As a parish minister, I always looked forward to the Sunday after Easter more than Easter itself. Of course Easter is wonderful, the celebration of the very heart of our faith. Of course wherever I served we had special music, Easter lilies, and my most well-rehearsed sermon of the year. And of course we had one of the two largest congregations of the year, sometimes the largest if it snowed or was too icy on Christmas Eve here in Minnesota.
That’ all good, some of it was wonderful, but it came with a price. In the run up to Easter, I felt the weight of expectations that all would go smoothly and in good order, not only the Easter service itself, but also the services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, which had special and complicated choreography. The church leadership and I put a lot of time in on them, rehearsed what we could, the musicians did the same, and most years the services were wonderful.
Wonderful – but the expectations and the actual leadership of the services exhausted me, and try as I might, there was usually something that didn’t go as planned. I especially remember one Easter morning when I got to church early to practice my sermon one last time, turned on the lights, and saw that all the lilies were half dead or worse. Somehow, between the florist and our volunteers, the lilies had been beautifully arranged on the chancel steps, but nobody had thought to water them. Easter was ruined, and it was all my fault.
Looking back at this after many years, I know that the self-blame, the unrealistic expectations, and the raging perfectionism were also symptoms of the major depression and generalized anxiety disorder for which I was later hospitalized. I have been in recovery for many years and in many ways my life is better than it has ever been, certainly better than those expiring Easter lilies.
I understand now that stress around Easter is normal. In reality it and the special services leading up to it are a lot of work, but that the level of stress I felt was excessive, signifying unforgiving self-demands and a kind of hyper-taking-of-responsibility, which are both far from normal. I’ve worked hard in recovery to let go of them, and to scale my expectations with the reality of not only what I can do, but also what I am really responsible for, which does not include parched lilies.
Another lesson from this Easter of wilted lilies: I survived and so did the church. Soon after my initial shock, a member who knew a lot about arranging flowers came in, took a look at the seeming catastrophe, and started to work. She removed a couple of lilies that had totally given up the ghost, gave the survivors a healthy drink, then plucked some dead blossoms off a few more and shifted the best looking ones to the front. It all looked just fine. The rest of the service went very well, and I suspect that she and I were the only ones there who noticed that the lilies were a little off.
I have learned that, like these surviving lilies, things can be just fine without being perfect. It’s part of keeping things in perspective and in balance. As I wrote, even for those who can keep their expectations realistic and accept that perfection is not a church goal, the demands of Easter and Holy Week create stress. So it is a very good thing that the Sunday after Easter is the reverse, with demands at a low ebb and nothing special to stress about. This is why I look forward to it. For my mental health, and I believe this true for us all, we need to balance high demand with low, the exceptional with the ordinary, major expectations with minimal ones, and the serious with the playful.
This brings me to the photograph I chose to go with this essay. It’s a pond in a park close to my house. It’s on one of my regular walking routes. It’s a nice pond: in season there are ducks and geese, and in warm weather there are turtles sunbathing on logs by the shore. I like it, but it’s profoundly ordinary. I’m not sure it even has a name. All this makes it a good place to take a walk after so much that’s extraordinary about Easter. Peaceful, simple, no demands – it’s a Sunday after Easter kind of pond.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.