The Case Against “Ashes To Go” Revisited

I’m not a fan of “Ashes To Go” and when I wrote about it here on the blog last year it received a lot of backlash.

And I get it.

I understand the desire to take the church outside of its walls to meet people where they are. I understand wanting to keep up with a trendy expression of Christian community. I understand how turning a practice upside down can reinvigorate it for people in an exciting way.

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the people called church do together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year communally.

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As the popularity of something like “Ashes To Go” continues to rise, we lose a connection with the ecclesial and liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon that “Ashes To Go” has become, it usually looks something like this: 

On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective church and a drive thru line will form such that people in their cars will wait their respective turn for a ten second interaction with ashes that are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or a fast-food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes To Go.” Lines will develop during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads.

To be fair, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. Many of us are running around through the frenetic habits of our lives without time to do much of anything, let alone corporate worship. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes To Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy.

But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible is the equivalent of a clanging cymbal (to steal an expression from Paul).

To those who love “Ashes To Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard loads of stories about the beauty of meeting people in the midst of life and the possibilities of evangelism that can take place with “Ashes To Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Fleming Rutledge has this to say about the practice:

“It’s pathetic. I know people who do it, people I admire. But people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t enough – there has to be rectification of evil. When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it. And we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it id done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with ashes across on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a corporate liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the whole thing is about. 

Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient – that’s the whole point.

It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world hell bent on convincing us we’re going to live forever. And, because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of worship in which we can begin to scratch at the surface of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the word “we” specifically. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. 

It is a practice of the community we call church.

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This year (like most) the United Methodist Church is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of last year’s Special General Conference that resulted in the doubling down of the so-called incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, the denomination is currently debating the values of separating over our differing theologies. Therefore, I think there is no better time for the church, while it’s still together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?”

On Ash Wednesday we have the opportunity (read: privilege) to be marked with ashes as a sign that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – that’s Christian teaching.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church.

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive. And, to make it even worse, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the terms of the world, the individual reigns supreme. But, according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes To Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

Natural Born Sinners

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Ash Wednesday [A] (Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51.1-17, 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10, Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21). Jason and Teer are United Methodist Pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA respectively. Our conversation covers a range of topics including nasty podcast reviews, 2020 goals, nudity in the Bible, confronting finitude, Frodo and the Ring, failing at Lent, obstacles, practicing piety, Ashes To Go, and the higher bar of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Natural Born Sinners

We Are (Not) Together

We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions

Directions:

Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together. 

Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
    1. 1 Corinthians 3.9
    2. For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.
  2. Ask everyone to share their names.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
    9. If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
    10. If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
    11. Who is your hero and why?
    12. What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
    13. If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
    2. Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.

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Homily:

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.

But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.

A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.

The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.

We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?

Pay Attention

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [A] (Exodus 24.12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a face like the sun, locating the Transfiguration, apocalyptic language, refining fires, upending expectations, witnesses, the power of a pinhole, the strange new world of the Bible, and Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pay Attention

Make The Good News Good Again

Devotional:

Psalm 119.1

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

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Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus said that.

And he meant it.

Or so I, and countless Christians, have been told over and over again. We Christians must hold ourselves to a higher standard! How else will the rest of the world know how badly they need to repent and turn their lives back to the Lord?

When I was in college, those statements covered much of what I heard about the church. While classmates were off doing whatever it was they did on the weekends (whether I joined them or not) I was made to feel guilty or ashamed for the choices I was making because, I was told, I would be happier if I was “walking in the law of the Lord.”

The same comments about the church were made while I was in seminary, and I’m sure that for a while in the beginning of my ministry I made the same points.

But they never really made me feel happy, no matter how well behaved I was. I was caught in a conundrum – Either be perfect and unhappy, or let my guard down and feel guilty. 

It took me a long time to realize that when Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect as God is perfect, he does so knowing that we won’t be able to do it. That’s kind of the whole point of the gospel – God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But if the gospel is only about how we have to constantly do better all the time, then we will walk away from church without the Good News sounding like good news.

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Karl Barth put it likes this:

“Basically, the gospel is a very simple thing. The gospel is no system of this or that truth, no theory on life in time and eternity, no metaphysics or the like, but simply the sign that God has blessed the world, this poor world in which we live, with all its difficulties, with all its misery, with this whole ocean of death. And in this world we dare to live in the knowledge that God loves us, but not only us Christians who believe that God loves the whole world. Every person, even the most miserable, even the most evil, is loved by God. This is the privilege: to be commissioned and enabled as a Christian to proclaim that.” (Barth in Conversation – Volume II. Interview with George Casalis on November 7th, 1963.)

It is a rather radical proposition and yet it is precisely what makes the Good News so good.

The Gospel of Ren & Stimpy

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-9, Matthew 5.21-37). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the deletion of hymns, typology work, low anthropology, guilt management systems, disruptive distractions, the glory of the gospels, DBH, the passivity of plants, throwing out the ledger book, and the new Moses. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel of Ren & Stimpy

We Are (Not) Crucified

1 Corinthians 2.1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do not speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 

I was standing in line, along with everyone else, waiting for my chance to pass through customs. We were on our way to Guatemala to spend a week working in the remote highland area with an organization called HSP. The group had packed accordingly, we had read all the right scriptures that compelled us to go and love on our neighbors to the south, and honestly we were just really excited. We were college and high school students, and for some of us this would be our first time going out of the country.

It was the 4th of July, and you could tell from the sheer amount of red, white, and blue adorning just about everyone leaving the US. We joked in line and the buzz of anticipation was palpable in the air. I, just like most everyone else, was wearing a shirt with an American Flag prominently displayed on the front when I was my turn to step forward and hand over my passport.

I patiently smiled as the TSA worker looked at my picture, looked at me, looked at my ticket, and then looked at my shirt. Her gaze promptly returned to the desk in front of her, and without even looking up she said, “Just a piece of advice – I’d change my shirt if I were you.”

I stood in confused silence – I mean, why would I need to change my shirt?

And, as if reading my mind, the TSA agent said, “You’re traveling to a place where that flag doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Bible-and-Flag

Reading from the Apostle Paul in worship can be a difficult endeavor. His sentences tend to drag along and he is quite the fan of repeating himself. And taking the time to look at his argument, if we want to call it that, week after week after week is, possibly, an ill-advised proposition.

And yet, here we are.

Today, many of us, if not most of us, face the unenviable task of coming to grips with the fact that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel stories were recorded. That is, the earliest churches that sprung out around the Mediterranean had a better than good chance of meeting or reading from Paul long before they got a chance to hear or read from the evangelists.

Therefore, for those of us who think we can get closer to Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, that’s all good and fine. But to elevate the gospels as much as we do does a disservice to the work of Paul.

And, it’s not easy. I mean, Paul’s letters contain almost no references to the teachings of Jesus. He doesn’t recount the beauty of the Prodigal Son, or hammer home the words from the Sermon on the Mount, or even talk about the miracle of feeding 5,000 by the sea. Instead, it is the word of the cross that coveys the everything Paul wishes to share. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” was the message that reshaped reality and turned the world upside down.

That’s not to say that the stories of Jesus, those he told and those he lived out, are of non-importance. They are absolutely pivotal. And yet, we often read Paul today as if he took the simple messages of Jesus and complicated them into these opaque and intellectual arguments. When, in fact, the truth is quite the opposite: Paul distilled the gospel in a way that we would not have known without him.

A small, but potent example: Jesus tells the disciples that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. If that’s all we’ve got then woe to the rich, because this is as good as its going to get. But Paul is adamant, throughout the letters, the Christ dies for us while we are sinners, that every single one of our sins are nailed to the cross whether we’re rich or poor, and the justification of the ungodly (that’s all of us) is the whole thing.

The work of Christ on the cross then becomes the lens by which the gospels come into focus, and not necessarily the other way around.

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Knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified is no easy thing to do. It wasn’t for Paul and it’s not easy for us. We are constantly in search of signs of demonstrated power so as to know where our allegiances should reside. We look up to the healthy and the wealthy as if they are more important and holier than the sick and the poor. We are so persuaded by, to use Paul’s words, the rulers of this age rather than the one who came to overthrow the powers and the principalities that compete for our attention.

I stood in the airport, displaying my red, white, and blue, and right before I boarded the flight, I took it off and put something else on. I spent the following week working with and among people whom I otherwise never would have seen, and I learned more than I could have dreamed.

