Thursday, April 08, 2021

The New Normal

As much as it pains me to say it, welcome to our second Easter season during the COVID pandemic. Around this time last year, we were trying to look for signs of resurrection while many virus-related lockdowns and cancellations were still relatively fresh, and the novelty of participating in worship while it emanated from empty sanctuaries or makeshift home studios did not yet feel like the soul-debilitating slog that it has become.
This year, there may be cause for greater hope as the vaccine rollout continues and as many entities cautiously make plans for a future that will see resumed interaction and gathering and returns to some semblance of what we used to call normal. So new life might be slightly easier to spot this Easter compared to last, even if guidelines and mandates will continue for a while longer. 
So one question facing us this time around might be what our new normal will look like. After all, the fallout, the grief, the realizations that we’ve had related to how we work, how we interact, and how we can most effectively be the church will be with us for a while yet, even after it is deemed safe for people to gather again. With all that we have discovered and lost and experienced during this time, “normal” will not be what it was.
Fortunately, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 lend themselves quite well to the sorts of questions we may be asking at this phrase of the pandemic:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

He first speaks of the message of good news that he received from others, indicating that the early church is already engaging in its work of evangelism and proclamation so that others may receive this good news themselves. Paul is one such recipient, and in the spirit of his receiving the good news, he too has passed it on to the believers at Corinth.
But with proclamation there has also been transformation. Paul has not only received a message, but also his own experience along with it. He sums up the message as “Christ lived, Christ died, Christ was raised by God, and then Christ appeared.” He recaps a handful of appearances that the risen Jesus has made to Peter, the rest of the disciples, to a group of over 500 people, and then, last and least, to Paul himself.
And it was this appearance that really set Paul forth on a new sense of mission and calling. Whereas before he was a persecutor of the church of God, he is now an apostle of that same church, a fellow proclaimer alongside others, a sharer of the message that he first received. 
“By the grace of God,” he says, “I am what I am.” Not by his own will or strength or talent (of which he has plenty, he finds a way to mention), but by what he has received from God and from his fellow workers in the faith.
With the message of resurrection and the realization that the risen Christ is still an active and life-giving presence in the world, comes a new normal. It brings a new way to see the world around us, more full of hope and grace even if the circumstances don’t present much cause for either. Alongside and underneath the questions of how to move forward, how to cope, how to process, how to live in a reality that will not be like it was, walks Jesus, raised and alive, ever-present and still appearing, transforming us and inviting us to proclaim and aid in the transformation of others.
Whatever our normal looks like after the pandemic, we will live it as an Easter people, made so by the grace of God.

This was adapted from my recent segment for the Pulpit Fiction podcast.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Coffeehouse Contemplative Podcast 7: Just Do Today


Listen on Anchor or click the player below. Subscribe on iTunes.

So many of us live closely by our schedules and to-do lists. But those schedules and to-do lists come with worries and an overdeveloped preoccupation on what comes next. We have both the possibilities and limitations of any given day, and both can be gifts.

Music: "Reflections" by Wild Wonder

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Vintage Post: Maundy Thursday

I wrote this post in April 2009, which is one of many times I've written over the years about how meaningful Maundy Thursday, Holy Week, and all of Lent are to me. Going through this season without leading a worshipping community through it for the first time in 15 years has been an adjustment, and this also speaks to what the experience of doing so was like for me that particular year. 

My earliest memory of Maundy Thursday (it actually could have been Good Friday) was when I was in elementary school. My dad was serving what would be his last settled pastorate, and a small portion of the congregation gathered in our country church for a solemn assembly observing Jesus' final hours. 

I don't remember much about the service, as I had the attention span of a goldfish (some say I still do). However, I do clearly remember the story of Jesus' final breath being taken. It was at this point that the organist played a loud chord, almost as if she just pulled out the stops and then slammed her hands on a few random keys. When that happened, the lights went out. We'd sit in darkness for a few moments until a single candle was lit in the chancel and the final words of the evening were spoken. 

In later years, I recall tenebrae being observed in a darkened sanctuary after a fellowship meal. A few high school kids would be recruited to don black robes and hoods, each holding a candle. After each reading, one of us would blow out a candle. Once we were in darkness, someone would sing two verses of "Were You There?" from the balcony. The first year that I experienced this had to be senior year of high school or later, because I remember being surprised and moved by the song. This remains for me the most meaningful element of any worship service I attend or lead all year. 

Tonight at my own little church on the hill, this will mark the end of our time together. We'll observe communion by intinction and hear the tenebrae readings, helped along by music from The Last Temptation of Christ and Dead Can Dance. And then as we sit in darkness, "Were You There?" will echo through the room in a deep baritone voice. 

This puts Easter in its proper context. On Palm Sunday I strive to communicate that we don't just go from "Hosanna" to "Alleluia"...those who don't make it out for any mid-Holy Week offerings end up hearing the passion story anyway. As of late, I consider this in terms of Moltmann and his notion that we can't view Jesus' revelation of God apart from the cross. This goes beyond ideas about sacrifice or substitution or final victory...what does it mean to follow a crucified Lord, a suffering servant? It's the kind of thing that throws notions of "all-powerful God" and certain "Jesus as UFC fighter" images into serious question. 

Christians follow a Savior who dies. He has his final meal, he's beaten up, and he dies. Alone. Outside the city gates with the outcasts and criminals. He dies far away from squeaky-clean suburban megachurches and cute clapboard country chapels. He dies far away from our self-righteous protests and petitions, from the ongoing war to claim sole possession of the True Christian Voice. He dies far away from our bureaucracies and denominations and national headquarters and people decrying poverty while wearing tailor-made suits. He dies because of power instead of exhibiting it or claiming it or bestowing it. He dies for and with and as the poor. 

He dies. And as Christians we have to live with that. As Christians, we have to make sense of that. 

And that's really the only way for Easter to make any sense.

Monday, March 29, 2021

I'm on Pulpit Fiction this week

I have contributed the "Voice in the Wilderness" segment to this week's edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast, which takes a look at the Revised Common Lectionary texts each week leading to the coming Sunday.

This time around, my assignment was 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, one of the texts for this Sunday, April 4th, which of course is Easter.

You can listen at their website or just click play below: