My first mystery novel, The Book of Answers, made the short-list for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis, an award for unpublished crime fiction. The annual competition is sponsored by Dundurn Press and CrimeWriters of Canada. On May 23, my wife and I attended a banquet at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where I had the honour of meeting other authors who were nominated, as well as a number of editors, publishers, and authors. It was great fun!
The winning manuscript in my category, the Unhanged Arthur Award for best unpublished crime novel, was The Scarlet Cross, by Liv McFarlane. You can learn more about Liv at her website: https://livmcfarlane.com/
I look forward to reading The Scarlet Cross, and the work of the other nominees:
Hypnotizing Lions by Jim Bottomley
Omand’s Creek by Don Macdonald
One for the Raven by Heather McLeod
That the manuscript of my first ever novel was even considered for such an honour, has inspired me to improve my online presence. This site is a re-tooling of my old “Sharing Bread Along The Way” blog, along with old material from “The Fifth Page”, which is where I used to post what didn’t make it into my sermons, which are always a maximum of 4 pages. (I now call them “learning times”, to reflect the truth that I am still learning as I go.)
I am a minister in The United Church of Canada, currently serving the congregation and wider community of Harrow, in beautiful Essex County, Ontario. In the words of Max Marshall, a singer-songwriter from Harrow, it’s a “bread-basket town” in “fruit-stand land”. You should also check out Max, he’s great!
Did you remember the ending of Mary Poppins? The effects seem hoaky, compared with what is done in our time. Mary Poppins flies above the smoky clouds of London, as the credits roll on the screen.
Mary Poppins is a magical nanny who appeared in an upper middle class English household just when they needed her most. She came sailing on the wind, literally, floating through the air, upheld by her umbrella. Very mysterious, with a hint that amazing things will happen.
With messages of love and adventure and openness to new experience and new people, she nurtured Jane and Michael, the two Banks children. They were transformed from brattish hellions into loving, kind, and generous young people.
Much of this miracle happened because of the effect Mary Poppins had on their Mother and Father. She helped them look upon their children with love rather than mere tolerance, and re-discover the delight of actually spending time with them.
Along the way there was magic and singing and dancing, and humour. These were the spoonful of sugar needed for the audience to swallow the medicine, or the moral of the story. If parents don’t actively love their kids, they may lose them.
By the end, the Banks family gets along famously, having been saved by the message of love. Mary Poppins’ work is done, and it is time for her to leave. It is time for them to carry on, with all that she has taught them, and with the spirit of love that gave life to her teaching.
Where was she going? In the movie she was very much a Christ figure, one who brought a message of love, reconciliation, tolerance and openness to differences in people. So where does she go at the end? Up into the sky. Heavenward. A mysterious end to match the mysterious beginning.
That amazing departure works in the movie, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. It even kind of works in the stories about Elijah and Jesus, again, as long as you don’t think too hard.
In the case of the prophet Elijah, he was walking and talking with his protégé, Elisha, when “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” No umbrella required.
Just before that happened, Elijah had asked Elisha what he could do for him. Elisha asked his teacher for a double portion of his spirit. Elisha wanted to know that somehow, Elijah would still be with him, helping him with the work of being a spiritual leader.
In the Gospel of Luke story about Jesus taking his leave, Jesus said he would send the disciples what his heavenly father had promised. They were to stay together until they were clothed with power from on high. That phrase “being clothed” is a clever, literary allusion to the story about Elijah and his follower Elisha, who picks up a cloak, also called a mantle, that belonged to Elijah.
In the reading from Acts the instructions are more detailed. Jesus told his followers to stay in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Next week we will hear the story of Pentecost, which describes this promised moment, when the Spirit touched and energized Jesus’ followers, and a great crowd of others in Jerusalem.)
In both versions of the story about Jesus leaving, after he makes his promise, Jesus is described as being taken up into the sky. In Acts it says a cloud hid Jesus from the sight of his followers. Then the disciples suddenly saw two men dressed in white standing beside them. The strangers asked, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Good question.
There are many ancient stories of kings, heroes, prophets or holy men who are taken up into the realm of the gods, at the end of their earthly lives. It was a way of saying they were divinely blessed, and their message would live on.
In the ancient world, people imagined the earth, and the universe around it very differently than we do. They had what I sometimes call the “layer cake” view. Our world was the middle layer. Hell was the layer below, and heaven, the realm of the gods, was right above.
With this cosmology, this understanding of the architecture of the universe, it made perfect sense to talk about a hero descending into the depths of Hades, or ascending bodily into heaven.
When we talk about Heaven being up, and Hell being down, we are usually being poetic. Satellites orbit the earth, and rockets pierce the dome of the sky, and people have gone to the moon. It’s hard to imagine heaven as a physical place over our heads. It’s hard to read these stories as literally true.
