World: Grief, Beauty | September 9

Mark 3:7-15; 19b-22; 31-35

 It’s the first week of Sabbatical, the morning of the first Wednesday of June.  Our family is up and out of bed.  The energy level is well above average for this time of day.  School is out, my email auto-reply is on, our bags are packed up, and we’re about to be off.  Our flight to Guatemala departs in just a few hours.  Among the many things on the pre-departure checklist was putting a hold on newspaper delivery, starting…tomorrow.  Might as well have something to read at the airport.

On our way out, I grab the paper off the front porch and open it for a sneak peek.  I’m not expecting much worth dwelling on.  But there on the front page of the Dispatch was something to dwell on:  A large image with the heading “Too much to bear.”  It was a picture of a grieving mother, in, of all places, Guatemala.  The caption noted that her name was Lilian Hernandez, and that 36 of her extended family members were presumed dead after the eruption of the Fuego volcano three days prior.

We’d known that the Volcan de Fuego, the Volcano of Fire as it’s called, in south-central Guatemala had erupted that Sunday.  It catches your eye when you’ve been planning a trip for months and the airport where you’re supposed to land gets shut down two days prior.  It had re-opened, and my thoughts had turned to whether we’d have to adjust our plans to visit nearby Antigua our first weekend there.  Then, as we’re heading out the door for our family adventure to start off the World-themed portion of the Sabbatical, a gentle invitation.  You want to encounter the World?  Here is the World.  Let a grieving mother be your tour guide.  Or, You want to encounter the World?  Here she is.  The World is s grieving mother.  After reading through the paper I recycled the pages, except for the front, which I still have.

There’s a story in Mark’s gospel where the mother of Jesus makes a rare appearance.  Although she’s not grieving in this one, at least not in any public way.    It’s in chapter three, early on, when Jesus is still emerging from obscurity.  He’s attracting crowds, what scripture often calls “a great multitude.”  He is healing and casting out harmful spirits.  He’s attracting students, a smaller group willing to set aside life as usual to follow him full time.  And he’s already attracting enemies.  Just like the rest of Mark’s narration style, it’s all happening rather quickly.

Now he’s home, and, as Mark says, “the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

After some heated exchange with the local scribes, we’re told that Jesus’ family has arrived – his mother, and his siblings.  They’re standing outside.  They call for him.  Someone in the crowd speaks up to Jesus and says, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

Jesus’ answer is one of those moments when we can almost feel the world shift beneath our feet.  He looks around at everyone in the room, all those people so up his face he can’t even catch a bite to eat.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks, and proceeds to answer his own question…”Here are my mother, and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We don’t know how Mary, the mother Jesus responds to this, how she hears these words from her son.  As usual, Mark moves on fast.  Right away Jesus is back outside, by the lake, or better, on the lake, teaching a crowd from a boat, spinning a parable about a farmer who flings seeds over every kind of soil and watches as some of them grow into a harvest 100 times what was planted.

The wideness of that parable, and the wideness of Jesus’ new definition of family is one of the primary themes of the gospels.  Healthy families care for one another, they grieve and rejoice with each other, they have a strong sense of inhabiting the same relational web, such that what happens to one member affects other members.  And here, Jesus proposes a notion of family that essentially encompasses all of humanity.  Who are my sisters and my brothers and mothers and fathers?  Here they are.  There they are.  Not bounded by biology or tribe or national boundaries.

It’s a big thought.  It’s a big world.

Mary goes to round up her family and is confronted with the idea that the other women and men in the room are now just as much a part of this new kind of extended family her son is rounding up.

You head out the door and make sure you have your whole family in tow.  You glance at the news and look in the face of a grieving woman you’ve never met before and hear the question: Who is my daughter, my sister, my mother?  Here she is.

This idea of a global family in which we are all siblings is quite a bit easier for us to imagine than Jesus’ original audience.  We can fly anywhere in the world in hours, communicate in seconds.  We have these amazing images taken from cameras that have broken free of the earth’s gravity, pointing back at our planet.  The pictures are, of course, void of national boundaries.  This is all now basic grade school curriculum.

What we’re still working out, is how to hold this reality, how to walk toward it and through it with sturdy compassion.  How to not be afraid.  How to not be overwhelmed.

There are tragedies reported every day, whether you get you news by paper or radio or some digital platform or combination thereof.  The scope and scale of it pretty quickly overwhelms our capacity to empathize deeply with every situation.  It is, as the June 6 Dispatch heading stated, “Too much to bear.”  For most of human history our grief has been confined to the losses among the relatively small collection of families with whom we shared life.  Now, on a planet of seven and a half billion people, we start off our days by checking in on the most tragic thing going.

How to hold this?  How to release this?  How to be in these times?  How to care and feel and remain grounded in one’s being?

In Guatemala we never met Lilian Hernandez, who had unknowingly made the front page news in Columbus, Ohio.  As the three weeks progressed we did learn more from the stories of these Guatemalan brothers and sisters, like sitting for a while on a branch of the family tree you’d only glanced at before. Seeing what the world looks like from that perch.  We climbed the massive Mayan pyramids of Tikal and learned that the civilizations’ fall over 1000 years ago was likely due to deforestation and drought, cutting down all their forests to fuel the fires to make the cement mixture to hold their towering structures together…a cautionary tale of empire.

