The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

I like Hallmark movies because they always end well, but that’s Hallmark, not life. As much as I would like Christmas to be neat and no needles on the floor, it isn’t reality. There have been Christmases in my family where gifts were thrown out with the wrapping paper. A bummer! There have been toys that didn’t work right out of the box, and macaroni that was too soupy and turkey overcooked and dry. There have been too many deaths.

One family member’s funeral was on the day after Christmas. The death was sudden and shocking in many respects. The death occurred at a paramour’s house. The spouse was greatly disturbed by this and made sure that our kindhearted United Methodist minister was upstaged by a fire and brimstone preacher of a denomination that focused more on guilt than grace. Every other funeral in our family was pretty generic. But, since the spouse had the unkindly preacher dwell on adultery in his comments, for the first time in many funerals, we knew exactly who was in the casket.

It was the truth, but it didn’t need to be said. Payback makes for interesting actions. In the case I’m remembering from Christmas long ago, said spouse was finally “laid to rest” beside the wandering partner. The son of the wanderer made sure that the so-called “rest” didn’t last long, had the person uprooted and the person’s name excised from the granite marker, and his own name inscribed instead. Now, that’s payback.

That was a tough Christmas. We have all had them, and we all need more grace than guilt. Who has the moral high ground to denigrate someone else to the nether regions? Except for the grace of God, there go I. Every time I point my finger at someone else, the majority are pointing back at me. Can’t we cut everybody some slack – especially at Christmas? Nobody ever knows the whole story anyway.

The wonder and mystery of Christmas is that God knows the dirt on everyone, and still chooses to become one of us, live our lives, die our deaths, and rise so that we might rise, too. Sometimes in our fictionalized versions of Christ we make Jesus so majestic and powerful that He can’t identify with us in our weakness. This is much like Aslan the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Hear Aslan roar, but Aslan does die unjustly and the sacrificial stone is cracked, and he is finally resurrected. Aslan is still on the move today if we will notice the underdogs more than we do the magnificent.

Many have heard the story of Barrington Bunny. Perhaps you’ve heard it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Sunday. I almost want to say that I’m sorry that you did because the telling of it can become a preacher’s ploy to play to the “Chreasters,” you know, the Christmas and Easter folks who only come to church twice a year. That is so unfair and such a guilt trip. Thank God for the people who come on the high and holy days. At least they come then. Some of the best people I know are the unsung people who can only muster the time, good health, or energy to get here on Christmas and Easter. You are welcome to come whenever you can. I’d rather assume that you have good reasons, not bad ones, for your choices.

Nevertheless, you can find solace from the story of another underdog who gets the connection between Christmas and Easter and reminds us of Jesus. When most of us want Hallmark and perfect gifts and perfect lives, God dares to say to everyone, “It’s alright if the gifts don’t fit, aren’t age appropriate, or the food is a disaster.” Barrington Bunny is your hero, or, at least one of them.

Barrington is the only bunny in the forest and enjoys hopping about in the snow, perennially looking back to see his hippity-hop designs. He’s furry and warm, but he’s feeling all alone at Christmas, and doesn’t feel gifted or special at all. He hears squirrels chattering up in a tree and asks what they’re doing. They are having a Christmas Party. He wants to join them but can’t since Barrington can hop, not climb. He hears the sounds of joy coming from a beaver’s home as their family celebrates Christmas. Barrington invites himself to the frivolity but isn’t able to swim to get inside.

He is so sad. No parties, no family, just hippity-hop, hippity hop, and then he gets a visit from a great silver wolf. The wolf offers Barrington encouragement and tells him that all of the animals in the forest are his family, and that Barrington does have gifts to share. Then the wolf disappears, and Barrington decides to give gifts to his forest family. He puts a stick and note at the beaver’s saying, “A gift from a member of your family.” He scratches through the snow to find leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and again attaches a note, “A gift from a member of your family.” The wolf’s encouragement gives newfound purpose and family to Barrington.

However, a blizzard is brewing. Snow piles up and Barrington barely hears above the howling wind the small sound of a baby field mouse. The mouse is lost and freezing, but Barrington tells him that his fur is nice and warm and that he will cover the mouse and provide shelter. Barrington has two thoughts, “It’s good to be a bunny who is furry and warm. It’s also good that all the animals in the forest are my family.” The next morning the baby mouse’s family finds him alive and warm under the sadly dead body of Barrington Bunny.

On a cold winter night in Judea we were all given a gift that tells each of us that we’re a part of the same human family. God’s love is as sacrificial as Barrington’s. His gift to us cost Jesus his life when he grew up. May we love others as much and always be charitable. We all need it even if we don’t deserve it. Only God knows the whole story that connects you and me to both Christmas and Easter. What is your gift and who is your family?

barrington-picture

A Fisherman’s Tale

Easter came so early this year that I feel like I missed it. We had a huge number of people in church. The music was grand. Everything went well, and immediately after the last service I changed into my camping duds, left my suit at church, and took off for the mountains to enjoy 3 days of respite and relaxation. I wanted to catch another trophy. Last May 29 at 12:15 in the afternoon using a Mossy Creek “Rebel” Teeny Weeny Crawdad, I landed a 26 inch Rainbow Trout. Funny how the specifics of that are more easily remembered than much more important things.

This last week’s trip was the earliest I had ever been on the New River near Jefferson, NC. It showed. It was cold and there wasn’t a leaf on a tree. Heavy frost and below freezing temps made my -40 degree sleeping bag a welcome place to snuggle inside my 4-season one-man I-tent. The usual fish that I catch like Redeye, Smallmouth, and Sunfish all had lock-jaw. The trout fishing, however, was the best ever.

It wasn’t a 26-incher, but I missed catching a giant Brown trout except for forgetting to put the net in the canoe. I did catch a beautiful little trout that looked like a cross between a Rainbow and a Brown, pink spots at the top and dark ones at the bottom. Gorgeous, but the fishing went from good to bad by the last day when in 6 hours only 4 fish were caught.

You’re probably wondering why in the world this fishing and camping expedition is on my mind, and there is at least one reason: most ministers need some time off after a hectic Easter! But, the main reason this is on my mind today is that I’ve been looking at the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. The Gospel for April 10 is from John 21 where the disciples encountered the Risen Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He met them doing exactly what they were doing when he called them to join His ministry. They were fishing.

There’s something comforting about going back to the familiar after a life-changing event. Maybe the disciples were just hungry, but, for whatever reason, they went back to catching fish instead of their charge to be fishers of people. Going back to the same-old, same-old is about as disappointing as the drop in attendance from Easter to the Sunday after. It’s not called “Low Sunday” for nothing.

What’s impressive in John’s account is that when they hauled in the miraculous catch of fish, he says the fish are large and they’re exactly 153 of them! Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It makes the account sound a little fishy, but at the same time it adds precisely what the Easter narrative needs after two weeks of going back to our normal schedules. The size of the fish and the specific number add authenticity, reality, Truth.

For the fisherman in me who just got off the river – cold and wet, with precious little to show for my supposed time away, it shows that Easter lasts longer than a special day. It is Good News that comes in handy when we’re doing the ordinary, the usual, and the work-a-day stuff of life. Jesus met the disciples, and meets me, and you, too, more in the natural ebb and flow of life than He does at Empty Tombs or Mountains of Transfiguration. Those don’t mean near as much if they don’t impact where you and I spend most of our time.

Maybe what I need to do today is count fish. Rather than lamenting that Spring Break is over, I can go one better by noticing the miraculous in the mundane. Instead of daydreaming about my next excursion, I can focus on the awesomeness of now. In this strange semi-down time after Easter, it will do my soul more good to ponder the exactness of 153 fish caught and how big they were. Ours isn’t a make-believe faith built on myth and fabrication. Jesus’ resurrection is real. It gives tangible hope in our ordinary lives.

