More than 750 Christians from First Methodist, First Baptist, First Presbyterian, and GCR Church of Christ gathered at First Methodist last night for a combined Ash Wednesday service to start the traditional 40 days of Lent. Steve, Steve, Darin, and I have been having monthly lunches together for a while now at which we pray for and encourage one another in our ministries. But last night was the first time our four churches had worshiped together in the same room at the same time. And I don’t think it’ll be the last.
The room was maxed out – we were packed into those pews like sardines, the balcony was full, and there were a couple of dozen people standing in the foyer. We combined our worship teams and choirs and Beth led them in a goose-bump inducing performance of “And Can It Be” to start the evening. It was mind-blowingly good. It was great! Everybody in that combined choir was having a really good time singing together and it was obvious. If those musicians and singers have anything to do with it, there will be another time.
I was honored by my friend Steve Brooks to greet the congregation and offer some words of welcome and purpose before leading the church in our Lord’s Prayer. And I was incredibly nervous. Much more nervous than I thought I would be. Of course, my mind was taking me back to that first “4 Amarillo” service we did at First Baptist in 2013. Sitting on that stage last night, looking at all the Christians from the different denominations sitting so closely together and singing and praying together to our one God, I was overcome with gratitude. How is it that I get to be a part of something like this? Again! Only by God’s grace.
I made a couple of weak jokes about our differences, making sure we CofC’ers were the punch line, and then attempted to point out how coming together like this is living right in the middle of our God’s divine will. I used a lot of what I wrote in this space yesterday to encourage the gathering. But I didn’t need to. There was a buzz and a holy energy in that place last night that no one but God’s Spirit can generate. It was sacred. It was holy. And everybody knew it. At the end of my remarks, I said, “May this not be the last time we do this.”
It took eight of us to impose the ashes on that extra large crowd – all four of us senior pastors and one other pastor from each church. Ryan, our Connections Minister at GCR, applied the ashes with us. We talked over the phone together on the way home about the impact of that moment. Realizing that you are acting as pastor and priest, you are a conduit of God’s blessings to his people, you are reciting the ancient words of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaiming the truth of our mortality and our need to repent and believe the Good News, looking all these people in the eye, one at a time, touching their foreheads, young children being carried by their parents and older folks shuffling to the altar, people you worship and serve with at GCR every week for years and people you’ve never met or seen, blessing them with eternal words – it’s too much. Who am I, Lord, that you allow me to do this? Ryan confessed that he choked up when imposing the ashes on their young daughter, Lucy. I told him how different it was saying those words, “From dust you were created by God, and to dust you shall return,” to my wife, Carrie-Anne. Who has cancer. Who goes in for a fourth round of chemotherapy tomorrow. Very different. The tears in my eyes welled up in a completely different way.
The evening ended with a congregational singing of “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” Seriously. And it was awesome. Michael Humphries texted me early this morning: “When they broke out that hymn to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” I leaned over to my wife, Wendy, and said, “I think I might be a Methodist.”
My heart is full this morning. What a privilege to lead and serve at such a beautiful event. I feel so honored to be in a partnership with these good brothers and sisters at these four great churches. It is an undeserved grace from God. As soon as it was over, of course, I was inundated with requests to do something again soon and to go bigger. We need to do something at the convention center. We need to do something at the football stadium. We need to get ten thousand people together to worship.
No, we need to follow the Lord. He’s doing this. He started this. We’re not going to get in front of him on this. Let’s be patient. And let’s be thankful.
I was reminded many times last night that most people in the Churches of Christ do not get to experience the blessings of the unity of God’s Church the way we do. They don’t get to worship with other Christians from other traditions. They don’t get to see or feel all the many facets of the Lord’s Body like we do. We should be thankful. We should never take it for granted.
One older man, a member at First Methodist, grabbed me after the service and said, “I made sure to come to you for the ashes because I wanted to tell all my friends tomorrow that I received the ashes from a Church of Christ preacher!”
We should be thankful. We should never take it for granted. And this can’t be the last time.