Tag Archives: Lent

Defending Rituals

A friend tipped me off to an interesting interview with Alain de Botton regarding his new book Religion for Atheists. I have not read it yet, so I can’t offer a review. However, I was intrigued by Botton’s defense of rituals. He says,

The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too. This was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves

Rituals fill this part of the church’s calendar. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, continuing through Holy Week, and concluding with Easter, the ancient rituals of the church command our attention and invite us to a deep encounter with God.

Reintroducing Me to My Father (and vice versa)

Last night I got a gift on my way to bed. My father sent me a rough draft of the piece he wrote for the lent meditation on Wednesday. I wasn’t expecting him to send it to me in advance but after reading it, I’m glad he did.

Each week the two of us will share public readings of essays about a particular place, person, or episode from our common past. We will tell the story in our own words and from our own perspective. The only thing we share is that we are both witnesses. I’m not sure what will come of this experimental form of storytelling but I trust that it will be good. Like many immigrants who learned English as a second language, he writes beautifully. The public reading will be enhanced by a thick Ethiopian accent that manages to make the trite seem important, and the important seem wise, and the wise seem like God is talking to you.

Like our names – my middle name is my father’s first name – our stories can’t be told apart from each other. Yet, they are not identical. In the sublime occasions our memories filed away as insignificant for so long, the richness of our bond and its capacity to transform us now is realized.

Writing essays about yourself is autobiographical. Inviting people to pay $7 for lunch while you read them out loud is slightly narcissistic. The stories are resurrected from our dusty archives. Why would we think they might interest you? They will because the uniqueness of the details cannot overwhelm the universal truth that stands behind them. Trust me, our story is bizarre. But when retold, it is compelled forward by the hope inherent to the resurrection – what appeared to be lost, small, forgotten, poor, and confined to the past is redeemed and now has the propensity to offer life in the present. Can you recognize your story in that? 


Teeny Tiny Concerts and Ash Wednesday Worship

At Downtown Church our ideas typically outnumber our resources at a rate of 10/1. For example, with one full time videographer we could make 10 videos each week. Or if we had one trailer to store our worship equipment we’d deploy a 10 piece platform to use each Sunday. You get the idea.

But sometimes, our lack of resources leads to alternatives that are more interesting, creative, and faithful. Our Ash Wednesday plans are an example. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season preceding Easter. The imposition of ashes – black ash on your forehead in the form of a cross –  is the highlight of a typical Ash Wednesday service. The ritual is standard in Catholic churches but is now commonly practiced in other churches as well. Normally, the service would be held in a sanctuary at night. However, we don’t have our own space and 701 Whaley, where we worship on Sundays, is booked that night. Not having space should have stopped our planning immediately, but it didn’t.

We do have some space downtown that is ours but it can only accommodate 25-30 people comfortably. Even if half our average weekly worshippers skipped out on Ash Wednesday, we’d still either break a fire code or have to turn people away. Neither option was appealing. So we determined that instead of one service, we’d have three small, intimate services and include a concert featuring a trio of our musicians. In this case, our lack of space was transformed from a disadvantage to the defining feature of the evening. It’s almost as if we planned it that way.

If it goes well we might continue the series of teeny tiny concerts in the future.