Holy Week as Gift

“it’s my first Holy Week as a pastor,” I find myself saying several times a day. My first Holy Week as a pastor, and I feel great.

When I was a kid, I don’t remember Holy Week meaning that much to me, except that we went to church a couple extra times and we had to go shopping for fancy, uncomfortable Easter dresses as Belk or Macy’s.
In seminary, though, it took on a different meaning. There are no classes on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Exams and papers and Hebrew worksheets and parsing all took a backseat as the community, together, gazed backward in time.

That’s what Holy Week is, right? The whole world of the faithful craning their necks around, allowing their chins to drop and their lips and fingers and frantic minds to stop moving for a little while– a little while as we witness, once again, something that could never happen, something fundamentally, physically, intrinsically impossible: the death of God.

We walk behind Him on the cloaks and palm branches, hoping our worship is as good as the children’s, and knowing it’s not. We press our ears to the door and listen as Jesus offers the disciples His body and blood at the Passover meal. We stand with Peter, wide-eyed and ducked-headed, watching the judgments roll down and hearing our denial roll out of our own mouths. We sit with Mother Mary, as she hears the news; we follow her anguished footsteps as she ascends Golgotha. We kneel with John, trying to support her weight as she collapses before her dying son, the dying Son.

Holy Week is the worst week of the year. It is a remembrance of the worst event in human history. It drains you, it causes you to weep, it nearly kills you, if you’re doing it right. And it is beautiful, and wonderful, and a time of great praise to the God who accomplished the impossible- not for His own satisfaction, but for ours.

Sometimes when I tell other pastors of my love for Holy Week, they give me a look like a fourth year PhD student gives a first-year… The look that says, “Oh innocent one, you are so naive. This thing will eat your life and you will come to hate it.”

Sometimes they even say it: “Enjoy it while you can; soon you’ll dread it.”

This, I think, has two possible effects on the impressionable young pastor who hears it:
1) They may becme discouraged. This is the legacy of many seasoned pastors, and I rebuke you for it. Do not discourage those whom God has encouraged. It is sin, it is evil, it is anathema.

2) It has the effect of making me feel very small, very embarrassed, very childish. Remember when you were a kid and you made those stilts out of old tin cans and string? You were only about 5 inches off the ground but you felt like a real stilt-walker, especially when you fell off and the fall was so far!

When you tell me, with your tone or your words, that my youthful idealism, my childlike naïveté, is silly, you make me feel like a kid on tin cans. You make me feel like a greek pledge who is being hazed. You make me feel, essentially, as though my calling was not to be me– for who I am is energetic and joyful and awestruck– but to be something else altogether, something that is killing the church– something jaded and gray and stuck on a hampster wheel.

For a church so often associated with ecstatic experiences and emotional witnesses, we Protestants sure have gotten stoic and dry, bland like white rice and toast. When did we become afraid to lift our palm branches high, to weep in the dark for hours after the Good Friday service has ended? How can we reclaim our roots– reclaim the emotion around Holy Week, the pain and the anguish that comes with watching God, the God whom we supposedly love, die? And, with that, reclaim the overwhelming thankfulness and joy that this God who, to the world, is supposedly still dead, is quite alive and quite in love with me and you?

Friends, go to Jerusalem with Him. Stand with Peter and sit with Mary; they are far better company, even in his betrayal and their grief, than the passionless onlookers today who would have you be as cold as they are. This Holy Week, choose not to be an onlooker but a participant, taking the time to prepare the tomb for Christ, for the Resurrection is fast approaching!

Thanks be to God!

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Where the Abbey Meets the Sanctuary: A Call to Authentic Worship Among Clergy

It’s 3 am and my alarm is going off.  Well, it’s not my alarm; I guess it’s a monk’s alarm.  I am in the tiniest, lumpiest twin bed ever built.  Mary and baby Jesus scowl and throw what could be misconstrued as gang signs down at me from a painting above my bed.  I click the lamp on to illuminate a room no bigger than a closet, containing only a desk, a chair, a night table, a wardrobe, and this bed. I want to be charmed, but it’s too early.

Ten minutes, a teeth-brushing, and a dusting of makeup (I can’t help it; even non-judgmental, celibate monks don’t deserve to see under-eye circles that dark) later, I’m following the halo of light created by my dim flashlight down a crumbling concrete drive.  I wander across a wooden footbridge, wind through a cluster of weeping yaupons and oaks, duck under some low-hanging Spanish moss, and emerge in the dark shadow of a beautiful chapel, lit from within by only a few candles.

