The Father’s House

Five years ago I spent three weeks preaching on this enduring lesson Jesus taught about three men in a family. We hosted an art exhibit that specifically featured various artists’ interpretations of the parable of the prodigal son. Each piece of artwork was nuanced in different ways, trying to capture the rich panoply of emotions between a father and his two sons. A powerful image at the top of this post is the painting done by Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian, author and priest, saw a copy of this painting in a colleague’s office in the 1980’s and was transfixed by it. He journeyed to Russia to sit for hours in front of the original painting at The Hermitage. Examining each figure and the emotions they displayed led him to author a book by the same name as the painting: The Return of the Prodigal Son. The rich themes of Jesus’ story would help him to make sense of the final chapter in his impressive earthly ministry.

Like many artists, Rembrandt painted himself into his artwork from a young age. When he was 30, Rembrandt painted an image of himself with his hand on the small of his wife’s back. He was toasting his audience with a tall drink in the setting of a brothel. This broad smile represented the face of the younger brother in the parable. He felt like he was at the height of his game!

Rembrandt’s depiction of Jesus’ parable was done near the end of his life. His heart had broken many times over through the loss of five children and one wife before his own sad death. The painted father embracing the disgraced son exudes fatigue but a genuine welcome to a lost child. Even if the artist had been an extravagant socialite as a young adult, by the end of his life he had changed. Rembrandt had become a father, offering a broad and warm welcome as his children came home.
Henri Nouwen was the oldest child in his family. He played the role of the older son who acted obediently and dutifully. He did what was right but carried resentment within. His younger siblings worried less about following the rules and seemed to have more fun in their lives. He was jealous of their free spirit. It was only when he entered the priesthood that he felt what it was like to be the novice, the younger who had to be obedient to the elder priests. Their control brought out a rebel spirit that was new to him. He understood better what it was to be the younger son. But, in the course of his ministry, he began to understand that he—an unmarried priest with no children of his own—was called to be the father in the parable. After teaching at the University of Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale, the last stop on his vocational journey was serving as the personal assistant to a severely mentally challenged man at l’Arche Daybreak Community in Canada. Initially, in immersing himself into the painting, he had identified himself as one of the observers, looking on dispassionately as the father welcomed home the son. Nouwen writes, “For years I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life, trying to help them see the importance of living it. But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God.” He never could have imagined that his faith life would finally feel at home when he gave up an impressive and highly intellectual pursuit of Jesus. He fell in love with the God he met when living among folks who welcomed him warmly into their fold. They only asked that he accept their invitation to claim his place in their community. It was here, in this facility that housed severely mentally disabled adults, that Nouwen found his way to the Father’s house. As Jesus heard at His baptism, it is in the embrace of the Father that we hear the words that give us life: “You are my beloved and I am well pleased with you.”
Jesus’ parable has spoken to generations of people, believers and non-believers alike, because we see ourselves in His characters. The younger or prodigal son asks for his inheritance early. In essence, he wishes his father dead by asking for his portion of the estate before the father’s death. He takes the gifts that are freely given to him and uses them for his own glory, not for that of the father or the family name. The farther he runs from home, the harder it is to remember the household to which he belongs. After blowing his sizable bank account on sinful living he is destitute and degraded. In spite of all he had lost he still remembers that he is his father’s child. The world had failed to give him what it promised so, rehearsing a speech in his mind over and over again, he headed toward home. In Rembrandt’s painting one tattered sandal has fallen off. His head is shaved, the only manageable hairstyle for someone who cannot keep up with basic hygiene. He has long since lost his protective and handsome overcoat and simply wears a soiled garment. I look at the image and can smell him. I see the layers of dirt under his nails, behind his ears and dried into his scalp.
Folks who have studied the painting believe that the bystander to the right, wearing a regal red robe, is the older brother. His expression is stern. His posture is upright, detached from the reuniting father and son. The elder is a model child who has done the right things outwardly but carries anger and unhappiness within. Nouwen writes that “The hardest conversation to go through is the conversation of the one who stayed home…The virtuous self co-exists with a resentful complainer.” This son labored all along for the family business. Though at home near his father and on the family land, he has been lost as well. It’s more difficult for him to be found because he doesn’t know that he’s strayed. It is in the return of his younger brother that his own lost state is revealed.
In this painting, through hours of looking into it, Nouwen realized that his true calling was to become the father. As a priest—a “Father”—he had played that role but never realized that was his place in this parable. He saw in this broken figure of an old man one whose authority is derived from his compassion. His only desire is to bless his wayward son. The father watches for his lost son, catching sight of him when he is still far off. He runs to embrace him and welcomes him home with shocking generosity. When his older son, filled with jealous rage, storms off, the father seeks him out as well and assures him of his love. There is no need for jealousy in the father’s house since there is enough love for all. Neither son need compare himself to the other in order to receive the father’s favor They are asked simply to choose gratitude and equally take a seat at the table. The sons must decide whether they will accept the Father’s love? Will they remain in darkness or, even amidst their difficulties, choose joy?
In Michigan we are six weeks into a shelter-in-place mandate. How are you doing? Even in lovely, spacious homes, do you feel like the walls are closing in on you? Many of you are fathers or mothers at home with children. You have been unwittingly knighted as home-schoolers and are learning algebra along with your high school child! You are churning out more meals than you ever imagined and trying to keep a house clean that is never emptied of people. But, with God’s help, we keep joy in our family gatherings. We teach our children generosity toward those in tougher places than our own and compassion for those who cannot fend for themselves. The world is dark but we point our children to the presence of a God with resurrecting power. In this pressure cooker (or instant pot!) of a world, all of us feel somehow like we are not doing enough and yearn for the blessing of a loving parent who reassures us with those calming words: “It’s ok.” While the world spins in the death and chaos of a pandemic, we want to hear and believe that it’s ok.
Many of my parishioners have told me that, even though they are stressed by the narrowing of their world, they are thankful for the blessings they enjoy even with our present limitations. We look into other homes and realize that children are raised in very different circumstances and in dramatically varied neighborhoods. Not all parents know how to bless their children. There are increased incidents of domestic abuse, deaths from overdoses and active struggles with addiction in these heavy times. There are those who lived on the edge before this crisis and now they literally don’t know where the next meal is coming from. When they learn there will be a distribution of food commodities, they line up the night before, spending the night in their car. They want to make sure they will be ahead of the other 3,000 people who line up behind them hoping for a box of food. We see desperation in the eyes of protesters crying out for a return to the way things were. On the other end of the income spectrum, there are parents who are worried that their children are falling behind in the absence of qualified teachers. Behind what, we might ask? We’re all in this together! College entrance exams are put on hold. There may be college classes ready to go in the fall but the rules for climbing the academic ladder have changed dramatically in the last six weeks. As a global community, we are living a paradigm shift that doesn’t come with a set of instructions in five different languages. We don’t know where this change is going to land us but we are haunted with the notion that things will never quite be the same again.

