This year, again, my parish will participate in “Ashes to go,” a newish practice in the church in which we go to wherever the people are to share prayers (and dust) for Ash Wednesday. I and a smallish team will be at the Waltham Massachusetts Commuter Rail Station, a few blocks from the parish. Last year we were on our own—about seven people participated throughout the morning—but this year, we’re partnering with Chaplains on the Way, a mostly-homeless ministry. I appreciate this especialy because, in a way, the street is their church. I wonder about how many people, who, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable coming into a church, and how powerful a witness it is to leave our comfort zone of having people come to us. Will someone have a more “deep” experience in coming to church? As a priest I’d probably hope so, but I also shouldn’t make assumptions about what happens between an individual and God, no matter where they’re standing. I heard a quote about meditation once that said that you could open the window, but you couldn’t make the breeze come in. That probably applies here—when fewer and fewer people having traditional church backgrounds, we need to throw open as many windows as we can.
It’s not an easy question, though—how far can you go from tradition before you’ve lost the center of what you’re committed to in the first place? What are we inviting people toward if we compromise too far? How much do we ask of people who come to have a child baptized? Do they have to come for a few weeks, months, a year? Do they have to officially join the parish by making a financial pledge? What about receiving communion? It’s the practice in our diocese in many places, including Christ Church, to offer communion to everyone, whether or not they’re baptized. The prayer book and church canons say baptism should come first. Here, again, we are trying to open the windows.
Adherence to tradition is one of those places where we strive for faithfulness, not necessarily the 100% always-and-everywhere-iron-clad rule. Faithfulness, it seems to me, is deciding which side you’re going to err on. Will we be devoted to orthodoxy or openness? What’s at stake on both sides? There are a lot of times when I defer to tradition—the Nicene Creed, for example—but here, I think there is actually something to say for asking what Jesus would do. His first goal, most often, was to get people to the table. Once you’re there, you can talk more, debate, pick sides. As the parable in Luke 14 tells it, when the nice, qualified guests wouldn’t come for the feast, the host told his servant quite unequivocally: “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” When he does that and there’s still space, he goes out to make everybody else come in. Would it have been a better party if the well-educated and polite people had come? It’s completely possible. Would they have appreciated the expensive wine more? Maybe. But that’s not what God’s table is about. (see my post from last year in which I had just been the parent helper in my kid’s Godly Play class in which we did the lesson on the Great Banquet when we were going out for ashes).
I do appreciate, though, that it’s a discussion to be had. It’s not an uncontroversial stance, it’s not necessarily an “of course!” moment. And once—if—this gets settled, there will be something else to struggle with. As we grow into the church we’re called to be, we are trying to follow a Jesus who’s always just a little ahead, taking us a little further than we thought we could go.