Pause. Breathe. Pray.

Good Friday is a day for prayer and contemplation. Our sanctuary remains open and everyone is invited to stop by to immerse themselves in some moments of silence, rest, prayer, and reflection. It is an opportunity to literally seek sanctuary from the relentless press of schedule, emails, worries, and obligations.

            As you enter the silence, it is clear that this is a reliable place to slow down, breathe deeply, and be aware of God’s presence. Although it can be a thrill to celebrate worship in a packed church on Easter morning, there is something special about being – simply being – in the quiet, simple beauty.

            Most sanctuaries are designed to make mere mortals feel small. Although we are a simple country church and not a grand cathedral, the soaring ceiling and openness of the sanctuary remind us of the majesty and power of our Creator. We bring our hopes, fears, and fervent prayers to One who is greater – bigger – than we are. There is comfort in that.

           On Good Friday in our sanctuary, there will be “prayer stations” which invite participants to spend time in prayer. Since there are many ways to pray and encounter God, each station offers a different way to engage in reflection. Participants can choose to light candles to ask God to shine light in particularly dark circumstances. They might choose to write a confession on dissolving paper and place it in the water of the baptismal font as they remember that God washes away the sins of the world. They can reflect on events of Holy Week by reading Scripture or lift up prayers for their life’s journey by using a finger labyrinth. Each station invites us to offer prayers for ourselves and others as we remember God’s love for the world.

            Prayer and quiet offer a respite. Whether you visit the East Woodstock sanctuary, another church of your choosing, or discover God in another way altogether, it is life-giving to be reminded of who and whose we are. We can then re-enter the world with a renewed spirit and a reminder of God’s promise to be with us always. Revived by God’s love, we can share Good News of hope and new life.

We’d rather be singing

Palm Sunday is filled with music. This Sunday we can look forward to the children singing (so cute!) and our bell choir (beautifully ringing from our balcony). For the 86th time in our history, the men’s chorus will sing “The Palms.” This tradition, started by Vernon Wetherell in 1933, celebrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and is a highlight of this special day.

To top it all off, we will also be celebrating a baptism (congratulations, Mila!).  It promises to be a joyous, uplifting service.

            But. Here’s the thing about Palm Sunday. It’s tricky. Just when you think it’s safe to relax in the joy and praise – Hosanna! – It takes a turn. The service shifts. The music fades away. The lights are dimmed. The flowers and the altar cloths are removed. In the bleak silence we hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, pain, doubt, agony, temptation, and loss.

Palm Sunday invites us to enter Holy Week, the days that will – eventually – lead us to Easter.

            When the going gets tough, we’d rather be singing. Who wouldn’t prefer one more verse of “Glory, Laud, and Honor” rather than thinking about life’s hardships – betrayal, fear, tears, and suffering.

What’s wrong with Christians? Are we masochists? Gluttons for punishment?  Why do we have to consider those elements of human life that we would rather avoid? Why do we listen to the litany of suffering that Jesus endured?

We’d rather be singing.

We listen because it’s part of our Christian story. Even more than that, it is part of our human story. Every life contains twists and turns. Everyone will encounter moments of despair. Every life confronts painful loss and sadness.

Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not alone on that journey. Jesus went before us. He knows the path, he has experienced this a lifetime of heartbreak. When we lift up urgent prayers for ourselves and others, we are speaking to One who knows. Palm Sunday provides profound Good News; even when we are on an unwanted journey or our life has taken an unexpected turn, we have good company along the way.

So this Sunday, if you are filled with joy, go ahead and sing songs of praise. Lift up your voice to celebrate the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Hosanna! Celebrate old traditions and welcome new forms of worship and praise.

If, however, you are not able to muster a song and you can find no reason to be thankful, remember Palm Sunday is for you, as well. Joy and sadness are often intertwined in our complicated human lives. In the quieter moments of Palm Sunday, listen for words of comfort, courage, and hope. Wherever we are on life’s journey – filled with cheer or bent over in grief – God provides the music to guide our paths.

