The Annual Imposition of Ashes & Scourging

There’s a clergy associate of mine who leaves me in stitches practically every time I’m around him. He’s from a liturgical denomination and says everything with a very staid and serious tone, which makes him all the more humorous.

Recently, we were talking about the Lenten season beginning with the rite of ashes (Ash Wednesday) followed by several weeks of prayer, fasting, and introspection. He glibly called it the “Annual Imposition of Ashes and Scourging.” That nomenclature cracked me up.

In the more liturgical, High-Church denominations, Ash Wednesday is a huge deal (as you probably know). In many other traditions, it’s either optional or viewed with downright skepticism.

“Will it add one hour to your life?”

Lent is one of those liturgical seasons that many Christians would just as soon ignore (and often do). After all, why submit yourself to ashes and scourging (so to speak). Will it add one hour to your life? According to Jesus, it will not.

So why do we even observe Lent the way we do? This is an appropriate question in light of Scripture and our current practices (or non-practices).

To answer it with any kind of legitimacy, we should probably take a leisurely stroll down Liturgical Lane (I just made that up—I’m so proud of myself).

The so-called liturgical calendar begins in late November or early December each year. It’s a one-year cycle that ostensibly takes us through a historical remembrance of the life of Jesus. Its first season is that of Advent, which consists of the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It’s called Advent, because it’s a time of expectant waiting and preparation as we approach the birth of the Savior. Some folks celebrate it. Others endure it.

The one everyone seems to enjoy is the next one, which we call Christmastide (also the name of one of my favorite Christmas albums by Bob Bennett). Celebrating the Savior’s birth is something we all seem to relish—for one reason or another. Then we move into what many feel is a downhill slide into obscurity.

Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Kingdomtide follow on the heels of Christmas. Although we make a big deal of Easter Sunday, every day is Resurrection Day for Christians. Plus, a lot of folks dislike the very term, Easter. It comes from pagan origins, so it can actually leave a bad taste in at least a few mouths.

Even the Pentecostals Don’t Celebrate

Pentecost should actually be one of our big celebrations. It is, after all, the birthday of the church. When the Holy Spirit shows up in a huge way, it should be recognized. Unfortunately, it often slides by without so much as a whimper. Even the Pentecostals among us don’t seem to revel in its power and significance.

Then the long season of Kingdomtide rolls in. It’s designated as the time for equipping disciples. It’s so ignored that many Christian groups simply call it “Ordinary Time.”

Maybe we could beef all this up by renaming our seasons. The Annual Imposition of Ashes and Scourging might be a good start.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

Safe on that Far Shore

I recently heard of the passing of a dear friend. In my immediate sadness, I began thinking about the fact that she is now “safe on that far shore.” That euphemism is, of course, one of those comforting phrases we Christians have used since before I can remember. It expresses the belief that, one-day, we will “cross the Jordan” to be present with the Lord (another popular euphemism).

Betty’s death is a little different for me than many others whom I have known and lost. She was not elderly, nor even my age. She was, in fact, a part of a youth group I helped disciple during my early days in ministry. It was a formative season for many of us, and Betty’s distinguishable smile and dedication buoyed us during times that were not always the best and easiest. When her brother, Dave, “passed” at the age of twenty, she was a rock—and I mean that in the best possible sense.

“I was too inexperienced to realize…”

Coming from a stalwart Christian home, the depth of her spiritual maturity was incredibly well beyond her years. She had a steadiness that I will always admire. Looking back, it was a quality that I appreciate even more now than I did then (some forty years ago). At the time, I was too inexperienced to realize that people like her don’t come along all that often.

When we lose people such as her, we don’t like to say they’ve died. We use other terms—she’s asleep in the Lord; they’re in the sweet by-and-by; he’s in a better place. These are all little reminders of what Billy Graham once said about his own eventual demise. “I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address.”

One of my favorite singer/songwriters is a guy by the name of Steve Winwood. He once wrote a song that was, to a large extent, overlooked. It was one of those “deep cuts” on an album that contained other, more popular tunes. The composition was called “Other Shore.” The second verse and chorus said this:

On a new tomorrow cooling breeze shows a star
There can be so much sorrow, when you’ve traveled from afar
But there’s nothing that can harm you when the night’s closing in
In the bright lit heavens above us, you know we’ll meet there again

And sometimes the other shore is so far away
And that darker river’s edge is too far away
And across the waterline is far away

Right now, the distance between me and those who have already gone home seems incredibly remote. It’s a journey that I’m not all that excited to take, but one that is inevitable. I also know, deep in my heart, that it’s one worth taking.

Betty Schogren has joined the rest of her immediate family on that beautiful shore. I can’t even imagine what it must be like. All her trials are over.

You are deeply missed, young lady. Hope to see you soon.

You Pick the Line

When my lovely Bride and I go shopping together, we use a system. The technique works like this. I pick up the products, and she chooses the checkout line. We’ve developed his over a twenty-year trial period.

What we discovered over that time was this. Many times, my spouse would grab an item from a shelf, and when we arrived at the counter, there was no price tag on it. I’m guessing that’s because she doesn’t care what things cost.

On the other end of the routine, I can’t ever seem to choose the best checkout line. There could be one person in one line and four in the next. Naturally, I would choose the line that placed only one guy ahead of us. In the meantime, the other four would breeze through while we stood for an hour as the one person ahead of us was getting painstakingly processed.

More Aware of Her Surroundings

My wife, for whatever reason, has the knack of picking out the swiftest line. I think it’s because she’s far more aware of her surroundings than I (at least, that’s what she keeps telling me—and she’s probably right).

So, at some point, I said, “From now on, how about I pick the product, and you pick the line.” She quickly agreed, and thus we have a system. Astoundingly enough, it seems to work like a charm. Our efficiency rating is astounding.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that things work best when everyone involved in any pursuit does what they do best. Different folks have various talents, gifts and abilities. It’s only common sense that we should tap into their strong suits. Often, however, that’s not what happens.

The 80/20 Rule

Did you ever hear of the 80/20 rule? I’m guessing you have. But just in case you haven’t, it goes something like this. Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people. If that’s true (and it often seems that way), that means we are way less efficient than we could be.

The church is no exception to this. What’s worse, there’s no excuse for it. The Scriptures are pretty clear. The Body of Christ is full of people who have been gifted by the Holy Spirit of God to do the work of the Lord here on earth. If the saints of the church are gifted as the Bible indicates (and I believe they are), we are, in many cases, derailing the God’s will for our congregations. Twenty percent of our congregants are doing eighty percent of the ministry.

There’s a reason we’re called the Body of Christ. I’ve noticed a few simple facts about my own, physical body over the years. When I overuse one part of my body (let’s take the feet, for example), I get blisters, cramps, and soreness. The Apostle Paul was quite clear about each part of the body doing its job—carrying out the function it was prepared to do.

Are you shouldering your part of the load?

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]