It’s Easter Season – now what?

We are in that time of year not marked on any calendar and not celebrated in any home – it is the Easter season. We have seven weeks, until the celebration of Pentecost (another holiday not widely observed) in which to ponder what Easter means and the lasting impact Easter has on our lives and our faith.

Celebrating Easter Sunday is a snap. We know just what to do. Sunrise service will happen, rain or shine; this year we took it on the faith that the sun was actually rising as we sang, “Christ the Lord is risen today!” Our Easter service was full and joyfully exuberant. An abundance of flowers surrounded us as we relished music from children, adults, and bells. We declared with enthusiasm that “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”

And then everyone went home.  And the Easter season began.

We’re left with the nagging reminder that Easter is not a fairy tale with a tidy ending. Everyone did not, in fact, live happily ever after.  What happened was a lot grimmer. The hero of the story – Jesus – was killed in about as brutal a fashion as anyone could imagine. There was betrayal and loss, disappointment and disillusionment, mourning and fear.

Even the resurrection doesn’t cancel out the brutality of Jesus’ death. The Apostles’ Creed insists on repeating the harsh reality – Jesus was “crucified, dead, and was buried.  Then he descended into hell.”  He was really, really dead. Hope, in that moment, disappeared.

It is not a pretty story. We have to acknowledge Good Friday’s trauma in order to celebrate Easter and the miracle of life after death.  Jesus lives again but now he is different. Now he lives with scars. He is forever changed by the violence that took his life.

Violence continues to impact lives today. Survivors are forever marked by evil; they carry the scars of sudden, disrupting loss.

To combat the terror and violence that seems to fill our world, we may crave for a superhero to rise up and defeat our enemies. I suspect the popularity of the latest Avengers movie – 1.2 billion dollars earned worldwide in three days – reflects a desire to have extraordinary powers to face overwhelming enemies.

Instead, we have Jesus. Our wounded savior has been hurt, oppressed, attacked, wrongly accused, betrayed, mocked, and unjustly treated.

Despite balloons and bunnies, flowers and songs, Easter does not allow us to ignore life’s hardships. Instead, Easter provides hope that suffering and violence do not – cannot – have the final word. Even as we acknowledge the pain that exists in our world, we declare our faith in God who is greater than any evil. Jesus lives. Love will have the final word.

We celebrate the Easter season by declaring the enduring power of love. Love wins.  

Sharing Easter Joy

Easter was wonderful! We shouted “alleluia!” and celebrated that “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!”

 Now what?  How do we make sure that Easter – with all of its hope and joy – is not just a one-day celebration? How do we share the Good News that God offers new life even amidst despair and sadness?

 We are not Bible-thumpers in East Woodstock. No one expects me to pound the pulpit and dictate what they believe or how they live their faith or even that there is only way to find and worship God. Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is known for welcoming all of God’s people by declaring “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

 So, if we aren’t telling people what they have to believe, how are we sharing the Good News? What I love about my congregation is their creativity. They have discovered many ways to share God’s hope and new life.

Some people knit prayer shawls and offer these gifts as a reminder of God’s encircling love.

 Some folks paint rocks and place them in parks or other public places or give them as gifts (thanks, Laurie!).  The painter rarely sees the reaction of the recipient, but occasionally powerful stories filter back to us about someone who discovered a message rock and rejoiced in its comfort and hope.  

 Some people write letters to the editor to encourage good stewardship of the earth or combat racism.

 There are the “behind the scenes” folks who sort clothes for the upcoming clothing sale, tidy up the sanctuary in preparation for Sunday, or tend our church garden so it presents a welcoming array of colors to everyone who stops by.

 Some people volunteer at the local community kitchen or spend hours helping out at community closet and food pantry. People send cards, deliver meals, and offer rides to the doctor.

It turns out there are endless ways to share God’s love. It does take intention. It isn’t enough to say, “I’ll just be a good person today.” That’s nice, but the world – and the people who live in it – need more than just “nice.”

I read recently that Benjamin Franklin began each day asking, “What good can I do today?” and concluded the day by wondering, “What good did I do today?” What stranger did we greet with kindness, what comfort did we offer to those in despair, how did we treat our neighbor? With our different gifts and varying interests, we can choose to offer hope and spread encouragement.

And the hope of Easter will live on.

Scarred, but living

Surrounded by death, Mary saw life. She shares the Good News, “I have seen the Lord!”

Jesus meets the fearful, tearful disciples and says, “Peace be with you.”

Easter isn’t about ignoring pain or pretending that bad things don’t happen. Easter is about staring death in the face and proclaiming – God is bigger than that.

We try to make Easter something that it isn’t. It isn’t an absence of pain. It isn’t a lack of suffering. It isn’t avoiding fear, doubt, and sadness.  Easter is more important and life-giving than that. Easter is discovering God in the midst of those terrible places.

We do not have a “Pollyanna” faith. We are not bound by a belief that tries to convince us that everything will be all right if we just believe. We are smart people. We know there is suffering across the globe and in our own backyards. Sometimes in our own lives.   Easter does not ask us to ignore that. Easter releases us from the bad theology that states that a strong faith means an absence of misfortune.

