Sunday, March 23, 2008

It is Finished: Death on Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday is the ultimate celebration of life - the glorious victory over death and Hell - the rising from the tomb and ushering in of unimaginable joy. I love speaking in church on Easter - having the opportunity to highlight the life, death and resurrection of our Savior and Redeemer, since the spirit is so strong and powerful and affirming on such a transcendent day. I spoke today in our little branch - and it was the hardest, most emotionally difficult talk I have ever prepared. You see, our branch died today.

How do you convey to a small group of friends - people who have bonded in a way that is almost impossible in a typical large ward - that their small house of spiritual refuge (the place that they have come to bless each Fast and Testimony meeting as their anchor in the storms of life) will be locked and unavailable next week? How do you tell them that their dedication and sincere effort and sacrifice appear to have been offered for naught? Most wrenchingly, how do you do so on Easter Sunday - a day when they should leave church rejoicing in the grace and condescension of God?

Even more to the point, how do you do this when you can't do so openly? How do you address an Easter talk in Sacrament Meeting knowing that they will be weeping for a different reason in just over an hour - knowing that the joy and hope and love you pray they feel as they listen to your message will be replaced by pain and sorrow and disbelief and real, deep grief as they learn that their congregation (established only three years ago amid great joy and hope) is being dissolved? How do you preach of life and eternal happiness when you will help officiate that same day at the funeral they can't possibly anticipate? How do you kill an entire congregation on the day set aside to celebrate new life?

By all objective measurements, Jesus of Nazareth was an abject failure. His mortal ministry lasted three short years. The hopes of a nation (nay, of God's own Chosen People) had been recorded for centuries, trumpeting a future arrival in the following words:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)

Only thirty-three years earlier, the angel had appeared and proclaimed:

"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)

Immediately following this announcement, the heavenly multitude exclaimed:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14)

Prophets extolled the importance of His birth and life; they stressed the deliverance He would bring. He would justify the brutality of their former oppression by establishing peace and mercy and power. He would reclaim their rightful place in the kingdom of their God, humbling once and for all those who had reviled and scourged and persecuted them as they awaited their great day of glory. They still wait, nearly two thousand years later, since Jesus of Nazareth failed to fulfill their expectations so utterly and completely. Easter Sunday did not bring them joy and peace and deliverance; it brought them only more oppression and misery and separation and death.

What then of Easter Sunday - of a sealed tomb and a sobbing, despondent discipleship? Amid their continuing pain and terrible turmoil, amid the persecution and upheaval that would not end, how could they possibly find peace and joy and hope? They found it in the following pronouncement - one of the simplest, most concise statements in all of recorded history:

"He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. " (Matthew 28:6)

All of us are born to die. All of us live this life knowing it will end. Every person who has ever lived - every organization that has ever been established - every group that has ever met - every family that has ever existed - everything that has ever been created has begun with an inevitable end in store. However, through the birth and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, all of us can look forward with hope and joy and love and longing to that day when it shall be said of us, as it was of Him, "[They] are not here; for [they are] risen."

Just as Jesus' ministry was too short for many to understand it as a glorious success, and just as the results of that ministry were too seemingly inconsequential for many to recognize their eternal significance, our own growth and success and efforts often are too short and seemingly inconsequential to recognize as the glorious successes they truly are. We celebrate Easter today not just to honor the resurrection of our King, but also to pay our humble respect to the grace that transfers his victory to us - that allows us to see and understand and feel gratitude for the successes embedded in our own apparent failures. We celebrate Easter today to celebrate not just the risen Lord, but also to honor the death and suffering that had to be offered in order for the resurrection to occur. As a friend wrote, "Christ was suffering servant as well as glorious victor, that, like the sinners the rest of us are, he had to die (and apparently fail) before he could be resurrected (and ultimately succeed)." Today, on Easter, we celebrate life and a newness of glory, but we also celebrate death and the ending of one ministry for the beginning of another.

