Crossing the Easter threshold

On Easter morning, we cross a threshold. We move from the shadowed regions of the Lenten fast into the brightness of dawn’s new light. Easter morning is the threshold between death and life. Jesus Christ crossed this mysterious threshold from the cross to the empty tomb, thus showing us “the way to eternal life”: Where God takes the worst thing in the world – the killing of an innocent human being, and God! – and changes it into the best thing – the redemption of the world![1]

The bible details this larger theme of moving, crossing over, into this new territory. In truth you could say this movement from death to life is the central theme of the bible if not the Christian faith: Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, the Israelites passed out of Egypt and on through the parting of the Red Sea to the Promised Land, and the final invitation in Revelation is for all to enter a new Jerusalem where death and mourning shall be no more. Death and Resurrection recur, epitomized in the Gospels by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection happens, eventually, and everywhere!

This threshold upon which we stand, and move through, today is a movement that is not easy. The original ending of the Gospel of Mark suggests that the threshold from death to new life is fraught with fear. The last words in that resurrection story, indeed that Gospel, are: “So they [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”[2]. Crossing the Easter threshold is painful. 

Images associated with Easter – such as the narrow gate, a birth canal, or a butterfly formed in the tight space of a chrysalis – convey the truth that moving through the thresholds of our lives brings disruption, discomfort and the pain of growth to new life. The road is indeed hard that leads to life, as Jesus said.[3] This is a road that he needed to travel to show us “the way to eternal life.”

Theologian Joyce Rupp describes what happens in us when, like the disciples, we stand on the threshold between death and new life, when we ponder the incredible impact of the resurrection on our lives. She writes:

“A threshold contains the power of transformation. In this place of uncertainty and decision making, we are forced to slow down and take stock of what’s happening. This is where we yield to the necessary gestation that grows us into greater freedom.” [4] During this time we let go of old ways we used to rely on to give us our sense of security. Here, all our energy must be given to the process that readies us for this next tentative step. 

It is no wonder that the cross still remains a central image for Christians even today. Christ is risen, and remains risen, even after two thousand years, even after two thousand years of recalling every year his suffering and death. Christ is alive. Yet the cross reminds us that integral to this coming-to-life is painful growth. We, too, need to travel down that road, each of us, in our own way.

How do we do that? Those who cross the threshold do so from a life that focuses on ‘cleaning up’ to one that embraces ‘waking up’.[5] Cleaning up has all sorts of spiritual meanings, mostly associated with seeing the sin of our lives in this broken, COVID-ridden world. It can be a helpful focus for Lent.

On the other hand, ‘waking up’ is definitely an Easter theme. Waking up to seeing the sunrise, the butterfly and the baby born – a new life. Waking up to the trust and the hope that the stars do shine, even above the clouds and in the deep nights of our grief, pain and suffering. Waking up to the God who gives us, shows us, the “way to eternal life” in Christ Jesus.

The ‘cleaning up’ function continues even in the ‘waking’ moments of our lives. It’s a matter of attention now to that which gives us hope, which points us towards the North Star and grounds us in love and life. The most difficult questions can thus be navigated in this hope and trust that carries us over the threshold and into “the way of eternal life”.

In the following short video clip[6], you can get a little taste of how our confirmation class has operated over the past year, and will continue to do so in coming months. We recently asked our confirmands and youth the question – “Who is Jesus?”, which is not an easy question to answer, today. The way they answered the question and the presentation style of the video is a ‘light’ treatment because in the Easter season we can dance and laugh in the face of death, for Christ conquered the power of death. So we all can wake up and rejoice in the love and life of Christ.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!


[1] Richard Rohr, “A Pattern We Can Trust” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, Sunday, April 4, 2021).

[2] Mark 16:8

[3] Matthew 7:14

[4] Joyce Rupp, “The Power of the Threshold – Week 4,  Day 1” in The Open Door (Illinois: Sorin Books, 2009)

[5] Richard Rohr, “Love is Life-Giving” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, Tuesday, March 16, 2021)

[6] Visit www.faithottawa.ca and click on “Online Services” for April 4, 2021


COVID truth and GOD’S truth

Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”[1]

The Globe and Mail recently reported that Canadians who have already received the vaccine have ambivalent feelings about it.[2] And it’s not about being anti-vaccination. It’s about realizing that individually having the vaccine does not change much in the way of social interactions. The land borders are still closed. Travel restrictions continue indefinitely. Wearing masks, limited access to public buildings, social distancing – these all continue.

We’re sad, even when we get the vaccine because the vaccine doesn’t wipe away all our losses. We still need to grieve.[3]Why? Because we realize that the vaccine isn’t a silver bullet solution to dealing with the emotional, spiritual and physical pain in our lives today. 

At the molecular level what is happening inside our body is significant when we get our vaccine, in building immunity against a deadly virus. But, outside of us, nothing really changes in the social, material world. “My frustration at this point is outweighing my happiness,” confessed someone who just got their first dose. “Because when I go outside, I’m still in a COVID world.” 

Have we fooled ourselves into fantasizing that once we get the vaccine, everything at the snap of the fingers will be like it used to be? Here we touch on a truth, dare I say, a truth that reflects the way of Christ. And perhaps a way through the grief.

