On Ash Wednesday


It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”

I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”

I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, 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.

I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.

For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.

So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


  1. Tony Heringer

    Like you Jonathan, I did not grow up with this tradition. It was all around me because I grew up in a religious area in Southeast Texas. The Catholics were there along with the “High Church” Protestants, but as a Southern Baptist I was blissfully ignorant of such traditions. Now, thanks to resources like CRI/ Voice (http://www.cresourcei.org/index.html ) and wonderful congregations like Church of The Redeemer (http://redeemernashville.net/ ) I’ve been able to learn about and experience a form of worship that continues to deepen and strengthen my faith.

    The Ash Wednesday service is one of my favorites of the liturgical calendar for the very reasons you have noted. As an elder, I get the honor of serving communion at our church. The process of repeating a simple, but profound phrase “The blood of Christ, shed for you” or “The body of Christ, broken for you” is powerful. It sometimes moves me to tears—especially when I can offer the elements to family and close friends.

    We don’t have an Ash Wednesday service at my church, but I usually attend one somewhere in the Atlanta area. Because of my experience with giving out the elements as we take the Table at my church, I find the imposition of the ashes in the Ash Wednesday service carries even greater potency.

    I drink in the phrase “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as it is repeated with each person. But as you noted, the service doesn’t leave us there. We also take the Table in this service. So, even though it ends on a somber note, it is imbued with life. Life that only Christ can give us.

    I look forward to this time of year because it typically brings some challenge or exercise that will get me outside my routine. This year one of my exercises is exploring the use of labyrinths as a way to meditate and pray. There’s some odd things written about this practice, but I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like to use a type of art in my personal worship. Anyone have any experience or thoughts on labyrinths? Here’s a resource I found: http://labyrinthlocator.com/home

    Just as a side bar, I love that the ashes used traditionally come from the palms used on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. There is a connected vibe to this whole liturgical process.

  2. Paula Shaw

    Thank you, Jonathan. I’m so glad you and others are embracing this time of year because you all are helping me to come back to a true and proper posture of worship during this season. For a few years (more than I want), Lent has been, for me, a difficult time to walk through, but now, God seems to be bringing about the healing that I’ve been thirsty for. The reality of “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is such a freeing declaration. The acts of repentance and forgiveness just mean more to me when I look through the eyes of the dust that I am. Thanks again.

  3. Kiernan

    As an Orthodox Christian, we don’t have Ash Wednesday, but we do have Forgiveness Sunday, which (somewhat paradoxically) is called the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. In either case, I love the sense of beginning Lent with a remembrance of where we came from — of dust, Adam & Eve, Eden, and loss. I love that we harken back to beginnings with Lent because so often Lent is a beginning for me, as much as it is a time of looking back and repenting on past sins. I think that captures the real beauty of Lent: that it is out of ashes that the new plant grows, that our repentance for the past flowers into the good deeds of the future. Thanks for the reflection.

  4. Tony Heringer

    “our repentance for the past flowers into the good deeds of the future” – love that line. Reminds me of this passage (Isaiah 61:2-4)

    2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
    to comfort all who mourn,
    3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
    to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
    the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
    and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
    They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the LORD
    for the display of his splendor.

    4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
    they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations.

  5. Leigh Mc

    I love Ash Wednesday too. I didn’t grow up observing Lent (or any of the liturgical calendar for that matter) but it is a part of my faith tradition now. I wrote about it today, too: http://tinyurl.com/4t3d6lw. Thanks for the line from TS Eliot. (Reminds me of a Jill Phillips song!)

  6. Fellow Traveler

    Thanks Jonathan. I was sitting here irritated that I had to go get ready for a mass (because I’d forgotten about it), and your words here gave me just the right perspective. I think “Ash Wednesday” is a great poem too.

  7. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    I grew up Baptist in a town that was 70% Catholic. My parents sent me to parochial school for a few years. That is where I fell in love with liturgy.

    I was a thinky kid, and my faith could never embrace every aspect of the mass, but there were pieces and parts that moved my soul deeply. Now I see how that environment of forced dissection, prying truth from formula, enriched my worship instead of diminished it. Certain phrases my friends mumbled thoughtlessly nearly brought me to tears.

    Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

    My whole heart spoke it aloud. I still long to hear it spoken in communion all around me.

    Ash Wednesday was an interesting day every year. I would see bankers, construction workers, newscasters, teachers, and random shop workers walking around town marked in grey ash. Unabashed.

    It was novel, awkward, shocking to see such everyday people bearing a little part of Christ’s story into the mundane. How foolish we would have looked alone,

    “Um… there’s something on your face!” And his. And his.

    On any other day, we would have laughed. But on Ash Wednesday, the town walked about stained and sobered.

    It was deemed a dark and fearful sin to miss mass that day, so I’m sure all hearts weren’t tuned to grace and grateful wonder. Still, a humble solemnity settled into my world that day like no other in the year. It’s hard to be haughty with ashes on your face.

    “Bunch of old sinners. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. And God loves us anyway.” Beautiful, beautiful post, Jonathan. Thank you.

  8. Canaan Bound

    BuckBuck, I grew up in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (and our services are uber traditional). For a time, I had to branch out and seek a less-leturgical style of worship. The liturgy seemed a bit too rigid, too rote. Now that I’m older, I find that I’ve gravitated back toward that style of worship. I still very much appreciate the spontaneity in worship (especially when it comes to prayer), but I think there’s no denying I have a deeply-rooted affinity for the timeless venites, verses, and creeds of the Church.

