone’s true, journey of faith. The pull of the current is downward. Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness” (cited in Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 2011, p.153).

What I am learning over time is that we are the cause of our sinning more than anything or anyone else. Because it is natural to fall, from time to time. But we don’t allow ourselves, give ourselves permission, to do just that. We resist, deny, suppress this movement downward. Part of the Lenten journey, I believe, is to reflect on why it is we don’t allow ourselves to just let go into the arms of God, and simply trust.

Admittedly our human nature is such, that we would rather avoid the low and shoot straight for the high. I get that. It is also true, we are up against a giant. We build our lives up against the fear of falling. We are a success-oriented culture. We construct our fortress of security, we incessantly compare ourselves to others and measure our self-worth against some notion of success plastered on the front covers of magazines and echoed through the voices of our sports’ heroes and business tycoons. We are an upwardly mobile culture, valuing even yearning for this trending in our own lives. ‘Up’ is the only way to go! What else is there to do?

So, beware of this prejudice against falling before we start! I ask you to consider all these real and important concerns we have in our culture against falling — whether they are physical, emotional, spiritual — and hold them before you, carefully, during the coming “down” season.

The glorious, divine vision of Jesus is hard to explain. It is a miracle way beyond human understanding. We may say that this event was meant to encourage and empower Jesus for his coming journey to the cross. We may say that we need to be reminded again of the divine nature of Jesus. We may say that what this text tells us is to be obedient, and “listen” to, Jesus, the Holy One of God.

But I like how the story ends. Mark, in his brevity nonetheless, does take intentional note of the movement of the disciples with Jesus “down the mountain” (v.9). This is the sounding bell for Lent. We are now ready to begin the journey downward, into the valley. We are now on a downward trajectory.

And the real question is: What will we do with that? Will we distract ourselves even more? Will we intensify our addictive behaviour and buy more toys to keep the pain at bay? Will we pretend that ‘all is well’ when it is not?

Or, will we face our fears, confront our internal poverty and our crisis, with courage? And I say, with courage, because there is reason to hope when we stand on the edge of the abyss. There is reason to persevere through the fall.

In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (17:1-8), describing with even more detail than Mark all that happened in this incredible mountain-top scene, the disciples who go with Jesus to see this heavenly vision and hear the voice of God from the bright, overshadowing cloud — what do they do? “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (v.6). They fall to the ground. And not only that …

Jesus’ lets them. He doesn’t scold them for falling down by saying something like, “Hey, buck up; you are standing on holy ground before Elijah, Moses and my divine being! Don’t fall down and grovel in the dirt! Pull yourself together! You’re my disciples, after all! Show some respect!” No, he doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus let’s them be humbled before his divine presence. If but for a short moment, Jesus allows them their humanity. And then he says with encouraging, inviting words, “You don’t have to be afraid, get up” (v.7).

I hope you can join me in the coming Lenten journey, taking great comfort in the Good News of Jesus. I can almost hear Jesus’ loving voice whisper in my ear, next time I risk getting on water skis again, “It’s okay to fall, you know. You don’t have to be afraid.”

Of fig trees and lottery tickets

Some time towards the end of the nineteenth century, a man named Huxley who was intelligent, quick of mind, and never lost an argument, attended a house party at a grand, country estate on a Saturday night. When Sunday morning rolled around, many of the guests who stayed the night prepared to go to church.

As one who was naturally skeptical, Huxley did not propose to go. In fact, he was somewhat irate at his fellow party-goers at their sudden righteous intent. Given what all had happened the night before, Huxley could not believe they still wanted to go to church.

“Suppose you don’t go to church today,” he challenged his friend who he knew to have a simple yet radiant Christian faith. “Suppose you stay at here with me and tell me what your Christian faith means to you this morning, and why you are a Christian.”

“But,” said the man, “you could demolish my arguments in an instant. I’m not clever enough to argue with you.”