During the torturous hours leading to Jesus’ death on the cross, the Passion stories from the Gospels depict Jesus appearing before various authorities who stand in judgement over him: Judas who betrays him, the soldiers who arrest, beat and mock him, Peter who denies him, Caiaphus who questions him, Pilate who cross-examines him, the crowd who condemns him. 

And in all these scenes, Jesus appears by himself. The disciples have abandoned him. It seems Jesus’ Passion revolves around just one individual.

But he is not alone. That’s the truth. Throughout his ordeal, Jesus appeals to God. The Gospel of John, especially, emphasizes how connected he is to God the Father through it all. Multiple times in the midst of his suffering, Jesus mentions the heavenly realm, and the kingdom of God to which he belongs. “Yet I am not alone,” Jesus says, “because the Father is with me.”[4]  

Even when Jesus cries, “O God why have you forsaken me?”[5] he identifies with the words of the Psalmist, words that unite him to the expansive community of faith spanning centuries. Jesus identifies with his humanity in those words of grief, through which he connects our humanity to his, and to all the saints of every time and place.

We are not Jesus. I am not saying that because Jesus, Son of God, did this we also should, easily. I am not denying our own human limitations nor uniqueness. I am saying that we are in Christ, and therefore in his consciousness we too can appreciate the pattern of our own renewal and path to new life. That is, we don’t face our crisis alone. That our salvation is tied to a larger truth beyond our own individual perception.

On Reformation Sunday we often will read the words of Jesus from John’s Gospel: If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.[6]

On Good Friday we confront the truth that we are not alone. No one is free until everyone is free. No one is safe until everyone is safe. The effects of COVID will not be subdued until eveyone is vaccinated.

The truth is, Jesus came to save all people. Not just the rich. Not just the privileged. Not just those who have political, social clout. Not only those who live in developed countries.

The truth is, Jesus came to save – using the Old Testament formula – “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” which is code for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the weak.[7] The cross of Christ represents God’s love even for the enemy, those for whom you would not give the time of day.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…[8]

Our existence, our living and our dying, is not an episodic, indivualistic event. We are connected all to one another. The virus, if anything, is certainly teaching us this truth. The virus knows no human-made divisions. And any one individual who wishes to engage the community at any level, won’t be ‘free’ until everyone is.

Because at the end of the day expressing grief is recognized in the presence of another. The act of grieving allows us to see beyond our own, private interests. The tears of loss make room to see and strengthen the bonds of mutual love that connect us to a larger community in the reign of God. While our grief is our own, our healing comes in expressing it in the presence of another.

The cross cannot be the cross unless both directions are bound together as one. The symbol of the cross reminds us that we are not only in an up-and-down/vertical relationship (“me and Jesus”), but in a side-to-side/horizontal relationship (“me and you”). May the truth of the cross of Christ fill our hearts today.


[1] John 18:37-38

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-mixed-emotions-as-canadians-receive-their-covid-19-vaccine/?utm_source=Shared+Article+Sent+to+User&utm_medium=E-mail:+Newsletters+/+E-Blasts+/+etc.&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/15/well/mind/grief-pandemic-losses.html

[4] John 16:32

[5] Psalm 22:1

[6] John 8:31

[7] Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Psalm 94:6;146:9, Jeremiah 7:6;22:3,  Zechariah 7:10

[8] John 3:16-17

The Rock rolls on

12On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. (Mark 14)

In our pre-recorded service for Good Friday later this week, we will sing: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble ….”

Trembling happens in response to shock. Trembling happens as visceral reaction to something that shocks us, dislodges us, from long-standing, seemingly immovable positions.

Like a rock. Bedrock. Tectonic plates have shifted deep within us, far beneath the surface of what we normally perceive. And it changes everything. The death of Jesus changed everything. The Passion of our Lord causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble. The Passion of our Lord causes the world to tremble.

The changes were incredible and unexpected. The people, and even Jesus’ disciples, expected a mighty ruler to upend the Roman military and political dominance in their land. Despite Jesus’ humble yet triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his followers still imagined a way forward that evaded defeat at the cross. Jesus’ death didn’t upend the Romans. But it did upend everyone’s expectations.

The large rock that enclosed his body in the tomb symbolized the final seal on Jesus’ death. There perhaps isn’t anything more final, more terminal, than standing at the tombstone of a loved one. The end of the journey. “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

A little bit over a week ago, an earthquake struck just south of Ottawa, near Kemptville. It was a minor, magnitude 2.7 earthquake, lightly felt from Ottawa to Cornwall and into New York State.

In the Passion story from the bible, an earthquake rocked the ground around the time of Jesus death. “The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”[1] And again, at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, there was another earthquake.[2] When the women looked up at the tomb, “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”[3]

The Psalmist often sings of the God who is the “rock” of our salvation.[4] Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the rock was Christ.”[5] And even Peter referred to Jesus as “a living stone … a cornerstone.”[6] A living stone is, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, a “rock that rolls”.[7]

On the surface, we may perceive rock as immovable. But, truth be told, rock isn’t really static. Geologically speaking, rocks move – slowly – but sometimes even suddenly. And when the rocks move, get ready! “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

We have a habit of domesitcating God. But Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter shock us out of our comfort zones. We like to turn Jesus into a static figure, the one who is ‘the same yesterday and today and forever.’ Perhaps the thundering rock is too much for us. 

