From the outset, a mix of old and new marked the service in Faith Presbyterian's mid-century- modern church. The old standby "What Wondrous Love Is This" served as the prelude, but the organ arrangement mixed in synth elements that lent it a moody vibe before settling into a more conventional combination of tones and chords. (The church itself reflected the blend: a traditional shape and a traditional altar, but plenty of unadorned wood paneling, a stylized copper and bronze cross, and a huge swath of tinted windows looking out on the College Area businesses. No stained glass here.) After the old-school handbell choir rang out its song, Reverend Tom Simpson's call to worship hit a more contemporary, personal note regarding the old-fashioned observance of Lent. "The season rolls around again -- deep calls to deep," he announced, mixing the casual and profound in a single sentence.
"Settle down," answered the congregation. "Look within. Be quiet. Listen."
"Now is a time to reflect and pray. Now is the season for silence and giving."
"Thank God for Lent. Thank God we journey not alone."
What seemed like a quarter of the congregation stepped onto the Sanctuary stairs and formed the choir, busting out a jazzy praise hymn: "From heaven to earth/ To show the way/ From the earth to the cross/ My debt to pay/ From the cross to the grave/ From the grave to the sky/ Lord I lift your name on high...." But they followed that with a controlled and complex (and decidedly old-fashioned) response to Pastor Chris Lenocker's Prayer of Adoration: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases/ His mercies never come to an end/ They are new every morning, new every morning/ Great is your faithfulness, O Lord...."
The Prayer of Confession kept up the duality, full of traditional self-abasement expressed in modern language: "Forgive us...our pretensions of self-sufficiency, and our unacknowledged dependency...our refusal to let go and trust...and our fear of being cared for." The Assurance of Pardon reminded us that "God comes to us in a smile or in a song.... God comes to us right here and now powerfully in the declaration of our forgiveness."
"Praise be to God!" cried the congregation. "We have been forgiven!" (Other prayers, such as the Gloria Patri and the Our Father, received perfectly straightforward treatment.)
Before the reading from Scripture, Lenocker offered a preacher's prayer for humility: "May we trust that same Spirit to guide us...that as the Scriptures are read and the word is preached, may we listen, not to human words, but to the words that your Spirit places within us, that we might receive from you -- individually and corporately -- what you would have us hear."
Reverend Simpson read a passage from Paul in which he listed his impeccable credentials as a devout Jew, then he cast them aside as so much rubbish compared to the grace of Christ; he followed with the passage from John in which Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive ointment, despite Judas's protest that the money should have gone to feed the poor.
Here, tradition held sway. Paul, said Lenocker, "is setting people up...to understand how...things in his life have changed. The values have shifted. The Lenten season is a uniquely Christian season.... I don't think Hallmark will ever make a lot of money on Lent; it's ours. The reason...is that it speaks a deep truth that is not popular." The message: "Paul is willing to set all of the accolades aside" for "knowledge of and belief in Jesus Christ -- a relationship with someone who has died...and it isn't a relationship that is always happy. Paul goes into great detail about the fact that he wants to share in Jesus' crucifixion so that he can share in His resurrection. The life that Paul has set aside has been replaced by something that, ultimately, leads to suffering. The Lenten season challenges us to look at our own lives.... What do we lift up as most important? How do we proclaim the value of Jesus Christ?" He pointed to Mary's "extravagant and outrageous" action. "We need to be as extravagant in our loving of Jesus Christ as Jesus Christ was in the extravagance of His sacrifice on the cross.... There's something powerful about a relationship with Jesus Christ that sometimes causes us to do crazy things."
He closed the service with an exhortation: "As we leave this place to enter the world, may we take with us that which God has put in us -- that it may not stay within the walls of this church, but go down the street and around the corner, and its efficacy be felt throughout God's planet Earth."
What happens when we die?
"Our tradition believes that we are resurrected with Christ," said Lenocker, "and we all will be part of the Kingdom of God and the glorious feast."
5075 Campanile Drive, San Diego
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA
Founded locally: the result of two churches that merged in 1995
Senior pastor: Dr. Chris Lenocker
Congregation size: 250
Staff size: 1 full-time pastor, 8 others
Sunday school enrollment: about 40
Annual budget: $525,000
Weekly giving: about $8100
Singles program: no
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes