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

The first mountain: Remember who you are

The first mountain: Remember who you are

While the Gospel of Mark is about the desert, Matthew is the Gospel of mountains.[1] There are five mountains in the Gospel. And during five Sundays in Lent, we will visit each of the mountains Jesus visits on his journey to the cross:

The Mount of Temptation, The Mount of the Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of the Feeding, the Mount of Transfiguration, and the Mount of Olives. And from each visit to a mountain, and based on the Gospel reading for the day, we will conclude with a guiding principle—a tip for the journey ahead.

On the mountain (photo by M. Malina on Hurricane Ridge looking at Mount Olympus, WA, 12 August 2022)

The first mountain we visit in Lent is the Mount of Temptation. And the biggest temptations Jesus faced were to believe lies about who he was. 

The Gospel reading for today[1] describes Jesus’ forty days in his wilderness journey. And in the desert Jesus encountered the father of all lies, the devil, who tempted him. The devil tempted Jesus not to believe in what God told him at his baptism, which happened right before he went off into the desert. At Jesus’ baptism, God said: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”[2]

In three different ways, Jesus was tempted by the devil to believe lies that undermined the truth of his identity—who he was. What are these lies? First, Jesus is tempted to prove his identity only if he changes a stone to bread. In other words, he is defined by what he does. The first lie.

Second, Jesus must verify what was said about him in the scriptures; he is defined by what others say about him. The second lie.

And third, the devil takes him to the highest mountain—the mount of temptation—to show him all the kingdoms of the world to tempt Jesus into believing he is who he is only by having it all! The third lie.[3]

Three lies. And three holy responses:

The truth Jesus needed to affirm in his life to thwart the devil’s temptations was that: First, Jesus belonged to God already, before doing anything. God’s love for Jesus happened before his ministry and purpose on earth was achieved. Second, God’s love for Jesus needed no verification by others; it requires no test. And third, God’s pleasure and favour did not depend on how much power or riches he had.

These temptations are also aimed at each one of us. In our day and age, we are tempted by these lies: First, we are what we do; we have value only by our achievements, success, and accomplishments. Our value stems from our action, a belief which results in always running from pillar-to-post, over-working, active all the time. Lie number one. 

Second, we succumb to believing we are what others say about us. In the early part of our lives, it’s important to listen to and imitate even those whom we admire and love. It’s how we start developing our personalities. But eventually, we must also strike our own course and be who we are without always responding in order to please others. We make decisions according to our own conscience and not according to what others would have us do. In the end we are not what others say about us. Lie number two. 

Finally, we are told the lie that are what we have. And it’s not just how much stuff we have, or what neighbourhood we live in as a sign of who we are. It’s also how much we know. Knowledge. Information. I can only be me if I have all the right ideas, or enough information. Lie number three.

Each of these lies if we pursue them without reflection and self-awareness can take us far off course; they can distract us and negatively affect our relationships to the point of not knowing who we are, with disastrous results.

And so, on this First Sunday in Lent, the first ‘tip’ for the journey is: Remember who you are.

The story is told of how little, first-born Joshua reacted to having a new baby sister. 

“Be careful,” was Mom’s advice to Joshua, “she’s just a few days old and we can’t be rough with her.” She repeated this instruction often those first days.

Late one night Mom and Dad heard footsteps down the hallway and into the nursery. Dad was on duty, so he quickly got out of bed and followed Joshua into his sister’s room. When he poked his head to see what Joshua was up to, Dad was a little startled:

Joshua was practically inside the crib with little baby sister, his body hanging over the railing and his legs dangling over the top.

“Joshua! What are you doing?!” whispered Dad as loudly as a whisper can be. “Don’t wake up your sister!”

“Shhhh!” Joshua replied, “I am listening to what my baby sister remembers about God.”

This story about children is about remembering. Remembering God. Remembering that we come from God. Maybe we need to be like children our whole life long when it comes to having confidence in our identity and remembering to whom we belong.

Remember who you are. In Christ.

You are not what you do. You are not what others say about you. You are not what you have. If you’re not these three things, who are you? 

