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.

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Ready for the Dance?

My Mother died in January 1993 and my Dad in July of 2000. Their funerals were genuine celebrations of life. My Dad’s was a particularly powerful testimony. Daddy had lost both legs at age 80. After Mother’s death, he couldn’t bear to be alone in that big house without her so he divided up their possessions, sold our home place and the Edgefield Pottery Museum and collection. He moved to Saluda to be near my middle brother and one of his businesses, but he would drive every Sunday back to Edgefield United Methodist Church, 36 miles round trip, on two artificial legs.

His last Sunday there was a good one. He drove himself home and that evening his kidneys shut down. He wound up in the hospital at Providence in Columbia and quickly went into a coma. He died 9 days later. In so many ways he was my hero. He overcame so many odds in life and was so colorful. His funeral was truly a “Service of Death and Resurrection” with the emphasis on resurrection. I was fine throughout it until we got to the last hymn, “Lord of the Dance.”

I could see past the mists of time into eternity and Daddy had his legs back and he and Mother were dancing. He was cutting a jig and Jesus was right there striking up the band! My dry eyes became a torrent of tears, not from sadness but joy! That funeral service was Easter to me! I can so easily hear the echo of those words now, “Dance then wherever you may be!”

I wonder where you and I will encounter Easter this week. In the throes of Holy Week we’re not there yet, are we? There will be times of abandonment, betrayal, passion, suffering, and care this week. In the midst of our present challenges I hear Jesus’ voice offering grace from the cross giving sympathetic solace to a dying thief who wants to be in Paradise and to His mother and beloved disciple who will find new purpose in caring for one another. The greatest measure of compassion was shown by Christ when he looked down on that company and said, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I want to hear Jesus’ voice afresh this week.

Wherever we are in the dance steps of life, Jesus has gone before us – through every emotion, trial, temptation, and thanks to Good Friday through death to resurrection. This is the bedrock of our faith that sin and death can never conquer. Health challenges, family issues, financial stress, personal problems, and ethical dilemmas cannot separate us from Easter Hope: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death not life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present not the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).”

This Holy Week reminds us that Jesus is with us in whatever life deals us, and He wins! Dance then! Cut a jig wherever you may be!

Releaf the Tree – Easter’s Coming!

Last night Cindy and I watched a TV rerun of a Wednesday night perennial for us: “The Middle.” A tree limb had fallen on Frankie and Mike Heck’s car and the windshield was no more. Oh, they had paid for the extra “Acts of God” coverage, but the insurance company disallowed their claim because the tree limb was longer than it should have been, ought to have been trimmed, and, therefore, constituted homeowner negligence. To make a long story short, a church van saved the day. The van kept them from being frozen while driving their glassless car on wintry days. An act of God? An act of humankind? Which one – the limb falling or the church donating the van? Both? Neither? One or the other? Do you ever wonder about bad things happening and why?

It’s a question of God’s will, isn’t it? Some have said that the most powerful prayer is the one Jesus told us to use in the Lord’s Prayer and the same one, in essence, that he himself used when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 6:10 & Matthew 26:39): “Your will be done (On earth as it is in heaven).” This simple prayer is often misinterpreted as a feeble resignation to the unknown desires of a distant God, a caveat placed at the end of faithless prayers when we hope for the best but let God and ourselves off the hook by saying the common addendum, “… If it be your will, in Jesus’ name. Amen.” I am sick and tired, worn out even, from pondering the “Why’s” of life, and I will not use God’s unknown will as an excuse to accept life’s crud and vagaries. Understanding God’s will in a fickle for us/against us sort of way doesn’t do God justice and it certainly doesn’t do anything for me.

I know God doesn’t cause disease and tragedies because God loves and can only give good gifts (James 1:17). Illnesses and problems occur for lots of reasons, but the reason is never ever God! While God isn’t the source of tragedies, God does what God does best and that is the incarnational presence of God through Christ. Jesus is the Living God to whom we pray. So, when we pray for God’s will to be done, it isn’t some lightweight inadequate panacea for the ills of the world. It is an assault on the gates of hell! Our prayers are a battle cry against everything that’s not God’s will. To pray for God’s will to be done is not a statement of resignation or like extra-fine print at the bottom of our prayers that somehow voids the whole deal by letting God off the hook – “just in case.”

God doesn’t want disease or tragedies to prevail! Human freedom and e(E)vil have their way because God’s love gives the whole creation the freedom to run amok. The suffering of Jesus during Holy Week reminds me of this in the most poignant way. Freedom gone wild yields disaster, except that for Jesus and those who trust in him there will always be hope and a victory.

Therefore, I will cling to Jesus when I am worn out by this drama-filled life. I will continue to pray in Jesus name that God’s kingdom comes! I will pray as Jesus did that God’s will happens on earth as it does in heaven, and there aren’t any illnesses or tragedies there!

If you’re tired and worn, listen: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:6-9).” “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).”

