So How’s Your Easter Going?

Well, here I am coming back, blinking in the bright light of day after being holed up for several weeks in preparation for Easter. (If the minister comes out of his hole and is scared of his shadow, is that 6 more weeks of winter? Or is that just the groundhog?) Anyway, I hope your Easter was full of joy, hope, explosive worship (metaphorically, of course) and time with family.

Remember, though. Easter isn’t just one day. Easter, traditionally, is a long feasting period between Lent and Pentecost. And if we’re intellectually honest, Easter is, well, always. See, we meet on Sunday to celebrate and remember our risen King. Each week we tell the Easter story through communion/Eucharist and the proclaiming of the good news – Jesus is alive and is King!

But do we leave Easter on one day a year? Do we live like we serve a King who has expectations, who has a mission, who has a clear guiding purpose for His church? Or do we slink back into the before times?

Celebration is great, but Easter is a starting gun. Sure, it’s the ultimate defeat of the powers of sin and death and we fear them no longer. It’s also the starting point for a lot of work. Jesus is King. It’s our God-given role to let the world know that fact. It’s also our God-given mission to live like ambassadors of that King. Ambassadors live honorably, generously, and in such a way as to bring honor on the ruler or nation they represent. An ambassador can make or break a diplomatic mission.

May your Easter continue on through this season. May you celebrate the beginning of Jesus’ reign and may your life as an ambassador bring Him honor. May the powers of sin and death bring you no more fear.

(And may your Easter candy last juuuust long enough while adding no calories to your diet.)

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One Dark Night

Your hero is dead. He was branded a traitor and killed mercilessly and cruelly. You watched as your own neighbors called for his death, shouting for the most painful execution available. Your oppressors efficiently carried out their duty, performing their grim ritual with blind reflex honed by multiple executions per month of would-be revolutionaries. Those zealots had taken up arms, had opposed the regime with righteous indignation and blood, and had paid with the same currency. The darkness overhead seems unbearable, even more oppressive than the grim eyes of the soldiers as they patrol the streets during the annual festival, prepared for another doomed coup d’etat.  You look into the eyes of your friends, once so full of hope and life, and see reflected in them your own creeping doubt and fear. Every sound, every gust of wind might be the authorities coming to take you away from your friends, your family, your own life. You look up to heaven and ask, “Why?”

At least, that’s what it would probably feel like to be a refugee in a war-torn country… or one of Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday. I can’t imagine living through the hell of war in a civilian area. As an American, the idea of fighting a war on our home turf is something out of history books and legends. Yet, so many today are living it, with nowhere to run.

Jesus’ disciples probably felt much the same the day Jesus died. Their friend, teacher, and king had been ignominiously executed between two criminals whose crimes were bad enough to draw Roman attention. This man whom they knew had done no wrong, whose revolution had been one of grace, peace, and radical love. We downplay this love. Jesus’ love for others wasn’t a wimpy, fickle love. His humility and acknowledgement of the dignity of human beings was profound, and changed lives. His love challenged authority, challenged hypocrisy, and leveled the playing field of faith. His love healed the broken, sought the lost, and strengthened the weak. His disciples felt this, and it transformed them… eventually.

Jesus’ death rattled them. Suddenly they were unsure, afraid, unable to move from their hiding place. The darkness overwhelmed and consumed their hearts, snatching victory and leaving only despair. I wonder what their prayers sounded like Friday night and Saturday? Did they pray? Did they shout in anger? Did they weep in despair? Did they recite Psalms calling for God’s judgment in harshest terms for those that had maligned and killed their teacher? Was there one that understood? Was there one who sat in the silence and heard the faintest whisper of Spirit saying, “Just wait and see…”?

In our lives it seems like we are always feeling like we are on one side or the other of Easter. We are Easter people, living in a victory that is still breaking through to our reality. But some days, we are surrounded by pain, by death, by brokenness, by sin, and we wonder whether we will ever see the light of the sun rise again. These things can’t hold Jesus… and they can’t hold us forever, either. God saved the Israelites from Egypt, and has saved us from the bonds of sin and death. God is faithful.

One dark night… led to a brilliant sun rise.

Easter is coming.

When All You Want Is a Sandwich

Yesterday was one of those days that we all dread: the day where the schedule is so packed lunch becomes a faint, dying glimmer of hope. I managed to scarf down a peanut-butter sandwich before my voice lessons started, but it was a close thing. Warm-ups get a lot harder when you’ve got peanut butter residue all in your mouth.

Lent starts tomorrow. Did you remember? Originally, it was a time for those preparing for their Easter baptism to fast, pray, and prepare themselves for the majestic, terrifying, glorious, difficult journey of following Jesus for the rest of their lives. We tend to do baptisms year-round now whenever anyone makes that incredible decision, and so Lent has become a general period of fasting, prayer, and preparation for the Easter celebration.

Fasting happens quite a lot in the Bible – and why not, it’s a religious practice that goes back millennia. In particular, I think about Jesus. In the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, after a period of fasting, his first temptation is always turning stones to bread. The temptation is a nuanced one encompassing satisfying oneself selfishly, abuse of power, relying on the self instead of trusting God. Jesus realizes the nuance and responds to the temptation like so, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus cuts right to the heart of the temptation by reciting a passage that directly states that there is more to life than worrying about what we will eat or drink, and that we should “seek first the kingdom” and then “all these things will be given.”

Thinking further along in Lent, though, is the remembering of Jesus’ last Passover meal and Passion that follows. There, Jesus institutes a new meaning to the Passover symbols. He hands his friends and followers bread, and wine, and says that they are his body and blood that are broken and spilled out on behalf of the world he loves. There is something profound about such simple, common foods being used. Jesus didn’t use the bitter herbs, or the charoset. He didn’t use a mixture of spices or a complicated recipe. He used baked grains that are served at nearly every meal across the world and said, “Remember me.”

I am no longer completely confident I understand Jesus’ phrasing in choosing, “This is my body.” I have attended Mass and felt the Spirit move at the moment of consecration. I have also felt the Spirit move while dipping bread into a cup with fellow students. I have felt the Spirit present in the quiet or celebratory sharing of a piece of Matzah and a thimble of grape juice. I have shared this moment with people from all over America, and across the world. I say all that to make this point: every meal we share with those who believe, be they family or friends or new acquaintances, can become a celebration of Jesus, his life, resurrection, and Kingdom.

So as we prepare, some fasting, some not, stop and reflect when your stomach grumbles. We do need food, but we also need God’s life and His breath to sustain us. We need His Church, our fellow disciples, as we follow our King together. We need daily what God provides through His Word.

Whether you break your fast with toast and jam, or a magnificent smorgasbord, take a moment and pray. Be thankful, be joyful, be solemn, be reverent. Wherever you happen to be in life, give your worship and thanks… even over a peanut butter sandwich.

Depression is Real

As far as topics go that Christians have a hard time discussion, three stand out more than the rest to me: sex, doubt, and mental illness. Of the three, we at least skirt sex by discussing purity, we handle doubts discreetly in closed meetings, but mental illness is closed off in its own box locked with steel reinforced doors.

Depression is a very real issue many Christians face. These very concerned individuals are often told that depression just doesn’t happen to people with real faith. Of all the damaging things Christians say, this might be the worst. Where in the Bible does anyone get the idea that people of faith are never depressed?

Sure, some people will point to Philippians’ “rejoice in the Lord always” as proof that Christians shouldn’t be depressed. “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” is another phrase that pops up in Christian circles when discussing depression.

If I sound angry or frustrated, it’s because I am. I have watched faithful people get thrown under the church bus because dealing the depression is hard, messy, and often a long process. It’s hard to admit that sometimes depression strikes even small group leaders, Sunday School teachers, and -gasp- even ministers. (Check the statistics of depression in pastors and you’ll have a wake up call to what your pastor may be dealing with.)

I’ve dealt with depression myself. I had a rough period in college where I struggled with doubt and depression. I wondered if I were really on the right path and following God, or if I were just kidding myself and not worthy of God’s love. This stuff is real. I was in a ministry training program at a fantastic school. I was serving as an intern at a church in the Children’s Ministry. Despite this, I was depressed, lethargic and wondered daily whether or not to even get out of bed. And, no, it’s not the same thing as wanting five more minutes. This was a debilitating struggle because I seriously considered that what I did meant nothing. So what happened? Did I pray it away? No. Did I have a miraculous healing? No. I talked with a doctor and was given antidepressants. And you know what? It helped.

Here’s what I cannot stand in many church circles. We like to tell people who are struggling, “Just trust God and pray and everything will be all right.” It’s a nice thought, but often times God will speak (if we’re listening) and tell us to get up off our duffs and do something about it. “But Jesus healed people who couldn’t help themselves,” you’ll say. And my response is how many of those people crawled, were carried, or cried out at the top of their voice – who had an active role in seeking out help? Almost every single one.

My favorite story in the Hebrew Bible is the one that has helped me deal with doubts and reminds me to treat others problems with respect. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah has  just witnessed God calling down fire from heaven and end a multi-year drought. God has fed him miraculously many times,and yet Elijah runs in fear of his life and crumples into a heap under a small tree and asks to die. Yes, you read that correctly, one of the great prophets felt despair, depression, exhaustion and had suicidal thoughts. God leads him to a cave and meets him there, and whispers in the silence. God addresses Elijah’s fear and worry, and encourages him, giving him a new mission.

