Easter

Empty tomb

One of the best things about what I do as a Pastor and a Chaplain is that I hear lots of stories.  As I sojourn in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and churches, the many rich accounts of people’s lives continue to amaze me.  Some are profoundly sad, some are incredibly joyous, all include relationships of love and some of hate.  The narratives underlying the daily existence of many people is often an alchemical mix of genuine altruism and mindless neglect.  Since we live on this fallen planet with its strange combination of amazing beauty and severe conditions, it only makes sense that the people of the earth experience the wide range of emotions and experiences from grief to joy.  No matter who I speak with, wherever they are from, we all need hope.

Earl (not his real name) had brain surgery.  It effected his speech.  Earl labors to speak and communicate.  Indeed, he struggles so much to do so that I can only pick out bits and pieces of what he is trying to say to me.  The work of talking is made even more frustrating with the fact that Earl was once an extroverted pastor who made his living talking and speaking and offering words of hope.  Now he can barely get a sentence out his mouth.

Punctuated throughout most of our conversation were swear words of which he apologized.  Instead of poo-pooing this wonderful older minister for his imprecations, I invited us to swear together.  For several minutes, what must have looked kooky crazy to any angels looking on, we sat and swore.  Earl and I expressed our anger, disappointment, and tears over the loss of a precious gift.

Then, after we had a good session of lament, I read the timeless story of a person who conquered everything that is wrong and unjust in this world.  Jesus suffered like no other before or since.  He felt loss.  He knew grief firsthand.  He died.

But death could not hold him in the grave.  The power of God raised Christ the Lord to new life.  Now, the life of Jesus is my life, and Earl’s life.  I didn’t read the glorious story of Jesus to change Earl’s feelings or even to try and make him feel better.  I read the story because its real, its true, and it is the Christian’s hope.

I believe the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20 are right:

“Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life.”

Every hope, each promise, and all expectations for Christians everywhere are completely and totally realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Easter, or more aptly, Resurrection Day, is the highest holy day of the entire year for followers of Jesus.  One of the great things about Easter is that it is not only one day in the Christian Year – it comprises 40 days leading to the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit.  That means we celebrate the truth “Jesus is alive!” for six wonderful Spring weeks.  We purposefully take a good look at our hope.

The somber reflection of Lent with its emphasis on confession of sin and repentance now flowers into the exultant joy and celebration of new life.  The call and response of Christians in the glorious season of Easter is “He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”

If there ever was a time for the church to give testimony to the redeeming and saving work of Jesus, it is on Resurrection Day and throughout the Easter season (often referred to as “Eastertide”).  Now is the appropriate time for fellow believers to hear from their brothers and sisters in Christ, how he has brought them renewal – a new outlook and perspective; a new way of relating to others; a new purpose; a completely new life.  We are so tied and in union with Jesus that his resurrection is our resurrection.  Christ’s rising to new life gives us hope.

Earl has hope.  I have hope.  You have hope.  The effects of the fallen world will not always have its way on the earth.  Christ is crucified.  Christ is risen.  Christ is coming again.

Holy Saturday

tomb of jesus

“Christ suffered here on earth. Now you must be ready to suffer as he did, because suffering shows that you have stopped sinning. It means you have turned from your own desires and want to obey God for the rest of your life. You have already lived long enough like people who don’t know God. You were immoral and followed your evil desires. You went around drinking and partying and carrying on. In fact, you even worshiped disgusting idols. Now your former friends wonder why you have stopped running around with them, and they curse you for it. But they will have to answer to God, who judges the living and the dead. The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.  Everything will soon come to an end. So be serious and be sensible enough to pray.  Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins.” (1 Peter 4:1-8, Contemporary English Version)

I haven’t been Christian my entire life.  I can relate to Peter’s exhortation.  I know what it feels like to carry on without any thought to God, Jesus, or anything other than myself.  The thing about partying and immorality is that it’s a life filled with constant movement.  Slowing down only makes you come face-to-face with what is truly inside your soul.  And if you have an empty vacuous soul, or a damaged spirit, or a broken heart, then drinking or working away your inner pain makes sense when you have no regard for God.  The last thing I ever wanted to do was suffer, yet in my pre-Christian state it seemed I could never outrun the hurt no matter how hard I tried, even with all the constant locomotion.

