Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The ashes inside

 “Ashes to go” is tomorrow, in which intrepid clergy and people take their little pots of dust to the streets, stationing themselves on street corners and bus stops offering a prayer and a cross. When you get down to it, whether you do it in a church or on the street corner, all of the ashes we do in church are “to go,” since it’s pretty easy to wipe them off your face as soon as you get tired of people looking at you funny. What’s more interesting to me are the ashes inside—what I think Ash Wednesday is more about.

When I was first ordained, I preached an Ash Wednesday sermon at Emmanuel in Boston with the refrain: Everything is not fine, and it’s fine. I think that “not fine” quality of human life is what I mean about the ashes inside. We may look organized and presentable on the outside, but inside we all have some pretty sorrowful moments. Our relationships with God are not only pleasant and moral add-ons to life as usual; they are the core: bone and sinew of waking up in the morning. And that is hard work.

This fall, when I was on sabbatical, I found myself searingly aware of what a mess I could be; all that dust on the inside. Without having to run a church all day and write a sermon every week what I found in my soul was not so attractive. I was writing, yes, some, and I was singing, yes, some—both the things I set out to do. But I also spent a long time wallowing in professional and maternal angst—too much work, not enough work, too much parenting, not enough parenting. Nevermind any time to crash on the couch and read dark Scandinavian novels.  I love my parish and love parish ministry a lot, but wonder at the end of the day what else I should be doing.  My poems are full of me trying to convince myself to rest—that I have everything I need and that I am everything I need to be—but somehow I never quite buy it. Of course, I also, now back to running a parish, I have guilt over not writing more poems.

After those encounters, particularly in thinking about my role in the church and the church in the world, I find myself needing Ash Wednesday in a different way—kind of more of an evangelical “me and Jesus” kind of way.  I need a deeper sense of my own value—because I’m not going to earn it.  After last fall, I really know I can’t. My in-process chapbook of my poetry from that time is called ashes/what remains—they are the record of what was left when everything else is stripped away.  My spirituality has always been very comfortable with grappling with the suffering and evil in “the world”—consumer capitalism and all the sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, and that whole birdcage of oppression: as the baptismal covenant puts it, “the powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”  I’ve spent less time in my prayer and parish work thinking about my own need. It feels much safer to focus on the world.

Ash Wednesday is about acknowledging that vulnerability; that however I end up using my gifts with writing, or preaching, or leading, at the end of the day God loves me the same and I am in just as much need of love and forgiveness.   I’m made of dust; holy dust, loving and loved dust, but still dust.  And I can’t work harder to become more loved. So what does this have to do with bringing ashes to the train station? Part of it is what I was writing about when I was thinking through my huge tattoo—that scary as it feels to be so public, there is nothing to lose and we have to be brave. Loving God and loving our neighbors come down as pretty much the same thing, and offering our love of God to our neighbors is just what we’re called to do.  

Plus—if you haven’t noticed?  People aren’t exactly in a hurry for the opinion and approval of the church. The esteem of big institutions and fancy and articulate clergy saying important things while people listen with rapt attention is not the reality of the world—and how freeing that is.  I love this arcane ritual of ashes, dust, and vulnerability—so why not offer it up? My desire to invite others into it doesn’t mean that I harbor any resentment to those for whom it’s not meaningful. If you believe, as Mary Daly pointed out in the 70’s, Christianity is just a necrophiliac religion based on worshipping a dead patriarch, I’m okay with that.  I will be happy to sit down and have coffee with you and talk about how patriarchal so much of it still can be.

Otherwise, this is what stresses me out about it:

            I will seem like a crazy fundamentalist
But I’m not.
            I will seem like I’m judging people
But I’m not.
I will seem like I’m pushing my religion on other people
By practicing it where it can be seen? Really?
It will be awkward. I will have to talk to people I don’t know
No argument there. 
            It will seem like we’re offering “cheap grace”—spirituality without an invitation to deeper transformation.
Honestly? That’s better than no grace. 

Legitimately (I think), I worry most about the theology being misunderstood—we don’t put ashes on our faces because we hate ourselves, or because we think that Jesus is dismissing us as inadequate nothings.  When we do this in church, it’s in the context of confession, forgiveness, and repentance; hopefully the mini-ritual of ashes on the sidewalk will lend itself to people pursuing deeper reflection.  Ashes are about recognizing that we are made of earth—metaphorically as well as literally if you think about where the stuff of the stuff we’re made of comes from.   I love Ash Wednesday because it reminds me of my connection as a creature to the creator, a Creator who always, always wants to return to relationship no matter how idiotically I’ve screwed up.  (Since it’s not technically Lent yet, I can say this):

Alleluia, Amen.

