Practising mercy

audio for sermon ‘Practising mercy’ by Martin Malina
Candlemas (photo by Martin Malina 2 Feb 2023)

If you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted …[1]

I stopped at the pronoun “your”. Your food. Not someone else’s. The food you had set aside for yourself. That is the food you give to the hungry. Feeding the hungry is about recognizing and acknowledging what we have first received.

I know a couple of households on our street—families with children. The moms got to know each other and have had a friendship defined by their helping each other out.

For example, just as breakfast plans were underway early in the morning one of these moms would run out of milk or eggs, essential items in anyone’s fridge. But they would simply run across the street to ‘borrow’ a couple of eggs or half a carton of milk. 

I wonder how much of that happens anymore. Not just to those two, but in general. Relying on a neighbour for help. Feeling confident in crossing the street, knocking on the door, and asking: “Can I borrow a couple eggs?” 

The pandemic certainly magnified this cultural trend underscoring a belief in self-reliance. Hoarding toilet paper. Doing it on my own time and whenever I want to do it. Using my own resources to make it through life. Survival of the fittest—the smartest, the opportunist, looking out for one’s own.

We’ve truly become a society in which relying on a neighbour’s help is not in vogue. It makes us vulnerable. It puts us in someone else’s debt, and we don’t like that. It shows weakness. Lack of personal organization. Not the qualities we seek in a me-first, success-oriented culture.

In the Psalm for today,[2] we read that the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. Merciful. What does it mean to be merciful?

One meaning of mercy is to “provide relief”[3].  When you provide relief for someone, you’re not necessarily solving the bigger problem for them. You are not counting the cost nor expecting to change the world. You are just in the moment with them. You are simply being merciful, cultivating compassion, relieving the suffering a bit.

This year we left our Christmas Tree up until February 2nd. For a couple of reasons. For one, my brother, his wife and daughter visited us last week for dinner so we could finally celebrate Christmas together! But we also wanted to observe an old tradition in the church.

February 2nd is one of the most ancient Christian holy days — the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus — also called Candlemas.It commemorates the events in the Gospel of Luke when Joseph and Mary brought their newborn son to the Temple in Jerusalem. The purpose of the temple visit was Mary’s purification, a cleansing ritual forty days after the birth of a son. Upon arriving at the Temple, they encountered Simeon, an elderly blind prophet awaiting the Messiah. He took the child from them and proclaimed:

My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
                                              a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.[4]

This event marks the final festival in the cycle of light. Weeks ago, Advent began with lighting candles in anticipation of Jesus’ birth. Christmas, then was accompanied by angelic beams on the family in a manger. Epiphany celebrated the star directing seekers to his birthplace. 

And, as the season following Epiphany unfolds, the light expands, inviting the first disciples to “come and see.”[5] The final movement in the arc of light is Candlemas, where the entire world is set ablaze with God’s manifestation of love. 

Christian feast days are, of course, theological. But they are laden with cultural meanings as well. In the Roman world, and in Europe where Christianity would flourish, early February was an important time in the cycle of seasons, as it is here in Canada. Candlemas falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is the time when many of Europe’s ancient tribal people believed the earth woke up to new life. It marked the season of lengthening days — and was associated with fertility, the lambing season, and the returning of light. 

The tradition of Candlemas came out of this intersection of the Jewish story of Mary’s purification and Jesus the Light with the primal seasonal celebrations of Mother Earth and brighter days ahead. Thus, on February 2nd, it became a practice that many Christians would bring candles to the church to be blessed — and then walk through towns or villages in candlelit processions.

The long weeks of winter candle festivals — from Advent to Christmas through Epiphany — end with us bearing light into the world. In a way, it all began so passively. Waiting for God to act, to birth peace and justice in the world. God did something for us, gave us a gift of life and light. 

And the cycle concludes with a remarkable challenge — words that millions of Christians today hear from the Gospel: You are the light of the world.[6]

Yes, God created the light. Jesus is light in the darkness. And yet we — fragile and flawed human beings — are the light of the world. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.”[7] Just like your food, it’s your light.

We are the light. [8]

How do we be the light and show mercy? What is the quality of faith that starts this journey for us? One place is right here, at the Communion table.

We come to this point of the liturgy every Sunday with this posture and maybe these words in our hearts and minds: “Here is my offering. Take it. Use it. Transform it. Make it beautiful.”

And so, we gather together and bring the stuff of our lives. We bring to the table our gifts and place them in the offering plate. We also bring all those things that may remain unnamed: our fears, worries, mortality, even sickness. We bring our dreams and our wounds. We place all of that on the altar and ask Christ to take it. To change it and make it useable. To transform it into something that can reflect the life of Christ—his wholeness, his hope.

Then, once the prayers are said over the bread and wine, bread and wine that symbolize all our named and unnamed offerings, we receive it back again, transformed. We receive it as something that can infuse us with his very life. So, what’s broken in us can be restored. What’s not enough can become enough. Our wounds and fears can be transformed into gifts—gifts we can offer the world so those who are hungry can be fed. So those who are suffering can find relief.[9] Find mercy.

We are defined, then, not so much by what we do in our self-sufficiency culture. We are defined by what we first receive. 

I want to close with a prayer, which is a poem by Wendell Berry:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me please to carry 
this candle against the wind.[10]


[1] Isaiah 58:10

[2] Psalm 112:4

[3] Kathie Goertz Thompson, “Faithful High Priest” in Eternity for Today (Winnipeg: ELCIC, 31 January 2023).

[4] Luke 2:30-32

[5] John 1:46

[6] Matthew 5:14

[7] Matthew 5:15-16

[8] Diana Butler Bass, “Candlelit Faith: An Ancient Tradition, Full of Meaning” in The Cottage (dianabutlerbass@substack.com, 1 February 2023)

[9] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Books, 2022), p.114-115.

[10] Cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

Agitated faith

audio for sermon ‘Agitated faith’ by Martin Malina
Impact (photo by Martin Malina at Cape Disappointment WA, August 2022)

At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity my mind turns again to that word, ‘religion’. You might say that is the reason you are reading this blog. You want some ‘religion’. The root meaning of the word, religion, is to reconnect, re-align, hold together again. Like a ligament, religion connects all the pieces. 

You could say the purpose of religion is to unite all the parts. What has been separated, is brought back together again. To do religion is to work towards mending what is been torn apart.

We pray regularly for Christian unity, and for religious unity in families, among loved ones, in communities and churches. Our Lutheran[1] church supports ecumenical initiatives. Especially locally as Faith Lutheran Church we have realized this effort in our relationship with Julian of Norwich Anglican Church and City View United Church in Ottawa, sharing worship services in the past few years.

So why do we do that? Why do we actively pursue visible, religious unity? In his sermon on the mount, Jesus says that “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[2] God’s favour rests on those who work towards building relationships of trust, love, and compassion. 

But we know the divisions persist. History shows Christians have not often represented well the meaning of religion. Our egos get in the way. Defensive, reactive postures result in sometimes violent conflict. It is not a history of which we are proud:

The antisemitism in Martin Luther’s thought and writing, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust; going back further—the European Catholic-Protestant wars, the witch-hunts, the Crusades of earlier centuries – all justified by Christians.

Even today, considering the troubled history between Canadian settlers and the Indigenous, any good-intentioned efforts towards reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are met with all kinds of resistance. Any call for Christian Unity, therefore, often drowns unfortunately in the sound of crickets. We, at best, hear this call with slightly jaded, skeptical and cynical hearts.

I remember in public school, vividly, a science experiment that left an impression on me. We mixed sodium bicarbonate with vinegar. Of course, the resulting agitation created a volcano of fizz. Later in my university days while enjoying some pretzels and beer with friends I learned that adding salt—lots of it—into beer encouraged carbon dioxide bubbles to cluster together and foam up. And I basically redid that third-grade science-project. 

But the erupting volcano eventually loses its fizz and settles down. The chemical reaction has run its course. In nature the elements that connect may initially become agitated in order to be true to their separate identities. But the reaction doesn’t last. And something new comes out of it.

Perhaps, our expectations and understanding of the word “Peace”—the peace of God—needs re-evaluation.

Because “God’s love is not just about playing nice and his peace is not without tensions. The Hebrew word, shalom, or ‘peace’, is not the absence of tension…”[3] Shalom introduces the need for a right relationship to be established between different parts. And that process, like a chemical reaction, often begins in an agitated state, to say the least.

M. Scott Peck used the term “pseudo-unity” or “pseudo-community” to describe a group of people who want to be loving but withhold some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict.[4] In a pseudo-community, members’ differences and grievances are minimized, even unacknowledged. On the surface they may appear to be functioning smoothly, but it is shallow. There is no real love and no real justice. Because avoidance of conflict is not a recipe for creating a healthy community in the long run.

During the season after Epiphany, Christians are called to look for signs like the Magi searched the skies of their world for a sign to lead them to the Messiah. What are the signs of God’s presence that can help point us in a direction of greater unity among different people? 

In 1989, Spanish born Jesuit priest, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría was assassinated in El Salvador. A martyr of the Christian faith, he preached that the sign to guide us is “the one … present in every age, in whose light all the others must be discarded and interpreted. That sign is always the historically crucified people.”[5]

The sign is the Cross of Jesus. 

As much as Martin Luther had some harmful things to say, he also had much to say that was good. According to Luther, God was, and is, being revealed to us in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

The Cross was theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul before him. Paul, of course, is the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and author of some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles whose central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[6]

In other words, we can know God when we first identify with our own suffering and weakness and when we own up to our fault in the matter. When we embrace our vulnerability and mortality as humans, we are ushered into the divine presence made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Moreover, when we perceive the suffering in the world, when we go to places of human tragedy, pain and dying, we again are ushered into the divine presence and enabled through ‘Grace Alone’[7]. The grace comes in the trust we have in God who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,”[8] and whose gift of peace “surpasses all understanding.”[9]

Peace from the bible is not warm fuzzies. Peace from the bible is more like salt-and-vinegar fizzies. Peace means right relationships. And striving for right relationships will cause tension. But the result of any chemical reaction is a changed reality. Growth brings change.

That is why, in my experience, Christian unity is best expressed when we get together to work in mission for justice. When we engage together in refugee sponsorship. When we work together to bring food we have prepared for those who have very little. When we pool our resources to provide affordable and safe housing for the homeless. When we invite neighbours to care for our garden so the food it produces can be shared in the Carlington Community. This list goes on. 

Peacemaking finds success in mission and justice work. Religious unity is realized in these efforts, reflecting the God of the cross, in Jesus and his love.

Some Christians worry that they’re getting their theology wrong if they engage with others who are different from them. I’m old enough now, to say, first, that it is impossible to know the mind of God. We will always have holes in our theology, no matter your background or denomination or history. But God will have mercy and forgiveness when we get it wrong.

What concerns us in this world of religion is if we get the whole showing compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love -thing wrong. Thankfully God never gives up on us. The experiment will happen again, and again. May we be true to our identities and bold in relating to others with open hearts, minds and loving spirits. And may we grow through the initial agitation that sometimes will happen, to see through it and into the kingdom of God.

God is faithful and God brings us together in bonds of love that can never be broken. Thanks be to God.


[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) www.elcic.ca

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Boos, 2022), p.121-122.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Bucko, ibid., p.123.

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

[7] One of the call-signs of the Reformation, and Luther’s theology, based on Saint Paul.

[8] Ephesians 3:20

[9] Philippians 4:7

In light of eternity

Both moon and sun in sight” (photo by M Malina July 2018 Long Beach WA)
audio for sermon “In light of eternity” by Martin Malina

During the pandemic I found myself waiting for the right time. The right time, for everything: I waited for the right time to make easy decisions about whether to wear a mask, whether to go to that concert, large indoor public setting, or sports event. I waited for the right time for experiencing life as ‘back to normal.’

It’s natural to want that, especially after any disruptive, traumatic experience. I was reading the firsthand account from Adam Bucko in New York city who lived through the trauma and aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He writes in his recent book:

“The horror and devastation are still very present with me, even now. I also remember that in the days following the tragedy, here in New York, glimmers of hope and resilience began to emerge. People spontaneously began gathering in public places, like Union Square in Manhattan, to commence impromptu public grieving ceremonies … 

“All of a sudden there seemed to be enough money to care for the poor. If you looked unwell, strangers would come up to you on the NYC subway and make sure that you were all right. Grief softened our hearts, and pain made us aware of other people’s suffering. There was a certain holiness in the air during those days. We were seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears.

“But then, about two weeks after the tragedy, we were told that everything needed to go back to normal. Memorials were cleared out of public spaces. Public prayers were discouraged. To be normal, we were told, was to go shopping because that was good for our country. To be normal, we were told, was to cease congregating in public places. We were told to go back to normal and that we did.”[1]

Over twenty years later and at the tail end of another traumatic, public event of this century, there are voices calling us to go back to normal. Big business, of course, wants us to believe that everything is back to normal. Watching the ads on TV or blockbuster movies filmed in the last couple of years you’d think there never was a pandemic. Even some churches operate as if the pandemic didn’t happen.

And, maybe, deep down inside of us all, including me, I want to believe it is back to normal and the time is right for responding to life and to God the way it used to be.

But the scriptures appointed for this season after Epiphany suggest that it is never a good time to respond in faith. There is no normal. No ‘right’ time from our perspective.

In the Gospel text for today[2] Jesus calls the disciples to follow him. What is he calling them to do? To follow God’s call through the Holy Spirit. And this is a Holy Spirit who is described in scripture as blowing where it chooses, and no one knows where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.[3]

Jesus is calling them to make a course-change in their lives which will significantly impact their personal and community relationships, to say the least, leaving behind family even.

Finally, Jesus is calling them to do something good for others in the mission of God. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

One of the beliefs that gets in the way of following Jesus is that we do so on our own — by our own strength, using our own resources, depending on our individual minds alone. 

We are conditioned to believe in ourselves, conditioned by our culture, our upbringing, our schooling. Yes, we have to trust, believe in and love ourselves. God speaks and moves through us. But not alone! Love your neighbour is mentioned in the bible more often than love of self.

One of the mistakes I made in planning my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago when I took a sabbatical six years ago was that I intended on travelling by myself. If I ever walk on that path again, I know now I need to do it with others alongside. Because we are not soloists in God’s choir.  We are not independent operators doing our own thing. We are not private contractors on this journey of faith. 

Following God calls us to step out of our private cocoons and work with others who are different from us. It is hard to trust in others and in God—and not just in ourselves. It’s never a good time when it isn’t easy.

I’m using the example of the pandemic to illustrate the idea that it’s never a good time. But we can apply that idea to other areas of life: That the call — the deep, resonant, voice of God may very well come to you at a bad time in your life.

The prophet Isaiah asserts that it is on those who have walked in great darkness that the light has shined; for those who have been in anguish there will be no gloom.[4] It’s never a good time for epiphanies when they come in the midst of anguish and sorrow and letting go. But it starts there. In the grit and grind of living. And that’s where hope lies.

Like Isaiah, John the Baptist was a prophet announcing God’s reign. His area of work was confined to the Jordan River where he baptized anyone who showed up there.[5] When Jesus heard John the prophet was imprisoned, Jesus continued the work that John started, but left the Jordan area and expanded the ministry to Galilee. The missional, centrifugal force of the work of Christ was beginning its ever-expanding circle of inclusion.

The very first words of Jesus when he begins his mission are: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”[6] Notice the sequence: Repent because the reign of God is already here. In contrast to John, Jesus announces a new strategy and ordering of things. 

First comes the presence of God. First comes the grace. First comes Jesus and his love. First comes healing, mercy, forgiveness.

The equation with Jesus has been turned on its head. The converting, the confessing, the personal growth come after love not before it. The converting comes after not before grace is first given. The Reign of God has come near.

The Reign of God puts things in perspective, a larger perspective. The Reign of God is not just about me-questions. The Reign of God has broad, societal implications. 

One translation of the Kingdom of God from the Latin, reads, “in light of eternity.”[7] To consider things in light of eternity is a great clarifier. Seeing all things in light of eternity snaps us out of our distractions, delusions and narrow thinking. The perspective in the light of eternity pulls us out of a private religion, pulls us out of our comfort zones and our relentless pursuits of self-indulgence. 

It calls us to start with love for and grace with others rather than fear and judgement. Instead of retreating into our fortresses and behind barricades of mistrust and hate, the light of eternity calls us to trust life and trust others. And the signs are there, when we begin with love.

As difficult as it was during those first days, weeks and months of the pandemic, the signs were there. As they were in those first couple of weeks after 9-11 on the streets of Manhattan. Signs of love, compassion and community. During the early stages of the pandemic, neighbours gathered outside, over backyard fences. Do you remember? Climate scientists observed that the air in places like Los Angeles became almost crystal clear like never before. Do you remember? We slowed down our hectic pace. Do you remember?

These are the stars, the signs of Epiphany, guiding us to where Christ is born anew in this world. Are we listening? Are we watching?

It’s only ever the right time in retrospect. After all is said and done. At the end of the day, we can look back and recognize the signposts. At the end of the day, we can look back and recognize God’s hand in it all. At the end, we can affirm that all along, it was the right time. 


[1] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Books, 2022), p.93-94.

[2] Matthew 4:12-23

[3] John 3:8

[4] Isaiah 9:1-2

[5] Matthew 3:5-7

[6] Matthew 4:17

[7] sub specie aeternitatis = in light of eternity; Richard Rohr, “Big Picture Thinkers; Prophetic Truth” Daily Meditations (www.cac.org 16 January 2023).

A funeral sermon —Participation by All

Arising & flying together” (photo by M Malina, August 2022, Kalaloch Beach WA)

Bruce’s death leaves a very big hole in our hearts, and in our church. It is a kind of loss we cannot easily understand. It happened over a relatively short time. And we ask: Why? Why now? Why him? Answers don’t come easily.

In the prayers we will shortly say—standard Lutheran prayers at funerals—we ask God “to help us, in the midst of things we cannot understand.” Martin Luther himself stated: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ.”[1] Indeed, we pray for God to help us in the midst of things we cannot understand. Belief doesn’t come easily in the midst of sorrow.

Being faithful at a time of loss calls us to confess that we don’t have all the answers to life’s toughest questions. We must recognize at a time of death that having faith now doesn’t qualify us to understand why, perfectly.

And I don’t think Bruce pretended that he did. He knew well enough that having the right answers to difficult questions and circumstances in life was not the point of being faithful to the call of Christ.

Bruce knew that the purpose of religion, of faith, at difficult times especially, is not to understand it so much as to participate in it. The purpose of faith for Bruce was not to have everything figured out, to understand everything completely, before acting on it or doing something about it with others. Just do it!

This belief in participation is what motivated him to try getting the men’s breakfast started up again during the pandemic. This belief in participation is what motivated Bruce to gather some chalk and invite school children to draw and sketch on the church parking lot when they walked by after getting off the bus on Meadowlands.

It didn’t matter who you were, whether you were a church goer or not. But just get involved together. 

Bruce also knew Jesus gave some tough instructions and said some challenging things in his sermon on the mount. Bruce had his questions. It’s sometimes difficult to get your mind around what Jesus said, like: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” and “Love your enemies” and “Blessed are the poor.”

When Bruce was recreational coordinator, a special arrangement was made when the Fisher Park high school was built. The arrangement was between the school board and the local community: that anyone living in that neighbourhood could use the recreational facilities in the school.

As head of the Fisher Park Community Recreational Council, Bruce was careful and firm in spelling out its philosophy: the emphasis of the program was “participation rather than competition.”

Bruce was quoted in the newspaper article written up about him as saying: “Recreation should first and foremost be fun; if the kids learn something, well that’s great too. They’re not here for learning for learning’s sake.”

Though he still asked deep questions of faith right to the end, ultimately for Bruce his faith was how best to bring together diverse people. It was about participating and having fun with others.

Bruce told me recently that the best sermon he remembers my Dad preaching at Faith was when my Dad talked about how each snowflake is unique; God created no two snowflakes exactly alike. Bruce would gaze across mounds and mounds of the white stuff outside and say: “You see all that snow is made up of trillions and trillions of snowflakes each different. But they’re all together.”

Sometimes we can get stuck in the snow. Sometimes participating together is not fun—and Bruce knew this, too. The disappointments, even hurts from different people trying to work together; The pain of conflict, of failure, of good intentions gone awry.

Bruce, in his last days, shared with me a memory I think he cherished about his mother when he was a child. He was playing as many children will do, running around outside and having fun when a dog bit him on the leg. He went crying to his Mom, more out of shock than anything else—it wasn’t a deep wound.

He recalls this moment vividly, when his mother bent down and kissed the owie on his leg. And, just like that, the tears were gone, and he immediately scooted off to continue playing, running around and having fun.

He needed his mother to assure him, to soothe him, to love him when it hurt. When participating in community is challenging, when understanding a situation does not come easily, when tough questions of faith arise, those are times we need each other. We need assurance. We need the divine kiss on our metaphorical boo-boo, so we can continue playing, having fun, participating in and enjoying the life we share in Christ Jesus.

I think that’s what Bruce would want for us today. To keep playing. God doesn’t take away the owie. God doesn’t immune Christians from suffering and even death. God doesn’t insulate us from hardship, just because we say, “I believe”. 

I remember Bruce got excited the time I told the congregation that we need to consider revising some words to that the popular song: Jesus Loves Me—“This I know for the Bible Tells Me So”. Because, in truth, we know Jesus loves us because we are shown love. We have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends who will hopefully kiss our boo-boo’s and send us off to continue living. We should sing: “Jesus Loves Me This I Know for My Mother/Father/Sister/Brother/Friend shows me so.”

I think Bruce would want each one of us to know this love of God. I think Bruce would be so happy to see us all together in this place today.

Amen.


[1] In his explanation of the 3rd article of the Apostles Creed, Small Catechism

The stars shining in your night sky

audio for sermon “The stars shining in your night sky” by Martin Malina

The sermon today comes with thanksgiving to Diana Butler Bass in her blog posted on the last day of Christmas, just before the Day of Epiphany 2023, entitled “Active Epiphany”[1]:

Following the light to the edge(photo by M Malina August 2023 at Kalaloch Beach WA)

On January 6 [every year], the Christian calendar turn[s] to a new season: Epiphany. 

The origins of Epiphany as a church festival are somewhat vague, as is the very definition of the word. “Epiphany” can mean manifestation, revelation, appearance, insight, enlightenment, or a shining forth. 

Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi, three astrologers, who follow a brilliant star to the place of Jesus’ birth and honor the child with gifts.[2] Upon seeing the baby, they were “overwhelmed with joy,” and fell on their knees. 

The wise men awaited a sign in the sky — a star — to guide them on this journey. Revelations break in, light shines forth, and glory appears. Such things are from the realms of mystery, awe, and wonder. They surprise and disrupt the normal course of existence. Epiphanies are not of our making. 

But it would be a mistake to believe that we are only passive recipients of epiphanies. We need to be alert for their appearance and search out the trailings of their presence. Revelations can be missed if one isn’t attentive or attuned to the possibilities of sacred surprise. 

The Magi, of course, were looking for a sign. They were professional spiritual seekers! But they weren’t content just gazing upon the star. They didn’t remain in some distant locale and admire its glory from afar. They got up and followed it to its source. And their journey even involved danger — as a treacherous king attempted to use them to manipulate this manifestation for his own evil purposes. They kept going.

[In the Gospel for today[3] the disciples follow Jesus from a distance and then respond positively to his invitation: “Come and see!” Their watching from a distance turns into active engagement.]

We may not create epiphanies, but we respond to them. Epiphanies grab a hold of us; we can’t shake them. Epiphanies ask something of us. The star is an invitation, a calling to do something — to act. 

These verses from Isaiah, traditionally read at Epiphany, underscore this:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.[4]

We arise; we shine — glory entices us, woos us, into the light. We don’t just observe. Epiphany embraces and vivifies us. 

Epiphany is a manifestation, the mystery revealed, and an invitation to discover grace, goodness, and God. It is neither a magic fix nor a moment when utopia arrives. The birth, the star, and heavenly glory don’t eliminate the darkness. Rather, such revelations cast the light that we need to see the way. 

Epiphany beckons us to pay attention and participate in widening the circle of light in the world — to push back against all brittle injustice and brutality. Whether a babe in Bethlehem or a burning bush, epiphanies are guide stars on a longer journey toward healing, liberation, and peace. 

[Did you notice with all the extra snow on the ground recently, how much brighter it is? Even during this darkest time of the year when we in the northern hemisphere are farthest removed from the sun—the source of all light in our solar system—the snow reflects what little light there is and magnifies it. That is why your optician will suggest you wear sunglasses at this time of year, to protect your eyes from the excessive brightness. Can you imagine? In a way, it’s just as bright in the darkest time of year as in it is in the summer when we are closest to the sun! We have enough light that we need, even when we are in the shadows. What sign are you looking for?]

Even when we are lost in the shadows of life’s difficulties, where is the light? Wherever the good peeks through the clouds, follow the good. Wherever you notice a grace, a gifting, a loving presence, a merciful act, follow the grace. Wherever a voice calls for justice, peace, goodwill to all, follow that.

Perhaps these words, a seasonal benediction of sorts, from Madeleine L’Engle capture the fullest sense of Epiphany:

This is my charge to you.
You are to be a light bearer.
You are to choose the light.

Arise. Shine.


[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Active Epiphany” The Cottage (dianabutlerbass.substack.com, 5 January 2023)

[2] Matthew 2

[3] From John 1:29-42, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

[4] Isaiah 60:1

Taking down the tree — a funeral sermon

Along our post-Christmas street” (photo by Martin Malina Jan 2023)

Taking down the Christmas tree sometimes leaves me feeling saddened, especially for those joyous moments during the holidays when precious memories were made.

For others, taking down the Christmas tree at the end of the season represents the suffering and loss that overshadowed everything else during these last few weeks. Or, maybe you didn’t even put up a tree in the first place.

When suffering and death coincide with superficial Christmas cheer we cannot explain away the grief. Our tears are exposed; they come quickly and often. It doesn’t take much to trigger our sorrow. We cannot deny nor avoid the pain, no matter what time of year.

Surrounded by love for the fallen” (photo by M Malina 6 Jan 2023 in the Arnprior Grove)

What is also exposed by our tears is love. And we cannot explain away love, either. Alongside the unfathomable and often unbearable weight of grief is the mystery of love. How on earth can love co-exist and persist in the valley of the shadow of death?

Many of us will normally take down Christmas decorations in the first week of January. For those who wish to recognize the discipline of the Twelve Days of Christmas they will wait until January 6th—the Day of Epiphany. And for the long haulers, they will wait until the Festival of Candlemas on February 2nd before they take down their Christmas Tree.

The benefit of observing the seasons of the church year is recognizing the natural rhythms and cycles that repeat every year. We can look forward to what the next season offers in terms of meaning and divine promise. 

There’s this joyous anticipation which feeds our innate longing for the good, for the better, even for adventure. Maybe that’s why some people are not in a rush to take down their tree. Because they know, and can rest in, the promise and faith that soon enough the change will happen again next time around.

Wayne gave me the impression that he lived with a strong sense of hope and promise. In my view he was practised in the art of anticipating the good and resting in the promise of the better. 

Maybe it was cultivated by his Bingo-calling days. Yes, Bingo in Pembroke!

I’ve only ever played Bingo but never called it. I imagine the caller has a great job. Because, on the one hand, there is structure in the game: Five columns of letters spelling B-I-N-G-O and under each column are numbers ordered in groups of five (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25).

So, the hope of which I speak is not a flight of fancy, ungrounded, nor some unhinged pursuit. Perhaps this hope-in-form comes with maturity, experience and age. We must all make mistakes on this journey of growth, to be sure.

But eventually this hope brings joy, the joy that comes from calling the BINGO game. Because as the caller you don’t know when someone will get five-in-a-row. It could be early in the game; it could be late in the game; it could be anywhere in between. Also, as the caller, you don’t know who will win; it could be anyone in the room.

The game carries itself. The caller serves something beyond their control of the outcome. You only know someone will get five-in-a-row at some point. Anticipating this is all the fun for the caller. And so, as the caller, you don’t need to rush. Just let the good thing happen when it will. This is hope.

This hope and anticipation help place the present moment in perspective. For one thing, it allows us to nurture patience, slow things down when necessary, appreciate and even enjoy every moment we have.

During the pandemic when everything ground to a halt even services of worship were suspended for a time, including the sacrament of Holy Communion. No one knew what or how to do things. The church couldn’t meet on Sundays onsite here, in person. Nor could we share in the breaking and eating of bread and drinking the wine from a common cup.