Easter Sunday

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed.

Alleluia!

This changes everything.

Jesus breaks through the unbreakable bond and gives hope to each one of us.

Today is about new life and new beginnings, shared quietly and personally early in the morning.

Other resurrections had been more public:

  • A little girl lay on her deathbed, mourned by her devastated parents and their entire village. When Jesus took her by the hand and she stood up, joyous shouting and loud exhalations filled the tiny room. Word traveled fast. Social media had nothing on the speed with which this good news was shared.
  • Lazarus had been buried in his tomb for days before Jesus arrived. He was greeted by the scolding criticism of Lazarus’ sister Martha. Her anger at Jesus’ slow response to their critical need radiates in her speech, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She and Mary were immersed in grieving rituals, surrounded by family and friends. Their deep sorrow turned to astonished joy when Jesus called Lazarus out of his burial cave. The entire village rejoiced.

But Easter is different.

It’s quiet, early in the morning. There are only a few women who come to mourn at the grave. The Easter  miracle is revealed in a personal way.

  • The angels question the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
  • Jesus speaks directly to one of them, “Mary.” And tells her to go to the disciples and tell them what she had seen.

The Good News of Easter didn’t take the countryside by storm. It wasn’t announced to a crowd. It was a gradual awakening to what God had done. It was passed along from one person to the next.

Easter promises hope for each one of us, individually.  We can share and celebrate it together. But we are invited to discover every day just what “new life” and “resurrection” mean in our own lives.

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed.

Alleluia!

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Holy Week – Saturday

What happened on Saturday in Holy Week?  Nothing.

Sometimes life is like that. There can be days or months when our lives seem to be at standstill and God remains silent.

Long-anticipated plans didn’t come through.

Hoped-for dreams fizzle and die.

Sometimes, there is nothing – just silence, loneliness, disappointment.

Nothing happens on Saturday.

Jesus’ followers are left with their sorrow, their questions, and their grief.

Perhaps Jesus’ enemies had noisy celebrations, thinking they had finally vanquished this bothersome prophet, but that isn’t recorded in the Gospels.

It was a day filled with sadness and emptiness, where joy and vibrant hopeful life once stood. It was a day when people might have been surprised that they still needed to do ordinary things like fetch water, prepare meals, and watch the children.  When it feels like our world has ended, it seems unfair that mundane tasks must still be completed. We want to wallow in the darkness and simply allow the emptiness to consume us.

Nothing happens on Saturday.

It must have been hard to imagine going on.

It must have been impossible to consider ever feeling joy again.

The world as they knew it – as they wanted it, as they had dreamed it – had ended.

Now one endless day after another stretched out before them like an endless parade of nothingness.

Holy Saturday is for those times in our lives when we don’t know how we will carry on.

God is in that place, but God can seem very far away – closed off from us like the heavy rock that is rolled in front of the tomb.

On Holy Saturday we simply wait and watch and  hope for a better time.

Holy Week – Friday

Who wants to think about death? Many schools and even some public buildings are closed today, but Good Friday services are never crowded. Clearly not everyone is considering this day off as an opportunity for prayer and worship.

Over the years I’ve heard many reasons for not attending Good Friday services.

  • “It’s too sad.”
  • “I already know the story.”
  • “I don’t like to think about it.”
  • “It’s kind of morbid.”
  • “It just makes me cry.”

And it’s true – Good Friday is filled with human experiences any healthy person would prefer to avoid.  There’s pain, torture, cruelty, sadness, loneliness, abandonment, doubt, and fear.

Good Friday recognizes that pain – physical, spiritual and emotional – is a part of human life.  This is universally true – every person you meet, regardless of culture, race, or economic status – has experienced pain and loss. Remembering that fact might allow us to bridge the gap between ourselves and our fellow life-journeyers. Maybe it could increase our compassion for one another.

Good Friday reminds us that sorrow is part of life.

Good Friday looks honestly at those times when evil seems to prevail.

God Friday confronts us with times when God seems absent.

As Christians, we know this is not the end of the story. We don’t have to stay in sadness. We are not required to dwell permanently on thoughts of death.

But neither should we ignore it. As tempting as it is to simply skip over the hard part of our story in our rush toward Easter morning, it is good to pause on this reflective day.

  • Perhaps we will think about someone who is sad and reach out to them
  • Maybe we will reflect on our own sadness and be willing to accept help or support
  • We can mourn a loss, knowing that our tears are precious in God’s sight
  • We can rely on God’s promise to be with us, even in the valley of death
  • We might lament or take time to consider what makes us afraid or lonely. We can lift up our prayers.

Jesus suffered. He cried out to God in his pain.

Good Friday gives us permission to pray brutally honest prayers.

Finally, Jesus entrusted himself, body and soul, to the One who created him. As he died, he said, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” After a bruising end to his life, Jesus was safe in God’s care.

That can give us, even on this sad day, hope that lives on and will never die.

Good Friday

 

Holy Week – Thursday

How many “lasts” have you experienced?

The last day of school.

The last time you saw a loved one.

The last chemo treatment.

The “last” does not have to be sad, but it is usually memorable. It is an event that remains ingrained in our hearts and minds.

Jesus came to the table, knowing this would be his final meal; it was literally his last supper. But it was meant to remembered forever.

It is touching that Jesus made this profound moment so accessible. It tells me that Jesus wanted to ensure that this particular gathering could be enjoyed by people across the globe.  He took a basic need – eating – and elevated it so participants could receive a heavenly glimpse of fellowship, love, and support. Jesus chose the simplest elements – wine and bread – and transformed them into a powerful moment of blessing.

There is a universal appeal to breaking bread – whether it’s cornbread or rice cakes, whole grain or gluten-free – together. When we eat and share together, we are offering one another sustenance that comes from God.

Blessing and breaking bread was the last communal act Jesus shared with his disciples. It was also the first way Jesus revealed himself to traveling disciples following his resurrection. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:28). Jesus entered into their despair and turned it around when he nourished their bodies and fed their spirits.

It’s easy to make this more complicated than it needs to be. We could engage in dry church-y arguments about “transubstantiation” and the real or symbolic presence of Jesus in the elements.

But that would miss the point. Jesus wanted to give himself to his followers. At its simplest, this last supper depicts Jesus sharing himself with all who came after him.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” he tells us.

We can remember and give thanks.

And then we can pass that blessing along.

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Holy Week: Wednesday

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Matthew 23: 37-38

It is such a poignant scene –  Jesus is standing on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem and weeping.  He laments people’s hard-heartedness and their unwillingness to be touched or changed by God’s love.  He has traveled the countryside sharing glimpses of God’s transforming love, yet so much of the world seems untouched and remains uncaring.

As he prepares for his crucifixion, I imagine Jesus being filled with “if only’s…”

If only

  • The people would listen
  • They would recognize the gifts God was offering
  • They would accept God’s forgiveness and then share it
  • They could view one another with God’s eyes
  • They could celebrate unity instead of division, distrust, and prejudice
  • They didn’t love power more than compassion
  • Their fear wasn’t greater than their trust

The flawed disciples show us reflections of ourselves:

  • People who jockey for position and want to be put above others
  • People who are afraid to defend what is right
  • People who, when left on their own, hesitate to speak their faith or live their convictions
  • People who are afraid of those who are “other” than themselves
  • People who are quick to judge
  • People who betray
  • People who deny
  • People who run away

Jesus is lamenting what is true about us – that we sin and fall short of the glory of God. Jesus mourns our failure to accept God’s love, healing and new life, but that will not stop his determination to continue to offer God’s gifts. He will go to death – he will go to hell and back – so these undeserving, oblivious people – people like us – can receive God’s unending love.