You are a beloved child of God. You have worth and value before you do anything. You need not prove your worth by what you do or don’t do. Just as you are, you are loved. You, like everyone else, are a human being not a human doing. You can stop, rest. It’s ok. Leo Tolstoy gave some great advice for the action-oriented among us: “In the name of God, stop a moment, close your work, look around you.”[4]

Moreover, you are a beloved child of God, not the product of someone else’s wishes for you. You are beloved in your own right, on your own two feet, in your own good mind and heart. You are uniquely created, fashioned in God’s eye before you were born. You are like no other on this planet since the beginning of time and forever more. You make a unique contribution by who you are. Don’t take to heart what others say about you, good or bad. Because what they say is not the whole truth about you. Be yourself.

And finally, you are a beloved child of God, not because of the size of your financial portfolio and not because you have all the right ideas. But because your heart beats and you breathe the air that everyone else breathes on earth. You have value even without anything anyone may acquire in life.

On this first leg in our Lenten journey, remember who you are. Because when we know that we are unconditionally loved, we can love others in kind, without placing false expectations on them:

We make our love not dependent on what they do or don’t do for us. We make our love not conditional on what they have. And we love others not based on their reputation, pedigree or good word in the gossip circles.

Imagine a world where all of us remembered who we truly are in the unconditional love of God!

[1] Belden C. Lane, Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance; From Ancient Monks to Mountain Refugees (Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2011), p.22.

[2] First Sunday in Lent, Matthew 4:1-11, Year A (Revised Common Lectionary).

[3] Matthew 3:17

[4] Christopher L. Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), p.185-190.

[5] Cited in Daily Prayer for All Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), p.49.

A larger life

Two neighbours that attended the same local church looked at each other over their shared, backyard fence. Respecting the two-metre physical distance rule, they waved to each other. And then one spoke up.

“So, what did you give up for Lent this year?”

The answer was tinged with desperation: “Everything!”

This morning I want to speak to those who are self-isolating at home but who otherwise are feeling ok. By this point may be going a bit stir-crazy. I want to speak to those who are feeling a growing anxiety for our world, our communities and who worry increasingly for loved ones on the front lines, stuck in countries far away and for the poor, homeless and vulnerable in this pandemic. I want to speak to those who need to remind ourselves why it is important to be restricting our social practice.

In doing so, it indeed feels like we’ve given up everything. Not just chocolates. Not just those symbolic gestures of religious observance. It feels like Lent this year is truly a journey – and an extra-long one – of exposing all our dearest attachments, our dependencies, our entrenched patterns of behaviour. It’s hard to give all that up.

Someone on my social media posted an old wisdom saying: “When you silence all the busyness and noise around you, then in that silence the noise within will rise …” When our external world shuts down so much as it has during this lockdown, we must face our own selves like never before. We are forced to confront and reassess our most dearly and tightly held social behaviours.

Including how we do church. It seems increasingly so, that the Lenten journey this year is going to last long past the calendar date for Easter. We won’t be seeing each other face-to-face for a while. The end of the crisis will come, but we first have to get there. 

Another post I’ve shared on my social media this week is a good one: “Churches are not being closed. Buildings are being closed. You are the church. You are to remain open.” How do we do that? How do we remain open?

We record these short worship services in the sanctuary and wear familiar attire with all the usual trappings. We do this for comfort in the midst of trying times. The comfort of familiarity. We also do this to stimulate the imagination and encourage hope. Imagine the day, and it will come, when we can gather again together in places of worship! I hope that vision encourages us and lifts our spirits.

At the same time and in the midst of this extended Lenten journey, we can’t escape to la-la land, to some disembodied realm of our imagination alone. We can’t pretend that life can only happen when there is no more coronavirus. We can’t delude ourselves into the desperation of believing that we can have life only when there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Life doesn’t happen only once all this is over.

We need to exercise our faith where and when we are. Even in the midst of crisis. We need to discover the life of God—not now in some sanctuary or regular place of worship, but wherever we are: At home, in the grocery story, outside on our walks, helping with food delivery to those most vulnerable; Practising safe, social distancing; Yes, even by facing and acknowledging the anxious, fearful demons within our own hearts.

The point of the raising of Lazarus gospel story is to tell us something true about God. The raising of Lazarus probes the point of Jesus’ resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life …” Jesus says.[1]

The meaning of the Lenten journey is more than just ‘God for us’. The cross of Jesus is profoundly a sign that “God is with us.” God is in our suffering, alongside us in this difficult journey of fear and anxiety. After all, God in Christ promised to come to make home with us, and dwell with us.[2]

So when, as the old wisdom saying concludes, when we confront the noise within: “… Hold your heart in love. As a mother holds a crying child. Until your heart curls up in the silent love of God.” The pain is one we all share. And so, too, must be our response—a shared response out of love for the neighbour.

