One light in the dark world


The bible doesn’t always help alleviate a low grade angst growing at this time of year. Abduction-type images are splashed on the canvas of our imaginations: “one will be taken, one will be left” (Matthew 24:40-41). The notion of the Second Coming of Jesus can often arouse anxious feelings of impending doom and destruction. Certain Christian groups devise popular theologies that articulate with great detail and certainty how it’s all going to come crashing down on us some day.

And what is more, some will say the Bible contains implicit warnings (as in the Gospel for today, Matthew 24:36-44) that we can prevent it all from happening by our good works, by being ready, if only we can break the secret code, figure out the hidden message and solve the riddle — a la Dan Brown.

The way of Christ is never that easy. And the Gospel text will throw a wrench into any neat and tidy philosophy. In this image-rich text Jesus confronts our pretence. “You don’t know and you cannot know.” Neither did Noah when the flood came “unexpectedly.” “But about that day and hour no one knows … and they knew nothing …”

What is this ‘knowing’? If we cannot predict how it’s all going to shake down in the end – whether we are talking about world politics, climate change or our challenging personal relationships – what can we know? 

We do know certain things are best not known: How we are going to die. How the meat we are eating at the dinner table was actually produced. Many probably are better not to watch a YouTube video of the surgery they are preparing to undergo. In some facets of life, it’s simply best not to know.

And life will continue to remind us that it is futile to pretend we can: None of the pundits and polls — even early on election night in the U.S. a few weeks ago — could predict the actual result of the presidential race. 

And, in my generation it must have been the falling of the Berlin Wall which had divided Germany for over thirty years. Who could have predicted it, given the enduring and seemingly entrenched geo-political tensions of the Cold War, let alone begin in evening candlelight vigils held in German churches? A small, warm light started to melt the cold, dark and divided world.

The season of Advent fits like a glove; it gives warmth in the cold atmosphere of our lives. “Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … be ready, keep awake.” So we hear instruction from Jesus. Being ready and keeping awake are fundamentally about being aware. Awareness in the present moment.

What DO we know? Saint Paul, in an accompanying text for today writes: “you know now is the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers … Put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-14)

Putting on the armour of light is not a call to violent, combative behaviour, action which narrows the vision and snuffs out awareness. Putting on the armour of light does not constrict the soul into locked patterns of thought, but expands the scope to embrace the truth and vision of God right now.

You may have heard of the story: All along the Western Front in 1914, a few short months into a war that would eventually claim 17 million lives, a kind of miracle happened on Christmas Day – a rare moment of peace:

Trooper Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, recalls that special night: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land’.

It is estimated that over 100,000 troops from both sides honoured the Christmas Truce of 1914 that lasted some days.

Hearing the text today from the prophet Isaiah, you may have noticed some very familiar words and phrases. Because a few weeks ago, on All Saint’s Sunday, the words of Micah we heard: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3). Sound familiar?

Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah share precisely the same words. And, in Psalm 46 — the great “Lutheran” Psalm we heard on Reformation Sunday last month, and also on Christ the King Sunday last week — the Psalmist echoes the sentiments of the major and minor prophets: “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (v.9).

A major message throughout the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament envision wars to cease and violent divisions among people to end. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus preaches. (Mathew 5:9; Luke 6:27-31)

Knowing is not knowledge of facts and manipulation of data to suit one’s ideology. Knowing is not formulating intellectual and persuasive strategies that demonstrate airtight logic and rational impunity. Knowing is not about getting more information. This kind of knowing keeps one distracted, in the past or fretting about the future.

Knowing is more about living relationships of love, grace and peace in the present moment; this is the biblical understanding of ‘knowing’ – more a function of the heart than of thought.

Advent heralds the start of a new church year. This season calls us to watch, to wait and wake up to the reality of Christ in our lives, and Christ coming again. Like All Saints’ Sunday, in Advent the future and the past converge on the present moment. Now.

We can enter this season full of hope. Today, contrary to what the headlines imply, the earth is less violent than it was in the past. We are not living in dangerous times any more than what always has been. In fact, according to statistical trending over the past few decades, the world over is safer and more peaceful. (see Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s article “The World Is Not Falling Apart” (Slate: 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12 )

“Now”, Paul writes, “we are closer to salvation than before.” And, now, we are called to love others, to strive for peace and an end to all divisions — in the world, and in our lives. Even when it might appear hopeless. We are called, like the Germans and English during the Christmas Truce of 1914, to cross the dividing lines of our lives and sing together of a holy night, a silent night, a night still and always shall be bathed in the light of Christ.

Pray for peace. Commit to one small, act of kindness and generosity, especially to one with whom, for whatever reason, you have been estranged. Without any strings attached, no expectations of any kind about how the other ‘should’ respond, commit to an act of unconditional love. Because God is bringing all of history into the vision of peace and harmony reflected in the prophets’ writings. This is our hope. This is the present reality.

