As I write this, it’s a beautiful autumn day outside. After a week of extreme heat, today is a desperately-needed refreshment. It rained lightly last night and the smell of rain is still hanging in the air. The sky is cloudy with some spots of blue daring to peep through from time to time. Some leaves on the trees are starting to change colour, but I think this is more due to the recent heatwave than to the new season, which is not even a week old.

AshWedesdayCrossIt’s also Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this is the day the liturgical church declares the depravity and mortality of humankind.

As a cross of ash is made on our foreheads, we are reminded of our transient state:

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or, instead, we may be challenged:

“Repent and believe the good news”

Or, in different words:

“Turn from your sins and follow the Saviour.”

Ash Wednesday contains in its essence both a reminder of who we are and also a challenge to become who we are meant to be.

While our own mortality is something we all must learn to deal with (death happens to all, no exceptions), turning from a life of self-fulfilment and self-pleasure to walk in the way of Jesus is counter-intuitive at its best. Giving up what we want? Letting go of what we have? Forsaking the identity we’ve forged for ourselves and lived out all of our life?

In the words of Coldplay:

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

(The Scientist)

It’s always difficult when we are called to give up, let go and forsake. We must come first to the place of recognition that there is a better way. We must then go through the process of casting off the old and exposing ourselves–being vulnerable–in acknowledging the part we have played in who we are at the present.

But then . . . but then! We are privileged to be able to start again. No matter what we have done. Regardless of where we have been. Despite all our past.

In this moment we are made new. The slate is wiped clean. We begin again.

We start on a journey as we, through humility and courage, move forward in the way of Love, becoming who we were created to me.

I’m not a big fan of the institutional Church nor of what Christianity has become. There is no argument that organised religion has a lot for which to answer, both in the past and in our world today.

Yet, the symbolism attracts me and speaks to me in ways no catechism, no systematic theology, no rules or standards ever could. And in accepting the symbol of ash in a sign of the cross on my head, I am accepting that I have not yet arrived at where I need to be, but, every day I am changing, growing, learning, loving . . . becoming.

This is where I need to be today.

And, on Ash Wednesday, this is my hope and prayer for you:

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.

Common Prayer: A Book Review

Just before Christmas I received from my favourite online bookseller a copy of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro.

I have increasingly become aware of the power of liturgy (literally meaning “work of the people”) to shape the life of the Church. Claiborne and his companions have come to the aid of us ordinary people who, for whatever reason, don’t belong to a liturgical congregation but who desire to connect with the ancient tradition of liturgical prayer on a daily (or weekly) basis.

Contained in this volume are a series of short (one page for the most part) liturgies for morning prayer which include standard texts, prayers, interesting information on church holy days and people, and even a song selection (melody lines and chords are in the back of the book)–one for every day of the year.

These prayers contain several common threads:

  • The introductory line. “O Lord, my soul rises up to meet you as the day rises to meet the sun.”
  • The Gloria Patri, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son . . .”
  • The Call to worship: “Come, let us bow down and bend the knee; Let us kneel before the Lord our maker.”
  • A song selection for the day
  • A Responsive Psalm
  • Two other suggested Scripture Readings
  • A space where prayers for others may be offered
  • The ‘Our Father’ and
  • The Benediction (may be sung):

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shwon you.
May he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.

In addition to this, there are sections containing a week-long cycle of midday and evening prayers, and another section of occasional prayers (for blessing a house, prayers for a workplace, baby dedication, or at the time of a death in the neighborhood, to name a few).

The title suggests this book is aimed at those who consider themselves, along with Shane and his co-conspirators, to be ‘ordinary radicals’–a phrase coined by Shane and often used in an earlier book The Irresistible Revolution.

This label brings with it a sense of something unusual, a challenging of the status quo, something the authors are well-suited to address since it is their way of life to live as subversive, peace-loving, Kingdom citizens. Thus, throughout the book you will find a generous sprinkling of references to the poor, the marginalised, the underprivileged, the outcast, and the innocent victims of injustice. Did you know May 15 is International Conscientious Objector‘s Day? How about an introduction to Brigid of Kildare who was known for her compassion and hospitality (February 1). Or remembering the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama (September 15).

Sharing these important people, commemorations and days opens our conscious mind each day to the needs in our world and the urgency of the over-arching prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’

I recommend Common Prayer not as a book that will be something we may sit down and read for enjoyment or out of interest, but as a tool to help shape our worldview and centre our focus on those values and principles that are at the heart of the gospel.

Having Fun in Church … and More

On the blog onehandclapping, author Julie Clawson’s post on having fun in church is a lot of fun, especially imagining what it would be like to do what her church did recently in having an all out bouncy-ball fight at the end of a service.