penguins at Shedd Acquarium
Of course, there is good news in these changes as well. Smog has lifted in overpopulated cities. Penguins are given free rein in the Shedd Aquarium! Families are doing puzzles and games together. Folks have discovered the beauty of a phone conversation and we will never take a hug for granted again. Wildlife are grazing brazenly in front yards and wandering in herds through neighborhoods. We are praising the work of our teachers and can’t wait for classes to reconvene. We are looking for ways to thank our medical and emergency response workers. Our ministries are reaching more people as folks tune into our streamed worship services who might never enter a church building. In the valley of the shadow of Covid 19 death, we find that we yearn for the blessing of the Father more than ever and see gifts that come even at this difficult time.
Father Nouwen never would have imagined that one of the warmest welcomes he would receive in his impressive career would come from adults with the mental capacity of toddlers. They asked nothing of him and received everything he offered as gift. As they blessed him with loving acceptance, he grew into his calling to be a father. No matter the four walls in which we live, we are invited to make it the Father’s House. We do it for those who are in our charge and for others who never received the blessing of their father or mother. Nouwen writes, “Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there. The somewhat stiff hands of the father rest on the prodigal’s shoulders with the everlasting divine blessing: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”

Rembrandt's Prodigal Son
How are we laying our hands on our troubled world and blessing them? How are we parting the darkness with the joy of knowing we belong to One who accepts us for who we are? How can we shape our homes, in a time of ongoing quarantine, into sacred spaces where God dwells? We still have some time to prayerfully shape our answers!


Heroic Dysfunction

People didn’t know about the heroic actions of Walter Suskind until after the war. Jewish survivors of concentration camps made their way back to Amsterdam to find their children who had been secreted away to safe houses. As these reunions took place Walter’s name began to surface as the hero. Walter was a German Jew who moved to the Netherlands in 1938 because it seemed safer than his home country. He was an actor who gravitated to the theater in Amsterdam. When the Nazi regime forced segregation, the Holland Theater became the Jewish Theater, the only place where Jews could go for their entertainment. At first Hitler’s men played nice after their surprising arrival in Holland. Dutch residents were on edge but believed that the Nazi occupation would be manageable. In actuality the soldiers were establishing relationships with Jewish Council members to learn the identity and address of every Jew in this metropolitan area. When their persecution began, they knew right where to go.

amsterdam jewish theater street
The Jewish Theater became the clearing house for Jews who were arrested and on their way to concentration camps. Walter was an easy talker and could readily communicate with the Germans. So he was chosen as the director of operations at the theater, keeping track of who arrived and when they left for particular camps. He was likable and earned the trust of the local members of the Third Reich. What they didn’t know is that Walter had a heart for his own people. He was a young husband and father to a little girl. He didn’t believe the soldiers’ promises that these Jewish neighbors were being sent to nice camps with pleasant amenities. He was determined to save as many of the children as he could.

amsterdam tram
We took a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam when we were there several years ago. Our guide pointed out that the handsome theater building was across the street from a preschool. There was a tram that traveled up and down the street all day, every day during the war. The tram provided a visual block for the Nazi soldiers stationed outside the theater building. Working with Henriette Pimentel in the preschool, they found creative ways to transport small Jewish children out of the city into safe houses in the countryside. Jewish parents were secretly asked if they wanted this for their children, often with only an hour or so to decide. Most thought they would be able to come back after the war to find them. But, sensing imminent danger, many made the unthinkable choice to allow their small children to be carried away from them and into the homes of trusted strangers. Some left the preschool in the backpacks of older children who carried them home. Others were hidden in laundry baskets carried by women who got on the tram. Others were seated next to a parent figure on the bus who traveled out of town. Walter’s very small group of trusted conspirators was so discreet that the Nazi soldiers positioned at the theater never knew what was going on just across the street. In his engaging manner, with fluent German, Walter conversed with the soldier on duty each time a child was moved from the nursery and into the tram. His distractions allowed for somewhere between 600 to 1100 children being spared from almost certain death in two nearby concentration camps: Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

