CCC Blog

Togetherness… Without Buildings and Crowds

Easter without crowds and people???  Not celebrated in our beloved buildings???  Say it ain’t so!  Doesn’t the pandemic realize this is the biggest day of the church year?  That we never have crowds like we do at Easter?  That if it weren’t for Easter, the sanctuary wouldn’t be crammed to capacity?  That we couldn’t inflate our yearly attendance averages without the numbers on Easter?  Doesn’t it care that Easter is essentially about crowds coming together?  Children traveling home to celebrate with parents, and grandparents relishing in precious time spent with grandchildren?  And that taking place within the church’s walls?  Doesn’t it know that we have so many traditions around Easter that involve congregating together?  Rubbing shoulders and bumping into each other as we hunt for eggs?  Crowding around a table and sitting elbow to elbow as we are sated by our favorite Easter meal?  Does it not understand how much effort we put into making our building beautiful on Easter?  That at no other time of the year – save possibly for Christmas – are we as proud of our sanctuary’s glory, decorated from “head to toe” with lilies and palm fronds?  C’mon Corona!  How can we have Easter without buildings and people???


Yet this Easter it will be so.  But there are two essential aspects of the Easter story as recorded in Matthew (28:1-10) that should give us hope.  First, there is no community that encounters the risen Jesus.  Whereas there were crowds of people who experienced his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the resurrection is much more of a private affair.  Only Mary and Mary Magdalene witness Jesus raised on that first Easter.  Even the disciples are presented with the risen Christ later, in another location and separate from these women.  In fact, it is the same in the other gospels as well.  Over and over Jesus appears to individuals, pairs or – at most – small groups of people.  Not once does he appear raised from the tomb in front of anything resembling a crowd or multitude. 


Moreover, when Mary and Mary Magdalene encounter the resurrected Christ, their first impulse is to grab hold of him.  To which Jesus unequivocally states, “Do not hold on to me.”  As if it underscore that his resurrection – and the Easter celebration itself – is about something more than physical things.  Sure, we associate many of our mountaintop moments with the bricks and mortar of our sacred buildings.  And because tradition requires sameness, we tell ourselves that if Easter is meaningful, it is because we celebrate it the same way, with the same people, in the same place.  But in not allowing Mary and Mary Magdalene to hold on to him, Jesus gives the freedom to see the truth of the resurrection independent from our traditions – beloved though they may be. 


So while we will do our best to broadcast an online worship service that offers images of our sanctuary decorated with lilies, and offer ways to communicate with one other as a faith community online, our real task and obligation is something greater.  It is to point one another back to the ancient story of that first Easter.  To find in it the hope that there was no tradition to uphold when Jesus rose from the tomb.  His resurrection was anything but traditional.  There was not a single precedent for it.  Just as there is no precedent in anyone’s memory for celebrating Easter the way we will be forced to this year. 


And yet??? Jesus rose.  He rose without a crowd to celebrate it.  He rose without a building to house it.  And he will rise this week as well.  He will rise above the constraints and complications of our earthly existence.  And he will want to carry us with him - as he rises – so that we might see the possibilities for hope and redemption that he sees.  Sure, it would be nice to be able to give witness to that truth, and celebrate it, collectively.  But in that we, each of us, will bear witness to it at all, we will be doing so together.  And that togetherness was never meant to be contained in any one building or by any one crowd.  Thanks be to God!    

Posted by Michael Karunas with

“At Least” is not an Option

In my late 20s, my father died.  Suddenly.  Of a heart-attack.  On a Thursday.  I had spoken to him four days earlier, and we discussed my planned visit home the following weekend and the things we were going to do together.  Then, in an instant, he was gone.  In the aftermath, many well-meaning friends said “at least” a lot.  At least he didn’t suffer, as if those magical words somehow softened the blow.  Through that experience, and my many years dealing with grief as a pastor, I acknowledge that all losses are difficult and painful.  There is no merit in trying to rank them.  There is only difference and distinction, which does not require value judgment.  The biggest distinction is timing.  With prolonged suffering before the loss, there is much pain in the process but also a chance to say good-bye and have some semblance of closure.  With a sudden loss, there is no preceding pain process, but also no closure nor chance for “last words.”  In both cases, however, there is nothing good comes from saying “at least.”  “At least you had the chance to say good-bye” rings as hollow as “At least they didn’t suffer.”

