He Is Risen! But Not Yet!

risenOn Wednesday of Holy Week, I drove by a local church and on their electronic sign I read: “He Is Risen!” “Not yet!” I said as I drove by. “Give him a few more days.” After all, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. We still had Good Friday before us—the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion. How can we celebrate Christ’s resurrection until we have faced his death?

In my previous congregation, there was a mega-church in that community who offered Easter worship services on Good Friday. Apparently, their services on Easter Sunday were so packed that they had to schedule extra ones: two on Good Friday, three on Holy Saturday and four on Easter Sunday. Obviously, this church did not even recognize Good Friday as a Holy Day worth remembering! Again: how can we celebrate resurrection until we have faced death?

There is no resurrection—no new life—without death and loss. We see this in nature all the time. A plant grows and flowers and then loses its beauty and leaves and it either dies or goes into a sort of hibernation, mimicking death. Often, as the plant is dying, it releases seeds. And then when the conditions are right, it comes back to life, or the seeds grow, and the cycle is repeated. So, too, with living creatures. They are born, grow, flourish, and then die and their remains become part of the earth, nourishing other creatures and plants into new life. Jesus used the plant life-cycle as an example of this important process of death-into-resurrection: 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. (John 12:24)

We cannot truly appreciate and celebrate the resurrection of Christ and all it means without facing the suffering and death that came first. Mind you, I am not one of those theologians who believe that it was necessary for Jesus to undergo a painful death or that the amount of pain he suffered was necessary for salvation. That’s all nonsense. The amount of suffering and pain that Jesus endured was not a God-requirement for salvation: Jesus’ suffering is a direct result of human sinfulness and hate. People caused Jesus to suffer, not God.

If Jesus had been mercifully beheaded or had died of old age or disease, it would not have mattered. What mattered was the resurrection—the restoration of life and the promise of eternal life. The resurrection made Jesus’ death different from all other deaths.

And we cannot have resurrection without death. So while we may prefer not to dwell on the death part, it is Jesus’ death that made the resurrection possible and which defined the meaning of the resurrection for us. Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than hate. God is strongest of all.

So if you are in a Good Friday time in your life—a time of loss or uncertainty or fear or abandonment—trust in the strength of God to bring you out of Good Friday and into resurrection and new life. We might prefer to skip the Good Friday’s of our lives, but without those Good Friday’s, we will never know the true promise and power of resurrection.

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Emptying

kenosisYesterday I preached about emptying oneself, as St. Paul says Jesus did (Philippians 2:6-11). In Paul’s view, Jesus emptied himself OF himself so that he could be filled with God and God’s will. I encouraged my congregation to empty themselves during this Holy Week walk—to empty themselves of fears and worries and anxieties and the things over which we have no control. I suggested that we especially try to lose all those things that clutter up our lives and interfere with our sense of the holy. I said that if we were emptied, then we could be filled with Christ, and his peace and love and mercy, instead of all those other unhelpful things.

As I was preaching this yesterday, it occurred to me—as it often does—that I was speaking to myself. I’m the one who needs to let go of all that stuff and let myself be filled with Christ. In my case, that would be all the Holy Week “stuff” that has been so much on my mind in these past days. I don’t mean that I should simply drop everything. None of us would be happy with that outcome. However, the stress that I place on myself, the worrying about every little detail, the fear that something will be wrong in the bulletin or on the slides or in my leader’s book: these are the things that drive me crazy and in the end are mostly unimportant. Of course, nobody wants a sloppy, thrown-together worship experience. But when I let these little details overwhelm the true Holy Week experience, I am depriving myself and my congregation of a pastor who is focused and calm and spiritually present.

So this week, I will try to follow my own homiletic advice: to empty myself of worry and unimportant details and unnecessary stress. I will try to make space for Christ so that I might feel his peace, his joy, his love, his mercy instead of my anxiety and stress.

