Putting the wraps on our first GCR – First Pres Ash Wednesday service last week at First Presbyterian Church in Midland. I didn’t know if we’d get a dozen people to show up or maybe thirty or forty. I didn’t know if our folks would be really blessed by participating in something so foreign to our typical Church of Christ service or if they’d be turned off. I didn’t know if this was going to be a one-time thing for us as two churches worshiping and serving God as the unified Body of Christ or the first of many cooperative events and ecumenical times of worship to come. We do understand that breaking down the walls between our Christian denominations and coming together as his people is fully within our God’s will. And we did ask God to be with us as we took this step together. So why are we surprised that it was such a glorious, life-changing, soul-filling experience?
Corporate confession is not something we normally do in Churches of Christ – we never do it. But this Ash Wednesday service reminded us that regular confession and repentance and absolution of sins is good for us. And necessary. Responding aloud to the Word of God being read – it’s formative. Observing the Christian calendar and preparing for Easter Sunday in fasting and prayer in unison with disciples of Christ all over the world – it’s powerful.
Now, about the ashes. I’ve been told that my line was moving much slower than Steve Schorr’s line. You see, that was the first time I had ever imposed the ashes. I’ve participated in seven or eight Ash Wednesday services in the past and always received the ashes but, until last Wednesday, I had never been on the other end. So, yeah, cut me some slack. There’s an ashes-to-forehead distribution process to work through. The first few parishioners I received walked away with very, very dark crosses on their foreheads; they’re probably still trying to scrub them away today. The next few each required a couple of takes because I didn’t get enough ashes on my thumb. It’s not as easy as it looks! Also, I wanted to use the phrase, “Repent and believe the Good News” instead of “From ashes you were created and to ashes you will return.” It just feels more like an invitation and more like the Gospel to say the first phrase, more of a blessing. But First Pres uses the “ashes” phrase. And they’re the experts. So I used both. To each worshiper, I applied the cross with, “From ashes you were created by God and to ashes you will return; repent and believe the Good News!” That seems more appropriate. It also slows down your line.
Plus, when members of my own GCR family approached, I wanted to call them by name. I wanted to bless them personally. Acting as a pastor and priest in that moment, I wanted to connect them by name to the truth of their own lives and to the truth of what God has done and is doing for them through Jesus. It was a very powerful experience for me to be a conduit of God’s truth and blessing in that very different way. And it slowed down my line a little.
We had as many Church of Christ’ers there as they had Presbyterians. I have not stopped receiving emails and texts from GCR folks who are so thankful for the way God spoke to them Wednesday night in somebody else’s church. And it was definitely not a one-time thing. Steve leaned over toward me before the service was even over – we were singing the next-to-last song before the benediction – and said, “What are we doing next?”
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