I am a non-denom-er.
I don’t ascribe to any specific denominational doctrine.
I pick and choose. There are elements of just about every (major) Christian denomination that I like. I don’t think we need to fully fit within one.
I also don’t put much emphasis on tradition. I find that my beliefs often contradict what tradition says, and while I’m willing to engage that debate, I rarely end up siding with tradition.
But it’s Lent. And that changes things for me.
The first church I went to was Lutheran. It’s also the church I have attended longest. So it’s had a pretty significant impact on my theology.
Do I think everything within Lutheran doctrine is correct? By no means. I actually disagree with much of their doctrine.
But, Lord, I love the way they do church.
I love the adherence to the church calendar. I love the church seasons and the colors that we associate with them. I love the liturgy and the lectionary texts. I love the hymns and the LBW. And I love love love the Sacraments.
Part of it is the dependability, the regularity, the consistency of it. Part of it is the unity that comes from knowing that everyone in the building is making the same statements and prayers together, that everyone (both within the individual churches and within the denomination itself) is meditating on the same text, and that so many from years past have sung the same hymns. Part of it is the beautiful meaning of the Sacraments and how deep they cut into the human soul. There are a myriad of reasons why the way Lutherans do church resonates so deeply within me.
I’m okay, most of the time, with not having this in my life. I go to a Baptist school and a non-denom church. I’ve seen plenty of adult immersion baptisms and I’ve done communion with Welch’s and Wonderbread more times than I can count. I sing 90’s worship songs at church on Sundays and listen to a forty-five-minute-long sermon. My husband (who you can now find here) grew up Baptist-Covenant, so he’s not big on anything that has to do with liturgical churches, and I’m okay sacrificing that for him. I can deal without Lutheranism for forty-five weeks out of the year.
But…Lent is different.
I’ve learned that many non-liturgical churches (and their members) don’t really do Lent, or they do it in a very different (and almost unrecognizable to me) way than liturgical churches do. It’s this thing in March or so that starts by getting some ashes smudged on your face and you give something up for forty (or forty-six, because many don’t realize that you’re supposed to break your fast on Sundays) days. Then you go to Easter service and everything’s good and not weird again. Which is fine, I’m not bashing that. There is nothing in the Bible that says you have to celebrate Lent.
But it’s not fine for me.
Christmas, Easter, they’ve been taken over by capitalism and pop culture. I know Jews who celebrate Christmas because, why the hell not, everyone else does. Lent is different. It’s still ours. It’s precious. It’s beautiful. It is mournful and solemn but it pushes towards the joy we know is coming. It moves us to rethink ourselves and our actions and commit ourselves yet again to Jesus, to prepare ourselves for this coming joy. It requires us to walk in the steps of his pain, but it also sets us free to rejoice with him on Easter morn. It is the most stunning example of how we ought to live as followers of Christ that I’ve ever found in the Church.
And we do this every year. For six and a half weeks. Beautiful.
Two days ago, I (and my husband, reluctantly) went to Ash Wednesday service at a Lutheran church in our neighborhood. We sang hymns out of the LBW. We listened to the (classic twelve-minute-long) sermon. We took communion of kosher wine and unleavened bread. We prayed the confession. We received the ashes. It was wonderful.
I recall, as the pastor was reciting the Words of Institution (for Holy Communion, for all you non-liturgical types), I was mouthing along with her. I watched as every person spoke the Lord’s Prayer together. I saw everyone bow their heads and offer their empty hands up to receive the elements. And, for the first time in far too long, I received Holy Communion. And it meant something.
Lent, at that moment, renewed its grasp on my heart.
Because I was reminded that this Communion was not simply something done to unite my brothers and sisters and I. I was reminded that I am being invited to a table, not only with all these people, but with Christ. I, who am not worthy, was offered an outstretched hand and the simple invitation of “Come, the table is prepared, all are welcome.” I was reminded that this bread and wine is not just bread and wine, it is the manifestation of the body broken for me and the blood shed for me on the Cross that we are walking towards in this season.
Broken. Unworthy. Sinful. Invited anyway.
But first, we must walk. Forty (forty-six) days in the valley of the shadow of death. My sins. Seeing every ugly detail thrust out into the open like that. Still, we must walk. At the end of this valley lies a hill with a Cross atop it. We must make it that far. The further we go, the more I look back. I want to return. I want to stop walking. I begin to limp. Soon, my legs give out. I can’t do this anymore. No matter. I will be carried there if by no other means. Laid at the foot of the Cross. You who carried me here are now nailed to it. Your body is broken before me and your blood runs over me. I lift up my hands to give something, anything, to stop your pain. Hush, child. Now is not your time to give. You must receive. I don’t understand, I am the wrongdoer. Before you can explain, your last breath escapes. I cry out in mourning. If it is all I can do for you now, I lay you in your grave. I weep. I come back two days later to find your grave opened. I don’t understand, I don’t know why. I ask the first person I see, the gardener, if he knows what happened. He turns and his face is yours. I don’t understand. Joy fills my heart and I am ready to dismiss the last six weeks as a dream. You tell me no, I can’t. I must always remember that journey. Without it, we would not be here. This joy is a product of that pain. But rejoice, child, for the pain is now over; the journey is complete.
Come. The table is prepared, all are welcome.