“I don’t want to argue with you,” Huxley said, gently. “I just want you to tell me simply what this Christ means to you.” So, his friend stayed with Huxley at home Sunday morning and told him most simply of his faith. When he had finished there were tears in Huxley’s eyes. “If only I could believe that,” he said. (adapted from William Barclay, “The Gospel of John” Volume 1 – The Daily Study Bible Series – Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975, p.92)

Huxley’s response speaks to an aspect of our faith that sometimes gets crowded out because of our compulsion to be rational, persuasive and argumentative. And yet, this more heart-felt dimension is what, I believe, ultimately defines, motivates and describes our faith at its core. Because it’s more about a personal experience of Jesus rather than clever argument, persuasive logic and rational explanation.

Prior to Nathanael’s life-changing encounter with Jesus — as described in the Gospel for today (John 1:32-51), Nathanael was skeptical about his friend Philip’s proposition that they had found the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v.46) — Jesus’ hometown. A Roman garrison was stationed there, so people living in this small, insignificant hovel of a town were associated with the hated Roman occupation of Palestine. The notion that the one who would save them from the Romans would come from Nazareth — which, moreover, was nowhere mentioned in any biblical prophecy — was unbelievable, un-credible.

Then, when Nathanael goes with Philip to see Jesus, and Jesus says that in Nathanael there is no deceit nor guile (v.47), Nathanael questions Jesus’ integrity: “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael was skeptical that anyone could give a verdict like that on so short an acquaintance. I think we can relate: How can you say anything about me when you even don’t know me! Who do you think you are?!

In short, this encounter with Jesus starts off on rocky ground. It doesn’t look good from the standpoint of trying to start a good relationship with someone. How often do we know of friends or family — even ourselves — who have given up on faith, the church, God, all because we felt put off, even offended, initially by something that is said or done. Or, how often have we given up on a spiritual practice after just trying it once? I think we can sympathize with Nathanael’s initial objections.

But then, something changes. How does he move from cynicism to belief, from questioning and doubt, to praise and confession? What happens?

It’s the fig tree. The turning point happens when Jesus speaks to Nathanael’s heart, not so much his mind: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (v.48), says Jesus. These simple words turned Nathanael’s heart from suspicious questioning to confessing Jesus as the Son of God.

The fig tree in the bible stood for peace (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). In ancient Israel, this was a place on one’s property where one could go to be undisturbed, to find quiet. Because the fig tree was leafy and shady, it was the custom in the arid, Mediterranean heat of the day to sit and meditate under the roof of its branches. Perhaps this is what Nathanael had been doing on a regular basis — sitting under his fig tree, praying for the day when God’s Chosen One should come, and meditating on the promises of God.

When Jesus speaks those words, “I saw you under the fig tree…” Nathanael must have felt that Jesus had seen into the very depths of his heart, and read the thoughts of his inmost being. Nathanael must have said to himself, “Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings, longings which I have never even dared put into words! Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul!” (ibid., p.93)

It’s the fig tree. What can we say about finding our own fig tree? What are the qualities that describe this place where we meet with God? And where God convicts our hearts?

First, you will notice, Nathanael’s fig tree is not “Sunday morning”, so to speak, where the formal liturgies are practised. It is not to say temple worship was unimportant, even vital, as a place of communal gathering where faith was nurtured, sustained and grown.

But what we are talking about here is where personal, daily faith is nurtured, sustained and grown. Jesus said, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We are not talking here about going to church every Sunday. We are talking about our intentional, discipline of prayer and meditation from Monday through Saturday. This Gospel suggests that a daily practice is critical in preparing the heart to recognize God’s love for you.

Preparation and practice is important in our faith. Philip and Nathanael had studied the scriptures and anticipated in their regular prayer the coming of God’s Chosen One. They were, in a sense, ready to receive Jesus. Those of us brave souls who went to a Yoga for Christians class the other night must have walked away with the strong impression, as I did, that regular practice is so important. Because those of us who don’t, still feel it today!

As with any exercise, spiritual or otherwise, you can’t simply snap your fingers to be an expert. With Christian meditation, for example, you can’t just go once and decide whether it’s for you or not; it’s about a long-term vision of practice and intention and discipline. It’s like tending a garden.

