Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 22, 2010

Changing the Discussion

I am a “Facebook fan” of Bible Gateway, a free on-line Bible with several different English Bibles and many other languages represented.  (This is the website that I use to link to pertinent Bible verses used in sermons I post on this blog).  Last week, Bible Gateway posted a simple discussion question on its Facebook page: “Lent begins this Wednesday. Are you doing anything special to mark Lent this year?”  Last time I checked, 297 comments had been added to the post.  Some of them were downright frustrating — both from those who plan to observe Lent, and from those who intend to avoid it.  Examples of the former would be things like not eating fried chicken or avoiding sweets or staying off Facebook — perhaps a good thing to do for personal reasons, but not exactly a deep spiritual discipline.  But some examples of the latter were particularly frustrating to read:

  • I am going to respect Colossians 2:23 and not engage in “self-made religion.” “Lent” does not come from God’s word — it comes from man’s “wisdom!”
  • Ash Wednesday is Catholic … not in the Bible … all lies of the Catholic Church.
  • I’m confused.  Where is Lent in the Bible?  I thought this was an Evangelical Christian source, not Catholic.  Please explain.

Statements like these are frustrating for a number of reasons — including the failure to distinguish between catholic and Roman Catholic, the idea that customs are inherently sinful or opposed to the gospel, and the bizarre biblicism that turns the Scriptures into an encyclopedia of church practice.  Sadly, I fear that too few will step back from their preconceived notions and objectively consider what they have said and what others are saying — and that goes for people on both sides of the issue.

Whenever I hear people debating whether or not something is “Catholic,” the discussion almost always seems to miss the point.  One should look primarily at the theology behind any church practice.  I don’t really care if a custom is used by the Catholics or a hymn is sung among the Baptists or fill-in-the-blank-with-another-scenario.  What I’m most concerned about is the theology of the idea that we’re considering.  If the theology is shaky — and yes, the origins of a particular practice will contribute to that! — then I’m not interested.  But if we’re considering a custom or a song or a work of art or anything else that preaches law and gospel and, in some way, points us to Christ, then chances are we’ve come across something that’s worthwhile for us to consider.  (Yes, there are other factors to consider, especially the matter of giving unnecessary offense to persons with weak or misinformed consciences.  I take that very seriously, as did St. Paul in Romans 14:1-15:7 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 & 10:23-33.  But I want to focus this post on a different facet of the discussion, specifically, a response to the misinformation that can contribute toward weak or misinformed consciences in others.)

I wonder if we pass by the opportunity to explore practices that could be useful because of the way those ideas are discussed.  Based on some of the comments on the Bible Gateway Facebook post, it seems like the statement, “That’s Catholic” is enough to win the argument!  But what if we changed the discussion so that we actually analyzed a practice carefully and thoughtfully? 

Let’s take the previous discussion about Lent.  Let’s say that someone argues that Lent is “Catholic.”  A Lutheran may respond to that claim and say, “We practice Lent, too, and during that time we concentrate on Jesus’ work of salvation on the cross.”  The skeptic might respond, “Well, shouldn’t we focus on that all of the time, not just for six and a half weeks?”  Well, yes, we should focus on Christ’s saving work all of the time!  But should that continuous focus negate a special time every year to intensify that focus?

Valentine’s Day occurred three days before Ash Wednesday this year.  Imagine approaching your significant other a couple of weeks ago and suggesting that you shouldn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day (or your anniversary, or some other important event in your lives together) because you’re supposed to love each other every day?  Aren’t you supposed to love each other all of the time?  Of course!  Should that negate a special time every year to celebrate your love for each other?  I hope not!

We are bound by time.  We live in the midst of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years.  We mark the passage of time by celebrating events like birthdays, anniversaries, and the like year after year.  We understand time.

