Alive Again, photo by Martin Malina (June 2021)
audio for ‘Outside’ by Martin Malina

In the hymn of the day we will sing shortly, the last verse pops out for me: “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away – here in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day.”[1]

If ever there was an Easter message of hope for me, it is in those words of a hymn, entitled, “Gather Us In”, that we have known and sung for years. “Not in the dark of buildings confining …”

One thing many of us did, in our families, at home and as the church during the pandemic, was spend more time outside. It was a safe place to be with others. 

Camping sites were booked months in advance. Algonquin Park became a suburb of the big cities for two summers in a row. It was impossible to find a free site anywhere if you were planning last minute. Our backdecks and front yards, church yards and local parklands became popular places. 

I appreciated and enjoyed very much our Good Friday pilgrimage around these church grounds. It is definitely an asset we have—this beautiful, large, treed lot in this location where our congregation gathers every week. I have renewed my appreciation for this place by walking on the grounds outside lately. The garden project on the west side, as it continues to develop and grow with each passing year, is a wonderful stewardship we offer to others of the gifts we have been given. 

Good Friday pilgrimage (photo by Jessica Hawley Malina, April 2022)

Being outside revives the soul, grounds us literally and renews our purpose in faith. It’s a visceral reminder of our bodily connection with a reality much larger than us. Being in nature pulls us out of our self preoccupations.

I suspect we’ve always known the outdoors was a good place for spiritual connection, health and growth. But like so much with the pandemic, this awareness of things taken for granted, of pre-existing realities exposed, was forced upon us unbidden. As grace will often come.

Watching Canadian commercials on TV advertising everything from airlines to beer, to cars—so much of our identity as Canadians is formed outside. So much of how we see ourselves is about engaging the wilderness, even against the harsh realities it poses for us. It’s part of our DNA to go there anyway, despite the wind, the rain and the snow.

We cannot deny our deep connection with the outdoors. At some level we are drawn, if we are able, to go outside—to garden, to ski, to play, to swim, to paddle, to hike, to walk, to rest, to breathe, to listen, to observe.

In the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the prominent locations of these encounters are outside: In the garden outside the tomb with Mary, on the road to Emmaus, on the mountain in Galilee just before Jesus’ ascension, and in today’s Gospel by the water:

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.[2] The living Lord met his disciples not in buildings confining, but outside in the wilderness.

The word wilderness is mentioned some 300 times in the bible.[3]

The Hebrew word, midbar, usually translated as ‘wilderness’, means “speaking”. Ba-midbar, translated as ‘the wilderness’ means “the organ which speaks.” And, in the Hebrew and English lexicon, the definition of midbar is: 1. Mouth, the organ of speech; 2. Wilderness. [4]

Rather than simply a harsh backdrop for the biblical story, the wilderness is the place that speaks. When we often portray the setting for many of scripture’s greatest stories as merely a background to the unfolding human drama—such as the site of forty years of Israel’s wandering, or Jesus temptation in the desert, or at his baptism in Jordan River, or on the mount of transfiguration—we miss the point that the wilderness itself is the place that speaks. Wilderness is the place from which and through which God speaks to us.[5]

Not just the location themselves, but the relationships that happen in those settings. Another repeating feature of the post-resurrection narrative is that at first, when being outside, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus: By the water— Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.[6] In the garden outside the empty tomb, Mary first mistook Jesus to be the gardener: She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.[7]And travelling along the road to Emmaus: While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.[8]

Maybe Jesus’ changed appearance in his post-resurrection body fooled these disciples. But I wonder if they simply didn’t expect to see Jesus there.

The way I remember faces and names is to make the connection with the place—the setting, the location—we had a meaningful encounter. And I will often ask about or mention that, when reuniting with someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. “Remember when were attending that event in such-and-such-a-place and talked about that issue …” Or, “Did we meet at Lutherlyn that one summer during children’s camp?” Etc.

