Even there your hand shall lead me

Later this summer I will be going on a 10-day canoe-camping trip on the French River. Last summer my friend and I did three nights and four days on a smaller portion of the French; this summer we want to challenge ourselves to do the whole, or at least most, of the river all the way from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.

Because the challenge is greater, I felt I needed to take a First Aid Course in preparation, so I could be of some use to the company with whom I travel.

I learned some interesting facts about providing First Aid. Did you know that in all of Canada, except Quebec, you and I are not legally obligated to provide First Aid to anyone experiencing a medical emergency? In Quebec, however, we are legally bound to help someone who is in distress. It is, from Quebec’s point of view, a basic human right for any person to receive first aid in an emergency.

In class we discussed reasons why we may choose not to give First Aid: For fear of hurting them more, for fear of harming oneself, and of course for fear of legal repercussions. Our instructor countered this latter objection by reminding us of the “Good Samaritan Act” which governs any attempt in good faith to help someone in an emergency. So, legally, we were off the hook.

But we may still hesitate to take the risk and commit ourselves to helping someone. It would be easier to pretend we didn’t see it, get on with our busy day and avoid the added stress and responsibility.

Every time I read the wonderful story of the so-called “Walk to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35), something else piques my interest and causes me to reflect. I believe there is so much depth to this story while it provides a summary of what we believe as Christians. Particularly, this time, I wondered what Cleopas and his friend had to do with this incredible encounter with Jesus.

It seems they really had nothing to do with making this encounter happen, when Jesus appeared to them on the road that first Easter day. As far as we can tell, they weren’t expecting to meet Jesus let alone praying for it. And, ironically, when they do finally recognize the living Lord Jesus at the breaking of the bread, Jesus disappears from their sight! Truly, this event happened to them.

But were they merely passive recipients of this encounter? There is one turning point in the story, where things could have gone one of two opposite directions. Up until that point, they had not yet consciously recognized the man walking with them as Jesus himself. After that point, the table was set — literally — for their full recognition of Jesus.

Had they not invited Jesus to stay with them, for the evening was nigh, they would have missed out on a wonderful conclusion to their day. “Abide with us, for it is evening,” they invited this still stranger to them into their home. They could have chosen to let the man on his way. They could have chosen not to pay attention to their burning hearts. They could have ignored the subtle yet real ‘promptings of the Spirit’ we may call it today, within them.

I learned some thought-provoking statistics on my First Aid course this week. There we were, some twenty-five of us stuffed into a tiny room above a car repair shop in Renfrew. We were from all walks of life. Local businesses paid for their employees to take this course; therefore, my class mates were prompt and motivated to learn their First Aid techniques, principles and procedures. Certificates were issued upon successful completion of two exam periods and practice with bandages, splints and manikins.

Then, our instructor posted these statistics after asking us: Presuming it was done properly, what was the success rate of providing only chest compressions (sets of thirty thrusts downward over the chest) to someone who was unconscious and not breathing? What was the success rate of doing just that? 1.2%.

Without the aid of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), adding ventilation to the chest compressions (pinching the nose and breathing in sets of two into the casualty’s mouth) raises the chance of recovery to only 5%.

I thought to myself: There is hope to humanity! Because it would be easy to just not bother! No wonder we may feel unwilling to commit to providing First Aid to an unconscious stranger on the street! What’s the point of doing that, let alone learning how to do it?! The chances of success are so slim!

And yet, there we were. These classes, I am told, are usually full. Businesses and organizations require their employees who engage with the public to know First Aid. They employ resources to make sure their employees have this training. All this effort for at best a 5% success rate.

But the ethics of it would argue: It is worth trying. Better to do something, than do nothing at all.

Sometimes I wonder whether being the church feels a bit like that. We expect the church to function at a 100% success rate; and when we fail the odd time, well — the church is no good, don’t bother. What is the worth of it all?

People are still bad. Failures in humans abound and seem to persist against all good intentions and efforts to be good. The message of the Gospel doesn’t always seem to make any positive difference in our lives. So, what’s the point?

Driving on Clyde Ave the other day, I noticed the sign outside the Reformed Church that reads: “Growth doesn’t come without change. Change doesn’t come without some risk.”

Following the example of Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, the only thing we can do, it seems, is learn to pay attention to those rare moments whenever our hearts are burning with love. And then, practice making the invitation in response to that nudging of our hearts and open our lives to those moments when we sense something shift within us. We may not be able to put our finger on it just yet, but respond nonetheless.

And then the rest is up to God. God is free. God enters our lives and walks with us whether we know it or not. God then ‘disappears’ from our awareness whenever God wants. But whether we feel God near or far, God is there. “Am I a God nearby and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

The God of Easter is alive and present with us no matter where on earth we go. This is the good news of the resurrection. God is alive, and so we are called to rise up in renewal and joy. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10).

It is worth it. Even though we fail time and time again. There is the hope. There is the promise. There is the opportunity. There is the constant presence of God.