Sure, I learned a lot about what it means to be a faithful disciple, and what it means to put faith into action, but the thing I learned the most about was what it meant to be an American. At least, what it meant to be an American to those who are not. 

That week in the Guatemala opened up my eyes to the long and sordid history of the United States with the government and civil war in Guatemala. I discovered how our country, in the name of freedom, instituted a new government in their country, assuming it would make for a more favorable relationship between the countries. But I also discovered how ravaged families and communities were by those actions, how many young men were indiscriminately murdered in a short period of time leaving behind a country that is still suffering the consequences of ours.

For me, it was a painful moment of transformation. For, in those conversation and interactions, in the tears and in the stories, I realized that, by the world’s standards, I am a citizen of empire. The country of my home and the country of my birth has bullied the rest of the world into recognizing our supposed superiority such that I was encouraged to remove my patriotic teeshirt before leaving the country.

In other words, I am exactly who Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 2. And so is every average American Christian.

We might enjoy spending our time bickering among ourselves about what President Trump said during the State of the Union, or Nancy Pelosi ripping up his speech, or who really won the Iowa Caucus, or any other number of things, all the while people across the world are living entirely different lives. 

How we carry ourselves in the world, whether at home or abroad, makes a tremendous difference because, whether we realize it or not, the Red, White, and Blue says a lot more about us than we think.

Even a sentence like that is troubling and confounding these days because the “us” in the “says more about us” is almost undefinable. As soon as we feel lumped into something we feel like we shouldn’t, we throw up our arms as if to say, “That’s not me!” And we very quickly and rapidly move into a posture of rigid defense and we stop up our ears from having to hear anything contrary to what we might think or even believe.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the symbols of patriotism in the United States. Proudly displaying flags and colors and even documents like the Declaration of Independence are all fine. Except, for Christians, those patriotic symbols seem to mean more to us than the symbol of our faith: the cross. 

And it makes total sense. The cross is an ugly and deadly thing. We don’t want to be bombarded with thoughts of death and suffering and so we prefer to worship and idolize other symbols – symbols that appear more simple.

The cross is anything but simple.

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We are forever trying to reduce the complex questions of life into these manageable and simple solutions as if there really is a solution to every single problem in the world. And whoever comes up with the easy formulas for success are the people we worship the most. We do it with politicians we do it with preachers we do it with just about anybody.

If the solution can fit nicely into a tweet or a soundbite on the news then its good enough for the rest of us. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are the masters of fate, and we therefore have nothing to be afraid of.

Except, it’s not true.

We are not in control. Fate is fickle. And there is plenty to be afraid of. 

The cross always hangs on the horizon, an ever present reminder that when things get tough, when things get too complicated, we all too often resort to violence and power and control in order to put things back the way we think they should go.

We did it with Jesus on the cross.

We did it with Guatemala.

We’re still doing it as a nation, and we’re all, in some way, shape, or form doing it in our own lives.

We think that it’s all up to us, and we’ve forgotten that the cross also stands to show us how Christ is already in the business of putting us back together, in ways we’d rather not if it were up to us.

But thanks be to God that’s its not up to us, because if it were all we’d achieve is more of the same instead of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. If it were up to us we’d only associate ourselves with the people who already think like us, and talk like us, and even look likes us instead of being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that only have one thing in common: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians because he was devastated by how quickly they had fallen away from the complicated message of the cross. They had factionalized around different leaders that only told them what they already wanted to hear, instead of hearing the good news that sounds too good to be true: Christ died for us while we were sinners, which means we cannot remain as we were.

The church was not and is not meant to be like the world – It is a counter-cultural endeavor in which the powers and principalities and empires of this world are called into question. Knowing nothing but Jesus and him crucified is but another way of articulating a different way of being in the world.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is crucified so that we don’t have to be. We don’t have to mount the hard wood of the cross because Christ has already done it for us. We don’t have to suffer the indifference of the world because Christ has come to conquer the world. 

Paul implored those first Christians to open their eyes and ears, to recognize how their beliefs and patterns and habits communicate what they valued and what they worshipped.

Today, how we live and move in the world with others makes all the difference as we, like Paul, strive to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Everything else is secondary. Amen.