It was -20c and the roadways were covered with snow and ice. And yet, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Coming into the west-end near Stittsville, the Queensway/417 (the main expressway through the city of Ottawa) was empty. And it was mid-morning on a weekday!
I was powering it through! A little snowfall wasn’t going to impede me. I was going at my regular speed in the passing lane and was wondering why very few were venturing onto the highway. And then I saw a car had spun out, resting perpendicular to me at the side of the 417 in front of the Canadian Tire Centre. It had struck the guardrail. And a little further on I witnessed another car spinning out of control.
I decided to slow down, and tapped the brake. Surely my four-wheel drive will keep me in control. And then I felt the wheels begin to float underneath me. I stepped on the gas to try to get grip. But the fish-tailing was starting to feel like a swan dive! I was losing it!
You drivers out there, what would you do? Thankfully in that moment, I remembered what my drivers-ed teacher taught me thirty years ago: Step off the gas! I think we instinctively associate stepping on the gas with more control — in all circumstances; the more I give, the more I expend, the more I put myself out there — the better it’ll be.
But in this case, the solution was to let go and just keep the steering wheel pointed forward. And as soon as I let off the accelerator, the four wheels found purchase, and I was able to recover. It is a little bit counter-intuitive for us in our get’er done culture to divest ourselves of the belief that doing more about something will save us from whatever predicament we find ourselves in. Sometimes, in tough situations, we just have to let off the gas, a bit.
Isaiah writes to a people in exile. Some six hundred years before Jesus, the people of God were taken to a far away land, in Babylon, where for some generations they made it their home. They had to let go of things precious, people beloved, and a way of life they believed to be sacrosanct.
But Babylon was not home. Jerusalem was. And now, gone was their temple worship. Gone were the symbols, rituals and constant reminders of who they were and who the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was. Gone was their culture, their social structures, their familiar communities.
And, in its place were foreign languages, foreign gods and strange customs. The Psalmist recalls the tragic sense of their exiled life, where they lamented, and mourned their loss: (Psalm 137:1-6)
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
To address this despair, Isaiah (40:21-31) offers some strategies for coping. First he holds in beautiful tension a paradox about God — two aspects of God over which theologians over the centuries have sparred: God is BOTH transcendent AND immanent. Not only is God up there “sitting above the circle of the earth (v.22), God also calls each part of creation “by name” (v.26).
Not only is God some far-away all powerful being, God is also personal, and calls to you by your name. God values what happens ‘on the ground’ in our ordinary lives. God’s love for us is revealed not only in the extraordinary, but especially in the ordinary lives of you and me. God cares.
Second, the prophet Isaiah encourages the people in exile not to forget their story, not to forget their history, not to forget what God had done for them in the past. Twice in this text the prophet asks the rhetorical questions: “Have you not heard? Have you not known? Has it not been told … ?” (v. 21&28). Of course they’ve heard! Of course they have been told! The problem is, they have forgotten.
A re-membering of their story — of God’s story with them — could strengthen their sense of identity, and bring forward to the present circumstances a hope that would see them through their loss. In other words, remembering for the future is an integral part of having faith in God.
Part of what it means to believe in God, is to believe in your story — and remember it! Remember what brought you to be where you are, today. Recall the most difficult times in your lives, and how God brought you through. Picture in your mind the people who where there, helping you cope and manage — friends, doctors, family, spouses, neighbours — people who came into your life at that lowest point and were like God’s angels to you.
Claim this story as your story of faith in a God who still makes good on God’s promises. The very fact that you are sitting in this room today is testimony enough to say: You survived! And not only did you survive — in many ways you thrived! And will so, again!
Not only do we remember who we are, we must remember who God is. God is in charge and whose thoughts and actions are way beyond our own capabilities (Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, our first job, especially when we are down-and-out, is to be patient. “Wait” is the direction from the prophet Isaiah. Just let off the gas a little bit. Saint Augustine wrote that ‘patience is the companion of wisdom’.
You might not need to do anything right now. What you really might need to do is nurture an inner life, an attitude, of watchful presence. Wait upon the Lord! — echoes throughout the poetry of the Hebrew scriptures (eg. from the Psalmist 27:16; 37) to a people yearning to renew their courage and trust. God is God; and we are not.
Waiting pays off for the people. King Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45) frees the exiles from Babylonian captivity — and the remnant of Israel finally returns to Jerusalem. Some 70 years they spent in captivity. Not all the people who left Jerusalem at the start of it saw the end of it. Many died in Babylon. But salvation is not individualistic. It is given to a people.
So, finally, Isaiah reminds us that just as it was for the Israelites in exile, our identity is in the larger collective. The narrative of our faith spans centuries. Our identity is corporate. As Christians, we call it “The Body of Christ” of which each of us is a member.
That means, even when we do not, individually, have a faith to stand up to the worst of the worst in life, even when our individual faith wanes from time to time, even when individually “I” have a hard time believing in God, “I” am not lost. There’s still a chance.
One of the downsides of an individualistic spiritual culture in which we live today, is to place unwarranted onus on ‘MY faith’ and ‘YOUR faith’ as the critical condition for ‘MY salvation’ or ‘YOUR salvation’. As if we are independent, autonomous beings. Many a death-bed confession — and this is common — involves anxiety about whether or not ‘my’ faith is strong enough, good enough. In those situations, especially, we need to be reminded that it is not ‘my’ faith or ‘your’ faith alone that will get you through this trial. It is the faith we share.
It is our faith together that helps us through the tough times. It’s not dependent on how good I am, or how strong my faith is. There is a people of God — “a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) — around me and you. There is a church, a community of faith — whose collective faith gets us through. This is the faith of our fathers and mothers, our predecessors, our forebears, the current saints in light, and the faith of those who will come after we are gone. I don’t think anyone would question that kind of faith. It is the collective, communion of saints in heaven and on earth praying for you, upholding you, during your personal exiles.
And, ultimately, it is the faithfulness of God that gets us through. Throughout the scriptures, salvation is described in this way: It is not we that have loved God, but that God has loved us (1 John 4:7-11). This is an integral, vital, part our story together. Let’s believe in it. And believe that God starts it all, and ends it all, for us.
For those who can’t stand doing nothing, who are frustrated by the notion of being patient and waiting, there may be something for you, in fact, to do: Practice. In all that you do, be mindful, aware and intentional in your prayer life. Because prayer is about letting go in time and space, and listening to God. Prayer is not about me, it’s about God.
I realize that part of what saved me on the highway this past week, was that I had practiced. I recall all those times that whenever I’m in an empty parking lot — even coming during the week into the church parking lot — I’ll have a little fun with it: I’ll spin around a bit — not recklessly doing donuts all over the place. But I’ll just get the car going enough to do a bit of fishtailing. I get the feel of it. So I know what I can do in a crisis.
Stepping off the gas in a spin out, works. And it takes a bit of practice.