amsterdam canal shot
The usual ending to stories of heroes in Jewish resistance circles is one of sacrifice. Walter, his wife and small daughter were ultimately sent out of Amsterdam along with their neighbors. Walter could have been spared since he held a trusted position but he refused to be separated from his small family. They all three lost their lives in Auschwitz. The wife and child were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival but some uncertainty surrounds Walter’s death. One plausible story was that Dutch prisoners at the camp killed him because they believed he was a traitor to his people. They only saw his easy conversation with German soldiers on the street corner of the theater. They could not imagine that he was working against this occupation force. They had no way of knowing that he had a clever system that destroyed records of Jews brought to the deportation center so that they could escape unnoticed. He had contacts who made fake IDs for escaped Jews. Other theater staff miscounted when loading a bus destined for deportation so that fewer prisoners were shipped off to camps than the soldier believed. Walter schmoozed with the soldier in charge while another trusted Jew did the head count aloud: 36, 37, 38, 39. 50. 51… Those resisting a powerful and evil regime became masters of heroic dysfunction that saved the lives of thousands of innocent people over the course of the war. But the cost was still great. Walter Suskind died an unsung hero at the age of 38. It was only when people came back from the war, looking for (and finding!) their children, that the name of Walter Suskind was redeemed from traitor to hero. Today there is an arts school in the theater building. One staff member explained, “Suskind is used as a model for the lesson that we must care for each other. Everyone is as important as another. Even in the worst of circumstances, it is worthwhile to think of other people and to help other people and in whatever way we can do that and think about what he did, we will do it.”
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and we remember the heroic dysfunction of Walter and countless others whose clever scheming and great love for their people cost them their own lives.
We meet Thomas in John 20. Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. And who could blame him? He had witnessed the public execution of Jesus as a dissenter of the government. Who could survive the murderous plot of the Roman Empire? They had powerful ranks of soldiers at the ready. They demanded obedience and practiced their own ethnic cleansing. No one survives that! Yet here stood Jesus among them. Something about Jesus was different. Thomas had doubts that it really was his beloved teacher. So Jesus showed Himself to this disciple who is remembered as a skeptic. Through His wounds, Thomas recognized Jesus. He was the same yet different.
We understand that right now. Many aspects to our lives appear to be very much the same while others are wildly different. Kids aren’t riding along our neighborhood streets on their bikes together. Schools are shuttered. Shops are closed. Church bells are silent. In urban areas some buildings have been refitted and are being used for lifesaving purposes now. We put on masks when we go out. We feel isolated and bored. Those in hospitals tell us stories that we find hard to believe. Some of us are terrified that we are losing a loved one who is diagnosed with Covid 19. Things seem the same and yet they are so different. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the risen Christ is near.
In this resurrection account, John stresses that it is the first day of the week. It’s a fresh start. Jesus re-enters the world of His startled disciples, the same yet different. What Jesus started, He wants them to continue. They are horrified. They understand all too well that they could end up on a cross as despised traitors. So Jesus equips them. He breathes on them. They discover that they are not alone in battling the corrupt empires of the world. Christ’s Holy Spirit will empower them. Even doubting Thomas is given what he needs to become an impassioned apostle of a resurrected Messiah!
On this season after Easter we remember that, no matter the world around us, regardless of who is in power and how many are suffering, Jesus is resurrected from the dead. The stone is rolled away and Jesus is out of the box. He asks us to serve as His Body in out-of-the-box ways. Are we up to the job? Of course not! He tells the 11 men hidden away in a corner of Jerusalem that they have the authority to forgive sins—or not! Who, me? I do the pardoning or I continue to hold someone accountable for their sin?! We don’t think we are ready but Jesus does. In fact, He commands us! We act on His behalf no matter how unpopular our words may be, no matter how unrecognized our good deeds may go. On that First Day of the week, the disciples are charged with continuing the work that Jesus began whatever it might cost them.
We see that the challenges are great in our present circumstances. We wonder how we can best serve when we are told to stay away from others? How do we use our talents when our world has narrowed so greatly? Do we meet for worship in defiance of a governmental decree or do we trust that staying apart for a much longer time than we can imagine is our best and most loving course of action? Protests in cities across America this past week demonstrate that we are on edge and not in agreement with how to best respond to a killing virus. I am moved continually by the out-of-the-box ways folks are responding to the dire needs of our community. We remember that the Apostle Paul escaped a threat to his life by being lowered over the city walls in a basket. When it is hard to believe that Jesus is near, we are called to serve compassionately in His name in ways that bring peace.
Paul understood that our actions within the Body of Christ can be viewed as either traitorous or heroic. Persecuted and ultimately dying for his faith in Jesus, he wrote this to his beloved congregation in Corinth: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?”
The answer is that not one of us is able to pick up where Christ left off on our own. So we celebrate that the risen Christ equips us through the power of His Spirit. We preach boldly in everyday pulpits where some will greatly oppose what we say and others will find our message lifesaving. We act out of love but may even go to the grave unheralded for our goodness. Many, like Walter Suskind, have done that before us. But we do not lose hope because we are a resurrection people. In the makeshift hospital rooms where people are struggling for breath we see compassion by people who put their lives on the line for complete strangers. We keep away from each other so that we don’t inadvertently infect others whose systems cannot fight the virus. We share our love for each other in new and creative ways. We find the peace that Jesus offered those fearful disciples in a Jerusalem hiding place on the First Day of the week.
Christ has risen. He is calling us into service in the power of His Holy Spirit. Let’s go!


Preaching Resurrection on Good Friday

This year Easter felt like an unfamiliar celebration. There’s no manual for how we’ve been living in the past month. There were no lilies adding familiar fragrance to our sanctuaries. We didn’t raise our voices together in triumphant song. You didn’t host extended family members for a ham dinner. You probably didn’t even leave your home all day! The backdrop to each day is heavy. Reports of sickness and death that are overwhelming our health care systems are continually before us. The threat of contracting the Corona virus has us on paranoid lockdown and is robbing us of sleep. How do we celebrate the high point of our Christian faith in such somber circumstances?

I realized last Monday that I would actually be preaching my Easter sermon and leading a joyful worship service on Good Friday. In order to have time to put the service together we met in the sanctuary on Good Friday, the most difficult day in the Church calendar. I wondered how I would preach resurrection joy on the day that marks a public lynching. That’s what crucifixion really was: state-sanctioned public murder. And I’m supposed to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? As the Psalmist moans, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

I have this image of standing in a swamp up to my knees in murky water. We have a swamp just down the hill from our home. Around Garrett’s birthday each year, March 31, we hear the first courageous voice of a spring peeper who has surfaced from the primordial ooze of dark water. Each evening new voices join in until there’s a continual chorus that assures us that Spring has arrived! I imagine standing knee deep in waters that are teeming with life but also filled with decay and death. The rotting organisms in brackish water nourish the life that lives within. Even as I stand in that swamp I can look up to see a blue sky and green grass. The sun shines overhead. No matter where we are standing, hope can be found if we look up expectantly for God!