In showing compassion and love to our neighbours, we are church. In recognizing the gift of our life despite all of the challenges face, we are church. In recognizing others’ sacrifice for the good of those affected, we are church. In doing our part to create new connections, new ways of being together, new ways to care for others, we are church. 

And we continue to be church in the larger life of God in Christ. 

[1]John 11:25-26

[2]John 14:23; Revelation 21:3

Global solidarity in a global pandemic

The gift of physical sight is a two-edged sword: We can see many things at once in our field of vision. But we can also be very easily distracted by what we see in front of us. It’s hard to focus.

When we use only our ears, however, our hearing brings us more quickly into focus – on what is important and what needs to be done. When we listen, we have to right away clear out all the other noise and chatter into a singularity of mind.

Yes, the blind beggar in the Gospel story receives his sight[1]. That is the obvious miracle. But just as great a ‘miracle’ is that the blind man first had to hear Jesus. He had to focus on Jesus’ voice that told him what to do. 

He had to listen to Jesus’ instruction to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. The Pool of Siloam – a relatively recent archeological find in Jerusalem – was located in a public space. It was not someone’s private swimming pool. It didn’t belong for the exclusive use of a wealthy and privileged individual. 

It was a place everyone could access, a place people went in that part of the city for fresh drinking water, a place also recognized for ritual bathing. The Pool of Siloam was designed for everyone to use, including the blind beggars of the city.

For his healing, the blind man had to go outside the sphere of his own private world. He had to go beyond himself, so to speak, into a public place.

Besides the obvious physical threat, the greatest danger during this global pandemic is to become completely turned in on oneself. Perhaps you, too, in your social isolation practices have started to feel a bit of ‘cabin fever’ by now. It’s been a few days. The initial novelty is starting to wear off. Our restlessness is fed by fear and despair. How long will this last? We may feel within our hearts a growing and relentless sense of foreboding. And this will undo us if not checked. 

The solution to this inner dis-ease is not to violate the protocols of social distancing and the instructions of the authorities. But it is to find ways, creative ways, to focus on another, and their needs.

I was moved by the heartfelt image from Italy, of an eighty-year-old woman on her birthday standing in her tiny apartment kitchen. Her window was wide open. Tears were streaming down her face as she listened to her neighbours sing to her in unison, “Happy Birthday”. The chorus of voices echoed in the narrow open spaces between the multileveled rowhouse neighborhood. 

As always but even more today, people are still starving. Not just starving for food and for certain paper products. But starving for love, starving to belong, starving for shelter, starving for justice.

May God grant us the courage to focus mind and heart, and first listen. Listen to and focus on the voice calling us to let ourselves be loved. Listen to and focus on the voice calling us to go beyond ourselves to the other, in loving deeds.

Indeed, we are experiencing a global solidarity in the midst of this public health crisis. Even in the suffering of this experience, may God grant us courage to find new ways of affirming our solidarity in the life, the love and being of Christ.

[1]John 9:1-11

Keeping watch on our moral compass in a pandemic

Our very human responses are varied and exposed in this public health crisis. Whatever the case may be, we must also be vigilant about the moral disease exposed in a pandemic.

In our normally extraverted and active society we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other. Not just at sports stadiums and convention venues, but religious gatherings as well. 

In our social distancing exercise we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Yes. We are encouraged to heed the health and official authorities. Yes. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized. Yes. We show thereby our responsibility to the sanctity of life, not just our own. 

But for the sake of the most vulnerable.

For the time being we will refrain from physically sharing the Peace. We will leave the offering plate on the table into which we offer our gifts. We will cough into our sleeves. We will encourage donating online if you choose to self-isolate; and, we will explore using the internet more for helping people of Faith to connect. We will encourage vigorous hand-washing practices and dis-infect surfaces and door handles in our public spaces.

But there is something more going on beneath the surface of our vigilance.

When social distancing becomes a virtue. And dread overwhelms the normal, healthy bonds of human affection. 

“In his book on the 1665 London epidemic, A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe reports, ‘This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. … The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.’

“Fear drives people in these moments, but so does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease. In all pandemics people are forced to make the decisions that doctors in Italy are now forced to make — withholding care from some of those who are suffering and leaving them to their fate.

