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!
It’s been about 6 months now.
About 6 months ago, the rug was yanked out from under me and my family and our world blew up in our faces. We had moved to Nashville in October of 2017 for me to pastor a church here. Upon our arrival and surveying the life of the church, it became apparent that new vision was needed, new life and a fresh, deep breath of air had to happen.
So about 6 months in, I cast a vision for the elders and the church to relocate and replant the church. The vision was not received well and, for the next few months, the elders and I debated it and prayed about it. In the end, they voted unanimously to relocate and replant the church. We announced it to the body and set a tentative date for moving.
And that’s when things blew up.
I didn’t see it coming. I should have. I mean, I had spent almost my entire adult life seeing and anticipating danger and reacting to it. But I didn’t see this one coming. One by one, the members of the church either just quietly stopped communicating or announced to me that they were leaving and would not go along to be part of the re-plant. I was shocked. I felt like I had been gutted and left bleeding on the floor.
There are many details to the story that will go unshared but suffice it to say, it was excruciatingly painful for me and my family. There were some that remained but very few, not enough to have a core team for a new plant. The elders met with me to inform me that they were giving me a severance and then they too walked away.
The last 6 months have been excruciating for my family. I cannot count the tears, the angry prayers, the sleepless nights. Praise God for those who have continued to love us and support us during this time. Praise God for a godly counselor who has helped us work through the emotional devastation that has come from this.
But now, I find myself at a crossroads. And, for the first time in my life, I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what to do. I knew, for 16 years, what I was doing and going to do as a police officer and I had a plan. I knew as a business owner what I was doing and going to do. I knew as a pastor and church planter what I was going to do and I believed with every fiber of my being the vision that God had placed before me.
But now I don’t know.
Being in the unknown is not comfortable for me. The lack of confidence I feel is unlike anything I’ve ever known and has and is impacting every aspect of my life. The unknown is uncomfortable. We are a people who want to know.
But we really don’t know, do we? We have our plans and our dreams. Sometimes those plans come through and sometimes our dreams come true. But sometimes they don’t. Maybe this is you right now. Maybe you’re like me and you’re standing at a crossroads and you don’t know where to go or what to do. If you’re like me in this, I want to offer you some comfort. At least, these are two things that have comforted me. One of the things about confessions and creeds of the Church is that, like Scripture, they answer many questions for us.
The Heidelberg Catechism begins,
“What is thy only comfort in life or death?”
The answer: “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation; and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.”
What unspeakable comfort this brings to me! I am not my own but belong to my Saviour Jesus Christ. Not only do I belong to Him but He is faithful and He has, by His blood, justified me and restored me to a right relationship with God the Father. He has defeated the power of Satan and will preserve me unto eternal life and indeed, makes me willing and ready to live unto Him!
What comfort and joy and hope this gives those who are in Christ!
The second thing I want to point out that has brought me comfort is from the prophet Hosea. Hosea 6:1 reads,
“”Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.””
Right about now you may be thinking, ‘How is it comforting to know that God has torn me and struck me down?’ I have thought the very same thing my friend! Why has God allowed this to happen? Couldn’t He have stopped all this pain? Why didn’t He stop it?
Truth is I don’t know why. I don’t know why God allowed this to happen to us, why He didn’t stop it. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know why God allowed to happen to you what happened and I don’t know why He didn’t stop it.
But what I do know is that, if we will turn to Him in faith, He will heal. If we turn to Him, He will bind us up. This is His promise to us; that He will not turn away from those who seek Him. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have pain and discomfort. It doesn’t mean that He’s going to help me find a job and another purpose. But what it does mean for me and for you is this:
He will heal. He has promised.
Let us, together, turn to our only comfort in life and death; that we belong body and soul to our Lord Jesus Christ!
Soli Deo Gloria!