The minor prophet, Habakkuk, laments in chapter three that the usual yield of the land isn’t happening. The crops upon which they are dependent have failed. There are no flocks in the fields. Something has gone very wrong with the prophet’s world yet…. the prophet makes a decision of faith. It’s as if he is singing, “Even though my circumstances don’t warrant it, I will praise God. I will be joyful in God who is our Savior for He is our strength. God will give me the energy to run like a deer across the hills.” He ends with resurrection praise in spite of a Good Friday growing season.

I had to preach Easter on Good Friday this year and I wasn’t sure I could do that.

photo of person skiing on snowfield
Photo by Melvin Wahlin on

Beverly Courrege writes about a terrifying moment when her family went on a ski trip with their church family. Their 11-year old son was a fantastic skier and spent the second half of a day on the black diamond slopes with her husband. At the end of the day they each assumed that he was with the other and ended up at the lodge together—but without him. They panicked. The slopes were a 20-minute drive away and had closed by this time. The mountain would soon be dark. Her husband stayed at the lodge in case he arrived in one of the last shuttles. A church friend offered to drive Beverly back to the slopes. Her mind was racing, imagining her boy on the mountain alone. Was he hurt? Certainly he was scared. As she and the friend started the journey back to the ski slopes, the woman suggested that they pray. Oh yeah. Pray. Beverly realized that she hadn’t thought to turn to God first. Her impulse was to assume that she alone had to remedy the crisis and the thought was overwhelming. In the 20-minute ride to the mountain, her friend prayed aloud with Christian music playing in the background. Beverly closed her eyes and sank into her seat. The peace of God came over her and she knew, by the time they parked the car, that all would be well. There was one ski patrol in view in an otherwise abandoned site. He pointed to the lift house with a smile. Beverly’s 11- year old son came running out at the sound of her voice and they embraced, weeping. “I knew you’d come back for me, mom,” he cried. Their day started at a high point, with excitement amidst church friends. But the boy realized in the last run that he was increasingly alone. He was scared and abandoned. But, in the valley, the reunion was sweet. The friend quietly drove them back to the lodge as they sat intertwined in the back seat. (The Joy of Resurrection by Beverly Courrege, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000)

The resurrection account from John’s gospel begins “Early in the morning while it was still dark…” Mary Magdalene’s feet are in the swamp. She pushes past the fears (which immobilized the disciples) and heads to the tomb, hoping to anoint Jesus’ dead body. She and the disciples haven’t slept well. They are disturbed by their profound loss. She doesn’t know how she will gain access to His body since it’s behind an enormous boulder. But her love for Jesus compels her to move forward in faith. She knew Him at the high point of His popularity. She experienced the excitement of His healing and teaching. Now it was her turn to honor Him at the bitter end of His life, whatever it might cost her.

Mary had reason to be fearful. She had been traumatized by the crucifixion of three men just two days earlier. She could still hear Jesus’ voice, conversing with common thieves on either side of Him. She heard Him call out forgiveness for His enemies. She witnessed the jeering of the crowd, some of whom Jesus fed to their full on a mountainside just a short time earlier. To be associated with a man who was murdered as an enemy to the Empire put a mark on her. Jesus’ disciples stayed hidden but Mary set out in the dark of dawn in the big city of Jerusalem where she did not belong. For a woman to walk alone in a strange place was unwise. Perhaps she prayed as she navigated the path in darkness, making her way to Jesus’ burial place. To her utter amazement she saw that the stone had been rolled back! Her heart skipped a beat and she raced back toward the place where the disciples were hidden. Like the prophet Habakkuk described in his oracle, the power of God restored her energy. She ran to share the news. The two disciples who were closest to Jesus followed her, running to see for themselves that the enormous boulder was moved. There is more running in this passage of scripture than there is in the rest of the gospels combined. What they discovered was illogical but John was moved by the Spirit. “He saw and believed.” Biblical scholar, Tom Wright, describes what broke open within this beloved disciple: “He believed that new creation had begun.” Peter and John returned to the other disciples with unbelievable news of a second genesis!

Mary remained. There was a mystery to what she found in the tomb. Like the mom whose son was left alone on a mountainside, Mary may have begun this journey with fear, guilt and confusion. Perhaps in her panic she forgot to pray, to trust that God was already at work in this tragedy. So we take a moment to stand with Mary as she weeps. Time stands still as we join our tears to hers, remembering those who have experienced great loss this week. We dare not rush the moment because Mary’s sense of loss prepares her heart for the good news to come. We lift up to God those for whom we have carried burdens in the past weeks of sheltering in place. We offer to hold their tears and know that we must fully entrust them to the God of new beginnings. At the right moment Mary’s weeping is interrupted by One who calls her by name. She recognizes Him when He says “Mary.” In that moment she understood that Jesus was alive and rejoiced at His resurrection from death.

This is a familiar passage to many of us. But something stood out to me in reading it this year. Mary’s instinctual response to Jesus’ appearance is to touch Him or hug Him. But Jesus holds her at bay. We have this yearning to hug our loved ones, hold our grandbabies, sit with family members who are in care facilities. We miss being together as a church family but we keep our distance to minimize the threat of a deadly virus. Mary could not hold on to Jesus as she wished. We imagine the embracing of loved ones when the quarantine is lifted. As Habakkuk broke into a run when reassured of God’s presence, I am certain there will be stories on the news that show reunions between medical staff who have distanced themselves from their families for weeks. Older couples who have been separated, one in a nursing facility and the other at home, will clasp frail hands together again. Children will reunite with their playmates, picking up where they left off. They will throw a ball or walk to the Rockford dam together to go fishing. We will reenter our world with resurrection joy—but we will be changed.

