Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Greatest Game and Good Friday

Once, when I was about ten years old, I was confronted with an ethical dilemma: our church was holding its annual Vacation Bible School, which took place in the evenings, and my Little League team had a game scheduled on one of those nights. I remember agonizing over my choice, a choice that really was mine since my parents left the decision up to me.

Finally, I decided that Jesus—and only Jesus—trumped baseball and I went to Vacation Bible School. It’s hard to say whether I was motivated by a sincere devotion to Jesus or whether I was driven by a legalistic moralism that caused me to fear that if Jesus came back at 7:30 on that particular evening, it was better to be making some craft out of popsicle sticks at the church than to be scratching my nose in right field.

When confronted with the same choice the next two years, I chose to play baseball and to let the church kids drink their Kool-Aid without me; honesty compels me to report that one of the reasons for my change of heart was that in those later years I was playing for a much better team whose games actually mattered in the standings.

I tell that story to make it clear that I completely understand the quandary in which some Christian baseball fans find themselves this year, when several Major League teams, my beloved Atlanta Braves among them, are scheduled to play their home opener on Good Friday.

Should Christians go to that game that is being played on one of the holiest of all the holy days?

They should if they want to.

But I wouldn’t—and I wouldn’t even if I were not the pastor of a church. And I wouldn’t because I don’t want to. Good Friday just means too much to me.

In the beloved church of my childhood I never heard about Holy Week; indeed, as I have explained elsewhere, we had no inkling that there was any such thing as a Christian calendar. Holy Week observance at our church consisted of an Easter egg hunt on the Saturday before Easter, of which I have such fond memories as one of the men killing a big snake in the field where we were about to hung eggs right before we went into that field to hunt eggs and the children going through the field where the eggs were hidden in a manner akin to those locusts that you used to see in cartoons back when cartoons were worth watching, and a Sunrise Service, a breakfast, and the regular 11:00 a.m. service on Easter morning, when I suppose the resurrection of Jesus was mentioned, although I don’t remember, which is my fault and not Preacher Bill’s.

Somewhere along the way—during my seminary years, I think—I came upon the traditions of Holy Week: the celebration of the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday that is tempered by the knowledge of what is to come later in the week, the fellowship meal and memorial supper and talk of humble service illustrated by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet—and the twin specters of betrayal and denial—on Maundy Thursday, the horror and darkness—and the wonder and grace—of Good Friday, and the raucous unbridled joy that accompanies the announcement “Jesus Christ is risen” on Easter Sunday. Over the years I have come to treasure those experiences of worship.

On the one hand, I know that all of time is holy time because God is in all of it; I know that the reality of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is a part of our lives every minute of every day no matter where we are and what we are doing; I know that being present at a Good Friday service or any other service of worship does not make one a better or more devoted Christian than one who is not present.

But on the other hand, I have come to see the great value in having “special” holy days on which we intentionally focus on the core realities of our faith and on the defining relationship of our lives; the truth is that we need such times to step aside from our routine and to bracket ourselves off a bit from everything else and to focus as fully as we can with the help of the Holy Spirit on the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord as we do during Holy Week or on his incarnation and second coming as we do during Advent.

I believe that there is value in adopting such a discipline and sticking with it; I believe that it is a good thing to say “Good Friday is the day that the Church especially commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus which, coupled with his resurrection, is the event that stands at the absolute heart of our faith and our life and therefore I will honor it through my worship and I will allow nothing short of calamity to keep me from it.”

This much I know: were I to cease being a pastor on Wednesday of Holy Week, I would nonetheless be present in a Maundy Thursday service, a Good Friday service, and an Easter Sunday service somewhere and, if I could not find a Baptist church holding such services, I would gladly participate in them in whatever congregation would welcome me. I just can’t personally help it; moreover, I feel so strongly about it that I make no apology for passionately urging my parishioners to worship on Good Friday—the congregation on Good Friday night should be as large as the one we’ll have on Easter Sunday morning, but unless my new congregation is different than the others I have served, it won’t be, I think because (a) it’s Friday night (b) people are uncomfortable being intentionally somber as a Good Friday service typically (and appropriately) leads us to be and (c) many Baptist churches have not traditionally and historically focused on Good Friday.

But I’ll keep trying.

Here at the end I want to confess my hypocrisy. When our Good Friday service concludes at around 8:00 p.m., I’ll go home and either watch the Braves’ home opener on television or listen to it on the radio, so I can’t claim that I lay all “worldly” or “secular” amusements aside on Good Friday. Maybe I should.
Still, if I have to make a choice between Good Friday worship and attending a baseball game, I’ll choose to worship.

“It is finished” just sounds more significant in the scheme of things than “Play ball” and I need, on that one holy night, to acknowledge it.

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