Scripture for this Sunday: 2 Samuel 5.1-5,9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13.
In many professions, or sports, it’s important to learn to fall before learning anything else: parachuting; martial arts; high jump, long jump, triple jump; skiing; to name but a few.
Learning To Fall is the title of a book by Philip Simmons, an associate professor of English in Illinois who was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 35. The book is a series of essays centred around his condition and his impending death, without being maudlin: he tries to focus on “the blessings shaken out of an imperfect life like fruit from a blighted tree.”
In one essay, he salutes Jesus for plunging into his suffering rather than trying to avoid it. Whereas our culture tends to view falling and failure as defeat, Philip Simmons reframes it as a spiritual art, a deepening of life that opens us to grace. He discovered that by learning how to die, he was learning how to live.
He demonstrates a good understanding of the relationship that Jesus had with falling and failing. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus takes his disciples home to Nazareth. What happens there is like a living parable, a living lesson in falling. Jesus lets his followers see his own fall from grace, from the heights of the charismatic popularity bandwagon, amongst his home community and family.
Although what happens next is the despatching of disciples on a mission trip that is successful, the safety briefing has been given – and there is certainly going to be falling and failing ahead, not least for Jesus, of course.
Meanwhile, those sent are told to travel lightly and shake the dust off their feet at unreceptive places. The burdens that we carry are not always physical ones, but they weigh us down and slow our progress at least as much as material burdens. We might try shedding expectations and presumed obligations as well as self-sufficiency that leads to pride. After all, the less we carry, the more we depend upon others – a good lesson to learn! As Philip Simmons wrote: “Only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom.” We need to learn to let go, to fall, to fail in order to fly and grasp freedom. After all, in falling and failing, we are learners, not losers.
- Philip Simmons died in July 2002 after nine years of ALS. You may find an excerpt from Learning to Fall at the author’s web site.