It is Holy Saturday – the quiet place sandwiched between the ignominy of the cross and the celebration of resurrection – the day of solitude, silence, and stillness.  Today isn’t a particularly popular day.  People don’t rave about Holy Saturday, in fact, many Christians haven’t had a thought that this day could have any significance.  Yet, this very day has its place in the scheme of the Christian life.

There cannot be resurrection and new life without a death and dying to self.  There must be suffering before there can be glory.  Whenever Christians quickly jump to triumphal language about victory and speak little to nothing about suffering, then we are left with nothing but cheap grace which has been purchased with the counterfeit currency of velocity.

Today is a day to get our heads and our hearts wrapped around the important reality that our Lord Jesus Christ was in the grave.  It was real suffering on Good Friday, and today it is a real death.  There is no movement.  All is silent and still.  Jesus is in the solitude of a dark tomb.  There is no getting around it.  If we want a Resurrection Day with all its celebration and glory, then we cannot circumvent Holy Saturday.

To put it in the Apostle Peter’s words: Are you ready to follow Jesus and suffer as he did?  Are you willing to stop your ridiculous striving, manifested through your crazy calendar of constant movement and embrace the Holy Saturday of solitude, silence, stillness with its contemplation and embrace of suffering?  Will you have sense enough to pray?  Will you practice a Christian counter-cultural shift and face the ridicule of your friends so that you can take some much-needed time to be with your Lord Jesus in the tomb?  Or, are you so antsy and anxious that you just want to leap into Easter with no solidarity with your Lord in the grave?

Perhaps you think I’m being a bit too hard or harsh or cold…. It’s because Jesus is cold.  He has a bonified cold dead body.  It’s no fake death.  There’s no “swoon theory” here, as if Christ only passed-out and did a weird divine fainting spell.  Nope.  He’s dead.  And if you and I want to live with Jesus, we must die with Jesus.

Anyone who tries to promise you a new life apart from journeying with Jesus into the grave is a spiritual charlatan.  Only through death can there be life.

Today, on this Holy Saturday, purposely slow down, do less, give yourself a large chunk of unstructured time, and put a lot of space between things you must do on this day.  Fill the time with unfettered access to God in Christ.  Slowly read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death and burial.  Read the book of 1 Peter.  Allow prayers to arise from the careful and thoughtful reading of Scripture.  Feel the solidarity with Jesus, journey with him along the way from life to death… so that there might be a truly glorious resurrection filled with abundant life and flourishing – a life that doesn’t need constant partying, working, and schedule-filling to feel significant and happy.

May you die well so that you might live well.

Good Friday

christ on the cross

We all suffer.  In some way, whether with a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone must face living in a fallen world with its pain and heartache.  Suffering which seems to have no reason, the senseless kind and the type where nothing good appears to be going on at all can be very troubling to our souls.

At first glance, “Good Friday” might seem a bit oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man.  Yet, it is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ meant the redemption of the world.  On this day Christians remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and, worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude in light of this redemptive event.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross.  Good Friday worship services often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross.  Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him.  Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and, redeeming all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression on this day.  It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin.  There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus.  Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished.  In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its impact could not plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar.  Yet, it is not.  The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Perhaps that is because no one likes suffering and cares not to think about it.  Not only do unchurched folk care not to think about it, but church attenders would like to be mindful about other things than the cross.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the problem: “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Our contemporary religious milieu celebrates and promotes self-styled spirituality; it is the “in” thing to eschew church and develop a personalized religion that fits the demands of the modern (or postmodern) world.  The cross, however, is “out;” too much blood and sacrifice, and not enough of what I’m looking for in life.  Perhaps we should think long and hard on Hebrews 13:12-13 –

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.”

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.  Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning.  So, today, let us contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.  In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.  Amen.

Maundy Thursday

jesus washing feet 2

Love.  We need it.  Without love, there is nothing to live for; relationships devolve into silent standoffs and destructive triangles; and, the world ceases to spin on its axis.  With love, however, all things are beautiful; personal relations have meaning and joy; and, all seems right and just in the world.

Yet, love comes with a cost.  Because we live in a broken world full of pride and hubris, greed and avarice, hate and envy, we are victims of loveless systems and unjust actions.  We need love to rescue us, to redeem us from the sheer muck of existence.  It’s as if we are constantly walking knee deep through sludge so thick we can barely get anywhere.  We need saving.  We need Jesus.

Christians everywhere around the world are journeying through Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year for followers of Christ.  When we think about Holy Week, we are familiar with Good Friday and certainly Easter; but Maundy Thursday?

On this day the church remembers the last evening that Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion.  The experiences in the upper room were highly significant because this was the last teaching, modeling, and instruction Jesus gave before facing the cross.  Jesus was careful and deliberate to communicate exactly what was important to him: to love one another.

Maundy Thursday marks three important events in Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples:

  • The washing of the disciples’ feet (the action of loving service)
  • The instituting of the Lord’s Supper (the remembrance of loving sacrifice)
  • The giving of a “new” commandment to love one another (the mandate of a loving lifestyle).

Let’s briefly unpack these words and actions from Jesus.

For Jesus, his last night with his disciples was all about love, God’s love.  On that fateful night, having loved his disciples for the past three years, Jesus showed them the full extent of his love by taking the posture of a servant and washing each and every one of the disciples’ feet, including Judas.  After demonstrating for them a totally humble service, Jesus said,

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15, NIV). 

This was an incredible act of love.  We need to rightly observe that Jesus Christ loves me just as I am, and not as I should be.  He loves me even with my dirty stinky feet, my herky-jerky commitment to him, and my pre-meditated sin.

Not only did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet, but he lifted the cup of wine and boldly asserted:

“Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:17-20, NIV). 

Because of these words of Jesus, the church everywhere throughout the world, for two millennia, have practiced this communion, this supper so that we might have the redemptive events of Jesus pressed firmly into both our minds and our hearts by means of the visceral and common elements of bread and wine.  We are to not just know about Jesus, but are to experience being united with him.

Having washed the disciples’ feet, and proclaimed to them the meaning of his impending death, Jesus gave them a clear commandment:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV)

Love one another, insisted Jesus, by imitating his humble service.  We represent Christ on this earth when we carefully, diligently, and persistently practice love.  Although love was by no means a new concept for the disciples, in the form and teaching of Jesus love was shown with four distinctions:

  1. Jesus is the new model of love
  2. A new motive of love, that Christ first loved me
  3. A new motivator to help us love, the Holy Spirit
  4. A new mission, the evangelization of the world using the power of Christ’s love to accomplish it

So, you see, Maundy Thursday is a highly significant day on the Church Calendar – one which deserves to be observed, and an opportunity to remember the important words and actions of Jesus on our behalf.  Through Jesus Christ we are to live always in love, modeling our life and church ministry after him.

In Christ we are to allow love to characterize our life together as we proclaim God’s love in words and deeds.  A watching world will only take notice and desire to be a part of our fellowship if we are deeply and profoundly centered in the love of God in Christ.  This is the reality that Maundy Thursday brings to us.

“Holy, Holy Week, Batman!”

batman and robin

“Robin, there is something seriously sinister afoot.  It seems the people of Gotham have lost their sense of the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.”

“Holy Holy Week, Batman!  It must be the work of that arch-villain the Joker who has turned the narrative of Jesus into a by-gone joke… or maybe the Riddler who has made the redemptive events of Jesus into a complicated riddle that no one can solve… or maybe that fiend, Cat Woman, has finally found the purr-fect way to foil attention to the Lord Jesus.”

“I fear, Boy Wonder, that you have stumbled upon who is behind the loss of Holy Week… they are all conspiring together not just to create a spin on the life and death of Jesus, but to form a new narrative that doesn’t even include Christ at all.”

“Those dastardly demons of disaster!  Let’s go get them, Batman!  How could they have done such an ugly underhanded umbrage as that!?”

“Let’s use the Bat computer to analyze the evidence found at the crime scene churches…. Look, Robin, it seems a feculent film of gross gas has rendered the believers prone to the noxious notion that the Christian observance of Holy Week is optional, as if the journey with Jesus to the cross doesn’t need special attention.  They are attempting to rewrite it all so that Christians will pass through this week without even a thought about Jesus… until it’s too late.  Then they will sweep in and make all of Christianity into something that’s merely an accessory to life, like a petty plastic purse.”

“Holy evisceration, Batman!  They’re trying to do away with the Christian life and the story of Jesus altogether and replace it with their fiendish focus on the foul festering faith of fecund followers!”

“That’s right, Robin.  It’s our job to stop them from following through with their platitudinous plot before it’s too late.”

“But how, Batman?  Their vile villainy has already voiced a vacuous votum of veneered viciousness to any observance of the last week of Christ’s life on this earth.”

“Yes, Robin, but you are forgetting the one “v” word which has already spelled doom for our culprits of crime… “victory.”

“Holy resurrection, Batman!  You’re right!  All we need to do is voice the victory of Jesus and those bungling bandits of belief will get another “v” word: “vanquished!”

“Holy Week and all the major Christian seasons of the Church Year are meant to help us remember Jesus and follow Christ in our daily life.  When strayed souls begin berating believers for observing obedience to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy (or Black) Saturday, and Easter Sunday then you can bet, Boy Wonder, that the gangsters’ gross gas of gullibility has fumigated their faith.”

“So, you’re saying, Batman, that the forgetting of faith festivals can be reversed through setting our sites on the contempt of the cross and the resplendence of the resurrection?”

“The cross is the mid-point of history, Robin, the very center of faithful followers.  From it flows the flowering of all faith.”

“Holy forgiveness, Batman.  I see it now.  The sin issue has been taken care of once-for-all through the death of Jesus Christ.  And his rising again has enabled us ignorant idiots of ignominy to live a new life of love through the words and ways of Christ.”

“And, don’t forget, Boy Wonder, that we get our faith focused through walking into those ways and words by highlighting holidays as eminently important to our crowded calendars.”

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth; and, Jesus Christ his only Son, our Savior; who, with the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever and ever!”

“Amen, Boy Wonder.  Amen.”

The Church Playground

gra110715_hi

At first glance, when you drive by any school at recess the whole thing looks like a bunch of random kids descending into chaos bordered by a fence to keep it all from spilling out into the streets.  But there’s much more going on than the quick peek tells you.  There are all kinds of petty little groups that make up the playground.  It kind of reminds me of church.

The Presbyterians head outside into recess and can’t believe the lack of order going on.  They try their darnedest to get some organized games happening, but the Baptists aren’t having it.  They’re too far separated from all the other kids to care about playing with any of them.  Besides, nobody is playing by the rules and if there’s one thing Baptists can’t stand is a lack of legalism.  The Pentecostals all seem completely oblivious to anything that’s going on.  They’re just having too much fun going as fast as they can on the merry-go-round to see that the Catholics are totally aghast at their lack of guilt feelings over hogging the equipment.

The little group of Episcopalians are lost in some funky inferiority complex and retreat into their liturgical games while the popular kids, the Non-denominational group, break out singing Chris Tomlin songs so loud that the Methodists go scrambling for their Book of Discipline to see what to do about it.  The Lutheran kids are so busy fighting each other about who is the true Lutheran that they can’t hear the non-denom kids anyway.  And the Reformed are those annoying kids who keep acting like the teacher instead of just enjoying being a kid on the playground.

There are two things about the church playground: the groups of kids don’t play very well together; and, the entire playground thinks it’s the only one in town.  They don’t realize there are other playgrounds with all kinds of other kids.

We live in a big world.  How we interact with that world is going to determine if the school gets shut down, with no more playground.  After all, what parent wants to send their kid to the school where nobody gets along with each other?

What’s more, how we interact with each other on the playground of Christianity says a lot about our view of God.  For far too many groups, God is the high and lofty Principal who’s only seen when something goes wrong, not realizing that he is really the encouraging teacher who’s daily in the classroom offering kind words and self-sacrifice that changes your life forever.

Instead of lamenting that Christendom has vanished from its grand position in society and that the moral fabric of our country is down the toilet along with the janitor’s cigarette butt, maybe we should stop giving the other kid a swirlie long enough to see that our bullying and belligerent ways are anything but the words and ways of Jesus to a world who needs spiritual care, not spiritual abuse.

I’d suggest we use our detention time to think about what we’ve done.

Logical Church Fallacies

logical church fallacies

It’s that time of year again.  Winter is nearing its end, the hope of Spring is just around the corner, and the logical church fallacies come out to play.

I learned a long time ago that reason and logic often get thrown under the bus when it comes to church folk and their thinking.  We all have this nasty tendency to make decisions far less on measured logic and a whole lot more from our stubbornness.  Churches typically aren’t known as places of being into dialogue and change, and sometimes they’ll do some mighty tall mental gymnastics to keep things the way they are.

Identifying some erroneous thinking is kind of like my annual Spring cleaning.  So here we go with some of my favorites I’ve heard in the past year….

