On an Ash Wednesday a few years back, I was leading worship in an historic church in rural Georgia where I was the pastor. The rustic mid-century modern building had been designed decades earlier by a student at Georgia Tech who had won a design competition sponsored by the denomination. This architect would later go on to settle in Florida and become a renowned designer of mid-century modern churches throughout the state. A society in his name offers yearly tours of these Florida churches. It was in a brochure from one of these tours that I saw my little church for the first time as it had looked just after it was built: rustic, truly unique, graceful, and beautiful.
Sadly, however, long before I ever became pastor of the church, the congregants, who had no appreciation for the unique design and no knowledge that this was a famous architect’s first project, covered up the exterior of rough-hewed wood sourced from trees on the site with ugly yellow vinyl siding that had been permanently stained with mold and red Georgia clay over the years. To add insult to injury, they had also tar-papered the unique hyperbolic roof. The building had gone from beautiful to simply horrendous – a sort of Frankenstein with ghoulish parts that didn’t match.
I mentioned this building to a seasoned pastor one day. She said that she had always felt that a church building said something about the theology of people who worshiped there. She asked me what I thought about her theory. My response:
“They had had something beautiful, but they didn’t understand that beauty and so they made it into something truly ugly.”
I am talking about the building, but not just the building, also about the people. And not just about the people who attended church there. But about all of us.
The story of Jesus is beautiful – a story of God’s unconditional love for the world. But if we don’t understand it, if we distort it by putting conditions on that love, by limiting its capabilities, by turning it into a list of rules to follow, then it is very much like putting vinyl siding on top of beautiful rough-hewed wood.
The liturgy we followed that night as I led the Lenten worship allowed each congregant to approach me away from the others in order to receive the ashes. They were able to whisper to me a confession or a prayer request before I prayed for them and then put the ashes on their heads.
Midway through the disposition of ashes, an old man approached me. He whispered, “Pastor, I did something I should have been locked up for many years ago. Will God ever forgive me?” We prayed together asking God for forgiveness. Then I put the ashes on his head and said the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
He turned to go and then came back and whispered, “How do I know God has forgiven me?”
I whispered back, “God, through the death of Jesus, forgave you 2000 years ago. It may be Lent where we examine our lives for sin, but we know the resurrection has already come! You ARE forgiven!”
“God forgave me a long time ago?”
“Yes,” I shook my head and smiled.
He smiled back with tears.
Later that week, he came by and we talked. The theology he had heard all his life at this church was one of punishment not forgiveness. Vinyl siding had been placed over the story of Jesus’ love. This old man had been living in sadness all those years instead of enjoying the beauty.
It may be Lent. We may examine our lives for sin. We may ask for forgiveness and change our ways, but let’s not forget that we know the end of the story. God loves us and we have been forgiven – there has been a resurrection!
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