Understanding Easter

I didn’t get Easter for a long time.

Sure, I spent plenty of Easter mornings at the church as a kid and even went once to the Sunrise Service over my parents’ sleep-deprived wishes. The Youth Director told me she needed me there and when she said you needed to be somewhere, it really wasn’t a request.

But I don’t think I ever really got it until seminary. It wasn’t because I had learned some new theology that straightened out all the questions Resurrection demands. It was something more basic. When it came to the promise of new life, it was there I found myself in need of one.

It had been one of those weeks, actually this week had been a few weeks coming. Holy Week – the first one and every one since – exposes things, and in my experience, it exposes people, too.

The light of this Holy Week’s dark exposure was brighter than I could handle. It was showing me, maybe for the first time, what I didn’t want to face. And what I was facing was what other people, friends who cared for me and loved me even though they hadn’t known me that long, had been trying to tell me for some time.

My life had become uprooted, I was barely holding it together and I was a long way away from living a life any preacher would call abundant.

For The People

And so, the alarm went off on Easter morning and I made my way to the chapel, hoping that some how or some way, the Easter Gospel could find its way in and begin to clean up the mess I had made.  In all honesty, I probably chose to worship there because of the guest preacher. But, to my credit, if you are in search of Resurrection, there are few preachers with a better chance of helping you find it than Barbara Brown Taylor.

Mark’s Gospel, she announced, ends suddenly. The Gospel has two endings – and the short one ends with a messenger telling the women to go back to the disciples. Go back, he tells them, and tell the disciples to head to Galilee and wait for Jesus.

Wait for him there. On Easter morning, God’s messenger tells the first witnesses to go back into the world because that is where Jesus is headed. Resurrection isn’t over and done with at the empty tomb. No, Resurrection will be experienced and realized in the world, the world God loves and with the people who need it the most.

Just Getting Started

Easter is both a declaration and an anticipation of life. That’s what I learned that Sunday. The empty tomb declares that life is stronger than death and it anticipates love heading back into the world to give life to people who know all too well the power of death. The Easter witness of “I have seen the Lord” is the confident declaration of those who know that God’s redemption is on the way.

That confidence comes from knowing that Resurrection is the guarantee of the promise God made in a covenant with Abraham. It’s the joy that comes from learning to trust the word of the God who promises that nothing can separate us from Love – not even death. The liberation of Easter comes from a God who led a captive people through the water in the Exodus and has promised to rescue all of us us from the people and the systems that hold us captive.

And so, the good news of Easter isn’t just about a party in a graveyard. It is found in the promise of a God who is coming again for those who desperately need to find salvation – or for salvation to find them.

It is good news for the family on the edge of breaking apart because the God of Easter is the God who heals what is broken. And it is good news for the victims of repeated racism and systemic sexism because the God who made the empty tomb possible is the God of the oppressed.  Easter is good news for those who have been beaten down because the God of the Resurrection is the God who inspired Mary to sing praise to the One who lifts up the lowly and smashes the thrones of the arrogant.

If you had a hard time celebrating on Sunday, don’t worry. You aren’t alone and you didn’t miss it.

You just might be waiting for Resurrection to appear where you live. But Jesus is coming to Galilee, and according to the Gospel of Resurrection, that’s where we all live.

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Declutter

Our house has to be cleaned before it can really be cleaned – it’s that bad. It’s probably always been that way, but it’s a whole lot easier to notice after a year of accumulating all the stuff new parents do. As my wife and I were lamenting the state of our house the other night, one of us said to the other, “Our biggest problem is that there are a whole lot of things in rooms that don’t belong there.”

Clutter, of course, isn’t a problem reserved for the kitchen counter. Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to growing in the spiritual life.

Advent, this season of preparation, is a great opportunity to evaluate our lives and determine what is essential to life with God and what is an extra that prevents us from experiencing the gifts God wants to give us.

One of the easiest places to see how and where our lives have gotten cluttered is by taking stock of what grabs our attention. One of the most difficult things for anyone in 2017, and particularly for those of us trying to live in a connected relationship with God, is to stay focused on the things that keep us connected with God and with one another.

The opportunities for distraction come before our coffee is made. By lunch we often find ourselves becoming experts on whatever topic has trended. By bedtime we often know much about plenty but little about what we most desperately need.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, then, is what is it that grabs our attention. It’s a conversation that Jesus had again and again with his disciples – probably because they, like us, had a whole lot of trouble keeping their attention trained on Jesus even when he was right next to them. They didn’t have college football to take up their time, but they did struggle to make sense of politics, they did get tempted by the allure of comfort, and they spent a lot of time spouting their own opinions instead of listening to the One who had come to show them a better way.

