Thursday, April 17, 2014

An Easter Prayer

 by William Cowles and Reba Collins
The news is full of human tragedy – senseless killings, terrible accidents, the anxiety of families whose loved ones are missing, the daily fear of people terrorized by war. 

When it all doesn’t make sense, especially at Easter when the joy and hope of our risen Christ should be foremost on our hearts and minds, the best thing we can do is pray.

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen and Happy Easter.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Survival Guide to Palm Sunday

by William Cowles

For unchurched or little-churched folks who have the urge to do a little recon on a church before the big Easter celebration, I have to warn you that Palm Sunday – that is this coming Sunday – offers its own unique challenges.

If you haven’t been before, or maybe it’s been a long time, here are the main things I think you need to watch out for and my recommendations on how to navigate them easily:

  •  Reckless Palm Waving – The aisles will be full of palm-branch-waving munchkins in a parade. Be alert so you don’t take a frond in the eye. It’s supposed to commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for Passover, but has pretty much turned into a show for grandparents with new cameras.
  • Comrades in the Crowd – Because Palm Sunday is a big draw, there will be others among you just as clueless and confused, so look for them and take comfort (even shelter) among them.
  • Swarms of Children – They’ll be everywhere because Grandma and Grandpa or Aunt Bea and Uncle George are in town. Families gather during Easter week, and Palm Sunday is the kickoff day. These kids have been hyped for weeks with promises of Easter Egg hunts, candy, new clothes, toys, and baby rabbits. They’ll be raging!
  • Pastels – Wear your grunge if you want, but prepare to be surrounded by people in pastel colors. It’s a spring fashion thing and Palm Sunday is prep day for the big Easter dress-up party. You might even see ladies (and almost certainly little girls) wearing hats!
  • Weird Religious Symbols – It’s about this time that many churches trot out their “Stations of the Cross,” those symbolic plaques, carvings, and paintings that depict the story of Jesus’ path to crucifixion and resurrection. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t know what they are or whether or not to bow to them, touch them, or pray for them. The church should have material there to explain the symbolism, the story line, and their practices with this custom.
  • Limited Parking – Look for the “Guest Parking” if you want to get up an hour early, but don’t bother if you’re running on time or late. No church has enough visitor parking to handle the Palm Sunday and Easter crowds. Enjoy the walk.
  • Loud Hosannas! – Everybody shouts “Hosanna” at some time during a Palm Sunday service – and probably more than once. Don’t be afraid to join in! “Hosanna” means something like, “Lord, save us!” It’s what the crowds shouted to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, and it hacked off the local authorities to hear them acknowledge Jesus as holy in that way. Do it – it’s a good thing!
  • God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Yep, they’ll be there, as they are every Sunday, ready to meet you. Palm Sunday is a great day to see the Holy Spirit at work in people’s hearts, because it’s a time of excitement about the hope for a new King.
For whatever reasons – go to a church on Palm Sunday. Be curious, be questioning, and be skeptical. But, overall, join in the Palm Sunday jubilee celebrating that our God loves us so much that He came to earth to forgive our sins, and rode into town on a borrowed donkey so he could get our full attention. It’s a great story, and you shouldn’t miss it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

3 Ways to Keep Easter from Becoming a One-and-Done Experience

by Reba Collins and William Cowles

OMG, I am already tired of Easter! Mom and dad arrive on Friday; we’ve got four soccer games before that; we have to color two dozen eggs for three different egg hunts; and I have to shop for Easter dinner. My parents want us all to go to church Sunday morning, but I have no idea what’s even available. Did I mention I’ve then got to get Easter dinner on the table for the entire family? UGH! I’ll be so glad when Easter is over.

Let’s be honest, Easter isn’t an easy time to go to any church for the first time, but a lot of us do that. You may be new in town, or you may have that first-time urge to see what this Christian church thing is all about. Regardless of your church background, Easter is a “go, go, go” experience, and sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

With so much of life already getting in the way, let us help you make this year’s Easter experience easier. We want to simplify Easter, not complicate it even more. This should be an opportunity to actually celebrate what Easter is all about – the resurrection of Christ.

When you take the time to make a good church choice the first time, you stand a great chance of finding a faith community that will support and nourish you long after the Easter season has ended. So, if you haven’t yet targeted the church you’ll attend on Easter, and perhaps beyond, you can get started now by doing three things:

1.       Plan well. Based on your schedule, decide what would be your ideal time to attend an Easter service. Include a 20-30 minute window prior to the service’s start time for finding seats once you are on site. And don’t forget travel time in your planning. Next, find services that fit into your plan with a simple online search based on your time frame and location. Remember, some churches hold Saturday evening services and that’s okay, too!