Yet, God remains the One who “shatters”, as C.S. Lewis once remarked. “Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?”[8] Because to read the Bible fairly is to discover a God who is always on the move. Always changing things.

The Passover Meal, for Christians, has not only become a practice of remembering the great acts of God from history. The Holy Meal has become a practice of celebrating the living presence – the living stone – in our midst today. Over the course of the bible, the Holy Meal is a practice infused with layers of meaning, from Passover to Real Presence. Evolving in practice and meaning.

And continues to do so even during the COVID pandemic. We have adapted. We have changed in how we do things. We have felt uncertainty during our worhsip practice of the sacrament of the Lord’s presence during the pandemic. We have mediated the sacrament through the internet. And believe you me, “Oh, sometimes, it causes me to tremble …”

At the same time, I am not the only one who has felt the initimacy, love and deep connection with those of you who have shared in this imperfect yet holy means of experiencing true presence together. We have been irradiated by Jesus’ love and presence beyond the boundaries of physical space.

Perhaps in doing these ‘temporary measures’ of responding to the pandemic restrictions, the church has done some good – to continue worshipping and seeking ever-changing ways of receiving the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. A grace of which we partake “in all times and in every place.”[9]

Thanks be to God. 


[1] Matthew 27:51

[2] Matthew 28:2

[3] Mark 16:4

[4] Psalm 18:2,46; 28:1; 31:2; 62:6; 89:26; 95:1; 144:1 

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:4

[6] 1 Peter 2:4,6

[7] Diana Butler Bass, “The Rock that Rolls” in The Cottage (March 13, 2021).

[8] Cited in ibid.

[9] Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2008), p.108.

Memory and Promise

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The annual meeting today reminds us that the clocks turn regardless of all that has happened in the past year. We do certain things at the same time every year. Anniversaries are like that. Every year, we will celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and occasions that call us to pause, and remember.

Remember, what happened a year ago. Two years ago. Ten years ago. Anniversaries signify, in the passage of time, the truth that our lives and the world has changed and will continue to do so. 

The prophet Jeremiah is born right into the middle of major changes in the lives of the ancient Israelites. Throughout Jeremiah’s life, much of the Middle East was at war. The situation in which Jeremiah spoke God’s messages was one of disaster and uncertainty. Those were not happy times. Observing anniversaries at that time would have been difficult events.

The passage from Jeremiah given to us this fifth Sunday in Lent in 2021 is nevertheless a word of hope. How so? What distinguishes, in our time, a posture of faith? What distinguishes, in our time, a people of faith? Because everyone will confess the many ways the pandemic has challenged our ways of life in the past year. But what sets the person of faith apart?

Two qualities of the spirit emerge from Jeremiah’s words: Memory and Promise. First, Jeremiah appeals to the people, to remember. Remember what God did to save God’s people: How God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. How it was to try following the letter of God’s law in the wilderness and entering the Promised Land. How God led the people “by the hand” through challenging times in the past.

Some say that having faith is like looking in the rear view mirror when driving. People of faith today will pause to remember the gifts of the past. People of faith are grounded in the memory of good and bad times. They will hold and honour what has happened, and where they have been.

They understand that they are not just individuals living an episodic, disconnected experience today; rather people of faith are part of something larger. They are connected to a long lineage and history that continues to bear fruit, and bring value and meaning to their existence today. Even in the tough times. Memory.

The prophet also gives his words in the future tense. God will accomplish good things some day. “I will make a new covenant …”; “I will write my law on their hearts; “I will be their God …”; “I will forgive their sins …” 

The people of God trust the promises of God. Our faith looks up to Thee. We turn towards a future we cannot yet grasp. It’s just beyond our reach, on the horizon of our vision. Despite the difficulties we face, we continue to strive in the direction of the promise. We live and lean into the good that surely awaits.

The promise is true. People of faith know this. Not with their heads. Not with the calculating mind. But with their hearts. And hearts know love. The promise of God is given out of love, with love and for love. That’s why we can believe in the promise.

We hold our memories, in loving regard. We look to the future of God’s promise knowing that God looks past our failure, our sin, our fear and anxiety. God looks upon our hearts of love.

And because our memories and promises are held in hearts of love, we can live this moment. Because our past and our future have love as their genesis and final goal, we can rest inbetween memory and promise. We can be present and stay in touch with our actual situation and ourselves now, just as things are, and just as we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When Sabbath never ends

19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.[1]

When Jesus was visiting the temple in Jerusalem shortly before he died, he said the most curious thing. His listeners, of course, took his words literally, which was a problem. Because it took forty-six years to build that temple and it still wasn’t completely done. But Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They couldn’t believe him.

The disciples believed him only after he died and was raised to new life. They had to experience for themselves the loss and grief of their Lord’s death. They had to experience for themselves the joy of the resurrection. 

Neither literalism nor metaphor could ultimately help his disciples believe what he was talking about. Only experiencing—being there—in the moment of his dying on the cross and three days later rising to new life could they finally come to believe in Jesus.

