Q&A with James Harnish

This “interview” took place by email between Jim Harnish and Anne Trudel, editor and author relations manager, on February 13, 2018.

 

Most of the time, Lenten studies lead participants to journey with Jesus toward the cross. Why did you decide to reverse the focus and start at the empty tomb?

First, I was intrigued by Matthew’s description of the earthquakes on Good Friday and Easter morning as both a visual and visceral image of the difference these events make in human history and in our individual lives. My sense is that we tend to miss both of them because we are focused on either the physical details of both the cross and resurrection of the theological meaning they carry.

Second, I couldn’t help but agree with the words of N. T. Wright in “The Invitation” (pages 15–17, Easter Earthquake). In my own years in ministry, we focused too intently on the spiritual disciplines of Lent that emphasized the cross, with the result that Easter became the grand finale which is over by the time the lilies wilt. The truth is that without the Resurrection, the whole gospel loses its meaning. (See 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.) Centering our Lenten journey in the Resurrection enables us to see both the cross and our discipleship in a new way.

 

 

What spiritual need does Easter Earthquake meet? How can new followers of Christ benefit from studying your book?

My hope is that by practicing daily reflection on scripture and by sharing in a small community, people will experience the presence of the risen Christ in their own lives and be called to a larger and deeper faith in the power of the Resurrection.

 

 

What are some key takeaways you hope readers gain from studying Easter Earthquake during Lent?

  • The good news of the Resurrection really does shake the foundations of our lives and gives us a new way of seeing everything.
  • The hope of resurrection is not just for individual human beings, but for the whole created universe.
  • Some of the traditional resurrection hymns can still lead us into a deeper experience of resurrection.

 

 

As a pastor, you no doubt observed that many people attend church on the “high holy days,” Easter and Christmas. What did you do to encourage them to come to church on ordinary Sundays?

First, we welcomed them!  If folks show up only on Christmas and Easter, they are hearing the most important things the faith has to proclaim. Never disparage or make fun of them! Offer exceptional hospitality!

Second, we ended our worship series on Good Fridays and began a new worship series on Easter morning, always attempting to offer a theme that would connect with people’s needs and interests in the hope of drawing them back again.

Third, we used Lent as a time to both deepen the faith of more mature Christians and to engage beginners on the journey.

 

 

How can congregations intentionally reach out to people who don’t normally attend church and meet them at their point of need? How likely is it for unchurched people to get involved in small-group studies around Lent?

It’s a long shot to hope that unchurched folks will engage in a small group during Lent, but it’s worth trying.  Many people (particularly Boomers and former Catholics) who have been away from the church still carry some kind of instinctive tug to faith around Lent.

People generally will not find their way into a small group without a personal invitation from a friend. This is a great time to train active church folks to reach out to invite their friends to join them in the study.

 

 

What is the significance of Jesus quoting Psalm 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) while on the cross?

To declare “God was in Christ reconciling the world” (2 Corinthians 5:19) means that when Jesus offered this gut-wrenching cry, God entered fully into my God-forsaken life.  God takes into God’s own life all of my experience of being God-forsaken. It does not mean that God “turned God’s back” on Jesus, but that Jesus took into himself all the brokenness, alienation, and suffering I experience.  I think William Young got it right in the passage from The Shack that is quoted in the second week of the study.

 

 

There is a touching meditation on Monday of the Fifth Week in Lent called “Now and Then.” In it, you address the situation of a 31-year-old man dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. You mention turning to Karl Barth, an influential 20th-century theologian, as you were preparing for the memorial service. What reassurance did you draw from Barth?

First, that the really great theologians are honest about their own loss and pain.  We don’t need to hide our hurt behind some thin veneer of piety.

Second, his interpretation of the “then and now” in 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 gave me (and the young man’s family) a way of knowing that we are not totally separated from the ones we love, even by death.

 

Is there anything in particular you would like readers to know about you or about your book?

I’m a pastor whose entire ministry has been soaked in the life of local congregations and in the lives of real people. I hope that this witness to the Resurrection also bears witness to the way we have experienced the risen Christ together.

 

What do you say to people who fear death (most of us) to reassure them?

I hate death. Even when it comes as a peaceful transition from this life to the next, I still agree with Paul that it is “the last enemy”  (1 Corinthians 15:26).  I hate death, but because of the Resurrection, I no longer fear it. The angel’s promise to the women (“He goes before you” [Mark 16:7]) is the promise in which we face both life and death.