Once a flight risk. Now a fall risk.

I was sitting in the hospital chair in the corner suite. Through the metal blinds and milky window I could a see a few miles away where the tower from the local shopping center emerged over the pine trees. My mother had knee surgery. She had needed it for years. The doctor said, “Imagine a chicken wing. Do you know that rubbery shiny stuff between the bone? You don’t have that in your knee. The surgery was good!”

My mother was still on her pain meds sitting up in her chair. Laree, my sister-in-law in law, had driven from Madison that morning and arrived early to be there for my mother’s physical therapy. I met Laree in the room and we spent a few minutes together with my mother before Laree headed back to Madison. My mother looked at me and Laree and said proudly, “Do you see this yellow band they put on me?” She held it up. It says, “Flight risk. I’m a flight risk.” Laree leaned in and looked closer at the band.” Claire, that doesn’t say flight risk. That says fall risk.”

“Oh, that makes more sense,” my mother said.

For some reason, I could not quit laughing. We all laughed. I’m not sure it was the picture of my mother imagining herself dashing and darting her way past nurses and out of the hospital on a knee should be barely lift or the sudden realization we all feel at times that we are not who we thought we were. It’s the awful and funny feeling that in this moment we need more assistance than we do restraint. Thankfully, her knees is getting better. I know my mom and she’s strong and willful. She’s likely not to be a flight risk anytime soon, but she will certainly find her new step.

Clergy, don’t give up.

These past few months have been excruciatingly tough as a pastor. That’s difficult to admit. Last spring, I could see the light. Vaccines were rolling out. We were coming out of COVID and we were back in our beloved sanctuary. The nursery was beginning to fill again. Some Sundays we had twelve babies. Life was returning. But then I got the call, “Someone in the nursery had a case.” This happened on Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day afternoon, our children’s staff had to call new moms and dads and tell them they would need to take off work and quarantine their kids for the next two weeks.

I was angry. Really angry. I felt terrible for these families. I felt terrible for our staff having to make these calls. I knew that the word would get out about our case in the nursery and the parents would stop bringing their babies.

By Wednesday, I mustered enough courage to mandate vaccines for all nursery workers. I reasoned that the kids couldn’t wear masks and that wasn’t fair to them. But I also felt ambivalent about the mandate. Because I knew our nursery workers loved our kids and had been faithful to us throughout the pandemic. I got calls from people thanking me for making the best decision for their children by the decision. I got calls of extreme disappointment. I wanted to agree both sets of calls. Pastors are usually pretty empathetic people. We try our best to understand the viewpoints of all sides.

This all happened in May. Then I took a big gulp of air and soldiered on with worship planning for the summer. I knew attendance would be sparse. It always is during June and July. I was pleasantly surprised that attendance was back to pre-covid levels for the summer. When we sang, Praise to the Lord the Almighty, our congregation did “let the amen sound from his people again.” Worship was lively and strong. Our choir was back in the chancel.

Just a few weeks later, I got to be the hero. I sent out the note they had been waiting to read. “Due to the new CDC guidelines, there are no more masks mandates for worship if you have been vaccinated. We look forward to seeing your faces this Sunday.” I received several emails telling me how grateful they were to the church for leadership during these times.

We had a backlog of baptisms for children born during the pandemic. We had baptisms almost every Sunday this summer. It all felt good. I had a vacation planned for the fourth of July. I pulled out of our driveway breathing a sigh of relief. I couldn’t wait to be with our family in the mountains and I knew when I returned we could start stoking the fires for the fall at church.

Sure enough, we began our work as a staff. It was early July. We set a date for early August for two welcome back events. We planned a welcome back Sunday and trivia night for Wednesday night dinners. The worship would included duets, stringed instruments, a full choir, a rousing sermon and a petting zoo with pony rides. Yes, I love Jesus and felt a little bit like a sell out for bribery for bringing the animals to get the families back to worship. But people have been away for a year. When in doubt, bring animals.

As the big worship day was approaching, I watched the COVID numbers ticking up. I’m checked every night and every night I was more disappointed. This was supposed to be our our big return. It’s time to get people reengaged with God. It’s time to get them back on their journey with Jesus. I’ve told me people time and again that the hardest part about being a church during a pandemic is we are a congregation. By nature, we congregate.

As our big day approached, there was no going back. Despite the rising numbers, we went full steam ahead. Yes, I reinstated the masks mandate for worship. We were following the CDC guidelines and the executive orders of our mayor. Let me say this. Living in Atlanta, has only amplified the complexity of matters as our political leaders continue to give different messages. You worry the decisions you make are going to get wrapped up in some larger political narrative that you don’t want to be a part of. You have to make these decisions but all you really want is for your people to be able to worship God and find some joy and hope on a Sunday morning. A good offering would be nice too.

We went full steam ahead with our big Sunday. We had quite the crowd and some glorious music. Our front yard was a zoo as we left worship. It was a beautiful day as we enjoyed ice cream sandwiches on the lawn and watched the kids riding ponies and parents snapping pictures with the cow.

Was I little reluctant to post much about it? A little. I wasn’t sure how some of my clergy friends would react. The last thing I needed was a thread of criticisms. This day gave me life and it gave our neighborhood life too.

As this awful Delta variant rages on, I find myself slipping again towards anger. We were supposed to experience a rebirth this fall. I hopeful we still can. Yes, I want to keep our children safe, but suspending children’s events is not the way to go. Children need church just as much as they need school. Families need dinners with other families. We’re going to give it our best shot.

To all my fellow clergy out there, whatever decision you make for your churches, I support you! I miss seeing you. Congregations, we thank you and continue to ask for your support. It may take a moment to remember some of your names. But we’ll get there. God is with us.

Raccoon in the house

This last Wednesday night I was awoken at 1 a.m. by our dog. She sleeps beside our bed. She usually doesn’t bark at night. Blair and I both woke up. She quit barking and we went back to bed not thinking much about it. About thirty minutes later, she barked again. Blair goes downstairs to check it out. The next thing I hear is Blair running like a sprinter up the stairs. I’m thinking to myself, “There’s someone in our house.” My heart is pumping hard. Blair catches her breath and says to me, “There’s a racoon…on our couch.” 

I walk gingerly down the steps, our dog bravely at the top of the steps behind me. I grab a broom from the closet. Blair whispers, “What are you going to do with that?” I said, “I’ll think of something.”

I turn my head towards the living room. There is a racoon lounging on our couch. He’s looking at me sure in the eyes. He is twice the size of most lap dogs. I want to open the door and sweep him out. I make my way towards him. He lightly jumps onto the floor and ambles his way to the dog’s door and leaves. That was it! I quickly lock the dog’s door. Blair and I head back to bed. Thirty minutes later I hear a big “thump” downstairs. This racoon is trying to get back in. Then it struck me.

When he was in our house, he was not disoriented. He knew right where he was. Then I thought back. On several mornings the dog food had been scattered on the floor. This was not the racoon’s first time in our house. This raccoon has been sneaking in our house during the night through the dog door. He’s been eating our dog’s food, kicking back on our couch and watching Ted Lasso.

High on the Holy Spirit

On a recent youth mission trip to Hazard, Kentucky I had the opportunity to visit with the homeowner. His name was Randy. We were working on his trailer. We were tearing down his back porch and building a ramp. He walked with a cane and wore a blue tooth.

He was a kind man and he lived in a poor trailer park. He offered us Pepsi’s each day. During a light rain, he invited our youth on the porch to tell us about his life. He told us about his days as a coal miner. “I was twelve years old on my back half a mile into the mountain mining coal. Mama made us sandwiches and we ate inside. We worked nine hour shifts. The coal company made it so our family wouldn’t leave. They helped us with housing. They had a store. But when they left they tore down the store. We were as poor as they come but didn’t know it.”

