Humble & Riding on a Donkey

I’m feeling like a displaced person, ripped from the familiar home where I have lived for years and set down in a strange, alien place. Since I was ordained a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament in June, 1963, and before that even as a student minister from 1960-63, time has been marked for me by the high Christian festivals or holidays: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and, of course, Easter. After I retired, I still marked time by these days, always visiting a church wherever I was, including settling into a comfortable pattern of worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church – until this year.

It is two days before Palm Sunday and this year I am feeling lost. Not only am I not where I want to be, in my church, any church, the churches this year closed. And I am not even in my home, instead sheltering from the Coronavirus in our rural home in Three Oaks, Michigan.

For the working clergyperson, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter are the heart of the matter. Not only are there a lot of things to do, extra services to plan, sermons to prepare, but spiritually, emotionally, for the minister it is the crux of the matter. Theologically for me Palm Sunday has always been when the rubber hits the road: the small band of friends walking all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, the capital city. Jesus himself going out of his way to make a statement, to be provocative. He chooses to ride a donkey, not the entire way, but just to enter the city, a city filled with religious pilgrims and political zealots, in a way that perfectly reflects his occupied, oppressed nation’s highest, holiest hope. Zechariah had written centuries before…..

Rejoice greatly, O Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

What happens next has always mesmerized, compelled me. It is also so very human. The crowd goes wild. The long- promised king has come! It’s only a matter of time until he leads a revolt and drives the hated Romans into the sea and establishes, once again, the ancient throne of David. By now, the powers that be have taken notice and are more than a little alarmed. As for Jesus, the donkey rider, he goes to the temple, causes a ruckus by driving out the money changers and then quietly leaves the city for the night.

But now forces have been loosed. Paranoia has been provoked. Entrenched political power and self-interest have been threatened. The status quo has been upended. In a matter of days, a plan has emerged to get rid of him. He has a last meal with his friends, is arrested later that night, tried and convicted the next morning and by late afternoon Friday he is gone, dead, efficiently executed by the Roman authorities.

For as long as I can remember I have been pondering it. What was he thinking? Did he not see what was happening? Why did he not run away? Why did he persist to the end? I have never been comfortable with the idea that he was merely following a script that God had written for him, that God was orchestrating the entire drama. Perhaps inspired by Dag Hammarskjold’s description of An Adamant Young Man, his face set to Jerusalem, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to leave the safety of America to return to Germany and face martyrdom, I have never been able to let go of the idea that he, Jesus, is the one in charge, that he decides what he is called to do, what his convictions and the situation, his own love, demand that he do what he did, that he voluntarily lay his life on the line because of his deep conviction, deep love.

And so Palm Sunday has always been profound – from the beautiful children processing down the long central aisle, waving palm branches as we sing, “All glory, laud and honor, to thee Redeemer, King, to whom the lips of children, made sweet hosannas ring,” all the way through the week that ends in silence as we remember, and relive, his death on the cross. In a real sense, it has been at the center, in my heart through the many years.


  1. Katy Sinclair says:

    Oh my!!! YES! So many things. I woke up today in SEVERE self-pity. I cried – real hiccuppy sobby tears. I feel like I am having an ‘out of body’ experience, or an ‘out of sanctuary’ experience. I guess I think that the Palm Sunday Processional is going by, and I missed the PARADE! Ahhhhh. . . . it’s not going by. The kids aren’t waving palms in the sanctuary, not this time. This year, I sit in silence. I have taken a quiet moment today to read/studied each of the Gospel’s accounts. This time I saw the Man, our Brother, in a quiet way, perhaps in silence Himself, after he had sent the disciples on the task. . . . and yes, John, perhaps considering what His own love demanded that He do to get the week started. Scared? maybe. Filled with self-pity? maybe. Still doing it? YES! So, let the WEEK BEGIN! LET’S GET THIS CELEBRATION STARTED! Thank you, John. thank you for being the voice for me this quiet morning. Thank you for this platform for me to realize my own thoughts. Let the Sweet Hosannas ring from the lips of children.