Where is the place you go daily to be under your fig tree? Is it a special chair in your living room? Is it a spot on your front or back deck? Is it in the forest on your back-50? Is it a rock on the river-side? Is it connecting with the expansive outdoors? Is it doing a certain physical exercise? Is it some object that you hold or look at to remind you of something or someone precious? Where is your fig tree?

And if you will look for one — It is a place where hopes and dreams are nurtured in your heart. It is a place where the good promises of God are given shape and sustenance. It is a place where faith then begins to affect your decisions in daily life, with joyful anticipation of God’s presence everywhere.

Canadian radio broadcaster Stuart McLean wonderfully tells the story of the “Lottery Ticket” (a necessarily paraphrased and adapted version follows here). Tommy gets a phone call telling him that his grandfather, Lewis, suddenly died. Shortly after the news of the death circulates among the family, the question of his un-scratched lottery ticket comes up. For over ten-years — longer than that, in some people’s minds — Grandpa Lewis kept his faded, un-dated lottery ticket in a box on the mantle, un-scratched. The prize, one million dollars.

“It’s a winner, it’s a winner!” he had often and regularly announced with deep conviction and belief. “It’d be more than that if you’d just scratch it!” rebutted his brother Lawrence. “Just think of the interest it would have made in all this time!”

“Or, I would have none!” argued Grandpa Lewis. “Know what happened to that lottery winner in Toronto, or that family from New Brunswick who won it big? Besides, I don’t need the money. It’s not about the money!

“But, tell me, what would you do with a million dollars?” he would always ask anyone who mentioned his un-scratched lottery ticket. “What is your heart’s desire?” Then he would listen very carefully, and ask, always: “Is that really what you would do?”

When the family gathered to plan the funeral, they argued about what to do with the lottery ticket since it wasn’t mentioned in the will. There were seven in the family, divided between the ‘scratchers’ and the ‘non-scratchers’, the believers and those who didn’t believe. Tommy counted himself as one who wanted to leave the ticket alone. But the ‘scratchers’ had the edge. “Just be done with it. Then we would know one way or another.”

They decided that after the funeral service, they would gather around the mantle upon which sat the box containing the lottery ticket. Silence shrouded the meeting. What would they do if in fact it was a winning ticket? What would they say, if it wasn’t?

When uncle Tony was delegated to open the box, he lifted it off the mantle, opened it, then slowly looked at everyone in the room. When he tipped open the box for all to see, they were surprised to find Grandpa’s Lewis’ lottery ticket missing. And in its place, seven newly purchased lottery tickets.

A week later, Tommy and his girl-friend, Stephanie, sat around their kitchen table. Stephanie asked, “I wonder what happened to the lottery ticket?”. Tommy confessed, “I buried it with Grandpa Lewis. I put it in his pocket before we closed the casket.”

“Why would you do that?” Stephanie asked, reflectively.

“That’s where it belonged. I wanted to trust him. Because I realized that throughout his life, Grandpa needed hope more than he needed money. To him, dreams were more important than a pile of money. Whenever he took out that lottery ticket and waved it in our faces, he could hang on to hope. And challenge us to think very deeply about our true heart’s desire.”

Both were surprised to learn, later, that everyone still had their lottery ticket, unscratched.

Back to the Future: Borderland spirituality

2015 is the year of “Back to the Future”, did you know? When Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, travelled ‘Back to the Future’ in the 1980’s pop culture film, the year they went to, in the future, was 2015.

As a kid I enjoyed the movie, partly because the year 2015, at the time, seemed some unrealistic, arbitrary and irrelevant point in the future; the number only represented some distant benchmark unconnected to my present reality.

Today, 2015 no longer means some far-off, futuristic fantasy. It is reality, now. And if I watch ‘Back to the Future’ today, the movie represents more of an historical curiosity — I’m only looking ‘back’.

In faith, it’s like we simultaneously look back, forward, and both from the grounding of the present moment. Balancing all three is good theology. For its sesquicentennial anniversary, the Eastern Synod (ELCIC) employed the motto: “Remembering for the Future”. Celebrating an important event in the present day by integrating past with the future is important. And a good way to interpret the Bible.

