Out of the Ashes of Holy Week

The emotions of Holy Week run the gamut.  From the wild enthusiasm of Palm Sunday morning to dread and anxiety of Maundy Thursday, the stark hopelessness of Good Friday and “darkness across the face of the earth” to the somber placing of Jesus in a borrowed tomb, the pilgrimage takes us through the full range of human experiences.

Churches will look forward to crowded sanctuaries on Sunday morning, naturally. Children in beautiful new Easter clothes, beautiful ladies’ hats, uplifting music and, unless a pastor has the flu, a message of enthusiastic hope and energy. A great crowd, a holiday,: of course, it will be energetic.

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Notre Dame, from our visit in 2005

This is the fortieth consecutive year I have preached an Easter sermon. I intentionally do not look back to see how badly I fell short to capture the “extraordinary in the ordinary” majesty of the resurrection and what it means to humanity.  I will tell you this, though: As my own experience of call to ministry came in 1971 on a Palm Sunday and was presented to my high school church family on Easter Sunday, I have never forgotten the ups and downs of this week for me. That week I wrangled and struggled and finally decided to accept the call, at least what I knew at that point, to enter the ministry. It was full of anguish. What did I really understand about what this would mean or where it would go? I can assure you, it wasn’t as clear as

And then, forty years from now, you will be standing in your beloved church of more than twenty-five years in Birmingham, Alabama, and you will have a wonderful congregation, one of whom will be in the top ten in American Idol singing competition.* You’ll have some nice facilities and three grandchildren and an excellent staff.

If only the call were so clear!  It was little more than, “This is the direction for your life. Come with me.” What did that mean?  Where did it lead? I moved toward the leading but still without a lot of clarity about what it would mean.

The late theologian Jim McClendon said of the spiritual life that we must leave room, along with our spiritual disciplines and our spiritual experiences for what he called “the anastatic.”  It means, in the ancient koine Greek language, “Resurrection.”  Literally, “to stand again,” but Jim took it to mean, “the surprising work of God.”

In the Christian faith, Easter is a surprise. That means people had no right to expect what transpired. So, everyone was surprised, shocked, stunned, overwhelmed. There was no way to anticipate what happened. “Well,” one might say, “Jesus told them this was what happened.”  Even so, I imagine it made as much sense at the moment as lecturing your dog about the importance of a good education.

Nothing indicated this was coming. Their hopes were literally in ruins. I have thought of this while grieving the terrible fire at Notre Dame in Paris. I have only had the privilege to visit there one time, but I remember the awe at this magnificent work of human hands motivated by faith in God.

Out of ashes and devastation, we wait. One more Holy Week. One more hard moment in humanity. No reason to expect a surprise. But for those of us who are Christians, we’ve become accustomed to looking to something unexpectedly, undeservedly good to come along when we least expect it. This week, we walk into the cold ashes of human disappointment and wait to see what God might say to enable us to build out of this moment something new and unanticipated.

No matter who you are, where you came from, or whatever has happened, Easter is for you.  That is the message.  “God is for us.  Who can be against us?”  That is a word for everyone.

Walk along this week with God’s people.  Through it all.

 

Why Stories Matter


I see a dearth of storytelling power, almost an absence in our current public life. We have become a culture of three word slogans, name-calling, distortion and manipulation.

This summer, I decided to preach a series of sermons in dialogue with children’s books.  I heard another pastor last year at the Mercer Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga tell about the joy of doing such a series, and I wrote a note then that I wanted to try it.

The book, not the movie...
The book, not the movie…

I will have a Pastor’s time with the children in every service, and we will read from a children’s book. I will post top lists of books for children on our church website for parents, including a list from the New York Public Library list of the most read Continue reading “Why Stories Matter”

Do Dogs Go to Heaven?

Hannah in her prime

While we were away for Thanksgiving with our two daughters who live in New York, our middle daughter, Erin, called with the drastic news that her 13 1/2 year old white lab, whom she named Hannah Marie Furr-Yeager (any other dogs with hyphenated names?), passed away from kidney failure.  Her husband just called her, , “Good Girl”.   She got Hannah as a pup when Erin was 19 years old.  Erin wrote on facebook,

“She was the “mascot” of our entire group of friends in our 20’s. She has been with me through college, roommates, first job, first love, heart break, job loss, first home, success, failure, marriage and all of life’s “in betweens”. .. Always there….always letting me know she was present. She was always waiting on us just to call her so she could be there. She got so much joy just from being with us.”

I have found myself quite moved by the depth of love my daughter has for Hannah, and for the intensity of grief that has followed.  It caused me to ask the old question, “Do dogs go to heaven?”  This is not a question I have spent time on before, and I must say, it indicates a deep deficiency in my theology.  As I read about this online I came upon a variety of opinions, one on a website that also had articles like, “Is Smoking Cigarettes A Sin?” ” What Do Christians Believe About Dinosaurs?” and “Does The Bible say What the Devil Looks Like?”  Not too promising, if you ask me.

I don’t intend to belabor the subject except to reflect that perhaps, “Do dogs go to heaven?” is the wrong question.  The right question is, “Does God the Creator love the creation?”  The answer is unequivocal.  God is not simply redeeming a handful of lifeboat survivors but is renewing creation itself (Romans 8 treats this in extended fashion).  The power of life that creates what we call “heaven” is in fact resurrection, the power of God to raise life from death and “re-create” creation.  So, it seems to me, that if heaven is not “a place way out there” separate from creation but is, instead, God’s merciful and loving Providence, then it is not impossible at all to imagine that God, who remembers all things, is able to bring all those joyful complexities of creation to new life.  The Bible talks about the end of “tooth and claw” nature, where Lion and Lamb lie together and the child plays safely near the adder.

These visionary imaginations of the prophets remind us to be respectful and humble about what the Creator can or will do at the end of all things.  God’s love and greatness are vast.  The answer to my question, “Does God love the creation?” is “Of course.”  Trust in the love of your Creator.

Arthur Hunnicutt

I love the old story on “The Twilight Zone,” called “The Hunt,” about an old man and his beloved hound who drown during a coon hunt and wind up on a road where they must choose heaven or hell.  The old man was played by Arthur Hunnicutt, the crusty Arkansas native who often played outdoorsy types.  The screenplay was written by Earl Hamner, later the creator of “The Waltons” series.  Ultimately, it is his dog Rip who helps him make the right choice.  My favorite line:  The angel says, “You see Mr. Simpson, a man, well, he’ll walk right into Hell with both eyes open. But even the Devil can’t fool a dog!”

For those of us who live so detached from nature, feeding from its bounty but unaware of the connection, it is a good reminder to us of our own creaturehood.  We are not so different from our pets and not so lofty in our uniqueness that we can act as though we are not sharing creaturehood with them.

Hannah Marie was a wonderful pet.  I told Erin, “I have buried a lot of humans who weren’t loved as much in life, missed so much in death or commemorated so deeply by her survivors, as Hannah.”  And I might add, “They hadn’t done nearly as much to offer loyalty, devotion and comfort to those in their life.”  I’d side with those who think dogs will be there, myself.   Given the way we treat one another, I’d think it would be the dogs who should be asking the question about us.  Given a choice of hanging out with Hannah or a lot of humans I’ve met through the years, it’s no contest who would be more fit for eternal happiness without a major overhaul.