Holy Week Is a Time for Soul-Searching

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Holy Week is a season for soul-searching and for contemplating the depth of God’s love. During this week, Christ followers and spiritual inquirers from all around the globe will be reflecting on the events that led to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The word “holy” is a healthy and meaningful word, though one of the most misunderstood terms in the English language. It does not nearly suggest “spiritual superiority” or “moral perfection.”  The word “holy” refers to people or things set apart for a specific and usually religious purpose.  In the New Testament the Greek word for holy is “hagios” which means “different,” and it is most often used to underscore practices and lifestyles that correlate to a standard different than the cultural norm.

Why is observing Holy Week important to our preparation for Easter?  Here’s a bit of history: The traditional observance of Holy Week seems to have originated in the Christian East, emerging out of the practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  Each day of Holy Week is important but at least five days call for specific reflection.  Palm Sunday is a day to revisit the royal welcome extended to Jesus by the curious crowd as he entered Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday believers recall the occasion when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples as he gave them a new mandate to love and serve.  Good Friday is a day to review the passion and suffering of Christ on the cross. Holy Saturday (or Easter Even) commemorates the day that Jesus lay in the tomb. And Resurrection Sunday, or Easter, is a festive day to celebrate and proclaim that “Christ is risen; He is risen indeed.”

Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, retired senior minister at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana describes the progressive steps in a meaningful pre-Easter journey: “Holy Week services bring into focus dimensions of discipleship that are missed completely by a simple leap from Palm Sunday to Easter. Worship services which take seriously the truths of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday please God because they challenge a greater commitment and a more comprehensive ministry of compassion among the people of God.”

This year as we navigate through each episode of Holy Week, here are a few suggestions for honest and healthy soul-searching:

  • Read the gospel account in John 12-20.
  • Listen to the conflicting voices in the crowd.
  • Meditate on the cruel injustice of the cross.
  • Imagine the passion of Christ’s suffering.
  • Think on the hopelessness felt by his disciples.
  • Celebrate the hope of the resurrection.
  • Renew your commitment to faithfully follow Jesus.

The soul-searching prayer recorded in Psalm 139:23-24 is extremely relevant and probing during Holy Week:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
  test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

An intentional and focused journey through Holy Week may deepen our faith and inspire us to follow Jesus with unrelenting resolve.

(Barry Howard serves as leadership coach/consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. He resides in Pensacola, Florida. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.)

How in the World Is the Date for Easter Chosen?

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Christmas is always on December 25.  Why is Easter not on the same date every year?

This year, for the first time since 1956, Easter comes on April 1, creating a curious juxtaposition of sorts.  Next year Easter will be celebrated on April 21, just as the redbuds, dogwoods, and azaleas are beginning to bloom. In other years, Easter has come in late March when the weather is still wintry.   Why does the date vary?  Since the date of Easter is not an actual anniversary of the resurrection, when is the most appropriate time to celebrate?

That very question caused considerable debate and controversy in the early church.  A quarrel broke out in the middle of the second century between church leaders in Rome and those in Asia Minor regarding the appropriate date for celebrating Easter.  The practice in the East was to observe Easter according to the moon regardless of the day of the week the observance fell on. The practice in Rome was to wait until the following Sunday.

Bishop Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, represented the East, and Bishop Anicetus represented the West.  Since they could not agree on the date, each continued to observe Easter according to his own conviction. The controversy became so intense that it threatened the harmony of the Christian world.

Councils were called in Rome and Palestine to debate the merits of both arguments.  Most of the participants generally favored celebrating Easter on Sunday. When the Bishop from Ephesus and many of the churches in Asia Minor refused to change their practice, they were declared “excommunicated” from the church by Bishop Victor of Rome.

Later, the Council of Nicea, convened by Augustine in A.D.325, affirmed the calculation used to determine the official date of Easter and that calculation is still used today. Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon falling on or after March 21.  Therefore, Easter cannot come before March 22 or after April 25.