It’s easier to deny and avoid the hard learning that comes from living and accepting the life we live, in this moment. It’s easier to say, “we just need to get through to the end of this pandemic, get our vaccines and get back to normal,” before we can be whole again, be true to ourselves and live life. As if what we experience now is too difficult a task, too confusing a time, too frustrating to accept as the moment to live and experience the grace of God. As if it doesn’t have anything of value to teach us, to show us.

A reading assigned for this Third Sunday in Lent comes from the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments.[2] Maybe because it is the third Sunday in the Lenten season, I zeroed in on the third commandment about observing the Sabbath. But I really don’t know why this one especially jumped out at me. Maybe because it feels like COVID time has imposed sabbath for many of us. 

We have been forced—more difficult for some to accept than others—to stay at home, shelter in place, restrict gathering in places of social meeting. It has been more time alone, more time to reflect, more time to rest. We have had to experience what it means to pause the normally hectic pace of life.

Usually sabbath observance, as with all the ten commandments, is what we chose to do if we are wise. But this sabbath has not only been imposed on us, it may also be the longest sabbath ever. What do we do when sabbath never ends?

It may be scandalous for me to say I’m grateful for this last year. 

Yes, I know we still live under the threat of catching the virus or spreading it to vulnerable loved ones. Yes, many have gotten really sick and some have died. Yes, the anxiety levels are high all around, and so much in our work-a-day world remains uncertain. We still live, in many ways, on the precipice. 

And when under threat, our knee-jerk is to get busy, go somewhere, see someone, do something. Anything. But “Be still and know that I am Lord”[3]? Don’t do anything productive? Just, be? Like I said, scandalous. 

So, why am I grateful? 

Last week our sixteen-year-old daughter Mika wasn’t sure what to do one evening. So, she said, out of the blue, “I’m going to make peanut butter cookies.” Eyebrows cocked all around. Silence fell like a huge question mark upon the scene. She hadn’t made cookies in months. In fact it had been a long time since she last baked anything let alone the king of all cookies – the peanut butter cookie.

“Ok! Go for it!” We encouraged her.

These cookies turned out to be the BEST peanut butter cookies EVER. The right balance between firm and soft. The flavour not too strong but peanut buttery enough.  And they were big! For Jessica and me, a bit of a temptation knowing that scoffing down a couple of these would ruin the day’s calorie count and throw off any weight loss plan.

Building on that positive experience, Mika announced a couple of days later that she was going to bake biscuits – a whole tray of them. Only four of us live in our house. What do you do with twenty biscuits? And they, too, turned out scrumptious. Nothing like the taste of some margarine dripping from hot biscuits fresh out of the oven.

Now, I know it’s pure conjecture, but I wonder if Mika would have been so affirmed in her gift of baking if not for this imposed sabbath time. In the past we all told her that she had some gifts for baking. But she either didn’t have time nor the space to develop and experience some sustained success with baking, with all the other things competing for her attention pre-COVID. 

They say that sabbath time is creative time. In order to learn and experience something new, we need to create some space and time for it to be birthed and nurtured. In that sabbath time a great gift of God, a grace, waits to be discovered anew.

For you, sabbath may reflect a different context and yield different fruit. But why is this pandemic and its restrictions taking so long? I don’t know for sure. But could God want each of us to learn something valuable during this time? I mean, really learn it. Have we not yet fully recognized and appreciated that which is ours to learn? There may be a gift waiting for us to accept, and practice. And God wants us to experience it for ourselves.

Because when this is over in the next year, we will no doubt be tantalized, stimulated, tempted and distracted again with all those compulsive activities and intrepid pace that drove our lives pre-COVID. But will we want or need to engage life in the same way again? Without  giving up on what is essential and most important in our lives, which must include social interaction of course, do we need that level of go-go intensity that overlooks our limitations and need for periodic sabbath rests?

God is in this moment. God’s light shines for us in all that is dark in our lives. We don’t have to wait until ‘later’ to discover or experience the fullness of God’s grace. Because Jesus is right in front of us now, trying to get our attention.


[1] John 2:19-22, NRSV; the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[2] Exodus 20:1-17

[3] Psalm 46:10

Perspective

Many of us grew up with the story of the Three Little Pigs who came across an untimely end when they encountered the Big Bad Wolf. The story was told from the perspective of, and with sympathy for, the pigs.

The original story portrays the wolf huffing and puffing and blowing down the straw and stick-made houses of the first two little pigs. The wolf was bad, and we didn’t like him by the end of the story. He deserved his comeuppance: In the original tale, the wolf dies trying to break into the third pig’s brick house.

But the story told from the perspective of the wolf, a retelling by children’s author Jon Scieszka[1], shows an entirely different reason for the wolf’s aggressive actions. The wolf was making a cake for his granny. And he ran out of sugar. So, he decided to go and ask his neighbours for a little bit of sugar, just like anyone might do in a friendly neighbourhood, right?

Problem is, Mr. Wolf had a bad cold. And he was sneezing all the time. And basically, that’s what leads to the straw and stick homes being blown down. He eats the dead pigs not to be wasteful of good food and it is in his nature to eat, after all.

In the revised story, the third pig inside the brick house insults the wolf’s granny. And the wolf doesn’t stand for any disrespect for his elder. So the wolf wants to give the pig a piece of his mind. But things don’t turn out so well for the wolf, as we know. We may still not side with Mr. Wolf completely, yet the revised version gives us a more sympathetic understanding for the wolf’s actions.