So how do we think about this? Where did Elijah go? Where is Jesus? A downfall of thinking of heaven as a location is that literal-ness reduces reality to things we can see. It leaves out the possibility that there are things that are real, that we can’t see.
Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue once said that rather than thinking of the human body as the vessel that carries around a little thing inside us we call a soul, maybe instead, our human bodies are surrounded by something like a force, or energy, that is bigger than our bodies. Maybe instead of our body carrying around the soul, our soul actually envelops our bodies.
In his lovely book “To Bless the Space Between Us”, O’Donohue quoted another mystic, a fourteenth century philosopher and theologian named Meister Eckhart.
“Meister Eckhart was once asked, Where does the soul of a person go when the person dies? He said, no place. Where else would the soul be going? Where else is the eternal world? It can be nowhere other than here.
We have falsely spatialized the eternal world. We have driven the eternal out into some kind of distant galaxy. Yet the eternal world does not seem to be a place but rather a different state of being.
The soul of the person goes no place because there is no place else to go. This suggests that the dead are here with us, in the air that we are moving through all the time. The only difference between us and the dead is that they are now in an invisible form.
You cannot see them with the human eye. But you can sense the presence of those you love who have died. With the refinement of your soul, you can sense them. You feel that they are near.”
This may be just another form of poetry, but it sits better with me than the idea of a chariot of fire carrying Elijah up into the sky.
Scientists now tell us that nothing can ever really be destroyed. Things change form, but the matter and the energy that make up our bodies continue to exist, in one state of being or another. Perhaps we don’t really go anywhere physically when we die.
The visible parts of us, our bodies, may change form, but the invisible parts of us, our souls, thoughts, feelings, still exist, held safely by God, in God’s universe, which is all around us.
Perhaps Elijah and Jesus never really left and these Bible stories about them mysteriously disappearing into the sky were the best poetry the people had in their time, to talk about how even when their bodies failed them, their souls, their spirits, carry on. Amen
This is a “cross-post” from my newsletter reluctant sleuth
reluctant sleuth is a Substack newsletter in which I write about mystery fiction, and my search for clues about the mystery of life. I think this particular post might also fit for this blog. If you want to check out what I do on reluctant sleuth, you can find it here:
I’m at Jericho House, near Wainfleet, Ontario, for a (mostly) silent 4 day retreat. This afternoon I went for a long walk in the conservation area next door. It surrounds a disused quarry. From the website of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority:
“Once covered by a shallow, warm sea 300-450 million years ago, what is now the Wainfleet Wetlands Conservation Area was the site of a clay and limestone quarry from the late 19th century until the 1960s. Fossils of the plants and animals that lived in the Paleozoic sea can be seen in the exposed limestone of the Onondaga Formation, in the quarry walls and on rock tableland…
I’ve loved fossils since my late teens, when a guide gave me a fossilized shark’s tooth during a tour of the Science Gallery at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. I still have it. I named it Genesis, and I’ve occasionally used it to take a bite out of religious claims the Earth was formed in 7 days, about 6000 years ago.
When I see fossils “in situ”, as I did in the quarry today, it touches a deep place in me. It’s moving to see signs of life that go back millions of years.
…the quarries and clay pits have naturalized and are home for fish, birds, waterfowl, turtles, snakes and plants. Unique alvar communities of rock-loving plants also thrive in the shallow soils…
It brings me joy to see vegetation rooted in the most unlikely places. Life persists. These remind me of the chicks and hens in my rock garden at home.
…contains the best exposed fossil and viewing area of geological formation and fossils (ancient marine lifeforms) in the Niagara Peninsula, highlighting species that lived 380- 450 million years ago in the shallow warm saltwater sea of the Michigan Basin that covered the site. Trilobites, crinoids, shellfish and corals can be seen.
This is what the floor of the quarry looked like this afternoon. I walked halfway around the rim until I found a gentle slope down to the quarry floor. It looks like beach in this photo, but it’s actually sedimentary stone, with a thin top coat of dried mud, algae, miraculous vegetation, and many, many rock fragments.
When I walk an actual beach, my eyes are almost always at my feet. I seek out interesting rocks. This requires slow, short steps and the willingness to bend at the waist and stare down, looking like I’m either catching my breath or losing my lunch.
It’s worth the risk of looking foolish. I brought some of what I found back to the retreat house, cleaned them, and laid them out on a paper labyrinth. Sadly, when I read the website for the Conservation Area, I learned we are not actually meant to remove the rocks. (I’ll take them back tomorrow, honest.)
For now, you can see some of the varieties named in italics above. (All except for the specimen outside the ring at 7 o’clock on the dial. It’s a porcelain shard. I just liked the colour. I’ll keep that one, since it’s not a rock.)
This day began with a teaching about the labyrinth, an ancient, archetypal symbol that’s fascinated people for centuries. Many retreat centres have one, as do some public spaces. A church I once served had one lined out in masking tape on blue plastic tarps joined so that when unfolded, they covered the floor of the sanctuary, after we moved the chairs out.