Changing your mind on faith

This past week I was finishing up on my monthly calls to shut-ins and those who are not easily able to attend worship services here. And it was in a couple of conversations where I felt particularly moved. Of course, I am not mentioning any names or specific circumstances.
“Sometimes I wonder if I have enough faith,” said one.
“When is it that you feel that you might not have enough faith?” I asked, prompting further: “What kinds of things are happening when you think you might not have enough faith?””Whenever things are not going well for me. When I’m suffering, or in pain. When it hurts. When I’m afraid that the worst will happen.”
Speaking Lutheran to Lutheran, I mentioned that the 16th century reformer was an anxious person. Martin Luther was terrified, for example, of dying. “I think that’s probably very normal,” I said. “Even people we consider giants of the faith, were afraid and scared especially when they thought they were going to die.”
Our conversation continued until we concluded that to have faith was not apart from all that scares us or causes us suffering and pain. Faith happens inspite of the difficulties of life. The challenging circumstances of life don’t define and determine our faith or lack thereof; Our faith or lack thereof is expressed amidst the realities of living.
“Faith is real only when we face and embrace the suffering of our lives.”
And it is here that we encounter what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text today: We are not harmed by what comes from outside of us — including difficult circumstances — but by what is going on inside of us: what we think and say (Mark 7, James 1).
I like the more positive way the Deuteronomist expresses the same lesson — this to the Israelites entering the Promised Land: “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen [that is, the great acts of God to free the people from slavery in Egypt and sustain them through the desert wanderings] … nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Don’t forget! Don’t forget who and whose you are! Because what we do comes straight from what and how we think.
If we are honest, this life can take a toe-hold on our imagination — with values, goals, material aspirations and selfish projects that affect our way of thinking. I would add, cultural values that lead us to conclude that only if everything is perfect in my life — no pain, no tears, no suffering and lots and lots of money — then and only then can I have faith, believe in God and be active in my faith.
The Gospel message of Jesus Christ enduring throughout human history is all about a renewing of the mind — embracing a whole new way of thinking. Paul expresses this in one of his letters to the early church: “Be renewed in the way you think …” he counselled the Ephesians (2:23). Because often the way we think — our attitudes and opinions — are downright unhelpful and evil. “All these evil things come from within,” Jesus warns (Mark 7:23).
Sometimes we hold on to our opinions as if they were sacrosanct even though they may be unhelpful. But have we ever really examined our opinions? We often look down upon others (and ourselves), and dare I say politicians, who ‘change their mind’ about something or other. Waffling, we believe, or changing our mind about controversial subjects especially, is bad and suggests a weak personality. And yet God, even, changed his mind about bringing disaster upon the people when Moses and other prophets engaged God in passionate debate (eg. Exodus 32:14). If God is able to change directions, could we not too?
To change our way of thinking to be less self-centred and more other-centred.To change our way of thinking to find meaning more in serving others than serving self.To change our way of thinking about doing something good not out of fear or shame but more out of a heart filled with compassion.
“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’
“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’
“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)
I had another inspiring conversation this week with someone who is caring for a loved one suffering with illness. She decided to invite some friends struggling with similar challenges over for a meal. These friends, especially, were down and depressed about their mutually-shared, tough circumstances.
And yet, over the tasty meal and dancing to music and laughter, something shifted in the climate of the meeting. The next day, the host received an email from one of the friends who visited: “Thank you for your generosity and love. I was so encouraged by the visit, that when I returned home, I changed into my gardening clothes, went outside to the front yard and trimmed the bush that had gotten way out of hand.” It was like the fearful, anxious, angst-ridden Martin Luther who said that if he knew the end of the world was going to happen tomorrow, he would still go out and plant an apple tree today. Now, that’s faith.
Here’s my confession today: Often I wonder whether it’s even possible. Whether we can change our minds towards God and God’s ways in Jesus Christ, no matter what circumstance of life in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I doubt that our minds can be renewed into the likeness of Jesus when we are sick, when we feel destitute and deprived, when things don’t go our way. When times are tough, we often knee-jerk into old, often destructive patterns of thinking. Will we, indeed, have enough faith, to see things differently and not despair?
It is here when, despite how I feel, I affirm a faith that says: No matter what you think, Martin, no matter what anyone else thinks, God will not forget you. Even if I have a lapse of memory and forget who I am and whose I am, even though our minds may go completely, this is the promise of the One who created us: “I will not forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms on my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Because of who God is, I can therefore act boldly on a way of thinking that is based in trust. Trust this loving God who will not let go of us. Ever. And no matter what.
Thanks be to God!