Yet, Wayne and Elsie helped break new ground. 

You see, the Holy Meal conveys the meaning of love in unity—communion—with one another and with God who is merciful and forgiving always. In this Holy Meal, essential to it, is the promise of God to be with us and for us always.

Despite the roadblocks and restrictions and all that may block the flow of God’s love. Despite everything that changes. Somehow, God always finds a way to us. “You did not choose me, I chose you,” Jesus said indicating God’s primary move of love towards us.[1]

And so, upon Wayne’s and Elsie’s request, we forged ahead anyway. We met a couple of times in the parking lot outside this church building. We remained in our cars, parked side to side with windows open even in the freezing cold wintertime. We used makeshift trays to hold the cups and plates on our laps. We brought our own bread and wine from home. And three of us had Communion in the Word of Christ.

It impressed me how much Wayne’s vision was promise-filled, how much his faith allowed him to live in the present with hope, even willing to risk something new—just because it might work. And if not the first time, maybe the next time.

And it did work! Why? Because Wayne didn’t do it alone. Wayne and Elsie did it together. In love.

You see, we can only live in faith when we are in relationships of love. Faith only happens in love. “Faith, hope and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.”[2]

In faith, hope and love, we can do many things for the good. In faith, hope and love we can even take down the Christmas Tree this year. We can take it down because we do not do it alone. We don’t do faith by ourselves. Wayne got that.

And at the end, the last time we must take down the tree for the season of our life, we can do it. We can cross that boundary of death in the hope that the seasons are about to turn yet again. Our relationships don’t end, they just change. We are still in communion. Wayne got that.

Thanks be to God.


[1] John 15:12-17

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:13

Word-less ordinary

audio for sermon “Word-less ordinary” by Martin Malina
The trees say it all” (photo by Martin Malina, Gillies Grove Arnprior, December 2022)

I know a retired pastor who, for most of the funeral sermons he gave over the course of his ministry, he entitled his sermon: “Chapters of So-and-So’s Life”. And he would proceed, simply, to tell the story of the deceased’s life from beginning to end.

In remembering a loved one who has died, families will often recount in their minds and conversations with one another their story. Not just the last years before they died. But their whole life, including life-changing events, youthful adventures, closest friends, their accomplishments and failures, where they travelled, interesting experiences—from every chapter of their life.

You would think the Gospels in the Bible would do the same for Jesus. But they don’t. Except for the first two chapters in only two of the four Gospels telling the Christmas story[1], we only have the last three years of Jesus’ life. I used to think that’s because that’s all we needed. But there’s more to that.

20th century educator, author and management consultant, Peter Drucker, once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” The art of ‘reading in between the lines’ is what is sometimes called for if we are to understand the whole truth of the matter. Can we as people of faith become non-verbally smarter? Can we hear for and learn to pay attention as much to what isn’t written than what is? Because the words we don’t have have just as much to ‘say’—perhaps even more.

When it comes to what is presented in the Gospels about Jesus’ life, we need to come to terms with the fact that Jesus remained anonymous and largely invisible for the first thirty years of his life—most of his years on earth. What do we make of that? What is the significance of most of Jesus’ life being absent from the biblical narrative?

Some authors have written fictional accounts, piecing together and extrapolating from what we do know about Jesus and his relationships and places where he lived. Christopher Moore[2] and Sue Monk Kidd[3] are two contemporary authors who have attempted to describe what may have happened in those invisible years of Jesus’ life after his birth. Because we don’t really know, for sure. We can only imagine.

I appreciate this effort nonetheless because in Jesus, “God became part of our small, homely world.” In Jesus, God “entered into human limits and ordinariness.” Throughout those thirty years, Jesus spent little time becoming noticed. For most of his life, he was no celebrity. Far from it. He climbed no ladder of success. In the words of Saint Paul, he didn’t consider his divinity as something to be grasped and flaunted for all to see.

Rather, Jesus spent most of his life embracing his common humanity. He spent a lot of time descending, “emptying himself and becoming as all humans are” (Philippians 2:7), “tempted in every way that we are” (Hebrews 4:15) and “living in the limitations of weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). Jesus walked, enjoyed, and suffered the entire human journey.[4] He was ordinary, like us.

When Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist,[5] we see the heavens opened, the dove descends, and we hear the voice of God: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

Traditionally we hear these words as a launching point for Jesus’ public ministry. We consider God’s words as a stamp of approval on the missional purpose of what Jesus will do—as divine Son of God. We perceive this event in light of the goal—what Christ will achieve on the cross and by the empty tomb at the end of his three-year ministry.

As we stand on the banks of the Jordan River witnessing this divine event of Jesus’ baptism, I wonder if we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a step back for a moment.

Because what we perceive in Jesus is not an individual, autonomous God. We need to remember Jesus is in constant relationship within the Triune God: three persons in one. We know Jesus often related in prayer to God whom he called “Abba”[6]—Father. We know Jesus often reminded his listeners that if they have ‘seen’ him, they have ‘seen’ the Father. The “Father and I are one” Jesus prayed. And, in the bond of the Holy Spirit, Christians appreciate God as fundamentally relational.

When it comes to Christ Jesus, he has been “from the beginning”[7] in union with God. They have been talking with each other from the beginning of time. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit—they are dancing together in relationship since the creation of the world.

It strikes me that if there is any stamp of approval at Jesus’ baptism, it has more to do with recognizing the life Jesus has already lived to that point—his first thirty years. God calls Jesus “beloved” for making it this far as a human being. For the divine Christ has embraced his ordinariness, in journeying the path we all take. “Good job! We’ve done well!” I can hear God say at Jesus’ baptism.

I wonder if there isn’t a call here for us to embrace our own humanity. As St Irenaeus is known to have advised in the 2nd century: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[8] If God’s glory is humanity fully alive, our lives must mean something important to God. 

