Remember Ash Wednesday?

Turns out Ash Wednesday was only [checks notes] three weeks ago. I don’t know about you, but it sure feels to me more like three years ago. I mean, what a world we were living in way, way back in February. Think of all the things we did that month: I saw a movie…in a theater…with a bunch of friends. About 100 of us gathered to celebrate the wedding of two amazing people. Our kids had sleepovers. My 80+ year old mom and I went out for lunch whenever we could. Oh, and we all got together for worship. In person. In the same building and everything. Those were the days, man…

But on Ash Wednesday at Woodridge United Methodist Church where I am one of the pastors, we tried something a little different. (Different for us at least.) We tried to weave together a tapestry of scripture readings, songs, reflections, and silence. Isn’t that what we do every week? Yes…but also, no. Sure, we always tie those elements of worship together with a theme, but that night it felt as if we had, however briefly, achieved a new level of integration. It could very well be that “night” is the operative word in that last sentence. Gathering at a different hour than our usual Sunday morning with intentionally dimmed lighting on a day ripe for introspection and reflection…well, somehow it resulted in one of those rare, rare moments when everything seemed to really come together in an almost magical way.

I have no idea if that can be replicated here at all — but being in the midst of this time of social distancing and online-only worship sure seems like the right time to try by sharing the audio recording of that night.

A couple caveats first: The recording doesn’t include the music. But my sense of it is that the music is a vital part of the whole experience. So I’ve added videos of those songs, along with the script we used that night so you can read the intros and outros for those songs. However, as you might expect, what is written on the script isn’t always exactly what you’ll hear on the recording.

Another stylistic note: the scriptures you hear on the recording were read from the back of the sanctuary rather than up front. In other words, the congregation couldn’t see who was reading or from where she was reading. (Although, it was our Lead Pastor, Rev. Danita Anderson reading. A familiar voice, so it’s not as if the “who” question was any big mystery.) Her voice just emerged from the ether like the very voice of God. It was, I dare say, pretty cool.

The scripture readings tonight are meant to provide some snapshots of our relationship with the world, our relationship with each other, our relationship with God…and the surprising role dust and ash plays in all those relationships. 

Astrophysicists teach us that the atoms that make up our bodies are made of the remnants of stars, some of which was present at the beginning of the universe, in what we call the Big Bang, almost 14 Billion years ago. So perhaps a more accurate rendition of the common Ash Wednesday phrase would be: “From stardust we are made; to stardust we shall return.”

Our spiritual ancestors, those who told the stories that would eventually be written down in the form we know as the book of Genesis, those ancestors were pre-scientific…at least in the way we understand science. And yet, they seem to already have a sense of their connection to the universe and its stardust. Let’s take a listen…

[Gen. 2:4-9]

Like we said: “From stardust we are made; to stardust we shall return.” Isn’t that description of the world in Genesis so incredible? So much goodness and life and beauty right there in the garden of creation! So what happened? Well, we know what happened: we messed it up. 

We forgot who we were and from where — and from what — we came. We forgot we are all stardust and instead fought with each other, fought with our siblings. We created enemies just so we could fight with them. We made scapegoats just so we could banish them and feel better, feel superior. In truth, the whole time we were fighting with ourselves. Over and over and over again, we fought with ourselves. 

And yet, every once in a while, we catch ourselves in the midst of throwing yet another punch —physically, verbally, or metaphorically — and we stop and think, “what in the world am I doing??” Too often we wait until we are on the very brink of extermination before we stop, but, so far at least, we stop and seek forgiveness. And that’s a big tent “we” there: including our enemies. Here’s a word about that…

[Jonah 3:5-9]

There’s that dust again. This time partnering with contrition and repentance — a turning away from our destructive ways and a turning toward the ways of God in peace and hope and love. And because this is the book of Jonah, we know that the dust also partners with a knowing wink at our own foolishness and hypocrisy. How does the story wrap all that together? In ash. 

Sometimes recognizing our propensity to exclude and hate and sin results in deep and amazing stories like the book of Jonah. Other times, recognizing our propensity to exclude, to hate, to sin against God and against one another results in deep and amazing poetry. Like this…

[Psalm 32:1-5]

As the Psalmist says, perhaps God forgives us in order to enable us to repent and change our ways. As it turns out, we have a song for that…

[“Change My Heart O God” All the versions of this song I could find play it much slower (and cheesier) than we do at our church. Here’s the best one I could find…but no lyrics, so…”Change my heart o God. Make it ever true. Change my heart o God. May I be like you…You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.” ]

Ok, so God changes our hearts and we rise up out of the ash. Now what? Jesus shows up, that’s what! Jesus, who spoke and taught and loved like no one else. Jesus, who in mostly mysterious ways, was so intimately connected with God he actually was the literal embodiment of God who up and moved into our neighborhood. This Jesus he told us things that somehow are completely sensible to the point of being almost obvious…and yet also simultaneously near-impossible for us. Ideas like this one from Matthew chapter 6…

[Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21]

I have no idea who first began the tradition of reading this part of Matthew’s gospel on Ash Wednesday, but I’m so glad they did. Hearing this reading on this day carries on the good work of the book of Jonah. Because hearing this reading on this day is also a deep and knowing wink at our own foolishness and hypocrisy. You see it, right? Every year on Ash Wednesday, Christians of many types and stripes gather and hear Jesus say, “pray quietly; don’t make a big showy deal out of your devotion to me; don’t try to show off how pious you are.” And then, almost immediately after hearing that, what do we do? We PUT A GIANT MARK IN THE SHAPE OF THE CROSS…ON OUR FOREHEAD!

Friends, if part of the ritual of Ash Wednesday isn’t to laugh at ourselves a little bit, I think we’re doing it wrong.

I think it is a wonderful reminder as we strive to follow of God in the Way of Jesus to not take ourselves too seriously. Yes, we mean what we say, our contrition is real, our attempts at piety are real and important, our work to make the world more just for the least, the last, and the left out is real and so important. (As Dr. Cornell West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”) Yet, this reading on this day? That’s a reminder to us that in the midst of our real and important work, we still mess up. Yes, we are loved; we are forgiven; we are trying our best…and we get it wrong. Regularly. We still need to be more like Jesus. Turns out, we have a song for that too…

[Wow. Turns out videos of “More Like You” by Scott Wesley Brown are even harder to find. Ugh. Here are the lyrics: “More like you. Jesus, more like you. Fill my heart with your desire to make me more like you. Touch my lips with holy fire and make me more like you. Lord, you are my mercy. Lord, you are my grace. All my deepest sins have have forever been erased. Draw me in your presence, lead me in your ways. I long to bring you glory in righteousness and praise.”]

So how do we do that? How do we become “more like Jesus”? Our tradition and experience tells us that prayer is one of the best ways. Further, our tradition tells us that silence is one of the best ways to experience God in prayer. But we live in world saturated in noise. How do we even find silence? And if we mange to find it, how do we, who are always on the move, sit still long enough to experience silence? Enter Taize. Prayers that are songs, songs that are prayer; song-prayer meant to lead us into silence. We will sing a few times through. Bow out when you need to; the rest of us will carry you. Come back in when you can. After the song and several minutes of silence, a poem-prayer will lead us out of the silence and into the present. May this time of silence be whatever you need it to be: thanking God for stardust; sitting in ash like the Ninevites; seeing how to be more like Jesus; or just simply being in the presence of Triune God. Let’s sing…

[“Come and Fill Our Hearts” Again, really tough finding a good sounding version of this song. Just listen to the first 45 seconds of this and you’ll get the idea.]

[We offered nearly 10 minutes of silence.]

[Poem-Prayer by Adrienne Trevathan, a Native American United Methodist in Evanston, IL]

Cover me with ashes,

the thick-smoke soot of the earth.

Make my breathing like the journey

from death into life — second by second,

prayer by prayer.

Cover me with a cloak — bring me low to the earth,

your justice whispering to me like the gleam of red rocks,

the colors dancing in the darkness.

Let me know the power of sage and cedar in my bones,

not that I may trap them there,

but bring them forth in words.

Cover me with darkness —

with the presence of my elders, their tears falling around me,

reminding me of why we are here —

sighing, groaning with our singing, longing to hear us into being,

stretching us beyond breathing and praying and weeping.

Cover me with mercy —

let the bones you have crushed rejoice,

like the woman who channeled every ounce of courage and dignity

to touch your cloak and find new life.

Breathe unto me life anew,

of possibility,

of beauty,

of balance,

of grace.

Cover me with mud —

bring me to my lowest state, so that in my weaknesses

I see your strength —

the reflection of your eyes in the brokenness around me,

the fullness of your love in the depths of our hearts.

Cover me with ashes —

the ashes of my grandmother,

who in living her days knew no strangers,

worked tirelessly with worn hands

and lifted grandchildren high into the air.

Cover me with mercy —

let my cheek come to rest on the cold earth,

its faithful presence a call to walk humbly

beyond myself

beyond my fears

and ever on to the red road that leads to your love.

Changer,

Cover me.

Cover me with ashes.

Change me.

Hypocrisy on purpose?

I had an epiphany in our Lenten Study.

[Are epiphanies allowed during Lent? Even after 19+ years working at Woodridge United Methodist Church, I still get confused about ecclesial particularities like the seasons of the church year. Which seems silly. I’ve now been working and worshiping in the UMC longer than I attended the American Baptist Church of my youth. Why does my profoundly non-liturgical upbringing still hold such sway? (Well, non-officially-liturgical. I know every body has a liturgy. Some, like my home church, aren’t overt about it. It’s more subconscious.) I suppose the overly strong influence of (church) families of origin upon worship preferences is a post for another day.]

