God & Sunsets

“I tire of spiritual but not religious people who think they are unique, daring, or interesting because they find God in the sunset… My take is that anyone can find God in the sunset. What is remarkable is finding God in the context of flawed human community” – Lillian Daniel

Stations of the Cross – Backwards

The first morning of my retreat began when I looked out of the window and saw the red-orange sun rising over the tree line. As it happened that morning, the planet, the sun, the time of day, my window, and the spot I stood all lined up to place the image squarely in the center of the first view of the day. God had not arranged this all for my edification, of course. It all happens, in some way, everyday. But, I often miss it. I am NOT an early riser most days, but the monks gather to pray at 7:15 AM, so I was up. It all happened on God’s watch – in God’s providence. I said, “Thanks be to God, and thank you early rising monks.”
After prayer, and breakfast, I took a walk around the grounds of the monastery. Paths, mowed into the grass, guide you to places of ordinary wonder – a lake, trees, an orchard, watermelon and tomato patches. I didn’t know exactly where I was going, so when I took one turn, I encountered a large, rough cross in the ground with XIV carved in the top. It was the last station of the cross (Jesus entombed). I walked on and another cross, numbered XIII, appeared. I was following the stations of the cross – backwards. I chuckled as I thought about some monk I had met seeing me and thinking, “Dumb Lutheran, walking the stations in reverse.”
As XIII led to XII, and XII to XI and so on, it occurred to me that in some way this might be exactly the right way to walk the stations for those of us who follow Jesus – at least as we come to faith in him. God is revealed to us as the Crucified God, on the cross, in the tomb, and then risen from the dead. It is only in light of the end (and new beginning) that anything else Jesus did, said, or suffered can be understood. Push back beyond the stations of the cross to the healings, the parables, the gathered crowds. Go back to the birth of Jesus in sleepy Bethlehem. None of that matters without the cross and resurrection. Those moments did not fade into the shadows of history, forgotten, because the cross and resurrection reinterpreted each event as more than miracles and signs. They were revealed as the very acts of God. Following Jesus begins at the cross and at the tomb, at the end of the stations.
There is a clue here about how we look at everything in our lives and this ailing, suffering world. Nothing makes sense if you don’t start at the cross and resurrection. A suffering God, a crucified God, rises to new life in the face of death and destruction. The loss and devastation; the violence and polarization; the hatred and the division of the world are unintelligible – unbearable – without a vision that places God in the center. The cross does exactly that.
How will we get through the terror and violence? The answer is in the cross and resurrection. How will we survive global degradation and environmental crisis? The cross and resurrection are the beginning of wisdom. How will we not be consumed by our grief and despair? Look to the cross and resurrection. No matter what people promise, only in the cross do we find a God who enters our suffering and death and then offers hope for something new. The cross emboldens us to do the hard and painful things that are demanded. The resurrection points us to the promise that God will redeem, sanctify and speak a new word, even into the darkness of death and evil.
When I finally came to the first station. I looked up and there, just ahead was the window to my room where the day had started. Walking the path backwards, from Cross to the beginning, had brought me home. May it be so with you.
Station 1
copyright © 2018 – Timothy V. Olson

For Mollie…

For weeks the people of Iowa – in fact, people across the country – have become familiar with the smiling face of Mollie Tibbetts. Yesterday we learned that Mollie will not be coming home. Her lifeless body was found in a field, the victim of evil and violence, which seems to pervade our world more deeply each day. What do we say and think of such a loss; such a manifestation of evil and suffering? As Christians who worship God revealed in the suffering of the cross, there is much to say, really. In summary I’ll quote a colleague, Arthur Bergren, a pastor in Waverly, Iowa: “In the field where this young woman was recovered, the cross of Christ stands. Mollie was never alone.” Her tears, pain, terror – whatever she suffered – was suffered in the very heart of God. That God will not let this suffering be the final word for Mollie, for her family, or for us.

Sadly, Mollie is fast becoming a footnote to this story. Instead of grief and honoring the dead, political leaders, media outlets and many others have jumped on the fact that the alleged perpetrator of this crime was an immigrant who was in this country illegally. The death of a young woman is being used for political purposes and scapegoating. The young man who stands accused of the murder is in custody and charged. The system of justice is in motion. If convicted, he will pay for his crime in ways that have been mandated by the people.

Will using this woman’s death to rally people to purge our nation of immigrants ensure that this kind of violence will never happen again? Hardly. If we hunt down the illegal immigrants (and in the process every person who speaks Spanish or is a little browner than we are) will we be able to sleep in a deluded peace, sure that violence cannot touch us? Hardly. Should we look at common sense immigration practices that don’t throw the “baby out with the bath water” as we act? I hope so. Should we, in this moment, mourn Mollie, comfort those who grieve and try not to objectify this young woman any more than she has been for our own causes? I pray so.
Here’s the thing: In 1986, Mark Smith waited for his ex-girlfriend to come home from school after he had broken into her home. When she arrived, he stabbed her 66 times. Mark Smith was not an illegal immigrant; he was not unusual. He and his family lived in a house just adjacent to my parent’s home. Jenny Crompton died for no real reason. Simple human brokenness and sin were at the heart of the act. Mark Smith was convicted and is in jail to this day – a recent appeal, denied.

My point is that we cannot live in this world and believe that senseless violence and suffering will not happen if we can identify the “bad people” – be they illegal immigrants or our normal neighbors, or even us. You know the down-deep, center of your soul truth, don’t you? Every one of us is capable of becoming Cain or Abel, perpetrator or victim. That is why we need a God who enters into our existence – even the suffering and death – to transform us and share our pain.

So, I’m just asking us to keep this loss, this tragic and senseless murder, focused on Mollie and her family. That we pray for the justice system to work. That we set aside our agendas and our need to pick up our torches and search for the monsters – because they are all of us, friends. I’m asking that we keep our heads, watch our mouths and open our hearts – for Mollie. That is this Beggar’s Take on Mollie’s death.

copyright 2018 – Timothy V. Olson


“It is a good proof and test of our love if we can bear with such faults (of others) and not be shocked by them. Others, in their turn, will bear with your faults, which, if you include those of which you are not aware, must be much more numerous.” ― Teresa of Ávila