    A few of my favorites are the Sanctus, the Kyrie, the Offertory, and the Nunc Dimittis.

    The Offertory, or David’s song:
    Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
    Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
    Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and uphold me with Thy free spirit.

    The Nunc Dimittis, or the Song of Simeon:
    Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
    For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
    A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of Thy people, Israel
    Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost!
    As it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be, world without end. Amen.

    I attended a Bible study tonight with a group from another church, and it pained me immensely to miss the Ash Wednesday service back home. So thanks, JR. This post was just what I needed.

  9. Tom Murphy

    Love this post Jonathan! A few sources of hymns and psalms for Lent…

    Sons of Korah – Psalm 51 – David’s Psalm of Repentance

    Free Lenten Hymns

    Psalm 51 by the Sons of Korah, a bunch of Seminarians turned musicians from Australia, is what has inspired me to create a form of counseling called Biblical Counseling Through Song along with Colossians 3:16-17.

    [16] Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

    May the fellowship with the Lord be sweet this season!

  10. luaphacim

    Thanks for these thoughts, Jonathan! As one from a much less rigorous liturgical tradition (I think maybe we said the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed once per quarter or so), I appreciate your perspective on the Anglican liturgy.

    My favorite part of Ash Wednesday is that it reminds me of the pain and suffering that I am baptized into as a follower of Christ. I am baptized into His life, yes, but I am also baptized into His death. This holy day is a reminder that my unworthiness dies along with my sin and all my uncleanliness when I embrace the imputed death of Christ.

    Also, I heard the following amusing exchange yesterday:

    Co-Worker 1: So, we’ll get those files uploaded just as soon as they finish running. By the way, I think you might have a leaky pen.
    Co-Worker 2: What?
    Co-Worker 1: Well, you’ve got ink on your face. Looks like your pen leaked and you rubbed it on your forehead.
    Co-Worker 2: Oh, these are ashes.
    Co-Worker 1: What?
    Me: *silent giggles*

  11. Loren

    This has been so good to read through (especially with everyone’s comments included). My soul has been refreshed!

    I grew up Baptist as well, though very independent Baptist and our church has ongoing discussions as to whether it’s time to drop “Baptist” from our name. I like the governmental structure, but our services are anything but liturgical, and the older I get, the more I realize how un-educated I am to the spiritual depth that is in the liturgical year. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable moving into that setting completely, but I’d love to incorporate more thoughtfulness into our family’s life regarding it.

  12. Tony Heringer


    It definitely is a rich tradition and like you, growing up without it has probably made me appreciate all the more. Part of the creation mandate is to have dominion and I think this is part of that process. We taking time and bringing it under the submission of the Gospel Story. I particlarly like the BuckBuck story about the town where normal folks are walking around “bearing a little part of Christ’s story into the mundane” That reminds me of that Rich Mullins song ‘Peace’. In taking the Table, the one part of liturgy that is common to just about all of Christian tradition .

    That song and album as a whole probably seeded my thinking the most on this topic. Here’s the first part of it:

    Though we’re strangers, still I love you
    I love you more than your mask
    And you know you have to trust this to be true
    And I know that’s much to ask
    But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
    He has called us here, you and me

    And may peace rain down from Heaven
    Like little pieces of the sky
    Little keepers of the promise
    Falling on these souls
    This drought has dried
    In His Blood and in His Body
    In the Bread and in this Wine
    Peace to you
    Peace of Christ to you

  13. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    ‘Love that song, TH. Thanks for posting it!

    Also, I have a question. Do you folks think the recent resurgence of liturgy has anything to do with the chaos of modern life?

    I hate to go all yin/yang here, but I have wondered if a generation of kids raised in cynicism, without rhythms, traditions, and structure are feeling some sort of internal ache for more predictability and sobriety.

    Aside from Catholic mass, the only time I’ve heard a liturgical service was in an old stone church lit by candlelight. It was on a college campus, student-led, and it began at 9:00 PM. The room was filled with twenty-somethings in pajama pants and hoodies singing old Latin hymns (in a cappella harmony). The kids entered in silence, and recited reflective responses to the readings.

    It was entirely renegade. The polar opposite of megachurch lights and screens. The polar opposite of TV news with little flashing banners and running lights yelling five things at once.

    It gave me the strangest sensation. I almost felt like I was in a nursery with sixty babies who had never been held in the dark and rocked for a long time. It felt like their souls were getting all filled up somehow. It was so tender. And methodical. And maternal/paternal, even.

    I’m having trouble putting words on it.

  14. Tony Heringer

    You are welcome BuckBuck! I’ve been to a number of “High Church” services over my life time. But its never been my tradition or even much of a thought that I’d want it, I just admire it.

    As to the current generation, I’ve heard this trend called “ancient-future” for some time now. I’m not much into ecclesiology but I can certainly see why such a rich tradition would draw folks. We could call it “classic Christianity” but there are elements that really do engage you at many levels. I’ve never been in a service where incense was used but I’m sure its similar in concept. Engaging the whole imagination in the process of worship.

    Here’s a great series by Father T-Mac on The Anglican Way. I’ve not watched it, but intend to when I get some time. Thomas is a solid guy and I just watched the first few minutes and he opens this series on the most important point – its about Jesus. I love that guy. Enjoy:


  15. Tom Murphy

    Buck Buck,

    Yes, most definitely. The pendelum has swung to finding deep meaning in the liturgy.

    This bodes well for corporate worship as we return to the text of God’s Word to drive our worship.

    The rise of the new Calvinism within the Acts 29 network has similiar notions of returning to time tested theology. Kevin Twit has actually spoken on this topic quite extensively. His seminary classes on bringing new arrangements to old hymns touch on this topic quite deeply.

    It’s usually in the sections of his talks where he is referring to the reaction of current and former Belmont RUF students to the hymns.

  16. Bret Welstead

    Here’s another Baptist who celebrated Ash Wednesday last night!

    A couple years ago we started observing Lent and Ash Wednesday, which is familiar on some levels to most of our membership, but at the same time foreign. We’ve found that people who attend the Ash Wednesday services (about a third of our congregation right now) enjoy learning the meaning behind the symbols of the ash, the oil, the crosses on our foreheads. More than that, they want to participate in these ways as an act of worship. We prayed for renewal, we prayed for perspective, we prayed that God would draw us nearer as we prepare for Easter. I’m thankful to belong to a church that looks outside denominational norms and sees beauty and depth in the worship that others offer.

  17. Loren

    Amazing thought that perhaps there might be a pendulum swinging back toward liturgy…. My husband and I have been struggling at our church for a few years as it increasingly swings into ultra-contemporary worship services at the expense of multiple generations, learning styles, heritage, etc. Kraig has often said, “We’re trying so hard to be accessible to our current generation. But our current generation isn’t looking for the church to be just like what they see everywhere else. They want something different! Wouldn’t bringing in the heritage, quiet, and depth of more traditional worship be a shocking change from the world around us?” We feel there is so much being lost.

    But we love our church family, and feel that God wants us there…and so we work to use our voices in a godly way and play our small parts.

  18. Travis Prinzi

    Loren, well said! My wife and I have been feeling much the same thing. We’re feeling much more like we’re needing something stable and ancient. I know there’s an extent to which this is just choosing the worship of a previous generation instead of this one, but there’s something about being connected to something that’s been connected to the past centuries, or even millenia, that draws me away from the “What’s NEXT?!” mentality of our culture and makes my ADD brain sit down and actually think about God for a whole hour.

  19. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    Do you think part of the swing is because ultra-contemporary tends to be felt need/consumer-driven, while liturgy tends to place its focus on a bigger picture? Does the modern worshipper have advertiser fatigue?

    Maybe not, though. Because there are folks like myself who are drawn to liturgy because of a felt/need… therefore I tend to approach even that like a consumer. Hmmm. (Would John Piper cheer for that? Is it a move toward Christian hedonism?)

    I hate how skeptical I am. It’s ridiculous.

    I can feel myself cringe every time I see some metrosexual guy wearing a blazer and a strategically mismatched graphic tee riding the waves of the next new spiritual trend, whatever that is. I don’t mind dorky old priests named Father Claude with bad hair leading liturgy.

    But once it gets “cool,” I start to get scared. I’m afraid it’s going to get all corrupted. What is that?

  20. JenniferT

    I think Travis has hit the nail on the head with this: “there’s something about being connected to something that’s been connected to the past centuries, or even millennia…” Those who are being drawn to more liturgical churches (especially a lot of young people) are hungry not only for a kind of worship that engages more of their imagination but also a sense of deeper rootedness amidst this chaotic ever-changing culture. I love reciting creeds or prayers that Christians have said for hundreds of years because they remind me that I am standing on others’ shoulders, that I am worshiping with them as well as with the living ones around me – that those 2000 years that stand between Scripture and my life are not empty but filled with family (flawed as they were) who have heirlooms of faith to pass on to me. G.K. Chesterton says that tradition is “democracy extended through time.”

  21. Canaan Bound

    BuckBuck, Some things have come to mind as I am reading through this discussion. Please forgive me if it seems incoherent, misguided, or whatever…it’s early yet, I haven’t gotten a whole lot of sleep, and I’m rushing to try to get these thoughts out before going to work.

    1) I guess I’m somewhat unaware of the “growing trend” back to liturgical worship. I attended a conservative Christian college here in the midwest and was still just one of only a handful who would have claimed preference for a reformed theology or traditional style of worship. (Is it wierd that I connect the two?) Nevertheless, I believe you, and am excited at the prospect of a movement back to a traditional service.

    2) Speaking of service, I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) there is a difference between “Sunday Morning Worship” and a “Sunday Morning Service”. Worship is just what it says it is…coming together as a congregation (oops, there’s a traditional word…I suppose it’s more of a mass of people…dang, I can’t help it…gang of people) to sing praises to the Most High God. Most worship services include a time of teaching and preaching, either by a pastor, minister, or lay member.

    Now, a Sunday SERVICE implies a bit more, as the name say. It’s a time of worship, but also a time of SERVICE. What’s commonly forgotten, however, is that it’s a dual service. I serve God, and HE SERVES ME (which is, I think, the most important part of the Sunday morning experience). I need to focus on what God has done, is doing, and continues to do in me and for me on a daily basis. I need to hear (at LEAST once a week) what that God has called me to himself, that He knows my sin and yet forgives me, and that He has given me a new name, and is making me new day by day. I crave these words, these reminders. I need to be served by God.

    3) There are important elements of a divine service that I think really need to be understood.

    First, there is a time of preparation, reflection, and confession that I think is essential. Confession of sin, of depravity, of a spirit of hostility. Not necessarily specific confessions, but at least a general acknowledgement of my current state WITHOUT God, and an admission of the fact that I NEED GOD.

    Then there is an absolution given, a proclamation of truth and forgiveness, usually by a pastor (though I do not believe it is necessary to come from someone who is ordained…we are all called proclaim the truth to each other daily).

    Then the service of the word. God’s Word shared either through hymns (there’s a topic for discussion!), vespers, Kyrie, creeds, or read directly from the pulpit. As well as the reading(s) of the Word, there is a sermon. The sermon contains both Law AND Gospel. (Matt. 5.17) In many churches, the Law is not present. But both law and Gospel are necessary. Without the law, there is no need for the Gospel.

    The sermon is usually followed by communion, communal prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, and offering. While there are little moments within each of these where I serve my Lord, I feel it’s pretty clear that God is doing most of the serving.

    Lastly, there is a benediction. One final blessing from God.

    While I’m sure there are many (even in my very own pew!) who would not recognize these elements of service as being essential, I believe they are. The service I attend uses a service book. Organ, chanting, the whole nine yards. I have, however, been to a service that looked completely different than mine, and yet contained every element of the divine service. Just done in a much more contemporary way.

    3) If I may, I’d like to make one last observation, a personal opinion, really. To me, there are some problems with a lot of contemporary churches. Many churches these days seem to be highly concerned with getting people in the door. So they bring in the most spectacular show…lights, band, the whole shebang. The worship is intended to evoke some kind of emotional high. And we sing to God…about ourselves. “Lord, I give you my heart/I give you my soul. I live for you alone.” Only I don’t. And then there’s a sermon that’s full of happy thoughts and kind reminders of how to go and live better, be better, do better.

    But we’re people and our faith needs roots. We need truth. Via Word. Via Hymn. Via Law. Via Gospel. I this is basically what I said before. So at this point, it’s time to stop.

  22. Tony Heringer

    Great dialougue folks. In addition to Father T-Mac’s video series, I also add the words of James K.A. Smith. I first heard him on Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 101.

    I found this lecture he gave at Calvin College part of a great lecture series. I think he touches on the themes and ideas we are discussing here:


    He touches on this idea of practice and the idea that form matters. Enjoy!

  23. Fellow Traveler

    One of the most amusing trends I’ve observed among Protestants is the desire to convert to Catholicism because they want the beauty of the liturgy and the ceremony. This is funny in a sad way when you look at how the Catholic Church has gone down the tubes since Vatican II (in so many ways). I mean, mind you, I’m not big on surrendering my free will to the infallibility of pope and church anyway, but now with an “updated” modern liturgy that’s completely gutted of the dignity and beauty it used to have, set to “updated” music which sounds like a bad TV commercial, plus “liturgical dancing,” etc… I mean shucks, you’re not even getting ANYTHING out of it.

  24. Tony Heringer


    Form over function is a bad reason for joining any church. I’m not sure that is the sole reason though. Some see it as a unification of the Church. The issue of our divide is a very thorny one but I’ve got great respect for many thinkers from that tradition — both present and past (some quoted here).

    Then there is Orhodox tradition — Kiernan posted from that point of view above. It’s not a single branch but many branches of the Vine. The key is do these branches bear fruit (John 15:1ff)?

    To add to my last post, Jamie Smith is speaking on liturgy in a broader sense in this lecture which is based on this book series (plucked this from the Mars Hill Audio Journal notes — love this resource):

    “James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation* (2009) is published by Baker. In the preface to his book, Smith explains that it is the first of three volumes on “cultural liturgies.” The second volume will look more deeply at questions of philosophical anthropology with special attention given to “the emerging dialogue between phenomenology, cognitive science, and social-scientific reflection on practiced formation.” The third volume will look at current issues in political theology.”

    Smith does make a statement in the lecture (see my last post) on present day worship and that form matters.

  25. Travis Prinzi

    I want to put in a good word for “form,” if the form, in fact, serves a very important function. I think of the “liberal mainline” denominations, for example. You walk into one of those, and in many of them, regardless of where the theology has gone, the creeds are recited and the gospel is proclaimed, because the form has been preserved.

    Now, you might say, “See? The form didn’t do anything. Their theology went astray.” I think I’d say, “See? The form preserved the gospel, even when our sinful hearts went astray, as they almost always do.”

    I’ve heard the gospel proclaimed more clearly in old liturgy than I have in “evangelical” churches. We’re trying to sort out church issues since we’ve moved, but until we do, you’re more likely to find me in a mainline liberal denomination or Catholic Church on any given Sunday morning than an evangelical church. I want to hear the gospel, even if the pastor is having an off week or just plain theologically nutters.

  26. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    Tony, that video was super-relevant.

    Specifically, I like that Smith is reacting to the almost Gnostic, overly-cognitive, Western, Enlightenment-based approach many evangelicals have taken to religion. Too many modern resources have only been about equipping people with brain truth, allowing hearts to go hungry. This split evidences itself with coldness and hypocrisy, even in the lives of those thoroughly trained in how to think. When we try to “know” our way into righteousness, we are empowered by the flesh.

    But I’m not sure the healthiest response is overemphasizing the gut. I felt like Smith did that a few times in his lecture. Relying upon the gut is trusting the flesh in a different way… relying upon our hearts to do what our minds could not. Visceral energy is still self-powered energy, and the true Christian life should be empowered only by the Spirit.

    I don’t believe it’s necessary to separate the mind from the heart, God has made us both. His Scripture appeals to both. Smith seems to push them to compete:

    He says: “We are affective creatures before we are cognitive creatures. We are desiring creatures which enables us to be thinking things.”

    I believe that is too strong. There isn’t a necessary cause/effect here. And I can foresee many potential dangers once we start to allow liturgy to inform doctrine.

    (BTW: Did you think it was a bit ironic that Smith uses a cognitive lecture format to try to convince us of the power of the visceral?)

    Perhaps there is a very practical question we should ask. If liturgy truly had power in itself, wouldn’t there have been a more significant “fruit” manifest in those churches that have maintained liturgy through the years? Obviously the form doesn’t always change the soul, so we mustn’t take a method and turn it into a salvation.

    This is what I meant earlier about fear of liturgy growing as a trend. I love liturgy too much to see it picked from the bone and contorted into something deformed. We will idolize it, I am afraid. And perhaps already are in some circles.

    Smith says this at the beginning of his talk: “Behind all of this, however, is an assumption about the nature of religion. And it assumes that religion is defined in terms of doctrines, beliefs, and ideas. But the question I want to raise today is, “What if religion isn’t fundamentally a matter of belief? What if religion is not defined primarily by a set of beliefs and doctrines, but actually by a set of practices?”

    It’s not necessary to divorce the two. Scripture says true belief/doctrine will result in true practice. Faith without works is dead. Works without faith is death. The Scripture confirms both. According to God’s Word, the two are impossible to separate.

    It is obvious, though, that Smith has been operating out of great personal/emotional need. The story of his father and stepfather leaving was riveting. This is a man who has known hunger. He even used the word “orphan” to describe his past.

    This is what I was trying to say earlier about our deeply-embedded cultural need for security. Babies need stability and rhythm, and we are surrounded by a generation of adults who grew up in relational chaos. I sense that being met/sought through liturgy.

    As an adoptive mother this is a very tactile thing for me. I have watched a three-year-old child NEED to “redo” rhythms he never had as an infant. My son has had to learn how to cry, how to be comforted, how to drink milk given to him, how to be patted to sleep. There has been a visceral process of repair for his lack. There is a “liturgy” to our family’s daily rhythms that is calming and renewing to him.

    I see church liturgy doing something maternal and rhythmic for a generation dominated by lack of security in the home. I might be wrong, but I just feel like this is part of the reason there is such an interest in this venue right now. We need stability amid the chaos that was and is.

    Anyway… I really enjoyed that video. And I agreed with some of it! 🙂

  27. Tony Heringer


    This is a lively chat and why I love wondering into this cyberpub!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the video. I don’t think Smith is dividing the two (mind and “gut”) but making the point that the center of our lives as Christians is the heart. His comments about the “gut” were part of the word study. We translate heart what the Hebrews would have meant for bowels or “gut”. He means it in the since of Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

    I spent some time last year going through a process – an emotional journey courtesy of the guys at Wellspring Group (http://www.wellspringgroup.org/ ) click on video and I think you will see what Smith was getting at. Not a separation of head and heart, but a wholeness of heart which liturgy influences.

    Where he deals most with this issue is on the subject of desire. When you look at how we live our lives there are those who live in the rational, those who live in the emotional and both those groups make volitional choices. When you look further at this matter you see those choices, in both cases, come from deeper desires. Those desires include but are not limited to:

    To be part of something larger, transcendence
    Relationship: valued, pursued, understood, be in community
    Impact, significance
    To protect and provide, to be protected and provided for
    To come through: duty, honor, respect, to hear “well done”
    Beauty and creativity
    Justice and freedom

    Smith is arguing that the culture has liturgy too and it is warping those desires.

    Now what motivates those desires? You definitely hit the nail on the head with the Galatians/James references. That motivation is more than just a feeling. That motivation is love. Either love of Christ or love of self or as Terrell Owens would says “I love me some me!”.

    Jesus says “If you love me, you will obey me.” (John 14:15ff) and Paul says in essence it is the love of Christ that “compels” us to live for Him (2 Cor 5:14ff). When Jesus is asked “what is the greatest commandment? and then in another instance He asks the same question, the answer is the same “love God and love your neighbor.”

    That’s affect before effect. I believe more and more everyday that our affection for Christ determines our effectiveness for Christ. That is, our commitment to the Great Commandment moves us to fulfill the Great Commission.

    But, in this lecture Smith is addressing cultural liturgy and also how that impacts Christian education. He has side bars about Christian worship and makes a case that form does matter.

    I still think we’d need to go to Father McKenzie’s video’s which talk more about a specific Christian liturgy. I’m looking forward to viewing those and maybe I’ll return and post here after I’ve done that. Thanks again for your comments. Great stuff!

    BTW, I wonder if the good padre is lurking about and would care to comment?