After the youth left, he told me about speaking in tongues. “I’m part of the holiness church. I don’t know what church you’re apart of. It don’t matter. We all got our own journey. When I was a kid, I could never get the holy ghost. All my friends got the holy ghost. They could speak in tongues. I was always so mad because I knew what they did on Friday nights. But when I got older, my mom got sick. She was here in this trailer. All I could do was pray. I prayed all day. Then the Holy Spirit put me in a trance. I’m telling you. It got me higher than any drug. I felt like was floating. It was like I was hovering off the ground in this trailer. And if there wasn’t a roof on this trailer, I would have floated on up and out of this trailer park. I would floated real high and looked out over all the holler as free as a man can be. That’s the way that spirit got hold of me. I never had it like that again.”

Put in the work

Put in the work. There is no shortcut. If you want to achieve something worth achieving, you’ve got to put in the work. Whether it’s studying for an exam, writing a book or starting a business, there’s no replacement.

When I first got into ministry, I thought I understood what it meant to write a sermon. The first few months were fine. I studied. I wrote. I rehearsed. The sermons went ok. Sundays, however, kept showing up. It dawned on me that first year. People were going to be staring at me every Sunday of my life. They would sit in the pews needing a word from God from me every week. I was God’s messenger for them. Gulp.

Early on I thought, “God understands how busy it’s been. Maybe God will just give me the words on Saturday night.” I thought maybe the words would fall from the sky onto paper like dust. It would be a dusting of the holy spirit. (I imagine choirs directors feel the same about preparing anthems each week.)

When I tried to write sermons at the last minute, the sermon suffered. The people on the way out would say, “Well, weren’t the hymns just wonderful today!” And I realized that to write a sermon requires preparation, heart, prayer and soul every week. God would not allow for shortcuts.

When I was twenty three, a church welcomed me as their intern. They blessed me with the opportunity to preach. There was this one man named Wayne . Wayne was a bit critical of sermons. Each week, I watched as he rifled through the Bible double checking the pastor’s scriptural references. For my first sermon with this church, I did not put in the work. I got busy and hosted friends. After the sermon Waynes says to me, “Well, I don’t know what the seminaries are teaching our young people these days.” I was discouraged. But I also knew I didn’t work as hard as I should on that sermon.

Several years later, I was invited back to this church for their homecoming. I did not want the same experience. So I busted it. I poured blood, sweat and tears into this sermon. I prayed over it. There was Wayne in the congregation.

I preached and I felt really good about the sermon. Wayne finds me after the service. I braced. He said, “Will, that was the best sermon I have ever heard…you preach.” I was pleased. I was reminded that there are no shortcuts to success. But more importantly it was when I prayed and put the most work in that I witnessed how God’s word could comfort, convict and inspire. 

Typically, people won’t see that work you put in. It’s kind of like an iceberg. People see the tip. They don’t see the rest of the preparatory work below. But it’s that preparation for success that makes the difference. Put in the work.

Make sure the fire’s out

We camped in the woods behind our house. Our house was on a lake and behind the house were woods. We weren’t sure whose woods they were but they backed up to the highway. I was in the eight grade and some of my friends were in high school. Bobby started the fire and we stayed up drinking Cokes my dad had packed with ice in our blue cooler beside our tents. In the evening while the fire was still hot, we got the urge to swim in the lake. We traded turns tending the fire while the others left the woods for the lake and we jumped off the dock. I remember looking into the water with just enough moonlight to ensure I wasn’t about to jump on a snake which hung around our docks in June. The water was like a bathtub. As the evening deepened, we shook the rest of the Cokes and sprayed each other and then jumped off the dock again.

The next morning, my muscles were sore. We packed up our equipment and looked at the fire. It was dead, but to make sure we took turns urinating on it. It smelled awful and the ashes sizzled. My friends’ parents picked them up after breakfast. I took a shower and washed out the campfire smoke. I dressed in pressed clothes and we headed to church. After church, we pulled back into the driveway and the fire department was leaving our house. I could see the char of the underbrush. The fire we had put out burned two acres.