As we walk towards the empty tomb, let us do so as empty people, filled only with Jesus.

Timing

lots-of-clocks-1725x810_28340_32673Have you ever shown up for an appointment or event and it turns out that you had the wrong date or time for it? I’m guessing the answer is probably yes. We’ve all done it.

Sometimes I get the date or time wrong because I have written it down wrong—or in my case, entered it incorrectly in my electronic calendar. And because I was wrong from the get-go, I don’t feel quite so silly when I show up on the wrong date or at the wrong time. I can just say, “Oh, I put it in wrong.”

But the much more embarrassing times are when I’ve got the right date and time in my calendar, but my memory is wrong. I will get something fixated in my head—”10 am on Friday”—and either don’t bother to check my calendar or think I already have—and then it turns out that my memory is wrong and I’m not at the right place at the right time.

This happened to me just a few days ago. I was sure I had a meeting on a Sunday afternoon and I planned my day and activities around that impending meeting. When the meeting time came and went and no one showed, I checked my calendar—and the meeting was scheduled for the following Sunday. Duh!

And to make things worse, I had prepared all the material I would need for the meeting several days before. So I had thought for several days that this meeting was coming up and therefore I was wrong not just for that moment, not just for that day, but for the entire week. Talk about feeling foolish!

Now when these things happen to me, it makes me a bit paranoid for a while. Believe you me, I’ll be carefully checking all my meeting dates and times for the next few weeks. But eventually I’ll stop being so careful and I will inevitably slip up again. And be embarrassed again. Ah, well.

It’s good to know that we have a God whose timing is always right. And I don’t mean this in a deterministic “God has an unalterable plan” sort of way. I mean God’s timing is always right because God is always present and active, no matter the situation. There isn’t a “right time” for God because God is always here. It’s our timing with God that sometimes gets off. We are the ones who don’t hear or see God’s activity in the world and in our lives. We are the ones who miss the God-moments and who gloss over God’s movements and who take for granted God’s blessings.

But God’s timing is always perfect because God is always. Always present. Always listening. Always strengthening. Always blessing. Always comforting. Always loving. Always forgiving. Always, at all times, in all circumstances.

And that’s something you don’t ever need to worry about entering into your calendar. (Although I supposed you could set up an all-day, every day recurring event “God…”)

Who’s There?

ash-wednesday-cross-liturgy-of-550910Sometimes I am alone in the church at night after others have left. As is true in all buildings, when one is alone and quiet, you can hear things that are not noticeable at other times of the day when you are busy or there is more activity. Buildings creak and groan. There are clicks and knocks and sometimes scraping noises. Heating and air conditioning systems kick on and off. Clocks tick and tock. Sometimes the carillon rings. At St. Peter, there is even a sort of “ghost” story about a bathroom light switch that self-activates when no one is near it. I’ve seen it happen, although I did not see the ghost.

I’m not a believer in ghosts, but I will admit that sometimes, the noises spook me a bit. And that’s not because of the possibility of ghosts—if there are ghosts, I don’t think they could do any harm to the living. No, it’s because it makes me wonder if someone else is in the building. The other day, I was certain I was alone and then I began to hear a noise that sounded like footsteps, but very stealthy. So I quietly crept out into the narthex only to be startled by the custodian—who was also startled, because he thought he was alone in the building.

People are often afraid to be alone—and not just because of spooky-sounding buildings. People are fearful of being alone for many reasons, but I think one of those reasons is that we are not sure we want to be alone with ourselves. If we are alone, we might realize things about ourselves that we’d rather not realize. We might have to face our shortcomings and failures and sins. If we keep busy, stay around other people, self-reflection can be avoided.

Yet here we are, getting ready to begin another Lent season. Lent, and in particular, Ash Wednesday, is a time for self-reflection and confession. It’s a time to face the truth about ourselves, to acknowledge our shortcomings, both personal and spiritual, and to seek God’s forgiveness. It is a time to commit to making healthy changes in our lives—to get rid of unnecessary stuff, to focus on deepening our relationship with God, and to clean our spiritual houses.

