The fifth mountain: Travel lightly, let it go

Connection to heaven (photo by Martin Malina by the Kindersley Range, BC, July 2019)

Twelve-step programs for recovery, founded in the early 20th century by Bill Wilson has evolved to healing journeys not just for alcoholics, but for anyone struggling with addiction. I was just listening to a podcast of someone suffering from depression who started a group at his church called “Twelve steps for normal people.”[1] It’s become that effective for anyone who wants to recover, heal, and grow.

This orientation towards personal well-being is important, because healthy individuals mean healthy faith communities, and vice versa.

It’s the first of the twelve steps that launches us on the path of recovery from anything.[2] It teaches us how sin in general is overcome not through personal willpower or by control. We open our hearts to God’s healing more by recognizing, right at the start, that we are powerless to overcome.

For example, we don’t become charitable by willpower, by saying to ourselves, “Be charitable!” Rather, we recognize the moments when we were totally uncharitable. And we first need to weep over them. That’s what confession is: acknowledging and admitting our limitations. In addition to baptism and holy communion, Martin Luther wanted to make confession a sacrament of the Lutheran church.

Weeping. Crying. That doesn’t feel like power at all, does it? No one wants to go there.

Yet, the way we stay on the path with any authenticity is to experience our incapacity and our failure to do something even good. This is the genius of what Paul calls “the folly of the cross”[3]

Constant failure at loving, for example, is ironically and paradoxically what keeps us learning how to love. Nineteenth century saint, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) called it her “Little Way”. She writes in her letters how it was failing to love every day that kept her on the path of love.

We hear today the fifth and final tip for the Lenten journey: Travel lightly; let it go. How do we do that?

Even before he gets to the last mountain on our Lenten journey—the Mount of Olives[4]—Jesus had already shown his openness to expressing grief. At the death of his friend, Lazarus, Jesus wept.[5]Then, as he approached the city and made his way up to Jerusalem for the last time, the Gospel of Luke records that Jesus “wept over it.”[6]

On the Mount of Olives, the day before he died, Jesus weeps when he prays: “Not my will by Thy will be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, all the Gospel writers describe Jesus in a state of great agitation and distress. Luke writes that “In his anguish … his sweat [or tears] became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”[7] In the Psalms for Lent and Holy week, we read the words Jesus himself prayed: “I cry to you, O Lord,” and “my eye is consumed with grief.”[8]

Peter weeps when he becomes aware of his blatant denial of knowing Jesus.[9] Indeed at the foot of the cross we can imagine the women and men who counted themselves among Jesus’ followers, weeping for their loss. The Passion story reveals these images of Jesus and his followers opening their hearts to expressing their sorrow. They all cried.

In our culture, we tend to be ashamed of crying, especially in front of others. Many of us may have been raised not to show our tears. We may have learned that tears show weakness and make us vulnerable. All of which, in the context of religious piety and public discourse, are bad things.

The Gospels tell us otherwise.

You will notice in the readings for this Passion Sunday the emphasis on the ‘face’—the human face. Tears, of course, emerge from our eyes and are displayed on our face. Our face reveals what is true in our hearts and who we really are.

“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” the prophet declares, “therefore I have set me face like flint …”[10] And, the Psalmist prays what Jesus prayed during his passion: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”[11]

Showing your face, is showing both your grief and your love. Showing your face is an act of love. There is a relation between the depth of our love and a corresponding sense of grief. “It is the depth of our love that determines the intensity of our weeping.”[12]

In his book, Faces: The Changing look of Humankind, Milton Brener presents a detailed study of the way in which the portrayal of the human face evolved in antiquity.[13] Noting that 90 percent of emotional communication is non-verbal, most of this non-verbal communication is expressed through the face.

What is surprising is that there are virtually no faces in prehistoric art. Its subjects are mainly animals and where there are humans, all the figurines are headless; and, where there is a head, though there may be hair there is no face. When faces do begin to appear they are expressionless, schematic and non-individualized.

A major change occurred in the sixth century BC, incidentally about the time we have the earliest scriptures written down, where portrayals of the face give way to a more individualized, varied and emotionally expressive and empathic presentation. 