The way this year’s study works is that each week we read the assigned chapter in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, which always begins by directing us to that section of scripture to which the chapter is responding. This third week of the study directed us to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 1-18.

As you may remember, the lectionary calls us to read much of those same verses every year on Ash Wednesday. In particular, the part wherein Jesus commands us to pray in secret, give in secret, and fast in secret. We read that on Ash Wednesday. You know, the day on which we put a big ol’ mark on our foreheads? Totally conspicuous, obvious, and the farthest-thing-from-secret? That day?

I’ve often wondered about that odd confluence. I’d say it strikes me as, well, hypocritical. Comically so, in fact.

But in the process of reading those verses a few times, reading the McLaren chapter, and talking about all of it with the considerate folks in our study group, a new thought struck me: what if that dissonance is on purpose?!?

What if the off-putting juxtaposition of that text and that public action is purposefully there to force us to face our own hypocrisy?? We read about praying, giving, fasting in secret then put that big mark on our forehead to show that we’ve prayed and then, quite often, talk about what we’re giving up for Lent. In other words, we often talk with each other about from what we intend to fast.

I mean, really. If that’s not comedy, what is? Perhaps I’ve been too busy taking myself too seriously on that perhaps too-somber day to be able to laugh at myself. It seems so obvious now. It’s so over-the-top ridiculous, I have no idea how I never saw it before. We who claim to follow Jesus are so often also the same ones quite ready to call out the hypocrisy in others…maybe Ash Wednesday is supposed to help us laugh at our own hypocrisy instead. A physical embodiment of humility.

After all, that’s exactly what comedy (at it’s best) is for: bringing down the haughty and lifiting up the lowly.

What do you think? Could Ash Wednesday be the best kind of joke – one in which we literally wear our own hypocrisy on our foreheads, on purpose!? If so, why have I not noticed before now?

Late to the Lent party #ashtag

Lent started, ahem, five days ago. So might well have read scores of ways to celebrate this season of the church. I know my timelines were full of them the last few days. Still, late as it is, here’s what I’m thinking about…

Lent: that season of the church year during which millions of Christians prepare for the Resurrection of Jesus by giving up…something for forty days. Me? I’m giving up beets. Just like every year. In fact, as far as beets are concerned, I’ve observed a perpetual Lent for, oh, about twenty-five years now. Can’t. Stand. ’em.

That’s my issue with the standard “give something up for Lent” approach: it is way too easy for it to become an empty ritual, a duty checked off, a way to feel “religious” without really challenging or changing yourself. Lent is a time marked by and for repentance, which means “to turn away.” A time to turn away from that which separates us from the Creator, creatures, and creation. (I know, I know. That formulation reeks of the cheesy, forced alteration so often employed by we preacher types. I gotta be me, I guess?) That kind of turning away could lead to giving up something like chocolate or coffee, depending on circumstances. But I suspect a list such as this one is much more likely to offer something truly worth giving up leading to actual change in our lives: fear of failure, guilt, destructive speech. It’s a terrific list.

Whatever misgivings I may have about that particular Lenten tradition, I find Ash Wednesday to be very meaningful. Worship that day reminds us of our mortality (hence the ashes), is a call to repentance, and an opportunity for a restart. Though there is something ironic about reading Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew calling us to “pray in secret” and then leaving the worship experience with an obvious, visible mark on our head.

IMG_5527
That’s a lot of forehead with which to work.

Instead of giving something up, there’s what we might call an inverse tradition: taking something on for Lent. That is, committing to engaging in a spiritual practice (or similar) for the forty days. Hence, the annual Lenten Bible Study at Woodridge UMC. This year, we’re reading Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking.

What does that even mean?

The title suggests that faith was never intended to be a destination, a status, a holding tank, or a warehouse. Instead it was to be a road, a path, a way out of old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. As a road or a way, it is always being extended into the future. If a spiritual community only points back to where it was been or it only digs in its heels where it is now, it is a dead end or a parking lot, not a way. To be a living tradition, a living way, it must forever open itself forward and forever remain unfinished – even as it forever cherishes and learns from the growing treasury of its past.

That’s how McLaren prefaces the book. Here’s a brief introduction of another stripe:

I hope these glimpses make you want to read more. I think it is a terrific and thought-provoking book and I can’t wait to talk with people about it. I hope to develop some sort of online presence for this study, but I don’t yet know what, when, or where (but other than that, it’s totally ready to go…).

We’re holding the session of the study that begins tonight at a Panera bread near the church. That’s new for us, holding a study off site. As with most any new venture, I’m a bit nervous. There are so many variables out of our control! But I really think meeting in a different place will allow us to see and hear ideas that we cannot in the familiar comfort of our church building.

Anyway, here are some resources to learn more about the book and/or McLaren:

A few other videos like the one above, with McLaren walking and talking.

A Facebook community for groups using the book.

Learn more about McLaren, or read his blog.

Have you read the book? Let me know what you think?
How are you celebrating Lent? Giving something up? Taking something on? Something else?