A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

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

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

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

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. 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 clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

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 about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens 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.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “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 is not 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 is 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 a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. 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, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

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 also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, 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 world, the individual triumphs. 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. 

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Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.

While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.

So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.

I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts. 

We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.

We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.

And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.

And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled. 

Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.

It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:

Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?

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God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus. 

We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place. 

We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads. 

We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.

So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.

Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.

And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right. 

Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.

Moses is the Law.

Elijah is the Prophets. 

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It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.

And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.

I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.

Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.

The Traditional Plan passed.

438 to 384

53% to 47%

What happened next was a strange thing to behold. 

At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing. 

This is my story.

This is my song.

Praising my Savior all the day long…

In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.

And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.

Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.

And we call ourselves the church. 

When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.

There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.

And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.

Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus? 

I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church. 

In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”

It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.

I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?

But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing. 

Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.

Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.

In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.

What To Talk About When We No Longer Know What We’re Talking About

I bring you greetings from the final day of the Special General Conference in St. Louis on the subject of human sexuality. I know that many in the church are anxious to find out what’s been happening here and, more importantly, what all this means for the United Methodist church. I have seen articles about the conference in a variety of places from local new papers to the New York Times and I wanted to share where we are as of right now.

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I’ve been fortunate to meet with an interview a lot of people in St. Louis including a retired Bishop, a gay pastor and his partner, a lobbyist involved with the Traditional Plan, and more. You can find those interviews and articles at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com 

There are a lot of perspectives and a lot of things going around, but perhaps the best synopsis came from Bishop Will Willimon while we were talking together: 

“Maybe one good thing that will come out of all this is the realization that General Conference can’t do, decide, or help with anything. I have more faith in your congregations that I have in anything going on here.”

The UMC is very clearly divided on the subject of human sexuality, but we are also divided on the ways in which we understand how we are part of a connectional structure. At the heart of the matter is a question of how certain changes can/should be implemented in the US and abroad.

We are not of one mind on anything, and we’ve been here since Saturday.

Today the General Conference is tasked with finishing all of its work by 6:30pm CT (when dirt has to be dumped on the floor in preparation for a Monster Truck Rally that is happening later; I’m not joking.)

After revisions and debates and arguments (and a few prayers) the Traditional Plan (which maintains the status quo and defines swifter punishments for violations) will be brought to the floor today for a binding vote. The One Church Plan (which advocates for contextual reflection on whether to be LGBTQIA inclusive or not) will still be brought to the floor, but it only received a minority vote of support yesterday which makes it unlikely to pass. 

Of course, other motions and final bits of politicking can still take place, so as of the writing of this letter, nothing has been officially sanctioned.

There have been some very challenging moments over the last few days and people on all sides of the discussion have been hurt. This is a difficult time for the United Methodist Church and what happens today, for better or worse, will determine the course of the church going forward.

Personally, it has been devastating to see and hear people refer to those from the LGBTQIA community as “issues.” It is akin to the way some doctors view their patients not as patients but as problems to be solved. When we begin talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their sexual orientation, as objects to be fixed, we no longer know what we’re talking about.

It has been a trying experience, and I’ve been struggling to find hope.

I think that most people here would say the same thing regardless of what plan they hope to see adopted.

So I leave you with the hope I’m currently clinging to:

Regardless of the votes and decision, God’s church will still gather for worship on Sunday.

Regardless of the reactions and disagreements, the tomb is still empty.

Regardless of the uncertainty that today holds, we can be certain that God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.