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Ashes-to-Go For One: Rethinking Liturgical Individualism

She walked in as I was in the sanctuary preparing for the service – checking the ashes, making sure I had some paper towels ready, marking my spot in the Book of Worship.  “Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?” Yes ma’am, I replied, at 7:00 p.m.  It was about 6:20 at this point. “Has it been earlier in other years?” I’m not sure, I said, I just started in July.

It turned out that she had been to our Ash Wednesday service before, and was hoping to catch the service on her way home from work before meeting with her daughter.  I told her we had a community meal going on and we’d love for her to stay and eat before the service, but her daughter was expecting her and she couldn’t stay. I could tell she was disappointed.

Then I offered to do for her something I’ve never done, something I’ve argued against doing vigorously for years: if she wished, I would impose ashes on her personally and pray with her.  She gladly accepted, and, after giving her some time to pray at the altar, I prayed with her and placed ashes – that ancient sign of mortality and penitence – on her forehead.

Many of my colleagues have encounters somewhat like this annually. Increasingly, among liturgical Protestants, we hear each Lent about “Ashes-to-Go.”  Pastors and priests will go to a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, set up shown downtown, or go to some other public place for a time on Ash Wednesday and offer to pray with people and impose ashes on them.  An each year, I hear stories of significant encounters that would never happen unless the ashes were taken outside of the walls of the church and offered on the go.  My experience last night give me a sense of the meaningful connection that truly can occur in these one-on-one encounters outside of a communal worship context.

I still don’t believe in Ashes-to-Go.

I don’t regret offering ashes to the woman last night.  She made a good faith effort to “get her ash in church,” as we say, and simply made a mistake.  I don’t know my new community well enough to know what time nearby churches offer their services.  She was also the parishioner of a friend of mine and happened to be on my side of town, and I wanted to show hospitality to a fellow United Methodist, in the same way I would hope a colleague would treat one of my church members.

Protestants seem enamored with transplanting communal rites outside of both their ecclesial and liturgical contexts – that is, taking them out of a worship setting and offering them individually.  Whether it is communion at train stations or at home via skype, or Ash Wednesday around the dinner table because you’re snowed in, we seem to look for any excuse to take sacred rites to the secular.

Theologically, this is often tied to a sort of missional mindset, which observes (rightly) that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the Temple, but went out to meet people on the road, at the city gate, and at the well.  In a North American context where fewer people are making worship a priority even once a week, it seems unreasonable to wait in church and simply hope people show up. In my own tribe, United Methodists, we will often cite John Wesley’s bold step of preaching outside to coal-miners and other working class people of England at the beginning of the Wesleyan revival.  This kind of sacred experience outside of church and among the people, the argument goes, is simply part of our Methodist DNA.

The problem remains the same, however, because there is a basic category mistake.  Ash Wednesday, like the Eucharist, is a corporate rite.  Even in situations of pastoral need – like, say, taking communion to the sick, or the woman who accidentally arrived early at my church last night – these are exceptions to the rule for those who cannot be present with the community.  That’s quite different than seeking out those who could be in corporate worship and offering them a facsimile of the real thing.  Ashes-to-Go is a capitulation to an individualistic culture that, however anecdotally meaningful to participants, ultimately undermines the creation of a Christian community in which worship is central.  It is satisfying in the way that eating ice cream before dinner is satisfying: it meets an immediate desire but ruins the real experience of the family meal.

I don’t regret offering ashes on the go last night, but it reinforced my belief that Ash Wednesday, like Holy Communion, is a community experience whose individualistic expressions should be an exception based on pastoral need and not on convenience.  I respect the desire to reach people outside of the walls of the church and the desire to try new things – and indeed, some of my closest colleagues do this annually – but I believe it ultimately misses the mark.

Let’s get, and give, our ash in church.

What has been your experience of Ashes-to-Go? What are other ways we can meet and serve people outside the walls of the church? Leave a comment below!

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Lent: A Journey Towards Reality

by Drew 0 Comments
Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Doman courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Domain courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Let’s begin with two generals and a monk. 