My dad looked at me. “I thought you put out the fire.”

“We did.”

“You might need to go back to church.”

But what’s this?

The forecast had rain all day and we were still on edge of this pandemic. We were stuck in the house. We did chores, played board games and the kids sat on the couch with screens in their hand. And though they had helped with folding blankets and cleaning their rooms, their attention to work hadn’t lasted long.

We had thought about venturing out to Ponce City Market, but we knew with kids we’d simply use that time to eat and pay $50 for a sack of Atlanta’s best hamburgers and a milkshake we’d share and feel awful the rest of the afternoon.

Around noon, the rain cleared and the sun popped out. It was spring in Atlanta. Spring is why you live in Atlanta if you can deal with the pollen. But the rain had calmed it, the sun was warm on your face and the damp yards were drying.

I told my eight year old, “Let’s go play basketball.” It was a game she was learning to enjoy like I had at her age.

“No, I want to stay here,” she said.

“We must go. You like basketball and we’ve been inside all day.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

There’s a goal near our house that belongs to the neighbor who leaves it on the road because it’s one of the few not heavily traveled in Atlanta.

We shot basketball for a good twenty minutes. She loves the game knock out that she plays with her friends during the week and I didn’t let her win for the first 5 games until she beat me for real and was thankful and perturbed.

I said, “All right, let’s play my game. You have to pretend there’s 5 seconds left. I have the ball and am down by a point. You’re guarding me.”

It took some nudging but she came around and tried to steal the ball. I counted down the clock and scored an easy lay up to show her the thrill of a last minute triumph. And then she took the ball and said, “But what’s this? The time was actually wrong. There were three extra seconds.” She missed the shot. And we repeated the countdown.

The grey clouds had moved back in and the wind had picked up blowing the fallen azaleas blooms on the sidewalks. It didn’t faze Katie too much. She wanted to play the countdown game again and I certainly would rather walk home in wet clothes than hurry home to sit more on the couch. I let her have the ball. The goal was regulation height which took some effort from an eight year old. I began the countdown. Each time she missed, she repeated that line with all the life of a determined, pesky and happy 8 year old, “But what’s this?” And she’d use that line until she finally made the shot. It was her way of refusing to admit defeat to me.

“Where did you learn that line, ‘but what’s this?’ I have never heard you use it.”

“It’s all mine.”

Although I believed she picked it up at school, I didn’t argue the point. We walked home in the rain until we got close and we started racing towards the front door. As she was getting close, she zips past me with her famous, “But what’s this?” and runs inside.

And though, of course, she meant nothing theological with those words, I find them to be true to Christian faith. It’s a fine way to look at faith. When defeat swamps our dreams, when we shrink before the mystery of death, when guilt collapses in on us and sadness wanders in like an old friend, God’s story of cross and resurrection calls out to us with a hopeful and pesky refrain, “But what’s this?”

A Faith You Can Touch

On Halloween when I was 11, I visited my friend’s Baptist church because they had a hayride. Although many of my friends were there, the real reason is that the seventh grade girl I liked was a member of that church and she would be there. We’ll call her Susan. Mr. Tommy, the youth director, said, “Load up if you want to go on the hayride.” The flatbed trailer was hitched to a truck and they would drive us around the church cemetery where my best friend Joey had buried his great uncle just a few weeks before. I waited in the parking lot to see where Susan would sit. The trailer had a 3 inch layer of hay with iron rails around it and the fall air was cold enough to see your breath. As I stepped on to the trailer, one of my friends pushed me towards where Susan sat. I acted like I had tripped without looking at Susan but at my friend who had pushed me with the stare of “Come on dude” but in reality I appreciated his gesture. There I awkwardly stood in my Atlanta Braves sweatshirt and Black Adidas tennis shoes. I gingery sat down next to Susan. I liked her. Her best friend hinted that she liked me. Mr. Tommy made sure there was a good 2 and half feet between us to make room for the Holy Spirit. 