I had to preach resurrection on Good Friday. But I wasn’t alone. St. John the Divine Church did not hold services in their Manhattan neighborhood this week. Instead they chose to become a field hospital and readied their sacred space for a congregation of medical workers and Covid-19 patients. Military personnel with medical skills have been sent to New York City hospitals to bolster the exhausted and sickened staff. Emergency workers have received standing ovations from neighbors on balconies and in driveways for their sacrificial service. We rejoiced in the good news that more people were discharged from New York hospitals in Holy Week than were admitted. I preached the resurrection on Good Friday which seems very appropriate this year given the mix of emotions we live with on a daily basis.

Tom Wright, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, points out that Jesus has broken through the exile and made His way back from death to life. Jesus tells Mary, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ’I am returning to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The barriers between Jesus and His followers have been bridged by His death and resurrection. The disciples are no longer His students. They are His brothers. Jesus’ Father, who watched over Him on the cross and resurrected Him from death, is now our father and God as well. The resurrection brings rejoicing, particularly in Good Friday times, that nothing separates us from the love of God. At our mountain top experiences and in the anxiety of dark valleys, God is with us. When we feel like we are quagmired in a mucky swamp, unable to move forward, Jesus comes to us. In the dying and the healing, in a global pandemic and the bright days of summer ahead, God brings new life.

Christ has risen. He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!


The Bread of Life

I wonder what food shortage you have experienced during this Corona Virus pandemic? For several weeks we have encountered emptied shelves in grocery stores where the most highly prized items have been bought in bulk and squirreled away in private homes. As I walk through the grocery store I see plenty of food but not always what I would like. The bread, milk and meat sections are wiped out. Recently the ice cream freezer was almost completely depleted. And, of course, we’ll never look at a 6-pack of toilet paper in the same light again!

Bread is a basic staple in most of our homes. Even with the outrageously broad menu of items available to us in our 21st century American homes, we still appreciate our daily bread. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls Himself “the bread of life.” The crowd is comprised of many of the same people who witnessed His miraculous multiplication of five loaves and two fish to feed an outdoor classroom of 5,000 people a day earlier. They ate to their full and came to Him again, looking for magic tricks and a free meal. They hounded Him, asking in essence, “What are you going to do for me today?”

The previous day, after the miraculous provision, they had been ready to make Jesus their king. So He fled. He knew He could never be the kind of ruler they expected. What mattered then and now is not what He can do for us but who He is. The Passover meal that His ancestors celebrated was fulfilled in Him. So, as He sat at table with His disciples the night of His arrest, He broke bread with them and drank from the Passover cup. But He assigned new meaning to these two staples to their diet. From that time forward His followers would have a way to connect with Him even after His earthly departure. In the bread they would remember His body and that they were part of it. In the wine they were invited to remember His willing sacrifice for them and the world. They were His companions, which means one with whom you share your bread.

baked pastry on plate on top of table
Photo by Dan Gold on

We miss each other’s companionship during this quarantine. We long for the familiar faces in beloved sanctuaries where we are nourished by traditions in our worship. So, in these unnerving times, we look for new ways to connect with each other—and Christ gave that to us! We are so enamored with the gifts of our five senses. But He gave us a sixth sense that attunes to spiritual realities than cannot be proven but are undeniable to those who experience them. In that sixth sense we know Christ’s presence that is lasting and limitless. Jesus was a remarkable healer in that He could heal from afar—without touch or being in sight of the patient. So, as we gather around tables, separated by physical distance this quarantined evening of Maundy Thursday, we celebrate that we are made a commun-ity in Christ’s communal meal. We are perhaps more unified than we have been in a long time for we yearn for each other’s presence, sadly keep safe distances from each other and listen intently to each other’s words.
In the safety of our homes, as we share a meal together, we pray for those who, even now, are in hospitals—for the exhausted caregivers, the sick, and the dying. We pray for those who are unable to visit their loved ones who are in a care facility. We lift up those who are alone in the quarantine, yearning for companionship. We pray for those in strained relationships who must share close quarters with each other. We thank God for the companionship of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who ministers from afar yet enters us mysteriously in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. So we echo the prayer of that early crowd as they pressed in on Jesus: “Master, give us this bread—give it to us always!”


His Place is Assured

My dog is not stressed by the shelter-in-place mandate. On his typical pre-pandemic morning the members of our household leave him, one by one, for our work places. He sits in the hallway, watching as we swig down the last of our coffee and head toward the door. He is both heart-broken and disbelieving: “So you’re ditching me again today?” I’ve learned to get down to his level to share a litany that confirms his worst suspicions: “Mama goes bye-bye. Hunter’s a good boy. Mama comes back. Hunter, stay!” His head droops and I head off to work wracked with guilt. Of course, our abandonment is magnanimously forgiven when we return hours later to a ridiculously joyful reunion.

With the shelter-in-place decree, we are all slogging around the house together now. In fact, one son decided to camp out with us rather than stay with a housemate in Ann Arbor. So there are four family members now who dote on him. He has three levels of the house to visit and often there are snacks tossed his way in each room he enters. He has known that he is an equal to us; that we, in fact, are privileged to be part of his pack. He sits on a chair at the dinner table and might even be fed table scraps at our level. I know. Canine disciplinarians, look away!

Hunter at table
I wasn’t raised with dogs so I didn’t understand them. It doesn’t help that a dog bit me when I was a little girl. It wasn’t a deep bite but the lasting effect was a mistrust of dogs. My husband wished for a dog for many years. We finally struck a bargain 25 years ago when we were going to move. If I could purge some of our possessions so as to lighten our load before relocating, he could get a dog. A staff member at my farewell party negotiated the deal and Garrett and I actually shook on it. It was a big concession on my part but I was excited to dump off—I mean, donate—a bunch of our stuff to Goodwill!
Hunter is our third dog. I have figured them out. I am his mama and we love each other very much! My youngest child and I chose him at the Kent County Animal Shelter the day after we returned from our final vacation of the summer in 2009. We were ready to put down roots for the school year. We had “interviews” with four dogs but he was clearly The One. He was a 25-pound cocker spaniel, about 2 years old, who had been a stray long enough to have a matted coat. He wore a bandana with his name on it: Hunter. This was in the downturned economy when lots of folks had to downsize. Apartments didn’t allow pets so dogs and cats were either surrendered to local animal agencies by grief-stricken owners or let loose to fend for themselves.
We don’t know Hunter’s story for the first couple years of his life. We know he was loved because he was trusting. We know he was trained because we kept discovering words that he understood. Maria and I invited the rest of the family to a dinner where there would be a surprise guest. They all made bets but no one expected our visitor to come eagerly trotting in on four legs. We remarked that he walked right in as if he owned the joint. There was no looking back. He was ours and we are his. To honor his past we kept the name Hunter.

