I’m having a hard time knowing where to even start what I want to say. I am struggling to find adequate words and, for those who know me, that should be shocking that I don’t know what to say.
My wife and I experienced something very recently that has forever changed us. At least, I pray to God that we are forever changed by this time. It is no secret to those who know us that things have been hard for us over the last year or so. We have been wounded in ways that cannot even really be expressed. Those wounds have come from a group of people that we thought could be trusted with us, with our hearts. I have heard far too many stories of the gaping holes blown in someone’s heart by the very ones they thought could be trusted in the Church.
It speaks of our own wretchedness that we feel that even those in the Church cannot be trusted. Friends, this should not be so.
After all the fighting and struggling over the last year, last week my wife and I got to take a break. Even the most elite soldiers need to come off the front lines at times and we were battered and tired and discouraged. We were in a place where some healing had begun but we were very tired from the pain, tired from the struggle, tired from it all.
I had personally resigned myself to an existence of merely hope. That sounds weird so let me explain. I had come to a place in my heart where I believed that hope was all I had to hold on to. Hope for true friendship, hope for being known and knowing someday. Someday but not now. I had come to believe that my wife and I were simply going to go without being truly close to anyone else ever again; that we would merely live on the hope that one day, when Christ returns, we could finally be vulnerable and accepted.
And then this last week happened. We were gifted a trip to Greece (I know, right?!). I don’t know who paid for it and don’t care. What I do know is that God’s hand was in it. On that trip we visited with some of my old high school classmates. It had been almost 30 years since many of us had seen each other.
And something remarkable happened.
The Sunday night we were there was one that will forever be branded on my soul. We came together for a time of sharing. What happened was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Real life struggles came pouring out of people. Tears were shed. Lots of tears. Searing soul pain was shared, prayer abounded. There was laughter and anger and sorrow. I truly don’t have the words to express what happened in that room.
There were faithful men and women of God in that room and there were people who are not so close to God right now. There were devout Church folk in that room and there were people who have been so wounded by the Church that they have given up completely.
And it was breathtakingly beautiful.
Even as I write this and reflect on the moment, I have tears in my eyes. What I saw, what we experienced was stunning. I saw the children of God embracing one another right where each individual was. There was no judgment and no one was pretending to have it all together. I’ll state this as plainly as I know how:
There was no bullshit in that room. Only real people who were experiencing real life and were unafraid to rip open their soul and share it with us. It was absolutely wonderful. It was like coming home, being known and knowing. I can’t stop crying as I think about how wonderful it was and how healing it was for me personally. To know that I could be known without fear was utterly freeing.
I’ll never be the same again. My heart has been forever changed by the knowledge that I don’t have to just hope that this is possible but to know it is real, right here and right now. I imagine that this is what life on the new earth will be like when Jesus returns. Having long and deep conversations about the mysteries of life and our own inadequacies, eating rich food and drinking dark wine, walking and talking along the streets of the city and finally resting in the peace of being known. Ah…the sweet embrace of knowing and being known!
May I offer some advice to you reading this?
1. Give yourself away. Yes, it is dangerous and it will hurt and some may reject you. But it is only in giving yourself that you can receive the gift of knowing and being known.
2. Be vulnerable. You may be surprised to find that you aren’t the only broken person in the room. Don’t hide yourself. Jesus died for you exactly as you are; don’t hide.
3. Give space. Stop talking so much and listen more. Pay attention to the moment you are in and the people you are with. Sometimes we just need to shut up and sit there.
4. It takes time. Be patient. My brothers and sisters in that room and I have known each other for over 30 years and that kind of openness takes time.
I want to go back. I want to be with my friends again, to laugh and cry and eat and drink with them. See, now I’m ruined. Now I’ve tasted and seen the joy of deep love and I can’t go back to so-so. I can’t go back to pretense. I won’t.
This is the gospel in action. This is what Jesus has done for us in the Spirit at the behest of the Father. He has restored us to a right relationship with Abba and each other. No more pretense, no more hiding. In Jesus you and I can know and be known. This is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ! You are known and loved by God in Jesus.
Walk in that.
Soli Deo Gloria!
I did a thing last night.
During this journey I’ve been on into the deep liturgical history of the Church, I’ve had all sorts of new discoveries along the way. Some of them I have enjoyed and some of them I’ve balked at. For example, I was really uncomfortable for awhile about the whole idea of bishops. I was raised Baptist and we didn’t take to that sort of thing. I mean, if there’s someone who is outside the control of the deacons, that can’t be a good thing, right?! (That was sarcasm in case you were wondering.)
I have loved the study of liturgical worship. My wife tells me I’m a nerd for getting into this so much and talking about it so much but oh well…then I’m a nerd. But the liturgical history of worship in the Church is rich and I commend the study of it to anyone who loves the Church. In fact, I just finished a book called “On The Apostolic Tradition” by Hippolytus. Whether there was one author or multiple is not the point of what I’m talking about. The liturgy in this writing comes from somewhere around 230-235 AD. Think about that for a second. We know what the liturgy of the Church was (at least the Hippolytean community in Rome) at around 235 AD. That is pretty awesome!
By the way, some forms of this liturgy are still in use today. That should be, on some level, cool for you to know and participate in.
But I digress.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Despite the sarcasm of all my Baptist friends and their “fasting not to be seen” comments, there is a long and rich tradition of the practice of Lent in the Christian Church. The point of Lent wasn’t to appear hyper spiritual. The point of Lent was a time of preparation for the Church. That time of preparation through prayer, fasting and self denial was to prepare us for Holy Week, when we remember the passion of our Lord Jesus. Being raised Baptist, I had never observed Lent. But now I’m no longer Baptist and now I join a huge number of faithful Christians who observe Lent.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, during the worship service, ashes are placed (imposed) on the forehead of the believer by the priest or pastor. At our church, Church of the Redeemer (Nashville), this is done by the priests as we kneel before the cross displayed at the front of the church.
I want to talk about my experience a bit. I am part of what is called the LEM team. LEM stands for Lay Eucharistic Ministers. We are non-clergy volunteers who go through a training period in order to serve the congregation and priests during worship. We do things like carry the cross and candles during the procession and recession. We serve the chalice of wine to the faithful who come to receive the Lord’s Supper. We carry the Gospel Book, we read Scripture and the Creeds. Basically, we are there to serve the people and the priests and deacons during the worship gathering.
Last night I was the crucifer. I carried the crucifix during the procession, Gospel reading and recession. I also served as a chalice bearer. One of the things I love about liturgical worship (and that James KA Smith so eloquently unpacks) is that it engages all our senses. We see, we hear, we smell, we stand and sit and kneel and drink wine and eat bread; we speak aloud, we pray aloud and we pass the peace in handshakes or kisses on the cheek. I love this.
The first thing that happened that helped me to become engaged last night was when I picked up the crucifix to carry it down the aisle. It was heavy; heavier than I had anticipated. The people stood in absolute silence as we processed down the aisle. It was so quiet I could hear my own footfalls as I walked on a carpeted aisle. It was a quiet, meditative and holy moment.
The service was different. Less Scripture reading; the priests were wearing black cassocks, a cello played somber tones. It was deeply moving, quietly intense. But then the moment of the imposition of ashes came. I stood beside the Table. One of the priests picked up a small bowl and stuck his thumb into the black lump of ashes in the bowl. I don’t know why I did but I closed my eyes when his hand reached for my forehead.
I heard his soft and solemn voice say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Even as the words begin to sink in, I felt his thumb tracing a cross on to my forehead. The tactile scraping of the ashes was an immediate sensation. I could feel the grittiness of the ashes and smell them. In that moment I was starkly reminded that, contrary to my own selfish predilections, I am not the center of the universe; there is Another.
There is One who is outside of me that determines my life and my worth and my mortality.
And I was humbled and comforted by this fact. I feel like, even in the Church, we too often think we are the point. We think the world, and even the Church, revolves around us. But it doesn’t. The world, the Church revolves around Another, the One who has come, Jesus the Christ. He is the reason we sing, chant, pray, kneel. It is His body that was broken for us that is present with us in some mysterious way when we come to His table. It is His blood that was shed, beaten and nailed and pierced out of Him, so that you and I, by faith, may be made whole and right before God our Father and Creator. He is with us; in the daily moments and in the holy ones.
He was present with us last night as the ashes scraped across our foreheads and we were reminded of our mortality. In our mortality we are reminded that our desire for immortality, for eternal significance is only found in the broken and resurrected body of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We came to the Table after the ashes were imposed. I served the cup to my brothers and sisters and watched as some wept, some smiled, some laughed for joy, some prayed. But all of us knew that something holy was happening.
Jesus was among us.
And it was beautiful.
Soli Deo Gloria!