Easter Saturday

Easter Saturday, a little more than two thousands years ago, the first followers of Jesus hit the wall. His execution was complete; the corpse secure in a tomb and the courageous teacher was gone. He, who had done no harm, who’d loved so intimately, lived so passionately, challenged everything so profoundly and, like none before or since, practiced what he preached, was finished. Kaput. There’s little doubt that depression and dejection hung heavily in the air for his followers. They had traded all they’d had and known, to be abandoned by one who could walk on water, still storms, raise the dead but not avoid his own death on a criminal’s cross.

Then, somewhere between midnight tonight (two thousand years ago) and early the following morning, Christians believe that Jesus, if you’ll excuse the cumbersome phase, stopped being dead. He cast death aside, walked from the tomb, embraced life in an eat-fish-and-walk-through-walls body. Believe it or not, you’ve got to give it to them, Christians that is; a rebound of this nature from anyone, let alone their beloved leader, would stimulate celebration.

This pivotal weekend, Easter weekend, rekindles so much for Christians: grief, loss and grief, then exuberance. Believers, of every background and representing every cultural extreme and every ethnic diversity in every country on earth will flock to church to worship their risen Lord and proclaim death defeated. On Sunday morning they will greet each other with, “The Lord is Risen,” to hear in response, “He is Risen indeed.” What they are really saying is, “On Friday I was horrified at what was done to my Lord. Yesterday I grieved his loss. Today he’s alive and there’s hope for us all, so let’s have a party.”

Great things can be learned from Easter: deep reflection, acknowledgment of grief, fresh beginnings, unreasonable generosity and partying with abandon. Let’s all do it, Christian or not. Let’s grieve deceased family members, relationships strained or severed, our possible role in the atrocities of greed, prejudice and plundering committed across the globe. Let’s acknowledge opportunities missed and misused and deliberate to see the impact we have on others. Let’s evaluate where and how we are a part of the world’s problem rather than the solution.

The uncanny thing about Jesus is that even if you don’t, as Christians do, believe he was the Son of God, doing the things he said is still good for people. Making a fresh start with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, like a brother, sister, and an in-law who gets your goat or an estranged business partner is good for the soul, rejuvenates communities. Reconnecting with people, offering grace, space to others, letting forgiveness emerge for your harshest foes, your bitterest enemies is a movement in the opposite spirit of what is expected. It disarms explosive, stressed or polarized relationships and empties our tombs of unbelief.

Call your debtors and say something like, “I’m canceling your debt. I cannot afford to have you owe me anything.” They might not deserve your generosity but Easter is not a do-or-do-not-deserve-it time. It never was, never will be. Besides, who among us can want what they deserve without experiencing feelings of fear and trembling? It’s about getting what you do not deserve. It’s about not getting what you do. It’s about grace, about being unreasonably forgiving, wildly extravagant with kindness.

Finally, celebrate your humanity. Dance with delight at the human capacity to reflect, repent and be revived. I’ll peek into my tomb today and do what it takes to clear it of resentments, self-pity, unrighteous anger and all else that keeps me from dancing. I trust you will peek into yours, find it wonderfully empty and join me in a rich and loud celebration.

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Helping People is Messy Business

While embroiled in the season of Lent I want to remind you that helping people, being charitable, is messy business. They always want more. You want to keep things personably distant, under control, and people with needs want to be uncomfortably near. If churches, synagogues and service organizations, helped people like Jesus did, we’d do much more than only give money, clothes we no longer use, and pack canned food off to people we’ll never meet. Rather, like a few rare churches I have known, we’d give everything. We’d get dirty, roll up our sleeves, freely share our lives and live with troubled people.

Most religious and service organizations, in my experience, remind me of a fat, indulgent man watching football on TV. He bandies a remote, controlling everything. He yells orders at players he doesn’t know, he consumes constantly, and, and, this is most important, he NEVER himself plays football.

How do I know? I know because I did it. I thought my money (actually, my church’s money) bought me the power to dictate how the people lived their lives. Since I was the pastor/missionary, I thought I was to be obeyed, honored, respected – after all, not only was I the great White Hope but also I had God on my side. Although at the time I could not have seen it, I thought I deserved adulation, obedience and more. “Those people” needed me. Clearly their ideas did not work. They were short on manners. Slow. Uncreative. They were desperately in need of my superior ways. Besides, here I was sacrificing everything (well not exactly everything) in order to help them be more like me.

I met Temba (which means “hope”) when he was nine and looked like he needed my help. He lived in a squatter camp, an “informal settlement” of cardboard and mud houses without running water, toilets or electricity. People used what they scrounged, borrowed or stole – plastic trash bags, iron sheeting and wood merged with ancient skills using mud and stones, to build their homes. It was in such a settlement I met Temba.

He stood out from the other children and was very bright, and, although he was often moody and aggressive, there was something about him that I immediately liked. Since he was suitably grateful for my help, and always pleased to see my car arriving at the squatter camp, and came running to see what I’d brought on this occasion to ease his burden, our relationship blossomed.

And then one afternoon Temba arrived at my home in the middle of a very decent white suburb, wanting to come in. This is what I mean by “always wanting more.” He’d run away from his home and was determined and creative enough to find mine. And his being at my front door – banging loudly enough to get the attention of neighbors – was embarrassing and unsettling for me. Here was this black child, at a time when South Africa was yet under apartheid, banging on my front door! Did he not know that I came to him? Did he not know how these things worked? I called the shots. Had he forgotten that weekly I got into my car and, leaving my home (anonymous to all whom I helped) came to him and did my good deeds? Now here was this boy coming to me, breaking the rules I’d set up of how we at our church, helped people.

Temba taught me a lot and, since I was seldom a willing student, learning was not without pain. He showed me that if Jesus modeled His approach to ministry from churches (rather than the other way around) he would have commuted to Earth, perhaps He’d have docked on our planet one day a week, sometimes even stayed over at some top-notch hotel. He’d have gotten limousine rides to meetings and bodyguards would have kept people at a safe length while he preached routine sermons to admiring masses. Thank God he emptied himself, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, lived among us and embraced the messy business of helping you and me, then commanded that we do the same.

Is that really you, God?

Rather than be present in spirit only, one Sunday, Jesus decided it was time for him to preach at First Church and so he woke Pastor Larry in the early hours of Sunday to inform him.

“Is that really you, God?” Larry questioned.

“Yes,” said Jesus, “it’s me. You have heard correctly. Shelve your sermon. I will preach today.”

The pastor tossed and turned so much so that his wife said in soothing tones, “You know how you need your rest, Honey.”

Half dazed, Larry explained that Jesus had just met him in a dream in which He requested the pulpit.

“But the PAC, the ‘Pulpit Approval Committee’,” appealed his wife, “Have they approved Jesus to preach?”

Larry shushed her backed to sleep and then wondered how Jesus would show up and deliver the sermon.

That morning, after the hymns and the general announcements Larry anticipated a miracle that would put First Church on the map forever. He imagined Christians traveling from all over the world to see the church where Jesus Himself preached. He saw himself, the keynote speaker at conferences all over the world, telling of the night he trusted his dream, of the night Jesus talked to him and of the Sunday morning Jesus showed up and took over his pulpit. Larry sat in their family pew while the confused congregation waited for the sermon. The silence was deafening, but, trusting his dream, Larry refused to enter the pulpit and preach.

“Well, this is quite the most unusual service I have attended,” said Elder Crabb as he made his way slowly down the center aisle, up the stairs and into the pulpit. “Since no one is preaching, I have something to say. Last month when my wife died,” he started, “the world seemed to end for me. But you were there, Mrs. Jones, Johnny, Sid, Pastor Larry; and I wanted to thank all of you,” he said, making eye contact with each of the persons he’d mentioned. “Thank you for your constant love, the food, cards and gifts. Thanks also, all of you, for being at the funeral.” He sat down as quiet sobbing spread throughout the congregation.

“Well since we’re thanking others,” said Miss Betty tottering to the front of the sanctuary, “I wanted to say how much I appreciate the yard work done at my home by the youth group. I can no longer get myself out to do it. Oh, and, I would also like to apologize for the way in which I have resisted the young people in the past. I struggled with your music and youth sermons and all your ruckus at church dinners, but your help with the lawn was all I needed to show me I was wrong.”

The congregation applauded. This was better than Pastor had ever anticipated and soon a line of people waited at the pulpit. Every utterance of thanks received a warm applause. Members of the congregation began to hold hands across the sanctuary and smile at each other even though the normal sermon time had run much longer than usual twenty-one minutes. No one, not a single person seemed to be clock-watching.

To everyone’s surprise a young child found his way into the pulpit, and, as if he had done it many times before, he moved Larry’s pulpit chair into position and stood tall upon it.

“I do not really have anything to say,” he said with confidence, “I just have a few questions.”

The pastor and congregation moved expectantly in their seats toward him, every person willing to address the theological quandaries of the young.

“How come some of you are rich and yet you do not give to those you know are in need?” People coughed nervously. “Why do you spend so much money on yourselves? There are poor people in every direction that could use your help? Why are some of you fighting amongst yourselves? What are you doing about AIDS, injustice, racism and world hunger?”

“This was going so well,” reflected Larry peering down at his shoes, “and then a child goes and ruins it by asking political questions.”

“I am not done preaching yet,” said the Lord to Larry.

