Getting drenched

Nine, good people praying and studying in the church were brutally murdered this past week in Charleston, South Carolina. What tragedy. What loss. What a deep wound inflicted on our society. What awful pain the Christian community has suffered for the loss of those individuals, and for the loss of feeling secure, in church and in public.
In reaction to such horror, our ‘fear-meter’ may very well continue to rise. The storm clouds are thickening. We fear for others lives’ in a culture still troubled by racism. We fear for our own. Why would anyone ever want to enter the public square anymore to study the bible, pray and engage in social interaction? In reaction to the increasing anxiety in us, we may bolt our gates shut, close our borders completely, and cower to any anticipated conflict with others on account of our identity as Christians, as white people, as black people. This, too, would be tragic.
What the gift of faith does not do, however, is dis-spell fear. Having faith does not get rid of the reasons for being afraid. Rather, faith helps us cope with the fear and insecurity we must live with. Notice in the Gospel text for today, Jesus does not say, “Have no fear”; instead he says, “Why do you fear?” (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus does not deny there very well may be good reason to be afraid in life; at the same time, he suggests that faith gives us reason to embrace our fear with hope. And then act boldly, despite that fear.
Faith gives us reason to see beyond the fearful circumstance. The purpose of faith is to live with the hope that the present circumstance, fraught with anxiety and fear, has not the last word on our lives. Only by going through it, risking vulnerability in that circumstance, is the way to that hope, on the way to that new day.
I can imagine when Jesus calmed the storm and the wind ceased, the clouds above them broke open and they saw the sun shine again. Faith is about painting the sun-shine picture in our hearts, minds and souls, while in the middle of the storm. Faith is singing with confidence while the rain is falling (modifying slightly the words of an old song): “Someday when our crying is done, we’re gonna walk with a smile in the sun.” (A-Ha, “Crying in the Rain”)
When we are tempted in our fear not to do anything.

When we are tempted in our anxiety to turn a blind eye to the racism that continues – evidently – to be a blight on our culture.

When we are tempted in our fear to build fortress walls around us instead of welcoming the stranger …
The disciples were afraid, not awed, by Jesus’ calming the tempest. A better English translation of the Greek (phobos megas) in verse 41 is “being filled with a great fear”. Why? Probably because they knew deep down in their hearts, that living in the presence of Jesus will change them, will challenge them and cause them to behave differently in the future: boldly — no longer according to their fears, but taking risks of reaching out based on the faith — the vision — of the kingdom of God where all people are welcome.
Don’t forget that the journey across the lake was more than simply a change in venue. When Jesus said, “Let’s go to the other side”, he had in mind the actual geography of the place. He wanted to go to Gentile territory, the “country of the Garasenes” (5:1) — this is the context of the story that follows the Gospel for today. And, this represents Jesus’ first visit to what would likely have been considered a dangerous, risky mission field. Coming from his Jewish background, this would even be considered an inappropriate destination.

All this is to say, following Christ means, reaching out to others despite our fears and amidst of the storms of life. And doing so, never letting go of the vision and promise of Christ-with-us.
On my way home from Kitchener-Waterloo last week I chose to go the longer route north through Algonquin Park — and yes, I stopped at Gravenhurst to fill up with gas! I was looking forward to ‘try before I buy’ a canoe I had researched. They had a demo for sale at a reduced price, and I wanted to take this canoe for a test-paddle. I wasn’t making a commitment either way. I wanted to be open to not buying, or even finding another boat there that may have been more suitable. So, I had packed all my gear and was ready for a morning paddle in Oxtongue Lake near Dwight.
It was raining. And it wasn’t just a passing shower. It was a steady downpour. When I mentioned to the sales person that I really would like to paddle this canoe, he looked at me and smiled — “That depends”, he said, “on whether you are ok getting drenched.”
Earlier that morning when I had got up and looked at the weather forecast, I was a bit discouraged. It was cool and wet and dreary outside. And the forecast had promised a day-long rain. I hummed and hawed for a while. “Is it worth it?” “I could wait until the end of summer for the end-of-season sales.” “I don’t have to buy now”. 
Then I brought an image — a vision — to my mind. I imagined paddling this canoe on a sunny, calm-water day in some of my favourite places. I imagined the joy this would bring me, the adventure and the peace of mind and heart. Holding this vision before me, I decided it would definitely be worth the test paddle in the pouring rain.
I realize how easily discouraged I could be if the present circumstances are less than ideal. I realize how so much of life is led from the perspective of the stormy seas — as if that is the only reality we know. I also realize that if I were not able to hold firmly the vision of hope and faith and goodness before me, how life can be a negative and rather sad existence. Imagine the joy I would be missing out on had I listened to the voice of fear rather than the voice of hope.   
Another lesson I learned from my new solo canoe, is the vital importance of relaxing, of trusting, into the insecurity and uncertainty. You see, for the first time I have a canoe with a tumblehome design with no keel underneath. In other words, it is a flat-bottom boat with sides that bubble out before coming in to the gunnels on the sides. 
What this does, is make the boat extremely tippy. Unless you are sitting with your weight centred in the exact middle of the craft, you will start rocking back and forth. Unless you ‘settle down’, you will get wet quickly!
This boat is like a horse. I am told horses can read, intuitively the anxiety level of the rider. If the rider is nervous and anxious, the horse will respond in kind. The result can be an unpleasant experience for all concerned. The key, is to relax into and trust the experience. And when I do, this canoe can track with speed and is very good to manoeuvre in tight.
The Gospel for today opens to us the possibility of living through the storms of life holding onto the vision of Jesus. The only ‘condition’ of faith, is the presence of Jesus, quietly and faithfully resting in the back of our minds, in the bottom of our hearts, at the core of our being — always there, always pointing to the sun shining even above the storm clouds.
Thank you, Jesus. Help us act out of hope and faith knowing you are always there for us, always bidding us to reach out, to take the risk, and from time to time, getting drenched in the process. Amen.

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.

Out of the depths

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The longest night. The fiercest storm. The threat to comfort. And down with the flu.

I am pulled out out of the routine distractions and busy-ness of living and left silent, still, listening to the howling wind outside and creaking timbers in the house….

And then emerges a new kind of vision, a clarifying purpose for what is truly important in life — community, mutual support, friendship, family, faith. The corner is turned.

Out of the depths comes new found hope. Joy. A way forward. Renewed.