The world’s most famous labyrinth is on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral. (They also have to shift chairs to use it!)
There is nothing all that mysterious about walking a labyrinth. It’s walking. But it’s possible to walk with the intention it be a spiritual practice. Unlike a maze, a true labyrinth has only one entrance, and provides an unimpeded, if circuitous route to the centre, at which point you may pause, before retracing your steps on the only way out.
I’ve walked labyrinths in many places, and often found the experience helpful, and laden with meaning. Today I decided to walk around the quarry, down into it, back out and around it again, intending this would be my “labyrinthine” journey.
Labyrinth guides will often suggest taking a moment before you cross the threshold of the labyrinth, to quiet your insides, and open yourself to the experience of the walk.
Walk a natural pace, paying attention to what may be found in the present moment, something like the old sleuth searching out stones on a beach.
You might take time at the centre of the labyrinth, to notice and receive what arises internally- thoughts, images, feelings. (Maybe like looking closer at that cool stone you picked up.)
On the way back out, you may find you’re integrating whatever you discovered on the inward walk. There may be something useful or beautiful in the thoughts, images, or feelings that emerged. Unlike the fossils, which I have to take back, you can bring home what you find.
What did I find today? (I mean, other than the fossils.)
Yesterday I sat with a spiritual director and stumbled through an incomplete summary of my life, internal and external. She suggested I find a way to listen to my “inner child”, to attend to what they need. She went on to say this archetypal character might need some coaxing, and it might be best to invite them out to play, and see where it leads.
Do you remember how to play?
At this stage of life, I find it so much easier to be task oriented. So my “job” for today was to get outside, do a large-scale labyrinth-like walk, and get at the “work” of gaining deep insight.
At about the halfway mark, down on the flats of the quarry, near the water’s edge, I heard something. A vigorous splashing. I stopped walking, to look out at the water.
There was a strange, circular splashing wave. Every so often, a dark triangle broke the surface. I realized it must be a big fish, because the creature had no need to surface.
The tail-fin, I supposed it was, would point almost straight up, which led me to surmise the rest of the fish was engaged in directing its mouth to the bottom, to feed on what ever bottom-feeders feed on.
The circular wave would subside, and then the tail would cut a line in the water for a few yards, and the dance began anew. I was hypnotized.
My reverie was interrupted by a voice from above. Seriously.
A woman standing up top at the edge overlooking the quarry shouted down, “Any idea what that is?”
I said, “No, but it makes me very curious.”
And then I was.
I began to see more around me.
That’s actually when I noticed many of the rocks I’d been walking over and around, bore fossils.
I’d somehow forgotten I like to hunt for rocks. I was in a quarry, just walking.
A fish, and a strange voice reminded me to take a look.
I have launched a Substack newsletter, which is a new (at least to me) form of web-based publishing. It’s called reluctant sleuth
I am using reluctant sleuth to serially publish my mystery novel, The Book of Answers, which was nominated for a Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence. It has been exciting to have people outside my circle of family and friends read it, and let me know what they think.
Two new chapters of my book go live each week, and there is an online archive where all the chapters are accessible.
I also write short posts every week related to my interests in mystery and thriller fiction, and the mysteries of life.
This week I wrote a bit of a memoir, that traces the beginning of my interest in these things. It’s a fun, and fond recollection of my favourite bookstore when I was a child. Click on the link below to read it:
(The photo is of a community meal at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Leadville, Colorado. I have a friend who attends there, and another who is soon moving there to serve as the pastor.)
My partner and I went to a funeral last weekend. I don’t often go to funerals where I’m not the presider. This one was for someone in our daughter’s partner’s family, and it was at a Roman Catholic church in Sarnia.
Something I thought quite wonderful was the priest did not assume everyone in the room was Catholic, or would understand what was happening. He paused at different times during the mass to explain the rituals he led. He did this in a way that was informative, and inviting, rather than excluding.
It was a good reminder that we do things in church that may seem perfectly normal and obvious to many, but can be confusing, and even a barrier to those who don’t know our secret language of ritual and movement.
I presided at the funeral for Dona Langlois on Tuesday. I made a point of bringing greetings from this congregation, and letting the family know that Dona was known, and remembered fondly. I also followed the example of that good priest from Sarnia. I did a lot of explaining along the way. There was quite a gaggle of little ones at Smith’s Funeral Home, something like 19 great-grandchildren. It was a great opportunity to do what I often attempt here at church- to use the “children’s time” to connect to the kids, but also say some things in a clear and simple way to the adults in the room.
Our rituals, the things we do over and over again, contain great meaning- but the meaning is not always obvious, unless we provide some commentary, and clues.
