Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

The problems with belly buttons

The problems with belly buttons

The problem with belly buttons is, we all have them, but some are far more presentable than others.  As someone who knows to keep his belly button hidden from public view, I feel comfortable making this judgement.  Most belly buttons should be kept covered.

But, to further add to the complexity of the issue, we may not all agree on what constitutes an attractive, exposable belly button, versus one that needs to be covered.  Belly buttons come in such a wide variety of shapes, colors, and sizes – among other miscellaneous and varied distinctions.

Some are cute…

baby

Some are muscular…

six-pack-abs-burn-fat_51

Some are attractive…

innie 2

Some, well…

fat-hairy-belly-22220070

Some are innies…

innie

Some are definitely outies…

belly20button-outie.jpg

Some are decorated…

tattoed.jpeg

Some are hiding something…

femeie-insarcinata

Some are darker…

black.jpg

Some are lighter…

belly-habits-10.jpg

Some are proudly displayed…

Child_pokes_own_navel_with_finger

Some are tastefully kept out of sight…

old

What’s the point of all of this silly belly button talk?  EVERYBODY HAS ONE.  Whether your’s is clean or dirty, hidden or displayed, cute or ugly, there’s nothing unique or special about having a belly button.  I have one.  You have one.  We all have belly buttons.

Years ago, while I was traveling in Mexico,a friend pointed to a Volkswagon Beetle, and asked, “Do you know what we call those?  El ombligos, or belly buttons.  Everybody drives one in Mexico.”  And, it was true.  Every police car, taxi, rental car, etc. was a VW Beetle.

I’ve also heard the expression, “Belly buttons are like opinions.  Everyone has one.  But, like opinions, most are better kept undisclosed.”

And, that is my point.

There is a difference between information, preference, and opinion.  Information is based on objective fact.  Preference is based on personal tastes.  Opinions are judgements, likely based in bias, prejudice, even ignorance, but are stated publicly as universal truths.

And, have you ever noticed how often opinions are shared in the form of criticism, insult, slander, grumbling, or gossip?  Doesn’t the Bible say something about that?  And, have you ever noticed how stated opinions never leave much room for disagreement?

Opinions are not facts.  They’re just opinions.  Everyone has one already.  Like most of us don’t need to share our belly buttons with the world, you very likely don’t need to share your opinion either.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing accurate information, or even your personal preferences, if stated as such.  We can agree to disagree about preferences.  We can even disagree about certain information, until we check our accuracy with Google or Wikipedia.  But, stated opinions often do far more damage than good.

I remember being taught, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”

I also remember Jesus saying, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  Perhaps that could be said as, “Share your opinions, only to the degree that you are open and interested in hearing the opinions of others.”

Yes, you have opinions.  Congratulations.  So do I.  You likely have strong opinions.  Me too.  If you want to know mine, ask me, and I MIGHT share mine with you.  I might.  I might not.  If I want to know your’s, I will be sure to ask you (but, please, don’t hold your breath!)

Oops.  Did I just show you my belly button?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?

Timshel: “You may…”

Timshel:  “You may…”

My favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden.  East of Eden wrestles with questions of human nature, and good and evil.  Are we born good or evil, or are good and evil choices?

These questions find an answer in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  Cain is outraged that God preferred his brother’s offering to his own.  In Genesis 4:6-7, God warns Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (NIV)

“You must rule over it.”

Other translations say it differently…

“Do thou rule over it.” (ASV)

“Thou shalt rule over him.” (KJV)

“You must subdue it and be its master.” (NLT)

“Do thou,” “Thou shalt,” and “You must” are translations of the Hebrew word “timshel.”  Here’s where the genius of East of Eden shines…

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

There are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.

Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.”

“Thou mayest” or, simply, “You may.”

Timshel means we have a choice.  In every aspect of our lives, we have choices.  WE CHOOSE!

Will our choices serve ourselves or others?  Will our choices bless others or curse others?  What will the impact of our choices be on the world?  Are our choices God honoring, or not?  Regardless of how we answer these questions, our choices are our own.    And, the responsibility for my choices lies on me.

Timshel is both a gift and a responsibility.  I get to choose how I will use my day, who I will spend my day with, what I will accomplish, or not.  I choose.  But, I am also responsible for those choices.  Were they godly choices?  Were they wise?  Were they loving?

“Think of the glory of the choice.”

What will you choose today?

What if?

What if?

What if we were kinder, and more respectful of each other?

What if we prayed more?

What if we really loved each other?

What if we were less materialistic?

What if we laughed more?

What if we cried more?

What if we were more civil to each other?

What if we invested more in friendship?

What if we were less self-focused?

What if we talked to strangers?

What of we said “thank you” more?

What if we “judged people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin?”

What if we sang and danced more?

What if we spent less time pursuing happiness, and more time pursuing joy?

What if we were more careful about what we say?

What if we doodled in the margins more?

What if we looked more deeply in each other’s eyes?

What if listened more than we talk?

What if we were less defensive?

What if were less critical?

What if we smiled more?