I talked with a friend about a year ago whose grandmother was not doing so well. She had been a very active person, contributing to her community and the life of her church. Like many of us she was accustomed to being on the giving end of things. But now she needed support after a stroke. She felt guilty that she relied on her family’s help and lost her sense of purpose. My friend tried to reassure her grandmother that this new stage was OK. In reflecting on this woman’s changed circumstance, the image that came to my mind was of an older dog who has faithfully served the family. He has protected them against intruders, mostly imaginary. He has swept the squirrels from the bird feeders and accompanied the family “pack” on countless walks. But now he is older and contented to be inside. His fur is patchy and his hearing impaired. But his place in the family is assured! We love him for who he has always been.
I shared this image with my friend but insisted that I was not comparing her grandmother to a dog exactly! She had dogs so she understood how a beloved member of a family is allowed to age with grace and support. Perhaps her grandma could be invited to settle into this new dependency with contentment rather than fighting her physical diminishment. She could role model for the younger generations what it looks like to raise your family with such devotion that your future is secure.

So Hunter’s place in our family is assured. He was the preferred confidant for our kids during their teenaged years. He never questioned them. He wagged his tail when they entered the room and looked into their eyes with trust. He’s got a place on any of our beds at night and sometimes migrates from one sleeper to another. He now needs a ramp on the side of our bed to get up to our level. He needed surgery to repair a torn ACL (the dog equivalent). Now he wears a brace on his back foot that endears us to him all the more. He still bolts out the front door several times a day. He’s sure that our home is under attack unless he patrols. He forgets his aches outside…until he hobbles back inside to a comfortable spot in the sun.

Hunter with leg brace
Our house burned to the ground on August 14, 2007. Our Brittany Spaniel, Freckles, had died suddenly just ten days before the fire. The best guestimate for Hunter’s age when we adopted him was that he was almost two years old. We like to think that he was born about the time of our fire but it took us two years to find each other. The summer of the fire we moved into a family cottage for a year while rebuilding our home. We happily claimed our new space the summer of 2008. I was considering a dog a year later but anxious about having one who would chew our new furniture (that had happened) or shred our couch cushions (that too). We hadn’t reinstalled an electric fence since the fire so I was worried that a dog could run into the road and be hit by a car (the death of our first dog). So I prayed. I don’t know that I actually articulated a request for the perfect dog. But, in my heart, I prayed for the next right furry companion.
God heard my prayer. Hunter was about two years old by then so he no longer chewed indiscriminately. He doesn’t shed. Because of the trauma of being homeless for a time, he has never strayed from us. We never had to reinstall the electric fence. He has worked with me in the garden, helping himself to stalks of asparagus. In the fall he bounds out the door to find pears or apples on the ground as a never-ending supply of juicy snacks. He has lumps and bumps but then, I’ve aged too! His life has been rich–is rich–and so is ours!
So sheltering-in-place? That’s just another chapter of our lives we share together. In this time of great uncertainly, his wagging tail gives me hope! Thank you, God, for our furry friends!

