Choosing to Live in Easter

Scott Armstrong

Lent and Holy Week have been pretty important in my life and my spiritual walk through the years.  And there is nothing better than when the fasting and solemnity they bring finally culminates in the massive outburst of joy at Easter.  Christ is risen! There is no better celebration than Easter!

Or at least there should be.

In many cultures, churches see a bump in attendance at Easter and everyone dresses up. The music is lively and high-quality. There are years that even the sun seems to shine brighter on Easter!

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This past Easter did not exactly look like that in the church my wife and I pastor. We serve as missionaries in Dominican Republic and are volunteering as pastors of a small church plant in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.  We had been talking up our Holy Week services for many weeks, especially Easter.  We had prepped our leadership team for the important day, and the celebration was ready!

Or so we thought.

We arrived early and I had forgotten the keys to the little, concrete building. Normally that’s not a problem. But today the other two laypeople who always get there early to clean and set up were not there.  After a few phone calls and our 15-year old running a couple blocks to get the key, we found ourselves sweeping and wiping off chairs five minutes before the start of service.

Not that there were a bunch of people awkwardly waiting to get in.  Holy Week is vacation week in much of Latin America and half of our congregation was out of town.  When you are a church of 45, that gets noticed easily.  By the time the service started, we were mostly kids and a few sleepy adults.  Jesus is alive! But are we?!

The leader we are training to be the future pastor preached well, but it had more to do with Father’s Day than Easter.  Father’s Day is in two months.

Maybe you are better than me.  Maybe you don’t let any of this stuff get to you. But I found it distracting and disheartening.  What a downer!  This is supposed to be Easter, people!

To be honest, I was in a slumber, and it was of my own doing.  I needed a Resurrection as much as anybody.

We began to read from the passage in Luke.

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb…”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here; he is risen!”

With each familiar phrase, my eyes started to open in wonder to all God was doing in our midst.

The sixth-grade girl I was sharing my Bible with was following along in silent interest. She had not even wanted to read anythingwhen we met her in Sunday School two years ago.

The university student leading worship was doing a tremendous job.  He truly believes what he’s saying and singing!

Hey, that’s the fourth time in a row that José has come; God must really be doing something in his life.

The evidence of life was all around me.  Low attendance? Fidgety little kids? Off-topic message? Who cares?!  Christ busted out of the tomb and that changes everything!

Next week I can guarantee you that there are going to be lots of things that go wrong before, during, and after our services.  But I will choose to live in the reality of Easter.  All that stuff is inconsequential compared to our risen Lord triumphing over death, hell, and the grave!

Will you join me this week? Lent and Holy Week have come and gone.  But Easter remains.  Why would you keep looking for the living among the dead?

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Mary Magdalene

By Frederick Buechner

It’s at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified—she had more guts than most of them had—and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best is on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, “Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). She wasn’t thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn’t let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

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Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there.

Instead of answering her, he spoke her name—Mary—and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it’s impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that, for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again. “Rabboni!” she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

Noli me tangere,” he said. “Touch me not. Don’t hold on to me” (John 20:17),thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she’d thought he was dead as a doornail, but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn’t be touched anymore, wasn’t there anymore as a hand to hold on to when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here—old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend—and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist.

*Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

The Cross is Still There

By Scott Armstrong

Along with the rest of the world I watched yesterday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France went up in flames.  The unspeakable tragedy became clear as its famous spire tumbled to the ground below. Millions of people correctly lamented such a horrendous loss and attempts to raise funds in order to refurbish the cathedral are thankfully bearing fruit, although the overall cost of renovation will be astronomical.

Amidst the wreckage, photos began to show the impact of the fire.  One in particular, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer, hit home with many of us.  It shows the altar inside Notre Dame, with smoke still rising from its ruins.  But, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the viewer’s eyes are not drawn at first to the orange-red embers of the ashes. The preeminent symbol rising from the wreckage is a golden cross.  After all the devastation and loss, the cross is still there.

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I am not the first one to write about this symbolism and I will assuredly not be the last. But the fact that this occurs during Holy Week is not lost on many of us.  In a world that proclaims in Europe and elsewhere that Christianity is outdated and nothing more than a fond relic, followers of Christ proclaim this week and always that Jesus’ death on the cross is still effective to change lives. In fact, we proclaim that God is still at work in a burning world.

Or do we?

Every year I call our people to reflect on our Lord’s journey to the cross during Lent. And every year I receive criticism from different leaders and church members.  “Lent is Catholic, not Evangelical!” “We celebrate a risen Lord; stop promoting empty traditions!” I know some of this is cultural according to the countries where I minister, and I don’t want to diminish that.  But I refuse to allow myself or my family to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter.

Thus, especially during Lent, I have preached many times on the subject of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice.  On some occasions, I have had Christians come up to me afterwards and say, “Why do you preach on the cross? The cross is no more; what matters is the empty tomb.” Now I am clearly a proponent of preaching and living the reality of the Resurrection! However, there is no empty tomb without the cross.  There is no crown of glory without first a crown of thorns.

Although focusing on a symbol of ancient capital punishment makes us uncomfortable, the truth remains.  The cross is still there, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In the midst of rubble, this representation of death declares life to us.  In the midst of destruction, this symbol of scorn and ridicule brings hope.

This week, as we join Jesus in his journey through Gethsemane and Golgotha and then, yes, the Easter garden, perhaps an image from a smoldering Notre Dame could assist us.

Though some say it’s obsolete,

Though others feel awkward talking about it,

The cross is still there.

At Arm’s Length: A Lenten Reflection

In this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on a haunting phrase: “at a distance.” Doesn’t seem too scary or even noteworthy, right? Why would I say it is haunting?

It was the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the night before he would be crucified. Feet have been washed, Passover has been served, and the soldiers have taken Jesus away from the garden. The disciples have fled – well, sort of. All three writers of the synoptic gospels make it a point to tell us that one of Jesus’ chosen three, the man whose preaching would convert 3,000 in a day and who would become the pillar of the early church, followed Jesus “at a distance” (Mt. 26:58; Mk. 14:54; Lk. 22:54).

We often lambaste Peter, especially when he denies his Lord and calls down curses on himself.  Thank goodness we are not like him, right?

On closer examination, during this season of Lent, we realize that our discipleship looks a lot like Maundy Thursday Peter.  Joan Chittister says, “We believe, yes, but often only remotely, only intellectually.  We follow Jesus, of course, but, if truth were known, more likely at arm’s length, at a nice, antiseptic distance.  Imperturbably.  Our commitment is not the kind of commitment that jeopardizes our jobs or our relationships or our social standings.”

Ouch.

If we are honest with ourselves, we love the part of following Jesus that deals with multitudes being fed and blind men receiving sight.  Even the creative sermons and lessons Jesus teaches inspire and challenge us.  But that self-denial part? Not as popular nowadays.

Could it be that we are profoundly terrified of suffering? Chittister maintains that “when we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow…Suffering is a stepping-stone to maturity. It moves us beyond fantasy to facts.”

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I don’t know about you, but I would many times rather take the shortcut to spiritual maturity instead of slogging painfully through trials and hurts. But that shortcut does not exist. And Lent reminds us of that. In this season we realize, along with Chittister, that we are ascetics. Thus, “we must be prepared to give up some things if we intend to get things that are even more important.”

With Jesus being interrogated, whipped, and nailed to a cross, Peter was still not ready to follow him there. The sacrifice was too great. The suffering too heinous.  It was better to follow Jesus at a distance.

Perhaps in these days being haunted by that phrase is not a bad thing. Perhaps we, too, will examine ourselves and choose growth instead of ease, intimacy instead of distance.

Lent: Getting Back in Touch with our Souls

“Lent is our salvation from the depths of nothingness.  It is our guide to the more of life.” –Joan Chittister

Lent is nearly upon us.  Every year when I write about Lent, especially in Spanish, it seems to provoke controversy. Why would Evangelical churches celebrate something that is Catholic?

Well, the quick answer is that it is not just Catholic, although many of our countries in Latin America have thought of it as such.  Lent is a season in the Christian calendar, and the Christian calendar is just that: an annual rhythm offered to every Christians o that we may more meaningfully journey with Christ. I have written previously about the Christian calendar as a whole, but for the purposes of the next two blogs, we will reflect on Lent specifically.

It is important to note that by the year 330, a Lenten season of forty days was commonly practiced in the early church.  Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter, or to properly clarify, it could be said that Holy Saturday is the final day of Lent because it is the final day of fasting and denial before the most important of celebrations.  Easter Sunday comes with a burst of joy and celebration, a stark contrast with the themes of Lent.  Jesus is risen!  He has triumphed over the grave!

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For many Evangelicals, Lent (and Ash Wednesday particularly) has proven all too confusing.  Joan Chittister’s explanation in her wonderful book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, can help us:

“Ash Wednesday, an echo of the Hebrew Testament’s ancient call to sackcloth and ashes, is a continuing cry across the centuries that life is transient, that change is urgent.  We don’t have enough time to waste time on nothingness.  We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God.  We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way.  We need to repent of our senseless excesses and our excursions into sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savorings of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving another.  We need to get back in touch with our souls.”

