Thursday, February 11, 2010

Anniversary Love Letter: To Sue on Our Twenty-Seventh

FEBRUARY 11, 2010 4:38PM published first in Open Salon

To my loving and lovely wife:

Look at that smiling young couple. Remember them? It was February 12, 1983. Suzie, our parish priest, had just pronounced us man and wife and we after we greeted everyone we ran to the back of Emmanuel Episcopal into the steeple close to ring the church bell. I picked you up and held you while this picture was taken. Remember how after I pulled down the rope you grabbed it and it lifted you high off your feet? We got a big laugh out of that.

Remember how Earl got so drunk that he knocked the silverware off the stand in the serving line at the reception; yet he could write such a beautiful toast to us on the back of that napkin? We kept that scribbled napkin. And Leslie did it in calligraphy. It hangs on the wall still.

"We wish you peace and health.
We wish you opportunity and success.
We wish you understanding of yourselves and each other.
We wish you understanding that people change and you will change.
We wish you understanding of the difference between loving each other and liking each other.
Loving each other makes marriages happen.
Liking each other makes marriages work.
We wish you freedom of spirit, harmony with God's eternal plan
And, mutual respect, in what you believe and in what you do.
We wish you love and happiness - always."

Remember the hurried drive from St. Louis to Carbondale to catch the train to New Orleans, the sleeper car? the cocktails and my arriving hung over? Mardi Gras and the wonderful food, Bourbon Street, begneits at Cafe du Monde?

Take a closer look at that young couple.


Funny thing. I can't quite recognize the young man. He is growing old, and is a bit crippled by medical problems that have no solution, pains that deepen the lines in his brow. He is fatter. His hair is silver, wavy and long, down to his shoulders. He wears a beard. But if I look deeply into the young man's eyes I see that same glow of love I see in the eyes of the fellow in the mirror after I wake. That same glow I see in his eyes lights my life today when I think of the woman the young man married.

The lovely, smiling young woman I recognize. I see her every day when she comes home from work, still lovely, still in love, still glad she took a chance and married an "older man." You were 27 and I was 43.

Remember how so many people counseled us that it "wouldn't work," "couldn't last," that we "came from different religious backgrounds," you Catholic, me Protestant? Even Susie worried that we might not make it when we were doing our Pre-Cana marriage counseling.

Well, here we are. And the same 16 years still separate our ages. But nothing separates our love. I am less physically able to do thing now, things we love to do together. You know how I hate that. But we knew it would come someday, and we knew that we would learn to accept it as it comes. We knew we would adapt. And we are, although I am often stubborn and reluctant in my acceptance.

But I told you long ago that I would not go gently into old age. I am keeping that promise. I will do what I can as long as I can. We will ride our motorcycles together and enjoy exploring this beautiful world together as long as I can still get a leg over the saddle. And when I can't do that we'll get scooters!

And so I look forward, still as anxious as I was 27 years ago, to see you come in the door, to know that we will be together. I know that I love you with all my heart and soul and life. And I know that you feel the same way about me. I sometimes question how you still can, but I know that you do.

Paul wrote: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." He followed that by saying, "Love never ends."

You, my darling Sue, are the love I never thought I could have, the joy of my life I never thought I deserved. You are my heart, my soul, my breath, my life. Not "until death do us part," but forever.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Ash Wednesday: What is it?

NOTE: This educational essay was orignially published here on Open Salon, FEBRUARY 20, 2009. It is part of my Christian Calendar Series. This is an edited version for 2010.

Christian liturgy, ritual and most of Christian theology change little from year to year. The reason for the Christian Calendar is to encourage Christians to rehearse, ponder and reflect on, year after year, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, so that His life becomes part and parcel of our family history.

The story of Christ changes little, but we, His disciple, change and grow, become ill, or face death, our own or a loved one's, and in so doing we come each year to view the events of Christ and the traditons of His Church through different eyes, and we may see different, perhaps deeper meaning in God's message to us. Hopefully, what I write in this series will have a certain timelessness, updated slightly each year to improve clarity and thereby open more deeply our understanding of aspects of the events celebrated during the Christian Year.
Ash Wednesday: What is it?

This year the movable Holy Day known as Ash Wednesday is February 17. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Season of Lent. Protestant Christians often don't know much about Ash Wednesday. Some know its the day that Catholics get that smudge on their foreheads. But, increasingly, in Protestant denominations, ashes are imposed.
A few know that we get the smudge as a reminder that we are all mortal and will die. That is true. But how does that fit into Christian faith? This post hopes to help us figure that out. This post is not a "Reflection." It essentially offers a teaching moment to remove some of the mystery from Ash Wednesday.

For those who do not understand the symbolic importance of ritual and liturgy in worship, most of what is written from here on may seem odd; so I invite you to learn something with a positive and tolerant attitude, or to just avoid this post and move on to something you do enjoy.

There is something about Ash Wednesday that people tend to shy away from. In fact, in America the beginning of Lent is upstaged by the day before: Fat Tuesday. Never heard of Fat Tuesday? Try it in French: Mardi Gras. Ah! Of course!
Mardi Gras arose as a big party for all those folks who were getting ready to give up Starbucks, or any of a multitude of things they like, and eat fish on Fridays, and other types of fasting, all as a proof that we can give up worldly things, show repentance, and return to God during Lent. And, generally, it is true that Mardi Gras is a whole lot more fun than Lent, and certainly a lot more fun than Ash Wednesday, particularly if you are hung over from Mardi Gras.

Let's take a look at this uniquely Christian Holy Day, this Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent, and take a bit of the mystery out of it.

First, what is it with the ashes? Biblically ashes are sometimes used in purification rites, but, much more commonly, in a rite of penitence. There are many scenes in the Bible telling of the tearing of garments and the heaping of ashes on oneself as a sign of repentance.

The ritual of the application of ashes on Ash Wednesday symbolizes this penitential recognition that we are but human and cannot live without God. This ritual has been used in the church since the tenth century.
The ashes are traditionally made from the dried palms leaves which were the fresh green palm leaves that were handed out the previous Palm Sunday. Like us, the palm leaves wither and die. That is the symbolism of using the palm leaves.
In churches I served none of them dispensed ashes on Ash Wednesday when I arrived. But they all embraced the idea once they understood the symbolism of the act. The members would save the palms that they received on the last Palm Sunday and bring them to the church on the Sunday before Lent. I would burn these palms and filter the ashes, and then mash them into a very fine powder for use in the application of ashes to the foreheads of the faithful.

After the Reformation most Protestant church denominations, while recognizing Ash Wednesday as a holy day, did not engage in the imposition of ashes. Many Anglican, Episcopal and some Lutheran churches did continue the rite, but it was mostly reserved for use in the Roman Catholic Church.
During and after the ecumenical era that resulted in the Vatican II proclamations, many of the Protestant denominations encouraged a liturgical revival in their churches and Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes was encouraged. Today the imposition of ashes in Protestant churches is generally left to the discretion of the pastors of the individual local churches.
Having come from an Episcopalian background before going to a United Church of Christ seminary, and being used to the meaningful symbolism of the imposition of ashes, in the churches I served I always had an evening Ash Wednesday service that includes offering the imposition of ashes.

Because Ash Wednesday has been so poorly understood, I decided about 15 years ago to create a liturgy for the Ash Wednesday evening service that actually explains the origin of the day and the season of Lent.
I used traditional language from Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, UCC and Roman Catholic services, redacted and edited, adding my own language to make the liturgy flow and to update some language to clarify its meaning. I also added explanatory words to the ritual. Thus, the entire service is deliberately informative of what makes it holy and why we are doing what we are doing.
It can be surprising to learn how many people go through the motions of church for years and years without knowing why they are doing what they are doing. Those folk appreciate participating in a service that tells them.
So now we will walk through an Ash Wednesday service, using my actual liturgy which is printed in the Ash Wednesday Bulletin as a guide. I will explain the meaning of various parts of the liturgy that might be unfamiliar to you.
[Comments will be in bold italics and enclosed with these parenthetical brackets.]

An Ash Wednesday Liturgy,
redacted by the Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield.

A Service of The Word and Sacrament

[an asterisk * indicates that those who are able should stand. Pastor's words are in bold.]



Pastor: Let us pray. Almighty and everlasting God, you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create in us new and contrite hearts, that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our sinfulness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Reading from the Holy Scriptures [chosen by the pastor, often is Psalm 103]

* A Hymn of the Passion [ normally a hymn about the Cross of Christ]

* Our Confession of Sin [This long pastoral invitation to Confession concisely explains the ancient history of the season of Lent, the reason for the season, and the symbolism of the imposition of ashes. In most churches this information is not printed in the bulletin.]


Dear People of God: the first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.

This season of Lent provided a time in which the converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.

Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Christ, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word,.

And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as mark of our mortal nature, to confess your sins and to receive the ashes of repentance.

Let us pray. Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that our confession and the imposition of these ashes may be to us a sign our own mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Let us now together confess our sin before God and one another.

All: Almighty God, maker of all things, judge of all people: we acknowledge and confess our manifold sins, which we from time to time have committed, in thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty. We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these, our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous to us. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful God; for the sake of our Lord, Jesus Christ, forgive us all our sins and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please you in newness of life, to the honor and glory of your Name. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

* Pastoral Assurance of Pardon

* The Imposition of Ashes

[ The assembled congregants come forward to receive ashes. Imposition of ashes is optional in all Protestant churches. It was my experience that when the reasons for and symbolism of the ashes was explained almost all came forward. Those who could not come forward because of physical limitations were taken the ashes by the Pastor.
Then I would apply the ashes, dipping my right thumb into the small bowl of ashes held in my left hand, and apply the ashes on the forehead, making the sign of the Cross with the ashes, and saying, by name, like this: "Helen, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That language is from Genesis 3: 19.]