“In 17th-century Venice, health workers searched the city, identified plague victims and shipped them off to isolated ‘hospitals,’ where two-thirds of them died. In many cities over the centuries, municipal authorities locked whole families in their homes, sealed the premises and blocked any delivery of provisions or medical care.”

While some disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes can bring people together, history shows that pandemics can tear people apart.

“The Spanish flu pandemic that battered America in 1918 produced similar reactions. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, reports that as conditions worsened, health workers in city after city pleaded for volunteers to care for the sick. Few stepped forward.

“In Philadelphia, the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children. Nobody answered. The organization’s director turned scornful: ‘… There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.’

“This explains one of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.

“Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. In her 1976 dissertation, ‘A Cruel Wind,’ Dorothy Ann Pettit argues that the 1918 flu pandemic contributed to a kind of spiritual [apathy] afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu, Pettit writes, had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.

“There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today.

“[At] … EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Washington State … the staff [is] showing the kind of effective compassion that has been evident in all pandemics down the centuries. ‘We have not had issues with staff not wanting to come in,’ an Evergreen executive said. ‘We’ve had staff calling and say, ‘If you need me, I’m available.’

“Maybe this time we’ll learn from their example. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.

“Frank Snowden, the Yale historian who wrote Epidemics and Society, argues that pandemics hold up a mirror to society and force us to ask basic questions: … Where is God in all this? What’s our responsibility to one another?”[1]

History also shows that pandemics tend to hit the poor hardest and enflame social divisions. Today, we cannot forget those who are most vulnerable: the elderly, for one, who must stay in these days. A simple note phone call or email to ask if they need any groceries or medication pick-up. These calls will remind them they are not alone through this crisis. That there are those who care. And are willing to help.

In our efforts to maintain concrete connections, even in this time of social distancing, we continue to build the community of love that is the Body of Christ.

Even in crisis, we are not meant to be alone. In crisis, we are not meant to retreat into self-preoccupation. This pandemic cannot kill compassion, too. Even if only where two or three are gathered, virtually or face-to-face, we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in “God with us” and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: “Do not be afraid.” We are called always but especially at this time, to reassure others in the same promise.

In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. The Samaritan woman at the well was not so much in need of a physical healing as she was an emotional, social healing.[2]Our faith in Christ acknowledges those areas in our individual and public lives where we need emotional and moral healing as much as physical.

By temporarily limiting our gatherings, we are being responsible in not contributing to the problem – the transmission of disease. But at this time especially let’s be just as vigilant in not abdicating our moral call to be responsible for others’ care.

I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, all in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities. 

At the end of the pandemic which will surely come, my hope is that as human beings will have overcome the physical danger, Christians will also have stayed true to our moral compass.

The Peace of Christ be with you all.

[1]David Brooks, “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too.” New York Times, March 12, 2020.

[2]John 4:5-30

Blinded by the light

It was no coincidence that I was humming the refrain of Bruce Springsteen’s song when I left my eye appointment. I was literally “blinded by the light”. 

The drops I had received dilated my pupils so much so that I couldn’t keep my eyes open in the bright outdoors. Even on a cloudy day the white snow cover amplified the light so that my treated eyes just could not cope. 

Though the doctor promised that within a couple of hours normality would return to my stressed eyes, for the time being I had to wear dark shades to keep the light out.

In this case, darkness was a friend. I welcomed and sought out dark places.

Nicodemus came to Jesus when it was dark.[1]For whatever reason, he needed to find Jesus at night. He knew he couldn’t do this in the bright of day. He knew he couldn’t take the scrutiny and public exposure that confronting Jesus with personal questions, would entail. Darkness surrounded an intimate conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is obvious Nicodemus pursues, under the cover of night, some deep-seeded yearning to learn more about this man, Jesus.

Nicodemus and Jesus talk about new birth and being lifted up to renewed life. Ironically a new vision for life, light and blessing is being born in Nicodemus at night. In the bible, Nicodemus isn’t the only one who likes the dark.

In the first reading today, God blesses Abraham.[3]The word ‘bless’ appears five times in four short verses. Clearly, this passage is about what blessing means. It is through the descendants of Abraham, whose lineage then goes through Jesus, that God’s blessing for the life of all is achieved.

And here we must deal with one of the great paradoxes of the faith.

One the one hand, the blessing of God knows no limits. The blessing upon Abraham has a limitless purpose: “that all the families on earth shall be blessed.” God’s blessing is meant for the benefit of all. God’s blessing is not confined to individual benefit alone.

God’s vision is much more expansive – like the stars in the sky. The blessing of God has a trajectory that does not stop with individual gain. God’s blessing is universal in scope. Anything less is a blessing truncated, even misguided.

This expansive, limitless, trajectory is reflected in one of the most popular scriptures from the New Testament. “For God so loved the world … in order that the world might be saved through [Jesus].”[4]Jesus gave his life and love, for the sake of everyone.

And yet, at the same time, we must acknowledge our individual limits. Whatever blessing of which each of us may be part is only as conduit for the benefit of others.

God blesses Abraham at night. In a parallel passage from Genesis God brings Abraham outside and says to him, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be.”[5]Do you notice the subtext? It is only at night that you can see the stars. At night God gives Abraham the great covenant promise. Like with Nicodemus, it is in the darkness where the most intimate and significant conversation takes place between God and the “father of us all”[6], in Paul’s words from Romans.

The paradox of faith is that we participate in the vastness, limitless regions of God’s grace but only by respecting and acknowledging our limits.

It’s true about the soul, too: We can only bear so much light.[7]If there’s too much light coming at us, we’re blinded. Light can be as blinding as darkness. Sometimes, we need to turn off all the screens after the sun sets. Sometimes, we need to watch the darkness fall, and be present to it.

We have limits as human beings. Better learn early in life to embrace those limits of sight, limits of physicality, limits of intelligence and knowing, limits of our capability. It will help us down the road.

We cannot presume to bless others — be a conduit of God’s blessing — if we believe we can do anything and everything on our own. We make a mistake when we presume we know what others need before asking them, when we think we understand the truth about others before getting to know them. Unless we first come to terms with and respect our own limitations, we cannot bless others with words of affirmation, gifts or acts of kindness without genuine humility.[8]

On the other side of the paradox, we make a mistake when we don’t trust in the limitless vision of God’s love for everyone, when we limit God into boxes of our own creation, when we act as if God is only on our side. The irony is when we act in ways that respect our limitations, we can be empowered to do incredible things as conduits of God’s blessing for all people.

One piece of advice given to writers is that you must be master of the world you write about. When the setting and subject of the book know no bounds – if it’s a book about this, that, and everything but the kitchen sink – the weaker the writing will likely be. However, if you can contain your world, draw in the boundaries about what you write and limit its scope, the better your writing will be.

Watership Down, written by Richard Adams in 1972, was a fiction tale I read in my early teens. The book left an impression on me that I can still feel to this day. From what I remember, the entire story is written within the confines of a relatively small area of land where rabbits go about their adventures. The story’s telling occurred on this defined area of land above and below it. And yet, within the limited parameters of a unique setting, the author created a compelling masterpiece of plot, character and image.

God’s scope is universal. The trajectory of God’s love and promise knows no bounds. Yet, the way we shall enjoin the work and wonder of God’s Spirit is by seeking God in the darkness of our lives. By acknowledging our weakness. When we fumble and trip and shuffle in the dark trying to find God. When we recognize the limits of our own human being …

Then, we can do so much for good within the container of our own lives. We bloom where we are planted. We exercise the limitless love of God within the parameters of our own circle of life. We reflect the light of God especially in the dark recesses of our soul. The darkness can be a safe, nurturing space. “It’s how we began our life in our mother’s womb and it’s how we restore our life, day by day.”[2]

And we know that for God, there is no dark nor light,[9]only loving presence everywhere and always.

[1]John 3:1-17

[2]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Signs of Life: Light; Day Seven” (SSJE, Brother Give Us A Word, 7 March 2020),

[3]Genesis 12:1-4a

[4]John 3:16-17

[5]Genesis 15:5

[6]Saint Paul, Romans 4:16

[7]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Signs of Life: Light; Day Four” (SSJE, Brother Give Us A Word, 4 March 2020),

[8]Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016), p.35-39.

[9]Psalm 139:12 – “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness

Parenting is one of the greatest challenges in life. And our responses to the ever-changing realities in our children’s lives are never clear cut and never universally applicable. Because each human being is unique. We are not cookie-cutter robots wired with precisely identical operating systems.

Take, for example, two realities that are most common: our children’s friends, and homework. Let’s say you have two children a couple years apart in age. Let’s also say the oldest tends to enjoy reading and doing homework but also has a couple friends they like to skate with on the nearby ice rink in the park. The younger child, on the other hand, does not like to read and cannot sit still long enough to focus on homework. They would rather spend hours at the mall wandering about and hanging out with their friends.

