Monday, February 27, 2012

Ashes to Go

When I first heard about "Ashes to Go" (going out into the streets and other public venues to impose ashes on passers-by) a couple of years ago, I was skeptical. It sounded gimmicky. I wondered about uprooting the practice from the ecology of liturgy and community. I am pretty Christocentric (see here) and ecclesiocentric (see here). Would Ashes to Go play into the tendency to reduce the particularity of Christian faith and practice to a generic spirituality?

In spite of these reservations, upon reflection, I decided to try it last week at a local train station. Why?

1. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. I would not do “Eucharist to Go” or “Baptism to Go” (I have written elsewhere about preserving the significance of these sacraments - here). And if you want “Marriage to Go”, you’ll have to go to Las Vegas. With rare exceptions, I only do weddings for members of our congregation. But, the imposition of ashes, rich though the practice is in symbolism, is of a different order. It is an aid to our piety, not a means of grace. This is not about our stewardship of the mysteries. (Note that, according to the Prayer Book, Eucharist is not an essential part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy)

2. In an increasingly secular, unchurched society, we need to find ways to reach beyond the walls of our buildings and find ways to make ourselves visible and available to the needs of those who, for whatever reason, are unlikely to come to us. Obviously, Ashes to Go is not the only way we can do that. But it is a way.

3. The imposition of ashes just might be the ideal practice to bring into the public. The provocative refrain, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds us that all humans are made of the same stuff and we all share the same earthly fate. Ashes to Go is a way to connect the practice of the church to our common humanity and our common fragility, fallibility, and failure.

Of course, Ash Wednesday is about more than our mortality. It is also a call to examination and penance. For sure, Ashes to Go does not explicitly express the fullness of all that. But, it does invite those who might not otherwise do so to contemplate their own dustness, their own need, and wet their appetite for the mercy of God. It reminds them that their time is short. At the very least it invites those who receive the ashes to contemplate the state of the life they are living on the way to their return to dust. I see Ashes to Go as a sort of “pre-evangelism”.

We also handed out brochures that explained who we were and why we were offering the ashes and who we believe is God’s Mercy spoken into our fragility, fallibility, and failure by taking on our dust to save us and transform us into more than dust. One person came back, near tears, and thanked us for the words of the brochure.

So, how did it go?

One of our lay members and I set ourselves up (we had a sign announcing Ashes to Go and who we were) at the train station at about 6:00 AM and stayed until a little after 8:00 AM. Clearly for some we were a curiosity. Some stopped and asked us questions. Between 30 and 40 availed themselves of the ashes. Some who did not still thanked us for being there. One woman asked for a blessing after she received her ashes.

Who received ashes?

1. Christians who are members of churches but were not going to be able to make it to their church’s Ash Wednesday services. One woman said she did plan to go in the evening, but appreciated having the ashes in the morning "as a witness." These folk can be expected to have as "thick" an understanding of the ashes as those who made it to our morning or evening liturgies. Why not offer ashes to such as these as an aid to their beginning a holy Lent?

2. Christians who, for whatever reason, are not currently engaged in a congregation. Some of these were probably lapsed or nominal Christians. These also might be expected to have a relatively informed understanding of the import of the ashes. Why not take the ashes to them pray that the Holy Spirit uses the ashes to rekindle a desire to return to church? Others of these were likely representatives of the ecclesial walking wounded who have been burned by church. Again, these might be expected to know the ashes represent a call to examination and penance. Why not bring the ashes to them and pray that the Holy Spirit uses that as a bridge toward healing?

3. Non-Christians? Though I doubt many of those who came to receive ashes were non-believers, being there at least made them wonder what we were about. And, as I suggest above, even for them, whether they received the ashes or just looked on; hearing "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" invited them to do a little soul-searching. Why not offer the ashes and pray the Holy Spirit to use that to prompt their spirit? Again, pre-evangelism.

All in all, I did not get a sense that anyone was receiving the ashes trivially. No doubt the ideal place to receive ashes is with the gathered community in the full liturgy of Ash Wednesday with the scripture read and expounded, the invitation to a holy Lent, the Litany of Penitence, etc. The fullness of its meaning is best communicated there. Still, given that many will not or will be unable to attend, I am persuaded that it is meet and right to offer folk the opportunity to remember their need and to wet their appetite for more.

And we had a couple of visitors at St. Barnabas on Sunday as a result.

I could be wrong. My reasons for doing so may be inadequate. Some who I respect and with whom I usually agree have raised concerns (see here and here and here). Others have dismissed the idea altogether. On the other hand there is this more appreciative response from one who finds herself ecclessially homeless (see here).

What do you think?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

There's a Wildness in God's Mercy

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, Year B
1 Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13

[Singing] Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight . . . come, Holy Spiri–Crraaak! Like lightning splitting the sky, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends - swoops down - on Jesus. Jesus experiences the ecstasy of hearing the Father call him his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased. But, while those words are still echoing in his heart, the Spirit-dove - immediately - drives Jesus into the wilderness. In Mark's gospel, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, but it is a dove with an attitude – like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

The Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness like a nail into wood. The wilderness represented the realm of chaos – of evil. The ancients did not have romantic notions of nature. The wilderness was inhospitable, untamed, dangerous, wild. It was the habitation of demons, the territory under the sway of Satan. It is into that realm of the demonic that the Spirit drives Jesus.

The Greek word used for the Spirit's driving Jesus out into the wilderness is the same as that used when Jesus drives out demons. Here, things are reversed. Instead of Jesus ejecting demons out of someone, we have the Holy Spirit injecting Jesus out into the wilderness – the devil’s turf. God is going on the offensive. Mark does not elaborate the confrontation as do Matthew and Luke, but it is clear that the confrontation happens and that Satan is defeated. This is the beginning of the end for the Evil One. It is probably in the wilderness that Jesus "watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (Luke 10:18). The rest of Jesus' ministry - the exorcisms, the healings, the miracles are part of the mop-up operation. Jesus is injected into the domain of Satan, symbolized by the wilderness, and his mission of reclamation and liberation has begun.

I am struck by the wildness in this passage - the heavens torn apart, the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness. There is a wideness in God’s mercy, but there is also a wildness in God’s mercy. We try so hard to tame that wildness. We have a tendency to try to domesticate God, to house-train him. When we do that, we end up with a God who is just an extension of our own biases – a God who lends spiritual support to our political and social prejudices. A God who will not step on our toes. A God who will not drive us into the wilderness. But we also end up with a fairly anemic God – a God who mostly wants us to be just a little more polite, a little more nice. Not a God who wants us to be wild.

We are all familiar with the domesticated images of God. There is God as the old man with a long beard, riding on a cloud. He is rather remote and old fashioned – out of touch with real life. There is Jesus "meek and mild," timid as a rabbit. In some of the old Hollywood films, we see this Jesus walking around like he is trying to dry his nails. He does not appear as one who would get his nails dirty, let alone risk breaking one. Then there is the Holy Spirit, a vague, benign, sort of spiritual gas; there to give me a little energy so I can get on with living my life the way I already know it should be lived. Such housebroken, tame images God neither threaten nor excite.

The picture we get in the Bible is much wilder. And more exciting. Certainly, it is much more interesting. The God of the Bible is a wild God, even dangerous. If we are not at least a little afraid of God, we probably have too domesticated an image of God and one that is not very biblical. The God of the Bible might very well step on our toes. The God of the Bible might very well swoop down on us like a dove with serious intent. The God of the Bible might very well drive us into the wilderness. But that is good news. Only a wild God can deal with the wilderness of our world. And with the wilderness of our own hearts. Only a wild and untamed God can save.

