A Message from Alan B. Ward…

The Lenten Journey Ends... The Journey to Galilee Begins

We had a wonderful Lent and Holy Week experience at Good Shepherd UMC. After beginning Lent with a community Ash Wednesday service at Journey of Faith on Valentine's Day, we spent six weeks in worship in-tentionally journeying closer to the cross via prayer. In successive weeks, we looked at prayer in the context of community, sacrifice, service, transformation (discipleship), and perseverance. We also invited people to participate in the practice of prayer both individually and corporately. In lieu of 11 AM Adult Sunday School class, Linda Flanagan and I committed to be present in the Chapel each week during Lent, for any who wanted to come and pray. Each week we had at least two-and wherever two or more are gathered, Christ promises to be there. (And he's there when we're praying on our own too!)

To start out Holy Week, on Palm Sunday, we considered the prayer of Hosanna-God save us-which can be both a joyful and anguished prayer. We thought about the cries for salvation in our world today, including the voices heard at the March for Our Lives the day before, where thousands of young people waved banners and shouted out to be saved from the constant threat of gun violence in our society. The service began with joyful songs of "Hosanna", but by the end the mood had shifted. We ended with a much more subdued call to "Lead Us to the Cross", foreshadowing the events of the coming week.

We next gathered as a community on Holy Thursday to reflect on scenes form the Last Week of Jesus' earthly life. This year, we focused on the Upper Room and eavesdropped on some of the conversation around the table on that fateful night, just before Jesus was arrested. We got insight into what might have been going through the minds of Peter, James, John, and Judas, as they sat and listened to Jesus speak. We stopped to ponder how we are like the disciples, who would soon betray, deny, and abandon Jesus, their teacher and friend. We watched as, much to Peter's astonishment, Jesus stooped to wash his dirty feet, willingly doing the task even the lowest servant tried to avoid. We contemplated the kind of King who conquered not by a sword, but by a towel-and ultimately by dying on a cross. We saw Judas depart the fellowship, slipping away into darkness, as the others wondered: Where's he going?

Then on Good Friday, we picked up where we left off the night before. There was a Cross Walk, which this year began at Arthur Middleton Elementary. Given how much it is needed right now, with a shooting at Great Mills High School in neighboring St. Mary's county having occurred a week earlier, we wanted to intentionally pray for our schools. Then, like the army outside the city of Jericho, we literally marched around the school in prayer asking God's Spirit to bring down "walls" of division-as only God can. As we walked, I thought of song lyrics:

I soften my heart like clay on a wheel; your hands hold me firm in the spin.
Your grace is a powerful force I can feel; the Kingdom of Heaven within.
And it will change the world by a rugged cross. an empty tomb... a bridge across
All barriers keeping us apart. I open up my heart.
-"I Open My Heart", Brian McLaren


We then walked from the school up the corner of Smallwood Drive lifting high the cross as a visible symbol of God's Presence in our community. We stopped at the intersection to pray for all churches (and other faith communities) to work together to confront the complex issues that our community struggles to adequately address. It was inspiring to see several of our youth taking time to come, and not only to come, but to choose to participate in carrying the cross. Along the way, I saw a sign that said: "Hidden Entrance". I thought it was somehow a fitting message for Good Friday. The cross seems such an unlikely entry ramp the Kingdom of God, yet by willingly submitting to it, Jesus opened the door for all to smoothly merge into life with God.

It is one of life's great ironies that often the gateway to new life is only found after we pass through death-with no guarantee of what waits for us on the "other side", but with a firm promise that God has been where we are, and will be with us through it all.

Our mid-day procession continued down Smallwood Drive, ending at the sanctuary of Good Shepherd, where we gathered for a time of informal worship. We heard the three clergy that participated read the Passion story from Mark's Gospel. Then, we were invited into a time of individual prayer at the altar with "Jesus Remember Me" playing softly in the background.

We returned to that same sanctuary on Friday evening, where our youth led us on the final leg of our journey to the cross. There were a series reflective readings, dramas, and music to help us enter into and meditate upon Jesus's final moments of life, right up to the moment when he said, "It is finished!" and gave up his Spirit. The Roman Centurion, the Pharisee, the Thief on the Cross, and Barabbas all pondered together how Jesus died for my sin, your sin-our sin. We were reminded that: By his wounds, we are healed... We departed in silence.

Then came Holy Saturday. This is the day we Protestants aren't always quite sure what to do with. We don't have a formal Easter Vigil at Good Shepherd, like some churches. However, this year our family did our own informal vigil as, after a busy day that included baseball and softball practices for the kids, and sermon preparation for my wife, we went to the Port Tobacco Players in La Plata, to attend an evening performance of "Jesus Christ Superstar". It wasn't the whole Bible story like the Easter Vigil; nevertheless, it was an interesting way to get a modern musical interpretation of the Gospel story as we awaited the coming day. (And, as it happened, we got an encore production of the same show on live TV Sunday night!)