We heard a passage today from the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts is volume two of Luke’s Gospel- the continued adventures of the Jesus’ Followers. I mentioned last week that Luke’s Gospel was written down at least 100 years after the earthly life of Jesus. The same is true of Acts- it is a collection of stories about people whose earthly lives were long over, by the time the stories were written down.
These were stories that were treasured in the community, and in families. Like a valued heirloom, sometimes the stories would be brought out, and polished. They might get smoothed out, or told in a fresher way- but always with the intention of offering clues and signs to the next generation, to help them understand in a deeper way why the community did certain things, and to underline the meaning of the message that needs to be passed on.
I have opportunities in my work, to sit with families as they share stories about a loved one. I can sometimes tell when they are bringing out one of the heirloom stories- that have been passed along, told and retold because they capture, or evoke something important about the person.
I can, if I listen, get a sense of the character, and of the impact of the person being talked about, even if I never had the chance to know them.
It’s also a fact of life that in some of these stories, certain parts are left out, and other parts are, if not exactly exaggerated, told with greater emphasis, to make a point.
In today’s story from Acts there were a couple of points at which I wonder how much polishing has been done.
We heard about the disciple Peter, who has quickly evolved from a stumbling former fisherman, to an eloquent and forceful preacher. He called upon a crowd to change their lives and turn to God.
The story says about 3000 people took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
I asked a colleague this week if he was going to talk about this story of Peter preaching, and 3000 responding by getting baptized. My friend said, “No way! It just makes the rest of us preachers look bad!”
Did Peter’s preaching really win 3000 new converts to the Jesus way, in one day?
Maybe. I kind of think the story’s been shined up a bit, to get our attention.
This week I attended the annual meeting of the Windsor Downtown Mission. When I pre-registered online, and signed up for the pasta supper, the website asked if I wanted to make an extra donation to support the mission, so I did.
This reminded me that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help. Not to bug people, but to be honest about the need, and to ask, knowing that the answer might be, “Sorry, I’m doing all I can.”
The website also asked me what organization I was connected with.
When I got to the supper, and was checking in, the woman at the entrance asked my name, and looked me up.
She looked at her list, and then at me, and said, “Are you from Harrow United Church?”
When I admitted I was, she gave me the biggest smile, and said, “I help organize the Coldest Night of the Year. The HUCsters, your team from Harrow are amazing! We are all so grateful!”
She then turned around and announced, “He’s from Harrow!” She signaled someone in the back, and they played a trumpet fanfare as I walked in the room.
I’m not exaggerating or polishing that story. It’s all true, except for the part about the trumpets.
The Downtown Mission folks expressed their gratitude for the money the HUCsters have raised over the last five years. Board members, staff members, and other donors all came up over the course of the evening to say thank you.
I also got to hear many stories, about how the work of the mission saves, and changes lives for the better.
It got me thinking about what a world it could be, if we really put people, all people first, and not just with our words, but with all that we have.
In the story we heard today from Acts it says:
“Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”
Did you catch that last part? Let me say it again.
“The believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”
The story goes on to describe how this first community of Jesus’ followers kept growing and growing, because those around them liked what they saw they community doing to help others.
As our congregation emerges, with the rest of the world, from under the big shadow of COVID, we face challenging questions about our survival.
Right now, we have the biggest financial shortfall anyone in this congregation can remember. We are running out of reserves, and are working like crazy to make pies, plan for the fall supper, and keep on going.
If you are in a position to give more money to the church, now is the perfect time. I know that our church leaders, and those working hard to fundraise, will deeply appreciate it. I am talking to everyone here, and also to those folks who watch us online.
I guess we’d have no problems if we just pooled all of our resources, and saw to that everyone’s needs were met, and used the leftovers to fund the church. But I don’t think we are likely to do that. I am not likely to get that ball rolling, by giving all my money to the church. I still need it!
And I totally understand that you also need your money. It’s okay to say “No, I’m doing all I can, right now.” No one is going to bug you about it.
At the same time, I think it’s important we hear the story of this first group of Jesus followers sharing all they had, and seeing to everyone’s needs. This beautiful, polished story can inspire us, and point us in the right direction.
It reminds us we are meant to live not just for ourselves, but to contribute to the common good.
We all need reminders that people do good things, and not everyone just thinks about themselves. Amen
You can often tell, after just a couple of minutes in conversation, how a person looks at life. Are they a glass half full or half empty person? Or do they see the glass as cracked and leaky, or smashed on the floor, and careful where you step?
Is life a glorious gift, or a pointless endurance test? Is love something bigger than us, that makes life beautiful, and livable, or a foolish fairy tale only good for greeting cards and sappy movies?
Another way to put it might be, is there a God, at work in our world and in each of us or not?
In 1915, during World War 1, which was one of the worst human conflicts in history up to that point, and a dire and sad time, a woman in England named Evelyn Underhill published a book called Practical Mysticism. She was one of a long line of poets, writers, and people of faith over the centuries who shared a mission to help their fellow humans to grasp that there is more to life than leaky broken glasses.