The uncomfortable truth is that the topics which grab our attention are the topics that shape our lives. We can know a lot about the new coach at Tennessee but that doesn’t do much for us when we lose our job. We can have passionate opinions about the President’s latest tweet but they don’t help us sit in silence to hear a word from a holy God. We can spend a whole lot of time finding the perfect gift and still miss the gift of the presence of the ones we love.

The church, at least those churches that follow the liturgical calendar, often begins Advent by listening to Jesus call his disciples to watch and pray. Last week we listened to the words of Jesus from Luke 21 in which he told the disciples to focus their attention on learning how to spot the signs of his second coming. What he wanted them to learn was how to focus their attention on what truly mattered.  What they really needed wasn’t to marvel at the beauty of the Jerusalem temple but to pay attention to the signs of God’s work in the world.

In many ways that is what this season is all about – learning how to retrain our eyes to see what really matters. Advent is a chance to make room in our lives to receive the Lord who will come again. These four weeks are an opportunity to clean out the things that aren’t essential so we can notice when God moves into our neighborhood. It is an invitation to recommit ourselves to finding the life that is found in receiving the gift God wants to give us.

During the course of the last couple of months I’ve been journeying through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius with the help of Kevin O’Brien’s beautiful book, The Ignatian Adventure. There is plenty of wisdom in these pages. And yet much of it can be distilled into this – learn how to repent of the patterns that separate us from God and live into those patterns that help us spot God’s presence in our midst.

We have been created for the purpose of loving, worshiping and serving God – and the key to such a life is, “to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free us from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.”

What is it that prevents us from loving, serving and worshiping God? Once you know that, get rid of it. What is it that helps us see all that God wants to show us? Make room for that.

Get rid of clutter and make room for light to shine. This isn’t just good advice for a cleaner kitchen. This is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

 

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Finding Light: Cooking a Meal, Trying Something New and Eight More Ways to Experience Easter

One of my favorite posts of the year is creating a list of ideas that I hope will help people experience Lent as a season of grace.  (You can this year’s version here.)

It’s always one of the most popular posts as well, which reminds me that no matter where we worship or how long we’ve been doing this we’re all in this together, strugglers on the way trying our best to stay as close as we can to Jesus.

But Easter is a season, too, and I know how much I would love to experience and practice Resurrection not just on Easter Sunday but on every day of this season. I want to find a way to discover how to commit to practices that ground me in the truth of the Easter Gospel that love is stronger than death, that hope triumphs over fear and that life is more powerful than death. Just like Lent, I want my life to look differently after Easter than it did before. I want to be able to look back from the other side of Pentecost and be able to celebrate the ways I experienced love and hope and life in the power of the Risen Lord during these fifty days.

So, with that in mind, here are ten ways that might help you – and me – live in the light and hope and love of Easter right now.

 

Read the Story: Experience again the Resurrection on Easter morning and the many times and ways Jesus appears after the Resurrection to the disciples and to others. Passages to begin with include  Luke 24:13-35, Luke 24:36-53, John 29:19-31, John 21:1-23, Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 9:1-19.

Take A Breath, Pray a Prayer: A friend of mine recently invited me to a challenge of praying the same phrase 1,000 times a day. It was a great gift and reminded me of the power of breath prayer, not just to help us connect with God but also to change the way we think and how we approach our lives.  You might pray the same phrase for the whole season or you might try several out a week at a time. Phrases that might work well include – Christ is Risen, Love is Alive, Blessed Are Those Who Believe, God Makes All Things – Even Me – New. I’d love to hear phrases that you found helpful.

Celebrate God’s Presence: – The Resurrection declares once and for all that God does care and is involved in our lives and our world. Take time to reflect, maybe once a day if you can remember, about how you experienced God that day. The Examen, a spiritual practice I enjoyed during Lent, is a great way to become aware of  all the ways God is at work in your life. Committing to this made me so much more aware of the ways God was at work in the ordinary course of my days. Our days are full of opportunities to glimpse and celebrate the light of God’s love in our lives.

Begin A Different Way: My friend Tish has written a beautiful book called Liturgy of the Ordinary (You should buy it here). One of my favorite parts of the book is when she talks about the spiritual practice of making her bed. Instead of beginning her day by checking her phone or email or getting updated on the latest thing to be outraged by, for Lent one year she decided to begin the day by making her bed and then spending a few moments of silence and solitude with God. How many ways might we experience Resurrection if instead of sprinting out of bed to accomplish all of our to-dos, we found some way, if only or a moment, to begin our day in gratitude for all God has given us? You might pray the Lord’s Prayer. You might read the Beatitudes. You might just say thank you for the gift of another day. This is one of the ways I’m going to try to celebrate Resurrection this Easter season.