Today we may miss the revolutionary impact the scriptures had on the first readers and listeners of the sacred text. Imagine the shock reading and hearing about human faces! The very mention of, indeed emphasis on, the face of Jesus—and the prophets, the Psalmist and the followers of Jesus—speaks to the importance of expressing emotions in the life of faith. And the life of God.

Our hearts are the dwelling places of God. Yet, all of them are made of fragile glass. Tears signify the fragility of the heart. They expose the brokenness and vulnerability of the soul.

When words fail to express what we feel, tears are a tangible, trusted way, of addressing our pain and our sorrow. Through weeping, we learn not just by speculating, analyzing, explaining it all away. Tears are the word-less “articulation of our grief, the wording of our desire.” Some would say that our tears are the “only way into the heart.” And therefore, tears are a great gift.

While our tears reflect our surrender, our conversion, our turning to God, they also point us to new patterns of learning and living.

When we let go, with tears, we share something of ourselves with another. Letting it go means sharing. “Love learns to share things.”[14] There’s a literal side to “letting go.” One who is practised in letting go spiritually, emotionally, will also let go materially. We release and surrender whatever we’ve been grasping tightly in our hearts. 

Ultimately our tears symbolize an opening to new life. They speak of a promise. As Jesus’ tears promised resurrection, our tears signify the journey to rebirth and healing. 

“When we admit our hopelessness and desperation, when we recognize that we have ‘hit rock bottom’ in ourselves as well as in our relationships with people and with God, we also discover the compassion of a God” who became vulnerable on the cross. When we can’t any longer, God will.

Tears open upon the wound, and ironically God enters through this very wound and brings healing to the soul and to the world. God enters through the wound in our heart not just to comfort, but more to identify completely with us in an act of infinite compassion.

The Passion of Christ is therefore the Com-Passion of God. God has undergone the vulnerability of death on a cross. The more profound and intense our tears, the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human brokenness, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion.

On this last mountain—the Mount of Olives—we witness Jesus’ tears. We pray with him, and in him. And in our surrender and release, we too await with hope the sure promise of a new way before us.

[1] I invite you to listen to a 13-minute podcast episode featuring Jeff Dafler, a recovering alcoholic and author of the book Psobriety: A Journey of Recovery through the Psalms. In the podcast, Jeff takes a look at Psalm 88, and discusses what he calls “the gift of desperation,” which allows those struggling to move toward hope and redemption.

[2] The Twelve Steps

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[4] Matthew 26:30

[5] John 11:35

[6] Luke 19:41

[7] Luke 22:44; see also Matthew 26:37-38 and Mark 14:33

[8] Psalm 130:1; 31:9

[9] Matthew 26:75

[10] Isaiah 50:6-7.

[11] Psalm 31:16

[12] John Chryssavgis, Chapter Seven “Silence and Tears” In the Heart of the Desert, Revised; The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (World Wisdom, 2008).

[13] Cited in Iain McGilChrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p.257.

[14] John Chryssavgis, ibid., Chapter Eighteen “Encountering God”

The fifth mountain; Letting it go (sermon by Martin Malina, Passion Sunday 2023)

The fourth mountain: Let someone in

Bridging Kootenay (photo by Martin Malina, Kootenay River BC, August 2019)

What are the stories we tell about people? Is it, that we know and believe the story about someone more than knowing who they really are? This distinction is important because the stories we tell ourselves have power over us. The stories about others often determine our opinion of them.

Jesus’ words and actions show that the stories circulating in Palestine in the first century about others were insufficient and lacking, or even false and untrue.

The woman caught in adultery.[1] The blind man.[2] The woman at the well.[3] These are stories from the Gospels we’ve heard on our Lenten journey.

The woman caught in adultery – what would you say about her? What is the story about her? She was not faithful, she had problems, she broke the marriage law and therefore deserved punishment and death.

The blind man – what would you say about him? What is the story about him? That he sinned, that there is some moral justification for his physical disability, that either he or his parents must be blamed. 