We learned how the devastation from the Guatemalan Civil War from the 1960’s to the mid 90’s still impacts every aspect of Guatemalan society.  How our country’s CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected president in the 50’s whose land reform program looked too much like Communism and threatened the business interests of the US based United Fruit Company.  How our religion of Christianity was used alongside the genocidal policies of President Rios Montt in the 80’s.  We ate supper at the house of a North American family working for Mennonite Central Committee who had plenty to say about how displacement from ancestral land had everything to do with the fact that there were poor communities living at the base of an active volcano, their homes and family members now gone.  (Excellent essay by MCCer Jack Lesniewski HERE).  We heard from a pastor and professor who assured us that desperate Guatemalans will continue to immigrate to the US no matter how cruel they will be treated here.

The world is a grieving mother.

But there was another moment on the trip that captures a larger picture.  After that time in Guatemala Abbie flew back to Columbus with Lily an Ila.  Eve and I flew on to Colombia to visit with our sister congregation in Armenia, Comunidad Christiana Menonita de Paz.  

As we soon learned, the typical greeting was for men to shake hands, and for women to kiss on the cheek.  When a man and woman from the church greeted each other, it was often with a kiss on the cheek.  The longer we stayed, the more we were inducted into this practice.  One of the things I noticed was that when someone new joined the group, they would go around and greet everyone in this way.  Even if there were 10 or 20 people in the room.  People would stop what they were doing, and personally acknowledge the presence of the new person.  It was lovely to watch.

On the second day of our stay, we were eating lunch with a family who had invited another church family to the meal.  One of the last to come through the door was the teenage son of the visiting family.  He was, I must say, a remarkably handsome guy.  He looked like he could have played on the Colombian national soccer team, and World Cup was being played during our visit.  Amidst the other lively commotion in the room, he started making his rounds.  He came over and shook my head, then turned, and, to a still culturally-adjusting Eve, gave a gentle kiss on the cheek.  I would like to say that Eve smiled back, but I think she was a bit too stunned to respond.  She, by the way, has given me permission to tell this story.

The world is a grieving a mother, but it’s also a beautiful boy who, when we least expect it, greets us with a kiss on the cheek, as if to say, “I am here, and you are here, and that is a beautiful thing.”

Beauty surrounds and sustains us.  It elevates our spirits and inducts us into its family.  It’s what weaves its way through so much of our poetry, including the Psalms.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 8 to marvel at the magnitude of creation’s glory alongside their own smallness.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 19 to declare that creation continually pours out speech and knowledge for us to see and hear.  The writer of Psalm 139 has an overwhelming sense that they, like the world itself, are “wonderfully made.”  As if beauty, like grief, is sometimes “too much to bear.”

These must have been the eyes with which Jesus looked out across the great multitude.  Where some saw sickness, he saw a hidden wholeness.  Where some saw demons, he saw a beloved child of God.

If you can’t remember the last time you’ve been kissed on the face by the World or the Christ or someone you claim as family of whatever kind, perhaps it’s time for a Sabbatical.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  The Mayans no longer live among the pyramids of Tikal, but they haven’t gone away.  About half of Guatemalans are indigenous, Mayans.  They continue to struggle, but they are finding their way.  Along Lake Atitlan we walked through the town of San Juan and visited a whole network of cooperatives, run by Mayan women.  Weaving, honey, coffee, herbal medicines, chocolate.  They are practicing an economics of beauty while caring for one another.  Buying their products was a joy.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  We met briefly with Gilberto Flores who teaches at the seminary where we had our apartment in Guatemala City.  Gilberto was a pastor, and many years ago had baptized a young man named Rios Montt.  One Sunday in 1982, when Rios Montt was president of Guatemala, he visited the church Gilberto was pastoring, Casa Horeb, a place where we worshiped one Sunday.  The President was accompanied with a group of armed guards.  From the pulpit, Gilberto announced that these men were welcome in their congregation, but their guns were not, they’d have to leave them outside.  After the service Gilberto told Rios Montt directly that he must stop killing the poor.  It ended their relationship and led to a series of death threats.  Gilberto continues to be a minister of peace to this day, including having served many years as a leader within Mennonite Church USA.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  On two of our weekend trips we got a closer look at Volcan de Fuego.  From a safe distance it was a marvel, still smoking, powerful and alive.

The poet Rilke sees his life unfolding in widening circles, including more, and more, and more of what is.


This is our world.  Grief and beauty.  They do not cancel each other out, but they travel together as we circle around God, around the primordial tower.  To live our lives in widening circles is to gain capacity for both.  We learn to behold beauty in such a way that it charges our senses with greater sensitivity to grief.  We learn to carry grief in such a way that it unlocks new realms of beauty.

This journey is traveled among family – the living and the dead.  It is ours to recognize that this is so, and to live with this good news.  We are being rounded up into this ever widening family that Christ is calling in.


“Widening Circles”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

BY Rainer Maria Rilke Book of Hours, I 2

translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows