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Tabling the Ashes, and Other Religious Choreographies for an Insightful Pandemic

Are you pausing to learn or just trying to get through as fast you can? How much of what we used to call “normal” is worth trying to retrieve? What’s one big “take-away” insight from living in the midst of this pandemic that you might not have had otherwise?

Could we agree that we all just need to take a huge nap before trying to build a new world together and that it might be useful if we all took that nap at the same time?

I think I’m inching closer to a big take-away insight from all this, and I’ll share it below, but I’m intrigued by the intermediate steps to get there, the coping and fussing and experimenting and adjusting and canceling and scheduling and revising—all the time! (Did I mention a nap would be nice?)

I’m also intrigued, having returned to fulltime parish ministry, to find my capacity for innovation strengthened by turning frequently to my grounding in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church. This is not unlike the old aphorism about jazz piano—learn your scales first. I used to say something similar in the seminary classes I taught on systematic theology—know first how to operate the interlocking gears and gadgets of doctrinal claims before trying to spin off those whirling bits of novel God-talk.

As many clergy have been discovering (while others are actively denying it), there are some things we can no longer do that we once thought we simply must do for effective liturgy, or more severely, for a “valid” sacrament. I continue to be grateful for my formation in what many consider the “rigidities” of liturgical tradition precisely because they shaped my sense of why we do what we do—and therefore how to omit those things responsibly by either replacing them with something else or inviting people to pray through the gap.

I still have a lot of thinking and pondering to do on the implications of liturgical leadership during a pandemic, but I feel the strong need to write these things down, even when they’re not completely formed. I worry that our (understandable) eagerness to “get through” this pandemic will mean rushing past the many lessons to learn and even “gifts” (if we dare use that word just now) of this peculiar time unless we take the time, right now, to record some of it.

As we lurch into Lent (remember a year ago when we were looking forward to being back in church on Easter—I mean, last Easter?) I’m thinking especially about two broad, gestating insights that could inform how I “do liturgy” even when we begin to gather again in person.

First, don’t pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t.

And second, creed and confession are more entangled than I realized; I’m not sure yet what that means, except it has something to do with healing.

So here a  few observations about both of these, and then a note or two about that bigger “take-away.” And I would love to hear from others, lay or ordained, about your experiences of church over this last year, either in conversation with these insights or others.

Everything is Not Okay and That’s Okay for Now
When I first arrived to Saugatuck, Michigan after driving across the country from Berkeley, California last summer, I kept wanting to create video productions for worship in my new parish that mimicked as closely as possible “real” church. After a few weeks of that labor-intensive effort, I began to wonder what in the world was “real” about church to begin with. I also started to realize that I was trying to pretend everything was still “normal,” except for being online.

Everything is not, of course, normal; hardly anything is, actually, and I stumbled into a space of liberation and relief by acknowledging that to myself and then saying it out loud to the other clergy and lay leaders in the parish. That freed up my energy to start noticing, prayerfully, just how not-normal things are and what this means for we pray and worship.

This past Ash Wednesday is a case in point. I considered, briefly, some of the clever and ingenious ways I was reading about from other clergy for how safely to impose ashes on foreheads, including sprinkling them on tops of heads instead. But I noticed again the hankering in my pondering for pretending that everything is normal when it isn’t. I also couldn’t imagine how anyone needed a reminder of their own mortality right now.

Ludovic Florent Photography

I decided to keep the ashes as part of the live-streamed liturgy that evening, but only in a crystal bowl that sat on the altar. They will sit there for the whole season of Lent, not as a reminder of our mortality but as a reminder of the promise God always makes at that Table: to bring new life out of death. We will then sprinkle those ashes around the parish memorial garden on Easter morning.

During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I blessed the ashes in their little altar-bowl with these words, borrowed and adapted from the Scottish Episcopal Church:

Living God of renewal and hope,
in their life palms draw sustenance from the Earth
and give of their own vitality to the air we breathe,
and to the animals they host and shelter;
in the worship of this community,
they help us mark with joyful anticipation
the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his death:
Grant, O God, that these palms now reduced to ashes
may remind us of the mortality we share
     with your whole creation,
and may also stand as a sign of your love,
     which is stronger than death.
May we recognize that love at work in us even now,
replanting our lives in the sure and humble soil
of your grace and generosity.
We pray all this in the name of Jesus
in whom you have become one with us in our mortal flesh,
and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Presiding this morning at our Eucharistic liturgy for the first Sunday in Lent, I was quite moved to see the little bowl of ashes on the Table as I prayed that we might all “prepare with joy for the paschal feast.”

Creedal Confessions for Healing
For reasons I cannot yet fully articulate, this pandemic has heightened my awareness of the intimate relationship between what I believe and my failure to live fully the consequences of those beliefs. This has caused me to reflect in new ways on what I learned many years ago in seminary: not only sins or faults but also beliefs are items we confess, and both types of confession might actually play a significant role in our healing, both individually and corporately. (That’s a dense sentence because I’m not sure yet what I really mean to say.)

Reflecting in this way prompted me to wonder whether connecting belief and failure more closely in our liturgical language might assist us in deepening our shared sense of trust in God’s presence among us, as the Creator, the incarnate Word, and animating Spirit. “Trust,” after all, is probably the best synonym for faith.

I’ve been working on such a “creedal confession” for some time, and I’m considering using the following draft for our midweek service of Evening Prayer:

I place my trust in the creative power of God,
   maker of all things, known and unknown,
   source and sustainer of life;
       and I confess my failure to respect the dignity
       of every creature God has made.
I place my trust in the Word of God incarnate,
   who gathers us as a mother cradles her children,
   as a father who binds up wounds,
   as a lover who mends broken hearts;
       and I confess my share in the patterns of violence
       that fragment, divide, and harm.
I place my trust in the Divine Spirit,
   who animates the whole creation
       with the breath of life,
   drawing together all creatures
       with the assurance of forgiveness,
       the promise of healing,
       and the hope of communion.
Receive my trust, O God of endless compassion,
and strengthen me for your service. Amen.

Those two insights will continue to evolve, no doubt, and they can stand on their own as “keepers.” But we also just concluded a weeknight adult education class here at the parish (via Zoom, of course) on Matthew Fox’s new book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond. I knew that Julian had lived during of bubonic plague in Medieval Europe; I had not realized that her entire life was spent encountering wave after wave of that disease.

“Lady Julian,” Evelyn Simak

And yes, I knew that Julian had a remarkably unswerving confidence in both the love of God and the goodness of creation in the midst of unspeakable bodily horrors. All shall be well—she didn’t merely hope this, she insisted it was true. Jesus told her so.

More than all of that, Julian-via-Fox has done something to my thinking right now that feels, if not “new,” then fresh. It’s this: the imperative to notice and address the links between and among climate change, this current pandemic, racism, sexism, misogyny, matricide, and patriarchy, all in a single “mystic-prophetic” posture.

I do believe the world’s religious traditions were made for just such a time as this—for just such a time, that is, for rooting ourselves sufficiently in those traditions to innovate.

Now, about that nap…

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Bad Theology Kills

It’s not so much what we say but what we do that really matters.

I hear that a lot and I’ve even been known to preach it myself. But it’s actually not entirely true. What we say about God and what we say about the Bible and what we say about each other can have profound consequences for how we live. For some, theological ideas can be a matter of life and death.

I make this point rather abstractly to help frame more concretely what just occurred at Washington National Cathedral. The Rev. Max Lucado was invited to preach at the cathedral yesterday, from the “Canterbury pulpit” as it is called, which is a high-profile, prestigious place from which to offer a sermon, and especially on a Sunday morning.

This was and is a controversial decision because of the Rev. Lucado’s opinions of LGBT people and our relationships, and especially his opinions about what God thinks of people like me. It is dismaying and confounding to see such a person invited to preach in that space; it tears open old wounds and triggers past traumas with the institutional church.

The fence in Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was tied and left to die in 1998.

