Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter in the desert

Next year I propose that we all take a trip at Easter time. A long trip. Let’s go further south. A lot further south. Let’s go way down south of the equator to the Southern Hemisphere. Why go down there at Easter? Because it’s not springtime.

I confess that I borrowed this idea from similar one offered by Martin Marty in a sermon that I remember reading. Marty thinks that our perspective on Easter may be affected in an unfortunate way by springtime. Have you heard the sermons about Easter being about reawakening and rebirth? Chirping birds and awakening plants tell us life returns where there had been apparent death. Many preachers in this part of the world say that it is the same with the resurrection of Jesus.

But Marty says that we should forget that sort of perspective. He thinks believers in the Southern Hemisphere have it better. They have to ponder the resurrection in the midst of scenes of grass turning brown and trees turning gray. With dead leaves and dead flowers on the ground they must celebrate the living, resurrected Jesus.

So I have a place picked out for an Easter pilgrimage next year. How about we go to the Atacama Desert that runs from the southern border of Peru into northern Chile in South America? That’s in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Atacama Desert will definitely give us a very different setting to celebrate the resurrection.

At its center, climatologists describe the Atacama as absolute desert. It is known as the driest place on earth. There has been no rainfall in portions of the Atacama Desert as long as humans have kept records of it. Now that’s a long dry spell.

We will see no plants at all in the deepest part of the Atacama—not even a stump of a cactus. We will see no animals, not even a lizard, not even a gnat or any other sort of bug. There is essentially no life in the deepest part of the Atacama. The landscape is moon-like. I read that it was chosen as a testing ground for a lunar rover.

While we will find no evidence of life in the Atacama Desert, we may find evidence of death. Because there is no moisture in the Atacama, nothing rots. One visitor to the region reported seeing seemingly petrified human remains on the dessert floor—even those of children.

What would it be like to go to such a desolate place of no life and ample evidence of death to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus? No birds singing. No trees budding. No flowers blooming. No birds, trees, or flowers, period. Only a ghostly wind amid the remains of the dead.

Sounds great, huh? Are y’all ready to go?

While the Atacama Desert is not the sort of Easter setting that we are used to, let me tell you something: The power of the resurrection is no less real there than it is here. Whether your life is full of sunny joy like springtime, or whether it is full of dark and lonely despair like the Atacama Desert, Jesus is alive. He died in a cruel and unjust way on Good Friday, but he was raised to life again on Easter Sunday.

The Easter story does not offer us an easy formula for joy. Indeed, were we to try to establish a formula out of this story, many in our society might not like it a whole lot.

Jesus prayed earnestly and repeatedly for the heavenly Father to stop his impending suffering, but the answer was no. Jesus’ perfect obedience to the heavenly Father did not cause him to escape sorrow and heartache and physical suffering. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, “God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it . . . He did not stop the crucifixion: He rose from the dead.”

The Easter story is not a quick fix, simple formula of joy. If you think it is, then you have it all wrong. But when we choose begin and nurture a relationship with the one named Jesus who was crucified and then was raised to life, then we have the chance to give in to what Philip Yancey described as “a long, slow undertow of joy.”

The brightness of Easter in springtime is beautiful. But the undertow of joy offered by the resurrection of Jesus is just as real in the dead of winter. Maybe celebrating Easter in a barren desert would give us a new sense of resurrection joy.

I wonder if my local travel agent has a last minute Easter package to the Atacama Desert available?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Not worth comparing

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18, TNIV).

That phrase "not worth comparing" always gets me. The difficulties we endure now are "not worth comparing" to the glory that awaits the followers of Christ. If this is true, what does it mean for us today?

Years ago I read an article on Richard Baxter who has been called "the most prominent English churchman of the 1600s." Baxter suffered from a physical ailment that caused him nearly constant pain from the time he was a teenager until he died. Because of his efforts to reform the Church of England he was persecuted fiercely. He was imprisoned at one point and his property was confiscated. On one occasion the bed on which he was lying sick was taken from him by the state church authorities.

Even with all his suffering Baxter accomplished a great deal. He sought to find common ground among squabbling Christian factions of his time. Baxter is probably best known for his prolific writing. He wrote hundreds of books some of which are still widely read today, over 300 years later.

How was Baxter able to accomplish so much in service to the Lord while suffering constant physical pain and enduring intense persecution? For one thing Baxter said that it was his practice to meditate upon heaven for at least a half-hour every day.

How could a guy who produced over 200 written works, many of which are very long, find time to meditate on heaven for a half-hour every day? Could it be that such meditation is more productive than we may tend to believe today? Could it be that Baxter's discipline of thinking of heaven helped him to remember that his trails, though they were fierce, were "not worth comparing" to the glory to come?

C. S. Lewis once wrote to his friend Malcolm, "The hills and valleys of Heaven will be to those you now experience not as a copy is to an original, nor as a substitute to the genuine article, but as the flower to the root, or the diamond to the coal."

I have heard the saying that one can be so heavenly minded that he or she is no earthly good. It could be that the reverse is more accurate. Maybe the more heavenly minded we are the more earthly good we accomplish.