The violence and despair of Holy Week left Thomas filled with anguish. After suffering abandonment and disillusionment, he states exactly what it will take for him to believe again, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas wasn’t ready to trust a simple faith with easy answers. His life was more complicated than that – and so is ours.

Why would we believe in a faith that lacks suffering and death? Why would we want to turn off our brains and pretend that life is always easy, fair or carefree?

Easter offers vital glimpses of God meeting humans in the midst of turmoil:

  • The first witnesses saw Jesus in the graveyard.
  • Jesus enters the locked room where the disciples are cowering and crippled by their fear.
  • Jesus walked with terrified disciples fleeing Jerusalem

Jesus is exactly where people need him most. In the middle of their pain – that’s where Jesus enters. Jesus is scarred. He has suffered.  But he lives.  And therefore, so can we.

Think about events that have scarred or altered your life. Easter recognizes the impact of those occurrences. Easter reassures us that with the help of Christ, we can go on from here.

The benediction at our Good Friday service announced, “This is not the end of our story. But now we must wait and watch for what God will do next.”  Easter tells us to be on the lookout for where God will act.  It may be unexpected. God may look different than we imagine. But the promise of Easter is that God will be there. And that gives us the ability to carry on.

Easter season

 

 

What does resurrection look like?

In less than three weeks Christians will celebrate Easter, the day that defines the heart of the Good News of hope and new life.  But what does resurrection mean?  And how would we recognize it today?

Early on Easter morning, people across the globe will gather on hilltops, by lakes, ponds, and ocean, and in graveyards and look East to catch the first glimpse of the rising sun.  We will remember that “Early in the morning on that first day, before the sun had risen, the women went to the tomb.”  Those lonely witnesses went to mourn their loss and stand in the solidarity of their grief following Jesus’ death.

However – the story tells us –  Good News interrupted them.  The tomb was empty.  Jesus was no longer dead, but alive!  The long night of sorrow and loss was over. The dawning light invited them to experience hope.

On Easter morning, we will celebrate that long-ago event. But because we believe that God is still speaking, we will also wonder – what is this God of new life doing right now? Where do we experience Easter hope today?

I celebrate glimpses of resurrection in these lives:

  • The woman who is weeks away from retirement after a satisfying nursing career. Leaving the familiar routine behind is both frightening and exhilarating. The future holds yet unknown possibilities. Resurrection includes exploration and discovery.
  • The special education teacher who was brutally attacked by her young adult student. Instead of living with the fear she experiences whenever she re-enters the school, she is leaving her much-loved profession and venturing into self-employment. There is cautious optimism amidst the sorrow. Easter recognizes loss while affirming new life.
  • The grieving widower who can barely get out of bed in the morning. His sorrow feels like a weighted blanket that surrounds him with unrelenting pain. Yet I witness the tender love of his family and friends who gently remind him he is not alone and I hold out hope for him to find his way forward. Jesus’ wounds were visible on Easter. He was forever marked by pain, yet still filled with the renewing Spirit.
  • The man diagnosed with a terminal illness. Knowing there is no cure, he is determined to live each remaining day to its fullest. He has re-ordered his life so it is filled with family and friends, as well as opportunities to volunteer and make a difference while he can. Easter turns all of us into witnesses of resurrection.

“The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it,” we proclaim on Easter. We stare death, loss, and grief in the face and declare that God is present in those painful places. When the world cowers in paralyzed fear, we venture into sadness with those brave women, searching for signs of new life and prepared to be eyewitnesses of God’s miracles.

Resurrection happens every day.  What will it look like for you?

 

Flower growing through concrete

 

Searching for resurrection

Now that Easter is over, where should we look for resurrection?

On Easter Sunday, new life was everywhere – it was so easy to see.  Our 6: 30 a.m. sunrise service was cloudy and we didn’t actually see the sun rise, but there was a hearty group of people gathered to sing in the new day. It was a good celebration.

Later on that morning, our sanctuary was filled to overflowing as people squeezed into the pews and lined the back wall. The purple drape on the Cross was replaced with fresh flowers. Easter lilies crowded the window sills. The pulpit was surrounded by tulips and daffodils. Our plain, simple, somewhat stark Congregational meeting house was suddenly blooming with color. And then there was that wonderful moment when hundreds of people lifted up their voices to sing, “Christ the Lord is risen today!”  Our shouts of “alleluia!” bounced off the walls.  There was no doubt – even a newcomer or a stranger walking in off the street would have known – this was a day of celebration.

But what about now?  The crowds went home. A freak storm erased every sign of spring as the daffodils and crocuses were buried under wet, heavy snow. My phone started ringing early on the Sunday after Easter. “Is church cancelled today? Should we try to come in through all this snow?”

Just a week after Easter, signs of resurrection were hard to come by. Worship attendance was sparse on that Sunday after Easter. The leftover flowers looked a little worse for wear. The volume of the hymns – still songs of resurrection during this Easter season – were notably quieter.

Sometimes it’s easy to see Easter.

Sometimes – not so much.

Sometimes there are visible, obvious signs of new life.

Sometimes we have to really search to find some Good News to celebrate.

