Christ is still risen. Are you still celebrating?
It was easy to be filled with the hope and joy of Easter this past Sunday morning. Especially after not being able to gather for worship at all on Easter in 2020, there was something extra celebratory regarding Easter this year. The purple of Lent turns to the white of Easter. The music is uplifting. The church is full. The lilies were in bloom. The alleluias return and we join in the church wide proclamation, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!” There is an extra level of energy and excitement found in the church on Easter Sunday.
But now a few days after Easter, is the joy fading? It seems almost inevitable that the Easter enthusiasm will begin to wilt. The plastic egg hunts are over. The chocolate bunnies are eaten. Our homes are littered with empty candy wrappers. A cynical world mocks us for our traditions and belief that a dead man could actually raise from the dead. We’re back to a sober reality—pandemic, economic hardships, and the ongoing list of unpleasant realities of the day. We want to rejoice; we know we should rejoice. But to be honest we just don’t have it within ourselves to remain joyful. How can we sustain the Easter joy? How can we still live in the joy of the resurrection?
Unsurprisingly, Holy Week is a busy time for those that work (or volunteer) in the church. Creating liturgies. Printing bulletins. Practicing hymns. Writing sermons. Preparing the proper paraments, candles and Communion. But for all the things to do, the Wednesday of Holy Week has always been oddly quiet. The calm before the storm, so to speak. That’s the striking reality in the pages of scripture too. During the first holy passion week of Jesus, there seems to be an open date on Jesus’ otherwise jam-packed calendar. Relative silence. What did He do on this day? There’s really no way for us to know. We can only speculate what may have been going through the mind Jesus, knowing in parts nearby the religious establishment were working out the details of His unjust demise. Indeed, we have a blank day in the middle of the most important seven days in the history of man. But perhaps it is intentional; and something we can apply to our own yearly celebration. With that in mind I share this reflection with you…
Although the exact sequence of events is not always clear to us, we can discern, even now, the straight lines of divine order... Sunday: The garments in the dust - the Hosannahs as the prelude to the "Crucify."... Monday: Sermons with the urgent note of finality - the withered fig tree - Caesar's coin... Tuesday: The terrifying wrath of the Lamb over institutionalized and personal sin among the Scribes and Pharisees - the fire and color of His last sermon to the city and the world - the sureness of justice and the coming of judgment... Night and prayer in the light of the Easter moon on the Mount of Olives...
Wednesday is silent... If anything happened, the holy writers have drawn the veil... Everything that God could say before the Upper Room had been said... It was man's turn now... Perhaps there were quiet words in a corner of the Garden, both to His children who would flee and to His Father who would stay... Wednesday was His... The heart of that mad, crowded Holy Week was quiet... Tomorrow the soldiers would come, and Friday there would be God's great signature in the sky... Thursday and Friday would belong to time and eternity, but Wednesday was of heaven alone...
Silent Wednesday... If our Lord needed it, how much more we whose life is the story of the Hosanna and the Crucify... Time for prayer, for adoration... Time to call the soul into the inner court and the Garden... In our crowded world we are lonely because we are never alone... No time to go where prayer is the only sound and God is the only light... We need more silent Wednesdays... In the glory of the Cross above our dust, our silence can become purging and peace... God speaks most clearly to the heart that is silent before Him... [O.P. Kretzmann, The Pilgrim]
This quiet Wednesday can be a day to pray, a day to cherish our families and those close to us, and a day to rest and make plans for worship. It is certainly a day to be in awe of Jesus who could have filled this Holy Week Wednesday with miracles that would have left his enemies powerless. But no, he knew the cross had to come and so, in silence, he prepared for it today. It may not show up on a calendar, but we have of thanks that Jesus filled this empty day with the determination to go forward to the cross.
