I don’t blush easily. But no amount of control could stop my cheeks from burning when the congregation burst into “May the Good Lord bless you…”, the usual second verse of “Happy birthday to you?” in our part of the woods.
I was taking the second of a series of 6 Lent talks at St. Paul’s, an Anglican church in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. The experience was new to me since I had never taken a Lent series before. I had grown up Baptist.
That evening, I had been expounding on the consequences of sin from Genesis 3 and 4. It was sad to be confronted afresh with the horrifying consequences of human sin. A sober topic for a sober series. Nothing prepared me for the birthday blessings that followed the service. I had a number of good friends in that congregation, but I had had very little formal contact with their church.
Someone had told someone that that day was my birthday. They had prepared a cake. And they sprung their surprise. The lay leader announced that it was my birthday. The vicar prayed for me on behalf of the church. The congregation sang “Happy birthday”, all two verses. And there was birthday cake and refreshments waiting in the Fellowship Hall. All this from a church that hardly knew me. I had been ambushed by grace yet once again.
In the last ten years of my life I have experienced so much graceless rejections because of my marital failure. But on the last day God will not be my debtor. Because in that same period I had also encountered grace in the most unexpected places. Like this precious little birthday party after my Lent homily.
At first glance, a boisterous birthday party seemed a bit out of place during Lent. After all Lent is a time to spiritually follow Christ into the desert, a time of soul inspection and repentance. A time to prepare for Holy Week. I knew that a number of the folks that night had been fasting before the service.
On second thoughts however, perhaps a birthday party during Lent was not that out of place after all. After all, the church was not having a birthday party for her own enjoyment. They had thrown the birthday surprise to bless someone from outside their community. Someone who needed healing grace. Some of the church leaders sensed that I had gone through a rough time. Someone mentioned that I had lost my dad recently. What better way to follow Christ in his sacrificial sojourn then to bless someone in need!
Lent and birthday parties. Perhaps the combination is not that strange after all.
Reminds me of another ‘strange’ combination. In Chapter 15 of 1Corinthians, Paul defends the central reality of the Christian faith — the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The next chapter however, seems to be made up of a collage of various personal, in house concerns. The mood of Chapter 16 seems to be so different from that of Chapter 15. Where Chapter 15 is concerned with theology, Chapter 16 is concerned with people. Then again, perhaps the sequence is the most logical one. As Stephen C. Barton writes in his recent commentary on 1Corinthians:
“The final chapter of 1Corinthians is not just a matter of tying up loose ends. There is more to it than that. The gospel of Christ crucified and risen in fulfillment of the sovereign will of God is the basis for a complete reordering of human energy and activity (cf. 15:58). Implicit in these final instructions, therefore, is a multitude of ways in which the Corinthian body can demonstrate the new life arising out of its hope in the resurrection of the dead?”
Paul had already invested a whole chapter to remind the Corinthian church of the supremacy of love (1Corinthians 13). Indeed, for Paul, love was literally the last word ( See 1Corinthians 16:24).
This then, is the test of true theology. Any true encounter with the living God through theology, or liturgy, must result in a genuine concern for people and their needs.
And so the good folks of St Paul’s, Petaling Jaya saw no contradiction in planning a surprise birthday party as a follow up to a Lent service.
And I was deeply blessed.
Thank you, my brothers and sisters. “My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.”