As I stood on the shoreline deep in the wilderness of Algonquin Park looking down the Petawawa River towards my destination, I knew well what simple act, repeated over and over again, would get me where I was going.
Many have described the simple but not easy acts of paddling a canoe or jogging or walking as a meditation. From one perspective, it is not a complicated thing to do – repeating a motion that our bodies are capable of and typically designed to do.
However, in all the mental compulsions and distractions precipitated by our tech-dependant, noisy and supersonic lifestyles, we often forget and take for granted these simple acts that can truthfully take us very far.
The Gospel story today records words of Jesus describing how people, in relationships of love, seek reconciliation.The unfolding of the way people can move through disagreement and conflict feels repetitive. First, if there is a disagreement or hurt, you are honest and confront the person with whom you differ. If that doesn’t work, you return to the issue to deal with it: You take it to a couple of others. Then, if that doesn’t work, you return to the issue to deal with it again: You go to the church with it.
There is a process, a step-by-step means, of achieving the goal. It is not a one-off solution. And if trying once doesn’t work, you don’t just give up altogether on the path. No silver bullet to solve all the problems. That strategy, in truth, is hardly ever real and effective anyway.
Especially in the life of faith, which we have often described as a journey, the way is marked by a commitment to return again and again to some kind of action – whether we are talking about conflict management in the church, personal spiritual growth, or a prognosis for healing and getting better. There is no quick fix. Never was. It will take time – a life time – of going back to it, over and over again.
I observe that people who have some kind of spiritual discipline to which they return with intention and humility are people whose faith and prayer is mature, people of faith whom I admire, respect and from whom I wish to learn more.
Repeating similar, if not the same, prayers every day; a mantra to which you return regularly.
Volunteering every week at the local foodbank.
Keeping in touch, caringly and regularly, with those who differ from you.
Writing cards of thanksgiving and best wishes to those who experience some kind of suffering or joy.
Making regular phone calls conveying care and love especially during turbulent times.
Going to church and/or watching recorded worship services every Sunday.
These disciplines of prayer, worship and service are not one-off, once-in-a-lifetime, experiments which you are ready to drop ‘if it doesn’t work out’ for you.
What often shapes the practice of faith on our earthly journey is repetition – a commitment and dedication to repeat some action over and over again in order to reinforce something desired, something mutually beneficial, something good and building up for ourselves, for others, for creation, and for God. We repeat an activity that aligns our mind, heart and spirit in God’s love.
In the movie, 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore’s character gets in a car accident and suffers brain trauma. The injury causes a rare amnesia that resets her memory every time she goes to sleep at night.
Her boyfriend, played by Adam Sandler, takes her on fifty “first dates”, trying to convince her over time that they belong to each other and to help her remember that they’re in love. Individually, the dates, no matter how outrageous and amazingly planned, don’t succeed. So he produces a video to remind her of their story – and as she watches the video over and over every morning, she slowly remembers that she is loved by Sandler and loves him in return.
Like Barrymore’s character, I believe we easily forget that we are deeply loved by God. Especially when we meet with adversity and suffering in life, when our lives are turned upside down. God will not stop trying over and over again – repeating – ways and means to communicate to us divine love and unconditional acceptance.
As this happens, like Barrymore’s character, we are reminded of the one to whom we belong and by whom we are loved. And as we live in the fullness of God’s love for us, we are made new.
We may have had a powerful conversion experience in the past. We may long for the good times in the church years ago. We may have once long ago experienced something wondrous and beautiful. And these memories can serve as fuel for our faith today.
But because we can forget that God still is active in the world today, and because we can suffer from a spiritual amnesia especially when a pandemic strikes changing so much in our lives all at once, we need to awaken to God’s love everyday and be born again and again. As we open ourselves to God’s presence through our disciplines, by our regular, repeated practices, the love of Christ is birthed and rebirthed in us.
Over the next few weeks we will be learning new practices in how we are together, in person, as the church. We’ve had a summer of wearing masks out in public and keeping physical distance when around others not in your cohort. So we know a little bit already about what this may look like.
Whenever we begin to learn new ways of being and interacting it will feel awkward and strange. Please remember that a healthy faith practice bears repeating. It may not feel very satisfying at first. It may feel uncomfortable.
But, the bible bears witness to this if anything, no one in the bible came to be enlivened, transformed and made new in Christ or with God outside a place of discomfort and disruption. Authentic faith emerges from the dust heap of real struggle and perseverance.
This is a time of great opportunity to grow and deepen our walk, or paddle, of faith. We stand at the shoreline of a journey, looking out over the water. Getting across will depend in small part on some repetitive action, some capacity, that we all share and must do over and over again. Pray. Act. Serve. Pray. Act. Serve.
Let’s not forget, though, that getting across, if it will happen, will depend in great part on the waters of God’s love holding us all and taking us on the current of grace homeward. Thanks be to God!
The 50 First Datesillustration and following, cited and adapted from Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), p.56-58.