In other words, there is something holy about the ordinary. Each ordinary moment. Every unnoticed action. What isn’t said about us. Every ordinary conversation. Each word we use and don’t use. Every ordinary decision we make in the routines of living. Our whole lives have brought us to these moments of time that are pregnant with God’s loving presence, in Christ Jesus. Even the painful, sorrowful ones.

Let us live our ordinary lives to the fullest—as God intends—so that we, with Jesus, can also hear God’s words spoken to each one of us: “You are my beloved and in you I am well pleased.”


[1] Matthew and Luke

[2] Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2004).

[3] Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings (Penguin Books, 2021).

[4] Richard Rohr, “Incarnation” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 19 December 2022).

[5] Matthew 3:13-17

[6] John 17

[7] John 1

[8] Attributed to St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in what is now France in the last quarter of the 2nd century.

Light-infused

audio for “Light-infused” by Martin Malina

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …what came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people … The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.”[1]

These are the first words from John’s Gospel, for this first day of firsts (the first day and Sunday of a new month, the first day and Sunday of a new year, and the First Sunday after Christmas).

Looking back over the past year, I realize I’ve discovered, or re-covered a renewed appreciation for receiving mail. Especially at Christmas. 

And I don’t mean e-mail. I mean opening old-fashioned, real paper, mailbox-visiting cards in the mail.

Thank you to all who gave me Christmas cards this year! I enjoyed opening each one. 

When I visited my mom’s apartment at Christmas, we spent time looking at her decorations and commenting on the Christmas cards she received and displayed on a table beside her advent wreath. Several of these cards came from far-away and overseas. 

One caught my attention. It was a photograph whose centrepiece was baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by spruce trees decorated with real candles. I immediately responded favourably to the real spruce trees—it reminded me of the beauty of creation common in Canada. 

But it was baby Jesus, something about the way he was lying in his makeshift crib—the feeding trough—that, frankly, disturbed me. And it took me a moment to understand why. It was the way his little arms were spread out and feet were crossed that reminded me of the end of Jesus’ life on earth. 

Published by Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, photo from print by Vineyard Publishing Co. Seoul, Korea

As I contemplated this depiction of baby Jesus, I realized I wasn’t just looking at a baby boy born in a Bethlehem barn during the reign of King Herod in first century Palestine. In that moment, time expanded to include both the trajectory of Jesus’ life on earth—the future, and the past—long before Jesus was born.

Let’s start in the past. The Incarnation was in the works since the beginning. The opening verses from the Gospel of John echo the first days of creation described in the first book of the bible, Genesis. 

What did God create on the first day? Light. Light is the subject of the first day of creation.[2] Light is the first action of God on earth. The light first shone when the world was created, “when God joined in unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything.”[3]

The true light was already shining in the shadowed places. The light was already shining in the darkness before Jesus, the human person, was born that first Christmas. That is why John writes that the light was coming into the world; it’s an ongoing work of God.

So instead of saying that God came into the world through Jesus, maybe it is more accurate at Christmas to assert that Jesus came out of an already light-infused world.[4]

With J. Philip Newell, I would assert that salvation in Jesus is not the bringing of light to a creation that doesn’t have it, but rather “the liberating of light”[5] from within, a light that is already there.

This realization brings me to my knees in confession. Because today, the problem we deal with is our resistance to the light. The problem is how we refuse God’s love and presence in our already light-infused world. Pray with me for God first to open the eyes of our minds and hearts to see in the shadowed places what God is doing. 

We see in the original Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth that there’s really nothing pretty about the first Christmas.[6] All the ways human beings end up resisting the light within us and the earth is personified by the ruthless King Herod.

Right from the start of Jesus’ life, Herod is threatened politically by Jesus. Right from the start, Jesus is the target of the authorities and political powers. The slaughter of the innocent children[7] highlights the gross injustices of our world whose selfish, power-hungry ends will justify the means at all costs—even killing children. Jesus, already at his birth, lies in the fore-shadow of the cross, and his eventual death at the hands of the powers-that-be.

The way baby Jesus’ feet and arms were positioned on that Christmas card was, in my mind, like Jesus in scenes depicting his death on the cross. I wonder if that connection—between Jesus’ birth and death—was intended by the artist of that Christmas card.

One lesson we can take away here is that the birth of Jesus does not remove the presence of evil in the world. It was true in the first days of creation. It was true at the birth of Jesus. And it is true today.

Another lesson along the way, which is the Gospel—good news, is the light still shines. It is still there, sometimes burning brightly for us to see. And sometimes, we don’t perceive it at all. And we may need to re-focus on where God is revealed and how God frees the light shining within our hearts and in this world. 

On the journey now with Jesus, here is some good advice from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, on how to journey with Jesus when we find ourselves in the darkness of night and in the shadows of life:

Go slowly; Consent to it; But don’t wallow in it; Know it as a place of germination; And growth; Remember the light; Take an outstretched hand if you find one; Exercise unused senses; Find the path by walking in it; Practice trust; Watch for the dawn.[8]

On the first day of this new year, 2023, may you know moments of light, moments of grace, moments of love, as the dawn breaks anew.


[1] John 1:1-4,9

[2] Genesis 1:3-5

[3] Richard Rohr, “The First Incarnation” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 18 December 2022)

[4] Ibid., 19 December 2022

[5] J. Philip Newell, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), p.11-13.

[6] Richard Rohr, ibid., 21 December 2022

[7] Matthew 2

[8] Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, “What to do in the darkness”, in Holly W. Whitcom, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005), p.38.

A baby’s cry

Being held in the light (photo by Martin Malina December 2022)

This Christmas when we sang “Away in a Manger”, I stopped at the part in the carol where it read: “…no crying he made”. Really!? We know Jesus cried as an adult when his friend Lazarus died: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). If he could cry as an adult, surely he would cry as a baby. He was, after all, human.

And if the baby Jesus cried, did the shepherds hear him cry?

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.[1]

The shepherds were outside. And not temporarily. They were “living in the fields”. In Canada at this time, we would be winter camping. But most of us may have experienced camping in the summertime. Outdoors. In nature. When it’s a little warmer. Listening to all the natural sounds of creatures great and small.

Would we hear the baby cry?

The first of four nights we spent on the shores of the Salish Sea last summer, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State right across the Straits from Vancouver Island. Arriving midweek, we were pleased that there were hardly any people in the small campground right on the water. Below us, where there was room for a tent or two, the sites were not occupied, thankfully! Assured of some days of rest and quiet, I enjoyed the view from our small cabin located on a ridge overlooking the water.

It was peaceful. Quiet. Only the sound of the gentle breeze through the Sitka Spruce trees and Western Hemlocks that guarded the shoreline. Only the chirp of jays and sparrows, and even a couple of ospreys. Occasionally I heard the distant and meditative throb of engines from an ocean tanker going to and coming from the ports at Vancouver and Seattle. It was a pleasure to be outside.

The weekend arrived, bringing more people to the campground including some families with young children to the tent sites below us. The noise levels increased. 

On the last morning, I sat down in my favourite spot in front of our cabin on the ridge beholding another glorious morning. I usually got up early as the sun was rising over the water and most people were still in bed. And it was quiet.

Except the baby crying. Right below us in a tent a family had pitched the night before, the sounds of a wailing infant sliced through the morning reverie. It wasn’t a consistent cry, either. The baby would scream – a desperate plea. Then, stop. And moments later, it would start over again.

My reaction was one of anger and frustration. How dare this baby interrupt my prayer time! I didn’t want to hear the baby’s cry. I wanted to hear the birds, the water, the wind!

But just then I started writing my Christmas Day sermon! Because in a moment of grace, I let go of the need to control my circumstances. In a moment of grace, I let go of my preconceived notions of where God was being revealed to me.

Not always in those uninterrupted, peaceful, and undisturbed moments. Not just in places and circumstances that I can control and manage. But in the spaces and places in between. When I loosened the tight grip on my world, something beautiful happened.

Would the shepherds hear the baby cry? Well, my guess is that they did. Why? Because they were “keeping watch over their flocks by night”. In the nighttime, a dangerous time—in more ways than one considering the violent politics in 1st century Palestine. In the night when fears mount and dangers lurk in the shadows of our imaginations, they keep watch. They were awake, paying attention.

So, as the baby cried that early morning last August on the Salish Sea, rather than give up, I allowed the noise of the baby’s cry to become part of my prayer. I kept paying attention, listening even more carefully, going with the flow. And, when I did that, I noticed two things:

First, something I hadn’t heard on our trip until that morning when the baby cried, was a loon’s mournful song in the distance. I love loons. To me, the loon’s call is a sign of God’s call. In between the baby’s cries, a loon announced its presence in the cacophony.

And then the baby emerged from the tent, being held by a loving parent who rocked the baby and walked along the shore carrying their bundle of love. The baby didn’t stop crying right away when the parent held them. But I learned an important lesson of faith:

When I let go, when I can’t hold myself any longer—so to speak—God holds me. In love.

When the shepherds heard the baby cry, they moved into action. They didn’t wait till morning. They went right away—running even—to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place”. And visit the Christ child they did, because they were already practised in the art of “keeping watch by night”. They were attuned to the sounds of God reverberating throughout all of creation, all of the time.

Christ is born! Jesus is with us, Immanuel. Will we hear the baby’s cry today?


[1] Luke 2:1-20

Before Santa, God’s Agent – A Christmas Children’s Chat

Before Santa Claus became “Santa”, he was Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a real person, and a bishop a long time ago.[1] A bishop is like a pastor, but instead of relating only to one congregation as a pastor does, a bishop relates to many congregations—and many people covering a large area.

Saint Nicholas indeed cared for many people in the part of the world known today as the country of Turkey. As a Christian he was very active in his faith by helping people who were poor, giving gifts and money to those who needed food, and rescued people who were in prison. In short, he helped people who were in trouble. All his life Saint Nicholas showed people how to love God and care for each other.

You could say he was “God’s Agent”. Yes, many of the things he did to help people he did them in secret. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, because it was the kindness that he showed that was the important thing.

But he wasn’t God’s agent in the sense of being like a spy from the movies. Spies will sometimes deceive and trick people on purpose. No, Saint Nicholas was God’s Agent in the sense of doing things out of faithfulness to God, being active to do God’s will and show God’s love to all people. Even if he had to take some risks.

And that’s what we are all called to do as well. Like Saint Nicholas, we too are God’s Agents of love for other people. This Christmas I pray we can all find little ways, and maybe some big ways, to be God’s Agents, and like Saint Nicholas show God’s love for all people.

There are many stories about Saint Nicholas. I would like to read you one of them about a special animal—the Pine Marten—who was Saint Nicholas’ good friend; and, who helped him on a very special mission as “God’s Agent” …

Invite the children to sit with you gathered around the Christmas Tree.

Read Terri Reinhart, illustrated by Patrick Reinhart, “The Fiercest Little Animal in The Forest” (Colorado: St Patrick’s Press, 2nd Printing, 2019).

Let us pray:

God of joy and cheer,
    we thank you for your servant,
    the good bishop Nicholas.
In loving the poor,
    he showed us your kindness;
in caring for your children,
    he revealed your love.
Make us thoughtful
    without need of reward
    so that we, too, may be good followers of Jesus.[2] Amen.

At the end, hand out a Saint Nicholas treat to each child …


[1] traditionally 15 March 270 – 6 December 343 A.D.

[2] B. Batchelder, illustrated by Barbara Knutson, All Through the Day, All Through the Year: Family Prayers and Celebrations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000).