Jesus came into human history.  He came in time.  The events of his life, recorded in Scripture, comprise the gospel.  The church year takes us through these key events of Jesus’ life each year — his birth, his ministry, his passion, his death, his resurrection, his ascension.  These events are the gospel!  Since we human beings are bound by time and are accustomed to marking important events each year, doesn’t it make good sociological sense to review the life of Jesus each year with a calendar that highlights these key gospel events for us annually?  If Lent and Holy Week are a part of that calendar, and if they take us to the pinnacle of our salvation each year, why argue against them?  These seasons, in a sense, function like Valentine’s Day or a wedding anniversary.  We preach the gospel every Sunday (at least, we ought to!), but each year we use Lent and especially Holy Week to intensify our focus on the key events of the gospel and to celebrate our salvation as a real event that took place in time.

Since we’re on the subject of Lent, let’s take a specific example of a Lenten custom: the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Even though the custom is cited by the church father Tertullian (c. 160-215 AD), the use of ashes, like Lent itself, is often labeled a “Roman Catholic” custom.  The inaccuracy of the claim notwithstanding, doesn’t that statement miss the point about the custom and the way it communicates?

We live in a world that has become more and more visual.  Younger generations tend to be visual and tactile learners.  We absorb information not just from hearing, but from all five of our senses.  We process information both cognitively (we learn “the facts”) and affectively (what we learn can “touch our heart” and affect our emotions).  In light of this, it stands to reason that communication is particularly striking when it engages several of our senses and when it speaks to both our head and heart.

Apply those thoughts to a practice such as the imposition of ashes.  You are ushered forward.  You stand before the pastor, vested in his clerical garments with a somber look on his face.  In his left hand is a small glass bowl with black ashes.  His right index finger is already well blackened by the ashes he imposed on the people before you in line.  His eyes nearly stare into yours as he impresses the gritty substance onto your forehead in the sign of a cross.  The only sound in the church is the pastor’s repeated mantra spoken to each person, and now to you: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  His words take your mind back to the sad story of our first parents’ fall into sin and the consequence God proclaimed at that moment: “Dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

The same law that you (hopefully!) hear every Sunday was just preached to you, but in a very different manner.  It was extremely personal, very visual, and unquestionably tactile.  It was a straight-forward, factual proclamation of the law, yet emotionally powerful.

This was my fourth year conducting the imposition in my church, and even though I was the one who introduced and encouraged the practice to my congregation, there is a part of me that still doesn’t like it.  I don’t like telling the people I love and have served for nearly a decade that they are terminal and heading back to the dust from which they came.  I especially don’t like imposing ashes on my wife and my children.  That just kills me internally.  This is the first year I wasn’t holding back tears when they came forward, and that was only because I deliberately tried to ignore the affective dimension of this ritual.  But the fact that part of me dislikes the imposition of ashes is one of the reasons I keep it.  My sinful nature doesn’t want to hear that I’m a sinner heading for death, and my sinful nature doesn’t like to preach that message to my people.  But my sinful nature has no business driving my ministry and directing my preaching.  God’s Word does!  The Word does not back down when it comes to forcefully proclaiming sin and its consequences, nor when it coms to announcing God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ.  “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).  Because the imposition speaks so powerfully, I find it to be a worthy custom to highlight Ash Wednesday’s call to repentance over our sin.

I would hope that we could get to a point where the discussion changes from “That’s Catholic” to “How does this communicate law and/or gospel to our people today?”  I don’t use the imposition to look more like Rome.  I use it to proclaim the law in a world that tries to ignore sin and sanitize death.  The same could be said of other practices.  If I use the hymn, “In Christ Alone,” from the new WELS worship resource, Christian Worship: Supplement, I’m not using it because I just want to sing Christian Contemporary Music (though I’ve never heard that charge made about me!).  If I select that hymn for worship, it is because the Keith Getty and Stuart Townend text and tune proclaim the story of salvation and the grace of God in a beautiful and artistic way.  And if I reject a song or a practice, it will be because that particular item gets in the way of gospel proclamation.  Ultimately, it’s about proclaiming law and gospel.