    Yo! Father T-Mac! What say ye lad?

  28. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    I’m so glad to hear your thoughts, Tony. Thank you. And I’ll check out your other resources soon as well.

    To be fair, I was also responding to the little I’ve read of Smith’s book, _Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation._ So I was probably stepping outside the parameters of this lecture a little in my response. 🙂

    Also, yep. I understand what he was saying about cultural liturgies. Very cool thought. (He actually defined the word “liturgy” two similar but different ways during his lecture. Did you hear that?) I was zeroing in on church liturgy in my response, for the sake of space. But I wanted to say (but felt like my post was too long already) that I think this concept is fascinating. I can tell already that I’m going to spend the next few days mulling that over. One of my worship “languages” is nature, and I am particularly interested to think through how this concept applies (in both beautiful and dangerous ways) to the rhythms of that realm.

    When you look back at the direct quotes I pulled from Smith’s lecture, you don’t see him setting the cognitive in opposition to the visceral? Or at least placing the mind in the context of the heart? I understand that his reference to “gut” was a translation issue. However, he seemed to move beyond that singular definition to placing the two in a cause and effect relationship.

    He stated clearly: “We are affective creatures before we are cognitive creatures. We are desiring creatures which enables us to be thinking things.”

    And then he says: “What if religion is not defined primarily by a set of beliefs and doctrines, but actually by a set of practices?”

    Overall, I like what Smith said. I just thought it was too much of a pendelum swing. He seems to be reacting to Enlightenment brain-gorging by pushing the visceral. This seems to be pretty typical for post-modern pastors. Don’t you think?

    Seems to me like changes in the church tend to happen with pendulum swings, though. Sensitive people can tell that something needs to shift. So they push against what is, but then they go too far. Then it settles back to a truer truth. (Rob Bell brouhaha point in case.)

    Have you read _The Dynamics of Spiritual Life_ by Richard Lovelace? I think (not sure) that he was Tim Keller’s prof at some point? Pretty interesting/technical book about the swings in worship/thought over time. I’m not a church scholar, so there might be serious issues I’ve overlooked. But still, I found it comforting to see how our Sovereign God works over time.

    I LOVE this, by the way:

    To be part of something larger, transcendence
    Relationship: valued, pursued, understood, be in community
    Impact, significance
    To protect and provide, to be protected and provided for
    To come through: duty, honor, respect, to hear “well done”
    Beauty and creativity
    Justice and freedom

    Some of this reminds me of Piper’s ideas on Christian hedonism, and reaching to the truly fulfilling places for the ends of our desires.

    Anyway, I’m grateful for the discussion. ‘Can’t wait to read more/hear more.

    Where is Ron Block? I’d like to hear his thoughts, too.

  29. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    (P.S. Everything I wrote above is inquisitive/searching in tone, not certain. I wish I could convey that better in writing. It’s very possible that I am misunderstanding Smith still, and I want to leave room for that. I’ll keep reading and listening…)

  30. Ron Block


    Becca, some thoughts.

    A good song has repetition and variation. A combination of the expected and the unexpected, predictable and unpredictable. Music that is too unpredictable becomes boring to the listener, just as predictable music.

    In life, I like routine and variation. If life is too routine, it gets boring. If too varied, it gets tiring. Routine is a feeling of comfort, safety; variance is adventure.

    Liturgy to me is like a song form. If I got up on stage and did a 40 minute rambling improvisation with no form, the audience would get bored after about a minute and a half.

    But if I have a song form – the repetition of rhythm, chords, and melody – there is the repetition on which the listener can hang his hat. And I can put my creativity, my emotion, my life into that song form. God breathed into Adam, and Adam became a living soul. I breathe my life and experience into a song form, and it becomes a living thing.

    Liturgy is like that. It is a form which remains static, but is given life by the participant putting himself into it.

    Also remember The Doritos Principle. Our society has made everything Super. Massive salt and sugar added to foods. To a child who eats a steady diet of Doritos and Blue Pepsi, an apple is “boring.” To a child who psychologically eats a steady diet of video games and television, reading is “boring.” To a man who is addicted to pornography, sex with his wife is “boring” without illicit add-ons.

    This super-charging of everything to make it more exciting (thus enhancing sales) has affected the Church in general.

    The over-reaction against liturgy and ritual in the contemporary church isn’t against liturgy and ritual. It’s primarily about people who are so used to a culture filled with novelty and loud music and sparkling lights that ritual and liturgy are “boring.” We need contemplation and stillness and joy; we want a rock concert.

    I’m not saying that contemporary worship doesn’t have a place. But just as I feel we should not jettison the old hymnody in favor of contemporary worship songs (don’t get me started), we should also give place to ritual and liturgy. When given the chance to say corporately, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth” we need to put all our heart into it, jump in with both feet, “bet the farm.”

  31. Ron Block


    Also, one of the things I’ve noted about being in liturgy/ritual based churches (esp Gr Orthodox) is the sense of the Ancient. I’ve had this same feeling sitting in St. Paul’s in London, or going to an evensong service at St. Patrick’s in Dublin. It’s a sense of centuries of other believers all taking part in this ancient act of acknowledgement, gratefulness, trust, reliance. That’s also one of the reasons I like reading the writings of old Christians like Guyon, Bunyan, MacDonald, Grubb, Lewis. There is a sweeping sense of What Christianity Actually Is. I find this a protection against religious fads and being merely a member of a subculture that wears t-shirts, goes to church, and listens to certain music.

  32. Tom Murphy

    Amen Ron!

    The timelessness and eternality of Biblical liturgy draws us into our understanding of living in light of eternity before the ever present face of God connected with all generations past, present, and future. That we are part of an eternal Kingdom without end as sons, heirs, and ministers of reconciliation, as Christ’s Body and Blood ushers us into a Divine Banquet where He is the meal.

    Making a Messianic Jewish Seder part of the Lenten season has helped tremendously to give light to our Lord’s Supper…Psalm 116:12-15

    I’ve often wondered why dinner and conversation around a table with good friends feels so right – the Rabbit Room and Hutchmoot being an online/in-person shadow of that coming reality.

    I think the other post a few days ago of finding the eternal in the mundane has much to inform our understanding.

    Christ’s intimacy with his brothers revealed in a Supper…The Easter narrative begun at a table of meager bread and wine with washed feet consummated in a resurrection to a table of the Bread of Life and New Wine with New Hearts…Not only that, but we get to join in that Feast now!

  33. Tony Heringer

    Good to hear from you Ron! I posted last night before you but I must not have clicked the “post” button because I don’t see my last update — I was working at a Starbucks and had a few work irons in the fire and was in a hurry to finish in order to catch up with Cherie and my daughter.

    I smiled when BB said he was concerned his post was too long. Here? C’mon man! We like these long and winding posts, eh?

    The idea of comparing this to a song or music in general really resonates with me. I’m also glad you made a small case for traditional hymns. There is a balance to the music we use in worship and its sad how often it becomes a source of conflict. Our lead teacher Randy Pope often laments that more congregations divide over music than doctrine. “Super size me!” indeed!

    To circle back to BB, I have not read the book you noted. It’s the blessing and curse of coming here I get so many good resources recommended. I do want to read Smith’s books on this topic. To be fair to him, I don’t think he is dividing cognitive or reason from the visceral or emotional experience but is going deeper to the core. To your point:

    “He stated clearly: “We are affective creatures before we are cognitive creatures. We are desiring creatures which enables us to be thinking things.””

    I agree, Jesus notes “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21) . That’s why Jamie is using the Mall analogy and why he ribs his kids about going there; referring to it as “The temple”. As a parent, just like our heavenly Father, our main concern for our kids is their heart. Affect drives effect. But when look the idea of the heart, the whole heart or the whole heartedness the Bible talks about it involves both the cognitive and the visceral or mind and emotions. I think he has to separate them in order to talk about them. It’s hard to do for sure.

    As to the power of liturgy, we all use them, its just that some liturgies are more subtle than others — good and bad. It’s like Ron’s note above on routine and variation. We long for adventure and that is necessary but we also no to be still, observe certain rituals even the basic ones like sleep, meals, time together with friends and family, etc. I purposely avoided some of the religious terms here but, to use Ron’s analogy, there is a certain rhythm to life that we are drawn to because that is the way God created us to be. I love how in the Magician’s Nephew that Aslan sings Narnia into existence. The first time I read that to my kids, I cried — which confuses little kids you are reading to by the way 🙂

    That’s what I think he’s getting at; at least in this lecture. I may read the book and come back to what you are talking about. I love the way you are teasing this out too. Thanks!

    I’m looking forward to hearing Father T-Mac’s series on this topic. It’s like Ron is noting above, I don’t go to these things for a new experience but rather to look at and be reminded of the depth and breadth of the family that we are a part of. The fact that I can trace the same paths as Paul, Augustine, Lewis, and many others including you, Ron, Loren, Tom, Travis, JR, Father T-Mac and many others that inhabit this place is an awesome and also humbling experience.

    It shows me I’m never alone and causes me to kneel before the Father and thank Him for such a great and glorious Kingdom that has come and continues to unfold and restore itself to its original glory — glory to glory (as in 2 Cor 3:17).


  34. Tom Murphy

    Tony, well said bud, “Affect drives effect. But when look the idea of the heart, the whole heart or the whole heartedness the Bible talks about it involves both the cognitive and the visceral or mind and emotions. I think he has to separate them in order to talk about them. It’s hard to do for sure.”

    Couldn’t agree more! Some thoughts from a Biblical counseling perspective…

    The Biblical description of the heart shows a mutually constructive/destructive interplay between the aspects of our heart – affections (feelings), cognitions (thoughts), and volitions (willing actions).

    Our affections influence and drive our thoughts/volitions, cognitions drive our affections/behaviors, and behaviors deeply impact our affections/cognitions. All of which need to be redeemed and washed with the blood of Christ from our totally depraved natures (well, I couldn’t keep Calvin bottled for long, just kinda spills out).

    In my current stage of understanding of the nature of man, I think I am a complex dichotomist (man composed of Flesh and Soul/Spirit). Would love to hear y’all’s thoughts…

    Much emphasis has been given to our cognitions (with much Biblical warrant, since battles are normally waged first in the mind), but Jonathan Edwards did the Church a massive service by also looking at our affections and how they contribute to our thought life and behaviors. Most psychologists won’t acknowledge it, but the basis for most modern psychology has come from the outworkings of Edwards’ “Religious Affections”.

    Liturgy without the Spirit is dead, however “Spirit-led” outworkings without proper Theology are merely masks for our own pride and idolatry. Seems like the church is in a pendelum swing back, but hope it gets caught in the middle with “Spirit Led Liturgy”…

    But that’s what this whole Lent season is about – worshiping and reflecting upon the one that has given us His righteouness so that we may walk as He walked by the Spirit, putting to death all forms of ungodliness and idolatry, as the Father brings all things in subjection to Christ.

    I think the interplay of the time scale of our sanctification is fodder for some good music, story, visual art, etc. by showing the alternate perspectives of both God and Man. God sees from an eternal vantage how He has already sanctified us, while man typically is consumed with the temporal of being sanctified. It’s really the work of a Biblical Counselor to unlock the paradox of our sanctification, while living in thankfulness and appreciation for our justification and coming glorification.

    David Crowder gave it a go with his “Shine” Lite Brite video (see below). The Lite Brite, represents the temporal world, while everything outside of the Lite Brite is in the realm of Eternity.

    In essence, Christ has proclaimed through the Resurrection, “I’ve won the battle for you. As you rest in me, go fight!” or for you runners, “I have crossed the finish line for you. As I carry you, go run!”

    Crowder’s “SMS (Shine)”

    Paul Tripp on the Heart


  35. Tony Heringer


    I’ll post this link again as I think it really unpacks a lot, if not all, of what we are dealing with here. While working this afternoon I listened (watched some bits as there are slides) through parts 1, 2 and some of 3. This is a great series not just on one branch of Christianity but a wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Good for follower, seeker and just the otherwise curious. My man Father T-Mac does a great job — even if he is a Longhorns fan. 🙂

    This series probably deserves a separate Rabbit Room post for all three parts.

  36. kelli

    Travis…we are in the same boat. We’ve recently moved and are in the process of finding a new church. And I agree…I would much rather spend my time, in the interim, in a place where the gospel is presented, truths are taught from the Word, and God is glorified. The places that seem to do this, in this area at least, are steeped in liturgy, which I also love!

    Last week we tried a more contemporary church, and maybe it was just my husband and I that were in the dark, but did you all know that the story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, soaking into Him, while Martha bustled about in the kitchen is actually about how we should spend quality time with our family?

    We were dumbfounded.

    All that to say…we are hungering for truth, for the gospel, for simplicity, for corporately reciting the Apostle’s/Nicene Creeds, for being reminded of the history of the church…the same church, the same bride of Jesus…back in 400 AD. They are very much a part of who we are today, and most times they aren’t even acknowledged in contemporary churches.

    Many of the churches today provide entertainment, not truth. They provide a “casual atmosphere,” not one where the Most High God is glorified. (Yes! You can do both!! That’s just not normally the case, at least for what I’ve seen over the past 6 years or so.) They tell us that “Yes, you can grow; you can become what God created you to be. Do these 5 things. Instead we should be reminded that, in fact, we canNOT. Only He can be those things in us.

    Sorry…I’m rambling and spouting a bit. Finding a true church is difficult, and I could go on and on a bit about the direction many churches in the here-and-now are going. And, in reality, no church will be perfect.

    I just appreciate having a place where kindred spirits abide!

    Off to spend some time watching Father Thomas’ videos. Thanks for the link, Tony!

  37. Paula Shaw

    I sort of think I must have been really blessed in regard to “finding” a church that fostered the liturgical, traditional, and the contemporary. Not once, but 3 times in my life, and they were/are each places where God and Holy Spirit had/has freedom to move in many ways. . . to break, heal, redeem, direct, save, etc. Were they perfect? Heck, no! But the best thing is that in spite of all our “human-ness”, God was worshiped in spirit and in truth, and given the freedom to work in and through us as He willed.
    Writing this is sort of frustrating because I lived in these places in the past, and currently live in such a place, so I keep using the past tense, while at the same time thinking of the present, so please forgive me if I go back and forth.
    I’ve learned that God can be worshiped genuinely, whether in a traditional hymn, service music, a Latin motet, an anthem, or a contemporary worship song, or in a “said service”. I’ve experienced the most deep and beautiful worship ever when the Liturgy is blended with some, or all of these wonderful avenues of connection with our Father.
    But I do understand the frustration of walking into a church where the goal seems to be entertainment and not true worship. It’s heart-rending, and heart-breaking.
    Also, the posture of my own heart at any given time can have a ripple effect. As a worship leader, I know that many (many, many) times, I’ve really hesitated putting a certain song in the service because I really didn’t like it, but then God just insisted on its inclusion, and EVERY time, THAT is the one song about which someone will thank me for using because God really spoke to their heart, or broke them, or healed them, or put repentance in them, whatever. The point is, the very thing I was going to exclude, actually brought someone to the foot of the cross.
    Do I prefer a more traditional and liturgical service? Yep, I do. But at the same time, I know, because I’ve seen it too many times, that when God gets hold of the working end of anything, like some hokey sounding contemporary song(and please don’t get me wrong, I love many contemporary songs!), all hell can endeavor to shake it, but He will have His way.
    And I believe that when we are transformed and worshiping at the throne of God, that we won’t really care about the style of worship, because it will ALL be sacred and in spirit and truth, and our Father will be loving every minute of it because He loves us so much.

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