Taking an old story that everyone knows and re-telling it from a different perspective can lead to new insights and a deeper understanding of the truth. 

In the Gospel story for today[2], the narrative Peter believes is the one the world talks about. Jesus announces first that he will suffer and die. And the world’s narrative about suffering and death is that these things are to be denied and avoided at all costs. We deny suffering because it leads to meaningless despair, anguish, sorrow and a helpless, endless demise into nothingness. That’s the world’s perspective.

Peter, at first, only sees it from the world’s perspective. No wonder he “rebukes” Jesus. The notion that the Messiah should suffer and die – who would stand for that?!

The world cannot initially grasp this notion of faith amidst the suffering, the hope born out of death to new life. We kind of easily, even unwittingly, remain stuck in the negativity of it all. And that can only lead to despair. And keep us stuck there.

I think Lent is about critically looking at the narratives we believe – believe about ourselves, God, and others. Seeing it from a different perspective might help dislodge some of our unhelpful assumptions. So, Lent is first about grieving the past. It is about, first, the suffering and death parts of what Jesus said. We cannot deny nor avoid it. So we must confront our pain, losses and suffering. We must feel it and grieve it.

This year, we are accustomed very much so to the feeling of Lent. After all, the entire year has felt like Lent, so today is just another blurs-day, another “ashy day.”[3]

In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “The point is that for more than a year now, that’s pretty much all I’ve done — reflect, pray, and read, mostly alone, all the while worried that I might die, someone I love might die, or I’d unwittingly contribute (by my own carelessness) to someone else dying. Every time I put on a mask, I think of death and dying.”[4]

In a year where over twenty thousand Canadians have died from COVID and millions of people around the world, the Lenten discipline of contemplating mortality seems like one more painful day. Every single day, these days it seems, is an exercise in mortality, as we see our dusty illusions of existence coming at us like a wicked lake-effect blizzard.

But Jesus also then says that, after the suffering and death, he will rise again to new life. That promise undergirds all our suffering and dying. Jesus introduces a different perspective, a new narrative for life: Death has not the final word. We can endure what we must endure because of the promise of transformation, renewal and new life, in Christ Jesus.

A couple who postponed indefinitely their wedding date from last summer because of the social restrictions reflected on how they felt about the uncertainty of it all. Before COVID they knew their love was going to be publicly professed in a wedding on a specific date. Today, they still don’t have a wedding date despite their ongoing commitment to set one when the time is right.

What remains constant nevertheless is their love for each other. The groom said that there is a certain degree of growing anticipation and joy with each passing day, not knowing when that date will be, yet confident only that it will happen someday.

Perhaps there is a hope we can feel with that couple. Grounded in a steadfast love that pre-exists any crisis we face, can we live each day in the hope that one day we will come out of the pandemic intact? New life emerges from the dust heap of Lent. We continue on in this hope, this blessed promise.

And that’s a perspective worth believing in.


[1] Jon Scieszka, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (Toronto: Penguin/Scholastic, 1991)

[2] For the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B – Mark 8:31-38

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “Just Another Ashy Day” in The Cottage (dianabutlerbass@substack.com, 17 Feb 2021).

[4] Ibid.

Hungry

Adam Shoalts was hungry. For four months in the summer of 2017 during his four-thousand-kilometre adventure alone across Canada’s Arctic, he admitted that he was constantly hungry.[1]

Even though he was able to consume over three thousand calories a day mainly by eating energy bars and freeze-dried meals on the fly, his extreme physical labour meant he was still losing weight and craving even more food. 

He had to learn to live with it.

Feverishly paddling his canoe sometimes seventy kilometres a day across Great Bear Lake, poling his canoe against the strong currents on the great Mackenzie or Coppermine Rivers in the far north, hauling his canoe over giant rapids, or carrying all his gear through muddy swamps for up to forty-kilometre portages burned every calorie and more that his body stored. 

And he had to keep moving. Most of the Far North is encased in ice and snow for nine months of the year. He had only a narrow window of time in which to make this impossible trek. Once he had to pass on fishing for seventy-pound lake trout off the north shore of Great Bear Lake in order to keep his torrid, exhausting pace to make it across in time.

But it was even before his journey began where he shows his discipline to learn to live with and accept his hunger. Friends were driving him and his gear up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon towards Fort McPherson. They stopped at an old inn on the gravel roadway near the Arctic Circle. The hosts offered to cook up anything on the menu. His friends ordered the chili. They encouraged Shoalts to eat the chili as well, since in the next four months his staple would consist of a more meagre fare.

Instead, Shoalts calmly chose one oatmeal cookie, without thinking more of it. He knew that should he pig-out on his last meal he would not wisely manage his stomach for success, for the long grind ahead.

While reading again the traditional Gospel story for this First Sunday in Lent – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – I paused at the part where the devil tempts Jesus to eat.[2]“He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” So, this was quite a temptation Jesus overcame when he denied the devil’s baiting.

In order to walk in the way of Jesus, it’s also traditional in Lent to give something up – a favourite food or other unhealthy habits. Why do we do this? One reason, is we want positive change in our lives. Eating less chocolate, watching less TV or abstaining from meat will make us better, healthier people, we believe. Transformation is another word for it. 

Transformation in the way of Christ often comes from first letting go of something. The changes we yearn for – the new thing which we envision and to which we aspire – can’t happen without first loosening our controls, certitudes and compulsions.[3]And living with the pangs of hunger for a while.

Our ego will resist. Because on the surface we don’t want to go without. We don’t want to be uncertain about the outcome of our labour. We don’t want to confront our cravings, and ‘feel’ hungry. We compulsively want more and more, instant gratification. 

It almost feels scandalous to say – especially to privileged people that we are – that God created us to know hunger, to know this yearning for food, material and spiritual. What is the good about feeling this hunger?

Being hungry exposes what we really believe, deep down, what we really think. This awareness can lead to a re-consideration and revision of long held assumptions. Going without also forces us into a deeper listening to what is going on around us. As we suffer the pangs of any kind of hunger, our egos have less energy to get in the way, and we listen more, we receive more and we accept more. We learn what it’s like to let go. 

That’s why fasting has been a common tradition in Lent. It is at this point in the experience of the journey where the seed of transformation is born and out of which true growth emerges.

The kind of Lenten discipline that attracts my attention are those commitments that connect doing without with giving more. So, for example, when people eat less and the difference from what they would normally have consumed they donate or give in some way to others in need. The inner discipline of letting go is inextricably linked to an outer discipline of blessing the world.

There are almost a billion people on this planet who go to bed hungry every night. There are around thirty thousand Canadians who don’t have their own ‘home’ and sleep on the street. During this COVID winter we are advised to ‘stay home’; but, indeed, what if you don’t have a home? Jesus identifies with those who go hungry. God knows how it feels, in our humanity, to be hungry, to have no home and be without.

In the end, the story about Jesus’ temptation in the desert is a story about God’s intention to be human and identify fully with our humanity. God will go the distance, will experience what it’s like to do without, will feel the pangs of hunger – a hunger for us, a hunger for relationship, a hunger to be in communion with everyone and everything. 

God will identify not just with the part of ourselves that we wish everyone will see, but also with that part of us that hungers, that is lacking in us. God’s vision of love is set on the hungering stomach and the hungering soul. That’s where God goes, into the desert wildernesses of our lives. Will we?

I haven’t yet finished reading the book about Adam Shoalts’ incredible journey. But I assume he survived and reached his end goal on the shores of Hudson Bay, since he lived to write about it. And I suspect he is all the better a person for reaching his goal, and grateful, for having paid the price of being hungry for a while.

God bless you on your journey of Lent.


[1]Adam Shoalts, Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Toronto: Penguin, 2020).

[2]Mark 1:13; though Matthew and Luke provide more detailed descriptions of the Temptation of Jesus. See Luke 4:2 and Matthew 4:2. 

[3]Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media), p.84.

Into crucible of fever and fire

The popularity of the “Bell Let’s Talk” social media event every year (in Canada) has increased our awareness of mental health. Especially this year, in the throes of a worldwide pandemic, we may very well have a contemporary equivalent to the kind of “demons” that afflicted Galilean communities in Jesus’ day. We all struggle with, as we say, our own demons.

When adversity strikes, when prolonged periods of desolation, unknowing, doubt and uncertainty weigh heavy on us like a suffocating blanket we cannot seem to throw off.

Indeed, these are the times Jesus enters the lives of people – when they are in crisis. The context of the healing stories that reveal the divinity of Christ are times of suffering of some kind in the lives of the people Jesus encounters. Why does Jesus, born of God, care to go first, like a magnet, into these messy and dark places of our lives?

After telling the first healing story of Simon’s mother-in-law, the Gospel writer Mark makes a statement-of-fact-like claim when he concludes that the demons, “they knew” Jesus.[1]They recognized him, as they already declared in the healing story prior to this one.[2]

The flipside is true, too. To know another is for the other to know you. The demons knew Jesus. But for this to be true, Jesus had to know them. God, in Christ, knows intimately the darkness, the pain and the suffering of our lives.

The first steps in faith during a crisis is to welcome Jesus in. Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew before any healing could happen. They had to let Jesus into the space of this crisis where Simon’s mother-in-law suffered from a fever. We welcome Jesus into the messy, dark, suffering region of our souls. Not to deny Jesus entrance into that which may be embarrassing, shameful or guilt-ridden. Not to pretend, deny or hide Jesus from these places in our life.

But precisely because Jesus knows our demons, the road to healing will not close the door of our burdened hearts to God but opens them wide in trusting vulnerability.

Nathan Drum was all set to become a successful, big-city lawyer when he joined the military and fought in the Second World War overseas. In William Krueger’s award-winning fiction book entitled, Ordinary Grace, Nathan returned home a changed man. 

His experience in war affected him so much so that he came back and did a 180. He enrolled in Seminary and became a pastor serving a three-point parish in rural Minnesota.

Some of his friends and family wondered what happened that would have changed him, thinking that it must have been a specific incident in the war itself that must have done something to him.

His friend, Emil, offered a different perspective when they considered another friend of theirs, a veteran of the Korean War who came back to heavy drinking and physically abusing his family.

Emil, a veteran himself, says, “Sometimes, Nathan, I think that it wasn’t so much the war as what we took into the war. Whatever cracks were already there the war forced apart, and what we might otherwise have kept inside came spilling out.

