Imposing ashes on the foreheads of a community slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t seem redundant, exactly, but it certainly felt poignant. Preparing for that moment, I recalled two classic touchstones in Christian faith that seemed suddenly more vibrant and fresh than they had for years.
First, we are sinners. I know that sounds terribly old-fashioned, but it’s also true. We fail regularly to live the kind of abundant life Creator God intends; we too often prevent others from flourishing because of the way we live.
We do not always act justly, we have trouble loving mercy, we forget to walk humbly with God, to quote the prophet Micah’s summary of what God asks of us (Micah 6:8).
A second great theme on Ash Wednesday is of course our mortality. We are finite creatures and we will one day die—each of us, no exceptions, all of us returning to the earth from which we came.
Connecting these two themes seems especially urgent given the state of, well, everything. We could begin with this: as mortal creatures, time is of the essence. We simply don’t have time for small visions, or petty resentments, or the refusals of shared flourishing born from bitterness. In the shortness of time, sin is whatever keeps us from thriving; or more simply, we just don’t have time for bullshit anymore, and likely never did.
The time is now—not next year, not next month, not even tomorrow, but right now is the time to remember or perhaps realize for the very first time that God takes great delight in every single thing God has made.
There is absolutely nothing about God’s creation, not one creature of any kind, not one human being, that God does not love madly and wildly. The opening collect for the Ash Wednesday liturgy makes this clear and it’s one of my favorites in The Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”
For some people, that claim is life-changing; for far too many, it’s life-saving; and for all of us, it’s mission-critical because time is short.
Lent is a time to clear out the toxic clutter, to remove whatever prevents me from seeing myself as a cherished creature of God.
Lent is a time to stop whatever I might be doing that prevents others from seeing themselves as cherished creatures of God.
Lent is a time to understand more deeply that our way of life as modern Western people is damaging and destroying this cherished creation of God called Earth—and time is short.
In my little parish yesterday we heard Matthew’s Jesus (6:1-6, 16-21) being just as plain about this as he could be: don’t waste your time on empty religious gestures; don’t bother being pious for piety’s sake—it’s worthless and pointless.
Pray instead for a change of heart.
Pray instead for a change of life.
Pray instead—as we heard the prophet Isaiah urge (58:1-12)—pray instead in ways that loosen the bonds of injustice and that let the oppressed go free and that provide bread for the hungry and housing for the poor—that’s true religion.
Pray instead, Isaiah says, so that you yourself become light in another’s darkness, water for another’s desert, a builder of dwellings laid waste and repairers of the breach for many generations—that’s the only religion that really matters.
Yes, we are sinners and time is short. But we can make good from the time we have if we repent of our sins and embrace the Gospel, which is nothing less than the abundant life God intends for all.
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.
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.
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.
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)
We are currently in the midst of a cultural and political war on women and women’s bodies. Perhaps you’ve noticed. If you had any doubts, the recent and truly creepy image of an all-male panel testifying before Congress about contraceptives should convince you. (Just imagine an all-female panel testifying about the virtues of vasectomies.)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. If Lent can be retrieved as a practice for liberating humanity from the chains of oppression, then ending this war on women must take priority. This will involve attending carefully to the propaganda machine (both secular and religious), mobilizing people to vote when appropriate, repenting where necessary, and recommitting ourselves to the hard work of creating a different world, a world where all can thrive and flourish (if that’s not a suitable goal for a Lenten discipline, I don’t know what is).
I’ll begin with three observations:
First, the current war on women is not new; it is of course many, many centuries old. (I was reminded of this recently by reading a great analysis of the ancient Greek three-cycle play, The Oresteia, and it’s recurrent theme of the fear of powerful women.)
While none of this stuff is new, the current iteration of this power struggle is particularly virulent and insidious in the United States. By “current,” I mean the cultural trajectory that began taking shape more explicitly in the 1970s after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision – a decision that acknowledged what should have been the case long ago, that women have rights over their own bodies. (Yes, abortion is complicated, but my friend and colleague, Susan Russell, recently wrote eloquently on this very topic.)
Second, I believe the current virulence in the war on women is fueled by having an African-American man in the White House. African-American men in American history have quite frequently been the subject of emasculating rhetoric if not also castrating violence; they still are today. Make no mistake about this: white men in power keep their power by subjugating women and treating non-white men like women. If we fail to link sexism and racism we do so at our own, very grave peril.
And third, I am a white man. That means a lot of different things, not least that I enjoy a remarkable amount of privilege in western society. That doesn’t make me bad or evil. It does make me accountable and it should make me responsible. I have, alas, too frequently failed to live up to the responsibility of that privilege for the sake of women’s thriving.
In a recent professional gathering, I was witness to a blatant form of sexism – in both rhetoric and posture – yet I said and did nothing. I hereby repent, and I resolve to do better. As just part of that commitment and for my Lenten discipline this year, I’ll devote regular blog posts to analyzing theologically and culturally the pernicious peril our world faces from the twin threats of sexism and racism.
Notice that I didn’t mention homophobia. I believe the disdain and opposition toward LGBT people is but a symptom of a much deeper and more intractable poison in western culture: the confluence of misogyny and white supremacy. Upon that “wedding” rests most if not all of the truly hideous moments in western society. (Pictured here is Sojourner Truth, from the 19th century. A perfect icon for the incarnation of race and gender.)
One further observation needs to be made here: Religion (including Christianity) has contributed significantly to the subjugation of women and women’s bodies, both historically and today. In that regard, my obligation and responsibility deepen as I am not only a white man, but also a Christian and a priest in the Episcopal Church.
I believe the peculiar character of Christianity, for all its severe faults and foibles, can still help us achieve a better world where all can thrive and flourish. I have some ideas about how to do that but I need help. As I post my own suggestions this Lent, I hope you will add your own. Let’s create a great toolbox for planetary thriving!
At the very least, let us commit ourselves to ensuring that no one ever again has to see a panel of all men making decisions about women’s bodies. That would be a small but nonetheless significant step on the Lenten road toward new life.