Even though the name, “Easter,” is packed with spiritual connotation, the term is derived from a pagan spring festival. Some believe it was named after the Teutonic god or goddess of spring. However, the name was seized by Christian believers and converted to a day of worship and feasting to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

To underscore the earth-shaking significance of this day, Dr. Jim Pleitz, the late pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, often concluded his Easter sermons by proclaiming, “Easter is a blessed reminder that ALL is well….we are victorious even in death!”         

Regardless of when it appears on the calendar, in March or in April, Easter is a high and holy day, a designated occasion to affirm and proclaim the foundation of the Christian gospel: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

(Barry Howard serves as leadership coach/consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. He resides in Pensacola, Florida. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.)

The Incarnational Pastor: Embodying the Pastoral Vocation

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Being a pastor is much more than being a preacher.

In fact, many of the most influential pastors in my life have been average preachers, but extraordinary pastors. And many of the great conference speakers who have encouraged me with their insightful and entertaining perspectives wouldn’t last very long as pastor of a local church. It’s quite a different skill set.

The pastoral calling requires consistency in “being” and “doing.”

Pastoral work is multi-faceted. I remember taking a course in pastoral work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary taught by Joe Cothen and Harold Bryson, both of whom were veteran pastors. They underscored that the information in our textbook was helpful and necessary, but that the real training of pastoral work is learned on the job.

How right they were! I am grateful for the classroom experience that gave to me a foundational pastoral theology and a framework for understanding my calling. But pastoral skill is mostly acquired in “the practice of ministry.”

In my 38 years of pastoral experience, I have discovered that incarnational pastoral work includes at least five areas of ministry:

1. Pastoral care.

My mentors instilled in me the perspective: “They will never care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Pastoral care involves multiple ways of caring for individuals in your parish or congregation, including hospital visitation, bereavement ministry, and pastoral counseling.

2. Pastoral preaching.

There is a lot written about sermon typology. Is the sermon topical or exegetical, deductive or inductive, evangelistic or equipping? Pastoral preaching can include any or all of the above because pastoral preaching isn’t focused on a particular style but on the spiritual needs of a specific, unique body of believers.

Preaching isn’t a “one size fits all” endeavor. Different than conference speakers or vocational evangelists, pastors preach out of and into the context of a unique local congregation.

My friend, Bill White, pastor of Christ Journey Church in Coral Gables, Florida, insists that as pastors “we are called to exegete the community as we exegete the Scriptures.”

3. Pastoral theology.

Fisher Humphreys reminds us that theology is “thinking about God.” So, pastoral theology for me is first, “thinking about what God is doing in the congregation I am called to serve,” and then connecting that with “what God is doing in the global church.”

4. Pastoral leadership.

A lot of what is written about leadership in the marketplace involves executive leadership that is hierarchical and/or autocratic. A lot of what churches expect from a pastor is democratic leadership wherein a pastor is guided by the will of the majority.

I would contend that pastoral leadership is servant leadership. It requires a stewardship of wisdom and influence.

A pastor is called to guide, shepherd, and protect the congregation, which means pastoral leadership is a calling to “look out for the common good of the congregation, especially when the best interest of the congregation is in conflict with the pastor’s personal preference or the majority of the congregation’s preference.

5. Pastoral intelligence.

This is not related to the pastor’s IQ or academic prowess. Rather, the term refers to the accumulated knowledge and insight of the pastor about the interpersonal dynamics, historical influences, community demographics, and individual and corporate character represented within the congregation.

One of the benefits of a long-term pastorate is that the volume of pastoral intelligence can be preserved and leveraged for kingdom purposes. When a pastor departs, the new pastor must begin acquired a new cache of pastoral data.

Consistency in “being” and “doing” means I am a pastor whether on campus or off campus, and whether “on the clock” or “off the clock.”

Everything about my life bears witness to my being a pastor. The way I conduct myself at a sporting event, the way I manage my finances, and the way I treat the cashier in the department store.

To be incarnational – to fully embody the role of pastor – I must embrace my calling as a summons to live a pastoral life, a life that equips me to be the shepherd of a congregation rather than the CEO of an institution.

(Barry Howard is a retired pastor and leadership coach who resides in Pensacola, Florida. His writings also appear on his blog and in a variety of publications.  You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.)