The inconveniences, and pains, sadnesses and terrors we experience in this life are real, but they are not the whole story.
Early in the book, she told the story of two people who were each out for a walk. They were not together, but as things go in stories, they walked exactly the same path, but had vastly different experiences.
The first fixed their attention on the fact that they were obliged to take a walk. For them the chief factor of existence was their movement along the road; a movement they intended to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as they could.
This first person did not wonder what may be on either side of the hedges. They ignored the caress of the wind until it threatened to remove their hat. They trudged along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflected.
The second person took the same path, and for them it was a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriated them, the winds delighted them, the very effort of the journey was a joy. Magic presences thronged the roadside, or cried greetings from the hidden fields. The rich world through which they moved lay in the fore-ground of their consciousness; and it gave up new secrets at every step.
When the two walkers met up, the second told the first about the fabulous experience they’d had, and the first refused to believe they’d walked the same road.
The first walker fancied their companion had been floating about in the air, or was beset by agreeable hallucinations. The only way to change the first walker’s opinion would be to somehow persuade them to look for themselves. (Adapted from Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism)
Underhill said it was an old story, like a well known nursery tale. I don’t know if that was true. She could have made it up, to make her point, which is something like, you can’t experience the deeper, fuller reality of life, until you have become open to it.
One person can go through life and discover numerous signs all around them, of wonder and love and the miracle of life.
Another can live in virtually the same circumstances, and miss all those signs, and only notice the hardships, the misery, the reasons to complain. That’s how they will continue to experience life until something happens to open the eyes of their heart.
We may know someone like the first walker, who seems aware only of the drudgery and sadness, and not able to notice, or believe in the wonder and beauty. There may be good reasons for them to be that way. Life can be incredibly hard.
We might wish we could say the right thing, or push a button to unlock a door or open a window, that would help them to grow in their awareness, and have the comfort, the joy, the love in life, that makes it possible to endure, and at times even rise above the hard times.
But there are no magic words or buttons. The long line of poets and writers and mystics that remind us there is more to life, also teach that in order for us to become aware of “the more”, many of us have to experience a process of change or transformation.
There are other words for it. Conversion. Initiation. Movement. Growth. Maturing.
One of the functions of a community of faith is to invite people in, who are just beginning to get an inkling that there may be something more to life, and to encourage them. Part of how we do that is by being friendly and kind. We can show them, by how we are, that we believe, we trust there is more to life than the present hardships.
We also do it by telling the stories, and repeating the actions, the rituals of our faith, that were given to us by Jesus, to remind ourselves, and to show others a way to look at life that is an alternative to the glass being half empty.
This telling of our faith stories, and repeating the actions shown to us by Jesus, is the heart of the Gospel story we heard today.
Luke’s Gospel was written at least 100 years after the earthly life of Jesus. It contains stories told to people who joined a community of Jesus followers, to help them see life in a new way- a way that included wonder, and love, and hope. They were glass half full stories.
In today’s story, two people were walking down a road. They met a stranger who engaged them in conversation.
Over the course of the walk, they told the stranger about their friend and teacher Jesus, in whom they had placed such hope, and who they had watched die a painful death. The stranger knew a lot about Jesus, and made connections between Jesus teachings, and Jewish scripture. The stranger had a wider view of life that left room for God to be at work, even in the midst of grief and sadness.
Even though the stranger had a lot to say, nothing seemed to get through to the two sad Jesus followers. Words can only do so much, it seems.
The wonder of the story happened when they shared a meal. The stranger took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them.
They’d seen this before. They’d eaten this bread before. It was the bread of the last supper, when Jesus told them to do these things and remember him. It was the bread of feeding thousands of people, after a child offered 5 loaves and two pieces of fish.
Suddenly, the two knew, and could celebrate there is more to life than death.
They didn’t waste a minute rushing back to share the good news with the other disciples. Amen
This is the cover of a book by Carolyn Keene. She also wrote the Nancy Drew stories, published by the same company that made the Hardy Boys books. Anyone here read, or watch the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew? Those stories are often the gateway drug for people who go on to develop an addiction to mystery fiction.
In the world of mystery fiction, there is a sub-genre called the Locked Room Mystery. In its classic form, a crime has been committed in a locked room, and there is no obvious way to tell how it happened, or who did it. It’s usually a murder.
A corpse is found in a room that was locked from the inside, and there is no explanation of how it could have happened, or who did it.
The detective comes in to gather clues, interview witnesses and suspects, and develop a theory.
Scholars of mystery fiction, and yes, that really is a field of study, generally agree the first locked room mystery was written in 1841 by Edgar Allan Poe. It was called the Murders in the Rue Morgue, and is also considered by many to be the first detective story.