  2. Debbie Whitmore says:

    Thank you John! Oh how I miss this day with my second graders! I write this as tears are streaming down my face! Debbie Whitmore

  3. Alison Chisolm says:

    I completely agree that Jesus made his decisions. And I am comforted that Easter is coming, but before there can be any Easter, there must be Good Friday. So I am choosing to see this period as an extended Good Friday. And I have been reading Life Together by Bonhoeffer. It has profound insight into how to be alone, while acknowledging that one must also be in community. It also talks explicitly about what a gift the freedom to gather in community is. It is a point I would have flown by in other years. This year I am learning that lesson to my core.

  4. Don Blay says:

    Reverend Buchanan, my dear friend Jim Simpson, here in London, Ontario first led me to Fourth Church and you. I have once been in the sanctuary, and continue to follow you, and Shannon, and the Daily Devotion. When I read what you write, or watch you on video, I feel as if you and I are doing what Jim and I do often…having coffee and a chin wag. Thank you for your continuing inspiration

  5. Thank you very much. It helps to know that you’re wondering, too. Health and peace to you and your family.

  6. Rita Bennett says:

    In this odd and uncertain time of isolation, one of the great gifts for me has been the weekly streaming services from my beloved Fourth Presbyterian. I miss the processional and instead waved blooming dogwood branches during the morning service. It rests on my front door now, as we walk through this holiest of weeks. Thank you for your words, John, your words that have comforted me for so many years, and continue to. God is not done yet. Amen.

  7. Terri Hanson says:

    Sending love to you and Sue, and very much missing the Palm Sunday processionals at 4th!

    Doing our best today! Love, Terri and Tony

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Molly Britt says:

    Beautiful, as always John. I hope you are hanging in there. Your words are a gift in this trying time. I miss Fourth Church and you. I miss John and Nancy. I miss our old life. But I am surrounded by my teenagers, twenty-somethings and hard-working husband, and for that I am so very grateful. My parents chose to come home from Hawaii just this week and they are hunkered down alone in Minnesota now. I miss them, but I am so very happy for facetime and that we now take the time to have an hour long conversation with them on Sunday morning…. Something we haven’t done enough of over the years. There are some silver linings and I am trying to Hold to the Good as much as possible. Sending you a lot of love and appreciation for your profound and insightful words, Molly

    From: Hold to the Good
    Reply-To: Hold to the Good
    Date: Sunday, April 5, 2020 at 4:13 AM
    To: Molly Britt
    Subject: [New post] Humble & Riding on a Donkey

    John M. Buchanan posted: “I’m feeling like a displaced person, ripped from the familiar home where I have lived for years and set down in a strange, alien place. Since I was ordained a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament in June, 1963, and before that even as a student min”

  9. Janet Diederichs says:

    John, What an inspiration! You are terrific….as always.Be well….as I am.Janet From: Hold to the GoodSent: Sunday, April 5, 2020 6:14 AMTo: diederichs229@gmail.comSubject: [New post] Humble & Riding on a Donkey John M. Buchanan posted: "I’m feeling like a displaced person, ripped from the familiar home where I have lived for years and set down in a strange, alien place. Since I was ordained a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament in June, 1963, and before that even as a student min"

  10. Dear John,
    Janet passed Humble & Riding on a Donkey to me yesterday.. Everyday if I try to hold to the good I find a “small miracle”, and receiving your words ( somehow calling it a ‘blog ‘ defiles it for me. ) was just that. I sent it to Louise Johnson, Associate Paster for Congregational Life at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville who designs and moderates our women’s Bible study group. Her comment: “I wish he could have pointed to MLK, who certainly knew that danger was anywhere he went, yet he went – because of his deep convictions of what is right and wrong.” I am about to send Humble & Riding on a Donkey to our grandchildren, and will probably point to the Jesus/ MLK model so to speak.

    This sends John’s and my very best to you and to Sue. We were so happy to have the chance to see you at Janet’s party almost a year ago.

    Thank you for showing me the In-charge Jesus

    Kate Wood

  11. timjweaver says:

    So deeply insightful. Thank you, Dr. Buchanan. I pray that you and your family are safe and well. As inspired by your sermons in Dallas and your writings now, I’m doing my best to Hold to the Good!

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