This is the essence of Lent.  In a world that revolves around consumption and pleasure, we abstain and refrain.  We deny ourselves and take up our cross daily as we follow Christ to Golgotha.  If we do not engage in this act or in this season, we run the risk of forgetting his sacrifice completely.

Are you ready for Lent? Would you pray that God would disciple you in this season of denial and discipline? It may make a world of difference for your soul.

Attuning Ourselves to the Life of Jesus

Reflections on the Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

As I mentioned in the previous article, I have recently been reading a book that has proven impactful in my understanding of the Christian calendar. It’s written by Joan Chittister and entitled, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life.  As we near Ash Wednesday, I think it will be helpful to allow some excerpts from that book to challenge us to view the entire Christian calendar through new eyes…

“The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus.  It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life.”

“The liturgical year is the year that sets us out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ.  It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.  The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.”

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“It is in the liturgy that we meet the Jesus of history and come to understand the Christ of faith who is with us still…It is, in fact, the life of Jesus that really guides the church through time.  It is the life of Jesus that judges the conduct of the time.  It is the life of Jesus that is the standard of the souls who call themselves Christian in every age, however seductive the errors of the age itself.”

“In the liturgical year we walk with Jesus through all the details of His life – and He walks with us in ours…Early Christians knew without doubt that all facets of the life of Christ stemmed from one reality, were related to one reality, led to one reality, were aspects of one central reality: the cross.  Jesus was born to confront the cross; Jesus died on the cross to bring us to fullness of life; Jesus rose to defeat the cross; Jesus embodied what the role of the cross was to be in the life of us all. Clearly it was the reality of the cross that defined the life of Jesus, the Christ. And it is the reality of the cross that defines the life of the individual Christian, both then and now.”

“Like the voices of loved ones gone before us, the liturgical year is the voice of Jesus calling to us every day of our lives to wake our sleeping selves from the drowsing effects of purposelessness and meaninglessness, materialism and hedonism, rationalism and indifference, to attend to the life of the Jesus who cries within us for fulfillment.”

Joan Chittister: Reflections on The Christian Calendar

The season of Lent is almost upon us, and every year there are at least some Evangelical Christians in different countries who contact me out of their concern or confusion with this period in the Christian calendar, or the concept of a liturgical year in general.

Phyllis Tickle explains that the Christian calendar has been an extremely important aspect of spiritual formation down through the centuries:

“The ancient practices of the faith are sevenin number, have come into Christianity out of Judaism, and inform all of the Abrahamic faiths.  Three of them – tithing, fasting, and the sacred meal– have to do with the physical body, its work and its needs.  Three of them have to do with the monitoring of time.  Fixed-hour prayer regulates the hours of the day, and Sabbath-keeping monitors the days of the week.  The liturgical year monitors or paces those same days and the weeks into the cohesive whole of basic human timekeeping, the year itself.  The seventh of them, pilgrimage, engages both the physical space of the body and the dimension of time, requiring that we go at least once in a lifetime with holy intention to a place made sacred by the faith and encounters of other believers.” (italics added)

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Those words of Tickle are penned in the foreword of Joan Chittister’s book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. Chittister, too, has fielded questions from people wondering why we celebrate Advent or Lent or any of the liturgical year’s dates when we do:

“The real answer to the question of the various dates of the liturgical year,” she asserts, “is that the liturgical year is not, for the most part, about a series of events at all.  It is about the import of those defining events.  It is about the relationship of those events, one to another.  It is about the real meaning, not the historical dating, of the events which, to this very day, shape our spiritual lives.”

In a world that rotates around school and work calendars and secular holidays, Chittister happily proclaims her need for something deeper: “I know that it is possible to grow physically older by the day but, at the same time, stay spiritually juvenile, if our lives are not directed by a schema far beyond the march of our planet around the sun.”

And to those who wonder if observing the Christian calendar would ever get monotonous, Chittister has a wonderful answer: “The liturgical year is the process of coming back year after year to look at what we already know, on one level, but are newly surprised by again and again.”

There is renewal in the ritual!  There is surprise in the “same”!

I will be offering more thoughts on this topic in the coming days, and more observations from this wonderful book as well.  For the meantime, I pray that you would begin to embrace the rhythm of the liturgical year.  And may observing and remembering these events open doors of refreshment and deeper knowledge in your walk with Christ.