The legend goes that when Julius Caesar was a young man, serving a minor government post in Spain, he happened upon a statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who laid waste to just about the whole world. When he saw the statue he burst into tears, grieving that he had accomplished so little in his time. When Alexander was his age, after all, he had already conquered the known world. Caesar immediately resigned and returned to Rome, seeking higher position and glory – which he found, of course – but in doing so he destroyed the Republic and was betrayed and murdered by his friends.

Next, the monk. If you go to some monasteries and churches in Greece, you might see an icon of an old man in a beard bowing down before a pile of bones. The old man is a saint, Saint Sisoes the Great, called a “desert father” because of his years spent living in great discipline and solitude in the Egyptian desert. The icon depicts Sisoes on his knees before the bones of Alexander the Great, the unparalleled conqueror, and weeping, saying: “O death, who can evade you?”

For Caesar, the memory of Alexander elicited envy and determination to achieve.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

For Sisoes, the simple monk that history barely remembers, it stirred up humility and a sense of spiritual zeal.

Ash Wednesday is a day that Christians, like Abba Sisoes, dare to remember our deaths. At the beginning of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation modeled on Jesus’ own time of temptation in the desert – the church puts ashes on our foreheads, calls us to repent, and reminds us that we came from dust and will return to it.

This is a very countercultural act.

We live in a world terrified of death, which is to say a world that is uncomfortable with reality. Products and politicians, commercials and a thousand different hucksters promise us we can evade death if we buy this or vote for them or read that. Cosmetic companies and surgeons say they can liberate us from wrinkles and sags; the commercial on TV promises us that if we take this or that pill we can perform like our 18-year-old selves.

We see this in our language, too.  Pay attention to this, if haven’t already noticed it.  We use a wide variety of euphemisms to avoid saying the “d-word” – we say so-and-so “passed away” or “left us” or “went to be with Jesus” instead of saying ‘died’ or ‘dead’ or some other iteration of death.

For all her flaws, which are legion, at least the church is honest about this. Like that desert saint, we are bold to say, “O death, who can evade you?” as we put on ashes and journey toward the cross.

There is a remarkable freedom in this. What the world misses is what the gospel proclaims: that to really live you must die to yourself; to discover our purpose we must become servants of God.  The call and challenge of Jesus tells us truest joy is found – not in fast cars and money or golf or large houses or incredible sex or decadent dessert or Super Bowl tickets – but in taking up a cross and following Jesus. Jesus did not die so we could “believe in him” and go about our lives as we see fit. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and come to share His very life.

Ash-Wednesday-crossWe cannot outrun death. In giving our lives, though, to the one whom death could not hold, death loses its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).  So we recieve ashes and remember our mortality, not because God wants us morbid and morose, but because we know we have spent too many hours trying to deny reality: we are not God.  We are not immortal.  We do not hold life and death in our hands.

Thankfully, we know the One who does.

The waters of baptism wash away the ashes of death.  We are raised with Christ! Death’s power is fleeting, make no mistake, but we also know all too well that on this side of the Kingdom death behaves with the vengeance of a jilted lover.

And so Lent begins, and we again take a 40 day journey back to reality.

Lent reminds us that the only greatness that counts is sainthood.  Every great conqueror is now topsoil, but holiness does not decompose.  Those great exemplars of faith, like Abba Sisoes the Great and his desert brethren, repose incandescent in the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us.

Ash Wednesday thus offers us a stark choice:

We can continue chase immortality, celebrity, and grandeur with Caesar and Alexander

or

we can take the journey back to reality, embrace our finitude, admit our need for God’s embrace, and discover the only path to life.

This Lent, may Sisoes the Great and all the company of saints who have conquered temptation, fought the good fight, and finished the race inspire us to walk closer to Christ, more transparent to his gracious reign.

Let’s close with a prayer:

God, you know better than we
the temptations that will bring us down.
Grant that our love for you may protect us
from all foolish and corrupting desire.

-Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, from the New Zealand Prayer Book)

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Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

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A Prayer to Remember the Last Supper

by Drew 1 Comment

Artist’s rendering of a triclinium, the table Jesus and his disciples would have used to celebrate the Passover Seder. Da Vinci was way off.

