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.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Our Kind Of Story

I found myself talking with someone last week about stories, good stories, the kind we want to tell, and more importantly, the kind we want to live.

That’s the thing about stories – all of us have one, all of us are part of one, and stories, whether we like it or not, actually run our lives.

Today, we return again to the most intense part of the story we tell and try to live by. We call this part of the story Holy Week, and one way to tell it is as a story bookended by two crowds; two mobs with things to say and demands to make. But this story isn’t really about those crowds, because the wisdom we are looking for can’t be found in a crowd.

And so here we are, once again heeding Jesus’ instructions and preparing to make our way to a room to eat a meal and hear again what it is he would have us do. We are here once again, because even if we can’t remember all the details, we know a bit about trying to live out our faith in a new way and in the process getting a whole lot more wrong than right.

And that’s why we keep coming back to this story, because it is a story that is true in more ways than one. In it we discover what God is really like and in it we remember that we are a whole lot more than the dark details of our worst failures.

We follow the disciples to a table because we too know what it is like to misunderstand who Jesus is and what he is all about. We listen to Jesus teach about love because we know what it is to be in desperate need of it.

We walk behind Jesus on the road because we know what it is like to have tried to follow him and failed spectacularly. We stand outside by the fire with Peter because we know what it is like to disappoint those we care about most.

We follow Jesus up the hill because we know what it is like to stumble underneath the weight of carrying our own cross. We follow him all the way there and see it all again for ourselves because we know, that in the end, all of this is for us.

We are drawn to this story because it has become our story.

It reminds us that all of this is about God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It reminds us that God is willing to help us – even us. It reminds us that the road to our freedom is a road of suffering that we cannot walk for ourselves, but it is a road that Jesus walks for us.

That’s what Love does, it does the things we need that we can’t do for ourselves.

And so, this story is for those who know what it is like to be called a loser while the winners celebrate.

This story is for those who desperately want to fix a broken relationship but who haven’t yet found the path to healing.

This story is for those who know all too well what it is like to find yourself on the outside and away from Jesus.

This story is for all of us who know that something is broken but that the healing is going to have to come from someone else.

That’s why if you find yourself at church this weekend you are likely to see something interesting.

Because the people who are there aren’t there because they have it all figured out. And they aren’t there because they know every part of it beyond a reasonable doubt. They are there for the same reason you are – they know what it is like to need help and they know this is a story about One who gives it.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Prayers For the Path: The Prayer of the Cross

There are some stories we want to change, that we need to change. There are endings we would love to switch and details we would love to erase.

This is one of those stories.

Because it would be so much easier if we could tear this one up and write a different one.

We would do anything to break out our pens and mark this one up. We would love to find a way to detour around the Upper Room and discover a way to turn the page on everything that happens between now and Sunday morning. We would enjoy it so much more without the cheap betrayals and costly silence. We want to believe we aren’t the ones who deny and then run away.

We’d like to rewrite this story because we would like to avoid the truth we know about ourselves. We want to tell a different story this Holy Week, one that doesn’t require blood and sacrifice. Sure, we wish there was a better ending in it for Jesus, but what we really crave is a way to avoid facing ourselves in all our sin-stained glory. What we really want is a story that will allow us to justify ourselves.

That’s the thing about the truth, though – you can’t erase it no matter how big your eraser or how short your memory. And while we are pretty good at avoiding it the rest of the year, tonight and tomorrow we can’t.

As we make our way to the Upper Room we realize that all the things we have counted on to save us have fallen away. As we listen to the questions and answers of a trial we realize our need to have all the answers doesn’t satisfy the questions that really matter today. As we walk the final road with Jesus to the darkness of Good Friday, we realize the things we thought were significant – our bank accounts, our waist size, our last name – have disappeared in the shadow of the Cross.

We realize this week what we try to avoid every other one – that our rush to status and our desire for acclaim won’t give us what we need. We come to grips with the truth that there are problems beyond our capacity to solve them. We have to admit that we can’t provide what we truly need; absolution and redemption and the only status that matters come from somewhere else.

We all receive hope in the same way – by allowing the One with the towel and the water to cleanse us. No matter what we have searched for we find what we need in the One who was declared guilty. In the dark reality of the Cross all any of us can do is go to Dark Gethsemane and beg for mercy from the One who received none from us.

We can’t rewrite this story because its truth won’t be denied. We try to cover it up but the harsh reality won’t be silenced. We try to keep it hidden but it always finds us.

Truth and grace are persistent that way.

And so tonight and tomorrow we’ll tell this story again, to remind ourselves how they fit together. We’ll tell it to anyone who will listen and we’ll tell it to ourselves. That when everything falls apart, all isn’t lost. That when everyone else has left, we aren’t alone. That when all we’ve counted on has vanished, hope can still find us.