The entrance to the chapel contains a large book which, I will discover later, is open to a page containing a single quote from Thomas Merton:

“Let there always be quiet, dark churches
in which people can take refuge…
Houses of God, filled with His silent presence.
There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least
they can be still and breathe easily.”

I curse the clacking of my hard-soled shoes and tiptoe to the stall to which Brother Paul directs me.  I am surrounded by the monks, looking half-asleep and swaying ever so slightly in their own stalls (these are seats, separated by wooden panels, which fold up and down to let you stand and sit alternately during worship).

The monks begin to pray, to sing, to chant.  Sometimes an individual reads Scripture or a quote from Chrysostom or Benedict, but largely they chant the Psalms back and forth to one another, accompanied by an acoustic guitar played most often by Brother Theophilus.

I am, I’m afraid, utterly lost.  There are a number of open prayer, Psalm, and song books open in front of me, obviously set there in anticipation of a visitor such as myself, but I search in vain to find which one we’re praying, chanting, or singing from.  Brother Paul, serene and kind with a ring of white hair around his largely bald head, hands clasped calmly behind his back, glides over to me.  He turns a page in my book and points to the correct line.  I smile gratefully at him, but he has already turned back to return to his stall.

***

I left Mepkin Abbey with the strange idea that this is how worship should be: A group of people who have devoted their lives to the worship of God praying and singing together. I am blessed that they allow visitors and that Br Paul was willing to help me (for over the course of my stay I continued to need near-constant help).

But what I got out of that experience was this: If no visitors were there, worship would still happen.

It’s sort of like a tree falling in a forest: If no one is there to see the monks pray, do the monks still pray? Yes, because they have given their lives to the worship of God.  This morning, January 22nd, at 3:20 AM, the monks scurried from their beds through the cold night air and gathered in the chapel to pray, chant, and sing.
There may have been other worshipers there and there may not have been.
The monks continue in their worship all the same.

Sometimes I lament the great importance we put on the number of people in worship.
Sometimes I lament the great disparity in our worship between the percentage of words spoken directed at human beings and the percentage of words spoken that are directed at God.
We as clergy spend so much time greeting the congregation, making announcements, pronouncing forgiveness of sins, announcing hymns, and giving stage directions on when to stand, sit, turn and greet one another, etc.
And don’t even get me started on preaching: It could be argued that, in the sermon, the greatest chunk of the service (and the one to which most churchgoers ascribe the highest value) has nothing much to do with worshiping God, but only with one human being talking to other human beings about God.  …which is good, but is it worship?  Perhaps, but… perhaps not directly.

When people talk about the old Catholic churches where the cleric speaks in Latin and faces away from the congregation, they often do so disparagingly.  “That’s so terrible and uninviting,” they say.  Perhaps.  But perhaps it is authentic.  The priest is there to worship and serve the Lord.  Why should he trifle with the people? Oh,

well, because we as clergy are not just tasked with worshiping God but also with teaching people to worship God.  We teach people how to worship, guide people in worshiping, and invite people to participate more and more fully in worship.

I think the best way to do this, though, is not through more words: It’s not giving more directions and announcements and clearer transitions and written explanations.  Those can be helpful, but those are not the most effective way of either teaching people to worship, or worshiping!

The best way to teach, guide, and invite to worship is to model worship.

When Brother Paul came over to help me find my place, that was all the invitation I needed. I was there to worship God.  I was there to experience the worship of monks and to participate in it.  I watched them and I was captivated by their devotion, their authenticity, their earnestness, and their faithfulness.  Every morning, there they were, yawning but present.

The oldest monk is in his late 90s, and he powers along on his rolling walker– he made it to all but one service in the time I was there (did I mention they have 7 service daily?).  He stood for everything that called for standing.  He helped lead Eucharist mass.  He sang every song loudly and with his voice shaking but strong.

***

What if we, as clergy, could teach by example more than by verbage? What if we could show, by our own devotion, authenticity, earnestness, and faithfulness, what worship can and ought to look like?  What if we could find a way, by modeling our own passion for worship, that we’re glad our congregation showed up– however large or small the numbers may be– but that they’re not the reason we’re there? That we’re there to worship God.  That they’re welcome to join, and we’ll help them as much as we can, but ultimately it’s not about them, or us, but about God?

What if we could find a way to tell our congregations, golly, we’re glad you’re here; but even if you weren’t, we would be doing this anyway, because we have been ordained (or commissioned, as the case may be!) to this work, to the work of worshiping God– and that means worshiping God ourselves…..?

What if?