Flowing far towards thanksgiving

The Niagara River at the Falls, photo by Martin Malina (May 2022)

When confronted with obstacles, challenges and frustrations, what is our natural impulse? What do you do? I, for one, react by trying to do it all by myself. Go it alone. Problem is, as challenges mount and obstacles grow larger and there doesn’t seem any end in sight to all that is wrong in the world today, that strategy – going it alone – is less and less effective to say the least.

It takes a river, and some massive Falls to suggest another way.

Last week I began what is turning out to be, for me, a season of long-distance trips over the next few weeks and months. It started with a church meeting in Niagara Falls – the farthest distance from home that I have been in over three years.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God …”[1] The vision of God presented to us from John’s revelation in the last book of the bible is not always consistent with our human tendency to react against the obstacles we face. While God’s vision is of wholeness and union, we tend to go the opposite direction. We would rather divide and conquer.

We are motivated by so many conflicting and competing impulses and desires. Left alone to our own devices, we don’t get very far. And, usually, we will make a mess of things. And yet, if we seek and are honest about our desire to be healed from whatever ails us, we must come to terms with our natural impulse to go-it-alone.

The man lying by the pool called Beth-zatha had been ill for thirty-eight years. He had tried everything, it seems, to find healing for himself. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me,” he complains to Jesus. [2] Left to his own devices, relying on his own resources, he had gotten nowhere.

Why Jesus had chosen him, and none other, of the many invalids that populated the pool side, is another question that confounds our fierce independence. Perhaps there was a reason, a mission, a purpose for the man whom Jesus heals in this Gospel text. 

“Let your way be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.” In the Psalm for today, the phrases “all the nations” and “the peoples” and “all the ends of the earth” appear no less than nine times in seven short verses.[3]

Health and healing are for the nations, for the purpose of the well-being of all people. As I stood at Niagara Falls, in the corner of the pedestrian mall close to the ledge overlooking the thundering waters, I saw down the gorge dividing Canada and the United States. And the text from Revelation popped into my mind: “On either side of the river is the tree of life … for the healing of the nations.”[4]

Rainbow Bridge over the Dividing Line, photo by Martin Malina (May 2022)

The tree of life “on either side of the river”. What do you make of that? The tree of life shows up in the garden of Eden, mentioned very early in the first book of the bible.[5] But by the end of the bible, in the last book and the last chapter for that matter, there are now at least two, it appears.[6]

On either side. Not one side or the other. Not we’re right, they’re wrong. Not someone wins and someone loses. Not just for me and my kin. Not God is on our side, never yours. Not me-first, then you.

The vision of God is: On either side. On both sides of the question. On both sides of the dividing line. It seems that it takes a whole bible and a whole lot of stories about the topsy-turvy relationship between God and God’s people for it to finally get worked out. God is on all sides, by the end of it all. Good news!

So, what did the healed man do? What was his purpose? After Jesus told him to “stand up, take your mat and walk”, where did he go? Did God have a purpose for him, besides inciting a growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders because he healed on the sabbath?

A few verses later, we read that afterwards “Jesus found him in the temple.”[7] We may wonder why, after thirty-eight years of illness would someone to go to the temple after being made well. There could be many possible reasons. But a good guess is that his heart was bursting with thanksgiving. And he wanted, first and foremost, to praise God for the gift of grace. 

Another clue may be why Jesus himself came up to Jerusalem in the first place, just before going to the pool. There was a “festival of the Jews”.[8]  Some suggest that this festival was Tabernacles, or Booths.[9]

This festival was Israel’s Thanksgiving. The Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder of when God delivered Israel, through Moses, out of slavery in Egypt and their time in the desert. The Israelites lived in tabernacles or booths on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. To celebrate this festival was to give thanks to God for all the blessings the people have received throughout their history.

The people. All the nations. To the ends of the earth. Thanksgiving opens our hearts. Thanksgiving expands our hearts.

Wherever this Gospel text leads us in our contemplation of new life in Christ during this Easter season, one thing, I think, is clear: The man who was healed couldn’t go it alone. He couldn’t do it by himself. He needed someone else to help him. 

Whatever we would say about this time in our lives—the confusion, the uncertainties, and ambiguity of post-pandemic reset, the longing for healing and wholeness so many of us seek at different levels—individually, socially, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially—one thing is sure: We can’t do it on our own. We can’t pretend that we don’t need any help. 

Wherever Jesus is found in his post-resurrection appearances, it is always with others, healing others, inspiring others, helping others, challenging others, comforting others. Where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is there with them.[10]

May the waters of our baptism lead us down the river, embracing both sides of the divide, to the healing of all. And it all starts by reaching out to, and receiving help from, another, who comes to us. 

Thanks be to God!

[1] Revelation 22:1

[2] John 5:1-9

[3] Psalm 67

[4] Revelation 22:2

[5] Genesis 2:9

[6] The Greek has “tree,” which is used in a collective sense of trees on both sides of the river.

[7] John 5:14

[8] John 5:1

[9] 1 Kings 8:2; Nehemiah 8:14. Tabernacles is the only Jewish festival that is commonly called simply “the festival”. Other holidays in the Gospel of John are always referred to by their particular names – “the festival of Dedication” (John 10:22) and “the festival of the Passover” (John 13:1)

[10] Matthew 18:20

audio for “Flowing far towards Thanksgiving” by Martin Malina

Parting words to love

audio for ‘Parting words to love’ by Martin Malina
Flight of love, photo by Jessica Hawley Malina April 2022

Parting words leave a lasting impression.

The story is told of the words that were exchanged when the Spanish Priest,  Saint John of the Cross, died in the 14th century. At his death, the monastery that he went to, he deliberately chose one of the superiors who didn’t like him. On his deathbed, he said to the superior, “So whatever I did to contribute to the conflict between us, I want to apologize.” That’s how he died. And it was said that the superior came out crying. It changed his life.[1]

Sometimes what stays with us about a loved one who died is their last word spoken to us. Sometimes those words are instructions (“Take care of so-and-so”). Sometimes those words are a simple expression of love (“I love you”). Sometimes they are spoken to give assurance (“I am at peace”). Sometimes those parting words give us clarity and direction for the rest of our earthly lives.

Jesus gave his disciples parting words just before he died. These words  echo through the canyon of time to us hearing them read today. “I give you one commandment … that you love one another”. [2]

Now, on the surface this commandment sounds kind of soft. It doesn’t come cut and dry like all those “shoulds” and especially “should nots” in the over 600 laws and commandments we find in the bible. 

The commandment to love is often used as a summary statement for the two tables of the Ten Commandments. But it’s so hard to respond to this command stated so simply. We may receive it like a slider in baseball: The pitch appears first to be coming fast, straight across the plate–a simple pitch to hit hard, maybe a homerun! But at the last minute breaks down and away from the plate–a most difficult pitch to hit. Which often results in a strikeout! We really need to practice and work hard at it.

In the Easter season we reflect on what it means to be alive in the new life of Jesus. And this Gospel text gives focused expression to that life. In other words, being alive in Christ is realized in a loving relationship. After all, Jesus is love, as God is love.[3]

And the Gospel is full of images and descriptions of Jesus’ love in action. To illustrate this, another Gospel text echoes down the canyon of time from just before the Lenten season began, just before Jesus’ journey to the Cross. 

Jesus describes himself as a hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Jesus says as he laments over Jerusalem.[4]

Sometimes I think we would rather Jesus be the fox, as he described Herod, in that same text from Luke. Herod was the supreme ruler of the first century Roman Empire. “Go, tell that fox Herod”, Jesus instructs the Pharisees. Herod, the fox, was the one with all the cards to play, the one aggressive, defensive and wily.  But, no, in contrast to Herod, Jesus is mother hen.

First and foremost, being a follower of Christ means being gathered under wing, nurtured and held in a 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 a relationship.

Love is an action word. Love is concrete behaviour in every moment we are given that communicates mercy, grace, forgiveness, faithfulness. And Jesus did love. 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 overlooked and despised. He loved those who were marginalized in a culture dominated by violence, aggression and retribution.[5]

Many of those around Jesus wanted a Messiah to liberate them from the Romans and restore a religious kingdom. The religious leaders who scrutinized, criticized and argued with Jesus yearned for a Messiah who would give them what they wanted.[6] Many, indeed, wanted Jesus to be the fox. No, Jesus said to Pilate just before he was crucified. That’s not what Jesus’ kingdom is like, at all![7]

Do the echoes of Jesus’ parting words fall into silence? Will his parting instructions actually make a difference in a world today just as violent as in the first century? Do the echoes down the canyon of time translate to something more than mere platitude?

An image from the prophet Isaiah describes that day when justice is restored. This is the day 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 …”[8]

They say people who have difficulty loving others are those who can’t, don’t or won’t receive love themselves. Receiving love is part of our relationship with God. A fundamental part. 

Receiving gifts. Receiving care and grace. Receiving support when it is offered. Without making conditions on the gift or somehow making it into an “I owe you” kind of transaction. Receiving love can be the most difficult act of faith. In truth, we will often reject a gift when it is offered. This is probably our greatest downfall. We strike out.

And so in this Easter season may we lean towards, receive and depend upon the life and love of Jesus. The commandment to love may sound childish. We won’t find this ‘law’ anywhere written in public discourse, debated in our legislative assemblies, printed in constitutions or legalized. 

