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Free-Range Christian

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I’ve always had a problem with Easter.  Never mind that I couldn’t live up to Ellen White’s admonition that we ought to spend “a thoughtful hour each day” contemplating the closing scenes of Christ’s life — I was never even able to focus properly on the cross on Good Friday, the one day in the year we’re supposed to do that.  Maybe my churchgoing upbringing had made the story of the crucifixion so familiar that I could never feel the horror and sadness of it properly — though plenty of people who are lifelong churchgoers seem to have no trouble being moved to tears by images of Christ’s passion.  I never felt that I was feeling the proper things at Easter.

There was a time when  Seventh-day Adventists didn’t make much fuss about Easter — uncomfortable, perhaps, with the pagan overtones of the holiday.  My local church, like most SDA churches in North America now, puts on a nice Easter service on the Sabbath of Easter weekend, and sometimes a musical program on Good Friday evening. 

But I suffered liturgical envy. I read Nora Gallagher’s description in Things Seen and Unseen of reeling out of church on the afternoon of Holy Saturday, having attended all the services of Holy Week and the Easter weekend, “drunk on liturgy.”  I thought maybe if I got more church, I would deepen my appreciation of Easter.  And as my own church offered limited opportunities for this, I began exploring other congregations to see what they had on the go. 

During Easter weekend each year for the past three or four years, I have become what my cousin Jennifer (the other day, when we were talking about sitting somewhere else in church rather than where she normally does) referred to as a “free-range Christian.” I thought I was going to hit a personal best this year by going to services of four different denominations, but due to logistical problems this was cut to three.  Still — five services, three denominations — I got a pretty well-rounded view of Easter this year. 

What I’ve learned in the past few years of exploring Easter services is that I will never be the sort of person who bursts into tears while watching The Passion of the Christ.  But by imaginatively walking through the experiences of Easter week in church services, I can make the crucifixion and resurrection meaningful to me, find my own spiritual truth in it, and that seems to be working for now.

So: my run-down of church services visited and attended, Easter 2007.

Thursday, April 5, 2005, 7:30 p.m. Maundy Thursday service, Anglican Cathedral.  I love this service with its solemn atmosphere.  I particularly like walking up to receive Communion between the rows of singing choir members, then sitting in the darkened church as the candles are extinguished and the altar stripped while the choir sings Miserere Mei (the text of Psalm 51, David’s great penitential prayer).  We leave the Cathedral in darkness and silence (though not complete darkness; this year they left the lights on in the nave, which lessened the atmosphere a little).I appreciate Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services because they present the dark side of Christianity: sin, suffering and death — and leave us there, with no positive spin.  Some people have seen enough of the negative side of Christianity and have no need for this.  But I am a cheerful and happy person who thinks Pollyanna had the right idea; my Christianity is based around Jesus’ promise of the “more abundant life.”  Maundy Thursday and Good Friday remind me that though this is good and true, a relentlessly positive attitude can slide easily into denial.  I need to remember that I am a sinner, that people suffer terribly in this world, and that Jesus entered into that sin and suffering and died of it.

Friday, April 6, 12:00-3:00 p.m.  Three-Hour Watch by the Cross, Anglican Cathedral. The original plan is for me and Jennifer to attend the Good Friday service at Gower Street United Church, where Jennifer attends and where she promises me the hymn-singing is better.  God bless the Anglicans, I love ‘em, but I find their hymn tunes aimless and dismal, and everyone seems afraid to sing out loud. I know this will horrify those who promote “Good Church Music,” but I never attend an Anglican service without thinking that these people need a good shot of Fanny J. Crosby.I don’t get to test the theory that Uniteds sing better, because I walk to Gower Street through a gorgeous and sunny Good Friday morning to find it locked and deserted.  Jennifer neglected to notice that the United Church Good Friday service is at their sister church way over on Patrick Street.  Instead we nip over to the Anglican Cathedral (also on Gower Street). I decide to view eight Anglican hymns as part of the penitential aspect of Good Friday.The slow, contemplative service is generally good — I come equipped with Bible, journal, and Celtic manuscript colouring book.  Where else in a life as busy as mine, would I give myself permission to sit and meditate on spiritual things for three straight hours?