So when you have someone in your life, or even yourself who feels depressed, seek professional help. Do not struggle alone. Do not let anyone tell you your problem isn’t real. Don’t hide your doubts and depression. Call a friend, ask for help. If you or anyone has suicidal thoughts, that’s an immediate call to professional help. Do not play, do not wait. Do not keep that a secret – someone’s life is on the line.

Trusting God includes going through depression. Paul experienced it, Peter felt it, Jesus even felt alone and despair. Who are we to say that Christians have to be happy all the time? Life is hard, but the reason faith is practiced together is so we can pick one another up and keep walking, no matter how slowly. No man gets left behind, and whether you’re carrying or being carried, we all have the same race to complete, so don’t give up hope. We have a Lord who is alive, who is King, who has overcome.

Snowy Silence

My current office is a block room with no windows. I’ve filled it to the brim with toys, supplies, instruments, and assorted decorations. It’s a fun office full of possible distractions, but my desk faces the wall which keeps me focused most days.

I’ve opened my door just enough to look out the window in the room across the hall. Right now big, fluffy snowflakes are drifting down in meandering patterns, dancing in the wind. The only sound right now is the slight whir of my laptop’s internal fan. The silence is… beautiful.

How often do you have silence? Very often while I work organizing supplies or preparing for Sundays or Wednesday activities, I’ll have music, a podcast, or some energetic music depending on the level of focus required for the task. I’m almost constantly reading, or watching, or playing something at home. I play music while I cook dinner in the afternoon.

Mornings in my office have become moments of audio silence, although I’m still usually reading or working on something. This Lent, I’m thinking of adding daily silence to my routine, just 5-10 minutes. No computer, sound, or other input… just silence.

The Psalmist wrote, “Be still and know that I am God.” I may not be creating or producing while the silence happens, but that’s part of trusting God with that time. Even when I rest, when I take time to sit in silence and prayer, God is still working and has it handled.

Do you have silence in your life? If not, when could you carve out some time to experience a little silence in your schedule?

Meals

I like food. Most people who spend any amount of time around me know I like food. I like making food, eating food, sometimes sharing food (if people ask first or I offer.) Food is one of those great things that can bring people together in a way most other events or things can’t.

So I guess it’s no surprise just how much eating is in the Bible. Many of the big key moments of the biblical narrative happen at a meal or around food of some sort. Just to name a few:

* Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
* God announcing Isaac’s birth to Sarah
* The Exodus beginning with the Passover meal
* David beginning his flight from Saul, eating the bread of the presence
* David welcoming Ish-Bosheth
* Esther saving her people from treachery happened at a banquet
* Daniel and his friends choosing veggies over unclean foods in Babylon
* A majority of Jesus’ ministry (parties and feasts – no really, go check)
* Jesus’ final Passover meal before his crucifixion

I guess I like having people over because I figure something big’s gonna happen during the meal. There’s plenty of precedence, after all.

But seriously, two meals stood out to me when I was reading up on the Easter story (yes, it’s early, but I plan ahead) for a lesson this April. I was reading the story of the Road to Emmaus. This story centers on two followers of Jesus who are heading to Emmaus, presumably their home, after the Passover week. They are distressed and discussing what had happened to Jesus when Jesus himself starts walking alongside them. They don’t recognize him, of course, but Jesus begins asking questions and ends up explaining about himself starting with Moses and the prophets and how he had to die to fulfill what was written. The followers were impressed at his knowledge and invited them to their house, and Jesus broke the bread and blessed it. Suddenly, the two travelers recognized Jesus and he vanished. They ran back to Jerusalem and told the Eleven apostles what had happened.

One phrase I left out makes a world of difference, along with a detail I had never considered. One of the commentaries I read suggested that Cleopas’s (one traveler’s name) companion might have been his wife. Which would make sense if they were headed home after Passover. The phrase is: “and their eyes were opened.” We see this several times in the Bible as a way to say someone has received understanding. Here, the two travelers received understanding that their companion was Jesus, in the flesh!

There’s another couple who receives this phrase in their story: Adam and Eve. When they eat from the tree, Genesis says, “their eyes were opened.” Suddenly, they understood disobedience and shame. They wanted to cover themselves and hide. Their understanding was pain itself.

But now fast forward to this passage in Luke: a couple has their eyes opened to the new life Jesus talked about. They see Jesus and recognize him as the Messiah, the Savior, the King. They recognize that the fear, shame, pain, and death that came from that first meal has completely changed. At a table so far separated by time, a new recognition dawns and this couple understands Jesus’ mission and victory!

So when people like me say that meals are important for the family, the biblical narrative seems to support that. Big things happen during meals. Understanding between members is fostered, and knowledge and wisdom pass from generation to generation. Laughter is shared, pain is shared. A regular family meal is something that should not be ignored, no matter how fast life moves.

May your family meals be impactful, fun, and a place of love.