So, whether you’re facing a doctor’s news, test results, hours of rehab, spring cleaning, the spreading of new mulch, or the nuts and bolts of prepping a flower bed, then know this: there is nothing more extraordinary about ordinary life than when you know Jesus is alive! I don’t have to escape to future far-off oases, or to past good old days when the Living Lord is right here and now. If I count them, I’ll guess that there’s 153 large God-moments with my name written on them, just waiting for me to haul them in. How many “fish” have you caught today?

Trout

 

The Chaos Imperative – Blessings in Disguise

A blessing in disguise is a rare event for me, but I’ve had several this week. First we had a situation with a medicine that one of us takes. There’s never been any problem with getting it refilled, and it has been a regular medicine for years. The pharmacy, however, said it was disallowed by the insurance company. To make a very long story short, it’s been quite a saga of calling the doctor’s office, speaking to just the right nurse who could read the file, going through a committee of the pharmacy provider, getting an automated message last night that it was approved, “Yay!” and then 3 phone calls this morning to get a whopping three pills because the pharmacy has to order this med because it’s about to go generic. Whew!

You’re probably asking, “What was the blessing in disguise?” In the midst of all the events surrounding this saga, it dawned on me that a med that I’ve been taking for years seemed to be running low when I opened the bottle last night. I remembered that I had talked to my doctor about a refill several weeks ago, and his nurse called me to make sure that she had the right number for the call-in prescription line. I didn’t think anything more about it, safely assuming, I thought, that it would arrive shortly in the mail. But in the midst of dealing with the other medicine situation it dawned on me that I usually would have received the meds by mail by now so I went on-line this morning and checked to see if it was on the way. It wasn’t!

So I backtracked with the doctor’s office ad infinitum and called our mail-pharmacy number. Now things are straight on both meds and they’re on the way, plus the rest of the first pharmacy order should be here tomorrow. Breathe! The blessing in disguise is that if I hadn’t had a problem with the first medicine then I probably wouldn’t have remembered that the second one was delayed or noticed that it was running low. By the time I would have figured that out, I would have been out of that one, too!

Blessings in disguise are hard to see when you’re in the throes of anxiety. No wonder the British Navy has a whistle they blow just before they come to “battle stations” in a crisis or emergency. It’s called “The Still.” Their thinking is that if we will pause before we get freaked out then we’ll be better able to think and handle the situation in a much more productive manner. I just finished reading a book called The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack that makes the same point. They suggest that a little unstructured space or pausing can provide insights and innovation. They call it “white space.” White space allows us to recognize more clearly the blessings in disguise that we have written off as horrible intrusions. As Christians, we call this space: prayer, meditation, Sabbath, or doing our devotions. Whatever we call it, our times apart allow us to see God’s perspective on our anxious moments and recognize blessings in disguise.

My second “Aha!” moment of a blessing in disguise occurred over the weekend into yesterday. Last week was my week off. After trips to see grandkids, I was looking forward to a weekend of catching up on favorite TV shows that we had DVRed. I particularly wanted to watch the Masters. Guess what? Our TV went out. I called the cable company and the first night they said that it was an area wide issue. The next day it happened again and the person that I finally reached said it was just a service issue unique to us. Don’t you just love all the “press number” hoops you have to work through to get to a real person! Anyway the person had me reprogram our remotes, unhook the cable, re-do it, send a reset order over the line to the cable box, and on and on until 45 minutes later on Saturday afternoon they said there was no hope, and that the earliest we would get a service call was going to be on Tuesday – yesterday. Goodbye “Master’s” and “Elementary,” and “Bones,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Last Man Standing.”

The blessing in disguise was that instead of freaking out, Cindy and I were disconnected from our cyber-lives for a blessed few days and simply sat in our den and talked and read, went to bed early, and rested much better. On top of that when the repairman did come yesterday, it not only was a very simple fix, but he and I had a very helpful serendipitous conversation about faith and hope. It became a sacred moment – all because the TV went out and we went beyond a having a hassle-filled hissy to being still. The next time I get frazzled I’m going to latch onto Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” and give purposeful pausing a chance. There are blessings in disguise that I need to see. How about you?

Chaos Imperative

Taps or Reveille?

I don’t think that it ever hit me until this week how our country went from triumph to tragedy so quickly 150 years ago. On Palm Sunday 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army, effectively ending the American Civil War. Five days later, on Good Friday 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day. A horrible war with brother against brother, state against state was capped by another horror. From triumph to tragedy in just a few days.

I am looking out my study window right now and can see the graves of 26 Union soldiers who died 5 weeks before the Civil War ended. How awful to be so close to the end of the carnage and yet die. Historical accounts of the Battle of Aiken, SC on February 11, 1865 list 53 Union soldiers killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured for a total of 495 casualties for the North. On the Confederate side there were 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 captured for a total of 251 casualties. I cannot imagine the awful grief that gripped the families of these young men who died so close to the war’s end.

Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and five days later was killed on Good Friday, too. Both Jesus and Lincoln were killed, but Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois is occupied, and Jesus’ is empty. Nevertheless, I am struck to the core by the juxtaposition of life and faith. We live in a world of bad news, and yet we believe in Good News. We believe in a God who can go with us from the peak and valley of triumph to tragedy and still redeem it all for good. Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

I just met with a mother whose child is in that in-between crucible of surgery and prognosis. So many of us have been on that roller-coaster ride between the peak of “We got it all,” and the valley of “There’s something suspicious.” Right now, two very special people, Revs. Chris and Elise Barrett, are on this roller-coaster and are facing it with a brave Easter faith that doesn’t gloss over the very real sense of mortality that so many seek to deny or avoid. Chris’ lymphoma has come back with a vengeance and he and Elise are doing the very best that they can to fill a bucket list of memories.

We all know people all over the world who are experiencing Good Friday crucifixions but try to live Sunday’s Easter faith. They are inspirations. For all who live in this tension between a won war and the tragedy of after-action casualties, we need to celebrate Easter all the more. Jesus rose from the dead with scars – pierced hands, feet, and side, to remind us that the reality of pain isn’t touched up by the makeup and brush of a mortician’s hand. Jesus continues to carry the marks of what life dealt him, but he is very much alive.

Therefore, we can all get on with our bucket lists and dare life to deal us its worst blows because God is the conqueror of death. Sure, we all would rather not have the pain of Good Friday, and would rather go peak to peak from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that’s not reality. The deaths that we die are not the way God wants it for God loves us so much that he would never cause us harm. Bad things are never God’s will (James 1:17), but what God does best is that through Jesus Christ he walks the solemn path with us, and defeats every foe. This is our life as Christians: triumph to tragedy to triumph, over and over again, but through Jesus the last scene will always be one of triumph, not the sounding of “Taps,” but “Reveille.”

Passion and/or Palm Sunday?

Palm Sunday is a mixed up day for the church. We know the rest of the story too well and want to get there too quickly. We know the following Sunday is Easter and there are anticipatory smiles all around. We want a taste of that joy on Palm Sunday, too, as if to soften the gruesome events of Holy Week. We even call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” when it was anything but good for Jesus.

Our rushing the week to an early happy conclusion by celebrating Palm Sunday with such gusto is indicative of our culture’s enthrallment with happy endings. But if we don’t speak on Palm Sunday about what Jesus went through then the only opportunities left are Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae services, which are usually not well-attended. What a disservice and underestimation of the depth of Christ’s love and pain.

Our desire for a “good outcome” and selfish “me-ism” trumps an adequate appreciation of what we’re really commemorating. We jump from high point to high point and skip the horrible events of mid-week. Doing so, to me, is too much in tune with Satan’s challenge for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. That was as if the devil was saying to him, “Bypass all that suffering, Jesus. Here’s a shortcut. Show them who you are and you won’t have to die.”

