Wednesday, March 8, 2017

We go to Church for Very Traditional Reasons

First Presbyterian Church, Fresno
I happened to catch a little of Jimmy Kimmel’s late night monologue on Ash Wednesday. He was talking about what he thought the day meant. “My mom goes to church, and they put ashes on her forehead to show she’s more religious than I am.” This tension between religious practice done to please God or to put on a show for yourself didn’t exactly originate on Jimmy Kimmel Live! After all, Jesus brought the issue up a time or two.

In Matthew 6: 16 - 18, Jesus said, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

I really appreciated that particular Scripture passage being read together with the Isaiah 58 passage about true fasting because Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time when Christians traditionally prepare for Holy Week/Good Friday/Easter. But not all Christians participate.

Pretty much all Christians are down with Good Friday and Easter, but it’s Catholics and Orthodox who have, through the centuries, maintained Lenten traditions. Episcopalians (and a few other Protestant denominations) have recognized the season, but when Mindy was growing up in Presbyterian churches, Ash Wednesday wasn’t especially noted. For me, growing up in the Evangelical Free Church, the day was never mentioned (and still wasn’t in the Ev. Free Church we attend now).

So what is Ash Wednesday? It is the beginning of the season of lent, preparing for the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes were in Scripture a symbol of grief and mourning. In Christian tradition, the ashes on this day symbolize sorrow for sin. Traditionally, churches often use the palms from Palm Sunday, to be burned for Ash Wednesday ashes. The ashes are also a symbol of the transitory nature of life, referring to Genesis 3:19, “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

Over the past few decades, many Presbyterian churches have begun recognizing Ash Wednesday with special worship services, so we were pleased to be able to attend an Ash Wednesday service. (We were even more pleased, because we had already decided that this month, we’d visit churches for Wednesday night services and events, because a lot of churches seem to have Wednesday evening gatherings here in Fresno.)

Upon entering the church, we were greeted by ushers; as first time visitors we were given a pine slice with a thread with Habakkuk 3: 17 & 18 inscribed on one side. (“It’s Scripture,” the usher told us.)

First Presbyterian Church of Fresno is an Evangelical Presbyterian Church and has been since 2009, but the church traces its foundation back to 1882 and has been in its current building since 1950. Formerly the congregation was a part of the larger PCUSA (Presbyterian Church of the United States of America) denomination. (Tangential story: Years ago, Mindy had a temp job as a corporate spy, sort of. She was sent out to investigate whether a restaurant that used to be an A&W, was still using any A&W trademarked materials. Among other things, we found the A&W logo on the inside of lamps and on napkin dispensers. We were reminded of that experience at Fresno First Presbyterian when we noticed a children’s book in the pew. It was put out by the PCUSA to help children learn about worship services, and it featured worshiping mice.)

The service opened with the bell choir. As the worship service continued, we sang both hymns and choruses. A prayer for illumination preceded the Scripture reading, and after that, Meagan Bergem, the church’s director of junior high ministries (it’s a full time staff position) delivered a short sermon. Another staff member  member stood by her and prayed for her before the message.

Meagan first acknowledged her students, “It’s awesome to see beautiful junior hIgh students in the front row,” and then the rest of the congregation, “It is a privilege to talk about Jesus with you.” Her message was called, “When the Infinite Meets the Finite,” and she used I John 4: 7-10 as her text, focusing on God’s love for us and how we should express love to others. She used the old saying, “Love people, use things; the opposite never works.” But, as she pointed out, loving people requires risk and vulnerability. She encouraged students to risk spending time with people who are different. She encouraged adults to go to lunch with someone who votes differently (we do live in odd times when that’s a thing).

The sermon served as an introduction to the Lenten season as, we were told, “a time we dwell on the brokenness of our sin but there is hope.” The season is all about “bringing the infinite love of Jesus into our finite lives” and reminding us that “to know joy, we must know suffering.”

Before the “imposition” of ashes, another staff member led in a time of prayer. “We’ll be silent for two to five minutes,” she said, “which is longer than some of us are used to. But I’ll watch the clock so you don’t have to.”

After the silent prayer, people were invited to come forward. “We’ll make a sign of the cross on your forehead. It may not look like a cross, -- no guarantees,” the pastor said. People went forward to receive the mark decently and in order, as Presbyterians do. (There a couple people on the worship team who already had an ash cross on their foreheads. I believe there was a service at Fresno State at noon that day, along with other services in the community.)

The service concluded with an offering accompanied by the bell choir. (The bell choir played “Sing Hallelujah” which didn’t involve singing. This struck me as odd.)

After the service, a couple in the row in front of us introduced themselves. They used to go to a large independent church, they said, but came to First Presbyterian a couple of years ago. The first time they visited they found the music “majestic,” and they haven’t considered going anywhere else since.

We will be going somewhere else -- we always do. But we were happy to celebrate Ash Wednesday with the good, sooty people of First Presbyterian Fresno.

Service Length: 1 hour 9 minutes
Sermon Length: 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Greeters at the entrance welcomed us. We found connection cards in the pew and dropped one in the offering plate. The couple in the row ahead of us greeted us after the service was over. Otherwise, no particular notice was taken of visitors.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 157
Probable Ushers’ Count: 175
Snacks: none
Musicians: organ (woman)
bell choir (3 men, 5 women)
piano (man)
vocals (man and woman)
violin (woman)
bass (man)
drums (man)
vocals (woman)
Songs: 3 Lenten Impressions (organ prelude)
"Breathe" bell choir
"Our Great Savior"
"Praise to the Lord, the Almighty"
"I Shall Not Want"
"Lord, I Need You"
"Sing Hallelujah" (offertory, bells)
"Glory Be"
Distance to Church: 6 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: 2
Church Website: