lenten journal: acquainted with grief


    The early spring has been at cross purposes with my schedule. When the beds were ready to be cleared and prepared for spring vegetables, I was not prepared to plant. When the regular rhythm of rain and spring sunshine made everything in the garden explode, I was not prepared to prune branches and pull weeds to channel the new growth into its most productive channels. The garden went on without me, bursting with growth and green, with flowers and fragrance, and has been doing so for some time to the point that what are normally walking paths were covered up with all manner of green.

    Today I tried to catch up.

    I spent about two hours in the garden pulling weeds, pruning trees and bushes, and preparing for planting that will come as soon as I get a chance. My primary focus was to clear the walking paths so the pups had a way to navigate from the back door down to the back of the yard where they move among the wood chips and ivy to make sure the squirrels are under control. As I pulled and pruned, I was mindful of it being Good Friday afternoon and I thought of John the Baptist’s words, “Prepare the way of the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” Perhaps it is not the freshest of metaphors, but I found a connection as my hands pulled the plants, hoping the ground would yield its grip and let me clear the way. Some gave up more easily than others. Though the paths are cleared, the roots of several of the weeds are still intact, meaning I will be out again on at least one more afternoon making sure we have room to walk.

    Tonight I am at the church with Ginger staffing our church’s prayer vigil. Our ministerial intern, Kyle, set up the stations of the cross around the sanctuary and created a thoughtful and meaningful path of devotion and focus, free of weeds. Jesus’ death is a struggle for me because of the explanations for it, more than anything. The traditional notions of the atonement, as I was taught them as a young Baptist boy, create an equation that has never added up for me. I don’t see why a God who is love had to kill the Son in order to make the accounting work. (I’m not looking for an explanation of it either, by the way – but, thanks.) Because of who I know God to be, I trust I could be forgiven without Jesus dying. What his death that matters most to me is to create the possibility for Resurrection. Jesus went to what we knew to be the limits of human existence and blew the doors off reminding us there is more to life than what we know. These days are not the last word. Death is a penultimate statement, the next to the last verse.

    The longer I live on this planet, the more I appreciate Jesus’ visceral understanding of grief and loss. One of my favorite old hymns begins

    man of sorrows – what a name
    for the Son of God who came

    The old King James translation spoke I poetic understatement of his being “acquainted with grief.” Then again, that particular acquaintance is one of the primary relationships in the life of most any person. Being human means to know loss and sorrow. What Jesus showed was being fully human was knowing how to fully embrace that relationship. Grief and sorrow aren’t something other than life – they are a part of the very essence of our existence.

    We have one account in the gospels of Jesus being in the living side of grief and that is in the death of his friend Lazarus. His response is recorded in what is famously known as the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” In the face of Jesus’ own demise, some of the disciples denied him, some doubted, some despaired. They didn’t have the luxury of the liturgical calendar to let them know Easter Sunday was just around the corner. He was dead and buried. They were brutally acquainted with grief. They went back to their old ways and climbed in the boat to go fishing, doing anything to fill the void, or anything to go on living. This was the night of their deepest question: what do we do now? Even without the Resurrection, death is not the last word for those left behind to keep living. The weeds will grow back and I will have to go and pull them up again. Our losses will pile up like my compost heap the longer we walk on this earth. Grief will become more than an acquaintance. Before we get to Sunday, we must answer the call, as Jackson Browne said, “Get up and do it again. Amen.

    Amen, indeed.



    1. Thanks for this beautiful post,Milton.

      I am Catholic but struggle with the atonement explanations but your post is a wonderful affirmation of trust and hope. I’ll be quoting from it and linking to you-

      Blessings for the Lord of Easter and I add my Amen, Indeed to yours !!

    2. My thoughts about atonement are similar to yours, from not understanding the economics of penal substitution to thinking that Christ on the cross should point us to the resurrection and the coming kingdom. I think God can forgive us without a sacrificial lamb. As I understand it, by the way, penal substitution was not an idea of the early church, but came along later.

      This week, wanting to keep my mind on Easter, I’ve been listening to K-LOVE radio (106.7), and have been amazed by the high percentage of the songs are about Jesus dying for our sins, while there are virtually none that I’ve heard that celebrate the Kingdom of God or good news for the poor or what have you. It’s all “I worship you because you died for me on the cross,” which I find an impoverished theology indeed.

      Good luck with your garden! I’ll be working in mine–and sneezing my head off–all afternoon.

      Easter blessings!


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