April 4, 2021: Easter Sunday
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
This is the joyful day we’ve been waiting for during the long purple season of Lent. It’s the day when we feel the anticipation of hope fulfilled, when we can shout “alleluia” with joy, when we follow the women to find the empty tomb. It’s my favorite day of the year, because this day is the day that we celebrate Christ’s utter and complete victory over death and the grave, because the tomb was empty and he was not there! Last night we shot off fireworks to celebrate this truth, and today we hear hymns of praise and gather with families, seeing the hope of new life on the horizon just as much in the hope of the resurrection as in the hope of a world renewed by freedom from the specter of the pandemic.
But there’s a curious detail in our gospel reading that we are reminded of every three years. Mark is a bit of an odd duck as far as the gospels go, and one of the strangest parts of how he retells the amazing story of Jesus’ resurrection, his triumph over the grave, his bursting the bonds of death, is a very noticeable lack of Jesus showing up in the story.
April 3, 2021: Easter Vigil
We meet Mary, like we do every year, at the tomb of Jesus. She’s there after the tragic and difficult events of the last few days. This rock of Jesus’ ministry, the patroness who supported her teacher and his disciples for three years while he preached and healed, had seen just how wrong everything had gone. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem had soured. The crowd had been whipped into a frenzy against him. The governor had chosen fear over justice. Her teacher, her lord, her friend, was crucified—the most shameful death imaginable. And because of the Sabbath, she had to wait before she could go to his tomb to grieve.
And things just kept getting worse. After the world rapidly collapsed around her over the last few days, the one thing that should have been stable and reliable wasn’t. Jesus’ body was missing from his own tomb! Someone, some enemy of Jesus’ mission, had plundered his grave and was taking away the one thing she had left of her teacher—a place to grieve. I think we can feel that grief pretty well this year, in ways that we were only just starting to understand a year ago.
April 1, 2021: Maundy Thursday
One of the many books that we read with Hazel is a book called “What is love, Biscuit?” Now, Biscuit is a little yellow puppy who belongs to this little girl; the two of them are the main characters of the story. And this early reader’s book repeats the same question on each page: “what is love, Biscuit?” And a reply is always there: it’s the soft blanket the cat uses to warm its kittens. It’s the crunchy cookies we bake with Dad. It’s the warm woolen blanket Grandma knits. It’s the sweet kisses Biscuit shares with the little girl. Love is this nice, warm thing that makes everyone feel nice.
We explore the idea of love a lot in our culture. It’s a feeling between two people that makes a relationship last, the kind of love that gets repeated in weddings and in romantic movies and shows up on Hallmark cards. Love is the warmth of a truly supportive friendship, the trust you build with a person who’ll be with you through thick and thin and always has your back. Love is the constant bedrock of family, even when you don’t like everyone all the time. Love gets thousands of songs and poems and movies, all trying to present a particular way of understanding love. But what happens when we ask Jesus what love is?
March 21, 2021
Over the last few weeks, it’s been getting warmer. Last weekend was amazing, to the point that we got in several good walks and Hazel got to play on the playground without having to worry about the snow. All that warm weather got me thinking about the summer and gardening, and planning out what I’d like to grow. I imagine at least some of y’all who have gardens are also starting to think about that—or maybe you’re like my neighbor and are already getting your seedlings started indoors. In the midst of thinking about that, this phrase that Jesus says about a seed falling to the earth stuck with me.
Because think about how planting something works. You put the seed into the ground, and quickly enough there’s something green that comes up. The two little leaves poking up are a pleasant reminder of the return of life in any garden—but then there’s the long wait for the fruit. You plant your tomatoes or your beans or your corn, and for a good chunk of the summer, it’s just greenery. Even the fruit that gets put on seems to take forever to actually ripen! Can you imagine what it would be like if you had never experienced growing food before?
The first time I ever walked into a liquor store, I was a little surprised by what I saw. See, I had been steeped in a culture that described drinking alcohol as a sin, and anyone who did it was a sinner. For some reason, I had always imagined that the sinfulness of liquor meant that the liquor store would be a dark, shrouded kind of place—low lights to make sure no one could recognize your face; high, dark aisles where you could discretely select your vice; and a general air of transgression. So it was surprising when I opened the door for the first time and saw a brightly lit, cheery place with chest-high aisles and a clear line of sight where no one could hide. Which, in hindsight, makes perfect sense. That idea that people hide their evil deeds in darkness had a strong grip on me.
