Put off by religious types?

A few weeks ago, our sons helped lead the funeral service for their grandmother (my wife’s mother). Presbyterians call this “A Witness to the Resurrection and a Celebration of Life,” and so our sons made sure that the resurrection was front and center at the service. Like her late husband, Lorraine lived with the assurance that she belonged to God; that this life was not all there is; and that one day she would rise to see her loved ones again.

The loss of a loved one is one of the few occasions when people open up about faith. One person expressed views that ministers often hear: he didn’t believe, he said, because he’d been turned off by the rules and hypocrisy he’d seen in church growing up; the religion he’d experienced seemed too confining; and there were plenty of people on the Internet who shared his views.

Acknowledged.

But what does any of that have to do with the fact that Jesus Christ, who was stone cold dead, came out of the tomb?

Are you telling me that, because you were put off by some church people, that’s going to influence the way you understand the most important event in history?

You let a bad experience of church shape how you understand reality itself?

Far from being confining, the resurrection is the most liberating news you could possibly hear. The resurrection means that we can live with courage and love and hope because we have proof that God is for us, and that God is dealing with the problem beneath all our other problems.

Of course, if Jesus really did come out of the tomb, and I believe he did, it creates a bigger challenge for us than what to do about “religious” people. The risen Jesus calls us to choose him so that he might use us to transform the world today, and so that one day we might rise with him and live with him forever.

What’s influencing that choice for you?  

Why doesn’t Easter change us?

A long time ago, a grieving woman went to a garden tomb to pay last respects. Mary had lived a life of torment and despair. Today, we’d probably say she suffered from mental illness; in our day, it seems epidemic. Mary had intended to say farewell to her teacher and friend, the one who had given her hope when everyone had given up on her.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she found. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been removed; the body was gone; and just the burial cloths remained. Mary ran to get her friends. They ran back to the tomb and found things just as she had said.

While the men went off to process what they’d seen, Mary just stood there crying. Then someone called her name, “Mary!” and as she turned to look, the whole world turned with her. There was Jesus, her teacher and friend, risen from the dead.

You can’t make this stuff up: the most important meeting in the history of the world was between God and a mental patient.

In some ways Mary was like a lot of us. She’d lived a life of desperation, possessed by something beyond her control. But from that moment on, her life had purpose. She was the first evangelist of the Good News, her name forever synonymous with resurrection hope.

Why aren’t we changed like Mary?

I’ve become convinced that it’s because we don’t put our beliefs into action. We don’t worship, study, pray, serve, or share our faith as we should. In other words, we don’t make ourselves available to God in ways that allow change to take place.

In a world filled with depression, anxiety, bullying, division, and worse, we should all be running to our friends with the Good News.

Jesus can still change you the way he changed Mary. Could this be the year you let him?

Easter as a verb

The commercial shows a neighborhood full of kids on the wildest Easter-egg hunt ever. They rip off their Easter ties and hair bows, and go at it, running to snatch eggs out of the air, diving to find them at the bottom of swimming pools, and even searching for them with drones. All the while, the 1970’s rock anthem, “One Way or Another” blasts in the background. Inside, parents prepare for the Easter meal in relative peace and quiet, equipped with everything they need, from Wal-Mart.

The commercial ends with the line, “Easter like you mean it.”

It’s too bad that Wal-Mart so blatantly commercializes Easter. But at least the commercial points to a greater truth: If we really understood what Easter was about, we’d live with joy and abandon, like those kids in the commercial.

We’d all “Easter like we mean it.”

The first example of “Easter like you mean it” was Mary Magdalene. On the first Easter, she ventured to the tomb in the dark. Finding the stone rolled away, she ran to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved.

Then the two disciples raced to the tomb. Peter barged right in. Hesitating for a moment, the disciple Jesus loved saw the folded grave clothes and believed.

That’s “Easter like you mean it.”

Later, when the Risen Jesus met the bewildered disciples, he commissioned them to “Easter” the whole world. Infused with Easter power, they did just that.

Easter is proof that death and the dark forces that want to control us have been defeated. We can live with joy and abandon, knowing that everything Jesus followers do is part of renewing God’s creation.

Nothing could stop Jesus from rising from the tomb, and nothing can ultimately stop Easter people like us.

Live with joy and abandon. “Easter like you mean it.”

 

The Main Thing

Leadership guru, the late Stephen Covey, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Covey was talking about focus, the importance of spending time on what’s most important and avoid being sidetracked. I’ve got to admit this is a problem for me. I love new ideas. I have to constantly remind myself to stay focused.

But when it comes to a life of faith, what is the main thing anyway? Worship? Prayer? The Bible?

Jesus?

If asked to identify “the main thing,” I wonder how many Christians would agree. You would think that if Christians actually agreed on the main thing, the church in North American would be in a lot better shape.

Jesus is the main thing, isn’t he? But what about Jesus is the main thing? Love? Truth? Mercy? The cross? Justice?

In 1st Corinthians 15:1-11, the Apostle Paul says, “What I received I passed on to you as first importance.” This is Paul’s synopsis of the main thing. It’s worth knowing.