1841 is a long time ago, but I was thinking this week about the Gospel story we just heard, that was written down around 100 years after the earthly life of Jesus. It’s over 1900 years old, and is a kind of locked room mystery.
We can cast Thomas, the one called the Twin, in the role of the reluctant sleuth. He is faced with a most bothersome mystery.
What the story reveals is Jesus’ closest companions, the disciples, were gathered together behind locked doors. This was just after Jesus had been crucified, and the disciples had locked all the doors. The story says they were afraid. Perhaps they worried they might be next.
Somehow, Jesus entered, and stood among them. They were awestruck.
Jesus said to them, “Peace to you.”
But Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”
But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”
Some translations of the Bible give this story the heading: Doubting Thomas.
Many preachers over the centuries have used this story as a launching pad from which to send out sermons extolling the virtues of faith, and encouraging their listeners to simply believe. It’s a pretty powerful line of argument. Don’t be a doubting Thomas. You don’t need proof, just believe.
But I like Thomas. I like people who question assumptions, who want to investigate, to try to understand, who look at available evidence, before reaching a conclusion.
There is always a temptation to not make waves, or upset apple carts, swim against the current, or challenge the group thought. But the Good Friday story is a good example of why it’s not always good to go along with the crowd. Pilate found no reason to condemn Jesus, and offered to set him free.
The people in the gathered crowd called out for Jesus to be crucified. Popular opinion can’t always be relied upon.
The disciples told Thomas Jesus had appeared to them in a locked room. The same Jesus they knew had been crucified.
It makes perfect sense to me that Thomas wanted evidence. Good for him, for thinking for himself.
The story jumps ahead 8 days. The disciples were in the same locked room. Had they gone out at all, or had they stayed hidden away all that time?
Thomas was with them this time, when Jesus somehow came through the locked doors to appear in their midst, and say, “Peace to you.”
Jesus then turned specifically to Thomas. He said, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”
Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”
It’s a good story. Often, when I read a good mystery, the main question- who did the crime, is solved, but I am left with other questions. I may want to know more about the character of the detective. Many of the mysteries I read, like those old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, are written as series, so I can go on to the next, and learn more.
Honestly, the crimes they solve are often just a vehicle to move the book along, so I can spend more time with the detective, and learn how they think and what matters to them.
In the case of Detective Thomas, there are some things I’d like to know. The first being, what was he doing, while all the other disciples were together, behind the locked doors? Where was he?
I like to imagine that he was pursuing other mysteries, that any of us who have had a death in the family, lost a loved one, can understand.
Thomas’ good friend, and teacher, and leader, Jesus had been killed. Thomas and the others followed Jesus because they loved the message he brought about how they each mattered to God. Jesus taught them that God loved them, in such a personal way they could think of God as a parent, pray to God calling him Abba, or Daddy.
More than that, Thomas and the disciples saw the way Jesus lit up a room, or a hillside. People flocked to be close to him, to hear his message, and experience healing, happiness, peace, and wholeness in Jesus’ presence.
I imagine Thomas was out in the world beyond the locked room, searching for clues about how to go on. What would his life mean, now that Jesus was gone? What would be worth doing? What would his purpose be?
Would Thomas be able to continue to trust that his own life had meaning, worth, or purpose after Jesus was so cruelly taken away and killed?
When we lose someone who matters to us, it can shake us to the core, and have us question everything. It can take a while before we feel like we can feel anything except exhaustion and sadness, and at some stages of grief, anger, fear and hopelessness.
So what was Thomas up to, while the other disciples were locked away in a room, fearful?
The Gospel of John leaves that a mystery. The focus was on Jesus, and the writer says near the end of the Gospel there were so many more stories and signs that could have been written down, that would have filled many more books. We don’t get the next volume in the adventures of Detective Thomas, with a flashback showing us what he was doing during those 8 days while the others were in hiding.
I like to imagine that Thomas was finding his way back to life, after the loss of his friend and teacher, by traveling around, and visiting with others like him, who were grieving the loss of Jesus. I think maybe he was checking in on people to see how they were doing.
I think he may have been looking for clues about how to carry on, by doing what Jesus had taught from the beginning. Take care of people. See to their needs. Remind them they are loved, and not alone.
I think this, because when I read about Jesus appearing in the locked room, that’s essentially what Jesus told the other disciples.
After Jesus said, “Peace to you,” he said, “Just as the Father sent me, I send you.”
Jesus sent them back out into the world, in the same way God had sent him. Get out and there and be with the hurting, the lonely, the worried. Help people. Let them know they are known, and remembered, and that they matter. Amen
Here is a link to the YouTube video of the whole worship service. My learning time about the Locked Room Mystery starts at 35:02.
Decoration Day is a fine and noble tradition that predates the establishment of November 11 as Armistice Day, now known as Remembrance Day. Do you know how, and why it started?
Knowing why helps us make decisions and adds meaning to our choices.