And if I’m not expecting to meet someone somewhere specific, if I’m not expecting them to be there, then I will likely not recognize them if they, in fact, are there. I would be surprised. I wonder if the disciples really didn’t expect to meet up with Jesus in these outdoor locations. Therefore, they were surprised when they did.

“Not in the dark of buildings confining.”

The potent meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that no more is God confined to the physical or mental boxes we devise, into which we conveniently put God. The potency of the resurrection, the revolutionary upshot, is that Jesus is everywhere, especially outside! “Look on the other side!” Jesus advises the forlorn disciples who have caught nothing all night long from their fishing boat. “Put your nets on the other side of the boat!”[9]

In Christian traditions, the church has often been described as a boat. So, “look on the other side!” Look on the other side of these walls to find what you are looking for. Because, now, there is no place on earth, that God won’t be present. And from where God will be calling us to go! Will we recognize Jesus there?

This is good news. Because we can be freed from our expectations, the veils clouding our vision that keep us stuck in our thinking that God can only be found in one place, under certain conditions, and only inside. Good news, that God still has something new to say to us.

And the gift of the pandemic, if I can say that, is that it forced us outside, to reconsider God amongst all that lives. The fish. The animals. The birds. The trees. The water ways. The snow. The sky. And beyond. Because the wilderness has something divine to say to us. Notice how your senses come alive when you go outside next time. What do your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin each reveal to you about how God is alive in the world around you?

Let’s be surprised at where Jesus shows up. And rejoice!

Thanks be to God.

[1] “Gather Us In” #532, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

[2] John 21:1 NRSV

[3] Victoria Loorz, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites us into the Sacred (Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021), p.54

[4] Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Snowballpublishing, 2011)

[5] Victoria Loorz, ibid., p.61

[6] John 21:4

[7] John 20:14-15

[8] Luke 24:15-16

[9] John 21:6

Too good to be true?

audio for “Too good to be true?” by Martin Malina
Martin Malina April 2022

Thomas will not believe, cannot believe, even the words of his friends. Thomas will not believe, cannot believe, even with Jesus standing right in front of him. Not until conditions he has laid down are met.

I suspect we like Thomas. He’s becoming a favourite biblical character. I think we can relate, especially these days, to Thomas’ state of mind. From a place of profound grief at his loss he becomes skeptical, and not sure to trust everything that he is told especially if it sounds ‘too good to be true’.

How are we, like Thomas, strengthened in our faith, especially in difficult times, to trust and believe in the presence of the living Jesus with us? 

It’s as if Jesus is saying that “Even when you can’t see me, I am with you always. Even if you are not certain in any given moment, doesn’t mean I am not there. You don’t need to clearly see me in order to have faith.” Because, as he tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and yet have come to believe.”[1]

So, the problem is our perception. Jesus is hidden from us only by our perception.

For example: When was the last time you looked at or considered the eyes of a bird? Did you know that the colour of the eyes of the cormorant bird is emerald? And the eye of the eagle is amber. The eye of the grebe is ruby. The eye of the ibis is saphire. Four gemstones mirror the minds of birds, birds who mediate between heaven and earth. In these beautiful birds, have you ever even thought about looking at their eyes?

We miss the eyes of the birds, focusing only on the feathers, their eye-catching plumage. What are we looking for? And where have we failed to look?[2]

Well, for one thing, we look for facts. The Easter celebration often gets clouded by debates about about the facts: Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Was it factually a bodily resurrection? Beyond the shadow of any doubt? Underlying this line of questioning is a strong desire for certainty. Many Christians will demand certainty in declaring positive and unequivical answers to questions about facts, in order to validate any kind of faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

What this line of thinking fails to see is that it’s not only about what we see. More importantly, it is how we see it. Where we look.

The way our brain processes what and how we see leads medical scientists today to conclude that certainty is related to narrowness of vision; that is, the more certain we become of something, the less we see. What we clearly see, where the narrow focused beam of our attention is concentrated, also means in that moment of clarity and concentration, our vision is narrowed.[3]

If we want to see more—the broad perspective, to scan the horizon for example—and hold everything in our line of sight, we need to use our brain differently. We use our brain not just for what we focus on. But also in order to hold-it-all-together, which means accepting the mystery, accepting our complicated lives that in truth are filled with contradiction, inconsistency and uncertainty. Life 101. This is a gift and a function we need more of in this ambiguous, post pandemic time.

The debate really should be between Certainty versus Compassion. Because in any given moment in time, we cannot do both, fully.[4] We cannot be at the same time absolutely certain, and fully compassionate. We are not wired in our bodies to do both at the same time.

Because our striving for certainty is often driven by fear, fear of the unknown. This function comes from our survival instinct—either flight, fight or freeze. So, we either demand certainty born out of our fear response to life. Or, we can function out of a calm, compassionate, trusting and loving center within ourselves. 

Saint Paul writes in that famous text from his letter to the Corinthians that if we fail in love, we fail in all other things.[5] In this Easter season, we celebrate God’s triumph over death. We affirm that death has not the final word on our lives. And in that famous book of the bible about love—the Song of Songs—we read that “Love is stronger than death”.[6]

The fear function of our brains will lead to death if not tempered by the love function of our brains, which leads to life.

We are like Thomas in so many ways. Thomas needed to be certain. He was afraid of being wrong. And in response to that natural, human tendency, Jesus chooses compassion.  When Jesus meets Thomas, in person, in the flesh, Thomas doesn’t need to actually touch Jesus wounded hands and side, now. He doesn’t need to. Paradoxically, Thomas so confidently then expresses his faith in that felt sense of Jesus’ love in his presence. Because Jesus starts with compassion. 

God does not hold back and wait until we get things right. Until we are certain before doing anything. Jesus did not first demand Thomas to improve his frame of mind before coming to him, in love and acceptance. 

Rather, God loves us where we are and as we are. Divine love finds us. Divine love has handed itself over to us to do what we please.

The scripture doesn’t say too much if anything at all about what happened to Thomas after this encounter. We know more about Thomas’ mission and death from other historical sources and tradition. But the Gospel itself is quiet in the mention of Thomas after this encounter with Jesus, I believe for a purpose.

We are left to finish this story, in our own lives, in our own ‘seeing’, in what and how we see Jesus in the world today, and in the faithful confession of what it is we seek. May God’s love inspire us to join the ongoing conversation with the living Lord in our midst today.

Choose to start with compassion. This is good. Very good. And true.

[1] John 20:29

[2] Terry Tempest Williams, cited in Daily Prayer for All Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), p.44

[3] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (London: Yale University Press, 2019), p.83

[4] “Physiologically it is impossible to be rooted in both drives at once.” Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: A Journey of Transformation Through the Science of Embodiment (Illinois: Balboa Press, 2014), p.13.

[5] 1 Corinthians 13

[6] Song of Songs 8:6

The resilient tree of life

“Finding a way” along the Mississippi River (side) in Carleton Place, photo by Martin Malina April 2022
audio for ‘The Resilient Tree of Life’ by Martin Malina

Easter is about life. It is about new life. The resurrection of Jesus is celebrating the gift of life, again.

This Easter, we find ourselves still in the shadow of the pandemic and dealing with the many unresolved and ongoing losses of our lives. Therefore, I will add to the list of words describing Easter: Not only is Easter about life, and new life, and the gift of life. Life in the risen Christ is about being resilient. Resilience.

Resilience is being flexible, having the capacity to bend against incredible forces, and not break. The testimony of your presence with us in person today to celebrate Easter bears witness to your resilience to hanging in there. The last time we had people in the church building on Easter Sunday was three years ago. You’ve waited a long time. 

And to those of you who are watching online, you show the resilience of finding new ways, being flexible, in order to remain connected and be part of the community of faith. You’ve all shown resilience.

In New York City, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, only one tree was left standing near the site. After near devastation, it is now flourishing and is called the Survivor Tree.

In Washington DC’s National Arboretum, there is a mushroom-shaped tree, 390 years old, that was donated by Japan to the arboretum in 1976. The surprise of resilience is that this ancient bonsai tree survived the atomic bomb-blast in Hiroshima during World War Two. It stands as a symbol of resilience.

In Fukishima, Japan, after the tsunami of March 10, 2011, a lone tree remains on the beach. Because it withstood the force of the waters, the people consider it a symbol of resilience. These trees that survived against all odds, against monumental forces, have become symbols of resilience for people.[1] The trees that survive give us hope.

The cross, in Christian song and literature over the centuries, has often been referred to as the tree: “The tree of the cross”. I like this connection because it evokes for me a natural image or symbol for the meaning behind Jesus’ death and resurrrection. Even though Jesus died on the tree, it wasn’t the end of the story. The living tree would still hold Jesus in his tortured pain and dying through to something new, something resilient.

And when the heavy stone of Jesus’ tomb rolled to the side three days later, the opened tomb made room and space for sunlight, air and rain to enter in, to re-animate, re-invigorate the earth inside, and renew the elements of life just waiting to burst forth. 

Notice the incredible energy of the disciples after they discover the empty tomb.[2] They “outrun” each other to the tomb when they hear the news from Mary, who first “ran” to them after discovering the empty tomb. And after Jesus reveals himself to Mary in the garden, you can feel her conviction in declaring: “I have seen the Lord!”. The energy of life is palpable. Like nothing can stop this now. 

The empty tomb of Easter morning is a profound statement for resilient life, a life that will not give up against the greatest odds, a life that will find a way and surprise even those of us weighed down by heavy burdens.

The message of new life at Easter this year calls us to continue being resilient. And believe and trust that our lives in Christ have more growth in store. Yes! Our lives in Christ have more living to do, no matter our age.

Joe Biden, in his first term as president of the United States will be eighty years old this year. Author Pauline Boss just published this year, at age eighty-seven, a relevant, meaningful and challenging perspective on Ambiguous Loss in the Pandemic. Warren Buffet, considered the oldest head of a U.S.-listed company, currently CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most successful investors in the world; he will be ninety-two this year. Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church will be eighty-six this year. And the list goes on. There are countless other examples. Perhaps you know of more.

People will underestimate how long they will live. This is a fact I learned when attending an online retirement planning session earlier this year. We all had to answer a question about how long we think we will live. The results surprised me. 

The facilitators of the workshop said this happens everytime they ask this question at retirement workshops. Statistically, what we anticipate our age of death is often much lower than the actual age of our death. We tend to bank more on death than on life. We are biased toward not living longer than we actually will!

Will we undervalue the vitality of our living? Will we underestimate what we can contribute positively to the world, even into our senior years?

So, why not plan to live, to be alive, beyond age eighty … or longer! Easter is meant to generate that hope, to rewire our brains for life, renewal, fresh beginnings and hope. Life extends far beyond what we can imagine. Christ leads the way forward into realms of light, love and life. Not even death can stop this momentum. Not even death can thwart the innate gift of budding life in all that is. There’s no stopping it! Thanks be to God!

Imagine something new for your future. Those trees that bore the heaviness of devastation and all that the cross represents, those trees that showed resilience in continuing to live are powerful symbols. These symbols can motivate us and give us hope, not for recovering what was lost, but for recovering ourselves in the loss, for recovering our lives in this time.[3] May the gift of Easter this year bring you resilience in living.

[1] Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022), p.39-40.

[2] John 20:1-18

[3] Ibid., p.86.

