“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” – Psalm 85:8
I have the great and unending joy of serving a wonderful United Methodist Church in Alabama. I have been a part of this congregation for almost 10 years and dare say I have probably only missed maybe 10-15 worship services over those years. I have seen and experienced some incredible worship experiences. However, one might think that worship becomes business as usual after a time. After all, it is my job. Does it ever become just routine?
That is why I am so excited to share my worship experience from this evening. It was the most moving and wonder-filled encounter with the Spirit I have had in a long time.
My church is embarking on a Lenten study with the book, “Life Together,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And to begin our season of what it really means to be the church, we chose to honor the persecuted church with our Ash Wednesday services.
We chose an undisclosed location hidden back in the woods near our community. This afternoon we texted out the location to our members and waited in anticipation to see who would show up. It didn’t help that we had tornado watches and thunderstorms throughout the day (springtime in Alabama.) However, the church staff arrived early and waited.
We had chosen a park somewhat off the beaten path. And after following a long and winding path into the forest, we found ourselves in a small concrete shelter of sorts. No lights, no power of any kind, and no bathrooms. And we waited.
My job as greeter took me back to the entrance of the park to welcome and help people find their way down the path in the right direction. The parking lot was completely dark as we neared our starting time, and I wondered if anyone would come out on a night like this.
Slowly I began to see headlights making their way up the hill toward me. And then a few more. And then a few more. And before I knew it, the parking lot was full, and people were pouring into the park with smiles and anticipation for the coming event. They were all excited to be there and hurried off down the path, cell phone flashlights their only guide to what lay ahead.
I stood there, in wonder, for quite some time with headlights shining at me from one side with the incoming traffic; and a stream of small lights on the other side leading down the path in the dark, in search of our church family. It was in that moment, with the dark clouds overhead and the wind blowing around me, that I felt the Holy Spirit’s presence and I began to pray for Him to speak to us in ways that we all could understand. I began to pray that He would begin an incredible transformation in the hearts of our church, and that a hunger for His presence would begin to grow within our community. There was a power there, and it was tangible. Praise be to God!
Even after the service began I remained at the entrance, still waiting for any who might not have made it on time. I prayed earnestly for my brethren who were now unseen in the forest. “Speak, my Lord, speak!” And, in a short time, I was able to start down that path myself about half-way through the service.
I walked the path in the dark, surrounded by the silence. I was so very aware of the quiet. But as I drew near to the shelter, I began to hear the voice of my pastor. It was loud and clear and full of the Holy Spirit. Ringing out through the silence, I heard him urging us on to greater faithfulness in our Lenten journey. “What do you need to get rid of in order to get closer to God?” I heard that voice in the darkness and I felt the great wonder of the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit, and I knew I was on holy ground.
As I approached the shelter, I was in awe of a magnificent sight. Over 100 people gathered inside this tiny, cinder-block structure. There was a small lantern in the middle of the room. But nothing else. Everything we were accustomed to in worship was stripped away. People were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, holding their children in their arms. There were no chairs, no large screens, no sound systems. Just believers, listening to the Word, and singing the old hymns. And as those voices rose together into the dark night, I was in awe of being in a place of pure worship. We were there. And God was there and we didn’t need anything else. Speak, Lord, speak!
As the service came to a close, everyone lined up for the imposition of the ashes. I listened to the conversations as people began walking back up the path toward the parking lot. I heard words like, “moving,” powerful,” and “real.” One could see on the faces that many had meaningful encounters with the Spirit. Praise God.
It makes me wonder. We go to such lengths to create perfect worship experiences in our churches. But there was something so pure about our experience tonight, why would we ever need anything else? I believe I experienced church at its best tonight. To God be the glory!
Peace my friends.