So it is noteworthy, and not surprising, what Jesus does – and doesn’t – do when Lazarus died.  Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown, 4 days after Lazarus’ death.  The entire town was gathered around the cemetery, so well-loved was Lazarus in his community.  When Jesus arrived, he was greeted by people in the throes of grief.  What Jesus didn’t do was say “at least.”  He didn’t say “At least you had some good years with Lazarus,” or “At least his death is bringing you all together,” or “At least there are many other love-able people in this town.”  Instead, he wept.  That’s right, he sat down with the crying people and cried with them.  John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the entire bible and it simply reads: Jesus wept. 


Consider the power of that gesture.  Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus.  He knew this wasn’t the end, but before he did anything, he acknowledged the pain and hurt of a people broken by grief.  He didn’t try and rush them through it.  Nor did he try to put their loss in some kind of perspective.  He just honored the reality of their present moment – which was all they could see at that moment. 


What the Corona pandemic has wrought upon us has been a thousand “sudden” losses.  In the blink of an eye, preschoolers were uprooted from their teachers; college students were forced to abandon their friends and return home.  Sports seasons were instantly halted, with coaches and players unable to prepare for the separation.  Seniors, in both high school and college, are facing the reality of not having in-person graduation which is something the mind simply cannot compute.  Graduation is one of the few classic moments in American culture – a coming-of-age event that we all hold in our vault of important memories.  Not one student, teacher, athlete, coach, director or performer was thinking “This might be the last chance we’re going to play together (or sing together; or perform together; or study together).”  And that is a big deal. 


Today, we begin week 2 of our governor’s order to “shelter in place.”  In my own household, all three of our children are deeply grieving the loss of their physical connections to friends – even though they don’t always articulate it.  My wife and I find ourselves trying to convince them that when things get back “to normal” there will be opportunities to have closure on the significant transitions that have transpired.  And I also find myself using the words “at least.”  To my eldest son I heard myself say, “If your show choir season ends now, at least your last performance was the best of the year.”  Even as I hear these words coming from my mouth, I know they are really meant to make me feel better, just as those who said to me all those years ago, “At least your dad didn’t suffer,” were their attempts to make themselves feel better. 


Which brings us back to Jesus and the community around Lazarus.  Sometimes we just need to cry.  Even though we may pride ourselves on being stoic in our behavior, there is something innate in being human that simply needs to grieve the loss of something valuable.  And we crave, and long for, the space in which to do that even if we are not always conscious of that reality.  St. Ignatius of Loyola said there are 3 reasons why we cry.  First, we cry because we are sad for the sufferings of Christ.  Second, we cry when we are confronted with the reality of our own sin.  And third… we cry when we experience suffering in the world.  That last one seems especially applicable today.  We grieve the weight of a thousand losses inflicted upon us because of this virus.  We grieve them without placing blame.  And we grieve them without saying “at least.”  We simply grieve them.


Which is entirely okay, or else scripture wouldn’t have devoted an entire verse to just two simple words – Jesus wept. 

Posted by Michael Karunas with

Only One Sermon??

Only One Sermon???

About a month before I moved to Decatur to begin serving as senior minister at Central Christian, I attended a clergy leadership seminar in Louisville.  One of the speakers, a long-time congregational pastor, shared this thought.  “It has been said,” he noted, “that all preachers preach only three sermons.  That is, each sermon is some version or variety of the same three.”  As he spoke, I found myself replaying the hundreds of sermons I had preached in my career and nodding my head.  Yes, I admitted to myself.  I suppose that is true.  The scriptures on which the sermons were based, the illustrations I used and the details of each Sunday’s context were certainly different from week to week.  But if I’m honest, I probably do preach some version of the same few sermons over and over again. 


The keynote speaker pushed on.  “So it happened,” he continued, “that I shared this thought with the congregation I was serving at the time.  After I said this, one of the elders raised his hand.  ‘So…’ he asked, ‘you’re saying you have 2 more???’”  I loved that story then, and I do now.  Though this was clearly meant as a good-willed jab at the preacher, there is a deeper idea to be examined; the thought that the congregation keeps hearing the same thing week after week. 

With this thought in mind, I find myself reflecting on this during our current context – day ??? of being quarantined by the Coronavirus pandemic.  As we turn on the news, read our social media feed, talk with friends by phones, skype, face time or zoom, we may find ourselves asking, “What is there to say that hasn’t been said?  What hopeful or thought-provoking statement can be said that hasn’t been offered already?  Aren’t we saying and hearing the same things over and over again?” 


