This Lenten Season, Episcopal Relief & Development invites you to join us as we meditate on the commandment to love our neighbor and consider the meaning of this fundamental instruction in our daily lives.
The Rev. Robin Denney, a parish priest and former missionary focused on agricultural development in Liberia and South Sudan, wrote this year’s meditations. Robin’s reflections are poignant and personal and challenge the reader to consider the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Today’s theme: In our Sunday lectionary readings this week, and in the daily reflections, we will consider the theme The Return of Hope.
Today’s Lectionary Readings
In this video, we hear from Vilma about her involvement in the business training program run by the Episcopal Diocese of Guatemala. Trainers describe the importance of the program and some of the skills that participants learn. Vilma reflects on the hope she has for her daughters.
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb [of Lazarus]. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
— John 11:38-39a
Jesus’ encounter with his friends in Bethany moved him profoundly. The story makes clear that Jesus knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet it mentions multiple times how deeply grieved he is.
It is important that we see Jesus’ grief. As humans, we know how fragile our lives are and how little is in our control. In the face of our mortality, it is easy to believe in a god who is all-powerful, but a powerful god could easily be a cruel god. Jesus shows us the heart of God. In Jesus’ tears, we see the God of Love, who holds the restoration of all things, and at the same time, weeps with us in our present moment. There is no pain of grief we hold that Jesus does not also hold with us.
Yet even in his grief and theirs, Jesus calls the people to roll away the stone. In the midst of grief, we are called to hope. Hope does not erase our pain but comes alongside it. God is always there, weeping with us and ready to do something new in us.
Where are the “stones” in your heart or life that need to be rolled away? Is there something in you or your life that you believe is beyond God’s redeeming love? Take some time today to wonder and to invite God in.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
— Ezekiel 37:1-3
Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones has resonated with oppressed people throughout the centuries. Ezekiel lived through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and was part of the great exile of the people of Israel to Babylon. The cry of the people that God quotes to Ezekiel in this passage, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost,” must also have been the cry of Ezekiel’s heart. He is weighed down by grief and trauma, utterly cut off from his place of worship and homeland, from the very promise of God.
“Can these bones live?” God has the audacity to ask this man who, along with his people, has known such profound suffering.
“O Lord God, you know.” Hope in God is still in Ezekiel’s heart if even just a whisp of a breath of hope.
And from that whisp of a breath of hope springs a vision of incredible redemption. The veil between what we see and what God sees is drawn back, and we glimpse a different reality. God will always take the ashes of our devastation, grief and loss, and breathe new life, love and hope into our being.
Try using the refrain “Can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know” in prayer, doodling, art or journaling. What comes up for you? What new sight, new hope does God have for you?
You have given all to me, to you, Lord, I return it. All is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.
— Saint Ignatius of Loyola
For more than a year after Hurricane Katrina, a gymnasium in Long Beach, Mississippi, served as a dormitory for Episcopalian and Lutheran volunteers from across the country who were coming to help. The demolition and clean-up work was both heartbreaking and hopeful. I remember one volunteer, covered in mud and slime, saying, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do this work, but I will gladly do it for free.”
At one house, the homeowner hadn’t been able to bring herself to enter. The storm surge had gone right up to the roofline. She stood outside, her arms tightly crossed, and said, “Just throw it all away.” The crew took turns standing with her, chatting, and I remember thinking, “This is slowing us down.” Someone brought her a mug they found; she held it for a long time and smiled. We brought her other things that were salvageable, and by the end of the day, she was talking animatedly, standing by several boxes of her things and the bones of a home cleaned to the studs. I had been so focused on the task of clearing the house I almost missed the true miracle of God’s grace. What mattered the most was the hope she had reclaimed, which had nothing to do with the boxes of things or the home ready for rebuilding.
When have you seen the miracle of God’s grace at work in the lives of others? What might God be asking you to let go of, to return to God, or to hold more loosely today, so that you might have more space in your heart for God’s grace and love?
If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe,
I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown:
that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.
— Saint Julian of Norwich “Revelations of Divine Love” The Sixteenth Revelation, Chapter 82
Why God allows suffering has been an enduring question throughout the generations. Julian of Norwich, who lived in the Middle Ages, addressed this question in the midst of suffering and found the question itself lacking. She lived through an armed conflict and a plague that claimed the lives of half of the population of her town. Julian herself became gravely ill and received last rites. As she lay close to death, she had visions of Jesus. She recovered and wrote about her visions and their theological significance.
Amid all the pain she experienced and saw in her community, the power of God’s peace and love was so much greater. The peace she found and wrote about was a peace that came not from a sense of protection or security, but a deep and abiding assurance that God held her, all people, and all things in an eternity of love. Whether experiencing devastation or consolation, we are all of us constantly held in love. The hope that animates our perseverance is not based on circumstances but on this deeper truth.
Take a few minutes to contemplate God’s embrace of love, which always holds you. How might you hold onto this image of God’s embrace today? How might you draw strength from it?
Take up your cross, the Savior said, If you would my disciple be;
Deny yourself, the world forsake, And humbly follow after me…
Take up your cross, which gives you strength,
Which makes your trembling spirit brave;
‘Twill guide you to a better home, And lead to vict’ry o’er the grave.
— Hymn Text by Charles W. Everest (1833)
Jesus told his disciples that they would have to take up their cross if they wanted to follow him. What shocking words to hear in a society terrorized by mass executions by crucifixion. It is easy to forget the weight of transformation the symbol of the cross represents. A sign of torture and abject fear has become a symbol of hope.
In the Jonglei region of South Sudan, devout Christian women carry crosses. In church services, they lift the crosses high as they worship. But many also carry their crosses throughout the day as they garden, gather firewood or carry water. This is not a piece of jewelry or a small token, but a wooden cross, long and thin, more than a foot in length. After being presented with the honor of one of these crosses for my own, despite how precious it was to me, I misplaced it within a few hours of receiving it. Grieved, I retraced my steps but never found it. I was struck by how much intention it takes to carry such an item everywhere you go. I marveled at how truly carrying the cross all day might shape a person’s life and their awareness of God’s presence with them. But I wonder if it wasn’t something more. That in carrying the cross, their suffering was knit together with his suffering, and likewise their hope and power from his resurrection.
What is a simple prayer that you could use throughout the day today? Perhaps a deep breath, a phrase of scripture, a hymn, a poem, or a question in your heart? Is there something today you could do or carry to remind you to pray? A reminder on your phone, a stone, a cross, a rosary?
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; * in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
— Psalm 130: 4-5
The psalmist connects waiting for God with hope. In Spanish, the word is the same, esperar, esperanza. Hope requires waiting, it seems.
In this information age, with the internet and a globalized economy, we are less practiced at waiting for certain things. I wonder if we are also less able to wait with longing for deeper truths. Do our souls ache in longing and waiting for justice, unity, and peace? Can we sustain the focus, prayer and action that are a part of that longing, waiting, and hope?
Are we able to esperar with esperanza? Are we able to wait with hope? What does it look like for our souls to wait for God, even more than a night watchman waits for the dawn? What if the very hope we seek comes to us only as we wait for God?
Spend some time in silence today, listen to music, take a walk, pray. What is the experience of waiting for God? How does it feel? Where does your hope come from?
Send your own reflection to firstname.lastname@example.org to share with our online community. Please limit your response to two or three sentences.
Every Friday night I go to my favorite jazz club in Brooklyn. My neighbor decided in his retirement to open a jazz club as a community gathering spot and place to showcase local musicians. When everyone is jamming together during the open mic, I feel like I get a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
Reconnecting with old friends, and finding that you all still love and care for each other.
Every morning, and especially every Sunday morning, brings fresh hope to begin again.
The natural goodness of children!