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

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