But I wonder if that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When Jesus said the greatest commandment from God was “to love God and love neighbor” (Matthew 22:34-40) he also said, “On this, hangs all the Law and all the Prophets.”  Everything else depends on understanding this fact.  If we fail to grasp the importance of this simple truth, nothing else in scripture will make sense.  It is as though Jesus is telling us that the entire bible can be reduced to a single dictum – love God and love neighbor – and the rest of the 65 books, 27 chapters and 33 verses in the entire scripture is just details. 


In our current situation, when we find ourselves looking for something new to say, or longing for something new to hear, which will help make sense of our very uncertain situation, it is perhaps the simplest explanation that is the best (a la Occam’s razor).  Love God.  Don’t give up on God just because the earthly circumstances in which we find ourselves are confusing at best and painful at worst.  And Love neighbor.  Be kind to those around you.  Treat with grace those closest to you.  It is a simple message for sure.  But it never gets old and it always bears repeating. 

Posted by Michael Karunas with

Obstacle or Opportunity

At the recommendation of a friend toward the end of 2019, I requested (and subsequently received) Jordan Peterson’s best-selling book 12 Rules for Life for Christmas.  Peterson is a Canadian psychologist and his book is mixture of theological history and philosophy as well as behavioral psychology.  Each chapter is dedicated to one of the 12 rules which, themselves, are pretty straightforward (always tell the truth, measure yourself against yourself and not others, etc.).  However, their explanation and treatment is quite dense and each chapter therefore long.  I say all of that because I just got around to finishing the book this past week.  This I found ironic, as the last chapter was titled “Pet a Cat When You Encounter One.”


Peterson suggests that petting a dog is easy, predictable and therefore uninteresting.  We know what we’re getting with dogs – a human’s best friend.  Dogs will always approach us with interest, will wag their tails, offer sniffs and licks, and enjoy being scratched and petted.  Nothing surprising.  With cats, however, we don’t know what we’re getting.  A cat might run away from us or arch its back and hiss.  It might be completely aloof and not deign to notice our presence.  But it might also curl up on our lap, nuzzle into us deeply and purr loudly.  Precisely because we don’t know what we’re getting with cats, there is the possibility for great disappointment but also for great joy and gratitude. 


Peterson compares this to the limited nature of being human.  To be human is to have limitations – of knowledge, of ability, longevity, etc.  To be human is not to know or do everything.  It is to suffer grief, brokenness, injury and death.  This limitedness causes us great stress.  We agonize over what we can’t understand or control.  But it is precisely limitation that allows us to experience transcendence.  Only because I have limits, for example, can I ever rise above them.  Only because I am not perfect can I experience and recognize glimpses of perfection.  Only because there is a goal I have never before accomplished is there the possibility of that goal one day being attained. 


Earlier, I mentioned it was “ironic” that I completed this book last week because of how the emergence of the Cornonavirus has invaded our lives.  If anything reveals to us our human limitation, this is it.  There is so much beyond our control right now – from an ability to guarantee our own safety and non-exposure, to assuming that the items I want are on the shelves when I want to purchase them.  Situations like these remind us that we cannot control how the next few days will unfold, let alone the trajectory of the rest of our lives.


Which brings us back to cats.  For whether you are a “dog person” or “cat person” we have a choice.  We can view COVID-19 as an obstacle or an opportunity.  Focusing on it as an obstacle is easy.  It’s the predictable way we usually view disruptions to our schedule, feeling disappointment and aggravation at best or fear and grief at worst along the way.  Or we can be surprised by what this time in our  history allows us to do; asking “What is the unique opportunity ‘social distancing’ gives us the chance to explore?”  Is a time of self-quarantine an opportunity to do something at home we’ve been neglecting?  Does it invite us to to reach out and connect with someone we’ve been putting off because we’ve been “too busy.”  Is  it giving us a chance to be more “still” – as Psalm 46:10 instructs – and see God in stillness and rest? 


I don’t know how you may answer this question, but I do pray we think of cats this week.  Life is indeed unpredictable, and in its unpredictability reveals obstacles that bring to light our limited and finite nature.  But at the same time, and often in the very same events and circumstances, there are opportunities to be amazed, joyful and grateful in ways which, because of our limited nature, we may have never before considered. 

Posted by Michael Karunas with

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