My take:

Jesus is Lord. He’s the main thing.

The main thing about Jesus is the Gospel, the news of what he came to do: Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead. In doing that he paid the price for sin, joins his followers to God, and gives them eternal life.

The main thing about the Gospel is the raising part, the resurrection. Jesus is breathing new life into everything, including his followers, beginning now.

As followers we most often get off track, not from doing outright evil, but from turning good things into main things.

Resurrection

It always amazes me that we celebrate the resurrection only one day a year.

We go on and about Christmas, but without the resurrection, there would be no Christian faith. Without the resurrection, Jesus would be remembered as a teacher who said some wise things, if he was remembered at all. More likely he would be forgotten, like all the other leaders of messianic movements, (there were lots of them) whose movements died with them.

In his book, Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life, Eugene Peterson examines how the risen Jesus comes alive in us. Peterson begins by noticing the sense of wonder that’s common to the resurrection accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This wonder is expressed in five ways:

First, the resurrection caught everyone totally unawares. Jesus repeatedly said he would die and be raised on the third day, but nobody believed him. Resurrection is not something we master. We have to let God continue to surprise us.

Second, no one did anything to prepare for the resurrection. No one’s worldview in the first century allowed for a person to be raised from the dead in the middle of history. So Peterson says, “Everyone is a beginner in this business. There are no experts.”

Third, marginal people played a prominent role in the story. In the same way, it will be the poor, minorities, the suffering, the rejected, poets, and children who have the most to teach us about resurrection.

Fourth, the resurrection took place quietly, without publicity or spectators. The changes the risen Jesus wants to make in us will come quietly.

Finally, the most common response to the resurrection was fear. It’s still true with us. We’re afraid when we don’t know what will happen to us, or what God wants to do in us.

Will you allow the risen Jesus to come alive in you?

Risen

In the movie Risen, Joseph Fiennes plays a Roman Tribune named Clavius who is ordered by Pontius Pilate to investigate what happened to the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. Clavius is portrayed as a good soldier, albeit ambitious. He doesn’t want to be in Jerusalem, but does his duty while he waits for better assignments to come along. He certainly doesn’t care for this current assignment, going around the city digging up dead bodies.

But a funny thing starts to happen to Clavius. Being a good soldier, he follows the evidence. Slowly he starts to realize that the person he’s looking for might actually have risen from the dead.

Christians who demand that movies stick strictly to the Biblical text will find parts of Risen not to their liking. And of course Clavius is a completely fictional character. But there is something powerful about the way he deals with the new reality he’s confronted with. Clavius could be any thoughtful person who allows his own ideas to be challenged by the facts.

In the first century, nobody believed that a person could rise from the dead. It was totally outside the worldview of both Jews and Greeks. Yet within a few hundred years, Christianity went from a small, marginalized sect to being the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

Clavius discovered, as billions of people have since, once the evidence begins to sink in, your worldview has to change.

Wonder

The Bible can seem like a long and intimidating book, but when you look closely, you see that the most amazing things are conveyed in very few words. In telling the story of the resurrection in just ten verses, Matthew isn’t interested in how God pulled it off. Matthew wants us to experience the wonder for ourselves.

When Jesus turned water into wine, there’s no description of how it happened. All we know is that when the master of the banquet tasted the wine, he discovered the greatest vintage ever.

When Jesus fed the 5,000, there’s no description of that either. All the disciples knew was that when they reached into their baskets, the bread and fish never ran out.

In Matthew’s account of the first Easter, Jesus himself met the terrified women running back to tell the disciples about the empty tomb. “Hi,” he said.

God’s first word after conquering death and ushering in new life for all creation was the simple everyday greeting used by the Greeks, chairete. Literally, “rejoice.”

Today we simply say, “Hi.”

Part of the wonder of the resurrection is how subtly it comes.

God is making everything new. The power of what happened that day is seeping into every nook and cranny of the universe. Nothing can stop it. No matter how good or bad things get, the best is always yet to come, and we have an eternity to enjoy it. Our lives have purpose and meaning, since we are part of God’s plan. But resurrection life can be so subtle that we can miss it.

Live each day in joy and wonder.

Chairete. Rejoice.

 

A justice’s faith

Within minutes of the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, political posturing over his replacement began. The irony is that partisan bickering is one of the reasons voters seem to be attracted to “outsider” presidential candidates this year.

But then came the moving, personal tributes from every one of Justice Scalia’s colleagues on the Supreme Court. It got me wondering. Why was Justice Scalia so loved by so many, including those who differed with him on the great legal issues of our time? Perhaps one of the reasons was that Antonin Scalia was a man of deep faith.

In 1998, all the Supreme Court justices attended the funeral  for Justice Lewis Powell at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. A few days later, the minister, Dr James Goodloe, received a letter from Justice Scalia. It’s worth reading in its entirety.

 Dear Dr. Goodloe:

I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.

In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians, I am surprised at how often the eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)

Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.

Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.

 Sincerely,

Antonin Scalia