Hope is still here because he is still here. He is up there and what he has to offer is enough. It’s the only thing that is.

 

Note: This is the fourth 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

The Prayer of Lament

 

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office

I hate this place.

They do their best to make it nice. They know you are nervous when you come here. They know you are doing everything you can to hold yourself together. They know your family hangs in the balance while you wait to hear your name called.

So they smile. They put you in nice, comfortable chairs – as nice as you can have in a doctor’s office. They invite you to look at the pictures, big black and white pictures – of moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. Smiling. Enjoying. Living.

This could be you – that’s what they want you to think. The pictures are supposed to put you at ease, to make you feel better about being here. They are here to help you believe.

But the pictures and the faces also confront you. They are of other people. They are of other families. These are not pictures of you.

The nurse calls our names and we look at each other, hearts racing, blood pressure skyrocketing. She walks back and I sit, waiting for another person in white to walk out and call her name.

Why is it always white? Everything here is black and white. It’s all celebration or despair, nothing in between. Everybody comes here to walk the tightrope of joy and tragedy, heartbreak and relief, praying against death and desperately hoping for new life.

We hear her name and look at each other again. Can’t avoid it any longer. We walk into the room – we’ve been here before. A familiar room and a familiar face.

She doesn’t remember us. We’ll never forget her.  She was the one who delivered the news that broke our hearts. Her words brought the grief that wouldn’t go away.

No heartbeat. 

This might not happen for you they told us. You might need to consider other options. And we have.

We’re as surprised as anybody to be back here for this, back in this room waiting, back here sitting and staring at a screen, back here trying to make sense of it, back here waiting for a verdict that will change everything, one way or the other.

She talks to us, asks us the usual questions, and then she gets a big smile on her face. We can’t go there yet.

We don’t smile when we come here.

“Your baby has a good, strong heartbeat.”

Our shoulders drop. We finally smile. We hug and we laugh and we cry, different tears than we’ve ever cried before.

“There’s your tax break, Ogle”, my wife says almost immediately with a wry, Chicago smile.

“Will this be your first?” the nurse asks us. Yes, we smile.

We tell her our story, about how this room is the last place we expected to be, about how we were learning about “other options”, about how pretty much is a really important metaphor when placed before impossible.

For nothing is impossible with God.

It turns out this office is full of preachers.

“I’ve worked here a long time and I’ll tell you that sometimes God knows more than the doctors. When God wants you to have a baby you are going to have a baby!”

I can’t help but think about our friends – women who would be great mothers and are still waiting. Has God decided something different for them? I hold it down, there are some days for theodicy and some days for celebration.

They take us into another room and we sit for about three minutes before another staff member – one who gave us our options and cared for us so well the last time we were here – comes bounding in with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so happy. I’ve got to call your doctor – she will be so excited.”

We tell her our story and she can’t help it either. “Sometimes God knows things that the tests don’t – you all are going to be great parents.”

For nothing is impossible with God. 

We look at each other again, eyes bright with hope and relief. We know there will be more trips here and more things to worry about. Every trip to this place, a friend will tell me later, is a chance for them to tell you what might be wrong with your baby. But not today.

Today we hope and dream for the life that is just starting to grow. Today we laugh about changing diapers and early morning feedings.  Today we know we’ll be spending a whole lot less time and money at Barnes & Noble and a whole lot more at Buy Buy Baby.

And we remember. As scary as this place is, God is here. Of course God is always here, has always been here. God is here with us today and didn’t leave the last time we were here.

God weeps with the ugly cry weepers and rejoices with the new parents celebrating life and dreaming dreams.

A few months later we sit in our living room. It’s a wreck now, nothing compared to the chaos it will become in a few weeks. Our house is littered with stuff, contraptions and must-haves only an entrepreneur could dream up. We’ve painted a room purple and jammed more pink into it than we ever imagined possible.

We smile and we wait, full of nerves and anxiety, wondering what we haven’t done yet and certain of all the ways we aren’t up to this.

We look at each other again and we remember – that even here, in this mess, we aren’t alone. God is here too. And that is enough.

That’s what we learned at The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office and from the preachers in scrubs.

God is up to something and new life is on the way.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

The Gift of Hope in Depressing Days

Where I live the sky has been particularly cloudy this week.  And, of course, that feels about right considering the week we’ve had.

It’s been hard not to feel the dread and the gloom reflected in the sky from the national conversation we’re having spawned by Donald Trump and the local conversation we’re having in the part of the world where I live and that I love over, of all things, the appropriateness of religious guidelines for work parties at the local university.

