Why I dropped church and joined The Church

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A German Mass during WWII

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*A repost from 2013 as I think about contemporary liturgical worship this week.

I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. Oh, I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. But no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered The Church, as in, the Church historic. In historic Christianity; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures, and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come. I first came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and working toward final justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures, and challenged me to serve. Now, though, in The Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In The Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described The Church of The Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils, over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were the missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride, the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of The Church. In The Church, the old theological battles are not forgotten, so they do not need to be refought.

I realized that I could never truly connect with the relevant church simply because it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was all so “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins gently and asks me to change instead. In The Church, when one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me, or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In The Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70’s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church. I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite leaves them hungry, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in his Apology in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship, a mystery in which the words and movements all tell a story. And, ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of The Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the service offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

Smudgy Foreheads

 

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service…

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. This Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Smudgy foreheads

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service.

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. I encourage you this Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Prayer Book Revision: Dancing on the third rail

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Guest Blogger: Chicken Little, Doomsday Forecaster

Chicken Little

On the way into our 78th General Convention my word to my nervous brethren was, “Worry not. Outside of choosing new leaders, national meetings are irrelevant to the day to day operations of our hen houses.” General Convention is now behind us and I want to cluck a little…

First, I think we did very well in our choice of a new presiding bishop, the Right Reverend Michael Curry of North Carolina. He is a Jesus guy, will represent the Episcopal Church positively in public, and is an inspirational preacher. Unfortunately, my conjecture of Bp. Curry’s election was probably the only thing I was right about. In retrospect, this convention has the potential to leave no Episcopal church unscathed. Before General Convention (was that really only two weeks ago), I described a pothole (marriage canons) and a third rail (prayerbook revision). My belief was that we would dodge the pothole and, as long as we avoided touching that rail, all would be fine. Unfortunately, our bishops and deputies did not just run us through the pothole and touch that third rail, they danced on it…and, perhaps, set a timer ticking on a hastened demise for the Episcopal Church.

What is this hyperbolic high voltage rail and ticking time bomb to which I refer? Its official name is Plan for Revising the Book of Common Prayer. “Rest easy,” you will be told. “Prayerbook revision is a long, slow process.” In fact, it will take so long that its’ rhythmic background patter may lull you to sleep. But don’t think that tick-tock is harmless. Legislative item A 169, “Establish a Process for the Revision of the Book of common Prayer 1979,” sounds innocuous, but you should know that, “Preparing a plan for comprehensive revision” is code for “we will have a new prayer book in nine years unless we can figure out a way to do it sooner.

The insider speak promoting the revision is in code as well. Let me translate:

Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who is on the committee responsible for the revision, told the House of Bishops, “the resolution commits us to a theological, liturgical and ecclesiological conversation. I hope we can move forward with boldness to say we are ready.” Translation: We are going to talk about a lot of stuff not heretofore considered “Christian.”

The Rev. Ruth Meyers, chair of the committee, told the House of Deputies, “It’s become increasingly apparent that the 1979 prayer book is a product of its time…it’s time for us to take stock of our church and context in this century.”

Translation: “We want a prayerbook with marriage liturgies that work with same-sex couples, a new pledge in Baptism that Christians care for creation, a wholesale change in wording to reflect the growing universalist bent in our church, and the stripping of gendered language from our liturgies.

For the uninitiated, the idea of “non-gendered language” is to purge our liturgies of “problematic” words like, “Lord,” and “Kingdom.” Also on the cutting room floor are “patriarchal” words for God, like “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In their place we shall have “non-discriminatory” ones like, “God, Child, and Spirit.” Wrap your mind around the implications of that for a moment – a non-gendered God…except that the Holy Spirit is nearly always referred to as “she” by this group. Apparently the alternative to the biblical mode of speaking of God will be to jettison male deity references and substitute a female one. Are we about to become goddess worshippers?

I would like to say that I trust the motives and gracious impulse of those driving this. I believe they have a genuine desire to welcome and serve other more marginalized poultry-the ones not in the hen house. I have serious theological concerns about the way they want to accomplish these goals though. It is above our pay grade to change those words in the prayerbook that are the scriptures reorganized for public worship – when it is quoting the revealed words of scripture and the doctrines of the Christian tradition we cross a line. We are not our LDS convention hosts, no matter how welcoming they were in Salt Lake City. We do not receive, as our bishops said repeatedly, “new revelation from God.” And to think that new revelation comes by means of popularity contest in the form of “yeah” or “nay” vote is the epitome of progressive-modernist arrogance. We have an impeccable understanding of parliamentary procedure but need a refresher in systematic theology.

The convention seems to have gotten caught up in a collective euphoria over the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision – the convention broke out in dancing at the announcement, and they danced their way to prayerbook revision. I was assuming our flocks would be protected from this ecstasy by our ordinarily circumspect house of bishops. Sadly, I was wrong.

Each of these changes appears to represent a break with scripture and the tradition. What is certain is that we have, as a denomination, moved from “providing generous pastoral response”  and “accommodation” for same-sex couples, to the endorsement of same-sex marriage – a change from the stated end-game of the last two general conventions. “There is no slippery slope here, but let me distract you from looking too closely while I pull a revisionist rabbit out of my hat.” And while grousing over sexuality is the sour grapes of the group that just got played, sex is about to become the least of our worries. Our church has set the groundwork to move far past sexuality – Univeralism and the gender reassignment of God. We are now talking about wholesale theological alterations that affect the creedal foundations of our faith.

Which can only mean one thing-the sky is falling!

For non-Anglican readers, prayerbooks are important to Anglicans because our prayers express our theology. Prayerbook revision has long been Anglicanism’s third rail. It takes us off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. In the end, prayerbook revisions always leave a disgruntled group. That is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections.

But if we think the last decade in which we lost 24% of our attendance was bad, we have not yet begun to see the emptying of our parishes like will happen IF a version of the prayerbook this group is telegraphing that they want to give us is mandated for usage. We have a decade for them to warm us up to the idea, though. The timer has begun. The clock is ticking…

When our decade runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a “Times Square” moment – a giant ball dropping on a heady new era?

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Or will it be the detonation of the mine that finishes sinking our Episcopal Church, a boat that has been taking on the waters of numerical decline for more than a decade?
UnknownWe shall see. But if we continue to grab this track, the smell of electrocuted flesh in our nostrils will be our own. If there is a silver lining it is that perhaps other churches will be blessed by our self-destructive inability to keep our hands off of the high voltage.

Chicken Little really hopes he is wrong.

And Chicken Little implores orthodox Episcopalians to scratch and cluck a bit before it is too late, especially orthodox Lesbian and Gay Episcopalians. Don’t sell your soul for a bowl of same-sex marriage rite inclusion pottage in the prayerbook. Are universalism and a new deity really what you signed up for? Many of you have told me that you joined this church because it was an orthodox expression of the Great Tradition. Will that still be true when the clock strikes?

Tenebrae Reimagined

Click on pic to go to dropbox for files

Click on pic to go to dropbox for files

This is a powerful, millennial friendly, Holy Week liturgy to put in your file for next Spring. If Tenebrae is new to you, you might think of it as a camp “cross-video”…only one that happens in your mind and with much more emotional impact.

It is an adaptation of the ancient monastic service found in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services. We kept what works best (the candles and the growing darkness of the room, the chant and participation through responsive prayers.) However, we adapted it to work better on every level.

1. Because it uses projected Keynote slides for the readings, you can have the room actually and impressively dark.

2. Rather than being lost in puzzling Lamentations readings, it now tells the story of Jesus’ Passion clearly through Old Testament messianic prophecy.

3. It has the opportunity to integrate modern sound (a terrific “earthquake” rumbles the room at the resurrection), and the best of contemporary hymnody (How Deep the Father’s Love) with the symbolism, participation, and chant. It is quite flexible: You can use the included charts for your own cantor or play the included chant recordings. You can have your own soloist and use a backing track, or play the vocal version of the hymn within the slideshow. (You will still need candles, a table, snuffer, and a black hooded alb. Now you will also need a Mac with Keynote, screen, sound system, and a good rehearsal.)

4. It is clear enough and brief enough for children to remain engaged.

We knew we had a winner the first time we used this. At the point of Christ’s death you could hear people quietly sobbing all over the nave. People stayed in the darkened church long after the service was over. We had to finally ask the last few to leave an hour later to lock up. As far as I can tell some 5-6k folk have attended this service.

If you use it, please shoot me an email with feedback and a photo or two if you can get one in the dark.

Blessings,

Matt+

Explaining the ancient church at PhoenixOne.