This song is for you:

PALM SUNDAY and HOLY WEEK

Palm Sunday is fast approaching and makes me feel personal and cosmic pain every year. The personal pain is obvious. I know all too well how easy it is for me to pledge complete allegiance to Christ and then turn away. I am the ever faithful, ever fickle disciple who continually stands amazed at God’s love for us Palm Sunday heralds who quickly become Good Friday hecklers. Was Aesop right in the moral of his “Fox and Lion” fable?  The often quoted moral of the story is that, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Familiarity, however, doesn’t breed contempt in all situations. The more that I know someone or some subject matter the more enthralled I am. For instance, one of the attractions of having a devotional life is so that I can know God better. It’s not about gaining a degree of familiarity that permits me to trade intimacy with God for the passing fancy of sin. It is the opposite. I want to know God better so that I don’t want to stray. It underscores my highest desire of closeness to God. I daresay it is the same in our more mundane relationships. We don’t hang out with friends and spouses so that we can have an excuse for philandering. Familiarity breeds passion, loyalty, sacrifice, and love rather than contempt, right?

Or does time together produce both faithfulness and contempt? Yes, the fact of the matter is that the people we know best are the very persons we hurt the most. Domestic violence is horrible proof of the contempt that can spring from callous familiarity. We often take advantage of the weaknesses of those with whom we are most familiar, and we exploit and expose them for our own selfish purposes. This is no excuse, however, to promote staying at arm’s distance from our significant others, yo-yoing back and forth from closeness to chaos to make-up physical intimacy. There’s something that just isn’t right about this weird pattern.

There’s something not right with Passion Week’s flip-flopping either. How can we go so easily from blessing Jesus to betraying Jesus? If I know Jesus better, shouldn’t that prevent my infidelity, or does it create the possibility of deeper contempt? Is this especially true when I feel that I have been faithful yet God seems to have forgotten me? I am most disappointed in God when I think of the ways that I have been unjustly wronged, punished without reason, or overlooked by those for whom I have sacrificed. I wallow in questions of “Why?” when pain knocks at my door, and I am most disturbed by the absence of God when my children are enduring the brunt of a cruel world. My selfish desires demand a God who answers my doubts and disappointments. Instead of greater faith via familiarity, I choose to ignore or even betray this God who ever calls my name.

Maybe that’s the problem. On Palm Sunday Jesus doesn’t just ride to the gates of Jerusalem, He also rides to the gate of my heart. He has been rapping on its door until His knuckles are raw. The sounds of my own complaints have drowned out the persistent presence of God, but He goes on standing there, gently knocking away. My shunning of His overtures is cruel domestic violence against the greatest lover of my soul. My selfishness falsely trumps the pain of the one to whom I have betrothed my very soul. I have forgotten the profundity that love isn’t about what I get out of a relationship, but what I give to the person of my affections. If I don’t care enough to put the other first, I will always turn familiarity into contempt. If I put the other first then I will always be surprised by how much I don’t know, and be drawn to an ever-deepening pursuit of true intimacy with the other.

My pledge during this all important week-before-Holy Week is to measure my love of Christ and fan the flame of desire for God. I want to know God with more familiarity, this God in Jesus who desperately pursues me every day. I hear Him knocking.

Hunger Games, Holy Week, and GC 2012

I went to see “Hunger Games” and was  taken by the message of vicarious suffering.  Twenty-four “Tributes” age 12-18 like Katniss Everdeen represent their districts in penance to the fascist regime of Panem. Katniss exhibited selflessness in volunteering to take her little sister’s place in the horrendous “games” where each boy or girl is asked to fight to the death until one victor is left alive. As much as I was intrigued by the overtones of the movie and impressed enough to purchase and read the series, I was appalled by the violence perpetuated by the Panem government on and by youth. I was most taken by the line said by Donald Sutherland’s “President Snow” dictator character as he was speaking to his aide-to-camp Seneca Crane. It was concerning Crane’s management of the games and his  TV ratings-gaining preferential treatment of Katniss. President Snow said, “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear.” Crane is eventually killed because he is accused of fomenting hope over the regime’s fear.

This got me to thinking about Holy Week. Perhaps the reason the Palm Sunday crowds turned fickle is that they were cowed by fear and not inspired by hope. The Roman Empire’s manipulation of outcomes is clearly evident in both Holy Week and in “The Hunger Games.” The name of the country in “The Hunger Games” is a take-off of the Roman Empire’s phrase panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses/games.” It was a plan and method that the Roman Empire used to control the populace through a diversionary false reality. Yelling at blood sports kept people from forcefully dealing with the real issues of corruption, oppression, and despair. Panem in “The Hunger Games” does the same thing through their TV-streamed crowd control of televised teen murder. Panem and the Roman Empire are essentially synonymous. What takes them both down is hope.

Christian hope is the fuel for revolution in both the spiritual and political realm. If we believe in the Resurrection all fear is gone, as the old hymn puts it. Without fear and filled with hope we are more than undefeated. We are victors! But our weapons of revolution are not of this world. We will not use Katniss’ bow and arrows. Earthly weapons are of no value in fighting evil regimes or ideologies. Remember what Jesus said to Peter in the garden of Gethsemane as he swung his sword at a soldier, cutting off his ear: “Put your sword away, Peter. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Jesus promoted the power of love over the love of power and earthly weapons.

A devotional writer that I’m reading said it better than I: “The weapons of our warfare are not destructive, they are constructive. They include things like humility, forgiveness, resisting evil with good, holy attitudes, the Holy Spirit within us, and the even more offensive ones – the Cross of Christ, the Word of God, and the prayers of the saints. Jesus won this showdown in the garden of Gethsemane. No one really knew that but Jesus. His victory didn’t look like a victory. Neither do ours. When we turn the other cheek, offer to go the extra mile, forgive someone a thousand times, humble ourselves in the sight of humanity and  God, pray on our knees, and quote from the Word, it doesn’t look as if we win. But we do. The enemy trembles. He would much prefer that we go back to his style of battle – evil for evil, sword for sword, spite for spite. Satan knows how to fight on those terms. He has no idea what to do when his greatest offenses become the showcase for God’s greatest mercies.”

As I think about “The Hunger Games,” Holy Week, and even the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church I want to claim hope over fear so that I remain constant in faithfulness to Christ. I cannot use Panem’s weapons or diversions. I need to yield to the Holy Spirit and Christian Hope. Hope overcomes fear in Panem and against the rhetoric of crisis that is rampant in our church. This Holy Week, just three weeks before we are about to be subjected to the smoke and mirrors via panem et circenses at General Conference 2012, we need to pledge to avoid worldly weapons, parliamentary end-arounds, spiritual manipulation, and coercion. Jesus’ hope is positive, vulnerable, and relies on God rather than political machinations.

The observations and questions asked by the devotion are so helpful to me right now: “How do you fight the good fight? Are your battles a reflection of the Spirit of God within you? Or are they consistent with the spirit of this world? One will lead you to victory, the other into darkness. You will encounter a battle today, as you do every day. How will you respond? Make sure you look a lot like Jesus in the garden.” These are the questions that I will ask myself as we head to Tampa for GC 2012. Keep hope alive! Hope wins!

Holy Week and Defining Moments

Some things just aren’t forgotten. Certain events, situations, or circumstances have such an impact on us that they are cosmic in scope. They become defining moments for us as individuals and as societies. These events are HUGE! These events become defining moments precisely because they hit each of us in personal visceral way. They may have affected everybody, but we know exactly where we were when they happened. Some of these events would have to include: Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed and started the Great Depression; the attack on Pearl Harbor that awakened the US to WWII; the bombing of Nagasaki that ended WWII but started nuclear anxiety; the assassination of JFK; the Shuttle explosions; Columbine; and, of course, 9/11.

Personal reaction is certainly a factor in measuring the scope of a disaster, but what makes the difference between a national crisis and something that isn’t is in the way the crisis transcends ethnicity and personal agendas. Crimes against humanity affect everyone. It should bother us all that the Holocaust happened and that racism still hounds people of color. Shouldn’t MLK’s death be included in the list of defining moments? Sensitivity to an event’s ripple effect makes one painfully aware that some things have not been taken as seriously as others.

For instance, Columbus Day celebrations for Italians mean something quite different to Native Americans. Defining moments for Native peoples might include the Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph’s capture, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the massacres at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 and February 28, 1973. The most infamous atrocity against Native Americans for United Methodists is the Sand Creek Massacre led by former Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, on November 29, 1864.

So how do defining moments for Native Americans and others take on a larger cosmic dimension? There are some things that seem to affect only a few people but nonetheless are a crime against all of us. Is this awareness what separates a mere tragedy from a national or world tragedy? What makes for a defining moment is wrapped up in the extent of the event’s shock waves. In other words, if enough people feel the pain, we all feel it to a certain degree. Everybody, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, feels gut-punched when something like this happens. The broad emotional scope of certain events typically cuts across societal boundaries.

You may have seen the videotape done by the two brothers from France as the World Trade Center attack was unfolding. As the camera was moving down the street toward the tower complex did you notice the kaleidoscope of humanity? Different languages, different races, and different nationalities were united in fear and confusion. The war on terrorism reminds me of the movie, “Independence Day,” a patriotic sci-fi flick about all humanity, led, of course, by the USA, to seek common survival against extraterrestrial foes. It is chock full of the personal and cosmic dimensions of both pain and heroism.

True defining moments are both personal and cosmic. They dictate a personal and a common response. If individuals shirked their duty there would be no national or international resolve. Defining moments begin with individuals before they become group-think. If there were no brave individuals like Clarke Bynum fighting off a would-be hijacker, New York firefighters, or Flight 93 heroes willing to say, “Let’s roll!” then the world wouldn’t be as galvanized as it is against terrorism. Individuals cement common resolve that hopefully will expand last year’s Arab Spring to Syria, etc.

Palm Sunday was a solemn defining moment for fickle crowds that erupted into terrible cosmic consequences and the second most cosmic-impacting event happened on Good Friday, a day that was good for everyone but Jesus. The foremost defining moment, of course, is Easter! The disciples had to individually believe that Jesus was alive before Christianity had a chance to become a cosmos changing movement. Each of their individual defining moments snowballed into a salvific plan for the universe. My hope for Holy Week is that we will be so changed personally by Christ that the cosmos will yet feel its powerful impact. May this week be the defining moment for one and all!