Remember the old westerns in which people gathered in a wagon train to head across prairie and desert to get to the promised land of Oregon? The folk, gathered on the outskirts of St. Louis, need a trail guide to lead them through the wilderness. It is clear that it is not going to be any of the characters introduced so far. It won't be the timid grocer. It won't be the English dandy just off the boat. It won't be the wealthy banker. He can throw his weight around the financial district in New York, but he won't be much use in the wilderness. Then, the one who is clearly the man for the job appears. He is barely civilized and undomesticated. He might be part Indian. He's got scars, both physical and emotional. You would not likely invite him to a tea party. But he is just the one you want to lead you through the wilderness.

Only a wild undomesticated God can save us. Only such a God can lead us through our wilderness. We need a God who is not afraid of the wilderness – the wilderness in our world and in our lives. We need a God who can enter into the wilderness of a world beset with sorrow and sin, tragedy and death. We need a wild God who is present in the midst of floods, in the midst of starvation, in the midst of torture.

Yes, Jesus is the relentless love of God. He came to gather us into the Father’s heart. He named us his friends. But, never forget; he is the same Jesus who did battle with Satan in the wilderness. Remember that the same Jesus who said, “Suffer the little children to come to me,” also tore through the Temple like a cyclone. He is the same Jesus who came calling us to repentance and then dared to suffer for us and, according to 1 Peter, went to hell and back for us.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is a dove, the comforter. But, the Holy Spirit is also a fire, come to burn away the dead brush of our lives like a wild, prairie fire making room for new life. The same Holy Spirit who tore open the heavens can tear open our hearts and inject Jesus into the wilderness of our lives to conquer whatever demons hold us captive.

The Holy Spirit wants to drive Jesus into the wilderness of our hearts and make us “little Christs.” It is the Spirit's intention then to inject us into the wilderness of the world around us. There we can dare to confront the demonic in our world. We can be peacemakers in a society captivated by violence. We can seek justice and righteousness. We can live lives of hospitality and generosity. We can take part in God’s mission of reclamation. We can be part of his healing and reconciliation.

Lent is about exposing whatever keeps us from allowing the Holy Spirit to have its way with us. That is scary because we don’t really like change. Change is often uncomfortable, even painful. We mostly prefer a tame dove who will not ruffle our feathers to one that might tear things apart and drive us into the wilderness. What might the Spirit of the wild God do with us? We are not sure we trust that the changes the Spirit might drive us to are really going to be for our truest joy. But the faith we are called to is exactly that kind of trust.

Ultimately, the Spirit, who descends like a dove and drives us into whatever wildernesses we must face, is indeed driving us toward our truest joy, which is participation in God's life. The Spirit who is a wildfire, burning away our dead wood, is also a refining fire come to remove the dross from our lives and recreate us into finest gold and silver. When we understand this, we can dare to say, "come, Holy Spirit, come."

Monday, February 20, 2012

I’m Converted, But I’m Not Converted That Far

An Ash Wednesday sermon:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

E. Stanley Jones was a missionary in India. While there, he established a Christian Ashram. An Ashram is a sort of spiritual community and retreat center. Jones recounted this story:
In the Ashram, we gave the servants, including the sweeper, a holiday one day each week, and we volunteered to do their jobs for them. The sweeper’s work included the cleaning of the latrines before the days of flush toilets. No one would touch that job but an outcaste, but we volunteered.

One day I said to a Brahmin convert who was hesitating to volunteer: ‘Brother, when are you going to volunteer?’ He shook his head slowly and said: ‘Brother Stanley, I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.’
Devotional Classics, Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, Richard Foster and James Byyan Smith, ed., p. 303-304

“I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.”

You’ve got to appreciate the honesty. Here we are again - Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This is the time in the spiritual rhythm of the church year when we take an honest look at the state of our faith, thestate of our souls, and ask ourselves, How far am I converted? Is my conversion limited? What limits it? What holds me back from loving God with my whole heart, mind and strength? From loving my neighbor as myself? Do I live each day shaped by the knowledge that God’s kingdom has broken into the world and into my life; God’s kingdom of love, truth and joy; justice, freedom and peace? I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.

Where am I storing my treasure? Am I caught up in the madness of accumulating more and more or am I learning to let go, learning to give more and more? I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.

Am I dying to self so I can enter more fully into the joy of God and live for others? Do I see every person I meet, every encounter, as a gift? I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.

