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

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