*Rather than giving something up for Lent this year, I chose to add something…blog entries. The reasons are both legion and personal, and naturally, I got behind right off the bat. Getting caught up, and then daily entries through Easter. Here’s Day 1’s catch-up entry.
The Book of Common Prayer I received from my Episcopal Church family celebrating my confirmation still sits on my bookshelf 36 years later. I don’t look at it much. My guess is that I keep it because of some tie-in to my early journey with God.
The early part of my journey was liturgical…a fancy word that means the public worship service’s traditional form. I remember coming into the mahogany-dim building where we gathered for worship each week. Wooden pews and beams. Stained glass. About 200 folks who were reverent, still and quiet. The organist would play. The procession would begin, complete with flags and incense and candles and gold and priests and bowing when the cross went by your row. The priest would speak. We would respond. He would read. We would respond. We’d repeat ancient creeds of the faith together. We’d shake hands with people around us. A very heavy bible was moved from one spot to another. A sermon was given. Taller candles were lit. Acolytes moved the elements and the priest put them in silver chalices. Bread was held up. Water and wine were poured. We came forward, knelt at a brass rail, took bread, drank from a common cup, and returned to our seats. Acolytes returned the elements to proper places and extinguished the tall candles. Brass plates were passed by row and envelopes with money were placed in them. The organist played another song and there was a recession of all the items that processed in about an hour earlier. Then there was a pot-luck lunch and we all went home.
There were special times during the year that there were some unique add-ons to that form, like Christmas or Easter (in fact, here’s me not long after I got my Book of Common Prayer, on Palm Sunday of 1977…note the purple on the cross. It was my day to process with a candle, but swinging the incense was my favorite job, even though the older kids mostly got that one)
That was my spiritual life at that time. Beautiful in a lot of ways. A very formal approach to God in a way that maybe my current tradition has lost a bit.
But also very form-al. I followed a form and mistook that for spirituality. It was easy to measure. It gave me comfort knowing that if I knew the creeds to say and prayers to pray that I was growing spiritually. I knew what to say and when to say it. I was familiar with most of the stories in the Bible. I was asked to be an acolyte. And while the behavioral codes of my tradition were exceedingly liberal compared to the Bible-belt influenced cultural mores, I knew what those were and they seemed both fair and easy enough to attain “good kid” status. Just follow the “form” and you were spiritual.
Well, I pulled that Book of Common Prayer off the shelf recently as my current church family observes the season of Lent as a “spring cleaning for the soul” and decided to read through the Ash Wednesday service found on those nearly 40-year-old pages. The reading for the service is Joel 2:12-17.
Yet even now,” the Lord says, ‘return to me with all your heart – with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Tear your hearts, not just your garments!’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and boundless in loyal love – often relenting from calamitous punishment. Who knows? Perhaps he will be compassionate and grant a reprieve, and leave blessing in his wake–a meal offering and a drink offering for you to offer to the Lord your God! Blow the trumpet in Zion. Announce a holy fast; proclaim a sacred assembly! Gather the people; sanctify an assembly! Gather the elders; gather the children and the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out from his bedroom and the bride from her private quarters. Let the priests those who serve the Lord, weep from the vestibule all the way back to the altar. Let them say, “Have pity, O Lord, on your people; please do not turn over your inheritance to be mocked, to become a proverb among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’
Now, my guess is you don’t know too much about Joel or his time (largely because scholars don’t, either). But the gist of it is that the people of God were going through the form or worship without their hearts really involved.
And, believe me, I’m not pointing fingers at my former denomination…this is across-the-board reality no matter the brand name on the door. Each and every one of us can fall into that trap. The people of God in the 8th century B.C. (kinda where I fall in my limited academic study on the *ahem* “minor” prophets) did. We do, too. They were given a choice to repent…do so and be blessed. Failure to do so has consequences built right in.
There’s the wonder & beauty in our breakdown that Lent represents…my pastor refers to this season as a “spiritual physical.” An oxymoronic term to examine our sickness so we can get well. He gathered that from these verses, among others.
See, the Lord says “return to me.” Our God, the One whom all the words that have “omni” to start them apply to, is drawing us into His arms. He’s initiating this conversation and relationship. He’s also implying that we can put ourselves in a spot where we actually need to return to Him. That’s what we initiate and add to the relationship. Ugh.
And the return begins with a hauntingly beautiful phrase: “Tear your hearts, not just your garments.” Mourning takes place deep in our souls. With tears. With focus. With sadness. And the truth about me is that when I’ve moved from God and need to return to Him, well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to stay busy and away. Tears are hard for me…and Robert Johnson can long for the city of Chicago in a deeper, sadder, more tearful way than I feel about my sin most of the time. It’s easier to look to those things that give me pleasure than to deal with my muck. Just listen to the next song or read about the muck or watch a show or get engrossed in a movie. I don’t want to tear my heart with mourning. I’d rather protect it with whatever cultural Splenda I can use.
Then we see God. Full of mercy & compassion. Slow to anger. Full of loyal love. Slow on the trigger of punishment. Whenever I’m confronted with all the things He is, I’m reminded of the reality that I am not those things.
Verse 14 gives us a glimmer of hope: Maybe…just maybe…that merciful, compassionate, patient, gracious God will embrace us.
Verses 15-17 tell us the first steps on our journey of return…announce that there will be a sacred assembly. Everybody from the gray-hairs to the newborns. Repent. Change the way you think about this life and your role in it. Admit the muck and your enjoyment of it. Resolve to return. But the bottom line is that there is a point in time where it’s appropriate to do that very thing. Just admit that the beauty of our breakdown is that we are broken and in great need to center ourselves on the Way, Truth and Life. Expose our necks to the sword and appeal for mercy, compassion, patience and grace. Let Him be Who He is and admit that we are not Him. All so a watching world that needs Him will take a look at the way we do business with Him and say He is indeed the Way, Truth and Life.
As Pastor Andy said, Ash Wednesday is a dark time with a light on at the end of the tunnel. He got that from the following verses, that there is indeed hope for us for forgiveness and restoration. So, on Wednesday night I dealt with the muck. Our assembly that night provided us with the chance to clear the decks with God and tear our hearts both individually and corporately. We wrote our sins in black marker on black fabric. We took the ashes on our foreheads to symbolize our hopeful mourning. We chose our vehicle of sacrifice (you’re reading mine now, and hopefully will be in 40 days). We took stones as a tangible reminder of Christ’s willingness to sacrifice as a model. It was darkness and light at the same time.
Which is what I wish I’d been old enough to appreciate about the liturgy of my youth. That my heart had figured out what my motions were doing.
But I’m grateful that I’m serving a church family that reminds me my motions will figure out what my heart is doing, and provides me (and us) with the chance to clear the accounts with God, return to Him, so we can show the world He is…
…the Way, Truth and Life…