Coloured Bouncy Balls in Church? Um..Now I’m not recommending this. It may be quite out of character for some congregations. But it does seem fun, and a great community-building, barrier-breaking-down activity.

After mentioning this episode, Julie continues:

Now I am one of the first to argue that the point of church shouldn’t be to attract and entertain the masses. Coming to church to hear what we want to hear and sing our favorite songs has very little to do with following Jesus. But neither does checking our personalities at the door and assuming a generic “churchgoer” persona every time we gather at church. For some churches that involves pretending that monotone recitation and droning songs are actually soul-inspiring and their preferred way to express their spirituality. For others it’s dressing up in the church costume (never been in fashion anywhere anytime dowdy skirts, ugly floral shirts, dark hose, and unstylish yet still uncomfortable shoes), clutching that oversized study-Bible, taking sermon notes you will never read again, and mindlessly singing lyrics you don’t really believe while hoping no one finds out that you really enjoy Lady Gaga and had a couple of beers with friends the night before. People feel like they must play a part in order to even be at church – acting out a lie in order to fit in. Is this the point of church?

Do I hear an ‘Amen’?

Read the entire post here.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

When I Don’t Get It

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

We often mix up Jesus’ directions and become as clueless as doves and as innocent as snakes. Remember the Church Lady in Saturday Night Live? She was always well meaning, but wholly ineffective, getting all worked up about some non-issue and in a dither about those who didn’t agree. This is funny. But we have the most to fear from those who don’t know what they’re talking about. Sometimes that’s us.

We can confuse good intentions with the way we come across. We can judge someone forgetting there is always at least one thing we don’t know. We can react naively to criticism as though it’s always a personal putdown.

The wisdom Jesus counsels can save us from trouble we bring on ourselves. We are most like sheep in the midst of wolves, as he put it, when we’re stuck on ourselves, acting as though everything is about us. We need the wiliness of a snake to catch ourselves in this self-deception.

The innocence of which Jesus speaks is not ignorance but wisdom. And so with trouble not of our own making that is nonetheless about us—about something we’ve said or done. Wisdom says that if Jesus was not spared rejection, who are we to think that we will be? And when we have done something wrong, will we be wise enough to admit it?

Prayer: When I feel like a failure, God, keep me from self-defense. Inspire the wisdom that gives me the confidence to look more carefully at myself, and others. Amen.

About the Author: William C. Green is a United Church of Christ minister, is the Director of Long Looking, a consultancy service specialising in fundraising and education for congregations. His new book, 52 Ways to Ignite Your Congregation: Generous Giving, has just been published.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Liturgy After the Liturgy

Mark Berry, missional leader and pioneer of Safespace Telford (UK) in his blog Way Out West includes an array of interesting information from a liturgical perspective including many prayers for special days and events. He has a gift of creative writing. Here’s one selection about what he calls ‘The Liturgy after the Liturgy’ (i.e. being sent out in mission as a church).

Liturgy (The Eucharist) is always the entrance into the presence of the triune God and always ends with the community being sent forth in God’s name to transform the world in God’s image… Mission is concieved, in other words, as the “the liturgy after the liturgy,” the natural consequence of entering into the divine presence in worship. – Bevans and Schoeder “Constants in Context”

The liturgy after the liturgy.
There is no breathing out without breathing in,
There is no flow without ebb,
There is no outpouring without drinking deep of life.

We cannot be love for the community without being drawn deeper ourselves into God,

We cannot bring change to the world without our lives being realigned,
We cannot forgive each other without knowing the freedom of forgiveness ourselves.

We ache for the loneliness of the world and are known by a God who is family,
We cry for a world trapped in greed and are loved by a God who gave up everything,
We fight against a world with little justice and are embraced by a God of mercy.

Forgive us Lord for not taking the time to know you more,
Forgive us Lord for not taking the time to know each other more,
Forgive us Lord for not taking the time to know your world more.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.  Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are worshiped.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

You welcome us back with simple open arms, forgiven, restored ready to begin work again
You stand naked, mocked and bleeding with the love of a proud parent on your face,
You move in and amongst us with un-ignorable force, yet tenderly,

This moment is a not the end of the road, it is the beginning of a new stage of the journey,

A party is being prepared to send us back into the world in joy, let’s eat and drink!

Sharing the Bread and the Wine

For God so loved the world – may we naturally follow suit,
That he gave his only son – may we learn the wonder of sacrifice,
That all who believe – may our love for one another be the crucial evidence,
May not perish – may we work to halt the collapse of lives, of communities and of creation,
But have eternal life – may we point to the hope you bring now and for the future.

It is time to walk on, this time we walk together, with each other and with God.
We are one body because we share in one bread and drink from one cup.