I wrote the following prayer to open the service today, as we began a series based on Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World:

Gracious God,
Who fills our plates with good food
and our cups to overflowing:

We thank you that your Son eats with sinners, even those like Peter
who deny him
and like Thomas
who doubt him
and like Judas
who betray him.

We thank you that Jesus still prepares a feast for people like us.
Help us to take our place at his table now,
that we may feast at the great banquet to come. Amen.

It also occurred to me (and I’m probably not the first to notice this, though I haven’t heard it before myself) that this event recorded in the gospels is misnamed.  If it were actually the “last” supper, then we would not be worshiping Jesus as the Christ and the Second Person of the Trinity.  Jesus conquered death and went on eating and drinking; in fact, the disciples didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread (Emmaus).

We look forward to what John the Revelator calls “the marriage supper of the lamb,” in which the bride of Christ shall rejoice to see her savior face-to-face in unbroken communion in that Kingdom which is breaking in even now.  Amen.

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Luke 13:31-35: “The Fox and the Hen” (Lent 2)

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Has anyone ever given you suspicious advice? Maybe someone who you know doesn’t like you, or who just doesn’t know you well at all, tries to give you advice like you are the best of friends. Should you take their advice, or not? With some people, you never know their real motivations. With others, experience teaches us not to take them at their word.
Our passage from Luke today opens with some advice from a strange source. Some Pharisees come up to Jesus and seem concerned. The approach Jesus and tell him, “You should get out of here, Herod wants to kill you.” No surprise here. This was the Herod we heard about around Christmas, the King that had slaughtered thousands of babies trying to prevent the birth of the Messiah. From all the Gospel accounts, we know that Herod, this coward, this puppet ruler who oppresses his own people on behalf of Rome, is no friend of Jesus. It couldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that Herod was plotting against him. But why would the Pharisees warn Jesus?
This is really suspicious advice. The Pharisees, the Jewish teachers of law, community leaders, actively opposed the ministry of Jesus. They were scared of his miracles. Perplexed at his teachings. Most of all, they were angry – angry and shocked – that so many people were drawn to this carpenter turned Rabbi. So it should strike us as odd that in our passage today we see Pharisees of all people trying to warn Jesus of danger.
But if you look at the context of this passage I think we get an idea about where this odd warning comes from. Just before this in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus was teaching about salvation. He tells the people to enter through what he calls “the narrow door,” that not all who wish to enter will be able to. He concludes this teaching by saying, “Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.” In other words, not everyone you expect will receive God’s mercy. It’s a scary passage for anyone. It had to be frightening for the Pharisees, the professional religious folks. No good Jew would have doubted their status in God’s kingdom, and surely none of the Pharisees questioned their own place in God’s eyes.
From the gospels, we can be sure that the Pharisees kept a close eye on Jesus as he taught. He frequently interacts with them throughout his ministry. They weren’t disciples, but they were certainly interested. You’ve heard that old advice that says, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer?“ Well, the Pharisees followed that. They saw Jesus as their enemy, and though they didn’t like him, they didn’t ignore him. And so they were close by when Jesus said, “Some of those who are first will be last.”
It can’t be an accident that their warning comes right after this. How convenient! “You Pharisees and other leaders – some of you will be last one day!” And now, all of a sudden, the Pharisees discover some concern for Jesus’ safety?! No…no, that is just a little too convenient. I’m sure Jesus saw through it – we can almost hear him thinking, “Yeah, right!”
Jesus isn’t impressed with the false concern of Pharisees, and he isn’t frightened by Herod’s anger either. He even challenges the Pharisees to take a message back to Herod. He tells them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Jesus wants Herod to know that his threats will not deter his mission. Jesus is on a journey towards Jerusalem, a journey to the cross, but it is not his time yet. His Father in Heaven will decide that and the Holy Spirit will guide him, but he will not be frightened into submission by a petty king. Eugene Peterson translates his response this way: “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now…I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick.”
“Go and tell that Fox!” This isn’t a gentle, meek and mild Jesus. This isn’t a Jesus who floats on the clouds and does nothing but whisper nice things to us. Luke shows us that Jesus had an edge to him, maybe he was even a little bit of a rebel. I suppose he’d have to be to openly mock a powerful figure who was trying to have him killed. “Go and tell that fox,” he says. Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Did Herod have red fur and a bushy tail? No. A fox had a reputation for cunning, for sneakiness, and trickery. Today, we might say, “a weasel.” Throughout most of human history foxes have been regarded as clever creatures – animals that the wise farmer would not turn their back on for an instant.
