Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easter Changes Everything

The Church Council that met in 325 C.E. in Nicaea, a city in northwest Asia Minor, determined that Easter Sunday would be observed on the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21. That means that Easter cannot occur before March 22 or after April 25. Thankfully, calendar makers keep up with the date so we don’t have to calculate it every year. This year Easter falls on March 31, in 2014 on April 20, and in 2015 on April 5.

For years I have said, “I wish that Easter was on the same Sunday every year.” I have felt that way because it would make planning a lot easier; when it comes to worship—not to mention family dinners and egg hunts— we wouldn’t have to deal with a different calendar each year.

I testify to you today that I have changed my mind about that. Why? Because we need to be reminded that everything depends on Easter and Easter’s movable date imposes such a reminder on us.

The date on which Easter falls determines the date on which many of our other Christian observances occur. So Ash Wednesday falls forty-six days before Easter because Lent, of which Ash Wednesday is the first day, is made up of the forty days plus the six Sundays immediately preceding Easter Sunday. Pentecost, on which we celebrate the falling of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus and thus the beginning of the Church, occurs fifty days after Easter. So Easter, the most important day on the Christian calendar, determines when most of the other important days will be observed.

The movability of Easter, then, reminds us that Easter is the controlling event for other days. Indeed, Easter is the controlling event for all the days of our lives; the resurrection of Jesus determines the meaning of all of our days. Just as the date of Easter determines so much of our Christian year, so does the reality of Easter fill all of our days with life.

The movability of Easter also keeps us a little bit off balance; most of us probably don’t give too much thought to the date of Easter until we get into February or even early March and then we often find ourselves saying, “I can’t believe Easter is so early” or “I can’t believe Easter is so late.” We don’t control Easter; it happens when it happens. Once we do learn when it is going to occur, though, it controls us; it controls when a lot of church and family events are going to happen and, for those who follow the Christian calendar, it controls our pattern of Christian worship and our practice of Christian disciplines.

Easter can and should also control the ways we view and live our lives.

Easter can and should, for one thing, cause us to believe in life more than we believe in death. That’s a challenge because we are surrounded by death, both literal death—people die all the time—and figurative death—we all go through crises that make us feel like we are going to die. Easter means, though, that God’s way is that life wins out in the end. Jesus lay dead in his tomb on Saturday but on Sunday his life burst back into the world with a power that is transforming many of us from death to life and that one day will transform all of creation from death to life.

Meanwhile, we face the challenge of thinking, believing, and behaving in ways that affirm life rather than death.

Easter can and should, for another thing, cause us to believe that God’s ways are right and will be vindicated. Jesus not only taught love, mercy, and peace with his words; he also demonstrated love, mercy, and peace with his life. He not only told us to pray for our enemies, to forgive those who hurt us, and to turn the other cheek; he actually lived in all of those ways. Living in those ways led to his crucifixion and we have no reason to believe that living in those ways, if we were actually to live in those ways, would not lead to pain and suffering for us. But on the other side of crucifixion was, is, and will be resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus vindicated Jesus’ way of living out God’s way in the world; it also invalidated the way of responding to God’s way through manipulation, violence, and death. Our resurrection will, provided we by the grace of God and the power of God’s spirit live in God’s way, continue to vindicate God’s way as it seen in our lives.

Meanwhile, we face the challenge of thinking, believing, and behaving in ways that affirm God’s love, grace, and peace rather than the world’s hate, selfishness, and discord.

As Easter 2013 approaches, let’s be mindful of the centrality of the Easter event in our lives, in our world, and in history. The way it moves around may confuse us, but it also reminds us of what—and Who—matter most.

And I would suggest that we be ready to be surprised, but I guess that’s an oxymoron. Instead, I’ll just say let’s be open to however God chooses to make the new life in Christ evident to us, even if it does shake us up—which it will …

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Bomb in Gilead?

[This is my church newsletter column for this week.]

I was raised attending a church that knew nothing of such innovations as Extended Session and Children’s Church. If you were a child at the Midway Baptist Church located four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia on City Pond Road (County Maintained) you were promoted straight from the nursery to the worship service.

I learned to count by trying to find the page numbers that my song leader father called out; I think that’s one reason that I was ahead of most of my peers on working with large numbers—I was navigating three-digit hymn numbers before I started kindergarten.

I was also hearing and singing hymns long before I could read the words, which meant that I heard and sang some interesting things.

For example, I heard and sang “Whosoever Shirley meaneth me” which left me wondering who “Shirley” was—there was no Shirley in our church—and why she wanted to be mean to me.

I also heard and sang “there my bird and soul found liberty” which left me confused because, while I was already pretty sure that I had a soul, I had no bird—not a parrot, not a parakeet, not a cockatoo, not even a Wild Chicken—that I could set free. Why did our songs challenge me with impossibilities?

I also heard and sang “There is a bomb in Gilead,” as in “There is a bomb in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a bomb in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” And I wondered how in the world a bomb could bring about healing and wholeness. The answer, of course, is that it can’t.

What the old spiritual actually says is,

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

The song is based on Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” A balm in Jeremiah’s day was a resin used for medicinal purposes; we use the term “lip balm” in our everyday language. So the prophet (and God through the prophet) was asking why the people would not turn in their hurt and brokenness to what God offered for their healing and wholeness.

The Lord through God’s Word and Spirit asks us the same thing.

While my child’s ears did not hear what the songwriter meant nor what the Lord in fact offers they did hear what we sometimes do to ourselves: where the Lord offers a balm—grace, peace, love, forgiveness, and hope—for our healing, we will instead in our hurt and brokenness reach out to what we can find for ourselves and thereby end up blowing ourselves, our situations, and our relationships sky high.

When we are as individuals or as a community hurting, we can choose between the Lord’s balm and our bombs.

Balm is better.