Who wouldn’t want a shortcut or bypass suffering? I know that I resemble that remark! For instance, I want to know ahead of time if a movie concludes well; i.e., has a “happy ending.” Life is difficult enough. I don’t want to see a movie that’s a downer. I need a lift, and desire entertainment. Therefore, I’m not much on watching anything sad or tear-jerky. I recently watched a rerun of Nicholas Sparks’ movie, “Nights in Rodanthe,” and it was a bummer and I am cured from being a fan of the sad and sappy genre.

Is this a universal desire to skip the sad and welcome the glad? Is this why we focus on the children waving palm branches and giving Jesus the Red Carpet Treatment, rather than castigate the throng who begged for Jesus’ death later in the week? Do we prove our aversion to pain by our preference in calling the day “Palm Sunday,” rather than “Passion Sunday,” or the phrase “Holy Week” over “Passion Week?” The word “passion” derives from the Latin “passio” which means “to suffer.” No wonder we don’t use it very much, or have changed its meaning to something steamy and erotic.

Here’s the rub. Changing the name and the emphasis doesn’t change the facts. Jesus suffered. If we rush over Jesus’ sufferings and go from one little Easter (Palm Sunday) to the real Easter, then we’ve missed the point of the Incarnation. Jesus, God-In-The-Flesh, came and suffered with us, for us, to save us from trying to save ourselves through entertainment or attainment. Nothing we do to inoculate ourselves from the world or evil’s consequences will work. It’s all been attempted and failed miserably. God comes to us and allows Himself to be subjected to the worst in humanity to restore us to the best selves humanity can ever imagine.

Therefore, don’t rush from mountaintop to mountaintop this coming week without pausing in the valley of the shadow of death. It is in the valley that God does what God does best. There in the trenches where you and I struggle with personal sin, fears about health, finances, or relationships is where we see Jesus at His best. In the midst of Holy Week, He struggled with whether or not He would take up the cross. He dealt with the betrayal of two of his disciples and the desertion of all the rest. He agonized in pain from the scourging that He received, and suffered a death the likes we have never imagined.

It is in the valley that Jesus lets me know full well all of that from which I can be redeemed. If I rush from Palm Sunday’s parade to Easter’s glory, I might miss that. My solemn promise is to attempt to walk the Via Dolorosa with Jesus so that I might relish even more the victory that He’s won. I hope that we all have a blessed Passion Sunday and a solemn Passion Week.

 

Holy Week Highlights

It’s the last day of winter! Sing and shout, spring starts tomorrow and I’m ready for it, not the pollen so much, but even that’s a sign of new life. I’m ready for Easter after a long winter. That sounds vaguely familiar as something the character “Phil” aka Bill Murray said in the classic movie “Groundhog Day.” I love the movie. Phil seemingly is doomed to repeat Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA wooing Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita. The only thing that finally ends his purgatory is that he finally gets one complete day right, no selfishness or self-serving stratagems. His life is redeemed by letting go of himself and loving others, purely and sincerely.

That is one of the purposes of Lent – to lay aside self, put others and Christ first. The question on my mind today is how well has that gone for me this year. I feel like I’ve been treading water going from one crisis to another. My brain is mush and I’m still waiting for that perfect day. By now you also know if your Lenten observance plans have worked out, too. There are some of you/us who are planning on a crash-course during Holy Week to make things right. You can’t have a great Easter without a good Lent.

This begs the question: What makes for a “Good Lent?” Was it something that you gave up this year, or started? Just making it to “Low Sunday” on April 12 will mean it was a holy observance for most clergy and church staff. “There’s no rest for the weary!” is especially true this time of the year, but it’s meant to be this way. Holy Week services have been around ever since the Early Church and its commemoration of the significance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. It’s supposed to be a whirlwind because that’s what it was for Jesus. Thanks to the plethora of preparations we literally feel the weight that Jesus must have felt that last week.

This has made me think about the most important revelations that all this busyness brings. Which services and Scriptures are most poignant and powerful? Without falling further into the tiredness that only church can bring, think with me about the highlights of your preparations for Easter.

Of course, it begins with Palm Sunday. In Matthew and John, it was palms that the people waved, although Matthew added additional cloaks to the red carpet treatment. In Mark, it was unidentified branches cut from the fields that the people used along with cloaks. In Luke, there are no branches of any kind. If the only Gospel we had was Luke it would have been called “Cloak Sunday,” because that’s the way he portrays the people’s welcome for Jesus.

The bigger deal to me about Palm Sunday has nothing at all to do with branches versus cloaks or how many donkeys were used. By the way, Matthew has two, the rest one. The big deal to me is that the crowd went from Sunday to the next Friday from praise of Jesus to demands for his crucifixion. It’s little wonder that our ashes for every subsequent year’s Ash Wednesday are made from burnt fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – a powerful reminder of how we fickle humans have failed the Lord throughout the year and need Lent to help get us back on track.

I am going to jump ahead, but it fits with the fickleness theme. The people on Good Friday asked for Barabbas over Jesus. The significance of Barabbas’ name is powerful. “Bar” means “son of,” and “abbas” means “father,” so the Son of the Heavenly Father, all caps “BARABBAS,” is sentenced to die in the place of all the rest of us “small cap” children of earthly fathers. Such horrible irony, but this is a clear image of the depth of God’s love.

Back to the schedule, though. Maundy Thursday is a must! “Maundy” derives from the Latin, mandatum which means commandment. It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper, his washing the disciples’ feet and his command to go and do likewise. This event is only recorded in John’s version of the passion narrative (John 13), which may explain why foot washing didn’t make the list of sacraments. If something is only mentioned once in the Bible there’s an argument that one shouldn’t make it into a sacrament or a doctrine. However, John’s depiction of Jesus’ servant-like kingship is amazing, especially when you consider that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Maundy Thursday always inspires me to think about whose feet I need to wash.

Another Lenten and Holy Week epiphany occurred when I noticed something very interesting in Matthew’s passion account. When Jesus is about to be betrayed by Judas with a kiss in Matthew 26:50, Jesus says a rare and powerful thing, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus hardly ever calls anyone “friend.” I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t a friend, but the fact remains that it wasn’t a word that he lightly tossed around when he was talking about people. He called Lazarus a “friend” (John 11:11), and the guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof (Luke 5:20). Only 3 times in the entire Gospels does Jesus call anyone “friend,” and Judas is one of them! This really sets the bar high for my Lenten observance. Who are the enemies with whom I need to reconcile?

God’s amazing grace is on glorious display after the resurrection in Mark 16:7 when the women are told to go announce Jesus’ resurrection. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter…,” are their instructions. This is only mentioned in Mark’s account, though in John we have the dramatic reinstatement of Peter. What’s powerful to me is that here’s Peter who has denied the Lord multiple times and yet he’s singled out to get the good news about Jesus being alive. Peter wasn’t at the crucifixion. After he heard the rooster crow after he denied Jesus, he went away weeping bitterly, but Jesus didn’t give up on him and leave him out.

This word instructing the women to go tell his disciples AND Peter, is amazing grace and gives me so much hope. I have been a betraying Judas, a denying Peter, and a fickle fan. I have lived through days that seem like a never-ending purgatory where nothing ever seems to go right, and the God of the universe, who is yet fully human, suffers, dies, and rises for me – for you.

The song “Better” by MercyMe captures how this makes me feel today. Give a listen.

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

I’ve got Lenten music on my mind this morning. Should it be somber, sober, and dark? Sundays in Lent aren’t technically Lent because the season’s 40 days don’t count Sundays since they are “Little Easters.” However, hearing the choir and congregation sing upbeat Easter-type music would feel more than a little weird. It would feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, doesn’t our faith hinge on Easter? Without Easter, Christianity falls apart. So as much as I would like for these Sundays in Lent to focus on penitence and preparation for Jesus’ suffering, I think it is a theological imperative for us to have a big dose of Easter every chance we get.