hunter--full face


Parade of Palms

Today is the culmination of a long journey. The beginning of it is reported in Luke 9: 51: “As the time approached for him to be taken up into heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
At this point in his gospel, Luke is just over one third of the way into his account of Jesus’ life. Already Jesus has His sights set on the cross. There’s no time to waste. He hits the campaign trail, speaking at each gathering as if it’s His last lecture. He has an electric energy that draws followers. So who can be part of the campaign caravan? Not those who prioritize burying their dead parent over hitting the road with Jesus. Not the guy who wants to first go kiss his spouse goodbye before leaving home. No one who needs a soft bed and a shower at the end of each day. Just the folks who have the stamina to complete an arduous trip.
Jesus is hot! He’s red hot. If you have a red-letter Bible, go to Luke 9:51 and check out how much red you see between the beginning of his trek and His arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 18. He is preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising demons. Word is traveling like wildfire and the fan base is exploding. There aren’t a lot of geographical details given about where He is on any given leg of the journey. Nor are names given very often about who is in Jesus’ company. The 12 disciples are regulars, the real insiders, but no one else’s identity seems important to the story. There is an urgency to His message. He breaks Sabbath rules to express compassion to the suffering. He continues to deflect any comments that don’t conform to His core teachings. One woman is so moved by His outreach that she yells out a compliment to Jesus’ mother: “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus could have taken a moment to sing the praises of His blessed mother. Instead He keeps His followers on task by responding: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” With that startling reply, Jesus is off to the next town, urgently drawing people to a life-saving relationship with God. The only hint at geography is in 13:22 when Luke writes, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” It was a long trip and Jesus poured Himself out for the good of others. By the time Jerusalem was spotted on the horizon, the Nazarene carpenter must have been running on fumes!
On Palm Sunday we stand at the city gates, joining the crowd of witnesses who have gathered for the last week of Jesus’ life. I like the picture painted by the Psalmist in Psalm 118: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord….The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession…”
Do you remember the start to our Lenten journey? It began with Ash Wednesday on February 26. Our congregation worshiped with three others, our singers combining to form a fantastic 25-voice choir! We had ashes smeared across our foreheads, reminding us of our mortality and of the fleeting nature of our earthly lives. We had no idea how clear that lesson would become during this Lenten season! Like Jesus’ final march to Jerusalem, we have passed through this heavy church season gaining momentum with a mounting sense of dread. We started in a crowd of people from four congregations but have ended up sequestered in our homes with our most trusted companions. Jesus ended up on the cross alone. Only His mother and just a handful of His closest followers kept a vigil until the bitter end. Does it seem like an eternity ago that we walked about freely in crowds and hugged and ate each other’s food and sat next to strangers at concerts? It seems like ages since we set the alarm to take our shower and go into our workplace where we tackled a set of duties to which we were accustomed. We are less than two weeks into a mandatory shelter-in-place decree and it feels like we have fallen into a warp where geography doesn’t matter because, as a country, we are all in this together. Our best hope is to stay at a safe distance from each other. We were a different people as we so blithely walked forward to have the gift of ashes imposed on our foreheads: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return but praised be the name of the Lord.”
Each day as we churn toward Jerusalem with Jesus we lose just a bit more of our innocence. The ashes have long since rubbed off but now we are reminded of our mortality by refrigerated trucks that serve as makeshift morgues in New York City. As we resolved to make certain sacrifices to honor the Lenten season, we could not imagine that a woman would forego a visit to her dying husband’s side so as to not waste one facial mask on herself. She knew it might save the life of one of his faithful caregivers. Somehow giving up chocolate or hours on social media pale in comparison to the price our medical community is making to stay apart from their loved ones for weeks, keeping them safe from this invisible enemy. We didn’t know it on Ash Wednesday but we were babes in the faith who were anointed with gritty ashes to prepare us for one of the greatest battles we have fought as a nation. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because the residents didn’t recognize that God Almighty had sent Him to save them. They were quagmired in their daily routines, fixated on trivial concerns so they missed the Love Letter sent to release them from captivity. We entered Lent with certain priorities and we have had to closely examine whether the foundations we have laid will uphold us. Will those stones support our loved ones, our communities, our nation, our world? Like Jesus on His journey toward Jerusalem, we have witnessed untold suffering, felt powerless over the forces that threaten our very lives and cower before the threat of death that seems only a handshake away.
Luke was known as the social justice advocate so he doesn’t hesitate to name the sin of the religious authorities. In 16:14 Luke offers an aside: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” They were privileged. Their sense of entitlement convinced them that they would never have enough. They were the hoarders whose fiercest instinct was to protect what they assumed was rightfully theirs. So when Jesus came riding into the back door of Jerusalem to the frenzied cries of a growing crowd, their instincts kicked in. Without even thinking they cried out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” The emotional response of the crowd was an embarrassment to the authorities but, truthfully, they were jealous. Jesus’ body moved with the slow gait of a humble donkey. He called out to them, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” It was a clash between the Way and the Establishment. Jesus never mentions Rome. He lived His life under the oppressive rule of a government whose seat was in Rome. But place didn’t matter. Names weren’t important, one more than another. His fervent message was still the same as what he told the woman who tried to compliment Mother Mary at the beginning of His Jerusalem journey: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” The priority is the same for residents of Rome or Nazareth, the same for Judas or John the Baptist: hear God’s word and obey it. Social distinctions are meaningless. No wonder His disciples cried out to Jesus in chapter 17, “Increase our faith!”
This is the first time in our country that we have united in fighting an enemy that is faceless. We seek to defeat an enemy that can only be seen under a microscope. So we have wasted no time stirring up hatred for a human enemy. With our highly scheduled lives put on hold we have waded into choppy waters, unsure if they will overtake us as they have already for thousands. We are mindful of each easy breath we take. We gaze upon our loved ones realizing how precious they are to us. We dig deep to hear God’s word and respond with a willing “Yes!”
Our heroes have changed. The Establishment salutes the highest-ranking commanders. Followers in the Way sing the praises of doctors and nurses who are pouring themselves out in an effort to send patients home to their loved ones in restored health. We offer our profound thanks to emergency responders who enter into circumstances that put their own lives at risk as the invisible enemy infiltrates their bodies. We share our love through closed windows. Our children draw pictures to bring joy to seniors in sequestered quarters. Neighbors make palms available on their mailboxes for all to remember that Jesus the Sovereign rode humbly into Jerusalem, ready to take down the enemy. If the crowd of common folks like us hadn’t sung His praises, there would have been a ruckus from the rocks. Inanimate objects recognized Christ’s authority when the religious bigwigs could not!
The beauty of today is the memory that, in Jesus’ lifetime, for a brief moment, folks could see that Jesus was the Son of David, the Savior and Messiah. They sacrificed their only overcoat to fashion a red carpet reception in the place of an ill-prepared city government. They rejoiced because the stone that the builders rejected had become the cornerstone on which the whole structure of their corporate spiritual life would be established. It didn’t matter that the Establishment rejected Him. For a moment, Rome didn’t control them. Waving their palm branches in that exuberant parade, their voices combined with the rocks and stones. They sang to their hearts’ content: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna and glory in the highest!” Amen.


Stumbling Stones

Some friends were on vacation in New Orleans, walking down a sidewalk to find a good restaurant. All of a sudden one of the men found himself on the ground. He had tripped but didn’t even know how. His friends were surprised at his sudden disappearance from view. The man is 6’2” so his rapid descent was noticeable! He brushed himself off, confirmed that nothing was broken and they continued on their way. But curiosity gnawed at the stumbler. So the next day, as they walked along the same sidewalk, he checked out the scene of the fall. He noticed a slight rise in the sidewalk that was higher than the surrounding cement. It was subtle enough to not be noticed or repaired by the city. But it was enough of a change in landscape that it felled a grown man in a flash!