One of the books that we’ve been reading to Hazel around bedtime lately has been a collection of the Little Critter stories. Now, it’s a collection of maybe seven stories, so it can get repetitive, but Hazel really enjoys them. And one of them is the story, “I was just so mad.” It details the frustrations of Little Critter as he keeps being told what he can’t do, each page ending with his assertion, “I was just so mad.” Well, Hazel has taken to that phrase.
She will, from time to time, cross her arms, furrow her brow, turn down her mouth, and proclaim to anyone listening, “SO MAD.” It’s honestly adorable and made all the more amusing by the fact that most of the time, there’s nothing that she’s actually mad at. However, even as she’s exploring how to express her emotions, Annie and I have to check ourselves from too quickly steering her away from anger. There’s a real tendency for people to want to avoid anger—and especially telling little girls they can’t be angry
There are few things more frustrating than watching someone else do something incorrectly, and not being able to do anything about it. We have all yelled at a television screen when the receiver completely fumbled what should have been an easy catch. We’ve all rolled our eyes at the reality show contestant who has completely the wrong idea of how to accomplish that day’s challenge. We’ve all had to bite our tongue when the colleague, the student, or our own child was clearly messing up the project but they have to learn so we don’t interfere. Growing up the phrase, “if everyone would just do what I say, we wouldn’t have these problems” got thrown around a lot. We tend to believe our way is the best way.
So it should come as no surprise how this conversation went down between Jesus and Peter. Right on the heels of Peter proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus was explaining just what that was going to look like. The Messiah would be rejected by all the leaders of the community, rejected by the people, and put to death. This mission that his disciples had been with him on for three years—announcing the kingdom of God, casting out demons, healing the sick, preaching the good news of liberation—Jesus was saying all this was going to result in him, the Messiah, being killed.
What do you imagine when you hear the word “wilderness?” It might be the barren stretches of land out west, where the painted desert is just rocks and sand and mountains. Or it might be the wide expanse of reeds with occasional cypresses of the swamps on the gulf coast. Or, for me, it’s always been the thicket of trees on rolling mountains in the backwoods of Appalachia. Wilderness is where the wild things are, where it’s untamed, where there aren’t any people. And maybe when we think of wilderness, we think of good camping grounds. It’s a place where you can reconnect with nature for a while, take a break from responsibilities, and get some fresh air.
But in Jesus’ day, and throughout the Bible, “wilderness” was never associated with anything pleasant. Wilderness was where there were dangerous wild animals. Wilderness was where you were isolated from people, and thus support or companionship or guidance. Wilderness meant no ready access to food or water for who knows how long. Wilderness was a challenge to survive, not just a getaway. Wilderness was more like a freezing and powerless ranch home in Houston’s suburbs than it was a campground a few hour’s hike from a supply station. So when the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, it was into a place where there wasn’t anything or anyone to support him.
When you’re trying to form a new habit, like get into regular exercise or going on a diet or getting through a particularly tough book, most of us, I’m sure, have taken the occasional “cheat day.” You’ve been really good up to that point, but this particular day was just a lot, and you figure you’ll cut yourself some slack. Maybe there was a lot more on your plate today, or maybe you had to work late, or maybe there was a disaster in the kitchen or an expected emergency for a family member. Basically, the day gets a bit overwhelming with stress and various responsibilities, and this new habit takes a back seat to everything. So we end up skipping a day, but to feel better about it, we excuse it with the aforementioned stressful rest of the day.
I was talking to a pastor friend of mine recently, a great guy who has lots of stories from his years in the ministry. And in this conversation, he told me a story about this woman who is always on his short list of people he prays for. See, it was some time ago when he was at a previous call that he was at a diner—the kind that was all reds and whites in Coca-Cola fashion—and he had a waitress named Jaime. While he was eating, my friend noticed that Jaime had a table of men who were the kind of customers that make you want to be nicer to your waitress, giving her a hard time and everything else. And he said that while he was there, watching this unfold, he got a sudden, distinct, very clear voice that said to him, “Pray for her for the rest of your life.” As clear as day, but he knew it was only him who heard it. So he’s been dutifully praying for Jaime every day since then.