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To Lent or Not To Lent: Take the opportunity to provide encouragement for the journey

Last Ash Wednesday I pulled out all the stops. My congregation had participated in Ash Wednesday services before, but nothing like this one. Since I was relatively new to the church and still enjoying a honeymoon with the members, I remember feeling particularly brave and adventurous—probably too adventurous.

I decided to serve communion using intinction (dipping the bread in the common cup), and I asked worshipers to come forward, even though most of them were used to being served in their pews. That in itself was probably enough innovation for one service, but I didn't stop there.

I spoke movingly to staff and worship committee about the imposition of ashes, and wanting to please their new pastor, they agreed that we should give it a try—as long as we did not make it mandatory or uncomfortable for those who did not choose to receive a smudge on the forehead.

That, too, might have been enough to spring on a congregation not used to liturgical innovation. But we went a step further.

Pastors and lay readers all ordinarily wear Geneva gowns in worship on Sunday mornings, but with a breathtaking sort of daring, we decided that on this night we would introduce the wearing of albs (full-length vestments; see RW10, p. 9). I owned one, and the rest of the worship leaders borrowed theirs, and that night all of us looked, well, very different—to ourselves and of course to our congregation.

We did other things, too, like moving sanctuary furniture around, adjusting the size of our worship bulletin, and paying more attention than usual to our liturgy. All in all, had this service been an assignment for a seminary class on worship, I would have done very well. Most congregations, however, do not think like seminary worship instructors, and after the service, I had a problem on my hands.

The first person out of the door at the back of the church that night was a woman who, in my judgment, is very influential in the life of the church. She currently holds an important position in the church, too, but her influence over the years has not been tied closely to holding official positions. You give a job to people like this to limit their power! As I shook her hand, I could see that she was visibly trembling. "If I had wanted a service like that tonight," she said, "I could have gone over to St. Michael's." And with that, she disappeared into the night.

The rest of the worshipers gave generally favorable reviews to our Ash Wednesday observance, but I was troubled, as usual, by the one negative comment.

Surprisingly, what I have discovered in talking with her and several other people since then is not a problem with our liturgical innovations. Most found them "kind of nifty." The problem was with introducing Lent itself, taking Lent as a season so seriously.

A seminary professor I have always had a high regard for once told his class never to introduce the church calendar. Most congregations, he said, would not be interested. Now I had learned the hard way that he was right—that intinction, ashes, albs, and all the rest could be tolerated, but that my congregation was wary of the thought of observing seasons in the church year.

Time to Get Ready

Since every Sunday is a little Easter, worship planners often struggle with the problem of how to plan Sunday worship during Lent. But my experience over the years has demonstrated that Sunday worship is not the problem. Lent itself is the problem. The whole idea of having a season of preparation is the problem. The whole idea of having a crucifixion on the way to Easter is a problem.

I have a very clear memory from my childhood about Saturday being a day of preparation for Sunday—in particular, a preparation for going to church. Saturday night, for example, was nearly always taken up with baths and shampoos and setting hair, which always seemed to involve my sisters more than me. My chore was to polish shoes. And after that, I would count out my offering, some what grudgingly from the earnings of my newspaper route.

My father would sit and read the denominational magazine, which—to be honest about it—never really put him in much of a mood for worship. And my mother—well, she got the pork roast ready to go into the oven for Sunday dinner.

I am not particularly nostalgic about those days, except maybe for the pork roast, but it seems to me that we as a family were on to something very important about worship, something that has largely been lost in the church today. In our own, imperfect way my family was preparing itself for something. We had the sense that we would find ourselves the next day in God's presence. And we developed some very elaborate rituals of preparation in anticipation of something very important.

Of course, Sunday mornings didn't always measure up to our expectations. God's presence was sometimes elusive and hard to sense, and that was frustrating, but we were gearing ourselves up for it nonetheless. Today, it seems, most people come into God's presence with all the nonchalance of going to the grocery store. Worship is something we do ... if we're not up too late the night before. Preparation? For what?

If the season of Lent means anything at all to us, it should at least mean preparation, walking with our Lord to Jerusalem, to the cross and beyond. It should have this feeling of getting ready of anticipating something.

Encouragement for the Journey

Garrison Keillor has said, "If you're shy and from the midwest and Lutheran, it is always Lent." At this level, Lutherans and Reformed people probably share a great deal in common. The popular perception of Lent, one shared by most church members I have known, is that it is a time of mourning, of sacrifice, and even of giving something up, though it is mostly our Catholic friends who are thought to do that.

The people I have served over the years already do a fair amount of mourning in their lives without being encouraged to do more of it at church during Lent. Most people who come to church experience pain, worry and disappointment—more of those things than I ever would have guessed before my ordination. What they are looking for when they come to church, I now believe, is not a further reminder of the importance of mourning and sacrifice; rather they are looking for hope, a reason to go on living, a sense that they are not alone, and encouragement for the journey.

The people who come to worship on Sunday mornings during Lent do not normally step out of basically Christian worlds, supportive of their ongoing Lenten preparations. By coming to church at all they are in sharp disagreement with the prevailing culture around them. For these people worship during Lent is only in part an occasion to be reminded of the tasks of discipleship. In this new environment, worship should be expected to accomplish much more than ever.

In planning worship for people like these it has helped me to reach back to the early days of the church when the season of Lent was used as a time of education for catechumens. I imagine that their preparation for full participation in the church was filled with adventure, anticipation, and excitement—just the opposite of what we customarily associate with Lent. It was of course hard work, a no-nonsense regimen of study, reflection, and memory work. Still, the work was done as a preparation for Easter morning, the grand conclusion during the Easter vigil when the students would finally be baptized.

What worship planners must do, what I have made it my ministry to do, is to support the members of the congregation in their courageous choices, to encourage them in their journeys of faith, to equip them for lives of faithfulness, and to challenge them to even deeper levels of commitment. Observing a season of preparation like Lent (and do we dare say Advent as well?) can be a rare opportunity to accomplish all of these things. In fact, I probably would do better next time not to let intinction, ashes, albs, and all the other bells and whistles of liturgical innovation get in the way of that essential task.