When we toured in Europe two summers ago I learned about stumbling stones. In Amsterdam and Munich we saw small metallic placards screwed into pavers on old walkways. The names of people who lived on the street more than 70 years ago were engraved with the date of birth and death and the concentration camp to which they were sent. German artist, Gunter Demnig, designed many of the “stolpersteins” in his native Germany and also in Rome. He conceived of these memorials in 1993 and now there are over 60,000 of them across 21 countries in Europe. The intent is for passersby to take note of these shiny markers that sit aside non-descript bricks, begging for our reflection. One definition for stumbling stone is an obstacle to our progress.

As we sit in the thick of a global pandemic, hearing ever-more startling statistics each day, I suspect we feel as if an obstacle has been put in place. It blocks our progress and trips us up from the daily routines we took for granted. Most of us are secure in our housing. We’ve stocked up on food. Perhaps we’ve even hoarded some items that make us believe that we still have some control. The corona virus has served as a stumbling stone across the nations, felling the weak and the strong. It forces us to reflect on what keeps us grounded.

We read of an encounter with Jesus in Luke 12 (13-21). A man approaches Jesus, the traveling Sage, and asks Him to arbitrate inheritance issues between himself and his brother. Jesus is disinterested in serving as judge over matters of material gain which typically bring the worst out of people. But He uses the interaction to teach a lesson. In the parable He presents a rich man who enjoys a bumper crop. He assumes the season of prosperity will keep going. Time to expand! Invest! Build! He has so much of his crop to store that he has to redesign his storage facilities! He tears down the old barns and builds bigger ones. Servants load the new structures full of food as the owner watches from the sidelines, making retirement plans. With his wealth hoarded, his self-talk reveals that he is only looking out for number one. His faith is in his wealth and he is sure that nothing can take that from him.

scenic view of landscape against cloudy sky
Photo by Pixabay on

But the joke is on him! Jesus brings God into the story and God tells this smug businessman that all his wealth will be distributed to others because he will die the very night that he has christened his overflowing barns! The language is strong: “You fool!” That’s not what you want to hear from God! I imagine a moment of terrified awareness when the rich man responds perhaps in Homer Simpson style: “D’oh” and smacks his forehead. “I got it wrong! My stock portfolio isn’t my Savior after all!” It’s important to notice the accusation. God exhorts him that this rapid fall is what happens to someone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.

It’s easy in our society to get caught up in DOING our lives away. We don’t know how to sit still. God puts stumbling blocks in our paths, hoping we will take time to reflect on what matters most. But we walk past them. Our nation is trying to figure out what carries over from the lives we led just two weeks ago and what is no longer possible. I heard this week that sports gamblers are at a loss for how to spend their time (and money!) absent all professional sports. What a crisis! I saw in a groupon ad that I can buy eyelash extensions at a reduced rate. I’ll place my order today so that I can look my best on my zoom meetings! Some crafty sales reps are marketing their wares as if it’s business-as-usual. But an invisible enemy has ground our labor to a halt. Covid 19 has ceased our social interactions, and sent us scurrying to safe places for refuge. For thousands, it has sent them to the hospital in a desperate fight for their lives. It is easy to choose works over faith but a killing virus demands that we examine the foundation on which we have built our lives.

There’s a passage from Romans 9 that names Jesus as the Stumbling Stone sent by God:

“31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall,
and whoever believes in him[a] will not be put to shame.’”
(Romans 9: 31-33)
Without Jesus, our values are different. We are untethered to anything lasting or holy. The ways of the world very easily become our ways and we wander down paths that promise safety only to be disappointed and lost. With Christ we spend our lives learning to trust God deeply. We look to Jesus to learn how to love our neighbor. All the more in a crisis we need to anchor ourselves in Christ’s Truth so that we can be of help to those who are fearful. Covid 19 brings the Lenten season into sharper focus this year. We are called to love. I have been moved by so many stories about people honoring the significant moments in their neighbor’s life even while quarantined. There was a parade of cars filled with teachers, going through their students’ neighborhoods with honks and waves. Since 4-year old Aiden’s birthday party had to be limited to his home, his parents put a sign up in their front yard, inviting people to honk a birthday greeting to him. He stood at the front window, smiling as people made some noise for him. A young girl returned home after her final chemo treatment to see her street lined with folks who cheered and waved from the safe distance of their driveways. She was overcome with emotion. There are people putting their own health at risk by driving friends to doctor appointments, waiting in their car since only patients are allowed into medical facilities now. People are making medical supplies in their homes. Companies are putting their usual product line on hold and morphing into producers of medical masks, gloves, and ventilators. Breweries are churning out vats of hand sanitizer instead of specialty beer.
Even more powerfully, we witness loving actions between patients fighting for their lives in medical facilities. Don Guiseppe Berardelli, the 72 year old archpriest of Casnigo, Italy contracted the corona virus. He was a beloved figure in his community, known for his broad smile flashed from his red motorcycle. As he headed into the hospital for treatment, his parishioners purchased a ventilator for him. He gave it to a younger patient whose life stretched ahead. He died shortly thereafter. A colleague tweeted, “Don Guiseppe Berardelli, patron saint of those who suffer from coronavirus and all who care for them, pray for us.”
When we build our lives on the stumbling stone that God sent to our troubled world, our values change. We stop our pursuit of worldly goods and reflect on the great gift of having Jesus as our Savior and Friend. When a complete stranger trips and finds herself on the ground, we stop to help her up, even if it means possible harm to us. In the Italian priest’s case, we are even moved to lay down our life for another. Christ’s love knows no limits.
The greeting that Don Guiseppe called out to his townsfolks from his red motorcycle is “Pace e bene.” This means “Peace and all Good.” It’s an Italian greeting that traces back to Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. It’s a blessing that offers hope and acknowledges the sacredness of all those we encounter on our journey.
There’s a way to avoid tripping when we run across a stumbling stone. In times of crisis we anchor ourselves by nourishing our faith. We don’t panic, hoard, or look out for number one! If we are looking at our world through the eyes of Christ, we will be vigilant. We will expect opportunities to arise that urge our compassionate service. We will share from the wealth of our barns. We will pray.
We will pray.
Pace e Bene.