“Oh Lord,” said Larry, “I am sorry.”

“No, no,” said the Lord to Larry, “It’s me. This is the sermon. I am preaching, Larry. You have all done quite well at caring for each other. Now get busy, rid the world of injustice and prejudice. And by the way, keeping loving each other while your are at it.”

Jesus goes to First Church

When Jesus sat between the Grumleys, in the fifteenth row of First Church on Sunday morning, for some reason, in all of his infinite wisdom, he did not realize the stir that would arise. This began an unfortunate snowball, or wave effect throughout the congregation. At least twelve families were displaced, each by one seat. As people begrudgingly moved, they tried to communicate a welcome to the stranger (so he would be sure to return) laced with enough censure to make sure he would be put in his place (or at least not in theirs) the next time he visited. This uncharacteristic reshuffling moved almost everyone in the congregation for the first time in years, skewing everyone’s view. The disruption extended the announcements sufficiently to annoy the choir who were waiting, fully robed, at the entrance to the sanctuary, hymnbooks in hand.

“I suppose of all people, I should have known better,” mused Jesus, all the while seeing the humor in Mr. Grumley’s polite, yet uncomfortable response after Jesus whispered his name to Grumley during the Passing of the Peace.

Grumley moved from side to side, a tad in excitement with the growing implications at this revelation. Not only did his surroundings take on a new look, he wanted to draw attention to the guest and let all the disrupted members know the inconveniences of having guests in church were worth it. Alas, Introduction of Visitors was already over and the Congregational Concerns and Needs were being announced. Besides, the choir was beginning to manifest their annoyance while standing just outside the doors. They were unaccustomed to being “out of the loop,” as it were, and word had already gotten to them, via the deacons, that a stranger had entered the building and sat in Wally Grumley’s seat. They, who were usually first on everything, would be the last to witness this unprecedented incident, even if it had ruined their traditional procession.

“Tell them I am here,” said Jesus to Grumley, “Go on, stand up and say I am here.”

“You mean interrupt Congregational Concerns and Needs?” whispered Grumley with a faint shush in his voice in an attempt to keep Jesus quiet.

I am terribly sorry, but I am afraid we just do not do that here,” he said in his solemn prayer voice.

“What if I am telling you to do so?” persisted Jesus. “After all, the pastor just said, that if two or three are gather in my name then I am in the midst of them? So, go on tell them I am here.”

Wally Grumley peered across to his wife for assistance, “You do it Joy, you always said you would obey Jesus if he said something directly to you.”

“I think he is talking to you Wally,” said Joy, her eyes fixed on the pulpit proceedings, totally unimpressed with her husband’s freedom with this stranger.

“Well actually, I am talking to you both.”

“You are interrupting my worship experience,” said Joy with an air of finality.

“I have come here to meet with God if you don’t mind.”

“I am God. I am here to be met.”

“Well, God just wouldn’t do it like this,” said Grumley’s wife through clenched teeth, “God just wouldn’t arrive here at church and….” She was lost for words.

“Do you believe I am here?” quizzed Jesus.

“Well of course I believe you are here,” replied Wally.

“Then go ahead and tell them I am here.”

Joy tilted her head a hairbreadth toward her husband and said, “Will you stop talking during the service, even if it is to Jesus! I am going to a quieter spot where I can enter the spirit of worship without interruption.”

“I will be challenging you to treat any stranger as you would treat Jesus,” said the pastor, “in my message today entitled Church Hospitality.”

Wally and Jesus looked at each other, and, after a moment, they burst into uproarious laughter, embraced like long lost friends and moved into the aisle in a celebratory dance. Wally, catching the pastor’s voice a little above the commotion caused by his newfound joy heard, “and now the choir will lead us in our opening hymn: ‘Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus’” as the deacons ushered the exuberant pair out the door.

Support Group Anonymous (“SGA”)

Marsha is divorced. When she walks through the door her divorce follows her like a bridal train. Trampled, it catches on every door keeping her from new beginnings.

“Hello, I’m Marsha,” she says looking at the group, “I don’t think you could like me very much. I cannot get over my husband of six years. If I work at it you will also abandon me.”

She turned to the person next to her indicating politely that she was done introducing herself.

“I’m Kyle, thirty going on twelve. I don’t do relationships very well. It’s my dad. He drank a lot. Don’t expect me to be responsible, reasonable or respectful. If I get over him what will I do about my identity? It’s not very nice to meet all of you. You remind me of my dad.”

“Martin here,” he says, stepping into the middle of the room, “I had teachers who expected a lot from me. They gave me homework, expected me to read for myself. Cruel teachers. They are the reason I’m an underachiever today. They’re the reason I cannot hold down a job. I think I’ll sue.”

“Annabel is my name. I hate spring. It means summer’s coming. I’ll have to go outdoors and see people. Grandma had favorites. I wasn’t one of them. She’s why I don’t go out and I don’t like the sun. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be fun.”

“When I know you a little better you can know my name,” she says skirting the room, “Ok, I’ll chance it. My name is May. My neighbors made fun of me when I was growing up. It’s their fault that I cannot stay with one man. I need constant approval. Not like June over there.”

“Thanks May, I can handle this myself. I’m June. I have got to smoke to calm my nerves (dad smoked), drink to ease my boredom (mom drank) and cuss to get my way (my husband taught me to cuss). It’s the government. They do not treat me very well. Expecting me to work is the most unfair thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Move over June. I am Bob. I have got something to say. I’d be thin if it wasn’t for all those commercials for food all around America. I think I’ve got a case here. My health’s in trouble yet they keep advertising those tasty hamburgers. Anyone got a lawyer friend who wants to do pro bono?”

“I’m Anthony. What are you all doing away from your TVs? Get back in there. How will you ever know who survived, who died, who loved, who married their brother’s ex-wife the third time around. How do you expect to know anything if you keep getting away from the TV?”

“Dakota’s my name. I’ve got a very rare disease that cannot be named. But I am really tired of all this expectation placed on me. My dad just says I’m lazy, but what would he know, he’s worked all his life.”

Glen, who doesn’t talk, steps forward. Once he said something funny, people laughed so he’s never talked again in public. He’s waiting for an apology from somewhere before he moves on.

Norman doesn’t stand still. He’s high. He’s so high you do not want to get in his way. It’s the dealers who got to him. Drugs were just way too available and now he is not.

“I am Doug, I am the group leader. With introductions complete, let’s begin with our group meditation:

‘Keep me mindful of my woes
And all who stepped upon my toes
Let my life be full of blame,
So I can always stay the same.’”

The Surprising Discovery of Richard McChurch

Richard McChurch was very aware that God’s a communicating God. The still small voice or the thunderous call, and anything in between, (whichever God might choose to use at a given time) was not something to which he often laid claim. When Richard felt God had spoken to him, he was always particular about inserting the words “I believe God spoke to me.” This not only gave him room to be wrong but also the appearance of humility.

One day he had a very unsettling experience. It was as if everything he had ever believed about the way God treats humans was turned upside down.

“What do you really want, Richard?” he believed God asked when he was earnestly praying about a few major decisions.

The question was posed long and hard. It lodged somewhere deep in Richard. There were no voices, no unusual feelings or anything at all weird about the moment. This was a “matter-of-fact God” meeting him, face-to-face and there was no mistaking who it was as far as Richard was concerned.

“Go on, figure it out Richard. What do you really want?” he felt God say.

It was as if God was playfully saying, “Stop asking me what I want for you. I know what I want for you. I am God. I am not at all confused about what I want for you. What I require is that you demonstrate the courage and willingness to determine what you want for you. Do this, Richard, and we can do business.”

He became very nervous. In his silent negotiations, random and scary thoughts began darting across his mind. It was very disconcerting.

“What if I want to break up my family, hurt someone or steal something?” he questioned God.

“Is that what you really want? You want to go around hurting people? Do you really want to take what is not yours? Do you think damaging others is what you were cut out for?”

“No Lord.”

“Then what kind of game are you trying to play?” he felt God’s persistent voice welling up inside him. “I am asking you to evaluate, for yourself, how you would most like to use the talents I have given you. Take stock of the time you have left, the opportunities that come your way. You keep saying I will grant you the desires of your heart, Richard. But you know what? You wouldn’t recognize them if they jumped out at you from behind a bush. I am asking you to take the responsibility for your life. Develop a blueprint of what would inspire you. Discover and know yourself, Richard. Present me with a plan instead of continually asking me for my plan for you. Find my plan buried like treasure, in your strongest desires and longings. Grow up, in other words!”

Richard was shocked to hear God speak in this manner. He had always been taught that God had a plan for his life and for many years he had waited “in faith” for that plan to unfold. Now it sounded as if God expected him to do something!

“That’s the problem!” God interrupted his confusion; “you want to give me the responsibility for your life when I want you to be responsible for your own life. You think my will is something deep and mysterious when it is not. In fact my will for you is that you discover and do what you really want! It’s about passion Richard, passion. Just make sure it is what you really want.”

Richard thought long and hard and realized to his horror that he really did not like his career, chosen purely for the financial and status benefits. He realized that even his sports interests were built around promoting his career. He sat in stunned silence and realized that if he honestly answered the question he was in trouble.

“What I really want to do God, is so far from what I am doing with my life at present that it will take a miracle from you to turn it around,” he said in near desperation.

“No,” said God, “it will take one from you.”