The woman at the well – what would you say about her? What is the story about her? That she kept secrets, a Samaritan, an outsider, not ‘one of us.’

Jesus’ action in all these cases reveals the problem, not with the persons themselves but with the stories about them. Jesus changes the story about them. He reverses the process: Before coming up with a story about someone, Jesus directs us first to get real with them. He first redirects our attention away from the stories in our heads, and brings us down to earth, literally. 

In the story of the blind man, Jesus bends down to the ground picks up some dirt, spits on it and puts mud on the man’s eyes. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus bends to the ground and writes something in the dirt not once but twice. Right from the beginning of creation and the scriptural story, the earth, the soil, is primary to its growth and healing.[4]

Creation, including you and me, needs a concrete connection to the ground, especially in life (and not only in death). In all the stories we tell about others, we need to be reminded time and time again that we all come from the same source. We are all created in the image of God. We are all made from the dust, and to dust we shall return.

Our transformation, our healing, creation’s healing, comes from the touch of Jesus as he brings our attention down to the ground upon which we live and the ground we share with everyone else.

He draws our attention away from the mental constructs we have created – the prejudices, the stories, the biases, the inflated opinions—about someone, and draws our attention instead to the person they really are as beloved by God.

These are all stories that swirl around us and others. But once we do get to know people ourselves, experience them ourselves, open our hearts to them, we find, more often than not, how untrue and unreliable these ‘stories’ actually are.

The fourth mountain on Jesus’ journey to the cross is the Mount of Transfiguration. On this mountain, you will recall from Transfiguration Sunday several weeks ago, Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. The disciples—Peter, James and John—had to experience for themselves the person of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.[5]

The Mount of Transfiguration represents for us the place in our lives where we, too, are invited to experience Jesus for ourselves. Yes, we may know all the stories about Jesus. We may recite the Gospels from memory. We may even say all the right words. Yet, the transfigured and risen Christ today invites us to experience and get to know God, personally. For God is present with us in communion with Christ Jesus. God is with us now on our journey. Let’s open our hearts to Jesus.

How does this happen? The tip for the journey on this Fifth Sunday in Lent is: Let someone in.

Last week I made two phone interviews with people involved in welcoming Ukrainian newcomers into their homes, following the Russian invasion over a year ago. One couple I talked to are hosting a family on their property in New Brunswick, near Saint John. And the other couple in their late 70s hosted a young family for several months in their basement in Kingston, Ontario.

In both scenarios, the hosts invited someone who was in crisis, complete strangers from the other side of the world, into their lives. In both scenarios, the hosts told me how good it felt to respond in concrete ways to help those in immediate need despite the social awkwardness, the cultural miscues, the disruption of personal space, the uncertainty of the future, and despite the profound language barrier.

Despite all the reasons they could come up with for not putting themselves in that position, they still did it. They let someone in. And they were and are being transformed human beings. Even if only their awareness and minds were broadened and deepened in love for themselves and others. They are creating a new story with them.

Sometimes we need help when we get stuck in fear, when we are scared to let someone in. We need someone to come alongside us in our own anxiety and stress to help us confront our fear. There’s the short video clip I watched on social media about a man standing at the foot of one of those moving escalators you see in airports.

The man stands hesitantly as swarms of people get on the escalator around him. At first you wonder why he’s just standing there, blocking the way for some others in their hustle. But then we realize he is scared. Most of the people ignore him, dismiss him as someone ‘with a mental problem’—the story about him, right?

Then, someone from the crowd—an older man—comes alongside him, stands beside him for a while. Calmly he then says to him, “Just one step forward. And another. You are on the ground. Your feet stay on the ground. Another step forward.” And he repeats this instruction while holding the man’s elbow, gently guiding him forward.

Simple, loving, concrete needs. And responses. The older man who offered help to the man locked in fear was letting someone else in, and vice a versa. The man stuck in fear experienced for himself the start of another story, a better one, about himself and the world around him. And that was made possible because someone refused to believe in the old story about another who is caught in debilitating fear. 

