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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Beyond Distraction

My usual response to people who want to get a hold of me is simple – call me on my phone, it’s always on my hip. That answer has started to change, however, because what I’ve learned is that one of the keys to actually living life is to leave my phone in another room.

I know better than I would like to admit the addictive power of my phone. There are few forces better at demanding our attention than the mini-computers we carry in our hands. Whether it is calling or texting friends, posting on our platform of choice, or encountering the world through the lens of our camera, our phones demand our attention.

And that demand comes with a high price. Being locked into the world of our phones leads us to miss the gift of God’s glory in the world in which we actually live. Giving our families the view of the top of our head teaches them that they aren’t as important as whatever we are experiencing in our news feeds. The connectedness our devices make possible often serves to disconnect us from what we most want and need.

Sin and Distraction

I used to think that distractions were neutral, things that might pull us away from productivity but weren’t filled with malice. The more I’ve learned about the spiritual life and how distractions prevent us from paying attention – to God and the people who matter to us – I have come to the realization there isn’t much difference between the negative influence of distractions and the insidious destruction we call sin.

The classic evangelical definition of sin calls it anything that separates us from God. That separation from God leads to division and alienation from other people. When our mutual separation is brought to bear the tragic result are systems and structures that menace people by denying the presence of God within them. This is what leads the Apostle Paul to name the fundamental work of the Cross as reconciliation – both between God and humanity and between groups of people.

Regardless of its source, our inability to remain focused on who and what truly matters leads us away from God and summons us to build walls between one another. Transformation, the kind that leads us back to God and inspires us to build bridges, doesn’t happen by paying attention for a fleeting moment in between the experiences that vie for our attention. Growing in our relationship with God and experiencing the reconciled life requires sustained attention these distractions serve to undermine.

We are changed as we grow in the ability to notice the signs of God’s activity in the world. We grow in grace as we respond in gratitude to the gifts God is giving us. We experience the joy of new creation as we learn to pay attention to the things God wants to show us.

Greater Things

In the opening of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that if he stays close he will see greater things than he has seen before. In short, Jesus is telling Nathanael that if he can learn to pay attention he will experience life in a way he never has before.

But Nathanael will learn what I know pretty well, and I bet you do too – wanting to focus on what matters and finding a way to do it are two different things.

One of the most important questions to ask, then, is how we are going to reorder our life so we can actually see these greater things Jesus wants to show us. How do we structure our days so we don’t miss the glory of God when it walks right in front of us? How do we learn to spot the signs of reconciliation and new birth that break through when people who once hated each other sit down together as friends? How can we remove the blinders and begin to see the Kingdom vision that starts with the choice you make as Jesus invites you to “Come and see”? How can we say no to the temptations of the distractions and yes to the one thing we know we need?

One of the answers I’ve come up with is to remember that it is possible to live without my phone attached to my hip. The phone – and all the things that come with it – isn’t the devil. I don’t long for us to go to back to a world without them – we’d just replace them with some other way to avoid what really matters.

But I do know that I’ve discovered a whole lot of time that I couldn’t seem to find before. I’ve noticed I spent way too much time on that phone and not enough spotting and celebrating real life. I’ve also made room for other things that help me see – listening in silence instead of insisting on my own way,  reading my Bible for myself and not just as fodder for a sermon, and paying attention to people instead of racing past them in a rush to get things done.

What is keeping you from seeing and experiencing greater things? My prayer for you is that you can find one thing to push aside and begin to receive the gift that comes from paying attention to what truly matters.

 

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The Light is Coming

Last Christmas Eve I found myself sitting in an unfamiliar place – in the pews.

It was the first time in a while I hadn’t been asked to deliver a Christmas Eve sermon. It was the first time in more than a few years I didn’t arrive early at the church to shepherd a community through experiencing love, joy, hope and peace in the gift of the promised Child. It had been some time since I hadn’t sprinted to church from a quick family dinner to make sure that when we lifted the candles and sang Silent Night we knew for sure, if only for a moment, that all is calm and all is bright.

Instead, my wife and I spent part of our Christmas Eve a year ago listening to one of our friends lead his congregation. We did our best to find our way through the hymnal, singing those old songs in a strange place. We prayed with our friend as he prayed for people like us, those struggling to find the joy of Christmas in the midst of the pain that December sometimes brings. We made the walk down the center aisle, feeling the stares trained on us as we walked to receive the grace we needed more than ever in bread and a cup. We nodded with our friend as he announced those bold words from John’s Gospel – The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christmas Eve 2016 marked the 17th day our daughter had spent in the NICU. 17 days of highs and lows. 17 days of doctors and nurses. 17 days of rigorous hand-washing. 17 days of rising in hope and falling with despair in the digital reading of a hospital monitor.

A year later we know we are the lucky ones, blessed with a healthy daughter thanks to the skill of a trained medical staff and the generosity of a gracious God.

And as I prepare to make up for last year with morning and evening sermons this Christmas Eve, one of the many things I now know first-hand is the depth of hope packed in that phrase that has become central to the church’s Christmas message.

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it – the words both announce how God has come to be with us and the life-shaking implications of such a gift. The truth that God comes into our world in a child, moves into our neighborhood as Eugene Peterson has put it, runs so much deeper than we have imagined.

God’s entrance into our lives is more than just the light waiting to outlast whatever forces darkness can throw at God. Instead, the story of Christmas is the story of the Light on the move. The gift is nothing less than God coming to overwhelm the darkness with a force it cannot endure. Christmas comes not just as an inevitable victory against an enemy determined to do battle, but as a forward march of the Light on a mission to defeat the enemy in every way, shape and form it dares present itself.

The Light has come into the world to break the will of the forces that hold us and our neighbors in bondage. Christmas comes to break through the pain that prevents people from experiencing life. The child comes to show people wandering in the darkness the way of the Light. The angels sing the song of God’s inevitable victory over fear, hatred and injustice. Joy to the World is no sentimental song of the status quo but a victory anthem of those who have experienced the power of light freeing them from the darkness that had bound them for far too long.

Christmas isn’t reserved for those who can’t wait to sing the songs of the season. The Light comes into the world to restore those paralyzed by worry. God comes here to heal those bound by anxiety. The Child comes to lead those home who have lost their way. The gift is that God is coming to blast through every bit of the darkness with the power of light and love.

The good news is that God isn’t going to wait. Love is coming for us at Christmas. The Light is coming to shatter the darkness so we can see and love again.

Merry Christmas.

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How Do You Read It?

There are few books that grab our attention and unsettle our minds like the Bible.

I was reminded of that again this past Sunday as we talked in our church about how we can say with conviction and understanding that the Bible is true.

You could see it on the faces of our people. You could hear it in the comments on the way out of church. A friend who doesn’t normally come to church was there on Sunday and could not stop talking about how the sermon affected him. A few days later he was still talking about it.

I don’t believe it was the quality or force of the preaching. Instead, I am convinced that one of the deepest desires people have, both inside and outside the church, is to learn how to read the Bible with wisdom and confidence.

People are searching for help because they want to know how they can trust the words of a book that they have been around, in some way or another, for their whole lives. People are searching for a better way because they know the way the Bible is leveraged as a weapon in hot-button debates doesn’t seem right but they don’t know how to articulate a better alternative. People are searching for a way to deepen their understanding and relationship with God but feel like they will never have enough knowledge to get through the historical, cultural and religious details that can make it so hard to understand. People are desperate for guidance about what it means to live a good life and how the Bible can help them find the way to discover that kind of existence.

One of the few things that most Christians can agree on is that the Bible is true. It is the how that often ties us in knots that keep us stuck.

The truth of the Bible isn’t found in quoting chapter and verse in debates that the book was never intended to solve. Instead the gift of Scripture is the way it guides us to understand the truth – about ourselves, about the world we live in and about the character of God.

The Bible tells us the truth by setting us in the big story that defines our lives.  As we read and take in the pages of Scripture we don’t get bogged down in the details that can be useful for trivia, but instead we grow in the truth that God is the One who loves us and is for us. As we read this book we come to discover that God’s essence is relational love and that our lives expand according to our capacity to receive and be transformed by this love.

As we experience the joys and heartbreaks that come as we make our way through adulthood, we take hope in the Bible’s declaration that what is most true about us is that we are God’s beloved. As we try to figure out who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do we rest in the truth of Scripture that God invites us to a vital role in God’s mission for the world. When we’ve messed up and wonder how we will ever recover, we remember that forgiveness is God’s way.

As we listen to the voices of Scripture we come to discover that there isn’t anything we experience that can’t be described or explained by the broad narrative of God’s story.  As we come to understand the world in terms of sin and grace and temptation and redemption, we realize the events we call news are really just the most recent manifestations of the same old story.