Slave to none, servant to all

Especially at the beginning of a new school year, the gospel story of little children sitting on the lap of Jesus warms my heart. This saccharine image speaks to Jesus’ welcoming the children as we would welcome them to church and the start of a new year of Sunday School programming. 
We tell ourselves, “So should we be towards the children, like Jesus was.” Or, “We should be like the children.” Here perhaps lies the genesis of any motivation and focus of children’s ministry in the church. This act of Jesus witnessed by the bible’s words becomes our authority for action.
Indeed, the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 9:30-37) is about God’s view on power and authority. How does authority work, in the kingdom of God? What does it look like?
And it is here, admittedly, we Lutherans get into trouble. We say that authority for a congregation in the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. We also say that authority for a congregation in the Protestant tradition is the Bible. For Lutherans, it is a former pastor! 🙂
This Gospel story is more about Jesus’ stance vis-a-vis the powers-that-be in society. This is revolutionary and counter-cultural. He makes irrelevant the political-economic-cultural pecking order, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The root of the Greek words “servant” and “child”, spoken in the same breath, is virtually the same (pais/paidon); on the basis of vocabulary alone, those who first received this story were principally hearers and not readers. Mark’s Greek-speaking audience would have made the close connection between servant and child. Neither had any real social value.
Therefore, this story describes more a stance towards people in general, an attitude and approach for relating to those who do not have power, who are of particularly low social status. Contrary to what the economic and political powers espouse, Jesus assigns worth and importance to every person (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK Press 2009, p.97).
This is no longer a sweet, warm-fuzzy message as much as it is a direct stab at our social hierarchy of values. And the disciples know it, deep down in their hearts. But they are afraid. In their silence, they betray their weakness and fault in not ‘getting’ Jesus nor willing to ‘go there’.
Jesus didn’t come to pander to power. He didn’t come to play the game. He didn’t come to compete in the smorgasbord of religions in the first century Palestine. He didn’t come to prove that he is right and everyone who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. 
He came to show that God loves everyone, including the lowly servants and children.
Jesus came to turn on its head the regular way of thinking about power. He lifted up children and servants as those who receive the grace and love of God, not just those deserving it because they happen to be higher up on the social pecking order. 
We know how Jesus’ earthly story goes. Jesus was a victim of his ministry of unconditional love, compassion and healing. And how did that go, for Jesus? The Cross. To say he was misunderstood is an understatement. Even his closest friends didn’t understand, or were too afraid, to face the truth of their hearts.
Perhaps we may take from this some measure of comfort, in tough times. For example, if you are ‘thrown under the bus’ by your closest friends, when you are misunderstood, when you are derided and put down for trying to do right, maybe you are indeed on the right track?
On the other hand, when you become puffed up in your righteous defence of the status quo of your life, when you engage in defensive, combative and competitive stances against those who differ — then, well, how is this the way of Jesus? It is not. It is a way, to be sure, heralded by the prevailing culture of human achievement, reputation-defending self-righteousness, one-up-man-ship and glory, yes. But far be it from being the Christian way.
We are asked by the Gospel message to examine our relationships with those in society with little economic or social value. How is our relationship with the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the refugees and newcomers to Canada, young people without direction, those who live on the streets, the poor, the Indigenous people of this land? 
I listened recently to how a graduating university student was deciding which job to take. Upon graduation he was offered a high-paying job from two different well-respected companies at the same time, one in Chicago and one in New York. The student sought advice from his pastor.
“Which job should I take?” he asked. “Both offer similar compensation. But I’m torn as to where I should go — Chicago or New York. Both have pros and cons. What do you think, pastor?”
The pastor hesitated, for a moment. Then he said, “It’s wonderful you have been given the privilege of a job offer. Many young people today don’t have one, let alone two. You are very fortunate.”
“Yeah, right,” the student responded. And quickly added: “But where should I go?”
“I really don’t know,” the pastor mused. “Does it matter?” It’s usually at this point in the session that people realize why pastoral counselling is free. 🙂
I think we tend to lose energy, even waste it, on these kinds of first-world problems. After all, the truth is there is no place we can go, no decision we can make that is out of the reach of God’s grace, love and healing (read Psalm 139). Where there is a fork in the road … take it! 
In most, if not all, of our dilemmas do we acknowledge that no matter what we decide, even for less-than-stellar motivations or for high and righteous ones, God will not abandon us? Because God’s grace will not come up short, ever.
In the end, the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming little children comes to us not a word about how we should act. It’s not primarily about us serving others. Rather, the Gospel is about Jesus serving us.
Jesus asks each of us: How can I serve you? Jesus reflects God’s favour towards us, and all people. Jesus will not do what we so regretfully and naturally fall into — a tit for tat food fight with whatever first-world problems we wrestle, about which we complain, and over which we fight for ‘the advantage’. That’s not what Jesus is about. 
At the same time, Jesus will not stop at our human divisions. If you are at the bottom of the ladder, Jesus will come to you. If you are at the top of the world, Jesus will come to you. Jesus will make the ladders of our lives irrelevant. These ladders of success, upward-mobility and power are nonsense in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us all, and asks us — “I will welcome you and serve you. What do you need today, in order to follow me?”

The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.