Sabbath, April 7, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.  Back home to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where I teach Primary Sabbath School and later lead out in Children’s Church during the sermon time.  Our worship service contains all the “tacky” church music I love — contemporary Easter songs sung by soloists and and the choir, while I get to join the congregation in belting out the great Easter hymns I love: “The Old Rugged Cross,” “At the Cross,” and “To God be the Glory.”  The service threatens to run almost as long as the Anglicans’ Good Friday vigil, though more through lack of planning than design — at one point I count three separate readings, by various people, of Isaiah 53.  I am distracted by worry about how long the pastor will preach and thus how long Children’s Church will have to run.  But in spite of my distraction I am blessed by the music and enjoy presenting the Easter story to the children.

Saturday night, April 7, 7:30 p.m.  Easter musical at the Salvation Army Citadel. Every year the Citadel goes all-out with a big Easter extravaganza — choir, drama, lights, crucifixion, the whole she-bang, and we bring the kids for the whole experience.  The production even coaxes a few tears from my hardened heart.  Emma won’t watch the crucifixion — buries her head in my shoulder as always.  I don’t blame her.  As I said, I think I and a lot of other adult Christians have been desensitized to the Crucifixion, seeing it as a religious symbol, a story we can recite by heart.  A child sees it for what it is — the torture and death of an innocent man.  I have some minor quibbles with the Easter musical — this particular script goes on too long, incorporating too much about the early church and Paul. People who write Easter programs should recognize, as the Gospel writers did, that the resurrection is the climax of the story. After that, everything else is anticlimactic, so you should stop there.  Other than that, I thought the production was excellent and it did “bring the story to life” as they say, both for us and for the children.

The rest of Saturday night is not particularly holy.  Jason and I eat Indian take-out and watch Office Space while hiding 80 chocolate eggs around the house for the morning’s hunt.

Sunday, April 8, 6:00 a.m.  I slip out of bed before anyone else is awake and drive through a dark, damp, sleety pre-dawn to the Cathedral for the lighting of the “New Fire,” the symbol of new life for the believer through Christ’s resurrection.  I take Communion and go out again into the now-grey, still-damp morning — as un-glorious and uninspiring an Easter dawn as you could imagine.

Yet I feel lifted, joyous.  I still haven’t felt what I’m “supposed to,” perhaps, and I still don’t understand it all theologically.  But I have lived Easter.  Easter, and the Lenten season that preceded it, are something that have happened to me, become part of my spiritual journey as I have traced Jesus’ footsteps from darkness into light. 

I celebrate the goodness of God’s creation by stopping in at Tim Horton’s on the way and picking up two chocolate danish and two triple-chocolate muffins to bring home to Jason and the kids. My (imperfect, occasionally broken) Lenten fast from chocolate is over; the feast has begun. (My Lenten fiction-fast is also over; you can read the reviews of my last few LentBooks over at Compulsive Overreader).

I slip into the house.  Everyone is still asleep, all in one bed now, a warm tangle of arms and legs and faint snoring sounds.  I feel at once holy and chilly.  I slide under the covers, absorbing the warmth of my family.  This is what I come home to — this so abundant life.

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3 thoughts on “Free-Range Christian

  1. It’s so true about the Anglican hymns. I spent about six years in an Anglican church, and they just can’t get it right: they take a great hymn ( like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) and sing it to the wrong tune; or they take the right tune and substitute atrocious words (one particularly horrific one focused on God of the stars and the Milky Way). Give me Fanny Crosby any day!

  2. Anglican hymns, and music, vary depending on the church. The Cathedral is considered to be “high Anglican”, and thus more traditional. I was at St. Mark’s Anglican Church on Logy Bay Road for my niece’s Christening on Saturday night. The music definitely tends to the funky, folky side, as does the minister, Sandra Tilley.

  3. bubandpie, do you know “God of concrete, God of steel,” a tragic attempt to update the concept of of “God is in everything” to the modern industrial world (this is actually in the Anglican hymnal)?

    Lori, I’m sure you’re right that it’s better in some Anglican churches than others — my sample is based entirely on the Cathedral and on St. Thomas’s (I like most things about St. Thomas’s, but have heard the same kind of weak, sad hymn-singing there when they’re not doing praise choruses).

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