Do I receive each day with expectancy? Have I made peace? Is there forgiveness I have yet to give? I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.

In the reading from 2 Corinthians, we are told that, for our sake, God made Jesus to be sin - he who knew no sin. Jesus took on our humanity and, in so doing, took on the end result of human sindisconnectedness, brokenness, suffering, and death. He defeated Sin and Death and everything
in-between. Now, by the power of his victory, in him we can become the righteousness of God.

To be the righteousness of God means to live according to our original purpose - right with God, right with one another, to be free to live in the direction of our truest joy. This is the Gospel. This is the Gift (which is what grace means in the passage). But, we are free to live into that gift or to not live into it. We can receive it in vain - to no effect. I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.

Paul encourages us - entreats us - to be converted farther, to become the righteousness of God. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation. The gift is free, but the full experience of it depends on openness and preparedness.

Here are some ideas that can further our conversion and help us to enter more fully into God’s purpose for us:

1. Pray – Set aside 20 - 30 minutes a day during Lent for prayer. Sit quietly with God. Rest in the gift of God's love and pray for wisdom to love those you will engage each day.

2. Meditate - Sit quietly and meditate on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). What might it mean in your life to become more poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, etc.? (Here is something on the Beatitudes for congregations that might also be helpful for individuals.)

3. Read the Bible – Read through the Psalms or the Gospel of Mark this Lent.

4. Find someone you can talk to about what you are learning in prayer and scripture.

5. Act on what you know – serve others, love with abandon, seek the welfare of the least of those around you. Develop a specific “action plan” for serving others during Lent.

6. Reconcile. Seek reconciliation with a person who you need to forgive or from whom you need to ask forgiveness. Or reach out to a person from whom you have grown distant.

During Lent, let us never forget that the gift of God’s grace is free. But let us look carefully at where we have fallen short, and at what hinders us from receiving more of the gift and from living it more with those around us.

We will be reminded again, in a few minutes, that life is short and that we are not our own. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” One life to live, will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.

I am converted, but not converted that far.

Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

God’s Alien Works

As we approach Lent, here are some thoughts from Martin Luther (1483-1546) on God’s “alien” works:
God's 'alien' works are these: to judge, to condemn, and to punish those who are impenitent and do not believe. God is compelled to resort to such 'alien' works and to call them His own because of our pride. By manifesting these works He aims to humble us that we might regard Him as our Lord and obey His will. (LW 13:135)

Although He is the God of life and salvation and this is His proper work, yet, in order to accomplish this, He kills and destroys. These works are alien to Him, but through them He accomplishes His proper work. For He kills our will that His may be established in us. He subdues the flesh and its lusts that the spirit and its desires may come to life. (LW 14:335)

Not a particularly nice take on God - judging, condemning, punishing, subduing. But, then, our idolatry and our addiction to that which is not life and not love is not nice. Luther insists that such works are "alien" to God because his "proper" and essential work is life and salvation. But, given our sinfulness, brokeness, and blindness, to work God's life and love into us, God must destroy that which is in us that quenches the Spirit and keeps its desires from coming to life. Perhaps alien to God, definitely unpleasant for us, such work appears necessary for our salvation.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Something from Dante for Valentine's Day

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) only met Beatrice twice. The first meeting came in May of 1274 when he was only nine years old and she was eight. She was dressed in soft crimson and wore a girdle about her waist. Dante was overcome with love at first sight and heard in his mind, "Now your bliss has appeared." He frequented places where he could catch a glimpse of her, but she never spoke to him until nine years later. Then one afternoon in 1283 he saw her dressed in white, walking down a street in Florence accompanied by two older women. Beatrice turned and greeted him. Her greeting filled him with such joy that he retreated to his room to think about her. Seven years later, Beatrice died with Dante's love of her unrequited.

Those two meetings and one greeting inspired Dante to write some of the most vivid poetry ever and some of the most profound spiritual reflection of the Christian tradition. His first reflections came in the La Vita Nuova (The New life or Life Renewed) a collection of prose and poetry written over the ten years after the second meeting, years that included Beatrice's death. They culminated in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy which includes the Inferno, Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.

