I sat there a week ago in the Maundy Thursday service that the church we rent space from had invited our church to attend. I was a little distracted because I had arrived late and my adrenaline was still going, making my senses heightened and my self-diagnosed ADD kick-in. I was also frustrated at myself for my own liturgy snobbiness, which had taken note that the service was technically a Good Friday liturgy that they were using on Thursday.
I readily admit that my functional relationship with God is very isolated, personal, emotional, and full of its fair-share of introspection and navel-gazing. I promise I’m working on it. Usually, my main experiences of God are found in emotional, abstract, subjective moments in which I sense him near. On this night, though, I felt far.
I drummed up as much intentionality, concentration, and emotion as I could when I took communion. I tried to quiet myself and feel the ridges of skin on my face as I lightly held my head in my hands and prayed. I tried to sacramentally liken the “Christ candle” being snuffed out with some sort of existential representation of Christ in my mind.
But nothing was “stirring” or “impacting” me like I hoped. This just felt like another service on a regular ol’ Thursday. In a lot of ways, it felt like what the rest of this Lent felt like: normal, everyday life with nothing special, save for a too-busy schedule and days lacking the discipline I’d like.
I then tried not reading along with the passages of Scripture being read aloud and instead closing my eyes and listening to the words filling the sanctuary. And that’s when I noticed it.
We rent space from one of the oldest churches in the city–and when I say oldest, I don’t just mean the building or the church organization proper; I’m talking the congregants too. I go to my church week after week and hear young voices lead our liturgy, pray, sing, and preach; I hear pure, unstrained voices speaking with lips unaccented by wrinkles and unframed by creases, as they say “the body of Christ, broken for you.” But not this night.
Old, strained, and quivering voices filled my mind with Scripture readings I may have read a couple of hundred times before, which they may have heard thousands of times before. I watched as the pastor offering communion had to step from behind the table to bend down and offer it to the woman in the wheelchair, bones too brittle and frame too thin to support her standing. I watched her strain to lift her arm to reach for the bread: needing it, longing for it, determined to have it.
And I cried.
The next night I sat in the same Good Friday service I found myself in the year prior. The music was even better, the experience even grander, the dynamics even more powerful. And yet I sat removed from it all, feeling more like a spectator than participant. I found myself again warring within myself to engage, to feel something in the midst of such beauty. but still, all I felt was an intellectual, dispassionate “appreciation” of what was before me.
I expressed these frustrations to some friends of mine over tea after the service. I explained that I’m still a relative novice to this whole “liturgy” and “church calendar” thing, having been raised a Southern Baptist and only discovering church tradition a couple of years ago. And just like with anything, the various “firsts” were exciting and dynamic.
My first Ash Wednesday service, to this day, still holds the title for the most “charismatic” experience of my life. Lent has been some of the most fruitful times of writing, growth, and reflection I’ve ever had. This past Advent was the first I took seriously, and it led me to such exciting moments with my Lord (and this blog). The Good Friday service I went to last year was one of the highlights of my entire year. I went to the same one this year, and it didn’t move me like it did then.
How do I relate to these moments as I start doing them regularly and building the rhythm of my years around these Holy Times? Am I to look out for moments of meeting with God? Am I merely to trust he’s there as I engage with them, hoping they’re changing me somehow? Is it even about “change” or “growth” or “meeting God” in the first place, or something else altogether? Sure, Lent #1 and #2 were amazing, but what about this Lent #3? What about when I get to Lent #30?
“You take communion every week at your church, right?”, asked Austin.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well that’s a Sacred Act in Sacred Time that you have to do repeatedly over and over again. How do you relate to that?”, he humbly and rhetorically asked.
My mind went to the woman in the wheelchair on Thursday. And the voices. And their faces: worn by trial, with God’s severe, yet loving hand carving holiness into them with every wrinkle and blemish.
And I realized this was the answer.
That Maundy Thursday service may have been the 50th one for some of the people in the room. Yet they were still there, singing, listening, reading, and reaching for the communion bread as if it held all that God could offer them–as if it were spiritual food. I had felt so small in their presence–like I was an atheist in my faith, relative to theirs.
And yet they were still there as “needy” people. In a sense, their “bigness” to me came from their “smallness”; their seemingly constant acknowledgment of their need for Christ at every turn, perhaps for as many as 80 years for some of them. And this acknowledgement was one they carried in their bodies, in the rhythms and cadence of their steps, not in their words or charisma. They are truly living it. This isn’t just “cool” or “neat” to them. This is life. It is breath.
My hope in my Holy Day apathy is the same I have for communion: it’s not about me or change or experience or even feeling closeness with God. It’s about becoming like these saints. It’s about weaving these constant reminders of my need for him into my life and week and year. It’s about grinding to dust the vestiges of wanting to be a “cool” Christian, so this all might “merely” become like breath to me. It’s about learning to trust that he is who he says he is and that he is there no matter my intellectual clarity, emotional engagement, or level of willful obedience in that moment.
It’s about messily stumbling into a rhythm and cadence that whispers through my steps I need him. I need him. I need him. I need him. I need him.
Because, at the end of the day, the week, the year, and my life, I do.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
[image credit: “Melancholy” by Edvard Munch]