It can be painful, this self-reflection stuff. Yet all of us can benefit from facing the truth of who we are—with all our beauty marks and our warts. Only when we face the truth can we commit to changing those less-desirable traits that make us reluctant to be alone with ourselves. With God’s help, true transformation is not only possible—it is inevitable.

May God bless your Lent journeying with healthy reflection, true repentance, and joyful resurrection.

Choose Well

feb 17Yesterday, February 17,  would have been my mother’s 87th birthday had she not died nearly 30 years ago of a heart attack. It is odd to think that my mother has been gone for half my life. I think of all the things she missed: grandkids’ births and confirmations and ball games and graduations and weddings and becoming parents themselves. I think of how she never experienced cell phones or laptops or tablets. I think she would have little use for the first two but I think she would have loved to have a tablet on which she could download library books at any time of the day or night—Mom was a voracious reader. I think of all the advances in medical science that have come in the past generation-and-a-half, which may have been of benefit to the patients she cared for as a nurse. And I wonder if some of those medical advances could have helped prolong her life—or maybe not.

I’ve shared this so many times that if you’ve heard it before, please bear with me. When I was a fairly new pastor, a wise man—who was dying— told me that we all have to die of something and we don’t get to choose. I have pondered that wisdom for almost 20 years, and its abiding truth that we nearly always die of something not of our choosing—whether it is an accident or a disease or an addiction or a sudden, massive heart attack for which there were no prior symptoms.

For some, coming to this reality might lead them to try to do all the things they think they want to do before death seeks them out. Perhaps they might travel to exotic places or change careers or move to their dream home. I think those may be wonderful ideas for some, but not always financially possible or logistically reasonable for most of us.

In the case of my wise parishioner-friend, his cancer was so far gone when he was diagnosed that even if he’d wanted to do the more exotic things, he could not have. Instead, he used his final months to become more kind, more gentle, more merciful, more compassionate towards those around him: his family, his friends, his caregivers, his pastor. He was already a very good man, but as he faced the end of his earthly existence, he chose to spend his final days becoming more like Christ.

That’s always a good choice, of course—to become more like Christ—even when we are not dying. But it’s very tempting to think that we’ll always have tomorrow to forgive someone or repair a relationship or spend more time with our families or sit and look at the clouds for no reason other than clouds are beautiful.

One day, perhaps when we least expect it, we will have no more tomorrows. So why wait? Why not seek to forgive today, to act with compassion today, to show kindness today, to look at the clouds today? Why not seek to love our family and friends even more fully today? They deserve it. You deserve it. And then you will not need to worry about tomorrow for you have chosen today to be like Christ.

Happy birthday, Mom. I still miss you.

Memory Man

memory manWe all do it. We walk into a room and forget why we went there. It happens to me fairly often. I get up with every intention of doing something or getting something and by the time I’m there, my purpose has evaporated into the ether. Sometimes if I go back to where I started, I will see something that will trigger the memory of what I was trying do. However, this doesn’t always happen. And sometimes I remember what I wanted to do when it’s too late to do it or I’ve left the building where I was supposed to do it. Forgetting things makes me very frustrated with myself.

I’m currently reading a book called Memory Man by David Baldacci. It’s a murder mystery in which the lead character, Amos Decker, has an infallible memory. Amos had been a police officer but due to a tragedy (I won’t tell you and spoil the book for you), is no longer serving in that capacity. Yet because of his remarkable ability to see and remember obscure things, he becomes a consultant for the police department for which he once worked.

Amos didn’t always have this ability. Apparently a head injury (again, I won’t go into details and spoil it for you) activated a part of his brain to which most of us never have access. Mostly he has hidden his ability, and everyone just thinks he’s an extraordinarily smart and observant fellow.

