Why I Love Easter (and Les Mis)

‘I love Easter.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Chocolate!’ he replied as he rubbed his hands together with glee.
‘Is that all?’
Then came the reply I guess I was seeking — though I would have preferred it to come without prompting.

‘It’s about Jesus coming back to life on Easter Sunday.’

‘Ah, yes! That’s the answer I wanted’, I thought to myself, patting myself on the back for having achieved such a good result.
Then I stopped to think about the memories of Easter we had in our home.

One of our sons was baptised on Easter Sunday. That was an exciting weekend, with friends staying overnight and a chocolate-egg hunt for seven children all over the house and garden. We were still finding chocolate eggs in concealed places up to 18 months later.

I remembered our family staying on a farm with my godmother and her husband for Easter when I was little. Their home still had a pump for water in the kitchen, and a pit-toilet, real pigs in a real pigsty — and a blackout while Mum was in the bath! You don’t forget an Easter like that in a hurry.

But I stopped to think about it a bit longer.

I thought about how Lent this year has almost become a non-event for our family. We frequently miss Ash Wednesday because of sporting-team commitments. And we haven’t been to many of the studies in the church on Wednesday evenings.

Yet years ago we were the ones throwing stones at other families when we had little ones and were always there — looking upon the failings of others with a sense of self-righteousness.
This week, I watched my two favourite Easter movies. Chocolat and  Les Misérables – the non-musical movie, starring Liam Neeson.

The movie is slow. It is long. But it’s compelling — so compelling that the first time I watched it, it got me out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to see the ending.

To tell a long story in a few words, and hopefully with no spoilers, the story is about a convict who makes good.

The main character Jean Valjean is a convict who, having been paroled after years of hard labour, turns up at a priest’s home. Valjean is fed and given a place to sleep. But in the middle of the night he steals some silver candlesticks from the priest’s home. Valjean flees but is soon caught by gendarmes who bring him back to the priest, expecting to have the priest charge Valjean with theft.

But instead, the priest demonstrates mercy and grace by telling the gendarmes that the candlesticks were a gift. The priest then admonishes Valjean that he had forgotten the rest of it, and gives him even more silver.

The story continues years later in a different town, where Valjean is living with a different identity. He has changed his life so much that the people of the town, not knowing about his past, elect him to be their mayor.

He is recognised by a gendarme (played by Geoffrey Rush) who had been a guard where Valjean was imprisoned. This gendarme makes it his life’s mission and obsession to destroy Valjean.

But Valjean responds in the same way that the priest responded to him — with love displayed through grace and mercy.

This movie wins five stars from me. Wow!

And why do I rate it so highly? It was breath-taking. Neeson and Rush are superb.

But, more significantly, it gives me the sense that I am observing the story of Easter, and it draws me into observing Lent.

I want so much to identify with the grace and mercy of Valjean and the priest. But more often than not, I find that I am probably more like the self-righteous gendarme — judging others by laws and expectations, by their past actions or by dumb things they still choose to do, instead of looking at them through eyes of love and forgiveness.

I find myself hating the gendarme; but I also recognise myself in him.

Like the movie Chocolat, Les Misérables is full of contrast: good versus evil, light versus darkness, love versus hate.

Both have vigilant law-abiding citizens using the law to clean up their societies. Both demonstrate that love is much more powerful than the law.

In both movies love triumphs — like at Easter.
Yet what do we read in our papers? Why do we lose our hope? What was the last ‘good news’ headline we read in the paper or watched on the television?

Apparently blood sells. So does evil. So does fear. And it sells only because we buy it. Funny that.

Why do we buy papers that tell us about terrible things? Is it because of our compassion, or our safety concerns? Or is it that we, too, become the self-righteous gendarmes and measure our own righteousness against the failures of others? Perhaps, having other people’s fallen lives and misdemeanours in print gives us an opportunity to forget about the logs in our own eyes.

I remember one particular Easter. I’d just had an altercation with a friend. I could not understand where she was coming from — until it hit me that she had never realised that Easter was for her. She reacted violently against Jesus’ words, ‘Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves!’

Then the realisation hit me. My friend could not understand Easter because she’d never recognised her need for forgiveness: Surely nothing she’d ever done warranted anybody dying for her. She possibly remains convinced of that.

In contrast, I remember being with another friend who came to the realisation that it didn’t matter what she’d ever done, Christ’s death on the cross covered it all. Her response was pure joy — an absolute life-changing experience for her. (And for me, too, having only recently learnt a quick ‘formula’ for sharing the gospel, which was the instrument God used in that particular circumstance to bring a life to its fullest.)

Every Easter I come to a new realisation, a new reality. This year it is that the log in my eye is pretty darn big!

Thank God, though, that he uses the logs in our eyes, and our misdemeanours, to help us to realise that Easter is for us. For me! Jesus died for me! His love overcame the death prescribed for me. His love was, and is, triumphant over death.
And that is why I love Easter.

 

Originally published as ‘I love Easter (and Les Mis)’ in The Lutheran, 2009, April edition.

 

Holy Handbags: Christian as a brand-name

 

It was BIG! It was fancy and it was very, very expensive.

We wandered around with our mouths gaping wide at the opulence of the Opryland Hotel. The ceilings were so high we almost couldn’t see them. Birds flew around us and then flew upwards into the canopy of tropical rainforest palms. While private rooms and suites formed the perimeter of the hotel, inside, under the main roof, were streets and arcades. There were conference rooms among ballrooms, ice-cream parlours next to saloons, beauty boutiques among fashion shops, florists and toyshops.

As we passed by a conference room, we noticed the paraphernalia displayed by sales representatives in the lobby outside. We looked with interest, surprised by the variety of ‘Christian’ items available on the market: stickers, birthday cards, wall plaques and children’s Bibles complete with colouring pencils.

But as we continued to look, we recognised ‘normal’ things that were labelled with ‘Christian’ symbols or texts, with prices to rival any Nike or Billabong product. My imagination ran away with all sorts of other advertising gimmicks: ‘Holy Handbags’, ‘Heaven Scent!’, ’Perfume of Paradise’, ‘Jesus Jeans’.

My eyes opened a little further that day – and unfortunately I think I became quite cynical.

What is a ‘Christian handbag’ anyway?

Does it make me holier if I use a ruler with a cross printed on it, rather than one I bought from the local newsagency?

At which stage does a pencil become a ‘Christian’ pencil? Is it born again when it goes through the printing press?

Obviously, ‘Christian’ sells. We only have to remember Christmas sales and the consumption of chocolate in Australia at Easter.

But where is the boundary between ‘Christian’ as we followers of Christ would call ourselves and ‘Christian’ as a brand-name? Should we trust everything that is called ‘Christian’? Should we distrust everything that is not marketed as ‘Christian’? Should we trust that everything sold in a ‘Christian’ bookshop is good, and reject other products on that basis?

How do we figure out what is good and what is not? It’s called discernment. And where do we get it? Good question.

I was once told about the people whose job it is to identify fake American dollar notes from real notes. What are their instructions? Instead of knowing every type of fake note available, they are to become so familiar with the real notes that any slight variation from the truth is very obvious.

As Christians we have the truth available to us in the Bible. If we become so familiar with truth by knowing the Word and have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can learn to spot a phoney a mile off. That is discernment.

As Lutherans, we have the legacy of Luther’s Small Catechism which Luther wrote for parents to teach their children. An added bonus of the catechism is that it teaches us to ask continually: ‘What does this mean?’ It encourages us to keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking until we have answers. Searching for answers helps us to find discernment.

We have a banquet of books and other resources available to us. Some are classics, some are fun. Some are religious, some are Christian… Some are rubbish.

Reading, to some of us, is an absolute joy. To some of us, writing, too, is a joy and a privilege. But nothing compares to the word of God in teaching truth.

No books – not even Christian books or bible concordances – should ever take the place of our study of the word of God.

Max Lucado points out that Christians too often rely on somebody else’s interpretation of Scripture instead of reading it themselves; and that makes as much sense as eating what somebody else has already half-digested. In the same way, we miss out on discernment if we rely on others to pre-digest our knowledge.

Discernment cannot be passed on: we must grow it ourselves.

Don’t stop reading other books – but remember that God’s word is truth. How does the Christian book you are reading stand up against God’s word? Is it consistent with the Bible’s teachings, and does God’s love and grace shine through? Are the Scriptures that are quoted used ‘in context’?

John MacArthur from Grace Community Church once gave a sermon titled, ‘Mary had a little lamb’. MacArthur strung a collection of Bible verses together, completely out of context. It was the funniest sermon I have ever heard – but he made the point very effectively that words and verses from the Bible can easily be made to say what anybody wants them to say.

Discernment looks at any verse in the light of the whole of God’s truth.

There are plenty of things on the market and even in our churches these days that appeal to ‘good, Christian folk’, and being a Christian does not protect us from sales-pitches. Some marketers actually take advantage of the trusting nature of Christians!

There are some valid questions that may help us learn to be more discerning; before we read a book, get involved in a program, sign up for a new course, a new roof, a diet plan, sponsorship, cosmetics… anything that is sold in Jesus’ name:

  • Does it glorify God or itself?
  • Does it edify (build up) God’s church?
  • What does it cost, and who will benefit from the cost?
  • Where will the money go?
  • Is there any level of secrecy  i.e. do you have to be a member or make a purchase or commitment in order to find out what it’s about, and are you allowed to share or discuss it with others?
  • What kind of language is being used: Is it ‘sales’ talk; does it use big words that you may have heard of but don’t really understand?
  • What are the claims: Is this the ‘only’ way, the ‘best’, ‘God’s way’, the ‘newest’?
  • What is the response if you say, ‘I will need to go home and pray about it’?

Perhaps if something is advertised as ‘Christian’, it may be worthwhile to bring out your cynical stick. But better still…

‘Keep sound wisdom and discretion: so they will be life to your soul, and grace for your neck. Then you shall walk in your way securely. Your foot won’t stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid. Yes, you will lie down, and your sleep will be sweet.‘ (Proverbs 3:21–24 WEB).

 

 

Originally published as ‘Holy Handbags’ in the Heart and Home column in The Lutheran, 2008, September Issue.  

www.thelutheran.com.au

Pooped, Purple and Perplexed: Looking to Easter

I’m pooped, purple and slightly perplexed.

Pooped is an accurate description of how I feel right now. Gabby and I decided to go for a walk at Morialta Falls this morning. Well…falls is something of an overstatement. Perhaps they could be re-named  Morialta Puddles.  I’m sure my legs will be reminding me tomorrow and half way through next week of our little adventure.

Purple – well that is a slight exaggeration. Purple is the colour we believed we would be by the time we returned to our car judging from the amount of blackberry bushes we were pushing through at one stage.

And perplexed…well… the maps and signposts along the way were rather ambiguous. There were frequent maps and posts with arrows for particular walks. But halfway along the walk we’d chosen, the signs for our walk became peculiarly absent. Missing was some very vital information … where to go next. So we chose the path we thought we should take – the only one that still had an arrow pointing to it.

Having trekked through unchartered blackberry territory for several hundred metres, we figured that since the path we had chosen was one of the shorter walks, it should not feel as though we needed to get our machetes out to get through the jungle – especially in suburban Adelaide. So we re-traced our steps back to the most recent map and used our powers of deduction.

Though there were no directions at that stage, there were steps that led down to the top of the waterfall (aka puddle), and steps going up the other side. My high-school memories of the same walk prompted us to brave the steps across the puddle and eventually guided us back to the car park.

The walk was great. The weather was perfect, the company and conversation was stimulating and we both feel invigorated. It’s as though we’ve been on a mini-holiday – even though it only takes 15 minutes to drive there.

But the ambiguous instructions got me thinking. One of the most difficult aspects of going anywhere new, meeting and mixing with new people, or trying new things is discovering the things that nobody tells you about; the stuff that nobody explains; the pieces of information that would have made life a whole lot easier if only somebody had said “You need to know this first” or “This is how to do it” or “Ask me. I may know!” or a simple arrow that says “This way!”

I recalled a young man, a friend of our teenagers, who we’d taken to church for the first time in his life. When it came time for communion, he leaned over to me and said

“What is this?”

Try explaining in 20 seconds or less, the meaning of communion! That lesson was a good lesson to me of the things I take for granted; our belief, our rituals, our traditions, the things we do for God and the things we do for the sake of doing them, and the things we do simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

Most of us can relate to visiting a new church, going to a new school or moving into a new community. There are some places that make us believe it is the loneliest place on earth. Where is the front door? Am I supposed to sign in somewhere? Is there a toilet close-by? Will anybody talk to me? If I put my name down on this piece of paper will I end up getting a bombardment of emails?

Fortunately, there are some places where you feel as though you are welcomed and feel ‘at home’, straight away. Somebody comes up to you when you arrive because either they are really friendly, have been trained really well and have practised to greet everybody, or they simply recognise that look of “lost” on your face, and have come to rescue you. They introduce themselves with something simple such as

“Hi, I’m Jim. Great to meet you. What’s your name?”

If they’re really well trained, or have practised, they might continue with “How do you spend your time?” or “What’s your favourite ice-cream?” They give you any information you might need, including where to find more information, and offer to sit with you. Or they introduce you to somebody else who they know has a similar interest to you.

“Hey Fred. This is Steve. He’s visiting from Gonunda. He’s interested in the sound system. I thought you might show him around later.”

This last Christmas gave us the opportunity to have some of our friends from different cultural backgrounds celebrate Christmas with us in our home. Because of my experience with the 20 second- introduction- to- communion, I wanted to make sure that our friends would not leave our home without knowing why we celebrated Christmas.

Just as we were about to ask a blessing for our food, which was already foreign to many of our visitors, we brought out our bible and read Luke Chapter 2. I hope we began a tradition – or perhaps, re-instated one. I hope that it will be a ritual that continues in our family to consciously dedicate our time and effort into introducing to our family and friends what is important to us– not taking what we know and believe for granted.

As we look to Easter, there are many people who don’t understand what Easter is about. How many Australians recognise the significance of Ash Wednesday – other than a horrible day of fires in 1983? Do our children understand  the meaning and purpose of Good Friday and Easter Sunday ? It is up to each of us to make sure that those around us know why we commemorate Easter, of Jesus life, death and most importantly, his resurrection.

At a local high-school about 20 years ago, a Christian group acted out the story of Easter. At the end of the play, a student went up to the Principal and said,

“That was a great story. Do you know who wrote it?”

So this Easter, no matter where I am or what I do, I want to be making sure that I do not take knowledge of the Easter story for granted. I do not want to behave as though it’s just a long weekend. I want to make sure that others will know that we celebrate Easter because, as the angels said, “He is not here, He is risen!”

Originally published as:

‘Pooped, Purple and Perplexed’ in The Lutheran, April 2012 Vol46, No3, P102-103