2.       Find an Interesting Story. Once you’ve located options that fit into your schedule, check out the churches’ Websites for their current sermon series. Yes, it’s Easter. Yes, the story should be the same at every church. But it’s not. Each church has a slightly different version or perspective on the resurrection of Jesus. See what’s being discussed and studied prior to Easter and how that builds up to the Easter message. Then, see where they’re going after Easter.

3.      Go hunting. Churches dangle Easter Egg hunts like carrots in front of young families to entice them to attend an Easter service. That’s okay. I say, “Go participate with as much gusto as your young people can muster!” Seriously, egg-hunting churches don’t expect you to commit to an Easter Sunday visit, but they do want you to receive an invitation. Just thank them graciously and then go home and check them out via their Website. See if they offer your family opportunities to engage and grow in their church community. 

As I found out this week, an online search for Easter services in your area might be a bit premature. This far out, my search for “Easter Services [City] [State]” in three major metro areas yielded very few options. I had a few more hits with “Lent Sermon Series [City] [State],” but this option produced only mainline Protestant groups (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians) and Catholic churches.

Be patient, too, because online Easter information and resources will likely increase when we get within the two-week mark of the big day. That’s also when you’ll start to see Easter banners on every church’s front lawn. You’ll find lots of good options just by keeping your eyes open and your mouse clicking.

Don’t wait too long, though, because you don’t want to rely on a last-minute choice based on the hype-of-the-day. Impulse decisions rarely make lasting sense. Avoid that stress-producing trap by starting early, so this Easter doesn’t become just another annual one-and-done frenzy of events.

Prior to Easter is a week long tradition called Holy Week. Ever wonder what that was all about and why you should participate? Next Tuesday’s blog will give you a couple of resources to help you learn about Holy Week traditions, so you can get the most out of the Easter experience and grow your faith more.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Three Ways to Put More “E” into Easter

by Reba Collins and William Cowles

Better get crackin’. Easter is only three weeks away! It’s the “Big E” – the highest holy of holy days in the Christian faith. The one day other than Christmas that everyone comes out to sing “Hallelujah,” even if they don’t know why.

At Easter, people show up in your church whom you don’t know. GUARANTEED. They’re visiting relatives. They’re curious about that Jesus fellow. They’re reticent spouses. They’re new neighbors. They’re trying to please and impress a new love interest. Or, they’re so desperately hurting, lonely, broken, and lost that they have nowhere else to try to find peace than at – your church. And, they’re willing to risk it all on this one day. That’s a big responsibility for church people.

Do you care about them? Are you ready for them? Do you have more than a big choir and an Easter Egg hunt for them? Do you know that your main job on this day is to – Evangelize?
That’s right, we’re talking about the other “Big E” – evangelism. We know it’s your most dread topic, but don’t panic; this will be so easy you’ll be embarrassed you haven’t picked up on it before.

Here’s the trick to being a powerful evangelist – don’t act like a church! Act like Jesus.

Let your welcoming presence, your accepting attitude, and your loving behavior say it all for you. When you demonstrate your faith, you don’t have to declare it. When you live like Jesus, you don’t have to try to sell Jesus. As one sage recently phrased it, “I’d rather SEE a sermon than hear one.”

So, here are three simple “E”asy suggestions to help your members understand how they can put evangelism back into Easter – exactly where it belongs:

1.        Notice Who’s New – Jesus not only welcomed strangers who got close to him, he picked people out of the crowds. Easter visitors expect to be part of the “guest crowd,” but they also expect you to notice them. Have your peeps look for people they don’t know, and wish everyone a joyous Easter.
2.       Tell Stories – Jesus connected with people through stories they could understand and relate to in their time in history. Let your members know that not every guest knows and understands the Jesus stories told during Lent. Take special care with how you tell the Resurrection story on Easter. Think about, too, what story you’re going to tell the Sunday following Easter.   
3.       Celebrate – Jesus loved a good time with friends and strangers. Set the stage for your members and guests to laugh, sing, and hug their way through Easter. Praising God is a celebration – especially when you’re remembering the incredible gift of Jesus’ resurrection and His promise to you of new and everlasting life. As the song goes… “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

Evangelism is simply showing people how Jesus wants us to live, and that happens through a life of faith in Him, not just at Easter. When your visitors see happy, healthy, active people all over your church, they’re very likely to want to come back for another dose. 

It is infectious, and we pray you will spread some energy for evangelism this Easter. Create an epidemic that lasts all year – maybe even all the way to Christmas!