“You may have gone to war thinking you were going to be a hotshot lawyer afterward, but I believe that deep inside you there was always the seed of a minister.”[3]

Into the crisis, that is personal for you, Jesus will enter boldly and without hesitation. Christ will enter in, to expose and shed loving light on our heavy hearts and whatever pain we bear.

Jesus will also expose the seed of the truth in ourselves. Not only is the darkness revealed, but the light in us as well. Those ‘seeds’ are deep within us, and we may have for a long time kept these inside, hidden from view. But on this journey Jesus will open to us our capacity for love, for compassion, for mercy and forgiveness. That is the way. The way of Jesus.

The journey there may be painful and will call from us endurance and resiliency. By leaning on the support of others who offer their loving presence and help, we will know we are not alone on this journey. And that, in the end, what ultimately emerges will be the beautiful flowering of who we are and for what purpose we are made.

Some will denounce the lockdown as harmful to us. Some will decry the pandemic restrictions as an unfortunate reality, something we should avoid, deny and as quickly as possible get past and get back to normal. For some of us, we will need professional help to deal with our crisis of mental health, or of a financial situation, or the loss of any kind brought on by the worldwide crisis.

But for most of us whose lives have nonetheless been changed by the pandemic, I believe this crisis can be an opportunity to re-engage the inner and transcendent dimensions of our lives and the journey of faith. Before we can do anything effective out there, we have to come to terms with what’s in here. 

In all truth, faith is born in adversity. Faith in Christ cannot be experienced apart from the crucible of fever and fire. Christ will be present into the crisis. And Jesus will touch our hearts, aflame with pain, touch our hearts to heal them and activate therein the fire of love, patience, forgiveness and compassion – for oneself and then for the other.


[1]Mark 1:34, NRSV

[2]In Mark 1:24, the demon assailing the man in the synagogue cries out to Jesus, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

[3]William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace: A Novel (New York: Atria Paperback/ Simon & Schuster, 2014), p.67-68.

To be free and forgive

Letting go is a popular message these days. Especially in the grief process, we are told that we need to let go. And let God. 

Trust, freedom and forgiveness are all implied in the ‘letting go’ mantra. All of these are benefits of letting go, values to which we aspire.

Yet, when letting go stays just a concept in our heads, we will likely not experience its benefits. Letting go is not a mind game.  We don’t just convince ourselves, like when someone persuades us to believe something we hadn’t before considered. Letting go isn’t therefore something that happens immediately, at the snap of a finger. It is something that is practiced over time. A long time. And it isn’t easy.

A friend went to see a wise person one day and asked how they could be saved. And the wise one told them to go to the cemetery and insult the dead. So, the friend did so, hurling insults and stones at the graves. When the friend got back, the wise person asked if the dead people had responded. And the friend said they had said nothing.

So, the wise one told the friend to go and praise the dead. When the friend reported back, the wise one asked how the dead had taken the friend’s praises. The friend replied that they had said nothing.

So, the wise one said: “You know all those insults you hurled at them and they said nothing; you also if you want to be saved – be like the ‘dead’. Take no notice either of the insults of people or their praises. Behave like the dead and you will be saved.[1]

When Simon and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John left their families and jobs and ‘immediately’ followed Jesus, it doesn’t mean these disciples no longer had relationships with those they left behind. It doesn’t mean they were cut off from their families, even though Mark’s style of writing may make it feel like that.[2] It’s just that the nature of those relationships changed, once Jesus came into the picture.

How did they change? What’s happening under the surface?

Letting go. Not a mental thing, but a practiced thing. It’s something we do, trusting in the one who is calling us to step out of the boat so to speak.

When we trust God, it is first an experience of freedom. Each of us has to learn this for ourselves. This is what, I believe, the disciples in the Gospel had to learn in order to follow Jesus faithfully – by practising to leave everything behind. Not because those things they left behind were bad or good in and of themselves. 

But because they needed to be free from family and their jobs. They needed to know what it is like not to be emotionally, psychologically, identified and bound by those things. In other words, the disciples would learn that who they were in Christ was not defined exclusively by what their families thought or how their jobs had conditioned them.

Because if we pursue freedom from a reactionary position, out of our own fear or anger, we just end up passing our own pain and suffering onto another person whether we know it or not. We don’t improve the situation; we just make it worse when we ignore and overlook that inner component of our life’s work.

Maybe how the disciples followed Jesus is an analogy of how we will grow in our relationships with loved ones when we follow Christ. Maybe following Christ is about having a proper emotional distance from both praise and judgement, like the friend learns in my opening story.

Mature spirituality is about letting go. Effective prayer is a practice of this letting go of all that holds us, and experiencing the benefits of letting go. It is a felt sense. Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Then, we can love freely and fully in each moment given to us.

Some say forgiveness is central to Jesus’ whole message. Jesus tells us to hand the past over to the mercy and action of God. We do not need to keep replaying the past, atoning for it, or agonizing about it.

The mind, after all, can only do two things: replay the past and plan or worry about the future. “The mind is always bored in the present. So, it must be trained to stop running backward and forward.”[3]

This is the role of prayer: practising the presence – the real presence – of Jesus with us now, so forgiveness and love can describe our journey with others and with Jesus, in this life.


