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Friday, March 29, 2013

Easter's bitter and sweet

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Is it unpardonable for a pastor to confess that Easter was never his favorite holiday?

Maybe I can blame it on my childhood, when Easter was about smelly dyes for hard-boiled eggs, hollow milk chocolate rabbits, and shreds of plastic pink and green grass in a flimsy basket.

Jesus didn't even really enter into the picture back then, except when His name was attached to a variety of four-letter words. And on those rare occasions, like Easter, when the reality of Jesus came up in conversation, it kind of felt like He was only there to suck the joy out of the egg hunt or the sweetness from the bunny ears with all that talk about crosses, nails, spears, blood, torture, sadness and death. I never said it aloud, but I remember thinking, "No Jesus for me. Too dark. Too depressing. Too bitter."

If that leaves you wondering what changed, I suppose I can only chalk it up to unexpected and undeserved kindness of God. In my early teenage years, just when I was starting to do things that could have killed me or landed me in prison for a long, long time, some family friends invited me back to a church where I had attended a couple of summer VBS programs years before. Never being one to hurt anyone's feelings, I accepted the invitation, thinking that I'd politely fade out of sight after a few Sundays.

Almost 33 years later, I can hardly fathom what I owe those folks. A simple invitation set my life on a completely different course.

But even after I chose to trust Jesus -- even after I accepted the Son of God, even having experienced His amazing grace, the forgiveness of my evil thoughts and deeds, and the sweet wonder and mystery of His constant presence in me and with me -- even after all this, Easter tasted bittersweet, with heavy emphasis on the bitter.

Celebrating comes naturally on other holidays. Who doesn't drink in the sweet of the midsummer sun, burgers on the grill and the snapping of Old Glory in the breeze on Independence Day? Who doesn't savor the sweet of the frost on the jack-o'-lanterns when leaves are crunchy and candy falls into plastic buckets like rain? Who doesn't long for the sweetness of a table full of succulent fare with hearts equally full of gratitude to "God, our Maker" who provides for "all our wants to be supplied"? Who doesn't love the sweet feeling of celebrating our King's birth with the giving and receiving of gifts? Who doesn't relish the sweet peace of seeing a new year begin like a slate wiped clean and made ready for us to write a new chapter in the story of our life?

 These special days bring us joy because they call us to remember something joyful. The Fourth of July reminds me that I am a citizen of a free nation. Thanksgiving makes me aware that I am the recipient of God's bounty. New Year's Day makes me think about new opportunities.

Easter? Well, Easter reminds me that I am a sinner. Not the most pleasant thought, is it? Easter reminds me that Someone paid a terrible price for loving me. Easter reminds me I'm unworthy of the kind of love that would carry the cross and surrender to the nails.

You're thinking, "Greg, is your cup ever half-full? See the bright side! Christ is risen!"

Indeed He is! I believe this with all my heart. But knowing He had to die has always cast a bitter shadow over Easter for me.

I'm growing up, though. I'm learning to embrace the fact that life isn't always sweet. (Just call me a slow learner.) Some days are milk chocolate sweetness. Others are 100 percent cacao bitter. And no one craves that unsavory flavor. Sometimes it even makes us question the Confectioner -- "God, if you want us to have life, and life more abundantly (the sweet life), why do you add so much bitter flavoring?" And that's where I've noticed my taste buds changing of late.

Sitting in a hospital room with my brother a few years ago brought about an epiphany. He was dying, though that was still several agonizing months away. As we talked and laughed and wept and prayed, we explored this very issue -- why our good God permits things that cause us pain and sorrow.

Sure, theological training is good, but it can only take you so far when you are sitting face to face with someone you deeply love whose body is wracked with excruciating pain.

Running out of words, the Lord seemed to draw my attention to the crucifix on the wall (standard issue in a Catholic hospital room). While I ultimately could not produce a satisfying reason for my brother's affliction, that hideously beautiful ornament reminded us that God knows what suffering is. He has experienced it up close and personal and from both sides -- as the Son nailed to the wood and as the Father who watched His precious One suffer the accusations, the betrayals, the crack of the whip and the driving of the nails that affixed Him to the tree.

We may ask why and never get an answer. But we have this assurance: God knows what it feels like to be the one in the bed of suffering and the one sitting helplessly alongside the beloved. That thought brought us both some relief. We decided to put our trust in Someone who has been there

And that brings us back to Easter. True, the event that brought about Easter is bitter. But knowing He has tasted that bitterness Himself inspires hope. In fact, Jesus didn't just sample the bitterness of suffering and death, He devoured it. So Easter -- His victory over the grave that assures us that because Jesus lives, we will too, and never taste the bitterness of sickness or death ever again -- Easter has become the sweet icing on the cake.

[By GREG WOOTEN, pastor of Lincoln Church of the Nazarene]


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