On Easter morning, 1971, Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain was dark and chilly, a heavy blanket of fog covering the base area. Guitar in one hand, portable speaker in the other, and a canvas tote bag hanging from my shoulder, I climbed the steps from one graveled parking lot to the next, focusing on a distant speck of light and the high-pitched whine of machinery. My steps quickened in anticipation as I drew closer to the small building. “Hi!” I said to the gondola attendant standing before his bank of dials and switches.
“G’ morning!” He replied pleasantly, quickly turning back to his control panel.
Earlier that spring, my phone rang. “Skip, this is Charlie Reid. Easter is coming up, and I’m going to have to be away. Could you possibly do the sunrise service at Sugarloaf?”
For most ministers, Easter is one of the two busiest weekends of the year. But for me, leading a freelance ministry to youth, it was downtime.
“Sure,” I replied excitedly, “I’d be glad to.”
“Good. The service is in the lodge at the top, so you’ll be taking the gondola up. We’ve been running around 150 people. I’ll take care of the publicity and arrangements. The service starts at 5 a.m., so you’ll want to be at the gondola by 4:15 to allow time to set up.”
“You ready?” asked the gondola attendant, standing by the egg-shaped gondola car. After I boarded, he handed me the speaker and guitar before returning to his control panel. He flipped two switches, and then a third. The whine of the motor increased, and the overhead cable turned, closing the gondola door and launching my car into a darkened, fog-filled sky. Unable to see anything, I imagined myself welcoming the congregation to an Easter fog-rise service.
After completing the mile-and-a-half climb, the gondola eased into its mountaintop nest, and the doors opened onto a concrete platform. Equipment in hand, I disembarked from my slow-moving pod and climbed the thick, blackened-with-wear wooden stairs into the warmth of a well-lit pentagon-shaped building. Its glass windows revealed the circular panorama of a clear pre-dawn sky. Oh good, no fog-rise service.
While setting up, a movement caught my eye. I turned to see a ski patroller in his early thirties, clad in a red jacket with its identifying white crosses, carrying a thermos and making his way toward the east side of the building. He nodded as he passed by. A few seconds later, his voice pierced the silence. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Curious, I walked over to the window and followed his gaze downward. Illuminated by the dawning light, a panorama of puffy white clouds lay below us, stretching endlessly to the horizon. For air travelers, the sight wasn’t unusual, but this one was stunningly different. Multiple snow-capped mountain peaks jutted through the clouds like tips of icebergs from a billowy cotton sea. “I’ve been here five years,” he said, “seen two or three hundred sunrises—never one like this.”
A few minutes later, the sound of boots on stairs announced the first wave of worshippers. Streaming through the doors in their heavy coats and skiwear, they made their way to the windows, their initial gasps and exclamations ending in awestruck silence. Moments later, with senses satisfied, they migrated to the wooden benches. People were still coming in when I introduced myself and led everyone in practicing the morning songs. With such an eclectic group, no one knew all the music, so this practice time provided a measure of familiarity to what for some would be a very different experience.
After the last person had taken a seat, I welcomed them with excitement in my voice and a smile on my face. Directing their attention to the call to worship in their bulletins, I continued a centuries-old tradition with a loud and vibrant,
“He is risen!”
“He is risen indeed,” the people responded, some still fumbling with their bulletins.
“Oh c’mon,” I chided, “I know it’s early, but you can do better than that.” And then, turning up the volume, “He is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!” They shouted back.
“Ahhhhh… much better! Our first hymn is ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today.’ Let’s stand as we sing together.” Practicing the songs and their second chance at “He is risen indeed” paid off, for their singing was livelier than I expected. Following an opening prayer, I continued.
“Our next song is ‘Because He Lives,’ written by Bill and Gloria Gaither during a particularly difficult time in their lives. While Bill was recovering from mononucleosis, a split developed in their church. They and others were the targets of false accusations and mockery. Surprisingly, in the midst
of Bill’s illness and the emotional turmoil at church, Gloria experienced God’s peace, and from that peace came this song.
“Shortly after the song was published, another couple was dealing with their own trials, this one the life-and-death struggle of their newborn son. He was born with an untreatable condition that could either disappear in the next several days or take his life. The parents prayed. Nothing happened. Their church prayed. Nothing happened. Their friends and relatives prayed. Still, nothing happened. Finally, after several agonizing days, and after hearing the Gaither’s song, they realized their prayers were misguided.1 Before his death, Jesus prayed for God’s will and not his own. Acknowledging that God loved their child more than they did, their prayers changed.
“ ‘Lord, you know what we want. We love you and trust you, so we surrender him into your hands. He’s yours to take into your presence or to give him into ours.’ Upon finishing, the couple felt the lifting of a tremendous weight. In place of their desperation there descended upon them an unexpected calmness. They were sitting in the waiting room the next day when their doctor entered, an uncharacteristic smile on his lips.
“ ‘We just got the test results. He’s turned the corner. He’s going to be all right.’
“ ‘Of course, we’re glad he was healed,’ said the mother in a church service a few weeks later, ‘but we had surrendered him into God’s hands. We were prepared for it to go the other way, and if it had, it would have been okay.’ ”
My congregation remained silent, their eyes fixed while their minds went to experiences beyond my knowledge. One woman dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, and a man lowered his face into his hands.
I picked up my guitar. In place of the exuberance of our first hymn, the singing was now somber. Its volume, however, increased when we got to the chorus: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.”
The rest of the message related stories of people whose faith in Christ dramatically changed their lives. There was Nikki Cruz, leader of the feared New York gang ‘The Mau-Maus.’ After hearing the words “Jesus loves you and will never stop loving you,” Nikki slapped one-time country preacher David Wilkerson in the face and spat out a warning.
“If you ever talk to me about Jesus again, I’ll kill you!”
“ ‘Yeah, you could do that,’ Wilkerson replied. ‘You could cut me up into a thousand pieces and lay them in the street, and every piece will still love you.’2
“Nikki later accepted Christ’s love, and when he did, his own gang members became his first converts. He went on to become an evangelist with a ministry to millions and a life story chronicled in the best-selling book, Run, Baby, Run.”
The absolute stillness and riveted eyes of those before me indicated we were on the same page. I was not only receiving their solemn attention during the serious moments but also their laughter at the occasional humorous asides. The connection we were making was almost magical. No longer strangers, we were like friends and family united by years of shared experiences. Never had I connected so strongly with any group as I was with this one, nor would I ever again in fifty years of ministry.
We ended by singing the popular Easter hymn, “He Lives,” and as the words went from their eyes to their hearts, each verse came out more loudly than the one before.
I closed with a prayer, suggested they get acquainted with those around them, and wished them the greatest Easter they’ve ever had.
As I was packing up, several people—more than I expected—came forward to thank me for the service. Their firm grips, direct eye contact, and words of appreciation gave evidence of lives deeply touched. It would be a while before I discovered how deeply.
In a morning still very young, the highway leading down from the mountain remained deserted. Moved by the morning’s experience, I asked myself, What are the churches of Maine doing to minister to the thousands of tourists and vacationers that flood our state? Not much, I recalled thinking. A few open up for the summer months, and that’s about it. Somebody should do something for all these people. Nine years later, somebody did.
Another Easter passed before I again saw Rev. Charles Reid. We were attending a conference when he came up to me during a break. “Skip,” he began. “I thought you might be interested. At our Easter Sunrise service this year, over eleven hundred people showed up. We had to have five services back-to-back to accommodate everyone.”