On June 1, 1866, Canada was invaded from the United States by an insurgent army of Irish American Fenians seeking to expel British rule from Ireland by taking Canada hostage. A heavily armed 1,000-man group of Civil War veterans from both the US and former Confederate armies seized the town of Fort Erie and threatened to destroy the Welland Canal.
On the morning of June 2, near the village of Ridgeway west of Fort Erie, they were intercepted by a brigade of Canadian militia from the Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) of Toronto and 13th Battalion of Hamilton (today the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI).
This became Canada’s first modern battle to be fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers: the Battle of Ridgeway.
The first casualty, Ensign Malcolm McEachern was killed in the early minutes of the battle on June 2. Nine riflemen from the Queen’s Own Rifles were killed in the battle. Twenty-two more Canadians would die of either wounds or disease sustained during the Fenian Raids.
Except for miniscule payments to those severely wounded in the battle, or to the widows and orphans of those killed, the veterans received no acknowledgement of their service in the defense of Canada during the Fenian Raids.
As Canadian American relations warmed, commemoration of a battle defending against an invasion from the U.S. became unpolitic, inconvenient and impolite. The more than eight hundred veterans who fought at Ridgeway were forgotten and ignored.
In May 1890 the Veterans of ’66 Association decided to meet in protest on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the battle to lay flowers and wreaths at the Canadian Volunteers Monument near Queen’s Park.
This first Decoration Day was followed by a national petition in 1895 for recognition of all the volunteers who served during the Fenian Raids. In January 1899, in response to the petition, Britain authorized a Canadian General Service Medal for veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian Raids and the 1870 Red River Rebellion.
The medal was issued by Britain just in time for the call on Canada to help in the upcoming South African War.
When I was a little boy, we lived in a drafty old house. On winter mornings I would go to my bedroom window, and most of the single pane glass would be covered in frost crystals. It took the light of the morning sun to shine through, and make them visible. The frost on the glass was different each time, as no two snowflakes are identical.
I would gaze with utter fascination at the frost patterns in the window. They were like glimpses into a secret reality we don’t usually see. I get the same sense of awe and mystery when rock hunting on a beach, and I find a fossil, or when I go outside after dark and see the night sky, laced with bright and distant stars. There is so much to God’s wondrous creation. We can’t explain everything. There is a lot that remains unknown, mysterious.
There are many aspects to life that we can see, and feel, and not understand. How does love work? How is it we can look into one person’s eyes, and feel a connection, and suddenly they matter to us? We notice there is nobody else quite like this person. We are joyfully reminded that every person we know, every person we meet is a unique creation like a snowflake or a frosty window. The light shines through them in a way that is different from every other person. How is that possible?
How do our lives work? Do we exist somehow, as a soul before we are born into flesh? When our physical lives are over, where does our spirit, our soul go?
The story of the first Easter morning can take our imaginations to a place of awe and mystery, to a renewed sense that there is more to life and to death than we know.
Back to my bedroom window. To see the beautiful patterns, I would need to get out of bed. Our old house was not well insulated. I think my parents set the thermostat low to save money. There were many mornings I hesitated to get out of bed. I knew if I got out of my blanket cocoon, I’d be cold. It is lovely to lie toasty warm under the covers. You can put an arm out and test the air, and let yourself feel a bit of the cold, and then quickly pull your arm back in, and warm it up again.
Our spring has been a long time coming, and is trying so hard to be spring. Like a cold engine trying to turn over, so we can get the car moving. After the cold grey of winter we love it when our mornings are warm, and bright.
This hope is urged on by the turning wheel, the cycle of the seasons. We remember the annual journey from the warm promise of spring, to the extravagant heat and life of summer, the inevitable descent into fall, deep into the cold of winter, and the eventual return to spring. Over and over, we experience the journey from birth, to thriving life, to the beginning of decline, to death, and once again to the ever surprising miracle of new life.
Darkness and light, chilling cold and restoring warmth are natural symbols to use, to talk about the mysterious, spiritual dimension of our lives.
The first Easter morning was dark and cold. Jesus’ friends had watched him die on the cross. They saw his body pierced with a spear and were there when blood and water gushed out. They arranged for his body to be carried to a borrowed tomb. They were there when the tomb was sealed. As the sky darkened a huge rock, cut specially for the purpose, was rolled in to block the entrance to the cave, to keep out wild animals and looters.
Early, early in the morning, before the sun rose, a few from Jesus’ inner circle woke up. Perhaps they had to convince themselves to get out of bed. They faced the cold and dark of their first day without the one who had lit up their days, and warmed their hearts from the inside with his presence, and with his teachings about God’s love.
They may not have wanted to brave that dark, cold, scary place, the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. They overcame their fear, and paralyzing sadness, to be there with the dawn. It was against their faith to do any work on the Sabbath, which ended with the rising of the sun. The new day was the time to wash and anoint Jesus’ body, so it might have a decent burial.
The sun began to rise above the curve of the earth, and began to push away the gloom of night- but did not have the power to brighten their spirits, to warm their bewildered grieving hearts.
The morning sun claimed the sky, and lit up the world. Light revealed that somehow, the heavy stone had been rolled away. In one version of the story, a mysterious figure says that Jesus was no longer in the dark tomb- he’d been raised from the dead. Another version describes angels at the tomb, and it is a heavenly messenger who rolls away the stone.
Each of the gospels tells the story of Easter morning with different details. Maybe they are like frosted windows, or snowflakes, beautiful in their own way, hinting to us that there is much about the world we live in that is mysterious.
I suspect the resurrection news sunk into their hearts before it made sense in their heads. At times our hearts are warmed, and lead us towards the awareness that something important has happened, long before our minds can process it. Matthew’s gospel describes Jesus’ friends as being deep in wonder and full of joy. They knew themselves to be in the presence of the unique warmth and light of their friend.
This probably did not make sense to them at first- how could it? But over the next few days they heard more stories, and saw things that warmed their hearts, and helped them to trust what they had been told in that early morning light. Jesus had been raised.
We who seek after Jesus today are a lot like his first followers. We look for the light and warmth that makes the cold and darkness of this world bearable. We look for spring after the grey winter. We look for hope, and meaning.
The Easter stories tell us that God’s love, and God’s hopes and dreams for us could not be buried away in the darkness of a cold stone tomb. God rose Jesus from death, so we would know that there is nothing, not even death, that is stronger than God’s love.
Love shines through, and brings warmth and hope back into our world. Amen
God of Life:
You are alive, and we are alive, and all those we love,
even those who have died, are alive in you.
For life, and for love, we give you thanks.
There are many signs of new life in our midst……
We give you thanks for the coming of spring, and for all the signs of new life. We thank you also for the mystery and excitement of the Easter story. Help us to bring the power of that story into the lives of those around us. Help us to spread the hope of new beginnings, and bright new mornings, that come after even the darkest nights.
In this holiday time, when families gather, let us pray for safe travel for those who will be on journeys to and from their homes. We pray also for those who are away from home, and unable to be with their loved ones. We think of those in prison, those in the military, and others whose work takes them far afield.
Let us also pray for those whose family lives are difficult. We pray for peace, reconciliation, and kindness in those situations. We pray for new possibilities of love, and beyond the hardship and broken relationships that some people experience.
We also remember those who are living with loss. The death of a loved one, whether it happened this week or decades ago can cast a shadow on times of celebration. Help us to be sensitive to those whose hearts may be heavy with grief.
We pray for those who are ill, at home or in hospital. We pray for those who are lonely, especially those in nursing homes. We pray also for caregivers who continue their duties through these holiday times, and bring compassion and love to work with them
We give you thanks for the stories of our faith, and the community in which they come to life. We pray for our church, and the other faith communities that help people to find meaning and purpose, and joy in life. We pray especially with gratitude for the generous hearts of all those who give their time, and their resources, to keep this an active, life-filled, and life-giving church.
We pray for those in the community, the world around us, who may have an emptiness inside them, as they live through another Easter holiday without a deeper understanding of the new life that God offers us in Jesus. May their search for meaning and purpose lead them to a place where they experience the love and acceptance of God.
After the Sabbath, as the first light of the new week dawned, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at the tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing.
He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.
The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.
“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”
The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples.
Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said.
They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him.
Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.
When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
Without love, nothing would have happened.
Without love, the women who make their way through the chill dark to tend to Jesus’ body in the cold tomb, would not have done it.
Without love, they would not have dared go to that place.
Without love, they would not have seen, or heard.
They wouldn’t know a thing about Jesus’ life after life, without love.
Love makes everything important and good possible.
Without love, nothing good can happen.
With love, life is possible. Even in the cold tomb, in the chill dark.
We are used to hearing those words about love from 1st Corinthians in different situations. Weddings, and sometimes funerals. Times when we are reminded of just how precious to us, are the people in our lives, and how fleeting life is, and how quickly things can change.
Life is mysterious, and confusing. The letter says it well:
“We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!”
We can’t know exactly what the women saw when they went to the tomb that morning. It’s like squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But the gist of it is that God was not done with Jesus, and God is not done with us.
What they thought was the end, was not the end.
How is that even possible? We don’t know that, yet.
“We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!”
There will be a time, and a place, beyond what we now know, when we’ll see it all clearly. For now, what we can’t see with our eyes, or sort out with our brains, we can feel, we can sense, we can trust, with our hearts.
Jesus was alive again. Love overcame the death, and fear, and darkness of the world, and even the tomb shone with the bright light of angels in dazzling clothes, come to tell these women, that the one they loved was safe, and they would see him again. Alleluia!