Yesterday five Protestant congregations gathered together @ 7 pm for a join Ash Wednesday worship. In many ways, it was a blessing - deep cooperation among the clergy and lots of sharing and participation between the congregations - so I am grateful we are moving forward on this path. Having read how a Missouri Synod pastor was reprimanded for participating in the Newtown Inter-Faith Memorial Service, I am even happier that the Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Methodists and Baptists have found a way to cooperate. In time, we will do more to live as the body of Christ together.
As is true with all joint efforts, some aspects of worship were stronger than others - that goes without saying - so there is no point reviewing the details here. Upon deeper reflection, however, one aspect of this gathering left me uncomfortable; namely, in music, prayer and ambiance, we avoided the shadows - and that was a mistake. When I left, it didn't feel like the start of an inward journey - it didn't look or sound like one either - because from beginning to end, it was too bright.
Henri Nouwen once wrote:
Too often we will do everything possible to avoid the confrontation with the experience of being alone, and sometimes we are able to create the most ingenious devices to prevent ourselves from being reminded of this condition. Our culture has become most sophisticated in the the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain, but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us... but this does not help us deal with our human predicament. We are in danger of becoming unhappy people suffering from many unsatisfied cravings and tortured desires and expectations that never can be fulfilled. Does not all creativity ask for a certain encounter with our loneliness, and does not the fear of this encounter severely limit our possible self expression?
Lent is about gratitude and grace - but in a minor key. It needs shadow and doubt. It demands silence and solitude, too. If our liturgy is the "work of the people" - our prayerful practice of how we are to live in the world - we missed a chance to help one another go into our shared emptiness. There was no silence. The musical settings were all upbeat. Hmm... I know I didn't take the time to ponder this truth when we were writing this by committee. And I suspect that the very nature of finalizing things by email diminished our awareness of the emotional qualities that were missing, too. (Another lesson: next time we should meet together and walk/speak through the finalized liturgy before going public IN the worship space while there is still time to make revisions.)
We might also have a "debriefing" conversation after Lent to talk about our common notions of liturgical aesthetics. Clearly we have different understandings and experiences and this could be a way to help one another grow. I hope this happens. Please understand that I'm not saying worship didn't "work" - it did and I was blessed - but we missed some key moments where the whole community might have gone deeper.
A highlight for me was being the celebrant for Eucharist - and then serving the host to the gathered community. It made me weep when a man I know is an uber-Roman Catholic came forward and received the "bread of life." He made a point to come back after worship and ask me to hold him in prayer as he travels for business into very dangerous territory. It is such a sweet privelege to be working in this small, inter-connected community.
When I got home last night I gave thanks to God for my faith community: we had over 30 people present - and what a GREAT combination they were, too. There were Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Baptists and Episcopalians alongside some Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists. I joked with the Council of Churches representative that we're doing our part of break down the divisions between traditions by bringing them all in to OUR congregations.
Onward now to the first Sunday in Lent...