Then, finally, Easter Morning was here! There is no Sunrise Service in our com-munity, but we still rise early to have time for our family's morning Easter basket tradition before church. Then it's off to church-like most every Sunday for the Wards. But this wasn't just any Sunday; it was Easter. When I walked into church and saw the sanctuary, which had been stripped bare two days ago when I last saw it, with only a crown of thorns on the altar, now fully decorated, with white paraments on the pulpit and lectern, festive banners adorning the walls, and purple and yellow pansies lining the altar (no Easter Lilies due to allergy sensitivities), I experienced a sense of exhalation. The strife is o'er the battle done the Lenten Journey is finally done. Alleluia!

From the "Easter Glory" introit to kick things off, to "He Lives!" at the end of the second service, it was a truly great day of worshipping the Risen Lord. I don't know if Sunday's worship would have impacted me the same, had I not been there for all the events of Holy Week leading up to this moment. I doubt it... I don't know if it mattered that I had had voluntarily chosen to fast from Friday evening until Sunday morning, after having done so on the six Fridays of Lent. I also don't know if engaging in prayer for six weeks made a difference. I'd like to think those practices had an impact, but I know the practices themselves aren't the point-I engage in them to create space for God to work as God chooses, and when God chooses. All I can say for sure is that Easter touched me this year in a way that maybe it doesn't always, and I'm grateful for that.

We met my parents for lunch at Bonefish Grill in Brandywine after church and had a nice meal together. And then we came home and engaged in a time-honored tradition among clergy (and their families) once Easter Sunday is done: Relaximus maximus. The responsibilities were now finished and we could finally exhale... And exhale we did; and soon we were doing so repeatedly-which quickly led to extended contemplation of our inner eyelids.

Proclaiming new life-resurrection-seems to demand a great deal of energy. Once Easter is done, we feel emptied spiritually, and in need of rest.

Those that have been active participants in the events of Lent and Holy Week know well the feeling I describe. The Monday after Easter is usually a day of well-deserved rest for clergy. Likewise, the Sunday after Easter tends to be a day of rest for laity We call it low Sunday because it is marked by a pronounced drop in church attendance. Frankly, many clergy plan a vacation day for the Sunday after Easter.

Theologian N.T. Wright doesn't think that ought to be the case. He argues that Easter is the last time when the Church ought to be "on holiday". Wright says, "Is it any wonder the world doesn't take much notice if Easter is celebrated as the one-day happy ending tacked on to 40 days of fasting and gloom?" He says that Christians should be as joyful and celebratory in the days following Easter as we are penitent and contemplative during the season of Lent leading up to it. While I think ole "Tom" is fighting a somewhat uphill battle here to turn the tide of years of tradition of "taking off" the Sunday after Easter, I also think he has a point. While taking some time to exhale following a busy Holy Week is more than justified, we need to remember that a while the Lenten Journey ends on Easter, another journey is just beginning-and if we want to find the Risen Lord, we will have to keep walking.

Such was the case for the first followers of Jesus. Their journey didn't end on Easter. No, it was really just beginning. The next step of their journey is implied in the cryptic message the angel gives to the women who first discover the tomb is miraculously empty:

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. ... But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you-Mark 16:6-7.

Surely, the disciples were tired too, after all they had been through in the Last Week-and in the last couple years walking the road with Jesus. They didn't necessarily understand yet the implications of all that was happening on Easter. Waking up the morning after, they must have wondered if it was all a dream: Was Jesus really alive out there somewhere? They weren't sure, but they wanted to find out, and that meant they would have to keep walking-to Galilee.

The disciples' summons is our summons. If we want to see the Risen Lord, we too must continue the journey to "Galilee" where he waits for us.

Along the way, Jesus appeared to the disciples on several occasions: e.g., on the Road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-31]; in a locked room in Jerusalem [Luke 24:36-49 and John 20:19-23]; to doubting Thomas [John 20:24-28]; at the lakeshore while several of them were fishing [John 21:1-14]; and to Peter, for his "restoration" [John 21:15-24]. The lectionary for the Easter Season will touch upon some of these encounters. The 50-day post-Easter journey ultimately leads us to Pentecost-the day we celebrate the "birthday of the Church", when the Holy Spirit comes with power to the believers gathered in Jerusalem. But that story is for another day...

For now, enjoy a well-deserved rest this week if you so choose. Take some time to exhale, then come back renewed to join us as on our post-Easter journey at Good Shepherd. I pray that, like the disciples, we too will have our own memorable encounters with the Risen Lord in the weeks ahead. Maybe, like those disciples long ago, we'll see Jesus in a whole new way after the resurrection. Perhaps he's always been like this, but now we have eyes that see...

-See N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (Harper One, 2008) p. 256.