The Strawman

The reason this logical fallacy is called “The Strawman” is because there are folks who chronically tend to misrepresent, exaggerate, oversimplify, or just downright fabricate another’s viewpoint.  They set up a scarecrow to keep the status quo and oppose alternative views.  If you’ve ever heard some parishioner say something like “the pastor hates the organ; he always has praise songs in the worship service” or “the Sunday School Superintendent is trying to turn us into stark-raving Pentecostals since she doesn’t use the denominational curriculum,” then you’ve got a Strawman running amok in the pews.

The Bandwagon

You likely know this one all too well.  Church folk seem particularly fond of the Bandwagon fallacy.  It’s an appeal to a perceived popularity that is designed to shut down any sort of substantive dialogue.  “Everyone hated that sermon.  Nobody liked what the preacher said,” is meant to tame that crazy firebrand from proclaiming the Word of God as he/she sees it.  If we were at our better moments, we would engage in conversation around the points offered.  Instead, the Bandwagon Committee is formed to make sure ears are properly tickled and fancied.

Tu quoque

This is a Latin term which literally means “and you also.”  This fallacy is so ubiquitous and done with such frequency that we might take it for granted.  It’s the old time-honored saw of an appeal to hypocrisy.  The tu quoque is meant to discredit the opposing argument by not even acknowledging it.  Perhaps you have seen this one splattered in social media and around the narthex after a church service: “Don’t even talk to me about how guns kill people and how the government isn’t doing anything about it when we have legalized abortion and babies are killed every day.”  Whatever you think about abortion (I happen to oppose it) is not the issue.  If guns and gun control is the issue being discussed, then that is the issue to be dealt with.  Bringing up another issue gets us nowhere.

Ad hominem

Since we’re on the Latin terms, let’s keep it going with a fallacy which isn’t going away any time soon.  “Ad hominem” means “to the person.”  Rather than attacking the argument and engaging the issue, this fallacy just attacks the person.  This is especially rife when it comes to anything to do with LGBTQ issues.  Individual rights, justice, and treating persons with civility and respect don’t get discussed.  Instead, the person using the ad hominem just paints all same-sex oriented persons as having illicit and/or immoral thoughts and behaviors, thereby shutting down any sort of helpful discussion about the proper treatment of a group of people.

Appeal to authority

I’ve got to admit, this one really irritates me.  If I hear one more person characterize myself or a group of other Christians as people who “don’t hold to the authority of Scripture” I think I’ll scream… then scream some more.  The problem here is a blanket statement.  No actual biblical arguments are offered, just the appeal to biblical authority.  If an issue is exegetically and hermeneutically possible, then it ought to be allowed a hearing in the arena of ideas.  Not even engaging an idea or entertaining an argument based on generic appeals to biblical authority have no teeth.  It’s fallacious, not to mention offensive.

No True Scotsman

I just like the way this one sounds.  “No true Scotsman” is a way of reinterpreting evidence to prevent any kind of rebuttal or further debate.  In other words, it’s changing the rules.  Recently, when I was discussing with a local church elder about that church’s denominational ruling on an issue, he simply said to me, “Well, that’s the denomination’s view and not the Bible’s view.”  It was meant to shut down any discussion and not consider an issue he didn’t like very well.  But even though he didn’t like it, he’s a part of a group of people who decided together to hold to some common policies and procedures.  The proper approach would be to engage the issue and work through proper channels to see his view through.  But he wasn’t willing to do that.

Another example (I had a lot of these in the past year) is the congregant who was convinced the world was going to end.  When the blood moon thing didn’t align like he thought it would a few years back, he just reinterpreted things to accommodate more apocalyptic stuff into his homebrewed theology.

False Dichotomy

A better term for this is probably the “black or white” fallacy.  This sets up an issue as being an either/or instead of a both/and.  It has the design to shepherd people into a certain position without considering any alternatives.  I recently heard a guy make the following statement in a church attempting a discussion about war: “Either you support our military and our country, or you don’t.”  This was a black or white implication.  For him, to oppose war is to oppose our flag and our men and women in uniform.  But there are a whole range of conversations to be had around the issue.  To boil them down in such stark black and white terms is a false dichotomy.

I could keep going.  It was a busy year for me dealing with so many logical fallacies.  But more to the point: You and I need to be mentally vigilant as to the kinds of things we think, and the notions we listen to from other people.  Sometimes we simply don’t stop and think through what we’re saying, or what we’re listening to.  My hope is that we will slow down, think through issues with some sound reason, consider all angles, the consequences of our thoughts, and take the posture of a learner and a grower.