[This is the symbolic low point in the service. At this point, powerful symbolism, in which you participate, has pointedly reminded you of your coming, inevitable death.
I have always felt that services that end with the imposition of the ashes lose all of the positive aspects of the faith. If we are merely dust to which we return when we die then the joy of the Gospel remains unspoken.

For this reason every Ash Wednesday service I have ever lead ends with Holy Eucharist: (Eucharist means "thanksgiving;" it is also called "Communion" or the "Lord's Supper".)
The Holy Eucharist is the most important sacrament of the Church. It is the recognition that Christ has offered for us His Body and Blood upon the Cross, which reconciles us with God, who promises, through our faith in Christ, total forgiveness of sin and redemption for the sake of Christ.
By the sacrament of Holy Eucharist Christians share once more in the belief that death is overcome and that eternal life is assured to the believer.
So symbolically, in this Ash Wednesday service, by the imposition of ashes we go through the valley of death, returning to dust. And from there the Eucharist lifts us up as heirs to the Kingdom of God and inheritors of eternal life. We go from the lowest low, death, to the highest high, life.
Thus the service continues with the Eucharist ]

The Eucharistic Feast,
redacted by the Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield

The Holy Eucharist - Ritual for Year A*

(Please remain standing for the beginning.
The Children may come forward.#)
[ * Ordinarily the Eucharist begins with a Confession of Sin, but that has already been done prior to the imposition of Ashes, so we begin with the introductory Praise of God. I have created four separate Eucharistic liturgies, one for each of the years recognized in the Revised Common Lectionary adopted by Protestant ecumenical partners after Vatican II.]

[ # In most Protestant churches the children do not take Communion before they go through Confirmation at about age 12. I allow Communion by any child whose parents approve. However, since most parents will not allow it, I encourage all children to come and gather around the communion table for the beginning of the Eucharist. This integrates the children into the service, instead of ignoring their presence, which I find intollerable. Jesus said, "Let the children come."]

Pastor: Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and blessed be His kingdom, now and forever. Amen. Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pastor: Lord have mercy.
People: Christ have mercy.
All: Lord, have mercy upon us. Amen.

Pastor: Jesus Christ, our Lord, on the first day of the week overcame death and the grave, and by His glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life. Therefore we praise you, Almighty Father, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name:

* All:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full, full of your glory;
Hosanna in the highest; Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes, in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest; Hosanna in the highest!
(You may all be seated.)

Pastor: Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He stretched out His arms upon the cross, and offered Himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

(Raising the bread) On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took bread; and when He had given thanks to you, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, "Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (Raising the cup) After supper He took the cup of wine; and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me."

Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of our faith:

All: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!

Pastor: We celebrate this memorial of our redemption, O Father, recalling His death, resurrection, and ascension; and we offer you these humble gifts. (Touching the bread and the wine) Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the body and blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Him. Sanctify us also, that we may faithfully receive this Holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and, at the last day, bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom. This we ask through your Son, Jesus Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

(Raising the Bread and Breaking the Bread) This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Pastor: (Raising the Cup) This is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

Pastor: Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us!

People: Therefore, let us keep the feast!

Pastor: The gifts of God, for you, the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on Him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

Sharing the Bread and the Wine (The bread and the wine will be served separately; please hold them and we will consume them together.)

[There are many different ways to actually serve the Communion elements. In the Moravian tradition the Pastor takes the bread into the congregation and hands the host to each individual communicant. It is my habit to hand out the elements, identify each person and address them by name where possible and say one of several statements, such as "Bill, this is the body of Christ, broken for you and for many; whenever you eat it remember that Christ died for you," The members hold the bread; and the wine is served in the same way. When both are served, the congregation stands and the Pastor invites them to consume the elements together.]

Pastor: (Raising a piece of the bread) This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Take and eat. (All eat)
Pastor: (Raising the Chalice) This is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. Take and drink. (All drink)

Our Prayer of Thanksgiving (In Unison, standing)

Eternal God, heavenly Father: you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ; and you have fed us with spiritual food in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you - with gladness and singleness of heart. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Pastor: Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit!

People: Thanks be to God!

I hope that this takes a bit of the mystery out of Ash Wednesday. Because it happens in the middle of the week the number of people attending Ash Wednesday services in Protestant churches is usually relatively small.
In my last church Sunday worship varied between 100 to 140. Ash Wednesday services were about 40 to 50. But for those who understand its symbolism and who intend to actually spend Lent in repentance and reflection on the importance of turning back to God it is a service of great liturgical significance with deep symbolism.