We notice how our dream for a way beyond our divisions sounds eerily familiar to Paul’s declaration that in Christ God is making a new humanity. As we wonder how it will ever get better we anchor ourselves in God’s ministry of reconciliation. We become encouraged when we remember that God tears down dividing walls. Our spirits are lifted as we read that when we work to cross boundaries we are in communion with a God who does the same.

When we provide a shoulder for our friends who cry out for justice we remember that racism and sexism and poverty are the expressions of deep-seated sin that emerges out of the cracks in our relationship with God and one another. As we feel powerless to combat the institutions and powers intent on maligning God’s good creation we remember the cries of the Exiles and recall God’s stubborn tendency to make the implausible gloriously real.

“The Bible”, Eugene Peterson writes in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “is the best book for discovering the all-inclusive reality in which we exist and then for initiating us into it.”

The Bible, then, is more than an old, interesting book. It is the story that tells us who we are and it is an invitation to the good life. It is more than a book of details and quotable lines.  It describes who we are made to be. It explains the world that often defies explanation. Most importantly, it reveals the depth of God’s love for us and invites us to live in the grip of this love.

No wonder it matters so much.

 

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We Will

On Sunday morning our family walked up and stood in front of the church I have been called to help lead. Me, I’m used to that. In fact, it’s expected. It is, despite my serious introversion, a job requirement.

My wife doesn’t enjoy being up front; she avoids it at almost all costs. My daughter, at least so far, is happy as long as there is somewhere to sleep and a pacifier nearby. And yet, there Erin and I were, standing with our daughter and our parents while everyone else stared at us as we prepared to answer some questions from a preacher.

They weren’t just any questions either, but questions about our faith. We were asked what we believe is most fundamentally true – about God and the world that God loves. We were asked about life – particularly the kind of life we believe is worth living, the life we want for ourselves and the one we want for our daughter. We were asked about our commitments – what we were willing to do and what we weren’t willing to do.

Question 1: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

We do.

Question 2: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

We do.

Question 3: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?

We do.

Question 4: Will you nurture your daughter in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly and to lead a Christian life?

We will.

Serious questions these are, questions that require serious answers. There’s nothing that forces you to come to grips with what you really believe is important quite like trying to raise a child.

My wife and I were raised in two different church traditions, particularly when it comes to baptism. She grew up in a tradition that prefers adult baptism and infant dedication. I grew up in one that practices infant baptism and mostly teenage confirmation.

Before our daughter was born we had plenty of conversations about the sacrament– when and how it would be offered if we had a child, why each tradition made sense and what it all meant to receive the waters and blessing of being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so we made the walk from our seats to the front of the church Sunday not in respect to tradition or out of some ecclesial obligation, but because of what we have come to believe is true about the way God works in our lives and in the world.

We looked at each other and smiled as we heard a friend pronounce the words over our daughter:

I baptize you in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Because this we believe – these questions are impossible to truthfully answer yes to on our own.

Sin and evil lurk around every corner and find their way into our lives when we are looking and when we aren’t. How could we possibly reject them by ourselves?

Rejecting evil, injustice and oppression is a supersized task, even if the freedom does come from God. There isn’t a day that goes by when we aren’t aware – even as privileged and relatively comfortable people – of the injustices and evils and oppression that friends and neighbors face on a near constant basis. Rejecting these is God-sized work.

The very nature of faith is trust and yet we are keenly aware of how easy it is to place trust in other things – reputation, money, popularity, and comfort just to name a few. And while the Gospel breaks down every barrier, many of which we don’t name in the liturgy, I admit that I’m still pretty good at clinging to the old identities and ways of being.

And then there’s the real tough one – that our lives are to be examples to our daughter that will lead her to Christ. We’re supposed to live in such a way that she will reject the idolatries of the world and find freedom from the sins that bind us and might bind her. It isn’t our intellect or powers of persuasion that we are being asked to affirm, but the integrity of how we try to follow Jesus.

How could anyone say yes to these questions?

And yet there we were, declaring with boldness and confidence that we will resist evil and oppression, that we will  live in the freedom of God, that we will put our whole trust in God’s grace and that our lives will bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We did it because we know that the same grace our daughter was receiving in the water – the power to resist sin and grow in grace – was at work in our lives. The same grace that was drawing her to God before she is even aware of it is the same grace that is sustaining and pulling us forward in our life with God as well. Our own strength and faith commitments announce a dreary No. But with God’s grace, working in our lives and the lives of our faithful friends and community we can shout a joy-filled Yes.

Christ is alive. Grace is ever-present. God is at work.

Will you follow Jesus and show your daughter how to do the same?

Without reservation – We Will!

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