With the smell of exhaust fumes and hay and the sun behind the pine trees, we wound around the 15 acre cemetery. We listened as one of the parents told us the story about a ghost who lurked around the cemetery. Although my memory can’t recall the ghost story itself, I remember feeling a bit of a lump in my throat. And remember I kept sliding closer to Susan and she inched closer to me. We were halfway around the cemetery near the tree line when suddenly a man jumped out of the woods with a chainsaw cranked at full tilt. All of us middle schoolers screamed at once. He was a deacon in the church and quickly pulled up his masks and let us know it was him. The ghost story continued. I looked at Susan and she sort of looked at me. Then Susan’s friend gave me a glare that I couldn’t interpret. Then finally her friend grabbed both Susan and my hand and put them together. For a Baptist hayride, this was a big deal. We held hands and the ghost story went on and I was hoping it would get even scarier and they would decide to take a second lap around the cemetery. And my heart dropped to my stomach. It was the first time I had ever held a girl’s hand. And I thought about converting to the Baptist Church. 

Today is confirmation Sunday. All of our confirmands today are in 8th grade. Middle school is about those years when life was starting to become real. Love was not just an idea. It was actually holding a person’s hand. Biology was not just studying books. It was dissecting a frog. The same is true for faith. The Christian faith is not just something your parents, leaders and pastors have taught you. The Christian faith is not just words on a page. Your faith is something you can touch. It’s something real. 

In today’s scripture, Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter evening as it was getting dark.  They are terrified and think he’s a ghost. I can sympathize with these disciples. They have experienced a traumatic few days. They watched their leader, Jesus, be nailed to a cross. They are fearful for their own lives. Jesus said, “I’m not a ghost. Look at my hands and feet. Touch me. For a ghost does not have flesh and blood as I do.” Jesus is revealing to the disciples that the resurrection is real. You can touch it. This Christian faith we have taught you about is not a ghost. It’s real. Faith is something you can touch. 

Confirmation marks the first time a baptized Christian publicly “confirms” their intention to live the vows of the baptismal and membership covenant and so becomes a professing member of the local congregation and The United Methodist Church.

Many of you may have been baptized as infants. At your baptism, God made a promise to you. God made a promise to forgive you and to love you unconditionally. On that day, your parents and church made a promise to raise you in the Christian faith. Over the course of your life, they taught you about the stories in the old and new testaments. They have raised you in the faith. 

This last year, you all made a decision to be part of our confirmation class. I’m so proud of you. You could have easily said no because of COVID. I’m proud of Erich and our amazing mentors. You learned about the membership vows of our church. Prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. You all took a spiritual gifts assessment. You learned that you have unique gifts from God. One of you told me recently that your spiritual gift is mercy. I could not think of a more important gift our world needs right now than mercy.  Each of you has a gift to share. You learned more about who Jesus is. 

You learned Jesus is the savior of the world and wants to be your personal savior. 

We’ve been teaching you about faith. Faith is a gift of God to you. Your faith is God’s gift to help you believe what you can’t always see. Jesus Christ loves you. 

You also learned that Jesus cared about the vulnerable people of the earth. He cared about the excluded people like the Samaritans. As you grow, you’re going to become aware of poverty in our world, of exclusion of certain types of people. You will learn that poverty is not just an idea. You’ll start to realize there are children in our city living out of cars with their parents. 

Your Christian can help you respond as you think about Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” You’ll realize that you can put your faith into action. You can hammer a nail with Habitat for Humanity. You can join a club in your school to help fight poverty. Your faith is something you touch. It’s not just an idea. It’s not just teaching. It’s real. 

