Last night, I entered Zion Methodist Church in Grand Forks, ND, just in time to find a bathroom before the service started. As a seasoned pastor’s wife, I knew exactly where to go to find an empty restroom – down the stairs and to the left is the typical floor plan. I swiftly found the door, switched on the light, and closed the stall door in front of me. I went through the motions that need not be described and started falling toward the toilet seat to take care of business and get back upstairs in time for the service.
Rewind a bit: fall I did.
It turns out that I had found the nursery restroom, and the toilet seats are toddler height. I know: those who have met me in person are thinking, “That’s perfect!” However, let me just tell you all that, though the height may have been perfect, I was not prepared for it.
I had started my march toward that moment on Tuesday evening when I saw Facebook posts of our University of Mary students partying like it was 1987 for Mardi Gras – make your own masks and all. I have been awake odd hours this week, so I have had extra quiet and alone time this week to ruminate (isn’t that a great word) about how I planned to engage with Lent this year.
I grew up attending Mendenhall Presbyterian Church in East Grand Forks, MN. After spending the first two and half years of my life being a world traveler, I spent the next 15 years in one spot. When my mom and biological father (Air Force – hence, the world traveling) divorced, my mom had returned to the Red River Valley. As a single mom in the late 1970s, she was fortunate to find a church who welcomed her (and her organ-playing skills) with open arms. When she married Rick in 1979, the church rejoiced with her.
I had no idea what liturgy was as a child.
In fact, it was not until I started to attend Grace Baptist Church that I realized some churches had a very similar liturgy (Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians) while others had their own vein of liturgy. Those with their own veins of liturgy often attempt to claim they are without liturgy; however, once I realized what liturgy was, it became clear that all churches have it whether they realize it or not.
Liturgy essentially means the rhythm with which we do church. Some people would call it a service schedule, but it is more than that.
Each part of the service has a theological significance, and the liturgy of a church can reveal its theology. Even the location of the podium in relation to the altar/communion table reveals part of the specific church’s liturgy. For example, in the Baptist tradition, the Word of God and its interpretation (the sermon) are central to the service. The podium from which the pastor preaches the sermon would typically be in the center of the stage. In contrast, for a Catholic tradition, the Eucharist (communion) is central which is why the podium remains off to the side with the altar in the center.
Some traditions have written liturgies – there are books that describe the rhythm of the church service during different parts of the year. More liturgical Baptists like the church my children (Baylor students) attend in Texas hand you the liturgy of the day as a packet on your way into the service. This is quite a switch from the announcement-laden bulletin that we have at our Baptist church in Bismarck. It has empty blanks for the sermon notes, but that is all of the hint you get about the order of service.
In the Baptist tradition that I have lived for the past 26 years, the liturgical calendar has two basic high points – Easter and Christmas. While we may talk of Advent and Lent, they are not emphasized. What a contrast to the Catholic lives with whom we interact at the University of Mary. We live within sight of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, and even the parking lot knows its liturgical calendar.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. As the day approached, I had felt a pull toward the liturgical side of this day. Had I grown up in the churches I have attended in later years, I might not even know what Ash Wednesday was.
If I had been in Bismarck this week, I could have attended the large mass on campus. I read somewhere that Ash Wednesday is the second most highly attended mass in the Catholic tradition.
I consulted my Facebook friends who live in Grand Forks as to time and information about their Ash Wednesday services but ultimately had to make a decision based on the nicest website. I guess that is what people who work for online high schools do – choose your life based on what people say they are about.
As I walked to my car after the service, I started to rate it in my mind. After a few critical moments, I had to remind myself that Ash Wednesday has little to do with the church I attend and much more to do with God whom I went to worship and His impact in my life. The point was not for the church to create some moving experience through the service. Instead, the stillness, the lack of glitz, and the near somber attitude of those leading was liturgy.
Lent is not about entertaining me. Rather, lent is about preparing my mind and heart to remember that all of this world’s sinfulness was placed on the body of a man who was also God, who would suffer in mysterious ways for that sin, and who brings redemption to us because of His conquering resurrection.
As the pastor described that he had prepared the ashes for last evening by burning the palm branches used in last year’s Palm Sunday service, I was moved. As another pastor read Psalm 51 aloud, I was moved. As the small group who had gathered to worship together sang songs that directed our minds to the saving work that Christ did on the cross, I was moved.
Being moved did not come from anything that they did but rather what I did in obedience to worship, remember, and consider.
It turned out that my junior math teacher attended the same service with her husband. We sat together, sang together, went up for our ashes together, and connected briefly afterwards. As I drove away from the church service, I thought again at the unity we have with others who believe in the uniqueness of Christ.
Because of that unity, I could walk into almost any church in almost any town in almost any country around the world and worship. The world will know God’s love through Christ when we come together and worship in love.