Beth and I are sitting on the front porch. It’s Easter Sunday, and we are home with no thought of going to church this morning. And it occurs to me that of the 63 Easters that have come and gone over my lifetime, this will be the first one that we’ve ever experienced in our jammies. Under a blanket. With coffee.
It is so completely odd not to be gathering with God’s Church this morning. Oh, we’ll check in with the live feed from our home church. We know that all our “brethren” will be there. “Brethren” is an old-time preacher word. As in, “Well, brethren, let me ask you to join me in prayer.” And the virtual congregation bows. Coffee mugs held aside. PJs under the blanket. But it’s not the same as being there.
In my hometown of Hampton, we had three congregations that were as basic as apple pie. The Baptist. The Methodist. And the Christian Church. The Baptist and the Methodist never needed any explanation, but the Christian Church was always a bit of a puzzle to folks.
“What’s the Christian Church? Aren’t we all Christians?”
“Well, we’re kinda like the Baptist, ‘cept we dunk ‘em a lot quicker and we pass the Lord’s Supper around every week.”
Anyway, come Easter, we all took our turn at hosting the sunrise service. If it was at the Methodist Church, the Christian Church preacher might preach. Or, if it was at the Baptist Church, the Methodist preacher might preach. It was a real honest to goodness ecumenical movement before anyone even knew what ecumenical meant.
The one constant was breakfast served up at the Christian Church. Don’t know why it was always in our building, but it was. Some of the deacons were willing to forgo the empty tomb at sunrise in order to fry up some bacon and whip up a bathtub load of grits. You kinda got the idea that, for some deacons, the kitchen was more holy than being at the sunrise service anyway. They figured they had heard the story before, and the bacon wasn’t going to fry itself.
I’ve always heard that the sunrise service up on Stone Mountain was the one to attend if you wanted to be a part of something incredible. Not that we Christians should be competitive with something like Easter, but we do have our opinions. I’m pretty sure that no one in Georgia has a better view of the sun as it rises than from a seat on top of Stone Mountain. If you’re looking for dramatic effect, that would be the place.
Callaway Gardens has had some pretty nice sunrise services over the years. Bo Callaway was influential enough to have Leighton Ford, brother-n-law to Billy Graham, come as the guest preacher for years. The service was held on the ski pavilion, which faced east. Important for a service like this. A large wooden cross was lit up across Robin Lake. The podium was on a floating deck just out front of the pavilion.
If it all worked out just right, about the time the preacher got to the part about “He’s alive,” the sun would peak up over the pines across the lake and the crowd would be transported back to small garden and an empty tomb with the stone rolled away.
One year, my last Easter working at Callaway, the service was not so perfect. My job was to give the old ski pavilion a splash of color and foliage. To transform concrete and steel into a garden for those who walked up the long ramp to their seats.
Callaway had sent me to the Epcot Center earlier in the spring to visit with horticulture staff and bring back some fresh ideas. The best thing I saw was these floating planters. The pond at Epcot was full of them. 4×8 sheets of 2″ thick foam board cut and stacked and glued and shaped into 4 ft circular floating flowerpots. Eyebolts through the edges. Strings tied to concrete blocks on the sandy bottom to keep them from floating away.
The crowd started arriving around 6:15 that morning. The stands filled up. You had to get there early to get a good seat. I had six of these floating planters in the shallow water either side of the ramp to the pavilion. I was feeling pretty proud of myself, and so should probably take the blame for what happened next. Pride goes before a great fall.
The wind picked up. You could hear the thunder moving closer. Worried faces squinted in the blowing rain that started to fall. The spirit moved everyone to move closer to one another in the center section of bleachers, which were protected a little more from the blowing rain. It was a close communion of the saints. Then, right there on Easter morning, all @#!! broke loose about 6:35.
I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen more lightning in one place. The wind was picking up anything that wasn’t nailed down. The podium on the deck was almost baptized. A brave soul brought it back from the edge of a watery grave. The Methodist in attendance were satisfied that it got sprinkled. My floating flowerpots broke free from their moorings and crashed up against the rocks along the shoreline of the dam.
It was over in about 20 minutes.
The people gathered their composure. The chorus in the bleachers sang, “I serve a risen Savior.” Leighton Ford was in his element. And right as he got to the part about “He is risen”, the sun broke through a slit in the clouds over the pines across the lake. A light from the East.
No one could have planned it better. Only One could have planned it all.
It seems like in the original story the sky turned dark. The earth shook. Fear seized those who were there. So it was, sitting out there on the edge of Robin Lake that morning. And it doesn’t matter if was three days later, or 20 minutes later, the sun came out. His light shone through. We all went home knowing that this was one of those special Easters that only come along once in a lifetime.
Maybe it was the perfect service after all.
We didn’t gather together this morning. I hate that. But it was still Easter. No matter the storm. No matter the darkness. No matter the circumstances that separate us. Nothing can stop the wonder. Nothing can stop the Light from breaking through. Nothing can hold back the spectacle and surprise of Easter.