As I think about Jesus, I think about his ministry. He would touch the eyes of a blind man. He would wash his disciples’ dirty feet. He told a story about samaritan who cleaned the wounds of a man on the side of the road. Jesus wanted to show us that faith is something you can touch.  Or think about the Apostle Paul. In Galatians 3:27, He said, “There was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. For you are one in Christ Jesus.” He called for unity among people and races. We need unity today. 

Years ago, I was on a mission trip with a youth group. We traveled to Charleston, South Carolina. We’d been working all week to do hurricane relief work. We visited one of the families who were affected. One of our youth members was Nic, who was in high school. This family we were visiting was an African American family. Their home had been damaged by the hurricane. We were a predominantly white youth group. It was the last day and we stood in their driveway. We laughed and prayed together. This family has this two year old child. She was a beautiful child and she hid behind her mother’s leg. Nic walks over to say hello. This child starts screaming as Nic gets closer. It was like she had seen a ghost. The mother says, “Don’t take it the wrong way. It’s just that she’s not been around a lot of white skin before.” Then the mother says to Nic, “Hold out your arm.” I’ll never forget it. Nic rolls up his sleeve. The mother would bring her daughter over. She takes her arm. She slowly brings it over to Nic’s forearm. She takes the child’s hand and lightly presses it against Nic’s. The mom says, “See, it’s ok. It’s ok. He’s ok.” This young daughter’s eyes look at Nic’s eyes. She laughed hysterically and we all laughed. It was a moment of grace and healing and of a promising future. 

The Christian faith is something you can touch. Jesus said to these frightened disciples on that first Easter, “See, I’m not a ghost. Reach out your hands and touch me. For a ghost does not have flesh and blood as I do.” Your faith is something you can touch.

From Duke to Uganda

“How long do I have to think about it?”

“I need to know by tomorrow.”

I was in seminary at Duke Divinity School. I had inquired about a field education placement in rural Uganda. Most of the Divinity School’s placements were to rural churches throughout North Carolina and were funded by one of those big endowments. I had already been assigned to a placement on Lake Norman where I could lead worship from a dock in flip-flops with boats anchoring for worship. But a fellow student who had committed to one of the Duke’s intentional placements decided to back out. I heard about it and immediately called about the placement.

I was a place in my life where I wanted adventure. I didn’t have a girlfriend to miss. I had grown up in small town in Georgia and felt I already understood the life of two lane roads, pastures and the local lake. I called up the director of the program.

“Well, why are you interested?” Connie asked.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.”

“Well, Africa is not just one place. This is Uganda in Africa.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. I have heard Uganda is an amazing country.”

“You’ll be in a Catholic setting working with a priest. How does that set with you as a Methodist?”

“Well, I used to go to the Baptist youth groups on Wednesday nights when I was a kid. I’m pretty ecumenical.”

She thought it over, “Well, we need someone to go and you’re the only candidate we have.”

I wasn’t exactly inspired by those last comments, but I accepted them to be sign of God’s handiwork. Everyone else around the Divinity School seemed to be happy with their summer placements and if that meant no one to compete with me for this placement, then maybe it was providential. With my mediocre grades, maybe the good Lord knew that this was how I could find my way to Africa. Many of my fellow students were steeped in Hebrew and Greek, had read St. Augustine’s Confessions before they had ever stepped onto the Duke quad with the towering chapel shadowing the school. Not me. I had lots of red ink on my seminary papers. Maybe that’s the difference between competition and calling, evolution and providence. People like me require God to work a little extra, but I was happy to work in return.

After telling me I had to let her know my decision by tomorrow, I called my parents. Even though I was 24 years old at the time, I felt an obligation to get their permission. I called them on their land line which meant both could be on the phone together. (It feels strange to feel the need to explain this detail). After minutes of niceties, I finally said, “I’d like to go to Uganda this summer.”

“Isn’t that in Africa?”

“Africa in not just one place,” I said. “This is Uganda and it’s in Africa.”

“No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Well, I do and I need to let them know by tomorrow.”

That night, my father visited the State Departments website to learn about Uganda. My dad was a prison warden and was never overly emotive about things.

The next morning I spoke with him, “Well, buddy, I just got some concerns. The State Department says they’ve had lots of warfare in the northern section over the years.”

“I saw that too, but it’s safe,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“The priests in Uganda. His brother is a professor at Duke. And I spoke with him. He said it’s fine and safe. They exaggerate things on those sites. And if you’re going to tell me about malaria, it’s true. It’s there. But we have medicine to take.”

“Well, Will, I’m not crazy about you going. But it sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”

“I have. I know this is what I’m supposed to do.”

“Well, you’ve made my life hard. I’m going to have to keep your mother calm all summer long.”

“I’ll write you” I said.

“Well, I have already researched it. We’re going to get you a satellite phone to check in. It’s going to cost a fortune, but it’s worth our sanity.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

And so I hung up the phone and ran to tell Connie my decision. Yes, it was my decision. There was wood on the fire in my soul. I was going to Africa. I stood on the steps for a moment of the Duke quad with the stone stacked buildings all around, the slick leaves of the magnolia tree reflecting the sun and the deliberate steps of students heading to class. I was going to Africa, wild and free. And I had could not imagine what would await. I could not yet imagine the beautiful and the terrible, the laughter and the pain, the learning of colonial tendencies and the privilege that would make going to Africa possible for me to visit and return.

“Well, Connie, sign me up.”

“I had already worked on your paperwork. It’s obvious that God is in this.”

Easter Promises

There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. On many mornings, I like to rise for that hour and sit in my favorite chair. The drip of the coffee maker and flicker of the fire are the only noises in the house. In an hour, I know the house will be full of noise and grumblings of school and what’s for breakfast. A night of sleep has quieted my mind from the joy and frustrations of the previous day. And I can be alone with my thoughts.  And I type on my computer. My creative energies are fully engaged, not yet worn down by a day of decision making. There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. 

When Mary arrives at the tomb on that Easter morning, John tells us that it was still dark. I like to think that Mary was in that quiet place too.  A night of sleep has given her traumatized heart a slither of strength. She is planning to crawl into the tomb and unwrap the grave clothes from Jesus’ body. She has planned to pour fragrant oils into the wounds of his hands and feet. It was a burial ritual. It would be an hour of quiet healing for her. It would give her space to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous life and violent death. There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. 

Have any of you needed that quiet time? Perhaps it’s a break from the raucousness of raising children. Or you’re uncertain about the prospects of the future. Or COVID-19 has worn you down. Your nerves are about to break. It’s in that dark place just before sunrise that the shock of Easter sends Mary running. She arrives and notices someone has tampered with the tomb. Jesus is not there. She sprints. All of those emotions she had quieted come roaring back. 

“They’ve taken the Lord. They couldn’t even let him rest in peace.” She tells these other two disciples, Peter and the beloved disciple. They too sprint to the tomb. They both look inside and to their astonishment, he’s not there. They leave. But Mary lingers. She doesn’t return home. 

She stoops down one more time and peers into the tomb. There are two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. They ask her, “Why are you weeping?” Now, I’ve preached the Easter story for more than 15 years now. I have never really paid attention to this question. I always thought it was a throw away question. But John, the author of this gospel, is an artist and every word counts. “Why are you weeping?” Typically, I thought the angels deliver this question with the tone of, “Come on Mary. Stop you’re crying. There’s no crying on Easter!” But as I read this scripture again it hit me, they asked this question with great empathy, “Why are you crying?” She gives her logical conclusion,  “They’ve taken my Lord.” Mary is stuck. She can only turn to one explanation. Something evil has happened to Jesus again. We can’t fault her. She’s witnessed the awfulness of the world. She’s watched political leaders deceive the crowds about Jesus. She’s watched soldiers beat his innocent body for the public to see. She’s watched the soldiers gamble for his clothes. She’s seen enough evil in the last three days to last a life time. Maybe we can understand where Mary’s coming from. We live in the same world. 

Then Mary turns away from the angels and sees a man she thinks is the gardener, but it’s Jesus. Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you weeping?” It’s the exact question the angels asked. She says, “Sir, if you’ve taken his body, please give him back.” Now, gardeners were honest, hardworking people. She’s skeptical of him. She turns away from this man who seeks to understand her grief. “Why are you weeping?” and all she can say is “Somebody stole his body.” 

We’ve all been there. We’ve all experienced grief. We’ve all watched a movement come to a tragic end. We’ve all experienced a failure. When we do, we often turn away from help. We turn away from life. We turn away from believing in a future. We simply turn to a closed position. How might you answer that question on this Easter day. “Why are you weeping?” 

Just as Mary has turned away from Jesus and his question, Jesus delivers the one word that could jar her out of this place. Her name. “Mary.” And Mary turns to Jesus, “Rabbouni.” It’s the same Jesus who once said to her and the disciples, “I call my sheep by name and they know my voice.” This Risen Jesus indeed is a gardener who has called Mary’s name and is cultivating life again for her. That’s Easter. That’s the Resurrection. Easter is about Jesus calling our names and turning us towards the promises of life. 

We all need Easter angels, messengers who call us out of the dark places. Easter turns our guilt into hope. Easter turns us to the promises of life. 

Years ago, I was in seminary. During my first year, my dad called. I was in my dorm room, “Hey Buddy, I got some bad news. There’s no easy way to say it. I have bladder cancer.” I hung up the phone and I tried to pretend I was ok. Didn’t bother me. But the truth was, I was scared. It didn’t sink in the first night. But the next day, I couldn’t concentrate. I would sit at my desk with my books open, but I couldn’t study. I was one big ball of anxiety. After three days of this feeling, I slipped away from my friends. And I just went for a long walk and the chapel on campus was open. I sat down and found myself paralyzed by grief. The rivers began to flow from my eyes. And I just prayed and cried and I may have cursed too. I was mad. 

My head was downward so I didn’t see anyone. Suddenly, I feel this light tap on my shoulder. I look in the pew behind me. It’s a fellow seminary student named Jason. Jason was training to be a chaplain. Jason and I didn’t know each other well. We may have spoken a handful of times. He said, “May I sit down?” I said, “Sure.” And then he asked, “Why are you crying?” Usually I kind of like to play the tough, stoic individual. But I just let it all out and told him everything about how I was feeling. How I was so mad at this awful disease. How I missed being so far from my family. He listened. And then he said, “Can I pray for you, Will?”  When I heard my name, I knew without a doubt God had sent Jason to minister to me in that moment. I felt this reservoir of the Christian faith well up in me. It was the faith poured into me by my parents and by the local church and by my risen savior. I had an assurance that moment that whatever happened, our family was going to be ok. He prayed and cried and then I laughed. Hearing my name was an Easter moment that the resurrected Lord knew my name. I could turn from grief and turn to the Easter promises. As I remember back on that experience, I was trying my best not to be found. But that’s what grace is. It’s when God finds you even when you don’t want to be found. 

Over the next two years, I may have spoken with Jason two or three more times, but on that day he was an Easter angel. I remember when I returned home for the first time at Christmas to see my dad, I was in a good place. When I walked inside our house, I saw him standing there waiting for me by the kitchen sink. He had a gallon of Blue Bell ice-cream waiting for me. I wrapped my arms around my dad. He said, “Will, it’s going to be ok. Let’s have dessert.” Friends, it’s Easter. Jesus Christ is alive. Jesus Christ is turning us to the promises of a new life, a new creation. I’m not sure what’s going on in your life, but I’m here to proclaim to you. It’s going to be ok. And if you believe it, can I get an Alleluia? It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. Friends, it’s Easter. Christ is Risen. Let’s have dessert.