In healthy relationships, people let each other in. Or try. Or take the risk to let them in. And when we stumble, who comes comes alongside us? Who gives us opportunities to let them in? Who will we come alongside, and let them in?

When we let someone in—into our hearts, into our space—we begin a journey, a journey of positive change in our lives. And we are encouraged to move on until we reach the last mountain—the fifth and final—on our journey with Jesus to the end.

[1] John 8:2-11

[2] John 9:1-17

[3] John 4:5-38

[4] “…a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed life into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:6-7

[5] Matthew 17:1-8

The fourth mountain: Let someone in (Rev. Martin Malina)

The third mountain: Feed the need; eat something good.

On the Mount of Feeding in Basque-land (photo by Martin Malina, in Orio, Spain 2017)

“What is that?” I wanted to blurt out when the server placed a bowl in front of me. I was famished. I had just walked the first leg of the Camino del Norte in the scorching heat under the Spanish sun. 

It was almost 25 kilometres on foot. Not that far on paper, you might think. But in order to complete this first day of my pilgrimage, I had to scramble up a six hundred metre elevation to gain the top of the ridge overlooking the Bay of Biscay on the north coast of the Basque land. And I had to descend those hills on knees that were starting to buckle under the weight of my pack. It was a brutally challenging start to the journey. And I was tired, thirsty and hungry.

I didn’t want to complain. Out loud, anyway. “What is this?” I slurped the salty broth soup with chunks of cod floating irreverently in the stew-like dish. The food didn’t look appealing, at least from a North American culinary perspective. But I downed it like it was nectar from heaven. The cod fish soup hit the spot and gave me the energy I needed to half-crawl to my bunk for the night.

Climbing (photo by Martin Malina, Irun, Spain, May 2017)

The third mountain in Matthew’s Gospel is the Mountain of the Feeding—where on a side of a hill on the shores of Lake Galilee Jesus provided food for a multitude who had come to listen to Jesus’ teaching.[1] Jesus fed them with the simple gifts of bread and fish. Everyone ate their fill. A basic need was filled. There were even baskets left over. An abundance of simple things, for everyone.

In our world, it goes without saying that we have an abundance of food for ourselves. We complain about food prices going through the roof. And yet, I wonder if any of us have eaten less and lost weight, in response. Most of us could do well to lose some pounds. Maybe some of you have. I suspect most of us, however, still consume the same amount of food. And not of simple, basic things. We confuse needs with wants.

Between 1984 and 1991, in three covert military operations—called Moses, Joshua, and Solomon—over twenty thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel to escape famine and civil war. In an Israeli-made movie based on the first, Operation Moses, the story is told of a Christian child who is helped by the Ethiopian Jewish community to adapt to living in Israel as a Jew.[2]

The first thing that happens after the plane from Africa lands in Israel is that the whole planeload of people is sent to the showers. When copious amounts of water are used to scrub them clean, the boy has a panic attack, crying: “they will punish me, they will punish me. I am wasting so much water.”  Talk about basic needs.

Even though the person who told me about this movie saw it many, many years ago, that scene stays with her to this day. It leaves an impression because many of us take water for granted. Especially in Canada, where fresh water is naturally in abundance. Safe, clean drinking water is fundamental to human life. It is a basic need, even more so than fish and bread.

Yet, one main theme in this film, suitably titled “Live and Become”, is people from different faiths helping each other. Recognizing the need to find a new home in a faraway land, Ethiopian Jews helped a young Christian boy whose mother was left behind. 

When basic needs are shared—like having access to fresh drinking water and safe homes—some of the religious and social divisions that normally separate and often cause conflict among us, evaporate in expressions of love. 

When Jesus pays attention to the woman at the well in today’s Gospel reading[3] by attending to her need, Jesus crosses social and religious fault lines. In Jesus’ day, Jewish people did not mingle with Samaritans—outsiders, foreigners. Neither did male, Jewish leaders speak with women.

And yet Jesus, moved in ways of love for all God’s creatures, reached out and touched her heart. First, he acknowledged our human tendency to feed ourselves with things that will only keep us wanting more; eating this food will never fully satisfy us. The gifts of God’s grace, Spirit and love, however, satisfy us forever. Then, Jesus showed her mercy and offered her eternal love. Jesus addressed a basic need, not a want.

On the woman’s part, she receives the love Jesus offers. She is moved that Jesus knew everything about her and still loved her. Responding to this love doesn’t necessarily make things easier for her. That’s why the love God has for us is about meeting a need not a want. 

Sometimes what we need, in love, is to be challenged to confront our fear. The woman had every right to be afraid. She could have kept quiet given her troubled, personal history. She could have kept God’s love for herself.

But she opens her heart to Jesus and responds by sharing her experience of being loved with others. The evidence of this is her courage to then go to the city and tell everyone of her encounter with Jesus. She leaves her water jar behind—a symbolic gesture—and goes into the city to start her new life. 

She overcomes her fear and becomes an effective evangelist for Jesus. Her life bears witness, through the ages, to the power of God’s love overcoming all sorts of social and religious divisions.

I still remember the sight of that large bowl of the fish soup. The chunks of the cod floating in the watery stew of vegetables. I was thirsty and I was hungry. And I was grateful for the sustenance that simple meal had given to me.

“What is that?” (photo by Martin Malina, May 2017 in Spain)

I recall our son’s good advice for trying something new to eat, something you’d not normally ‘go to’. He said, “Someone, somewhere in the world today considers this food a gourmet, a delicacy.” When we open our hearts in love for others and for the whole world, we recognize our shared, common needs, our shared, common humanity. Practising love for another will help us overcome our fears and inhibitions.

There is a food that I love eating at home here in Canada that tasted even better in Spain: the fruit. I have never eaten more delicious oranges and peaches as I did when walking the Camino. I remember almost drinking the sweet juices of a peach I savoured during a rest break on the trail in the Basque hills. I remember how good that one peach tasted.

I wonder about what a difference it makes when we become aware of what we choose to focus on. On this third leg of our Lenten journey, we are called to feed the need (not the want); eat something good. When relating to people from other cultures and other parts of the world, we can choose to focus on the good or the bad.

There is always a bad apple in the basket. But so is there in our basket, so to speak. We can choose to fixate on that bad apple, or two, or three. But there is a whole bushel-full of apples that are pretty good. Maybe not perfect, but certainly not bad.

As we make our way down the mountain of the feeding, Jesus leads the way, breaking boundaries that divide us, and challenging our fears so that we can perceive reality in a new way. And, Jesus provides for us through the grace and mercy and love of others sharing what they have with us. Our needs are being met. Before we even lift a finger to eat. Can we do likewise, for another?

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (RCL), by Rev. Martin Malina

[1] Matthew 14:13-21

[2] Live and Become, 2005

[3] John 4:5-42

The second mountain: Trust someone

Sermon on the Mount (2nd Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2023, by Rev. Martin Malina)

You can’t do this journey without trusting someone. Or, at least, trusting life—that something good lies beyond the next ridge on our Lenten journey. It’s a disposition of the heart, to nurture a trust in someone else who travels with you.

After Jesus is tempted on the mount of temptation, he begins his ministry, his calling. This part of his life is not recognized in the traditional creeds of the church. Which is unfortunate because we miss a significant aspect in the message God wants to bring to us in how to live a life of faith on earth. How to journey well.

On the Mount of Whistler (overlooking Whistler BC, photo by M Malina August 2019)

After descending the mount of temptation in the first week of Lent, we now climb the mount of beatitudes. From this mountain top[1] Jesus delivers his famous ‘sermon on the mount’. Well-known passages from Jesus’ speech include the beatitudes, the golden rule and instructions on how to pray. It is here Jesus gains the reputation of being a teacher and is therefore granted the title “Rabbi” in the Jewish faith.

It is how Nicodemus, a leader of Israel, first addresses Jesus when he encounters him in our Gospel reading for today[2]. He calls Jesus, “Rabbi”. A teacher.