The fox and the hen

“A bruised reed he will not break” photo by Martin Malina April 2022
sermon audio for “The fox and the hen” by Martin Malina

This year we hear Luke telling the Passion of Christ. Since Luke is the only Gospel of the four in the New Testament who mentions Herod in the Passion story[1], I want to start here: The confrontation between Herod and Jesus before his crucifixion. Herod and then Pilate will determine Jesus’ fate, after all. This is the climax of the earthly conflict, so to speak.

Recall just as Lent was starting over forty days ago, we heard from Luke also when Jesus called Herod a fox: “Go and tell that fox for me …” Jesus instructs the Pharisees to address Herod.[2]

Herod—Jesus’ ultimate earthly enemy, at the climax of the drama of Jesus’ life—Herod is the fox. Herod is dangerous. Herod holds all the cards. And he comes out on top, so it seems. And Pilate and Herod become friends that day.

It’s incredible that God chooses to submit to this danger, be swept up in it, and die. How can God be like this—vulernable to the wiles of the power brokers of the day, subject to the abuse and torture of human evil? Many have rejected the Christian God on these grounds alone. Because to follow this God is risky if it doesn’t promise some protection from what is dangerous in the world. Protection from the foxes.

We would rather Jesus be the fox, the one with all the cards to play, the one aggressive, defensive and wily.  But, no, Jesus is the hen. In contrast to Herod, from that Lukan text we heard last month, Jesus described himself as a mother hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Jesus laments over Jerusalem.

Being a follower of Christ doesn’t take the danger out of life. Being Christian does not mean becoming magically immune to suffering. Being Christian does not mean being protected and secured against the foxes of this world.

But it does mean something more important: Being gathered under wing, nurtured and held in loving embrace. The fox may still have his way. The fox may still be a predator upon the mother hen and her chicks.

But in acts of violence and aggression the fox will never know love the way the mother hen will give it. In this image it is clear: Being with Jesus in times of danger is not about removing the danger. Being with Jesus in times of danger is about giving and receiving love in relationship.

On Good Friday, the poetry of the ‘servant’ poems from the prophet Isaiah are often read. But one of the first of these poems in the second half of Isaiah offers another vivid and meaningful image about who God is: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed, until he has established justice in the earth …”[3]

God, in the crucified Christ, is accomplishing justice. How so? In Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate[4], Jesus makes it clear that God’s ways are not violent. Let’s be clear: The poetry of Isaiah implies that God does indeed have the power, the capacity, to bruise a broken reed and snuf a dimly burning wick. But God doesn’t do it. A bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not snuff out.

God enacts justice by withholding the incredible power God has to wield. God chooses, in God’s freedom, not to use the full capacity of God’s might. Instead, God chooses mercy, gentleness, forbearance, patience and grace. God shows love by self-limiting himself.

At the brutal end of Jesus’ earthly life, I reflect on his life described in the Gospels and I go back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth. And he said that his mission would be “to let the oppressed go free.”[5] That was his mission: the ultimate freedom of people who were imprisoned, oppressed and stripped of privilege. He went to the public places, the city streets and gates. He healed the sick, brought sight to the blind, raised the dead. Jesus spent time with those who were despised. He loved those who were marginalized in a culture dominated by violence, aggression and retribution.[6]

Many of those around Jesus wanted a Messiah to liberate them from the Romans and restore a Jewish kingdom. Many, indeed, wanted Jesus to be the fox. No, he said to Pilate, that’s not what his kingdom is like, at all![7]

And when God’s justice is restored in the earth and Jesus returns in glory, where will his disciples find him? How will they know him? The disciples did ask these questions of Jesus before he died: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And in Jesus’ usual parable-style story-telling, Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[8]

How do we love Jesus? How do we respond on holy, Good Friday, when we recall Jesus’ horrible death? What would Jesus have us do? 

Even as Jesus’ earthly path got him killed, his true legacy is the practice of enduring love, of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. In God’s ways of love and mercy, we may give up our privilege and power to support those in need. By doing this, in our life on earth, we love Jesus. We respond on the day he died by recommitting ourselves to his mission, and remaining true to his legacy.

