Saturday, March 20, 2010

Crisis of Character

Sometimes the most exciting things happen at the most unexpected times. You just have to be ready!
Here's our latest example... a few weeks ago, my wife and I were driving into Vancouver the day after the Olympics had begun. We had not planned on being there or doing this. Transportation advisories had discouraged people from driving their cars into the city: traffic restrictions, blocked-off routes, anticipated delays, the sheer volume of vehicles. All these factors had successfully persuaded most drivers to park their cars and instead take the SkyTrain into the city. But we had got a call that morning from friends who were arriving unexpectedly that same day at Vancouver airport and needed a ride to Abbotsford, so we thought: while we're already going into the city, why not take an hour-long rabbit-trail downtown in our little grey Honda Civic that wouldn't take up much space and see what was happening?
So there we were... naively driving down the freeway, talking about things: how I was feeling that the last while had seemed quite uneventful in our lives, not too much happening day-by-day, not many opportunities for ministry, things pretty well predictably the same each day, ho-hum, not very much excitement at all until...

I pulled off at the 1st Avenue Exit and all of a sudden, large black SUVs came out of nowhere, blocked off our right side, and simultaneously on our left, two others effectively did the same. Just like that, we were boxed in! The car immediately in front of us stopped dead and so did we! I didn't have time to think. Right at that same moment, an ear-shattering 'Boom!' shook our car. We both sat stunned. I looked more closely to the right, but the three SUVs' windows were tinted so I couldn't see from the outside in; you know, the kind that either the FBI or Mafia drive. I was hoping they weren't the latter.
But before I could further evaluate the situation, a squad of full-body-armoured figures surrounded us: helmets, fatigues, even machine guns held high, aimed and ready to fire. Ten, twelve, maybe. I didn't have time to make an exact count. The Boom! had commanded all my attention.
Then four doors opened in the car right in front of us and four hooded individuals exited from each door, two on each side, reversed their direction, and started walking towards our car! I couldn't believe what I was seeing: had we somehow happened on: a terrorist assault? one of the billion-dollar-Olympic security practise sessions? El-Qaeda's Olympic team entry? a foreign invasion? a scene out of Terminator VII?
I even wondered, "Had I been speeding and this was an Olympic-sized speed trap?" Somewhat of an over-the-top reaction, eh? Perhaps I was really still asleep at home in my bed and this was only a wild dream?
But no...those guys in body armour with machine guns didn't go away. They were very real. I just hoped they were the 'good guys' on 'our' side.
But these 4 in the hoodies heading towards us were really unnerving! And most unsettling was the one from the rear driver's side: dark, unshaven, his raised hoodie concealing most of his face made him look even more mysterious and sinister. My apprehension peaked when I noticed his right hand fumbling some object from his pocket as he continued walking toward us; he was only a few steps away and the object clearly was... a handgun! Thoughts raced through my mind, "What if these 4 hoodies and the 10 machine guns are on opposite sides and decide to shoot out their disagreement right here now with us in the middle?'
He took another step towards us.
I cried out to Erica, "Get down!" In the same motion, I reached clumsily for the door lock to ensure this guy and his gun would not be able to gain access to our car. Really! How ridiculous! As if one little door lock was going to protect us against him and his gun: he could have easily shot out our window if he'd wanted!
He was now right at my window. I tried to hide myself by retracting my body under the steering wheel. As if!
But then... he kept walking right on by and disappeared behind our view. I heaved a sigh of inner relief! We were still alive! But Erica's curiosity kept getting the better of her and she lifted her head above the dashboard to see what was going on. "Erica, Get down!" I shouted, as quietly as possible, and that's when we spontaneously invented this peculiar game of bobble-head: everytime she poked her head above the dash, I would put my hand on her head and push her down.
Then the scene changed. One of the full-armoured machine-gun toters on our passenger side produced a loud-hailer megaphone and boomed out, "You... in the front seat!"
We both wondered, "Is that 'You' us?"
"Drop everything. Put your hands up... in the air... slowly... open the door. Get out of the car!"
I dropped everything just in case he really did mean us. You don't want to be wrong in a situation like that. You could be dead wrong. However, I couldn't see very clearly from my hiding-place beneath the dashboard, so I wasn't exactly sure. I waited, and with no subsequent reaction from the guys with the guns, I inched my head up a little, over the dashboard, just enough so my eyes could discern whether or not we were indeed their object of attention. However, their focus seemed fully directed two cars ahead of us, on the one in front of the 4 hoodies'. I could see more clearly now: the guns were not pointing at us, but straight ahead at that second car. More relief!
It's amazing how you really don't have time to think about what you will do at a time like this.
You either respond or react. That decision has been made a long time before.