I feel it especially this week. There was a funeral for a 62 year old last Sunday, an 85 year old on Monday, and a 73 year old this Saturday. I have another family whose 59 year old daughter just died, too. I don’t need to hear gothic dirges. I desperately need to hear some Easter joy. There is no doubt that music has carried the faithful through every season of worship and life for eons. I’ve been comparing the Passion Narratives in the Gospels for a church-wide Bible Study, and I noticed that, just before Jesus’ arrest and after the Last Supper, the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before they headed to the Mt. of Olives and his subsequent arrest in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).

“Hymn” or “Hymns” are interesting biblical words, and not used much – four times for the former and four times for the latter in the entire Bible. Of course there are other words like “song” or “songs” that rack up about 40 instances each, but this begs the question, “When is a song a song or a hymn?” We almost might wonder, “What’s the difference?” I think I have some semblance of an answer, but it’s a tad confusing. Is a hymn so designated because God specifically is the audience, and a song is directed at many recipients, including human ones? According to the dictionary, a hymn, coming from the Greek “humnos,” is an ode or song to a to a G(g)od or a hero. With more specificity the modern usage of the word denotes that it is a religious song of praise to a G(g)od.

Doing biblical word studies add more of clarity, and let’s know that the differences aren’t enough to fret over. Colossians 3:26 uses three almost synonymous terms, “admonish one with all wisdom, as you sing psalms “psalmos,” hymns “humos,” and spiritual songs “odais.” Maybe people back then knew the distinction but modern scholars are less certain of any differences at all. What I get out of this is that it is in our spiritual and, perhaps, human DNA to break out into song, especially when we feel moved by either tragedy or triumph. That must have been the reason that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn as they were leaving the Last Supper. It was an encouragement for them to praise God.

Typically at Festival days like the Passover, the setting for the Last Supper, devout Jews sang the “Hallel.” The word literally means “praise’ and its words are found primarily is Psalms 113-118. These are the psalms that every Jew used during the Passover. There are other “Hallel” psalms in the Old Testament, especially 136, but Psalms 113-118 are the ones that Jesus would have used during the Passover. Therefore, it might be good for us to reread them and ponder them, even sing them, during Lent.

We need to recapture the word “Hallelujah” anyway. We almost use it as a colloquial “Whew!” when we’re relieved or things go our way. It’s actually a word that means “Let us,” which is the “u” in Hallelujah; “praise,” which is “Hallel;” and “jah,” which is short for Yahweh, the Name of Israel’s God. “Hallelujah,” therefore, is a sacred important word that is praising the Lord. It always is an act that not only lifts up the Name of the Lord, but it encourages us.

So, if and when, you’re in a week surrounded by literal funeral dirges or the emotional dregs of ordinary or overwhelming stress, SING!!! Singing about the Lord’s might and power gives us strength, hope, and the fortitude to thrive.

My favorite passage besides the one in Matthew 26 about Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn on the way to the Lord’s betrayal is found in Acts 16:25ff. Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. They had been stripped of their clothes, beaten, feet locked in wooden stocks, and severely flogged, but they sang! It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” I would have been listening, too. Here were two guys who had been horribly mistreated and it was midnight for crying out loud, but instead of crying out loud and complaining, they chose to sing praise to God. The result shouldn’t be surprising. The very next verse says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake … that the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”

Praising the Lord, especially when our circumstances are dire, reminds us that we have a God that is strong and on our side. When we praise, we let the Lord do battle with our grief, bondage, and despair. He sets us free and our chains fall off! So during this Lenten season let’s take a cue from Jesus and remember to offer praise on Sundays even if we bemoan our need for penitence the rest of the week. We are and will ever be an Easter People. Dirges don’t open prison doors. Sing out praise to God on Sundays and every day, and see what the Lord can do!