That is why the church today doesn’t merely go through ritual and liturgical motions, though helpful they may be. We didn’t just wave palm branches last Sunday to praise him and remember his journey to the cross. But we also collected clothing, basic needs for the poverty-vulnerable, the underprivileged, the less fortunate. Because we are Christians. And we follow Christ, and Christ’s ways, even and especially in difficult times.

And then God will raise us up with all the faithful. God will raise us up as a garden flourishing in the desert.[9] Let the words of Isaiah fill your imagination and your heart as you go this day …

An image from Isaiah, describing that day when justice is restored in the earth, when indeed the fox and hen will not be predator and prey. Rather, God’s vision is one in which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them …”[10]

Let Christ Jesus be our guide, over these coming days, and beyond to the realization of new life, a new beginning. Amen.

[1] Luke 23:1-49

[2] Luke 13:31-32, 34

[3] Isaiah 42:3-4, NRSV

[4] See John’s rendition of the Passion narrative; John 18:33-36 and 19:8-11

[5] Luke 4:18 NRSV

[6] Luke 6:27-36

[7] John 18:36

[8] Matthew 25:34-40 NRSV

[9] Isaiah 58:10-12 NRSV – “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; and you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

[10] Isaiah 11:6 NRSV

An open-ended closure

audio for ‘an open-ended closure’ by Martin Malina
Dochart Creek flowing to the Ottawa at Braeside-McNab, photo by Martin Malina April 2022

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are little bit like me, happy that we are soon coming to the end of the Lenten season. Enough of the self-examination, self-limiting, fasting, giving things up—I want to be free again to do anything I want to, whenever I want to do it. If you are like me in this way, we are so ready to dive into the Easter season and message of new life, new hope, new beginnings, and get on with living! Amen?! 

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are a little bit like me, fed up with the prolonged, never-ending pall shrouding our existence in the pandemic, in the never-ending war in Ukraine. We are so ready to move on and get past this tortured period of history that still hangs heavy over us.

Good news and bad news. Bad news first …

The transition that is Holy Week does not offer a clear-cut change-over. Holy Week has ‘ambiguous’ written all over it.

First, we witness the crowds on Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna and praising God in Jesus.[1] These are the same crowds who a few short days later condemn Jesus to death, shouting “Crucify Him”. What a flip-flop! Human nature is anything but consistent, clear cut, cut or dry, either-or. 

Second, “Good” Friday? Why is it good? Jesus dies. Jesus is defeated. Jesus becomes the laughing stock from the perspective of power, command and control over any mission we might envision. Of course, believers will know why Jesus’ death led to something good, indeed something very good – just stick around till Easter. But the juxtoposition of good and bad so close together makes telling this story a challenge. It’s not a straight line.

And finally, why do we even do this year after year: Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday? Isn’t Jesus alive? Wasn’t Jesus raised from the dead over two thousand years ago? Why bother dragging ourselves through this ambiguous, ambivalent, topsy-turvy exercise year after year? Aren’t we, after all, post-resurrection Christians?

All of these ambiguous notions makes this celebration for Christians not really popular, for Protestants at least, unless we just make it an Easter bunny holiday complete with coloured eggs and chocolate. We would rather tell a story with a straight line, something certain, and certainly not a story rife with ambivalent disciples, fickle crowds and an almost compulsive fixation on death.

Yeah, bad news…

The last two years has been like a bad dream in which we continue to move forward without really feeling like we are gaining any traction at all. In the changes we have had to face, consciously or unconsciously, we have lost so much: The death of loved ones whose burial rituals have been anything but uniform; The loss of jobs, friends moving, relationships changing, health deteriorating, family ties rupturing. We have been dragged through a time whose suffering is anything but over, as much as we might delude ourselves into believing otherwise.