Dante came to understand that the love Beatrice evoked in him was a means by which he was drawn into the life of God - "the Love that moves the sun, the moon, and the other stars” (Paradiso, XXXIII, 145). Indeed, she seemed an icon and mediation of the renewed, redeemed life found ultimately in that Love. Dante was the great master of the idea that all true love reflects and participates in that one Love revealed in the life and love of Jesus Christ.

Here is Dante's account of his second meeting with Beatrice:
When exactly nine years had passed since this gracious being appeared to me, as I have described, it happened that on the last day of this intervening period this marvel appeared before me again, dressed in purest white, walking between two other women of distinguished bearing, both older than herself. As they walked down the street she turned her eyes toward me where I stood in fear and trembling, and with her ineffable courtesy, which is now rewarded in eternal life, she greeted me; and such was the virtue of her greeting that I seemed to experience the height of bliss. It was exactly the ninth hour of day when she gave me her sweet greeting. As this was the first time she had ever spoken to me, I was filled with such joy that, my senses reeling, I had to withdraw from the sight of others. So I returned to the loneliness of my room and began to think about this gracious person. (Vita Nuova III)


Whenever and wherever she appeared, in the hope of receiving her miraculous salutation I felt I had not an enemy in the world. Indeed, I glowed with a flame of charity which moved me to forgive all who had ever injured me; and if at that moment someone had asked me a question, about anything, my only reply would have been: ‘Love’, with a countenance clothed with humility. When she was on the point of bestowing her greeting, a spirit of love, destroying all the other spirits of the senses, drove away the frail spirits of vision and said: ‘Go and pay homage to your lady’; and Love himself remained in their place. Anyone wanting to behold Love could have done so then by watching the quivering of my eyes. And when this most gracious being actually bestowed the saving power of her salutation, I do not say that Love as an intermediary could dim for me such unendurable bliss but, almost by excess of sweetness, his influence was such that my body, which was then utterly given over to his governance, often moved like a heavy, inanimate object. So it is plain that in her greeting resided all my joy, which often exceeded and overflowed my capacity. (Vita Nuova XI)

Here is a poem he wrote about Beatrice:
The power of Love borne in my lady’s eyes
Imparts its grace to all she looks upon;
Men turn to gaze at her when she walks by;
The heart of him she greets is made to quake,
His face to whiten, forcing down his gaze;
He sighs as all his defects flash in mind;
All pride and indignation flee from her.
Help me to honour her, most gracious ladies.
All sweet conception, every humblest thought
blooms in the hearty of the one who hears her speak,
and man is blest at his first sight of her.
The image of her when she starts to smile
breaks out of words, the mind cannot contain it,
a miracle too rich and strange to hold.
(Vita Nuova XXI)

And here is an account of my own beatrician experience:
"Tammy Metzger thinks you're cute" (and so does God)

Friday, February 10, 2012

What is a Merciful Heart?

If following Jesus isn't making you more merciful, it might not be Jesus you are following.

Jesus said, "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
- Matthew 9:13
(He was quoting the Old Testament prophet, Hosea - Hosea 6:6).

Here is something from Isaac of Ninevah (died c. 700 AD), also known as Isaac the Syrian:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

The person who is genuinely charitable not only gives charity out of his own possessions, but gladly tolerates injustice from others and forgives them. Whoever lays down his soul for his brother acts generously, rather than the person who demonstrates his generosity by his gifts.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.

The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.
(Taken from Glory to God in All Things)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Being Immersed in the Story the Bible Tells

"I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the thirty or forty minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible. All the rest of the day I am bombarded with the stories that the world is telling about itself. I am more and more skeptical about these stories. As I take time to immerse myself in the story that the Bible tells, my vision is cleared and I see things in another way. I see the day that lies ahead in its place in God’s story."
Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions
(h/t Writing in the Dust)

Related: The Story and Other Stories