When both come home after school, the late afternoon and evening before them, what will the parents say and do? Whatever you do, it might not be wise to apply the same response to the question they both pose: “Can I go out with my friends tonight?” To the first, you might encourage them not to be late meeting up with their friends and remember to have fun. To the other, you might have to say, “Only after you get some of your homework done first.”

My point is, it isn’t the same answer to each person, in each situation. Different circumstances and contexts necessitate sometimes the opposite response.

I look at the three so-called temptations Jesus’ faces.[1]And I discovered how each of his responses mirrors other situations in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. And, when comparing them, an opposite response.

For example, in the first temptation about food, Jesus rejects the devil’s invitation to multiply some bread from stones. Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. But before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish[2]. And he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread”[3]. First, he doesn’t multiply bread. Then he is doing it in a major way. An opposite response in a different situation.

In the second test, Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple. But at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others[4]while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross[5]. He first refuses to fall from the highest point. Then, he makes the biggest fall, so to speak. The opposite answer in a different situation.

Finally, He turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world. But later, he instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness. He goes from denying lordship over all, to offering all the kingdoms to all who follow him. Again, the opposite answer in a different situation.

Jesus has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tested[6]by the devil. The test is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.

The tests play again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son. The answers are different on different occasions. The wilderness tests are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes throughout his earthly ministry.

Is there a common link underlying the various responses? I believe Jesus is exercising how to trust God’s presence and love, and for the sake of others. Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. He is getting ready for what comes next to practise again choices that are based on trusting in God’s loving presence for all.

What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness. Because we know at the start that Jesus will endure the testing, it is therefore more a story for our own instruction. It is the very place where our vulnerability, whatever it is and different it will be from one person to the other, is exposed. And we must face it. And deal with it. We are called to embrace our own vulnerability as the very place where Christ meets us, and where we learn how to trust God’s presence and love.

The wilderness is the testing ground where we exercise choices, and make decisions. We practice, because when we leave the desert we will be better aware of how to meet the next challenge. In each occasion and circumstance, the decision might be different, even opposite, from the response we gave last time.

The exercise grounds will never yield perfect results nor perfect answers from us each time. This is not a perfectionist’s journey. Parenting is never a perfect exercise. No one gets perfect marks as a parent. For each it is the trial-and-error, two-steps-forward-one-step-backward kind of journey. However, “The steps you take don’t need to be big; They just need to take you in the right direction.”[7]

When Ottawa Senators’ forward, Bobby Ryan, took to the ice last Thursday, it was his first game played since November. During that time, he was in a program dealing with his alcoholism. When he scored not one but three goals in a Senators’ victory, the crowd cheered his accomplishment not only on the ice but especially for his courage through the journey of addiction recovery. Perhaps the cheering was an acknowledgement too of our common, broken humanity. That each and every one of us has to face our own demons in the wilderness of our own vulnerability.

For when we get closer to Jesus, we will necessarily journey through the wilderness of our lives. Jesus walked that path. Christ walks that path with us.

The promise of the Matthew’s gospel is that the one who goes with us is “with us always, even to the end of the age”[8]. Jesus has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness. He meets us in the most difficult tests of our own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there. No test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it.[9]

In the wilderness we can make small choices that point us in the right direction. The steps we take don’t need to be big, they just need to take us in the right direction. We’re likely not going to make bread out of stones nor accomplish the grandiose spectacles portrayed in Jesus by the Gospel writers.

But we can learn to develop a growing trust in God’s presence and love for others. Based on this, we begin to make choices and develop good habits in each situation we face. They say it takes 40 days to change a habit – to retrain the mental process and nervous system. Practicing anything for at least 40 days allows you the opportunity to incorporate it into your being, turn on, wake up, transform! Each day, in the right direction. One day at a time.

May these forty days of Lent empower, encourage and deepen us in God’s presence and love.

[1]Matthew 4:1-11

[2]Matthew 14:17-21; 15:33-38

[3]Matthew 6:11

[4]Matthew 27:38-44

[5]Matthew 27:46

[6]The underlying Greek word has traditionally been translated into ‘temptation’. But this word means as much a test as a temptation.

[7]In Marvel’s Agents of Shield, season 5, said by the character Simmons.

[8]Matthew 28:20

[9]Thank you to Audrey West for her commentary on this text from February 10, 2008 at