Thursday, February 22, 2007

HESITATIONS AT THE BEGINNING OF LENT
Reflections for the 40 Days of Lent

NOT QUITE "AT HOME". Even though observing Ash Wednesday and Lent have become normal within our free church community, I still feel not quite at home in them. I feel the same way with most formal liturgy, including the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper and Baptism, along with the Christian calendar. I felt this odd mix of emotions last evening, even as I marked each kneeling congregant with ashes in the sign of the cross.

WHAT MY HEAD TELLS ME. Everything within my formal training tells me that well-patterned liturgy, the Sacraments, and the Christian calendar are valid and useful. These are time-tested ways many branches of the church worship and instruct. They also offer a countering alternative to the world's sense of time, material, value, and meaning. I can--and do--argue for the caring and careful use of good liturgy. Certainly, it is much better than much of what has passed for "the freedom of the Spirit" in our free church tradition. Lectionary-guided Bible preaching, teaching through the Christian seasons, and exploring creative possibilities within these is a growth point for me. Regarding these, I feel like I am just scratching the surface.

WHAT MY UPBRINGING TELLS ME. But there is also a part of me that is uncomfortable, at least, with so much to-do about days and seasons, markings and symbols, readings and recitations. I was brought up in a free church that gave supreme credance to firebrand preaching, extemporaneous prayers, long altar calls, and impromptu "testimonies." These routine expressions of worship linger in my psyche even though I have either excused or come to terms with most of them. I value some impacts of this upbringing. It infused me with a directness and earnestness in personal faith. It opened up an uninhibited emotional connection between Word and worshiper. It fostered a readiness to respond to an unexplored or forgotten aspest or application of the Word of God. It encouraged decisive responses--leading either to courageous action or a more radical discipleship.

HUNG UP ON THE LORD'S SUPPER. The disparagement of all formal liturgy and the reduction of the Sacraments to merely outward signs was also a hallmark of my upbringing. That is a bit more difficult to unpack. So thorough was the preaching about the Lord's Supper as a mere memorial--completely unrelated to the saving, grace-bearing acts of God in Jesus Christ--that conceiving of it as a means of grace is still a stretch for me. I now know all the layers and aspects of meaning of the Sacraments from various church traditions. And I insist that the Lord's Supper be more readily accessible and frequent within our worship (it was offered two or three times a year in my youth). Still, I get the feeling that almost everyone to whom I am serving the Lord's Supper has more comprehension of it and is receiving more apparent benefit from this mystery than me. At moments, I break through this ambivalence, but I have not yet sustained an emotional/spiritual breakthrough regarding this.

WHAT MY HEART TELLS ME. So, I enter Lent with a commitment to the journey, but more as a resident alien than an indigenous participant. I admire the traditions, observe the days, dress the part, celebrate the occasions. I do so with appreciation, respect, and reverence. I hope to gain insight and grow in grace with each disciplined action and experience. But as I do so I also guard my heart, hedging that there is a directness and communion with God, the church, and with those to whom God's love reaches out that surpasses any symbol, sign, day, season, or celebration.

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