What if we were neighborly, and not just neighbors?

What if we dreamed bigger dreams?

What if we were more compassionate?

What if we were less picky?

What if we actually lived by faith?

What if we stopped complaining?

What if we stopped to smell the roses more?

What if we told more jokes?

What if we stopped cussing?

What if we gave more compliments?

What if we hugged more?

What if we asked for help more?

What if we could not be so opinionated?

What if we could be less critical?

What if we could be more vulnerable?

What if we did more “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty?”

What if we got more rest?

What if we practiced the Golden Rule?

What if we enjoyed every bite of food we eat?

What if we were more grateful, even for the little things?

What if we considered each and every day a gift?

What if we were more adventurous?

What if anything is possible?

What if…?

What’s your “What if…?”

 

“Dim Dots” – Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

“Dim Dots” – Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

Annie Dillard ends her childhood memoir, An American Childhood, by reflecting on the “dim dots” of her life that led to her becoming fully alive – “the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.” By “dim dots” she means the moments and events of our lives that form a single contiguous line toward who we eventually become.  Her “dim dots” include various memories of childhood, that continue to hold significance to her, while others, she had hoped not to forget, have strangely faded away.

Though I am more than sure many of my “dim dots,” though significant, have fully faded from view, many remain clearly visible in my mind’s eye.  For fear of leaving something important out, or overemphasizing less important memories, I’ll refrain from sharing my list, as it occurs to me today.

The point is, we are the accumulative sum of all of those “dim dots.”  Though some life experiences are clearly more memorable and impactful than others, nothing can be excluded.  Remove any of my dots, to some degree, I’m no longer who I am today.  Obviously, some things matter more than others.  But, every experience, every interaction, every relationship, every sensation, every mistake, every achievement, every moment of transcendence, every coincidence, every hurt feeling, every life-stage, every moment of ecstasy, every sickness, every season, every loss, every holy moment, every employment, every abysmal failure, every skill we learn, every book we read, every test we pass, every moment of breathtaking beauty, every act of service, every gauntlet we endure, every weakness we overcome, every act of selfishness, every spiritual encounter, every moment of debasement, every goal achieved, EVERYTHING contributes to who we become.  EVERYTHING has contributed to who we are.

In fact, I think it could be argued that every dot, to some degree, predicts the dots that will follow.  Not always.  But, often.

Beyond the moments that could potentially be marked on a calendar or a map, or recorded in a journal, yearbook, or police record, or photographed or videoed, are the countless other influences – our genetics, our parent’s guidance, our birth-order, our ethnicity or nationality, our social/economic status, our geography, our traditions, our generation, our friendships, our loves and losses, our education, our religious influences, our exposure to beauty or tragedy, etc.

As you reflect on the “dim dots” of your life, here are some questions to ponder…

  • Who are the people who’ve made the biggest impact on your life, for good or ill?
  • What memories cause you the most joy?  What memories cause you the most pain?
  • When were you the happiest?  When were you the saddest?
  • Where has been “home” for you?
  • What, to date, has been your greatest achievement?
  • What would you erase from your past, if you could?
  • What if you had chosen a different school to attend, a different career to pursue, a different place to live, a different person to marry?
  • What memories haunt you?
  • What historic events do you remember most clearly?
  • What precious moment would you relive, if you could, simply for the joy of it?
  • When have you felt most alive?
  • When did you stop pretending?  Have you?
  • What moments or experiences, if erased, would most alter who you are today?
  • How has your faith and spirituality affected who you’ve become?

If you drew a line, starting with your birth, from dot to dot to dot, all the way to this very moment (yes, this moment – as you read this blog), what dots might be coming next, and after that, and after that?

What are your “dim dots?”

“The Soundtrack of My Life” (Warning: this is very likely the most trivial post I’ve ever written)

“The Soundtrack of My Life” (Warning: this is very likely the most trivial post I’ve ever written)

Yesterday, listening to the radio, I heard someone talking about the collection of songs that would compose the musical “Soundtrack of My Life.”  As I was driving for a couple of hours, with time to ponder pointless thoughts, I’ve composed my own soundtrack…

Childhood, in the 1970’sLe Freak, by Chic (I can’t recall a single time at the skating rink the DJ didn’t play that song)

Middle School, in the early 1980’s – a tie between Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin, which was always the last song played at middle school dances, and Another Brick in the Wall, by Pink Floyd, which always seemed to be playing on the school bus

High School, in the mid 1980’s – the extended version of Purple Rain, by Prince

College, in the late 1980’sRound and Round, by Ratt

Dating and Marriage in 1990I Melt With You, by Modern English

Early 1990’sU Can’t Touch This, by MC Hammer

Parenting yearsEye of the Tiger, by Survivor

Ministry, With Everything, Hillsong United

Empty NestingDon’t Rock My Boat, by Bob Marley

DeathThe Saints are Coming, by U2 and Green Day

Life Theme Song (to be played during the credits), One, by U2 and Mary J. Blige

Don’t ask too many questions.  It is what it is.  Don’t judge me.

What’s on your “sound track?”