“Church, in the sense of a discrete, set-aside ritual space run by set-aside religious professionals, is perhaps weaker as an institution in the United States than it’s ever been.” p. xii
- How did you experience the above description of what church is? And how does it make you feel to think about the declining influence of the church in our national life?
“People move through the space chanting ancient hymn; they offer spontaneous prayers aloud, kiss the Gospel book fervently, dance beneath the saints around the altar. They paint icons, write music, bake bread, lay sweaty hands on one another in blessing. Worship at St. Gregory’s is meant to offer a full-body experience of God, not just chatter about God; it isn’t always comfortable, but it seldom feels rote.” p. 6.
- How is worship at St. Gregory’s the same or different than worship at St. Mark’s? What would it feel like to have worship that was more ancient–longer, more chanting, more smoke, more symbolism? Would it help you move closer to God? Farther away from God?
“I’d been blindsided by my unplanned first communion, turned upside down by eating that bread and drinking that wine and finding God, whom I didn’t believe in, alive in my mouth.” p. 8
- What is a time when God has been “alive in your mouth?” How would you share that experience with a friend or a neighbor who wasn’t churched?
- What do you experience when you come to the communion rail each week? How does that moment feel different from the rest of your weekly tasks? Does it?
“Mark had organized a group of machete-wielding friends to cut palm branches from a parishioner’s yard, strapped them to the top of his station wagon with bungee cords, and driven through a car wash to rinse them off before hoisting them up in the church.” p. 11
- This struck me as a particularly St. Mark’s story. In what ways to do you see members of the parish doing simple, everyday work to make our worship holy, profound?
- What is the relationship between the everyday tasks that simply need to get done and the diving mystery of the Eucharist that we experience every Sunday?
“Ashes are what a fire cannot burn. What’s left over after a fire, or from a life.” p. 12
- Reflect on ash–in scripture, in your own life. How does it seem an appropriate symbol for repentance? How has Ash Wednesday formed or influenced your faith life?
“‘Ash Wednesday is really good for the church,’ Paul said. I looked at my friend and thought how difficult it must be for him, sometimes, to contain his fervent faith inside the conventions of the institution. ‘Not just for individuals The other three hundred sixty-four days of the year, we think we’re fine. We think we’re not going to die if we just tweak our music or our coffee hour or the associate rector’s new program. On Ash Wednesday, we have to realize, we have to corporately realize, that we are completely out of control.’” p. 14
- How is Ash Wednesday really good for the church? Is it?
“I wondered what impulse or habit or deep need had driven them, so early in the morning, to find a building where they could observe Ash Wednesday.” p. 15
- What impulse or habit brings you into the season of Lent each year? Do you dread it? Look forward to it? If you were going to explain Lent to a neighbor, how would you go about it?
“The tune was so lovely I could almost forget the harsh irony nestled in the words: heavenly comfort is not comforting at all.” p.16
- Is there a time you’ve experience heavenly comfort? Was it harsh? Loving? Brutal? Timely? What does heavenly comfort mean to you, and what do you think it means to the author in this passage?
“If I considered my own struggles to live honestly with other on my block, even with my friends and family, I had to wonder how wise it really was to pray for the spirit of truth to come.” p. 17
- How has it been a struggle to live honestly with friends or family? And does is that struggle related to your Christian faith?
“‘Grant us to see our own sins’; a request I thought as risky as asking for the spirit of truth to come. How closely did I really want to look?” p. 19
- Have you ever prayed to God for the ability to see your own sins clearly? Would you dare?
“Repentance, in Christian practice, is not a psychological or an emotional process. ‘Feelings,’ Paul declared once when I brought him some intractable problem with a troubled parishioner, ‘are stupid.’ I thought he must be joking, but Paul insisted. ‘Jesus doesn’t care if you feel guilty. Jesus wants you to change.’” p. 20
- This statement from St. Gregory’s rector seems to be provocative. Often, statements provoke precisely because there is truth in them. Do you hear truth in Fr. Paul’s statement? A lot? A little?
- Can you think of times when Jesus ignores feelings? Is interested in feelings?
“‘That’s just apology,’ explained Paul, ‘which is about etiquette. Repentance is about rebirth. It means putting on your big-girl panties and facing the world to do things differently.’” p. 20
- Colorful language aside, what do you think Fr. Paul is trying to say?
- How would you describe the difference between repentance and apology? How would you think about them differently during Lent? Corporately? Individually?
“Repentance requires paying attention with all our hearts, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people of God created to be his own.” p. 21
- What does God’s love of this world have to do with Lent? How do you see God’s love? Where do you feel like it is missing?
“Ash Wednesday was calling me back to worship God with my whole body–lungs, thumb, knees, eyes, tongue–and to admit that body’s inevitable failure. And it reminded me that I was no different in my flesh from any other human being.” p. 22
- How does it feel to be reminded about one’s mortality? How is that related to Ash Wednesday and Lent? How are your mortality and your faith linked?
- Does the Church do a good job talking about this during other times than Lent? How or how not?
“‘The worst thing we can imagine is that we’re made of dirt and going to die,’” Paul said to me once. ‘But when we say it aloud, we discover the worst thing isn’t the last thing. The last thing is forgiveness.’” p. 22
- Reflect on the above quote. How are death and forgiveness related?