[1] Adapted from Peter France, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p.31

[2] Mark 1:14-20

[3] Richard Rohr, “Incarnation and Indwelling” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 20 November 2017)

Bringing it home

The first time I played the game “Capture the Flag”, I fell in love with playing outdoors. The team game was held in a large forest, the boundaries of which contained several acres of dense woodland. Not only did my teammates and I need to be attuned to our positioning – as in most team sports played on a court, field or rink; the more we could balance our attack with distraction and lure our opposition away from the prize the better we played as a team. 

But that depended on getting to know the unique landscape of the field of play, which would be different each time we played “Capture the Flag”. The physical layout of the land – boulders, bushes, tree trunks, ditches – played a huge role in how we executed our strategy. Where we played – the specific location of the game – influenced how the game was played and the eventual outcome.

In today’s Gospel reading, Nathanael and Jesus met for the first time. Jesus’ first words to Nathanael were, basically, “I know you and you are a good person.”[1]What jumps out at me was Nathanael’s response. His choice of words; or, as some biblical scholars have decided to translate his response from the Greek, as in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from which we read today.

If a stranger came up to you and said, “Hey, I know you are a good person and there is no deceit in you,” how would you respond? Perhaps our kneejerk, and slightly cynical, response might be: “How would you know that? We’ve never even met.” No, I like how the NRSV interprets the Greek, not starting with ‘how’. Instead, “Where did you come to know me?” Where.

Jesus will know him by another way – by where they would have had a deep, spiritual connection. 

Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree.” We don’t know for sure what Nathanael was doing under that fig tree when Jesus ‘saw’ him. Our best guess is that he was connecting with God in prayer.

Christ is revealed to Nathanael as God’s Son when Jesus appealed to a specific, geographical location where Nathanael experienced God’s presence. Now this convinces Nathanael, and he doesn’t skip a beat in responding: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.”  The Gospels are full of this bias for geography and location. A specific, physical space is so important to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. 

Even in this text there is almost an exaggerated, overdone, mention of various locations. In just eight verses we are made aware of not just ‘under the fig tree’ but Galilee. The story can’t begin without setting this location of the action and characters. Then we hear of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. And then, we deal with this emphasis on Nazareth: positive because that is where Jesus comes from and negative because in the local lore, nothing good can come out of that place. 

The specific place of our prayer is critical, foundational, to connecting with God.

I mentioned how much I enjoyed playing “Capture the Flag” outside. In fact, that is what my brother and I played while my mother prayed. When I was a child, my brother and I often followed my mother to the cemetery beside the church where I was confirmed – St Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Conestogo, Ontario (near St. Jacobs and north Waterloo). 

We lived across the street from the cemetery lined with sprawling spruce trees. On the other side of those spruce trees was a valley gently sloping down to a creek. And this was a great location for hide-and-seek/capture-the-flag kinds of games.

Under one of the spruce trees at the edge of the cemetery atop the hill, my mother would sit quietly to pray. This was her place, her space, to meet with God. And she went there regularly during the spring, summer and fall months of the year.

The last time I visited this place was a couple of years ago at my father’s burial in that cemetery; here are a couple of pictures of my brother and I reminiscing of the importance of this place in our family history:

Here was my introduction to praying in a personal space. Our mentors will often suggest praying, and exercising for that matter, at the same time of day in the same place if at all possible. There is wisdom in grounding oneself in that discipline.

Today, when sheltering in place is the call to protect ourselves and each other from the pandemic threat, our homes and common living space have become our primary places of prayer. Where would you go to pray, today? Over the years while visiting people I’ve seen several so-called ‘home altars’.

There would be, in the corner of the living room, family room, basement or hallway, a chair beside a window or a small side table; on and around it would be symbols, candles, cloths and images that would serve to aid one in prayer. A holy, focal point. This was the place in the house where one went to meet with God. A home altar doesn’t need to be fussy, opulent, busy and crowded with these things: a simple, single candle and a cross would suffice.

Nathanael was convinced, in the end, by God validating his holy experience in place.Where he was drawn to pray nearby. That God would meet Nathanael there, and value this intimate and ordinary common-place spot moved his heart to believe. 

The Gospel story ends, in the last verse, with a reference to one of the most vivid holy encounters between God and human described in the scriptures – Jacob’s ladder. Here, in a town called Luz, Jacob once had a dream about a ladder upon which angels ascended and descended, connecting heaven and the earth in the place where he slept.[2]“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” This promise is meant for us all.[3]

Because God is interested in a personal relationship with you, wouldn’t God know you in your personal space, wherever that may be? Perhaps during this COVID time we are all called to bring it home, again: to create that place in our personal space. 

Here, we may not know nor understand the mystery of God. Here, we do not know as much as we are known. And then, like Nathanael, all we can do is kneel, kiss the ground and acknowledge the holy presence of God, in Christ Jesus.[4]


[1]John 1:47-48.

[2]Genesis 28:10-19

[3]The second-person form of ‘you’, here, is plural. The evangelist here is speaking to a wider audience. John wants his readers to see themselves as the heirs of the promise Jesus gave to Nathanael. See Leslie J. Hopp, “John 1:43-51” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Vol.1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.264-265.

[4]Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2020), p.14-15.