Regardless of what he said from the pulpit (he said nothing about sexuality) the outcry over this, both before and after the sermon, was swift and direct, mostly (it should be noted) from LGBT people and our advocacy organizations. (See Susan Russell’s blog post on this latest instance of “throwing LGBT people under the bus” for the cause of unity.) Cathedral leadership, the bishop of the diocese, and others were also swift to suggest that Lucado’s invitation to preach was something like an “olive branch,” a way to initiate healing across an acrimonious divide. It was also suggested that the Rev. Lucado might be “struggling” with his previous positions on sexuality, and it’s important to help that process along (I’m unaware of any such public statements by Lucado).

All of these caveats from religious leaders, to put the matter mildly, are red herrings. We’re not talking about sitting down with family over a holiday meal and gently helping a dear old uncle come to grips with the reality of lesbian couples. We’re talking about a New York Times bestselling author of over 100 books with more than 130 million copies in print, who was named “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today magazine, has appeared numerous times on television, and was a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast.

What does such a high profile Christian minister think about people like me? Just two examples from his own writing in 2004:

He asks, rhetorically, “How will homosexuality impact our culture?” He then answers: “What about the spread of disease? If gay lifestyle and gay marriage is endorsed—what follows? Polygamy? Legalized incest?”

His “slippery slope” argument is familiar to many of us, of course, but he takes another familiar trope, the one about bestiality, to new heights, rather literally: “If they recognize gay marriage, what will keep them from the next step? Who’s to say that one man can’t marry five women? Or two men and two women? How about a commune marriage? Or a marriage between a daddy and a daughter or a woman and a giraffe?”

A woman and a giraffe”—might we not want a bit of clarification on this before asking someone to preach from the pulpit of something called “The National Cathedral”?

I wish I could make perfectly plain, somehow more viscerally clear to my “straight” friends and colleagues what it is like to be an LGBT-identified person and to read things like that penned by an ordained Christian minister. Perhaps if they felt their own stomachs lurching and their own hearts pounding and their own bodily shame galloping off the charts, their own empathy might deepen a bit. To see that same minister then invited to preach to thousands (online) from The National Cathedral is simultaneously outrageous and galling. I don’t know how else to say just how demoralizing and, for some, lethal these moments are, so I’ll just say this: bad theology kills.

Just talk to anyone who staffs a suicide hotline or any of the wonderful people who run the Trevor Project (devoted to preventing LGBT-suicides) or all those who keep LGBT community centers open for runaway LGBT youth—ask any of them what homophobic sermons and judgmental pastors do to the psyches of queer youth. It’s heartbreaking.

Yes, bad theology kills. It is also true, perhaps even more importantly true, to insist that good theology saves lives.

I can bear witness to all of this personally, in my own life, and have been doing so for more than three decades. Coming out of an Evangelical Christian community as a young adult, which had planted in me the notion that I was broken, flawed, and perhaps even unlovable because I’m gay, it took years for me to trust instead that God loves me unconditionally, without reservation, and whole-heartedly—years of work, that is, with precious little support for such work from the institutional church.

Yes, the world and the church have changed since I first wrestled with my own faith and sexuality. Things are better now—but not everywhere and not for everyone. We must never take for granted that people have heard, that they know, much less that they truly believe that God loves them. There are far too many messages to the contrary, too many messengers of hate standing uncorrected, too many vulnerable bodies hearing those lies to ever take the Gospel for granted. The struggle is not over if even one dear child of God thinks they are in any way unlovable.

So let me be even clearer: trusting in God’s love saved my life. It’s as simple and as profound as that. And I have devoted my vocational and professional life to helping ensure that others can trust in that love, too. I’m happy to do that work, even though the work is often difficult in a society where so much bad theology is so easily accessible—work that should not be made still more difficult by having a minister of bad theology preach on a Sunday morning in a cathedral of my own church.

If we’re going to do the work of reconciliation (to which I am also gladly committed), let’s not start with a sermon, especially from that pulpit. Let’s start by having a public forum after the liturgy, or with a published article from the Rev. Lucado on “how my mind has changed” (if it has), or a public apology for unintended harm. But please do not invite such a figure to preach until he makes clear that he does not think lesbians want to marry giraffes.

I mean, for the love of God—literally.