But I still had no assurance that the whole place wasn't going to explode in a hail of gunfire at any moment!
I saw movement in the suspect vehicle and slowly, a figure emerged from the back passenger side.
"First: put your hands over your head. Next: turn around. Then: start walking back towards us!"
The figure turned and became more identifiable: a man, medium height, disheveled, thin... even gaunt, long greying hair, a rather 'disconnected' look to his face. But one word immediately resonated in my mind: ugly. Not a merely physical ugly, but something beyond that: a spiritual ugly... evil personified. His greasy, dirty hair straggling to his shoulders was in turn strangled by an artwork of leaping, menacing, flaming neck tattoos. He started moving towards the megaphone and our car. It felt like the devil himself was approaching. Was he going to submit or erupt?
Henry, get down!
But my curiosity got the better of me and my eyes were soon peering over the dash again, watching I knew not what unfold around us.
'Ugly' soon stood right in front of our car and was quickly surrounded by the machine-gunners. The unshaven hoodie dude moved in, grabbed 'Ugly's' arms, and quickly handcuffed them behind his back. That was assuring: it was looking more like both the machine-gun + hoodie dudes were indeed on the same side and I was growing more hopeful that their side also was our side!
My breathing steadied a bit more. My confidence and eyes both rose a little higher, over the dashboard.
"OK!" the megaphone bellowed. "You, driver! Same thing: drop everything, raise your hands, open the door, slowly exit your vehicle!"
By this time, both Erica and I were transfixed, drinking in the amazing scene transpiring around us.
Life was suddenly very exciting... too exciting, really!
We watched and this time a woman emerged, turned and walked straight towards us. As she approached our car, she started protesting, "What's going on here? We're just out for a drive! We haven't done anything! What's the idea? How can this be happening? We haven't done anything!"
You know how you can sometmes just tell automatically when someone isn't telling the truth? Well, this was clearly one of those times. Every word she protested just mounted more evidence against her. Another of the hoodies, this time a woman, grabbed her arms and, as with 'Ugly', quickly handcuffed 'The Lady doth Protest too Much methinks'.
Then the megaphoner played out the same procedure with a third man in the backseat. However, when this one turned and made his way toward us, he somehow didn't do everything as asked. 3 or 4 of the body-armoured machine-gunners immediately surrounded him, and not only slapped handcuffs on him, but took the extra precaution and threw him down to the ground right in front of our car! I raised my head higher above the dash to see his head facedown on the pavement right under our hood. My eyes joined the focused surveillance of 4 loaded machine-guns. He was not going anywhere!
There were no more suspects in the vehicle. The unshaven hoodie dude sidled over to my window, gave me a curious grin and I read his lips through the glass, "Are you all right?"
I don't know why, but I didn't really hear him. I somehow felt I first needed to see his lips mouth those words, rather than just hear words without knowing their source. I wanted proof these were in fact his words. I needed to connect those words with that man. I finally felt enough assurance he was indeed on 'our side', so I gingerly rolled my window part ways down and asked incoherently,
"So... are we going to be on the 6 o'clock News?"
"Don't think so," he replied. "You've had enough excitement for one day, haven't you? You should be on your way home in a few minutes."
In a short time, the machine-gunners had corralled the 3 detainees off to one side. Erica and I both sat up in our seats and shared a mutual hug of relief. Within a few minutes, what had appeared to be an alarming terrorist attack had turned rather to be a routine police drug-dealer takedown. Arms that had minutes ago threatened machine-gunfire now waved us through the maze of black SUVs.
The 3 suspects sat to the side on a grassy knoll, hoods pulled over their heads. The Lady was no longer protesting. 'Ugly' was still ugly, even with his new hoodie. 'Face-in-the-ground' was turned right side up.
The crisis had come and gone. We resumed our drive downtown, somewhat still in shock and awe, wondering what all indeed had taken place in this, our Olympic experience! And we hadn't even entered the city yet!
But one major change had already happened in me: I learned to be content at home: the seemingly unexciting, all-too-predictable, everyday, not-too-much-is-happening... securing... times on this road of life.
You just can't ever tell what might happen at the next exit!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Crisis of Character - 2

