Here’s a bit of little-known church history: it seems that during the third and fourth centuries, particularly in the Germanic regions of Europe, it was customary for men to disarm themselves before entering into a sanctuary for Christian worship. Of course, in those days, the bulk of their weapons were simple wooden clubs; nothing elegant or sophisticated, mind you, but effective against highway bandits and wild animals. So it was common at that time to find a pile of wooden clubs at the back of a church, as members of the congregation would leave them to worship.
What’s interesting is that over time, a game grew out of this practice. Apparently, after services the men would gather up all the clubs, pile them all together, and then they would compete among each other to see who could knock down the most clubs by rolling stones at them. There was even a faith context attached to it; it was said that the more clubs one knocked over, the more sins that person was believed to have left behind.
Over time, this contest became more widespread and took on specific rules and guidelines; eventually, it became known as “nine pins,” or “knocking down sins,” and such was its popularity that before long it had grown beyond the church yard to become hugely popular as a betting game at local taverns! Even Martin Luther, that great protestant reformer, called this his favorite sport, and is credited with setting down the formal rules for the game! It is said that Luther loved to refer to Christians as “holy bowlers,” people who enthusiastically bowled over all the sins that kept them from seeking God’s fullness and fulfillment.
Of course, by the time it came to this country, the rectangular 9 pins became the triangular 10 pins and it all but lost any religious symbolism it once held. But the fact is that the game we know today as bowling has as it roots in Christian worship and as a way of leaving behind animosity, disunity and violence so to approach God in humility and peace (Think about that the next time you try to pull off a spare!).
Well, today is Ash Wednesday, and we in the church are biblically encouraged to “call a solemn assembly; gather the people,” as the prophet Joel put it; to “sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children,” in order that with fasting, weeping and mourning, we might return to the Lord with all our hearts. Likewise, we have come together this day, approaching God, so that we might be empowered by God in Christ for the journey ahead, which happens to be the way of the cross. And much like those “holy bowlers” of old, we come here so that in the process, we too might leave our sins behind.
You see, basic to our understanding of faith is repentance, forgiveness and redemption. Only in coming to God as we truly are, in our utter weakness, can we really expect to be able to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus. As Jesus himself taught, things like fasting and acts of righteousness before God are wonderful if they are given from humble, contrite and sacrificial hearts. However, if we bring our own agenda to such things, it means little or nothing, and can serve to put a wedge between us and God rather than bringing us closer to God
True worship – and, I might add, true discipleship – requires the emptying of ourselves; it means piling up our self-centered sin off in a distant corner as though they were wooden clubs at the rear of a sanctuary. That’s why we begin this Lenten journey to the cross “just as we are, without one plea,” with prayer, confession, and receiving the hope of forgiveness.
But that having been said; I hope that we don’t see this as some “random” act of righteousness. What we’re doing by our worship is to call upon the great power and love of the Lord to erase the sins of the past, so that we can start again on the journey refreshed and renewed, with a new course heading and a clear view ahead. This is not something to be done casually or as a mere formality; it needs to be done in good and proper form, with precision, enthusiasm and depending upon the power that comes by God’s good grace.
Perhaps as this Lenten season begins we should be thinking of ourselves as “holy bowlers,” taking these 40-odd days to make the effort to knock as many “pins” down as we can: pins that keep us from a right relationship with God and with others; pins that lead us to behaviors that are self-destructive and harmful to those around us; pins that would keep us mired in old angers, past regrets, and on-going divisiveness. Indeed, they’re all ready to be knocked down, and the ball or stone that we use is confession unto the Lord; for the lord is truly more willing to forgive our sins than we are to acknowledge them, confess them and leave them behind.
Repent and believe, brothers and sisters. Knock ‘em down!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry