Marriage: for the heavy-haul

“For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (Ecclesiastes 4:10)
On the journey of life, how well we do depends on with whom we travel. And how well we travel together. I like the name of your business — the brand of your trucking company: “JNB Heavy Haul”. You are not hauling the light stuff. You’re challenging yourself to haul the heaviest stuff that can be pulled by a tractor-trailer on the highways and byways of this continent.
On the road of life, how well we travel together depends, furthermore, on the degree of touch in the relationship. Yes, touch. In our touch-averse culture, the institution of marriage offers couples the benefit and freedom to exercise that public and private right with the fullness, health and joy with which touching another was meant to be.
The popular reading, “The Blessing of the Hands”, brings to our minds this image of holding the hand of your beloved. What is powerful about this poem is that it not only describes those delightful and joyous occasions when hands are held in the sweetness of love. It also brings to mind the larger picture of youth AND ageing, happy AND sad — and even hints at the prospect of death. This perspective includes the heavy-haul of life.
In the blissful exchange of wedding vows you make in the prime of the first half of your life, it is important to sound this deeper note. Because even in the most challenging moments of marriage, life and love, those hands that hold one another can mean everything. The sense of touch with the beloved can get us through times when disappointment, failure, loss, grief, fear and the need for forgiveness press close — as will happen in everyone’s life.
The image of holding hands in those times are equally important to bring to light. Such a bond, forged in the anvil of struggle and conflict, is nearly indestructible. When two people join their hearts, minds and bodies, a third element is brought into the relationship — you can call it ‘the relationship’. And when this happens, you feel it — and everyone else knows it and must respect it: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). If you ever take ballroom dancing and learn the standard, international steps of, let’s say, a waltz, you soon recognize this ‘third partner’ that is the energy linking two individuals. Both partners step in time with one another and respond in kind to this field of energy between and surrounding them. Call it God.
God, who created you both, makes an eternal promise that will never be broken: “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (Psalm 73:23). Originally this promise was made to a people desperate in life’s challenging circumstances and struggles, travelling through the wilderness of life. This promise is made for the long-haul and the heavy-haul of life.
I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)
Upon arriving at their destination, can you imagine the joy, relief and gratitude expressed by both the woman and her eight-year-old travel companion? Their relationship is sealed for life, no matter what!
Earlier this year, a colleague of mine from Toronto was celebrating her 25th silver anniversary. In fact it was Valentine’s Day when she and her husband were driving by one of the biggest cemeteries in Toronto. At that moment they were discussing what they should do, to celebrate this joyous occasion. They wondered if they ought spend some money on themselves, treat themselves, to mark such an auspicious point in their lives.
At that moment they passed by the entrance-way to the sprawling cemetery grounds. And hanging over the ornate gate was a great canvass banner with the words printed in Valentine’s Day red: “One-day sale only: 10% off burial plots!”. The couple looked at each other with wide eyes. A few hours later, they drove out of the cemetery chuckling about how they had just dropped $8000 for themselves on their silver anniversary …. to buy two burial plots side by side!
This puts a different slant on those traditional wedding vows, “till death do us part!” And yet, they do so in life with confidence and faith that marital love can stand the test of time, thanks be to God, for the long-haul and the heavy-haul!

Driving into the sunrise: an ISS with a view

Following Canadian Astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield’s twitter feed (@Cmdr_Hadfield), I along with over a quarter million other people are fed with a steady diet of inspiring photography from space.

And these photos, nothing short of amazing, are shots of cities and notable geography on our planet. Maybe it’s the perspective, and the real time nature of the photography.

These weren’t photos taken by a satellite a year ago or more you can find on Google Earth. Chris Hadfield takes these photos, and then moments later posts them on the internet: So, I’ve seen the bush fires in Australia as well as the flooding there as it recently happened.

His perspective from 400 kilometres up flying at 8 km/ second challenges my opinion on the way things are on the ground. For example, I may feel completely inundated and overwhelmed by the depth of winter in which we find ourselves now, in the southern parts of Canada. From my perspective six feet off the ground, the snow banks are high; flurries stream in daily from the heavens; the white stuff piles up and covers so much of my world.

And yet, I get a different feel when I view Chris Hadfield’s photos from space. When he’s posted live photos of Ottawa, Montreal, even Edmonton in January of 2013 — you can tell it’s winter from up there, to be sure.

But the photo isn’t completely white, as I would imagine with all this snow. Depending on the Canadian city, white may not even be the half of it. There are dark patches all over the place — sections of lakes and rivers not frozen, glades of forests, exposed rocks — that have thrown off the blanket of snow.

I watched the interview between Commander Hadfield and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge on TV last week. And I discovered Chris Hadfield to be quite philosophical and eloquent about his incredible experience. A veritable Renaissance Man, he is.

I must confess I have caught the bug of inspiration that he is sharing openly with the whole world. He says that his experience has taught him to think more globally and wonder about his place on the planet in relation to other places. When people respond to his twitter feed about the photos he posts, Hadfield is inspired by comments that suggest these places mean something more for people, places that were up until now for many just words on a page, found in an atlas. Therefore, what motivates him in his work is that because of what he does people’s vision of the world is slightly expanded.

Mansbridge asked whether what Hadfield is experiencing, given his awe-inspiring perspective of earth, can be described religious or spiritual. In response, Hadfield spoke of the night in which they were flying eastward over Canada in the dark, north of the Great Lakes towards the Maritimes. He was just able to see the lights of Quebec City and then over the Gaspe, and finally screaming at high speeds towards Newfoundland and Labrador. And just as St Johns came into view, the sun burst over the horizon.

Not just the sudden brightness, explosion of colours or heat of the sun, but the profound beauty of it, he said, brings tears to his eyes. He went on to say that “driving into the sunrise” — which happens 16 times a day for him — is a powerful experience because it is “a magnificent way to understand our planet, and to see our country as one place.”

Valentine’s Day is just over a week from now. And the red hearts, balloons and chocolates in the stores remind us of that great theme in life — love. Saint Paul’s famous speech about the greatest gift (1 Corinthians 13) echoes in our minds as we yearn for the warm fuzzies and relational peace amongst ourselves.

This kind of perspective seems almost out of reach on account of the enduring divisions, both within ourselves, and in the world. We may even have considered “love” as something reserved only for our dreams and fantasies, something expressed only in the fictional world of princesses and princes and childhood aspirations.

When Mansbridge asked Hadfield about the response he got from people after posting photos of Syria where there is much trouble and conflict, he responded: “Trouble and conflict is a basic component of the human experience, unfortunately.” He admitted that it’s not going to get solved by space travel.

But he went on to say that he thinks that if people in conflict could see the world from his visual perspective — “to be able to cross Africa in the time it takes to finish this sentence, to be able to see the whole world repeatedly over and over as one succinct, distinct place where we all live — that view would do a lot of people a lot of good.”

He also said that the ISS is visible from the earth. “If you get up early in the morning, or just before you go to bed, and we happen to be flying overhead, we are still in the light while it’s getting dark on the surface of the earth. There’s a visible example of something going on that is truly international, that is cooperative, that is leading edge that is right there overhead — the brightest star in the sky going around and around the world reminding people of what we can do when we do things right and when we do things together. And hopefully that combination will help to influence at least some people: the combination of understanding how we truly all exist together on a planet and the understanding of what we can do when we work together.”

You know what happens after Jesus announces to the people what his purpose in life is, after reading the holy scripture to the people in the Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4: 21-30). You know the response. It is violent. They want to throw their home boy off a cliff!

We may forget that when the church in Corinth first heard Paul’s words about love, those words didn’t spark the warm fuzzies in them. Paul was addressing a church in conflict, with people’s selfish, compulsive egos getting the better of them. Everything Paul says love is not, they are. Everything that Paul says love is, they are not. They reacted. They must haveĀ been angry at Paul for his challenge, his offense, his prophetic, cutting-edge preaching.

In short, both the Gospel story and this famous, idyllic passage about love from Paul tells us that Christianity even with its emphasis on love and grace doesn’t mean it’s all nice and easy and comforting.

Love is not just a feeling. It is action. It is risk-taking. It is going beyond our comfort zones in the same sense that Chris Hadfield risks all to propel his body to the edge of space in a tin can. Love ain’t easy. But the benefit, the outcome, is wonderful, inspiring.

Love exercised with determination, and motivated out of a sense of the greater, common good, for the sake of others; Love demonstrated in acts of courage and principled clarity — this is who we are. This is the Gospel character.

How does Jesus escape almost certain death by the mob who wants to kill him? Right at the end of the Gospel passage, we read that he merely “passes right through them”. Biblical scholars suggest this rather cryptic climax to the story points to the resurrection of Jesus.

As Hadfiled admitted, space travel will not solve the human experience of being in conflict and trouble. But the visual reminders will inspire Canadians, indeed all earthlings, to something better, something cutting edge, something more, something possible that we can do together. Just as small acts of true, meaningful, self-giving acts of love between individuals, families, communities, countries, will not solve all human conflict for all time. But they will stand as constant reminders of what God has called us, ultimately into: new life, resurrection, new beginnings.

We are, after all, all driving into the sunrise.