Where do you see signs of resurrection these days?  How do you discover the hope of Easter?

The disciples had the same challenge 2000 years ago.

Mary stared the risen Christ in the face and still didn’t see the hope standing in front of her. Resurrection was unrecognizable in the middle of death, surrounded by grave sites, and steeped in silence.

It’s so easy to believe in failure. We can be overwhelmed by death and desolation, violence and defeat.

Resurrection, though, is trickier.  It’s often subtle; we have to search it out.  It was wise Mr. Rogers who famously said, “Whenever there is a tragedy, look for the helpers.” That is where we will see God. After the bomb blast, in the midst of a storm, during a crisis – look for those who are rushing in to help.  That’s resurrection. There is hope even in the midst of despair.

The Good News was announced at the tomb, “He is not here, he is risen.” The women ran to tell the others.  And that is how rebirth and new life is shared.

Where will we recognize God at work?  And how will we spread that Good News?

Daffodil in snow2

A Tale of Two Trees

A Tale of Two Trees

We want life to make sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. Let me tell you a tale of two trees.

There was a tree growing by the side of the bucolic Merritt Parkway in CT. The trunk suddenly cracked, causing the tree to fall across the road, crushing a car and killing the parents of two young children who were sitting in the back seat. In an instant, lives were ended and a family was destroyed.

There was a tree by a lake. My sister-in-law and her best friend sat in the lovely shade, enjoying the breeze, looking out at the water, and sharing conversation. They got up and went inside the house. Fifteen minutes later an enormous limb plummeted to the ground, destroying the now unoccupied chairs. Had they still been there, they certainly would have been killed.

Why do things like that happen?  Why was there one tragedy and one miraculous escape? It is very human to yearn for some reasonable explanation. The guardians of the suddenly orphaned boys sued the state of CT, declaring that the transportation department should have anticipated the tragedy and protected the travelers on that beautiful tree-lined highway.

That’s what we crave – some sort of guarantee that someone will be watching out for us and always keeping us safe. We want this formula to work – if we do everything just right, follow the rules, and mind our own business, our lives will follow a neat, predictable path.

The problem is – life isn’t that neat and tidy. Bad things happen in our imperfect world, often without any good reason. As much as I love my sister-in-law, I don’t believe she is a better person or somehow more deserving than the parents of these young children.  Sometimes people are in the wrong place at the wrong time through no fault of their own.  Just ask families mourning in Belgium, Afghanistan or India.

Sometimes people cause bad things to happen. Sometimes bad things just happen.   God does not guarantee a safe passage through life. Instead, God promises presence – the assurance that in green pastures as well as in dark valleys, God will offer strength, guidance, and compassion.

Life can be frightening. We can make it better by reminding people we don’t have to go through it alone.

Two trees 3

 

 

 

More than a living corpse

“Whatever you do,” my wise New Testament professor lectured many years ago, “Don’t describe Easter as the resuscitation of a corpse.”  It was a startling statement.  We are, after all, talking about the fact that Jesus was dead and then alive again.

Easter is about that – and so much more.

If Easter was simply the annual celebration of a 2000 year old historical event it wouldn’t be very much. Who wants Easter to become of weary recounting of a long-ago occurrence?

Easter is not so much “ancient history” as it is “current events.” Easter is not only about what God did in the past, but about what God is doing right now.

  • When someone encounters hope in the midst of despair, that’s Easter.
  • When someone discerns some comfort even while dwelling in the shadow of death, that’s Easter.

Every time we encounter the absolute edge of our abilities and realize that we don’t have the strength to go on alone, we can pray Jesus’ prayer – not my will, but thine be done. Finding God in that place?  That’s Easter.

Easter happens when

  • We’ve come to “the end” – the end of a job, a relationship, our finances, our health – and then discover God is in that frightening, overwhelming place.
  • We have experienced loss or betrayal. When our spirits are as bleak as the night, when our phones are as silent as the grave, when it seems that all of our friends are sleeping or have disappeared. That’s when we should start looking for the promised light in the darkness.

Easter can be the over-the-top joy of trumpets and the Hallelujah chorus. The experience of hope and new life can fill our hearts until they are bursting with love.

Easter can also be a quiet encounter in a place of death and despair where we hear a whispered voice saying, “I know you. And I care.” Easter can be the pure, simple grace of discovering we are loved.

Amazingly, the Bible describes this life-changing, history-altering moment as a quiet one. The angels share this Good News with the women at the tomb. Just like when Jesus was born, these heavenly messengers are there to reassure, “Do not be afraid.” Just because nothing is as you imagined, simply because you are experiencing something you never dreamed possible – that is not a reason to be afraid.  There is joy to be shared. He is not dead, but alive.

The news gets passed along, one person at a time. Mary tells Peter.  Peter tells John. Jesus speaks a single word to Mary and her life is filled with hope.

When Jesus saw Mary by the tomb, there wasn’t an explosion of exuberant celebration – no parades of balloons and flowers. Jesus simply spoke her name, “Mary.” In that moment, God was saying, “I know where you are and what you are experiencing. I am with you.”  That’s Easter.