You are who you are. Not just who you think you are or try to present yourself to be to others. The first is reality; all others are mere masks.
And there is nothing like a crisis to strip away those masks and let the truth of who you really are either be exposed to your shame or revealed to His glory.
When I previously wrote in Crisis of Character about our episode with the Olympic SWAT team, I recounted my own spontaneous response to the rapid course of events. There was no time for logical, formulated response: immediate reactions simply flowed from who I am; it was me, for better or worse. In retrospect, I find it hilarious how I tried to evade the approaching gun-toting hoodie by ducking under our steering wheel and locking the door. I mean, he'd already seen us and had the guy been intent on doing us harm, our burrowing down would surely not have saved us. He could have easily shot out the window. But here I was, frantically trying to lock the door!
However, my biggest surprise was our all-too-evident innate and insatiable curiosity to try and see what was happening! Encircled by a task force of a dozen highly-armed gunmen, potentially in the middle of a terrorist shoot-out, and still Erica & I could not resist sticking our noses up above the dashboard to try and figure out what was all going on around us! Even with a highly suspect gunman coming at us, this primary need to know seemed to overrule any possible danger and nothing could keep us crouched down, out of sight. We wanted to see, and our sense of adventure overcame the possible peril.
So we are who we are, even if that means discovering certain traits and qualities about our selves we would rather not own too closely. That's still who we are and before we can change, we need to recognize and acknowledge them.
Jesus confidently knew and consistently demonstrated who He was. Even as man, He was one with The Great 'I AM' and not only clearly proclaimed, 'I AM The Way, The Truth and The Life,' but acted in accordance. He not only stated He and The Father are One, but demonstrated this with all His life. Scripture not only teaches truth about Christ, but also evidences that truth in who Christ was and is. Jesus is The Word of God. The Word made flesh. The Bible's internal evidence elucidates a Man not at all caught up with Himself, but the express image and embodiment of The Father's selfless Love. Scripture does not only talk about love, nor just say Jesus is God's love; it reveals Him to be The Father's Love in word and deed, thought and action.
God is Love. Love in its essence does not look to itself, but to the welfare of others.
Jesus is Love. These are not merely words: hypocritcal double-talk or double-mindedness. He does not only say this; Jesus Himself is the revelation of what He says and His actions clearly and consistently demonstrate this. No duplicity, just simplicity. The Man and His Message are one!
One of the most profoundly beautiful illustrations of this simple, selfless love comes in Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane. This episode is both a richly vivid drama and a poignant black-and-white snapshot of this truth in action. The lines in the battle between Darkness and Light are clear here; evil and good stand in stark contrast. There is no mixture, no grey area, no middle ground. Jesus came into the garden with his disciples to pray; Judas came with troops to prey upon Him. This is the crisis point of Jesus' life and ministry. He had said this is why He came into the world, and here we see His Person fully embrace and fulfill His Purpose. Identity Releases Destiiny in this moving portrait, especially in John's gospel.
John 18:4 recounts that in the face of this menacing attack: perhaps 100 or even more soldiers against 1 unarmed Man,
'Jesus therefore, knowing all things that would come upon Him, went forward.'
Any ordinary man in such a situation would, I believe, be concerned with his own self-preservation and, desiring to protect his own life, turn and run in the opposite direction from such a mob. I would probably seek out any possible escape route or refuge: perhaps a tree, a bush, even under a steering wheel! any hiding place that would afford some shelter from the ensuing trial. But there is no indication of flight here at all. Troops, lanterns, torches, weapons... none of these caused Jesus to flinch from His purpose. He stood His ground.
Knowing 'all things that are about to come upon us' would only be more incentive for us mere mortals to make our escape ahead of time. But Jesus knew the full details of what was awaiting Him beforehand and still He did not run. Rather, He faced the crisis, confronted the confronters and embraced His Cross.
He asked them who they were seeking. They answered, 'Jesus of Nazareth'. He did not to try to evade recognition or hide amongst His group of disciples to avoid capture. His disciples were the opposite of Spartacus' who all proclaimed his name as their own to conceal their leader's identity in their midst. No: these disciples rather forsook Him and fled for their own lives while one of His own, Judas, had already singled him out with a kiss.
When Jesus replied, 'I AM HE', the soldiers did not advance to arrest Him. Quite the opposite: John says they drew back and fell to the ground! An amazing reversal of the naturally to-be-expected roles! Were Jesus only a mere man facing such a crisis: an entire detachment threatening, his own disciples sleeping, confused and even betraying Him, He could not have stood. In this scene with all against Him, you'd think Jesus would be the one falling back, trying to avoid capture, but NO! He's the one advancing towards them! and they're the ones falling back!
Then, as they tried to pick themselves up from the ground, He again answered them, 'I AM the one; so if you seek me, then let these others go their way.'
Not only does He make no attempt here to rally his sleeping troops, but Jesus does all He can to clarify their non-involvement and secure their release. Furthermore, He mounts no self-defense at all. Most would cry out like the woman driver in my story, 'What's going on here? We haven't done anything wrong! It's not fair! We were just here for a snooze in the park!'
Quite clearly, Jesus had no intention of defending Himself: He had a much bigger view in mind. He knew what this drama was all about. He had come to die and nothing was going to deter this. There was no self here to protect; never had been and never will be. He is God and has nothing to prove. His life speaks. The time had come. As a lamb led to the slaughter, He was dumb to His shearers. He did not protest, but rather submitted to the process. He gave His life and enacted The New Covenant in His Blood.
Jesus went forward and so must we. His Church can neither continue sleeping nor falling back. We must press forward. Weighing possible detriment to our own reputations if we stand and follow only exposes us as cowardly hypocrites. Nor can we react as Peter; such violence betrays the very spirit of the One we say we follow. He is I AM WHO I AM and so we must allow Him to live WHO HE IS in and through us. His purity, integrity and humility are essential commodities in even contemporary North American Christian life. They are neither fashionable, expendable nor negotiable; they are His ever necessary costly evidences of His Presence.
Jesus initiated and established His New Covenant: the Kingdom of God is now unfolding in the drama of human history. His Passion was no mere play, but Act I of an entirely new revolutionary reality. His followers are not mere actors called to mouth His lines on life's stage, but to live out His Word as led by His Spirit through who we are in Him and He is us. Agents of revelation. Ambassadors of decisive change, bringing on earth as it is in heaven. He went forward, His Kingdom continues to move forward and so must we. Let us pull down strongholds, move mountains and crash gates of hell -- for His glory!