Cloudy Trees.jpg
In the midst of these controversies, whose flames are fanned by the 24-hour news cycle and the rage of the internet, it’s hard not to get depressed.  That despair and depression comes because despite our own participation in the screaming and the shouting and the posting online and the need to be justified in our positions,  we all deeply want to be part of something better. We want our lives to be about more than being right or having the right to be outraged or winning the battle of this particular day. We want to be part of a community and a country where we can move beyond the differences and the divisions and find a way to love one another and suffer with one another and rejoice with one another and experience meaning and healing with one another.

Of course, living that kind of life is getting harder every day. That’s why we’re disillusioned, because it is getting more and more difficult to imagine the life we really want as we deal with real fears about how to keep our families and loves ones and our nation safe while coming to terms with living in a world where distance and borders provide less safety and security than they ever have before. And so, when you put it all together it is really hard not to be resigned to hopelessness.

And as we race towards Christmas we are constantly reminded of that word – hope. It is in bold print on the magazine covers reminding us that this CAN be the year we have the perfect holiday meal – you know the one that inspires us not to plot to kill one another while reaching for the dessert. It is is on our screens as we watch one of the 235 sappy Christmas movies available to us on Hallmark or ABC Family.  And it is on the lips of our friends as they remind us that we still have time to finish our shopping, we still have time to complete all of those projects, and we can still get into the Spirit of the season, whatever that means.

But in the midst of the stories that dominate our news and the lesser angels that seem to be winning the day, the hope we are being sold doesn’t feel nearly hopeful enough.  It doesn’t seem to have the power and the weight to speak into the real problems and the real fears that so many of us are facing.  The hope of the Christmas greeting card industry doesn’t feel like it offers enough to enable us to live into the big visions of our national story, much less the even bigger vision of the Kingdom of God.

That’s because it isn’t. With a nod to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the hope of December is cheap hope.  But fortunately for us, the hope of Advent is the hope of the world.  And the hope of Christmas isn’t an empty hope or a hope that we can move on from once the calendar turns to 2016.  It is not a hope that you can toss away once you are done with it.  That’s because true hope could never be called cheap, because hope isn’t a feeling.  Hope is a presence that cost someone their life.

Hope is more than just an idea that makes us smile as we sip a warm beverage.  Instead, hope is something we can count on because hope comes from God.  We can depend on hope and we can cling to hope and we can hold on to hope in the worst of times because hope it is God’s gift that comes to us and stays with us. Because it comes from God, Paul can say with confidence that hope never disappoints. Instead, hope is what we experience when God pours love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Indeed, hope never fails because it comes from God, who said that the powers and forces of darkness never get the last word.

That’s why on Christmas Eve so many of us will punctuate our family dinners with a trip to buildings with a cross at the center and holy spaces punctuated with bright candles. We light those flames because we need to believe it is still true – now more than ever – that hope isn’t something you can extinguish.  That’s one we’ve learned by experience – because God knows we’ve tried.

We make our way there because the essential truth of the faith happens to be the truth we need – that no matter how bleak it gets, darkness can never overwhelm the light.  Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overwhelm it – you might have heard that. And that light isn’t just a metaphor but a real presence that keeps you moving especially when you aren’t sure how you are going to take another step. That light is the hope that gives you the strength to keep going when the world has done its best to weigh you down and beat you up. That light is the hope that pushes you to reach out when it feels hopeless, the nudge to somehow believe that one small act of kindness and grace can make a difference in a world gone mad. More than anything hope is what leads you to boldly and defiantly hold up your light in a world that most days seems covered in and addicted to darkness.

A friend once told me that hope was at the heart of my theology, the core of what I believe about God.  And that’s true – I’ve never been able to read the New Testament and come away convinced that hope isn’t real.  The Bible I read describes a life with God that reminds us again and again that we are never resigned to who we have been and that there is never a situation that God can’t improve, redeem or transform.

2015 has been a year where I had to learn that again. It was filled with anxiety and stress and loss and despair accompanied  by deep silence that only real pain can bring to your front door. What I’ve learned, or relearned I guess, is that real hope can’t be scheduled. Instead, it shows up when you need it the most and generally when you least expect it. Isn’t that the real message of this season when we remember that hope comes to us in a child who no one expected much out of who was born to parents that no one paid much attention to in a barn out back because no one could be bothered to make room for them?

Hope is a surprising thing. So maybe it should come as no surprise that as I drove home Wednesday night, despite it all the gloom broke.  As I drove around a curve I was able to look back towards the city I have come to love.  And as I looked back, I saw its downtown buildings and halls of its university. And above them as the sun worked to set, the sky dazzled, brilliant in hues of pink and orange.  It was as if the atmosphere over our little corner of the world had a message for us all.

IMG_0975

Hope is real. Hope never disappoints. Gloom and despair and darkness are ultimately powerless against the presence of light.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...