Easter Is Personal!

Death bothers me. Some deaths take an even greater toll than usual, as if there’s anything usual about death. I guess that I have seen somewhere around 600 people take their last breath, including my mother and father. Some people die easier than others. Thank God for Hospice. Nevertheless, a few deaths have bewildered me and turned time on its head. Some I saw die and with others I was there for the aftermath. Some deaths gut punch us in a very personal way. Every death diminshes humankind and the ripple effect pains us all in personal ways. Some hurt more than others though.

I think of Brittany Anne Gudger who I watched die in her mother’s arms at eighteen months. Dale Owen comes to mind who died in junior high when his four-wheeler hit a guy-wire connected to a telephone pole. He was one of the best left-handed pitchers I ever saw. His mom buried him with his pager so that she could call his number every day just to soothe her sorrow. I think about Wayne Threatte, a friend and former parishioner, who died too young as a 45 year-old. His last words to me were, “I’m going to be alright.” Well, I wasn’t even if Wayne was. Holly Alford’s death was a shock, too. She was 12 when she drowned in a freak accident when she and her mom hydroplaned into a ditch during a downpour. She was an only child. The list could go on and on. Death and grief care are perhaps a pastor’s heaviest burden. Parishioners rightfully become your family.

My only solace is the same solace that I offer to others: JESUS. Easter’s proclamation is the most profound news of all time. Jesus lives! Because He lives so do Brittany Anne Gudger, Dale Owen, Wayne Threatte, Holly Alford, Mr. Godwin, Mrs. Godwin, Suzanne Godwin, Karl Alexander, Bob Newsom, Etah Fields, Carlee McClendon, Mama, Daddy, and all the rest who have died in Christ. There’s not one soul in Christ left in the grave. How do I know this? Here’s the answer via a story that some claim is true: A man was standing in line at the bank when there was a commotion at the counter. A woman was distressed, exclaiming, “Where will I put my money?! I have all my money and my mortgage here!! What will happen to my mortgage?!” It turned out that she had misunderstood a small sign on the counter. The sign read, WE WILL BE CLOSED FOR GOOD FRIDAY. I guess Easter was not uppermost in her thoughts, because she thought that the bank was going to close “for good” that coming Friday.

Death’s depository of despair was closed on Good Friday. That day Christ took upon Himself all of the pain, sadness, heartache, and sin of the entire world. He endured crucifixion to conquer death. Death came into the world as a result of sin, “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus closed death’s bank on Good Friday because He had never sinned. Since He didn’t sin, death couldn’t hold Him. His resurrection on Easter is proof of His triumph and it is the proof that we can triumph, too, through faith in Him. When we believe Jesus died for our sins that means we also believe He rose for our lives.

No wonder worship for the first believers quickly changed from Saturday/Sabbath to Sunday. Since Jesus rose on a Sunday, the first day of the week would forever be a reenactment of Easter. This Sunday is the biggest reenactment of the year. If your faith needs a boost, your grief some solace, and your sins a white flag, then Easter is your day! The victory is won! Just as death is personal, so is Easter. I’m ready for a fresh experience of Easter! How about you?

Easter Needed Early: Marian Dyer

Yesterday made me shrink before the mystery of death. I attended the funeral of one our pastors, Marian Woodle Dyer, age 53, who fought a courageous battle against cancer. She was always so positive and full of faith. I preached a revival for her last fall and sensed an overwhelming expression of how much she was loved by the congregation at Mt. Pleasant. We celebrated her life yesterday and we rejoiced in Christ. The pain of loss is real and I especially grieve for her husband Mike and teenage daughter Adrianne. I know today is Maundy Thursday but I need Easter before Sunday comes. I need the mystery of death defeated and unraveled by the deeper mystery of Easter

Someone once said that God’s incarnation in Jesus was just as the Apostle John phrased it in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and theologians have been trying to explain it away ever since.” If Christmas is beyond the ability of human language to adequately explain, then the mystery of Easter is totally out of reach. As a matter of fact, our attempts to explain the unexplainable may even detract from the miraculous news of Jesus’ resurrection.

In this vein, St. Francis once said, “Listen, my child, each year at Easter I used to watch Christ’s resurrection. All the faithful would gather around His tomb and weep, weep inconsolably, beating on the ground to make it open. And behold! In the midst of our lamentations the tombstone crumbled to pieces and Christ sprang from the earth and ascended to heaven, smiling at us and waving a white banner. There was only one year I did not see Him resurrected. That year a theologian of consequence, a graduate of the University of Bologna, came to us. He mounted the pulpit in church and began to elucidate the Resurrection for hours on end. He explained and explained until our heads began to swim; and that year the tombstone did not crumble, and, I swear to you, no one saw the Resurrection.”

Therefore, let’s leave Easter as it is: the most marvelous mystery imaginable. It is beyond our comprehension that death can be conquered, that evil can be overcome, that justice can roll down like a river, and that peace will someday reign in God’s kingdom. But, we believe in spite of our grief, our frustration, our lack of empirical evidence, and the gnawing fear in our gut that faith is but a sham.

Jim Harnish, a pastor friend from the Florida Annual Conference, told the story of a little boy who was, “not exactly happy about going to church on Easter Sunday morning. His new shoes were too tight, his tie pinched his neck and the weather was just too beautiful to be cooped up inside … As he sulked in the back seat, his parents heard him mutter: ‘I don’t know why we have to go to church on Easter, anyway; they keep telling the same old story and it always comes out the same in the end.’”

This attitude reminds me of a book I read several years ago about the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a revisionist history of the battle by Newt Gingrich, of all people and this is no political advertisement. Author Harry Turtledove has other revisionist histories of the Civil War that are also interesting, but what made Gingrich’s Gettysburg so fascinating is that General Robert E. Lee acts decisively and wins. That’s a switch for any Southerner who has visited this site of such abject defeat. I have a love-hate relationship with visiting Gettysburg. I had ancestors who fought there, and I know they left defeated and broken. No matter how many times I visit I know the outcome. There are a lot more Yankee monuments than Southern ones because the winners usually have more reason and more money to do such things. Nevertheless, even though I know how Gettysburg always comes out, the trek is worth it. Its pivotal role in American history is without precedent.

Similarly, I keep coming back to church for more of the same at Easter. The message, though always the same, is one that I need to hear, some years more so than others, and this is one of those years. Easter is the penultimate hinge in history, cosmically and personally. Thank God it always ends the same. That’s a sameness that I can bank on year after year, day after day, and minute after minute, and I’m glad! Today I’m especially glad for all of us who will miss Marian Dyer.