Olly Olly Oxen Free

 while I'm being (perhaps unnecessarily) self-revelatory on the internet, here's one of the poems i wrote last fall

Olly olly oxen free

I am listening for silence,
tired after
a long hour of seeking.

the simplest, most complicated thing.
The Christo negro hangs on the wall,
souvenir of long-ago pilgrimage.

Crutches and eye patches littered the pathways
up to the cross.
If I but touch the hem of his garment

No tattered edges of cloth here.
Only the hum of the boiler,
ticking of slow radiators,
growling stomach.
Noisy critics pour water on the embers
of my desire—
you’ll never get anything done.

What is it that you want,
I ask myself.
Remember the sweet Buddhists:
be gentle on
yourself, on others.
It’s good advice.

Why should it be so difficult?
I write my poems in labyrinthine
Coming closer to the center, but no—
only to find myself again on the outside.
Not lost, exactly,
neither to end at a new beginning

I once would have said
that hunger is a gift;
the peril  of that old
self-sufficient lie more dangerous
than starvation.
I even wrote a poem about it.

From the bottom of the well it looks different.
Silence only magnifies the echoes.

Come, come and climb down with me—
we will be lonely together.

It will be an adventure,
giggling children in the dark—
hiding from our mother’s call.
Count to ten!
Ready or not, here I come.
Mother Mary sends her son
to share in our cruel games

The sleek winners cry foul
as he changes the rules.

We will all be released
but will we follow?

The ladder hangs down the well
just within reach.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ashes to Go

Our chaplain in seminary used to say that it was God's cruelest joke that so many clergy are introverts. God gets you into this ministry-you imagine quiet moments of prayer and solitude, mulling over sermons and preparing liturgies. Then you get thrown in front of a church and your inner panicker goes into high gear. Church is great-but there are people everywhere. I love my work but I will say that a quiet room and a book or a blank page are high on my list of favorite things.

It is, then, maybe God also getting a kick out of our discomfort with a new movement in the Episcopal Church: ashes to go. No music, no liturgy, not even a roof: clergy and lay people taking to the streets and standing in prayer with anyone who comes by.   Last year, I remember hearing about churches doing it, and it seemed like a nice, but impractical, idea. We Episcopalians have not often aligned ourselves with people walking around the sidewalks announcing the end of the world-are we slipping into some apocalyptic rabbit hole? Surely we don't want to be unnecessarily confrontational, do we?

Maybe, maybe not. I am inclined to say, though, that we make an awful lot of assumptions in thinking that all that is right and true can be found within our four walls. We may be intellectually open to the strengths of other traditions, but when it comes to participating in church, we expect people to get with our program. I recently read a piece by the Rt Rev Stephen Lane, the Bishop of Maine, in which he asks the question: where is the "frontline" of your church? It got me thinking-most of what we do at my church happens, well, at my church. It's wonderful and grace-filled, but we also tend only to share that with those who come to us, rather than going out to meet people where they are.

That was not exactly Jesus' style. Last night, as the parent helper in my daughter's Godly Play class at Grace Medford, where my husband is the rector, we heard the parable of the Great Banquet. Putting out the familiar pictures and green felt, the storyteller began. Someone wanted to have a party, and invited all of his friends, but they wouldn't come. They had to take care of their property. They had just gotten married. Another had to check on some livestock they were buying. So what does the host do? Get more people to come in. The poor, the blind, the sick, the outcast. And when there's still room, he casts the circle wider. The banquet grows and grows. No longer confined to those they already know-the ones with the right job and the right views-now, absolutely everybody gets in. I realize now also that the story doesn't say anything about the guy being mortified at having to talk with new people.

Too often, the church does not tell the story of a Great Banquet-too often, we are an intimate dinner party, entranced by our own cleverness and style. I don't know what Jesus would have said about taking our ashes to the streets-I don't know what he would have said about ashes in the first place, since he was pretty clear on instructing people not to look dismal about fasting and prayer-but I am confident that whatever the church can do to come near to others is the path that Jesus would have us walk on. Would it be "better" if people came to an hourlong liturgy and had time for music, reflection, and a sermon about the tradition and theology of the day? Quite probably. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday is a great service. And surely, I hope all of you who are reading this go to church...

Church is my job, so I know I'll be there. But for the person getting on the train who still needs eighteen more cups of coffee,  for the homeless person as they walk from the shelter to breakfast at the Salvation Army, for the man who stopped going to church after his wife died, for the boss who has to fire someone and the employee who's worried the pink slip is coming, for the mom who is worried that her kid will get sick at school and she'll have to leave work early-for all of those people, I think the payoff for me feeling a little silly will be worth it. So I and a few other intrepid souls will be there on Carter Street. No judgments, no strings, no gimmicks.  Ashes are startling in their simplicity--we'll go out with just the dust we came from and a prayer for God's grace.  An opening of our hands and one deep breath of hope.

 I wrote this initially for our parish email newsletter; the last four years or so of that are on www.ecrier.blogspot.com.