We see this reflected in many stories that have been handed down to us over the centuries, especially in some of Aesop’s fables. The fox was actually one of his favorite characters. Here is an example:
A fox one day fell into a deep well and could not find a way to escape. A goat, who happened to be extremely thirsty, came to the same well and, seeing the Fox, asked if the water was good. Concealing his sad plight under a happy facade, the Fox heaped praise upon the water, saying it was excellent beyond measure, and encouraging the goat to descend and try it for himself. The Goat, thinking only of his thirst, thoughtlessly jumped down. As he began to drink, the Fox informed him of the difficulty they were both in and suggested a scheme for their common escape. “If,” said he, “you will place your front feet on the wall and bend your head, I will run up your back and escape, and will help you out afterwards.” The Goat readily agreed and the Fox leaped upon his back. Steadying himself with the Goat’s horns, he safely reached the mouth of the well and made off as fast as he could. As he was running away, the Goat yelled him for breaking his promise; the fox turned around and cried out, “You foolish old fellow! If you had as many brains in your head as you have hairs in your beard, you would never have gone down before you had inspected the way up, nor have exposed yourself to dangers from which you had no means of escape.” The moral of the story: look before you leap.
“Look before you leap.” Know what you are getting yourself into and know who you are dealing with. Don’t trust a fox. They are tricky, dishonest and dangerous. Jesus knows who Herod is, and he lets everyone know that this deceiver will not stand in the way of the work the Father has given him. He will continue his work of healing and preaching, proclaiming the Kingdom, until the third day, and then he will be on his way to Jerusalem. As we continue on our own Lenten journey towards Easter, we see this as a foreshadowing of the three days Jesus would spend in the tomb.
After Jesus sends this message, he begins a lament for Jerusalem, a prayer of mourning and sadness. Here Jerusalem stands for all of Israel, for God’s people whom He desires. Jesus sounds a word of both hope and warning. He calls Jerusalem, “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Here Jesus is looking back to prophets like Uriah and Zechariah, sent by God but killed in God’s holy city. This is a word of judgment that changes to a message of Jesus’ longing for his people. He continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Many of us probably aren’t used to female images for God. Those of us who have been reading The Shack together have gotten used to it, that’s part of what is interesting about the book: many of us have found out that most of our images and ideas about God are very, very male-oriented. But we forget that the Bible does show feminine images for God also. Here Jesus compares himself to a mother hen gathering her children under her wings. Earlier he called Herod a fox; a conniving, selfish, untrustworthy beast. Now he likens himself to a nurturing mother hen.
Hens are known to be protective. I heard a story from a friend who comes from a family of farmers. He tells a story about the day that the hen house burned down on his grandpa’s place just down the road. His dad arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As he and the grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead near what had been the door of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed brown by the fire’s heat, her neck limp. The grandfather bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as he did so, he felt movement. The hen’s four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hens wings, protected and saved even as she died to protect and save them.
That is the story of Jesus. Jesus is that mother hen who would rather die than see its children suffer in agony. Jesus longs to gather his beloved under his wings to protect them; but here he says that Jerusalem is not willing. This city that kills prophets, these people are still beloved, but they are unwilling.
The story is not over yet though. Jesus says, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is almost exactly the chant that the people will give, waving palm branches as he enters Jerusalem in the coming days. Jesus has called Jerusalem the city that kills prophets, and he is going there anyway. He knows that Herod and Pilate and many other foxes await; many want him dead, but they will not get their wish until the appointed time. And even as the foxes plot his death, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. He goes to Jerusalem unafraid, as the hen who protected her children in the fire – pure, selfless, love, enduring pain and suffering, for those he loves. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He wants to be our Lord and our Savior. As the mother hen enveloped her young under her wings, Jesus will hang with arms outstretched, saving all who are willing to receive his mercy. For now, let us follow. Let us take up our crosses and walk with him until the appointed time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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