Susan Down
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by The Reverend Canon Nancy Ford

This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, Sept 29th 2018

September brings with it almost as much excitement as does January.  Children enthusiastically embrace the start of a new school year.  Pristine outfits and new backpacks worn with such pride on the first day are already showing early signs wear and tear. Their ill-defined excitement is now being replaced with barely remembered tasks: homework, early mornings, projects and busyness. The hard reality of expectations now lies across the threshold of each day.

It is interesting how much we treasure beginnings. Those moments are full of potential, shiny with hope, and dressed in the clothes of great expectations for the future.  But there is a shadow.

The language of “new” beginnings, or “fresh” starts is used when expectations are unmet. Embedded in the language and experience is a tug of war between failure and success. Curiously, core expectations which are rarely named, never change. I have watched unnamed expectations defeat people as “new” beginnings become deep disappointment. It might be someone working hard to embrace recovery but sobriety disappears despite their and others’ best efforts. It is often a repeating cycle, weighed down by the invisible burden of these expectations.

Similarly, when someone who has experienced homelessness is offered safe and secure housing there are expectations. Some are articulated, but it is the unwritten codes of conduct which create conflict. Those implicit “rules” demonstrate little awareness of the trauma experienced by those who have been homeless.  Planners, politicians and policy makers do listen to the wise and courageous voices of those with lived experience. Sadly, they do so with the ears of someone who has never had to couch surf, suddenly lost accommodation, or survived for months or years in dark alleyways and parks. It is difficult even with the best of intentions to understand because of the privilege many of us swim in.

Encounters between a person of privilege and an outsider is not new. The Bible contains many examples. Nicodemus is one. He was a Pharisee, the epitome of an upstanding citizen and religious leader. Unexpectedly shaken by Jesus’ teachings, he is confused and not a little worried. Nicodemus risks a night-time visit to Jesus, fearing the disapproval of his fellow religious leaders. There is something compelling about Jesus that drives him to seek out this “couch surfing” teacher. 

Nicodemus asks his questions. Jesus challenges him by offering an invitation to join the eternal community (kingdom) of heaven. However, to achieve this Jesus says Nicodemus must be “born again”.   Nicodemus struggles. New life at an old age? Riddles? What have you done with my religion? My beliefs? I should be born again?   Expectations and beliefs which had moulded his life are shattered. Confused and frustrated Nicodemus asks “how can I born from above? Do I have to re-enter my mother’s womb in order to be born again?

While we know Jesus is speaking of new birth through the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus has great trouble with the idea. The birthing Jesus offers is both painful and transformative. Letting go of familiar expectations is akin to being painfully thrust into a whole new reality with little or no control. 

But it is a beginning which transcends all other beginnings.  It transforms and releases us from expectations that imprison. It frees us to see beyond the sea of expectations we swim in. We are freed to see the assumptions and expectations of privilege, experience and culture. Sometimes all we need to dive into different waters is a reminder of our own beginnings.

The Reverend Canon Nancy Ford, Deacon, is the Anglican Director of Deacons for the Diocese of British Columbia and Deacon to the City of Victoria out of Christ Church Cathedral.