Faith and risk go hand-in-hand. Some may say faith is in danger when doubt creeps in, or when the attendance at churches drops, or when immorality runs rampant. I say faith is most at risk when we get too comfortable. Once we find ourselves settling into life, feeling content and warm like lazy cats stretched out in the sun, it’s time to rethink how we are living. If we are living too safely, protecting ourselves first and giving in to paralyzing fears, we are missing out on the joys of faith. Risk looks different to everyone; what is scary for one may not be scary for another. Yet that is the beauty and challenge of faith—it forces each of us to grow, to stretch, and to step outside ourselves.
Self-doubt continually whispers temptations into my ear like, “Church needs to be flashier. People want to be entertained. Why don’t you have a coffee shop in the narthex?” It also tells me I am too introverted, too serious, and not charismatic enough to be an effective leader. If we are not careful, self-doubt (a great tool of the devil!) will fold us into ourselves and we will lose our vision. We lose the ability to grow. Risk becomes impossible. The hard truth is sometimes it is most risky to embrace who we are.
This year the Worship Team encouraged me to use prayer as the theme for Lent. I first began to think of all the ways I could create experiential prayer in the Wednesday night services—how I could pack in various themes and creative props. These are my gut reactions to my perceived inadequacies—if I can make the worship entertaining, that will make up for my introversion. Little did I know this year’s Lenten series at Christ the King would become a personal challenge for me.
A fellow pastor directed me to Prayer Around the Cross, a tradition started at Holden Village, a retreat center deep in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. The more I learned about this worship style, the more excited I became to use it during Lent. I discovered this tradition is used once a week at Holden, and I decided if they can do it once a week, we can do it for five Wednesdays in a row. I hesitantly gave up all my plans for creative, dynamic worship and instead planned for silence, deep prayer, and lots and lots of repetition. Each week we repeat what we did the week before. Each service we sing short phrases of songs over and over. It goes against every instinct I have to make worship fun and exciting (as fun and exciting as it gets in a Lutheran church…). I intentionally simplified everything. I was nervous. I forgot to trust that they Holy Spirit would move.
I know this type of worship isn’t for everyone, and it is risky in many ways. The cross is laid front and center with boxes of sand placed around it. The service provides a time for people to come forward, kneel or sit around the cross, light candles, place them in the sand, and pray. It’s risky for people to come forward and pray in front of the sanctuary. It’s risky to have so many candles lit and moved by many people, including kids, in semi-darkness. It’s risky to sing simple songs, repeating the same few words over and over without using hymnals. It’s outside of our comfort zones.
I’m happy to report the services have turned out to be deeply meaningful, and the repetition has created unexpected little traditions. Four Confirmation students love to walk in candles at the beginning of each service. The same two boys have embraced the job of turning down the lights for prayer. The kids have been leaders in prayer and come forward to light the candles first each week. Yet my favorite new tradition comes at the end of each service. I like to leave the candles burning for a while as people leave the sanctuary. Kids now gather around the still-burning flames, lighting the leftover candles and placing them in the sand. They try to lick their fingers and pinch out the flames. They gleefully blow them all out at my cue. I see them playing with fire, but I think it is much more than that. They are interacting with the sacred. The candles represent the prayers of the congregation, and the kids love touching the prayers, watching them, adding to them. The beauty of the candles draws them like moths to a porch light. It’s risky to let them that near to the flames, but it gives them a chance to be close to holiness.
When I planned these services, I was most concerned about boring the kids. What a silly worry it turned out to be. They instead have been an example of what it means to embrace quiet worship, to joyfully try something new, and to find meaning in repetition. I don’t plan to make every worship experience at Christ the King quiet and reflective, but the kids have been examples to me of how important it is to take risks, and how these risks can lead to finding faith in authentic new ways. For we are all children of God—saved, loved, cherished as we are—and it is out of this identity that we can experiment, fail, and find joy in the risk that is faith. And sometimes it is best to just get out of the way so the Holy Spirit can move.
“And sooner or later, if we follow Christ, we have to risk everything in order to gain everything. We have to gamble on the invisible and risk all that we can taste and feel. But we know the risk is worth it, because there is nothing more insecure than the transient world. For this world as we see it is passing away.” – Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude