Kate Van Valkenburg, Grand Rapids MI

Warm-up Question

Have you ever taken a difficult journey, like walk, hike, or roll through difficult terrain? What was that like for you?

Into the Unknown

My friend, Alyssa, told me we must go on an adventure, so I followed her to the Superior Hiking Trail in Northern Minnesota. I had no idea what to expect, but I trusted her. I put my backpack on, filled with a tent, snacks, sleeping bag, first aid kit, and two Nalgene water bottles. It takes 2-4 weeks to thru-hike this trail, but we were only going to hike in and out. I was planning for two days, so I thought one bottle for each day would suffice. Boy, was I wrong. 

I made a couple of mistakes on this trip. I didn’t train for the elevation changes, nor did I practice hiking with my backpack on. Really, I was a safety officer’s worst nightmare. However, the biggest mistake we made was beginning our journey at 4 PM. We needed to reach our tenting area by sundown, which was only about 4.5 miles, but starting at that time meant we had only 4.5 hours of daylight. Our naive thought was, “A mile an hour? That’s totally doable.” 

At about a mile in, we came to a giant hill. Alyssa told me her plan of attack. Trusting in her confidence, we made it over the hill, but a five-minute rest was necessary. We shared a snack together. I looked at my watch and realized we had to keep going or there was no way we’d reach the tenting area before sundown. Alyssa turned to me and said, “It’s going to be okay. I won’t let anything happen to us.” 

I was drinking a lot of water because it was the middle of August and one of the hottest days that summer. As I look back now, I wonder why we thought it was a great time for a hiking trip, but oh well. I needed a fruitful adventure; an adventure that would bring renewal and joy. We kept going, but then I saw it. The inevitable Mt. Trudee and its 1,500 ft of elevation. My heart was pounding in my chest. I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t know it would be this hard; how defeated it would make me feel. I had no idea how we were going to make it and I was scared. 

Maybe you haven’t been in this exact scenario, but how often does life throw us into situations where we have absolutely no idea how it’s going to turn out? When we turn on the news, it’s hard to trust that everything will be okay. We can all probably connect with this fear of the unknown: a fear where we can do nothing but fall to our knees and pray. 

That’s often when God shows up, or when we finally realize God has been there all along. After surviving the shaky trek over Mt. Trudee, Alyssa and I reached our goal just as the little sliver of sun dropped behind the terrain. Almost in tears as my body hurt so badly, we heard a faint guitar in the distance followed by singing, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary.” Between a few trees, there was a group of women from Wheaton College sitting around a fire. They had already been hiking for six days, so they had intense camping supplies and let us use their water filters to fill our bottles. 

I was awestruck by our luck as we fell asleep that night listening to their songs sung around the fire. This could have been so much worse. I was out of water, exhausted, unsure where I was, and suddenly we had everything we needed. Then, while lying in our tent, Alyssa whispered to me, “I told you we’d be okay. I wouldn’t let anything happen to us.” 

Discussion Questions

  • Trust is often difficult. Why do you think that is?
  • How do you deal with stress of the unknown?

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

Gospel Reflection

I have to be honest that, though this is not one of my favorite Gospel passages, it’s also true that the Bible is supposed to make us uncomfortable sometimes. This scripture gives us a lens to better understand God and God’s people. When the Greeks show up and declare, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” Philip and Andrew tell Jesus of their request. We cannot understand Jesus’ response until we understand the community the Gospel of John was written for. This book was written for a people who shared in Jesus’ Jewish heritage. This audience was living with the deep hurt caused by the reign of the Roman Empire and the destruction of the temple. This Gospel was trying to make sense of the cruelness of the world because the community was struggling to understand God’s will and the role of Jesus in their lives. In other words, the Gospel of John has a very, “Everything happens for a reason,” vibe. 

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This foreshadows his persecution, death and resurrection. Yet, in the next verse it says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The deep truth in this text is that there is a cost to discipleship. Following God does not lead us to wealth, riches, or power. It leads to liberation, equity, and shared resources. In our hope to glorify God, we must let go of who we were in order to become who God calls us to be. 

The Gospel of John echoes this sentiment because its readers were seeking a reason to hope. It was in the dying and rising of Christ that the author tries to make sense of everything bad happening to God’s faithful people. Eventually, they would have what they needed in eternal life with Christ. And that is what kept them going.

I share in this hope. I long for the day when everyone has exactly what they need. We would no longer be filled with fear of the unknown, or shame of having too little or too much. Nevertheless, this is not the world we live in. So what do we do now? 

I am called back to Jesus’ metaphor of the seed. If it is unwilling to be changed, it will remain a single grain. This text does not ask us to die as we understand death, but to allow the Holy Spirit to change us. The seed does not cease to exist, but it is transformed for the goodness of all creation. And we ask God to do the same in us.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you wish you could change in the world?
  • Is it frustrating when we can’t make the world change?
  • What is something small we can do to share God’s love with someone?

Activity Suggestions

  • Go check out a butterfly exhibit! This time of year is when butterflies are hatching from their chrysalides. Experience God’s creation changing to become a beautiful butterfly!
  • Write a note to someone who may need a word of encouragement. We can do small things with great love that make ripples in the world. Who might need to be reminded that they are loved?

Closing Prayer 

O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.