What can we take on this Easter Sunday from the first Easter Sunday so long ago? As we honor and praise and worship our Lord's victory over death, how can we "liken [even this thing] unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning?" (1 Nephi 19:23)

In all we do - in all our efforts and associations and organizations - may we recognize and accept that our meager efforts to become like Him are undertaken with failure as the inevitable end - but that the growth we experience in our mortal efforts and associations is all He requires. May we focus on the joy of the journey and accept the unexpected detours and heartache along the way, willing to say as He said, "Not my will, but thine, be done." (Luke 22:42) May we live so that we too may be able to say, as we draw our final breath, "It is finished. (John 19:30) Into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

May we realize that our efforts, no matter the objective outcome, are not offered and accomplished in vain - they are not viewed by our Lord as failures. Rather, let us look forward to that great and glorious day when we shall hear those gentle, soothing words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord." (Matthew 25:21)

18 comments:

Mama D said...

You gave a beautiful talk. It was perfect for the branch. The love and friendship and connection will continue, even through the tears and sorrow of today. Thank you for your sincere love and desire to reach out and soothe hearts that didn't know they would be aching. With the Lord's help, you succeeded.

Mama D said...

Remember what Pres Guffey and Pres Erskine said: Someday we will be back, bigger and stronger than ever!

adam said...

Thanks for the post today. It was especially nice as I didn't make it to church today, due to a nice cold. Easter Sunday is usually my favorite day at church.


Thanks for the add in your link list as well. :)

Stallion Cornell said...

It's interesting to me that Easter is virtually ignored by the world at large in comparison to Christmas. A little baby Jesus doesn't interfere with your life the way the risen Lord does.

Thank you for a great post.

Kevin said...

Ray,

As I read your post, I was reminded of the words from the hymn, "Change and decay in all around I see. Oh, thou who changest not, abide in me."

A neighboring ward in our stake was dissolved after 20 years or more while I was serving as bishop. Our ward, along with three others, absorbed those members. Our stake president said it was one of the hardest things he had to do, to cut those folks apart from their friends, their leaders, and send them to new wards.

On our side, we did everything we could to make them feel welcome. The first Sunday after boundary change, we ended PH and RS 15 minutes early, and invited all the adults into the cultural hall, where we had fruit, cookies, punch, Costco muffins, to give them a chance to socialize with their new friends. Many knew these folks, and many met people they hadn't seen since college. We reorganized some PH quorums and auxiliary presidencies to include them, and I called a new executive secretary and ward clerk from their ranks.

Still, it was hard. Our ward got the bulk of the families, but another ward in our stake picked up 25 widows, and two 80 year old HP to do the additional home teaching. 7 or 8 years later, we may be looking at doing this again to another ward in the more urbanized part of our stake, even as we continue to divide and create new wards farther out in the affluent suburbs.

I'm assuming that part of this post came from your talk. The metaphor of Christ's ministry as a failure in worldly terms is apt. Sometimes, after all we can do, we can't move the mountains by ourselves, and have to trust in the Lord, that someday, we'll be back, and the mountains will move.

Papa D said...

"Sometimes, after all we can do, we can't move the mountains by ourselves, and have to trust in the Lord, that someday, we'll be back, and the mountains will move."

It's interesting that one of the members mentioned how appropriate it was that this occur on Easter - since she believed that the branch would rise again in the future, more beautiful and glorious than before.

Kevin said...

I suppose this must mean a longer drive to church on Sundays? Maybe folks can carpool to hold on to some of the camaraderie of the old days. I suspect, though, that you've also experienced where you've served in a church organization and developed great friendships, but after you're released, the friendships, although still warm, often are never the same again. Good luck to all in this difficult process.

Papa D said...

We actually live 1 1/2 miles from our own ward building and drive about 30 miles to serve in the branch - so it will be a MUCH shorter trip for us. Everyone else will be carpooling, by order of the BP and SP - explicitly.

Mama D said...

Kevin, if you're interested you can go to my blog and read the details of why we were serving in the branch.

http://mamadehotel.blogspot.com/search/label/Branch

If you scroll down to the first one chronologically, titled "Changes," it gives the initial details. The other posts are about callings and adjustments as we served there.

FWIW, Ray really respects you and your comments on various blogs. (So do I, though I'm an infrequent lurker and only a rare commenter.)

Mama D, aka Mrs. Ray, aka Mi

Kevin said...

MamaD, Thanks for the link. I spent the first 18 months in my HC assignment with the youngest ward in our stake, and loved every minute of it. I was just sad that my wife, unlike you and Ray, didn't get to share that with me. I made some great friends there, and now am assigned to a different ward, but meeting in the same building as my home ward. That cuts out the once or twice weekly haul out to the other ward, some 20 miles away.

BTW, your kids look great. We also have six kids, but my youngest is now 20, so we are at the tail end of things, and you are right in the middle of it. Enjoy it while you can. We still have fun with our adult kids, but it's never quite the same once they think they;ve become your equal (far superior to their parents in a couple of cases).

Papa D said...

"it's never quite the same once they think they;ve become your equal (far superior to their parents in a couple of cases)."

Yeah, we're in that situation with our 5-year-old. *grin* You know we raised her correctly, however, when the word she thought of the other day as an example of things that start with "i" was "inconceivable". (Anyone who doesn't get that pop culture reference has been deprived.)

Kevin said...

Hah! One of my very most favorite movies! You have done well, indeed. Mext, you're taking them hunting for wolverines in Alaska!

Mama D said...

Um, no hunting for wolverines in Alaska with me around. While I'd love to see Alaska, I much prefer more temperate climes!

Sorry for the threadjack, Ray. Back to the original topic.

I like your thought that our meager efforts to become like Him are enough with His help, and they are not viewed by Him as failures. As one who views her efforts as meager, that insight offers a lot of hope and trust in our merciful Father and Savior!

Darrell said...

Back to the threadjack, just for a moment, Mama D. Thank you for the reference to your other blog and your calling in the branch. Reading your description of your calling almost brought me to tears. A few years ago I was called to be Branch President of a very small YSA Branch 30 miles from my home ward. What a wonderful and rewarding experience! Wow! I really miss those wonderful young people and your post brought back some pretty strong emotions.

It is true that you hope to always be friends with the people you serve but, in the meantime, life happens and growing apart is inevitable. My thoughts and prayers are with your family and the people of your wonderful little branch.

Mama D said...

Thank you, Darrell. Glad I could trigger some good memories for you! Did your family go with you to the YSA branch when you served as BP? I am sure we will look back with the same emotion and gratitude for having served in the branch. I am such a small, quiet cog in the bloggernacle, and to have you and Kevin visit my own blog... that feels pretty good!

I know there are those who are eagerly awaiting our return to the ward. (Scheideggers and I will not be without callings for long, I'm sure!) But there is something about serving in a small unit that touches your heart differently than in a ward. I will always be grateful for the opportunity!

Darrell said...

The call actually came to both my wife and I (all of our kids are married and gone)--me as branch president and she as the bp's chief supporter :-). It was wonderful. We would have FHE with the branch kids, and attend their activities, including a pot luck every Sunday and breakfast and scripture study every Saturday. Just tinking about it stirs up some unexpectedly strong emotions. I am sure you will get a calling soon. I had to leave the branch after three years because of an unexpected change in job assignments and a move 200 miles away. I was in our current ward 4 months when they called me to be bishop. They will find something for you to do.

Papa D said...

Darrell, She was released as the YW Pres. shortly before we were called to the branch. The Primary Pres. and RS Pres. both blog and are aware of our new situation. The RS Pres. is married to the Exec. Sec. I have no doubt they are fighting over her in Ward Council - and our wonderful bishop is trying to decide which Pres. would be worse to disappoint. *grin*

My money is on . . . can't say, since the two Presidents also read Mama's blog regularly - and one of them reads mine.

Mama D said...

Ray, you make me laugh! Just remember, I am not the only hot commodity suddenly available for callings in the ward! Corrie and Andy are back from the branch, too... and some think you aren't off the hook for something "small" even if you are on the HC because, after all, you did it in the branch. :]