Ash Wednesday

AshWednesdayCrossYesterday, Ash Wednesday, marked the beginning of the season of Lent. I participated in an ecumenical service last evening. I was designated to explain the meaning of the ashes and do the imposition of ashes on the clergy, as well as help administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was a wonderful service held at the local Anglican church, with clergy representing the Anglican, Church of God, Lutheran, United, and Ukrainian Catholic churches.

In dialogue with the Ukrainian Catholic priest prior to the service, I learned a couple of things that surprised me. First, they do not use ashes in their Ash Wednesday services—for them Lent actually begins on Monday two days prior to Ash Wednesday. Second, the colour for Lent in their tradition is not purple, but red, since the latter is regarded by them as a penitential colour.

Ashes in the Western churches are important, since they symbolize our mortality, as well as combined with sackcloth, were associated with repentance in biblical times.

We were blessed and privileged to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed and all baptised Christians were welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

The Anglican priest lead us in the beautiful Ash Wednesday penitential liturgy and he, along with two other clergy—one Lutheran, one Anglican, a visible sign of our full communion—were co-presiders at the Lord’s Table. The Church of God pastor began with an opening introduction, highlighting God’s mercy, and sharing information on a Canadian Food Grains project which our community supports. The United Church minister led us in the offertory prayer. The Ukrainian Catholic priest offered the closing benediction.

It was a very moving and humbling experience to have been there and help with administering the sacrament. It was also a small sign of the unity of Christ’s Body expressed in the rich diversity of our respective denominations.

As the World Council of Churches emphasized years ago, “doctrine divides, service unites,” so in our community, we joined together contributing our offering to the Canadian Food Grains Bank in service of those in need.

We left the worship service in silence; recipients of God’s mercy and grace, and given new opportunities to share the love of Jesus in thought, word and deed with those in need in our community and around the globe.

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Annual Study Conference

Annual Study Conference

This past week I attended our annual Synod Study Conference in beautiful Canmore. Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, a U.S. Methodist bishop from Alabama. He is considered one of the top twelve preachers in the English-speaking world and a prolific author. I had never met him before, and was quite surprised by his Southern accent. He delivered two lectures on the topic of “Worship as Pastoral Care.” In addition to the main content of his message, Willimon regaled us with his bottomless well of stories, anecdotes and folktales. Here are a few of his pearls of wisdom that I jotted down:

After 911, people in the U.S. were jolted and in grief. They went to church seeking comfort and to alleviate fears. The church cares in the name of Jesus, and people don’t always want that kind of care.

There is a temptation to ‘run errands’ for people in our culture where ‘desire’ is jacked up to ‘needs,’ and needs are jacked up to ‘rights.’ ‘Desires’ become a bottomless pit; we live in a supermarket of desires. It is dangerous to ‘care’ for such people when there are no limits. Drowning people tend to drown their saviours.

Shepherds were business people—they fattened sheep up for market. Caregivers are considered honourable people. However as preachers, preaching sets the goal of our care. Our care isn’t always what people want.

‘Detoxification,’ that is baptism. What does it mean to have this revived as the primary metaphor of ministry?

What does it mean when all or most of our prayer requests are for health needs? Isn’t it curious that the worst thing that can happen to folks is ‘bad health’? Why can’t people accept that the aging process is normal and that we are mortals? Jesus never mentioned good health in the Lord’s Prayer, which is our model prayer. There is a danger among Christians of ‘good health’ becoming idolatry.

The sermon, according to Martin Luther, is a ‘cutting into the soul.’ Preaching the sermon is a countercultural act in that we say what the world wants kept quiet.

In our culture, ministry and the Gospel get reduced to being therapy. The Gospel can be therapeutic, but it should not be reduced to that. As Lutherans, we believe that nobody gets saved by our performance.

Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop Willimon stated that in preaching the risen Christ walks among his people—that should be our goal in pastoral care too.

You’ve got to worry about the Church where Mother’s Day is bigger than Easter.

In worship, we are with our people in the most intense way as pastors. Worship is at the centre of our life in Christ. This is at the heart of the matter, and gets most explicit about how God has got us and how we worship and serve God.

A lot of people are in pain today because they’re ignorant. It takes training to pray and to confess the Trinity. Lutherans, surmised Willimon, may be in a stronger position to do this than other denominations on account of our catechetical tradition, along with our hymnody, liturgy, and educational institutions.

Thriving congregations today have at least sixty percent of their membership in small groups.

Shepherd Me, O God

The 23rd Psalm has a host of musical settings, many of which I appreciate. However, this particular one by a favourite contemporary composer, Marty Haugen, is breath-takingly beautiful–give it a listen here. For your convenience, I’ve included the lyrics as well:

Refrain
Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants,
beyond my fears,
from death into life.

God is my shepherd,
so nothing shall I want,
I rest in the meadows
of faithfulness and love,
I walk by the quiet waters of peace.

Refrain

Gently you raise me
and heal my weary soul,
you lead me by pathways
of righteousness and truth,
my spirit shall sing
the music of your Name.

Refrain

Though I should wander
the valley of death,
I fear no evil,
for you are at my side,
your rod and your staff,
my comfort and my hope.

Refrain

You have set me a banquet of love
in the face of hatred,
crowning me with love
beyond my pow’r to hold.

Refrain

Surely your kindness and mercy
follow me all the days of my life;
I will dwell in the house of my God
forevermore.

Refrain