Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Sunrise with Special Effects

It was my first Easter as a pastor. I was a 20 year old sophomore at William Jewell College with a tenure of three months as pastor of Nettleton Baptist Church, a country church about 60 miles from campus. We had planned to have a sunrise service on Easter morning and we were serious about the word "sunrise." We decided to begin at 5:45 am, just to make sure we didn't miss the first hint of daylight. Bob Shaney, our senior deacon, owned a little lake, actually an old railroad pond beside the tracks, just down the road from the church. Bob had cleared a path to a nice little clearing by the water where we always gathered for sunrise services, bonfires, and baptisms.

After three months of Sundays I was already running out of much to say, but even I knew what to preach about on Easter, so I had my best effort all typed up and ready for the 11:00 worship service. My problem was, I had no idea what to do or talk about at the sunrise service. If I had ever attended such a service as a kid, I must have been half asleep or too focused on the donuts to notice what was going on. All I knew was I couldn't come up with another sermon and nobody played the guitar.

In the dorm the night before, my buddy Rusty and I sat up late trying to make a plan. Today, we would just Google it and come up with all kinds of ideas, but we were lost and left to our own devices back then. It was too late at night to call my dad. I should have realized my problem sooner, but that would have been wise and responsible of me, two traits I had not yet developed.

About 2:00 am we gave up and went to bed, getting up at 3:30 so that we could leave by 4:30 for the drive to Nettleton. To make matters worse, it was raining, cold and steady, all night and all the way. Do we give up and go to the church? Do we skip the whole thing? Who decides? No umbrella. No raincoat. Nothing.

When we pulled up along the gravel road by the little lake, the rain had let up to a sprinkle and a couple of pickups and a car were already there, still running as people kept warm and waited for the others to arrive. Bob and Bill had laid some old lumber along the path to keep us out of the mud. No one said a word about cancelling, so off we trudged through the gloomy early dawn for our worship time. By the time we made it to the clearing, the rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to brighten to the east.

About fifteen of us were gathered there, from the baby, Zach, to Grandma Perryman who couldn't hear a word I said anyway, though she always had a sweet smile. We struggled through a couple of hymns acapella. "He Lives" is way too high for 5:45 in the morning. Bill led us in a prayer and then I did the only thing I knew to do. I read the Easter story from Matthew's Gospel. That's when God decided to show up and cover for His rookie preacher.

As I read the resurrection story, the sun poked through the dark clouds just above the horizon. I heard a gasp from someone and looked up to see what had happened. High in the sky against the gray clouds was a spectacular rainbow stretching over the lake with vivid color from end to end. We stood there speechless for a long, lingering moment. I began to read again concluding the story just as our rainbow was overshadowed by a second full rainbow, two brilliant bands stretching across a stormy sky.

We did better with our closing song, as you might imagine. By the time we made it back to the cars, the sky was gray and the rain had begun to fall again. We all headed over to Sylvia's house for breakfast. It rained all day, but nobody cared. We had seen such beauty and wonder and promise on that Easter morning. Unforgettable.

And, just between me and God, what I learned on that Easter morning was a lesson I will never forget. God said, "It's not about you. It's not up to you. It doesn't depend on you. Just give it your best shot, kid. Go ahead. I'll cover you." Thank you, Lord. He is risen indeed.

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