The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Over the last few years there has been a phenomenal rise in a liturgical practice called “Ashes to Go.” And I think it needs to end.

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.

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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).

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.

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Last year, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge for an Crackers & Grape Juice episode 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.

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.

While the world bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out 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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What We Believe Shapes How We Behave

Mark 1.29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

After a month of answering your questions during our January sermon series, I am happy to be moving on. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tackling different topics, but I always look forward to getting back to the rhythms of scripture in worship. The problem with taking time every week to answer specific questions from a biblical perspective is the temptation to do what we pastors call “proof-texting.” It is the practice of taking verses or passages out of context and re-appropriating them in whatever way helps to craft the argument.

Perhaps the best, and by best I mean worst, example of this is from Ephesians 5.22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord.” As soon as those words just left my mouth, the women perked up and the men grew smug smiles on their faces. But this verse has been used again and again to subordinate women in terrible and horrific ways. And what makes it all the worse is that we take it out from the whole of the bible and use it like a weapon.

But the verse immediately before “Wives be subject to your husbands,” says, “[Everyone] be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And just three verses later we can read “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her.” The love that Paul writes about is not the Hallmark version of love, Paul isn’t saying that husbands need to buy flowers and chocolate for their wives every once in awhile (though it’s a good idea), but that husbands must sacrifice, even their very lives, for their wives just as Christ gave up his life for us.

But we don’t get that when we just pick and choose the verses we want to use.

The beginning of today’s scripture is another prime example: “As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.” Wait, what do you mean, “as soon as they left the synagogue”? What were they doing there? What happened? Is that important to know?

Dividing the bible into discrete units is a pretty strange practice. However, it’s hard to imagine it as strange, because we’ve been doing it all our lives, but we don’t do it with any other text. Think about your favorite book for a moment, perhaps you could repeat a really moving line but can you remember what chapter it was in, or what page it is on? Probably not, but I bet if I asked you what your favorite passage from the bible is, you could not only quote it, but also provide the book, chapter, and verse.

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So here were are with this incredible story. It’s a day in the life of Jesus. After leaving the synagogue they go to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, Jesus makes her whole, he cures everyone who gathers around the door, then he retreats to a deserted place for prayer, and finally they all depart for the next town to do it all again.

But what happened before?

Jesus brought his first disciples to the synagogue, and he taught as one having authority. While he was there, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, and Jesus made the man whole again. And his fame began to spread through Galilee.

What has that got to do with the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and the curing of many people, and praying in a deserted place, and moving on to the next town?

            Jesus’ teaching cannot be separated from his healing.

            He practiced what he preached.     

            What he believed shaped how he behaved.

Last Sunday I stood right here and I invited the congregation to stand for our final hymn, My Hope Is Built. We were coming to the conclusion of our service after spending an hour reflecting on how God is the one who saves us, not the other way around. The first notes began to harmonize throughout this space and I did what I usually do, I closed my eyes and listened. It’s a beloved hymn of mine and I love hearing the faithful sing it together. But for some reason, as we neared the final verse I opened my eyes, and I looked out at all of you.

In the short amount of time it took to get through the last verse, one of our congregants collapsed and was clearly not doing well. I walked forward while most continued to sing, and immediately two of the nurses from our church rushed over to check on him. The words were still bouncing off the walls as we checked on him together, and one of them ran out to call for an ambulance.

When the song ended I offered a rushed benediction, in order to clear out the sanctuary as quickly as possible and I went into what I call “boy scout” mode. I assigned tasks to different people and tried to encourage others to give him space as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. Once the room was mostly cleared, I looked out our doors to see the ambulance and fire truck pull into our lot, and I walked back into the sanctuary to pray for him before he left.

But as I walked into the room, a group of eight people from the church were already huddled over him with hands touching his head and shoulders praying fervently to the Lord.

And it stopped me right in my tracks.

No one asked any of them to pray, they were not ordered to do so, and it was as natural to them as just about anything else.

By the time I got over the holiness of the moment I witnessed, I walked over and he was smiling while a group of women were fanning him with their bulletins. I said, “I know these beautiful women are making you feel like a king right now, but try to not let it go to your head.” And with that he chuckled, and winked at me.

Friends, I felt God’s presence in our worship last week as surely as I ever have. Through the hands and the prayers that surrounded Don, I experienced a moment of profound holiness where what we believe shaped how we behaved. It was powerful, and it was faithful.

For what its worth, Don is doing well, and he and his family are grateful for all of the support and prayers.

There is a healing power in touch and in intimacy. Over and over again in the bible we read about Jesus bringing restoration to people through his willingness to meet them where they were and offer them a new way. Jesus is an intimate Messiah who found individuals in the muck of their lives, who finds us in the moments of our deepest frustrations, and says, “follow me.”

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From the very beginning of scripture, up through the end, we see again and again that it is not right for human beings to be alone. We are at our best when we join together even while all the odds are stacked against us. We are the truest form of God’s dream for us when we gather together rather than trying to do it all by ourselves. We are the faithful vision when we congregate as a congregation.

No one can do it all on their own.

And when you’ve had a taste of what the healing power of community can do, it changes you forever.

Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. I’ve seen depictions of this scene from the beginning of Mark’s gospel where the mother-in-law is feverishly sweating under a blanket, with a thermometer sticking out of her mouth, but after receiving the touch of the Lord, she pulls our a pitcher of lemonade to make sure all the men are refreshed. But that portrayal of the scene diminishes the truth of what happened.