Would I impose the imposition of ashes on a congregation that just couldn’t get past a mental connection between the imposition and the Roman Catholic Church?  No, of course not.  That would be unwise and unloving.  But I also wouldn’t leave them in a sea of misinformation.  I would help them understand how communication takes place in worship (e.g. in the context of time, multisensory, cognitive and affective), and what we’re trying to communicate in worship (sin and grace).  Changing the discussion would be a valuable accomplishment in itself.  In this pastor’s opinion, if we can change worship discussions so that they focus primarily on law and gospel proclamation, we will have done our people a great service when it comes to their public worship experience and their personal worship expectations.

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Responses

  1. The members of Christ the King Lutheran in Palm Coast participated in the imposition of ashes for the third consecutive year this year. Having been educated about its history, significance, and meaning, most or all have acquired a strong appreciation for the ashes.

    The key to introducing new rites, forms, hymns, ceremonies, etc. really is education. If the new worship element is properly introduced so that there is an understanding of how and why the law and gospel are better proclaimed through it, then it usually becomes an edifying part of proclamation and praise in worship.

    A memorable moment was last year when a certain ex-Baptist member of Christ the King exited both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services in tears. The 50-year-old man said after the Tenebrae Good Friday service of seven words, “I have never been to a Good Friday service in my life, and that was amazing. Thank you.” New ceremonies and forms that were both visual and verbal brought the gospel to his heart in a new and meaningful way. God grant that in all our worship!

  2. Thanks for this excellent post! In all the discussions and debates about worship practices, I think we often lose sight of what is most important (Law and Gospel, Pointing to Christ) when it comes to our church practice. I’ve shared your post on my blog and hope others will take the time to read what you’ve written here! God’s blessings on your journey to the cross this Lent!

  3. Pastor Strey,

    This is an incredible article. I cried with you as I read your wonderful description of what goes through your head as you smudge the ashes on your family’s forehead. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your thoughts on this subject. As always, your writing style is captivating and expressed with conviction and passion.

    Steve Brown

  4. Nice post. Just a question on when you (or others) started the imposition of ashes practice. Where did most of the discussion and education of the practice take place? Sunday Bible class? Elsewhere?

  5. Hi Pastor Walters,

    I had five years here in Belmont without the imposition before we eventually started it. During that time, our Ash Wednesday bulletin always included an article about Ash Wednesday worship concepts and customs, including the imposition. Other articles in bulletins and newsletters may have mentioned it as well.

    I never really had an agenda to get it started. I made occasional comments in Bible classes and sermons on or around Ash Wednesday each year, but I assumed for a long time that this might be one custom that wouldn’t go over well. I knew I had more pressing places to focus my efforts, so beyond occasional mentions of the practice, we didn’t have a formal plan to introduce the imposition.

    When a couple of members asked me if we could try the imposition, we added it in 2007. Before making plans to go forward with it, I surveyed several trusted members in the congregation to seek their input. Based on those comments, it seemed like a worthy thing to do. Even those not necessarily in favor of it said, “I wouldn’t go up, but I wouldn’t let my thoughts stop you from doing it, either.” There was really only one who was more strongly (but still very politely) against it — and, ironically, that person’s spouse was in favor of it! That informal survey seemed to be the green light to give it a try.

    I spent a few minutes after church on a couple of Sundays before Lent explaining the “why” and “how” behind the custom. I emphasized that we would try the imposition for that year’s Ash Wednesday service and measure the response to determine if we would keep it in future years. I also emphasized that it was entirely optional: there was no shame in not coming forward and no added glory in coming forward. When about 2/3 to 3/4 of the people did come forward, and when the majority of responses were quite positive, it seemed like a custom worth keeping.

    I will add that here in California, our Lutheran church members tend not to think with a Catholic-Lutheran dichotomy. They tend to view these customs more as art and reverence rather than a practice belonging to another church. So there was never really major opposition to it. I don’t think every parish would adopt the imposition as easily, and certainly Ash Wednesday worship can be meaningful without it, so this scenario may not work for every setting, but I hope our situation provides some useful thoughts for you and for others.


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