But it an also cause dismay if we only insist on a certain, chronological ordering of events in an absolute kind of way. For example, at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel for today (Mark 1:4-11) there is the matter of the Holy Spirit, which descends in the form of a dove upon Jesus (v. 8, 10). John the Baptist preaches that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus never performs one baptism in his ministry that we know of. And, according to the time-line of the Gospels, the Holy Spirit doesn’t descend on the church until after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:19-23) and at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) — these Holy Spirit events do not occur during Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching and praying on earth. Curious, since many understand Jesus’ baptism as his ordination or commissioning to his call as the beloved Son of God. How do we make sense of this?

To understand many of the stories we read, like the Gospel for today, we would do well, I believe, to employ a ‘Back to the Future’ hermeneutic. This way of interpreting does not deny the truth of all of the events outlined above. For one, it reveals something about how the bible was put together:

The actual writing of the New Testament was done decades after these events took place. Therefore, we say, that we, today, are ‘post-resurrection’ Christians. We can best understand what happens at Jesus baptism from the perspective of the future. Because when these stories were written down for the first time, and from today’s perspective — the Holy Spirit has already come. Jesus is alive. Even as we recall, as a matter of history, what happened in the moments of Jesus’ life on earth some two thousand years ago.

And it’s not just a pointing forward that we need to keep in mind. It is a reverence and respect for the past.

If you look at the geography of the Baptism of our Lord, we can conclude at least a couple of things: First, it takes place in the wilderness, the desert. That is through which the river Jordan runs, basically north to south separating lands that are for the most part destitute, rugged, dangerous even.

Second, that river forms a boundary between two worlds — on the east and south, the world of the ancient Israelites tracking through the desert for decades on their way to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which is on the other side.

John the Baptist comes to this border land, which is significant in the history of the prophets. In fact, John the Baptist stands in line with the prophets of old. His speeches are associated with Isaiah (Mark 1:1-8); he is also mistaken for Elijah because of what he wears (2 Kings 1:8) and because he foretells of the coming Messiah (John 1:21). John’s presence and ministry at the Jordan River in the wilderness brings the past (an identification with history and the prophets) together with the future (Jesus Christ, and the coming Holy Spirit) together into the present moment.

How can we keep ourselves from getting lost and totally confused in the plot line of “Back to the Future?” We remain grounded in the present moment. We look to our immediate surroundings. Like the beasts of the field, we scuff the earth with our heal, and snort and spit, before we look up.

And this is the beauty and wisdom of these Scriptures: their insistent if not peculiar emphasis on details. Yes, God acts in creation. Yes, God redeems sinners. Yes, God has a plan for salvation.

But this ‘spiritual’ talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.

Keeping grounded in the present awareness of life, ‘as is’, helps us track the sometimes confusing plot-line of ‘Back to the Future’. Because it is there that Jesus stands — on the borderland, at the edge of the Kingdom of God. Jesus stands there, and invites us to live into the now-and-not-yet reality of it (Ted Smith, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.239).

The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as a ‘lamb’. T.S. Elliot describes Jesus as a ‘tiger’. In C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books, Jesus is personified in Aslan, the ‘lion’. Nancy Rockwell, in her post, “Tracks” (blog: The Bite in the Apple) suggests the ‘camel’, for Jesus who identified with lepers and prostitutes, difficult people, estranged members of right society, people who are spat upon. All these images for Jesus throughout history reveal unique elements about his truth.

But, standing in the desert beside John the Baptist, Jesus identifies with the lowly who are on a journey of transformation. Jesus invites the lowly in us to go on a journey that does not reject the past, and tradition, and history but doesn’t allow us to remain stuck there. Because this journey through borderland brings us eventually into a land flowing with milk and honey — a land of healing, restoration and justice for all who seek these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This means that we cannot use our tainted and troubled past as an excuse for not doing the right thing, now. At the same time, we cannot wait until an ideal future when circumstances are perfect to do the right thing, now.

Back to the Future brings the present moment into sharp focus. A good theology will always ask, “What is going on right now in my life and world?” “Who do I meet today?” And act, now, accordingly. A spirituality of the borderland will always draw my attention to the divine importance of the present moment which is supported by history, and hope-filled for the future.