But Jesus challenges Nicodemus by turning the tables on him. He says to Nicodemus, “You are a teacher yourself, and yet you do not understand this?” Does Nicodemus try to resist the implication that those have lived long can still be ‘born again’, and change? Good teachers will always challenge us to grow. 

Who are your teachers? And how do you respond? Will you trust them?

Nicodemus approaches Jesus with a little bit of uncertainty. He is learning to trust Jesus. But he is not a spy trying to test Jesus like the other Pharisees were wanting to do; otherwise, he would not need to find Jesus at night to talk to him. And, rather than ask whether Jesus was a teacher, he declares up front that Jesus was a teacher sent from God. Nicodemus’ manner and words indicate he was an honest seeker of Jesus, still trying to figure it out for himself.

And eventually he does! Later in the Gospel of John we discover that Nicodemus did in fact become a follower of Jesus. Nicodemus did learn to trust him. First, by defending Jesus publicly in front of other Pharisees,[3] and then showing up in the garden to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.[4] Nicodemus had a change in heart which allowed him to trust Jesus. He was, you could say, born again!

The life and leadership of former bishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero (1917-1980), illustrates how our hearts are changed by who we consider our teachers.

When the name Oscar Romero is mentioned, I first think of his dramatic assassination right at the altar where he was giving mass. His name is associated first with the horror of his violent death. Similar to the Creed’s exclusive focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection, by focusing only on Romero’s death we miss what had changed in his life when he sought another teacher.

At first, in his role as priest, then bishop, Oscar Romero assumed that the ways of God were in fairly close alignment with the priorities of the Roman Catholic magisterium and the Salvadoran government. For him, at this time, Romero saw in Jesus someone who could be used to defend his country’s status quo. You could say the Catholic Church in accordance with the government were his ‘teachers’.

But when he opened his heart to the love of God, his vision changed. He saw the love of God expressed by the common people. And that is when he found the courage to align himself with love. He decided to live in solidarity with the poor and learn from them the ways of God. Poor people, rather than priests, professors, and politicians, would now be his teachers.[5]

During the funeral service last week of the late Paul Bosch, a former professor of mine at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, the preacher, Bishop Michael Pryse, recalled a teaching Paul Bosch had offered to him.

A group of ordained pastors were visiting a religious retreat centre north of Toronto early in Bishop Pryse’s ministry when he was still a pastor. Upon entering the chapel there, Paul Bosch translated from an inscription above the altar which said, in Latin: “sic Deus delexit mundum”. The standard translation of that phrase—sic Deus delexit mundum—was the well-known verse from John 3:16 in our Gospel reading today: “For God so loved the world …” 

However, Paul Bosch went on to say that the Latin verb ‘delexit’ is also the root of our English phrase, “to take delight”. In other words, not only does God love the world, but God also takes delight in what God created. God takes delight in us. God enjoys creation, takes delight in all that is.

And, if God so loved the world and takes delight in us and in everyone God created, God must also trust us. When you love someone, you trust them.

When God gave Abraham the mission to leave his hometown and journey to far away Canaan,[6] God entrusted this mission to him, because God loved him. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, Jesus trusted his companions on the journey, because he loved them. When Jesus preaches that blessed are the poor, the meek, those who are persecuted for my sake, when Jesus teaches us to love others the way we want to be loved, God is placing an incredible, almost unbelievable, amount of trust in us. 

Martin Luther taught that the favored, preferred, definition of faith was not belief so much as trust. To have faith, is not to believe something but to trust someone. And so, on this second leg of our Lenten pilgrimage to the five mountains in Matthew’s Gospel, as we make our way down the mount of beatitudes today, the second tip for our journey is: Trust someone on the way.

And we can trust that God won’t disappoint. We can trust that despite our failure and shortcomings in trusting others, God will always trust us, will always be faithful to us in life and in death.

[1] In the Gospel of Matthew, read chapters 5-7

[2] John 3:1-17

[3] John 7:50-51

[4] John 19:39

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Deeper Way of Love” Week Eight: The Way of Jesus (Daily Meditations,, 21 Feb 2023)

[6] Genesis 12:1-4a