Yet when we practice it, we participate in the coming kingdom of God. When little acts of grace, or big acts of grace, are given and received freely, in our lives, we are letting “a child lead us”–the babe born in Bethlehem and the One who refuses to stop loving us. Thanks be to God!

[1] James Finley in Richard Rohr, “Transformed by the Dark Night; Week 19 Luminous Darkness, Deepening Love” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 13 May 2022).

[2] John 13:31-35

[3] 1 John 4:8,16

[4] Luke 13:31-32, 34

[5] Luke 6:27-36

[6] John 10:22-30

[7] John 18:36

[8] Isaiah 11:6 NRSV

Not lightyears away but light today

audio of ‘Not lightyears away but light today’ by Martin Malina
Brilliant light, photo by Martin Malina 2019

There are several images of Jesus we find in the Gospel of John. These are metaphors, or mental images, we have to describe Jesus. Examples are: the good shepherd, the gate or door, the vine, the way, truth and the life. Jesus is all of these, and more.

The purpose of all these images we find is to invite us to encounter Jesus in a new light. These metaphors are not just given to us to satisfy our intellectual curiosity about God, to consider in some detached, theoretical manner. But to invite us into a new way of experiencing Jesus, to live in Christ.

Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is about life. In the Gospel text today, Jesus tells those who scrutinize him, that he has come to give people eternal life.[1] Earlier in this same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says he has come to give us life “abundantly”.[2]

Having life in Christ is not just about “heaven lightyears away”[3]. More to the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection on earth, being alive in Christ springs from our life here and now. It springs from “making something of what we experience and receiving what experience makes of us.”[4]

It’s an onging, divine, conversation. It’s full engagement with, not denial of, what is alive in us and the world around us. In such a space we take what is given us in each moment and respond to it, in love. And in our response, we allow ourselves to depend on something greater than ourselves.

Where does the light shine, today? Where the shadows lengthen under the ongoing war in Ukraine, where our health falters and our losses mount, where we find our vision clouded in the ambiguous, post-pandemic reset, when we can’t see very well, literally and figuratively ….

Where does the light shine? When we don’t know the way, when the lights go out and our lives feel like we are groping around on the floor to get our bearings, does the light shine somewhere at all? Will it ever again?

Jesus goes to the temple during the Festival of Dedication.[5] The Gospel writer John mentions this detail not without intention, I believe. 

The Festival of Dedication refers to the Festival of Hannukah. It is the festival of lights. It is an annual Jewish rededication of the temple in memory of the miracle of lights. The miracle happened when the eternal flame in the temple burned for eight days on one day’s amount of oil. This miracle occurred in the 2nd century B.C.E. during the Maccabbean revolt against the Greek desecration of the temple. The Festival of lights.

Christians believe Jesus is the light of the world.[6] In this Easter season, the gift of greater light, longer in the day, is making a positive impact on my mind and my mood. 

The man who invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison, comes to mind. And when you think about what his invention gave to us, it is astounding. His gift of light means that when in places where the natural light from the sun cannot illuminate, we can still shine a light. 

When Thomas Edison was a boy, one day he came home from school and gave his mom a letter.

Quietly he said to his mother: “My teacher gave me this letter to give only to you, and for your eyes only.”

She scanned down the letter and her eyes filled with tears. Then she began from the beginning, reading the words, boldly, outloud: “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him. Please teach him yourself.”

Many years later, after the death of his mother, Edison was sorting some family documents and came across a folded piece of paper. It was the letter from his old teacher that his Mom had kept. But when Edison read it, he was shocked. It had actually read:

“Your son is mentally challenged. We cannot accommodate him anymore in our school.” Edison wept, and then wrote in his journal: “Thomas A. Edison was a mentally disabled child. But through one, courageous, heroic mother he became the greatest genius of the century.”[7]

This story is about a mother’s faith in her child. When someone has faith in us, look what’s possible. We are all children of the same God. And Christ, in his love for us, is faithful no matter what.

When the shadows lengthen it’s hard to believe in anything let alone Jesus. The good news despite it all is that Jesus believes in us. And will remain faithful to us in love, forever. Let Jesus be our guide, over these coming days, and beyond. Let Jesus be our guide, so we can rise again, and again, in the new light of Christ. Amen.

[1] John 10:28

[2] John 10:10

[3] “Gather Us In”, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) Hymn #532, verse 4

[4] Brian McLaren, “Seeking Aliveness”, in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 25 November 2021).

[5] John 10:22

[6] John 1:3-5,9

[7] Adapted and translated from Jürgen Werth, Neukirchener Kalendar, April 15, 2022.