We read that she served them, but a better translation might be she ministered to them. Not unlike what the pastor is supposed to do for a church, gathering them together attending to their needs, challenging them to be better. In some churches we call this the work of a deacon, a service ministry to the community.

In many senses, Simon’s mother-in-law is the first deacon. She was touched, and it changed everything. Not only did it restore her to health, not only did it bring about a sense of wholeness in her being, it propelled her to minister to those nearby.

She was given a job to do.

This is exactly how Jesus lived his life, it’s what he called his followers to do, and I caught a glimpse of it last Sunday here in the sanctuary.

Fair warning: “practicing what you preach” is no easy thing. There will come times when the last thing we want to do is gather with the people whom we call the church. Whether it’s because they stand for different political realities, or they speak the truth in love (and it hurts), or they simply remind us too much of whom we really are, it is not easy being a faithful community together. Even Jesus needed time alone.

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After the episode with Simon’s mother-in-law, word quickly spread through the town and the first disciples brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door (a reminder that all are struggling whether we can see it on the surface or not).

But in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. After emptying himself to others, Jesus had to empty himself to God before he could go to the next town to do it all over again. It’s a dance of being filled by the Spirit, to share the Spirit, to need the Spirit again. And in this wonderful story, a story beyond the scripture we read this morning, we experience a day in the life of the Lord, a day like any other day, a day perhaps like today.

When I was ordained, the bishop placed his hands on my head and shoulder and said, “Take thou authority. Go and comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” It’s not an easy task, but it’s one we all get to experience right now. In just a second I’m going to invite all of us to comfort someone in the church who is afflicted, and it’s going to be so uncomfortable that you’re going to feel afflicted while you’re comforting. It’s so much easier to pray for someone than to ask someone to pray for you. To say, “I am broken, I need help, I am not the whole vision God has for me.”

But if we can’t do that for each other as the church then we are not the church. So… sorry that I’m not sorry. Go find someone you don’t know, and pray for each other.

Devotional – John 20.19

Devotional:

John 20.19

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

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The doors were locked because the disciples were afraid. Jesus broke forth from the chains of death in the morning, but by the evening the disciples were locked up at the house. And John is quick to tell us that they did so for fear of the Jews. Perhaps the disciples were afraid that the fate of crucifixion was coming for them next, or at the least they would be attacked and driven from the city. But nevertheless, the Word become flesh is resurrected and the closest followers of Jesus are hidden in a room.

Were they really afraid of the Jews? Or was there something else that drove them to lock the doors and cower in the corner?

I think that the disciples were certainly afraid of the Jewish leaders, particularly in light of what they had done to Jesus, but I also think the disciples were afraid of the risen Jesus. These disciples, these followers of the Messiah, had all abandoned him at the end, they had denied him, and now he’s back! I would be hiding too.

How often do we fail our friends only to cower in fear as we wait for their response? I know far too many people (myself included) who will ignore that email, text message, or phone call from a particular individual not because of anything he/she did, but because of what we did.

Thanks be to God that Jesus did not leave the disciples hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thanks be to God that the gospel was too important to remain hidden. Thanks be to God that Jesus came in, stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”

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Do we believe that Jesus could show up in our lives when we are ashamed for something we’ve done? How often do we hide (literally or figuratively) behind locked doors when we have failed our friends or families? What would it look like to live like we believed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?

As Easter people we are committed to practicing resurrection here and now in anticipation of our promised resurrection. This means that we cannot take the people around us for granted, it means we cannot stay hidden in shame, it means that we have to be brave and courageous people willing to say “peace be with you” to the people with whom we feel no peace.

Devotional: Mark 1.4

Devotional:

Mark 1.4

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

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I had been waiting at the garage for longer than I had hoped. I had neglected to take the car in for an inspection during the month of November, and I was running the risk of receiving a ticket for my negligence. I was prepared to speak with my hypothetical police officer about the numerous demands on clergy during Advent, but every time I made the list of excuses in my head, the more pitiful they became. Only after Christmas was I willing to finally bite the bullet and wait for my car to be inspected.

I thought it would be a quick in-and-out appointment, but I continued to sit in the waiting room while my car was being checked out. After thirty minutes, I saw my car coming out of the garage and was re-parked right outside the window. However, when I approached the cashier, she informed me that I still needed to wait. The time passed idly by while I made small talk with the other customers about being a pastor in town and the recent arrival of the holidays, but the repair shop neglected to call my name even while my car was parked outside with a new inspection sticker clearly placed on the front window. I tried to be as patient as possible, but when I could no longer take it I went back to the cashier and explained the situation, to which she apologized for making me wait for nothing, and handed me my keys. She explained that the paperwork had been lost in the shuffle and asked if there was anything she could do. I laughed to myself and then said, “It’s okay, I’m a pastor and I’m supposed practice what I preach, including patience.”

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After church yesterday afternoon, my wife and I were enjoying lunch at a local pizza shop when she brought up the familiar topic of practicing what I preach. The sermon had been about forgiveness and the need to act on the words that we so faithfully pray in the Lord’s Prayer every week, and it was clear the Lindsey wanted to explore the topic further. She spoke in a way that halted and haunted me: “Taylor, you kept talking about our need to forgive. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Or better yet, do you think there’s anyone out there who might be wrestling with whether or not to forgive you?”

John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is too easy, particularly from my side of the pulpit, to neglect the need to repent for my faults, and forgive others around me. It is even harder to open my eyes to the fact that there might be people who have not forgiven me for something I have done. As we take our first steps into 2015, let it be the year we actually practice what we preach. Let us strive to be people of patience, forgiveness, and repentance. Let us be brave with our love, and seek to be truly reconciled with everyone around us.