And we may even fall to the temptation of simplistically asserting it is over and we should act as if it is. But denial will only lead to more problems down the road.

Holy Week is an ambiguous observance by the church. But it also reflects the ambigious nature of life today. And therefore this time in the church calendar can be very helpful.

The Passion of Christ, at the foot of the cross, is according to Martin Luther the place where God is revealed to us. The Cross is central to God’s revelation. And this poses serious problems for us. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, this is a hard, counterintuitive, instinct for us – to find God not in the glory of the days, not in getting everything I want, not in success and accomplishment and feel-good circumstances upon which much of religion even our piety is based.

It’s so hard to hold the ambiguity of it all in our hearts: On the one hand, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing; and, on the other hand, who hangs on the cross of death and human defeat. A God who created all things beautiful, but who also bleeds, who is bruised, who is broken and gasps for breath in the throes of death.

Confronting the suffering of Jesus is like dealing with our grief. We would rather bypass the pain of it. And so we tend to deny our grief, and our losses. And we idealize ‘bringing closure’ even though we know deep down that there is no timeline for grief.

I hear echoes in how we have reacted to the ‘ending of the pandemic’. We have heard those announce it was a hoax, that there was no danger, and therefore no need to wear masks and staying away from large crowds. Even now with COVID protections legally lifted, refusing to abide by such protections suggests, does it not, a strong desire to be done, once and for all, of this pandemic – case closed, no danger, absolute thinking?

But the truth is, it is not emotionally nor spiritually healthier to close the door on our discomfort, our suffering. It is better to face it and learn to live with it. How so?

Here’s a bit of good news: Good Friday comes on the calendar every year. It’s as if the practice of our faith gently and regularly invites us to a healthy rhythm for life, the healthy truth of not denying nor avoiding the grief, the loss, the suffering of life for too long. Not denying the grief we continue to bear even life in Christ Jesus who suffered and died before rising to life. We cannot spiritually bypass the enduring and ambigious truth about grief, especially the longer we live.

Thank God Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday come around every year. Because even though Jesus is alive, Jesus gives us permission and a place to express honestly and with integrity the ongoing grief and losses of our lives. Because there is no such thing as ‘closure’.[2]

To varying degrees we live always with the pain of loss over the course of our lives. In truth, to resist our grief is the cause of suffering. But, to accept and to learn to live with the ambiguity of it all, to hold both our grief and our hope together, this is true faith.

To accept our losses-that-never-end is also to acknowledge grace, love and forgiveness where and when it happens. When we expect perfection, or when we place pre-conceived conditions on how something has to happen, we miss a great opportunity. We, in effect, reject an invitation to experience yet again God’s grace and love. 

For example, if a gathering can happen only if certain conditions that we set are met (if large numbers of people are desired, for instance); if a gathering of loved ones or of worshippers can happen only if our individual ‘wants’ are achieved, we lose big time. I tell people that when an opportunity to meet presents itself, then take it. And take it now. We don’t know what life may bring down the road. And when we take the risk … it won’t be perfect. It will not meet all our expectations. We will not get all that we want.

But those who are there, whom we meet, in that moment—the people, the family, the individuals, the strangers—they are God’s presence for you. God is revealed not in the glory of our imaginations nor in the fantasy of perfection born out of our minds. God is revealed in the imperfect, yes even in the suffering of the less-than-ideal.

The cross, as Martin Luther so profoundly explained, is where God is revealed to us, and offered to us. In the small numbers, in the small gifts of the moment, in the humility of meeting, in our self-limiting-for-the-sake-of-the-other, here we find and can receive the precious gift of Christ present.

God is here in the moment that is imperfect, humble, yet faithful. It is out of the ashes of grief and loss where pinpricks of light emerge and out of which, in the promise of days-to-come, we will bask in the glow of Easter joy. Again.

[1] A variation of the final, triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the Gospel for today, from Luke 19:28-40. Read the whole Passion story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

[2] Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2022.