Bring People To the Table: A good number of the Resurrection appearances remind us that Jesus likes to show up just in time for a meal. There’s just something about the way that grace is especially present at the table. So cook a meal and invite some friends over. Between dinner and dessert you might find a time to share about the places you and your friends are seeing and experiencing new life.

Try Something New: One of the most significant claims the Resurrection makes is that in Christ God is doing something new. So take a bold step and try something new in response to the truth that God is not done with you. We are launching a couple of new initiatives in our church right now, but it isn’t just for churches. Maybe now is the time to try out a new class at the gym, take an art or photography class, or recommit to writing that book that you know is inside of you. Whatever it is, just know that God is making all things, even you, new again.

Make Room: We all have issues and topics and people who take up too much space in our hearts and our minds. We spend more time and emotional energy than we would like to admit worrying about things we can’t change and situations we can’t control. One way to more fully experience Christ’s Resurrection is to be intentional about limiting the time we give to these concerns. Clearing out space from worry and creating room to celebrate God’s gifts and to give thanks for people and places that help you experience Resurrection can be a great gift this season.  Bonus: Praying the Serenity Prayer can be a great daily practice to help you do this.

Stop Looking For The Living Among the Dead: It is easy for us, just like the women at the tomb, to search for life in places that only lead to death. That’s why Easter matters again and again – because we know too well the disappointment and heartbreak that comes from looking for life where it can’t be found. Take a good look at your life and try to give up something that is leading you away from the life God wants to give you. It might be that this Easter is the time to begin a program of recovery. Or it might be to step back from social media if that isn’t life giving for you. It might be time to take a break from a relationship or friendship that has grown toxic. I’ll bet it won’t take you long to figure out one thing in your life you could do without.

Proclaim Light  in the Dark Places: We all know people who are struggling and having a hard time. Find a way to offer the hope and light of the Easter Gospel. It might be writing a card or making a phone call to someone you’ve meant to call for a long time. Visiting and connecting with friends and family who are homebound or in nursing homes is a great opportunity to celebrate God’s new life. Sometimes a 10-minute visit will do more than you can imagine – and not just for the person you are visiting.

Bless Places That Give New Life: There are organizations and groups all around us that are shining light in the darkness and helping people discover new life and live in hope. Pick one of them and make a donation to help them shine more light for more people.  A few places in Knoxville and around us that my family and I believe in are Emerald Youth Foundation, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Volunteer Ministry Center, and Thistle Farms. But there are so many others. Find a cause near and dear to your heart and make a gift of light.

 

There are plenty more ways to watch for the light this Easter. These are just a few that came to my mind. I’d love to hear how you are celebrating and experiencing Resurrection this Easter.

 

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Prayers For the Path: The Prayer of Lament

Things are not as they should be. That’s more than just how those of us who are trying to follow Jesus understand the world.

It’s something most of us see and experience every day.

That’s unfortunately obvious again this morning as we try to make sense of the senseless violence in Syria. Friends who have been to South Sudan are heartbroken over the events in that country as well. Our own city is still reeling over another shooting in a part of town that’s already suffered too much.

Each morning, it seems, brings another burst of darkness, another event that overwhelms our senses. We can’t go a day without wondering how the gap between the ways things are and the way they should be will ever shrink.

It isn’t just the news and it isn’t just on TV. We’ve felt the pain in the deterioration of relationships that leaves us asking what happened. We’ve felt stuck in our work and buried in the darkness of depression. We’ve walked under a burden that is so heavy and been filled with so much pain that we would give anything to find a load that is easy and a burden that is light.

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself flipping through the Bible I read in college. It was then when I started actually reading the Bible seriously, if not always intelligently. This particular Bible is beaten up, its corners are rounded, and it is falling apart. It has seen better days.

One of the sections that is the most marked up in that Bible is a small book, sandwiched between Jeremiah and Ezekiel – the book of Lamentations.

I’m not exactly sure how I found it, but in the midst of hurt and struggles I was dealing with at the time I found in those pages what I desperately needed.

It was there I discovered I wasn’t the first one to feel like things were falling apart. It was there I found I wasn’t the first one to experience how plans could be foiled. It was there I found I wasn’t the first one to get knocked down without much of an idea of how to get back up. It was there I found I wasn’t the first one to convince myself I was all alone facing a world that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

As I opened my Bible I read the prayers of people who were angry with God. I paid attention to people trying to hold it all together while everything else was trying to pull them apart. I listened to the suffering of families in a world that was a long way from Eden. Mostly, I studied the prayers of people who were hoping and willing God to act.

At the heart of Lamentations is the belief that even in the dark places God is still there. The people crying out to God put their hope in the promise that even in their suffering God still remembered them. They still prayed because they still trusted in a God who would act on their behalf.

The language is jarring and the images stretch us. And yet, Lamentations 3 reveals the heart of the Gospel and the core of faith and trust:

 “So I say, God is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord…But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never end.”

We have a hard time praying prayers of lament. We don’t want to bother God with our problems. We feel guilty complaining to God that things aren’t perfect when we are all too aware of our own imperfections. We would rather sing with joy than deal with our pain.

But what Lamentations teaches us about prayer, and really about God, is that just because things aren’t the way they should be doesn’t mean they’ll always be that way. They, and we, become different when we remember that even in the midst of darkness and heartbreak God hasn’t abandoned us. We offer to God our pain that comes from the way the world is and our dreams for how the world might one day be because we have come to believe that the most powerful force in the world isn’t a nation with an army or a corporation that’s too big to fail but the God who has promised to never abandon us regardless of the cost.

We remember that especially this week. As we get ready to walk the lonesome road with Jesus, we know we are on the path to night and betrayal, long days of darkness where you will have to strain to glimpse even a shadow of light.

It is true that the world isn’t how it should be. What keeps us walking is that we know it won’t always be this way.

 

 

Note: This is the third post in a series, Prayers for the Path, prayers that keep us rooted and close to Jesus as we follow him this season to Jerusalem.

Prayers For the Path: 

The Prayer of Silence 

The Prayer of Gratitude

 

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Prayers For The Path: The Prayer of Silence

It is four o’clock in the morning and I’m wide awake. My brain is racing with words demanding to be put into sentences and things needing to be marked as done. There are the things I wish I had said yesterday, and a few words I wish I hadn’t. I can spit out the things that need to get done today, so I can replace them with things tomorrow that are only a little less urgent.

This is no way to begin the day. This is a life, but not life we would call real. This is something less than that.

And so instead of this sprint what I want, maybe more than anything else, is to sit for a minute and remind myself that who I am has nothing to do with this list of things and everything to do with the One who declares I Am. What I’m looking for is a place to hide, if only for a moment, from the demands to go and do. I’m in search of a shelter from the doom and gloom seemingly all around us. I’m trying to find a space not to do but to be.

And so I run, not for the hills, but to the silence, to listen for the words of the God who has something to say to me. Even me. If I can listen. For a moment.

I run to it because, even at this hour I can remember the lesson that so many wise teachers have tried to get into my frazzled and hurried soul – grace doesn’t come from producing words but receiving them. I must decrease, He must increase, John the Baptist said after encountering Jesus.

Sounds about right.

I can’t begin to count all the hours I’ve spent wondering what I should say to God or the best way to approach God in prayer. I’ve struggled my whole life to find the right words to describe my situation and labored to put things in the most appropriate light.

This is how I’m wired. I like words. I read them. I write them. I use them to justify why I’m right and everyone else is wrong. I want to tell God how things need to be and exactly what I need to have happen.

And so it’s humbling to be reminded that the key to receiving the rest God gives begins with me speaking less and listening more. Grace isn’t a great argument to win but a gift spoken to me.

When it comes to prayer, my words are optional. God’s word is essential.

And so I remember the words I need – You were created for more than this. I remember the words that define who I am – You are my child. I remember the words that order my days – Take up your cross and follow me. I remember the words that call me back – You were bought with a price.

Not words that came from me, words that were given, words that changed everything.

And so what I am trying to do right now, in this season of Lent, is to get close enough to Jesus to hear what he has to say. Not from a distance, but up close, where I can see his face and hear the tone in his voice.

That’s what all of this is about. I’m tempted to speak, to tell him what he needs to notice. I want to tell him where to direct his attention. It takes everything I have not to tell him how to solve a particular controversy. It’s on the tip of my tongue how he needs to set this person straight.

The longer I can go without talking, the closer to him I get. The more of his words I hear the easier it is to see what is in front of us. The more I pay attention to him, the more I begin to act like him.

This is why I want to flee the noise. This is why I crave the silence. This is why I run away from the hustle. This is why I want to rest in being present.

To hear his words and to learn his way.

This is the prayer I need.

 

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