Sitting here, contemplating what to write. Yet another blog blurb, and I can’t help but take on a more somber tone. The news continues to be a dismal glimpse into fallen mankind. More acts of evil. Terror in grocery stores. Chaos in spa parlors. Needless deaths. Innocent victims. Like so many others across the world, I was shocked and disheartened by the news of Monday afternoon. Innocent people meet their untimely passing. You may not pay too close attention to the news. After all this happened thousands of miles away; it did not impact us directly. So, we go back to our regular routines and normal lives. Yet at the end of the day, the great tragedy is that children lost parents and parents lost children. Death reared its ugly head and left horrendous loss and pain in its wake. It is true that tragedies happen every single day; they just don’t get the national coverage nor media recognition. Still there is something about shocking, unexpected, far-too-soon acts of death that cause people to stop in their tracks and get sick to their stomach. I did. Even being so far removed, the events still shake me. News coverage and stories captivate me. My heart breaks for the families impacted.
Sadly, it often takes a shattering tragedy for perspective to ground me in what is truly important. This is probably true for many of us. They provide a “reality check” for my life. Self-reflection is powerful when you candidly stop to see what you may need to change in life. And so, here are some of my own thoughts in the dark wake of Colorado’s events…
Wait a minute... is there really more to this day than corned beef & cabbage dinners, green beer, and 'Kiss Me I'm Irish' t-shirts? This day doesn’t actually have anything to do with bar crawls or Lucky Charms? Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the unofficial sentiment that “Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” Plus, I do absolutely plan on stopping by McDonald’s for a Shamrock Shake at some point today. But there are much deeper roots of this holiday that go relatively unknown by those in our country today.
Today (yesterday) is the Feast Day of St. Patrick, commemorating the life and legacy of the man who brought the gospel to the Irish. Born in England way back in 389, St. Patrick was kidnapped and enslaved by savage and violent Irish raiders at the young age of 16. He was sold to be a shepherding slave by these pirate warriors, living in horrible conditions—often hungry, cold, threatened by elements and abused by his captors. Patrick was enslaved in Ireland for the next 6 years before he escaped and fled back home. He later confessed that as a youth he had turned away from God; but it was during his time as a slave that Patrick was led back to faith in God. Upon his escape and return to England, he spent the next several years in a monastery strengthening his relationship with God. After becoming a priest, St. Patrick sensed God's call to return to Ireland as a missionary.
He came back to Ireland, a beautiful country that was ruled by tribalism, warlords and druids. They worshipped many gods and practiced magical arts. Patrick came and told them about the true God. Against great hostility and aggressive resistance, he preached throughout the land and was so successful that Ireland became known as the Isle of Saints. His ministry led hundreds of thousands to Christ.
The saga continues.
Garden State license plates securely on. Official NJ driver licenses delivered and in the wallets. This week it was inspection time. Our minivan passed with flying colors. Piece of cake. My wife was in and out of the inspection station (Newton this time, 😉) in 10 minutes. Our 2005 Toyota Corolla? Not so much. But on the plus side, I now have a stunning new piece of decor for my car. It is a bright red sticker on my windshield. It’s very pretty. Oh, and did I mention, it includes eight big, black letters. R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D.
Bummer. But it wasn’t a surprise. To be fair, we were pretty certain this was going to happen. After all, parts of my car are held together by gorilla tape and zip ties. Plus for the past couple of months my “Check Engine” light has been an ever-present, glowing reminder that something was wrong. Whatever that light indicated was askew, I knew it was not something I could fix myself. Add a few other known infirmities and we very much anticipated not passing the inspection. We were right. REJECTED. I guess 203K miles and a growing list of needed repairs will do that to you.
Glad I’m not a car…
Something doesn’t work right? REJECTED.
Speak a hurtful word? REJECTED.
Do a bad thing? REJECTED.