I wonder…what would it be like to remember absolutely EVERYTHING that ever happened to you? What would it be like to read a book and remember not only what you read, but the page number of the book and the day that you read it? What would it be like to remember every detail of the best day of your life? What would it be like to remember every detail of the worst day of your life? What would it be like never to  forget things you really would like to forget?

Many of you probably have or had a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s. These conditions gradually strip away all the memories of a lifetime, so that person loses the ability to know how to hold a spoon or tie a shoe or speak coherently. Ultimately, they forget who they are. It’s a terrible thing to watch someone forgetting their own life. I imagine it is a sort of hell for the one who is disappearing and perhaps even more so for the ones who must watch them go.

But to remember everything forever—that would be its own sort of hell, I think. I cannot imagine that any one of us would desire to remember everything. I think the memories of the bad stuff in our lives would cause us such emotional pain that we would finally go mad—or become psychopaths who refuse to feel any pain.

For most of us, I think forgetting is the brain’s natural way to make the bad stuff hurt less and the good stuff to be wrapped in a fuzzy warm haze, untouched by reality. Selective forgetting leaves us free to reshape some of that less pleasant stuff into manageable memories that have softer edges and less power to hurt. I think that’s probably best for most of us most of the time. It makes life a bit more bearable, I think.

By contrast, God never forgets. God never forgets us. God’s memories of us are clear and sharp and untainted by warm fuzzy hazes or convenient reshapings of the past. Knowing the breadth of God’s memory might make us cringe in shame for our failures and our sins. And yet time and again, Jesus promised that God forgives us even those things for which we may not able to forgive ourselves. God remembers and God forgives. It is the best of all possibilities: A God who never forgets and who always forgives.

For my part, I don’t envy Memory Man his ability. I find myself feeling a bit sorry for this Amos character and grateful that my memory is what it is—regardless of that irritating forgetfulness I mentioned above. And every day I am grateful for a Creator who always remembers me and who always shows me love and mercy.

Stragglers

birds.jpg__800x600_q85_cropIt’s been a long time since I posted. Hopefully that was a quirk.

A couple of days ago, I saw a flock of large birds—not sure what sort—flocking. You know, they were flying in various patterns, back and forth, probably following wind currents. As is typical with flocks of birds, they changed directions in unison, as though one mind was directing them all. They were functioning as a single unit instead of a bunch of individual birds.

Then I noticed two other birds trying to catch up with the group. They were consistently out of sync, however, so in the time that I was watching, they never got into the group’s rhythm. The two flew too far to one side, then too far behind, then they turned in the wrong direction. Just when it seemed they were about to join the group, the flock would change direction and the two stragglers would be left behind again.

It was almost as if the flock was rejecting them, although I know this is anthropomorphizing birds—assigning human qualities where none exist. I doubt that flocks of birds have admission criteria or carry grudges.

Maybe the two laggards were injured—or were young and still learning the rhythm of the flight. Maybe they were newcomers trying to fit in. Or maybe they were just bad fliers. Not knowing much about birds, I have no idea what might have been going on. I just remember looking at those two stragglers and thinking they were like lost souls trying to find their way home.

We all know what that feels like: to be left out, left behind, or simply left. We all know what it is like to be out of sync or inexperienced or the “new guy.” And sometimes we just don’t measure up to expectations—we are simply bad at fitting in or finding our way.

What helps us to get over this feeling of left-ness? The kindness of others; the compassion of friends and loved ones; the forgiveness of our shortcomings and faults; the willingness of others to make space for us.

And because we ALL know what it feels like to be those left-behind stragglers, it seems fitting that when we see others who are struggling to catch up, that we make space for them, forgive them their failings, and show them compassion and kindness—the very things that help bring us into the fold when we are lagging behind.

This holy season, what people is God putting your path and inviting you to welcome into the flock? Look closely: I’m sure you’ll see someone who needs help finding their way. And when you figure out who it is, be Jesus to them.