We each have been given a “never-ending/always-there-to-catch-you” relationship with God. Each of us individually, and all of us collectively as God’s people. Each year in Advent, we read these difficult texts (like Luke 21: 25-36), which remind us that unlike us, God isn’t confined to chronological forms of time, but instead, God has a way of holding the past and the future together through what we call Christ. And Jesus is the one who, for us as Christians, awakens us and opens the door to that Christ-way-of-seeing and thinking and living, if we let him. However, it doesn’t just happen once or at some point in the future, but many times each day, once we get used to the multiple ways that “the coming of the Lord” happens. Hear this story now, and see if you find the Lord “coming to you,” or awakening your heart, to put it another way.
A student approached a master, who lived as a hermit near a large lake. The student asked what he must do to achieve enlightenment or salvation. The master invited him to follow her out into the lake, and when they were out a considerable way, the master turned and firmly placed her hands on the student’s shoulders and pushed him under the water. The student struggled and struggled under the firm pressure of her hands, growing fearful and questioning the wisdom of this so-called master! At last, she removed her hands. The student angrily started shouting at her with his first lungful of air, and she calmly said: “Not until you are willing to work as hard as you just did for that breath of oxygen will you find the salvation you seek.”
The coming of the Lord often sets our teeth on edge with its truth-telling. (Which is why the alarming and attention-getting apocalyptic language in the Bible is perfect for talking about the way Jesus comes to help us find abundant life as a “witness to truth” (John 18: 36-37).
But wait…what is the truth here? When I first read this koan many years ago I wondered: does the master mean to strive in an intense and focused way to try and please God, or in a curious and persevering way just be faithful to the journey? It took me many years of living to answer that question for myself. I think I know how one of my lifelong friends would answer that, too.
Her son is in recovery from alcohol addiction, and their motto together is “progress not perfection,” as it was, in part, his perfectionism that led to the addiction in the first place. The spiritual journey is at its finest if it is a place where we celebrate our imperfections. Yes… You heard me right—because our flubs and flops in life are the grist in the mill of our salvation! So don’t be sitting there worrying about whether or not you’re going to miss a coming of the Lord moment—guaranteed, you will and I will. We already have every day. And it’s to be expected and okay! Sadly, the church doesn’t do a very good job teaching us about the necessary falling and failing that are essential to salvation, to being builders in the kingdom of heaven.
But way back in the 14th century, Anchoress Julian of Norwich, England said, “First there is the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. BOTH are the grace of God.” This is what the master in the story above meant by her response: In every religious path, the goal is to search for the divine in ourselves and in all things—but to let go of our expectations, perfectionism, and fear of failure while we do it—-just to do it with gusto, like your very life depended on it! Because it does. It’s what brings salvation or wholeness—to you, and to us all as a community.
Little children are effortlessly able to live like this. They are open and observant and curious about themselves and each other and God, not worrying in the first few years of life about falling or failing. Maybe that’s why Jesus says, “In truth I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:15) In this first week of Advent 2021, may we practice—imperfectly, of course–being little babes at heart. Toddlers who can trust the never-ending/always-there-to-catch-you” relationship with God we all have been given on this journey of transformation called salvation. May WE become the starry-eyed children whose faces are filled with wonder this Christmas season.
Rich blessings to you,