Welcome to the Garden State”
It’s becoming more and more official. Check another box off of our cross-country move list. We now have NJ license plates on our cars and our official NJ drivers licenses are in the mail. Of course, you know what this means. In order for these things to take place, my lovely wife and I had to make a fun, exhilarating trip. Who needs a date night or weekend getaway? Day trip to the beach? No way! When we’re looking for a good time, we head to Wayne and visit the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. Fasten your seat belts. Keep your arms and legs inside at all times. It’s gonna be wild ride. Rip-roaring excitement awaits. Try not to get too jealous, but yes indeed, this past Friday, we spent about two hours of our day at the DMV. Did you just inwardly groan or wince when you read that? 😉
What a stressful two hours that was! Even though we had scheduled appointments far in advance, had (almost) all of our paperwork in hand and all our forms filled out, there was still this incredible sense of stress and tension the moment we walked into the walls of that DMV. Perhaps it was the armed security guards or the receptionist who had about the same level of charm as an angry raccoon, but we immediately felt like our very presence in that building was an inconvenience to everyone else in the room. My wife said it felt like she was being brought before a judge and about to be thrown into jail. To me it felt more like being called into the principal’s office, unsure if I was there to get a new class schedule or about to be expelled. Either way, the institutional confines of the DMV were anything but warm and fuzzy. Though for the most part, the employees were helpful and patient (at least to us), we both felt like we were walking on eggs shells and just one misstep a way from being yelled at and sent to the naughty corner. Thankfully the trip was successful, albeit a tad nerve-wracking. When we were finally done, we both plopped down in the car and almost simultaneously said, “I need a drink!” It had to be 5 o’clock somewhere! And like the cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae, now we get to go and get both cars inspected. The fun never stops. I’m sure they’ll just ignore my glowing check engine light…right?
“Slowly but surely…”
This has been the mantra for my wife and I during the past several weeks as we get “slowly but surely” settled into our new home. Bins unpacked. Moving boxes recycled. Wall hangings hung. Blind fixtures installed. Furniture (at least what we have) arranged. Basement shelves built. But make no mistake, we are still very much a work in progress.
Little by little.
Bit by bit.
Slowly but surely.
Though place the order way back in December, we still wait for couches and a dining set to arrive. There are many items that haven’t found a permanent home. The basement is unmercifully flooded with boxes and random objects. And there is definitely no room yet in the garage for my car. (Please know I'm not complaining; this is just a commentary on our reality. I am keenly aware of the "first world" problems to start this post.) As much as I wish it could all be done and put away with just the snap of two fingers, it doesn’t work that way. Of course, we will get there eventually. After all, we haven’t even lived in the home for a full month yet! Slowly but surely we will achieve our desired results, gradually and methodically rather than quickly and spectacularly.
"For dust you are and to dust you shall return." Genesis 3:19
With COVID concerns still real and restrictions still necessary, more churches than ever (ours included) will not be doing the imposition of ashes this year. And while that may seem strange for some, it can also provide a helpful reality check. Why do we do it? What’s the point? Is our worship invalid or incomplete without it? This now suspended tradition reminds us that all such customs, although potentially helpful, are just man-made symbolic gestures. Think about it, you don’t need dirt on your forehead to remind you that you are soiled in sin and stuck in a fallen world. That evidence is all around us! The prophet Joel reminded the people of Israel that, when it came to repentance, God was interested in their attitudes far more than their actions, attentive to their hearts far more than their visible exterior, concerned with their character far more than their customs. “Yet even now,” declare the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” In other words, true repentance is an inward condition, not an outward appearance. God wants our hearts, not our foreheads. True repentance is not a matter of ashes underneath your hairline, but a repentant posture of the heart before God.
"Lord, I'm flawed and a failure. But I am yours, save me!"
This is a confession we can make no matter the use of external traditions or practices. But if we can use something so that these resonate a bitter deeper, in a way that convicts us and strikes us to our sinful core than so be it. As such, the reason for this ritual practice that starts the season of Lent boils down to three primary purposes: First, the ashes remind people of their sinfulness. Second, the ashes remind people of their mortality. Third, the ashes remind people that they have been redeemed. If you partake in ashes or not (this year or any other), just remember this... whether you receive that dirty smudge and reminder of death on Ash Wednesday or not, what is far more significant than the symbolic act of putting this mark of ashes on the forehead, is the Gospel-laden action of washing them off afterwards. The ashes are only worth “celebrating” if it serves to bring us back to the soul-cleansing, dirt-washing, sin-removing work of our Savior Jesus. In Jesus, our slow-to-anger and merciful God relents over our deserved and pending disaster. We are plucked from the perils of wrath and hell, and placed into the cleansing blood of Jesus. No longer is our final destination the dust of the ground, but now we look forward to the beautiful gates of paradise. As a believer splashes water on his/her forehead to remove that dirty mark, we remember our baptism where we were cleansed of sin through water and the Word. We know we can’t save ourselves so we “rend our hearts” back to the Lord to receive the gift of purifying that only Jesus can give. Whether literally marked with ashes or not, we enter the penitential season of Lent praying that God would have mercy on us, forgive us our sin and bring us to everlasting life!
"Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit with us" (Psalm 51)
I've come across this picture many times. I'm not sure of it's origins so I can't give proper credit to the phrase or the photo. Nevertheless, it's a good note of encouragement to keep things in perspective. Easy to read. Nearly effortless to remember. Certainly simple enough to post onto our timelines and newsfeeds. Yet often much more challenging to actually put into practice. The world overwhelms us with responsibilities and commitments. We have much to do. We have bills to pay. We have children to parent. We have work deadlines to meet. We have tasks to accomplish. We have expectations to live up to.
In the chaotic and busy lives of His people, God promises to be with us. He doesn't leave us to ourselves, drowning in a sea of responsibilities and unending to-do lists. In stress and in grief, He is there. In thralls of depression and ensnared in a funk, He is there. In exhaustive loneliness and untamed anger, He is there. God is with you. These are the words of Isaiah written on the post-it note: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (43:2) This reflective snapshot of Israel’s history reminds us that God will not allow anything to destroy His beloved people. We still walk through the dangerous waters and threatening fires, but we will be divinely protected. To those He has created, redeemed, and called by name He invites us to cast aside fear in favor of faith. He is alone is our Savior and source of peace.
No matter what’s happening around us, if we try to keep the proverbial water out of our lives ourselves, we will inevitably be weighed down and sink. Instead, turn to the Lord. He is there. He loves you. He is with you. Don’t look inwardly; but look outside of yourselves and up to the heavens. Then pray over these words from scripture, “…those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
I remember coasting through my senior year of high school. I had already been accepted to the college I was planning to attend and the majority of my course load was either required or relatively easy. Senioritis had kicked in and was in full effect! But then there was my still 100% required English class. Though the class itself was not incredibly difficult nor was the classwork too burdensome, I had coasted a bit too long and a bit too far. Not-so-suddenly my grade dropped to the danger point of not being able to graduate. Yikes, talk about a wake-up call! A direct result of my laziness and thoroughly enjoying the fun of a socially active senior year left me in a precarious position. Fortunately, with a few extra assignments and a generous, albeit a bit wacky, English teacher, I was able to finish the year off strong. I passed the class and did not have to miss any of the graduation day festivities. There is great danger in coasting through things. We miss important events, overlook essential details, or we fall into an apathetic laziness that can have all sorts of ramifications for our lives.
This year, as the church season of Lent soon begins, we would do well to ensure we don’t miss the indispensable narrative of Jesus’ passion week. Lent is a season of 40 days where we take time, intentionally and meditatively, to zero in and reflect on the need for and preparations of Easter Sunday. We dare not coast through Lent. It could be an easy trap though, anxiously anticipating the victorious celebration of Easter without taking time for prayerful self-examination. That’s like celebrating the cure without acknowledging the severity of the disease. Our gratitude and excitement for Easter is more deeply appreciated when we take time to consider the brokenness brought on by our sin and the suffering of our Lord.
During the season of Lent, we see God putting back together a shattered world, and more importantly our shattered relationship with the Creator. We dare not miss this story because we’re too busy or distracted. We dare not overlook it because we’re having too much fun or spiritually slacking off. We dare not become so apathetic of despondent from COVID restrictions and wearisome limitations that we see Lent come and go without giving it any time or meditation.
Think of it this way… When driving a car, if I take my foot off the pedal, the car does not speed up. It doesn’t even maintain the same speed. Instead, from the very moment I take my foot off the accelerator, the car begins to slow down. Allowing the car to coast is inviting the car to stop. It may take some time, but left on its own, the car will stop eventually. It is inevitable. Before you know it, a long hill or unanticipated obstacle comes and you don’t have the momentum to move forward. This Lent I encourage you be intentional about not coasting in your relationship with Jesus. Lent is not a time for us to take the foot off the pedal, but to intentionally keep moving to Jesus. Find a resource, like this one here, to study and grow—grasping tightly to the incredible tools the Lord gives us in His Word and in worship to ensure our coasting doesn’t end in a complete spiritual stop!