“Ash Kicking” or “Why I Don’t Think Ash Wednesday is a Good Day for Peddling Religious Goods”

I know this post might not be popular with many of my colleagues, but it is timely…so I’m going to put it out there.  ashes

I get why pastors and church people stand by the bus stop and the train stop and on busy thoroughfares for Ash Wednesday.  We “get out of the church and into the world” by doing this, right?  We “take the ministry to the streets.”

I get the rationale; I get it.  And I get that it probably can be pretty powerful for the ashers, and possibly the ashees, too.

But here’s my concern, specifically with Ash Wednesday: I fear it is cheap.

Yes, cheap.

Ash Wednesday is a day of solemnity when we hear the prophet Joel encourage people to “return to the Lord.”  The liturgy involves a movement from the Kryie (Lord, have mercy) to hearing Joel’s encouragement to Matthew’s prayerful penitent beat his chest, and then we take last year’s Hosanna’s, burn them as a sign that we’ve burned so much of our praise in pursuit of the dust of this world, and mark ourselves again as dust.

It is a movement of stark realism.  It is a movement, like a carefully put together album, that leads you from the realization of mortality to a hopeful life despite the fact that you are dust.

Beautiful stardust…but dust nonetheless.

But more than anything, it is a movement.  And it takes a bit of time.  Not much time, but some time.  Mortality does not sink in so quickly (without sudden tragedy, of course).  And we should allow the time.  Not much time, but time nonetheless.  As the beginning of Lent, a season of intentionality, it seems odd to me that we would start out with such slack intentionality…

It is much more than a simple smudge at the bus stop.  Sure, there are many who will also offer prayer in that time.  Sure, there are many who will also offer information about how the individual seeking to be “ashed” (or get the “ash kicking” as I like to say) can hook up with a faith community.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it.

I’m just saying why I’m not going to…and I want to ask the question publicly.

Because despite the prayer and the information on faith communities, I don’t think Ash Wednesday is the day to do it.

We don’t see people out on Easter passing out lilies.  Actually, that makes a ton more sense to me…

I don’t want Ash Wednesday…I don’t want my mortality…to be a gimmick.  And I worry that the church can turn it into that.

And there’s something important about having Ash Wednesday with other people of faith, all together, in one place.  There’s something important about me, the individual hearing “Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” but then also having all of us, communally, hear it.

It’s not just about me; it’s about us.  All of us.  We are all stardust…and our systems of power and “isms” and phobias have reinforced it.

And there is something powerful about having a train full of cross-smudged commuters.  I won’t deny that.  But what does it mean that they got it running for the 8:05am?

Have an early morning Ash Wednesday service.  Or a noon one, where people can do it at lunch hour.  Or, have a full one at the bus stop, 20 minutes long.  Or point people toward a service that happens right as work gets out downtown.  I think these are good options.  But not as they’re running by…

Because I want to know: what do we think we’re saying when we’re offering a reminder of mortality on the fly?

What We Lose When We Exorcise Mystery from Religion

So, this Sunday falls directly on Candlemas, and for dorks like me that’s a bit of a big deal.index

For those of you not in the “know,” Candlemas is that time in the church year (for some of us) where we haul out all the candles in the church (or at least a representative sampling) and bless them.  My colleague calls it a “hinge day,” marking the midpoint between the Winter’s Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

So we haul out the candles and we bless them to acknowledge the Christ as being the “light of the world.”  And I’ve never met anyone who didn’t sit in solemn silence in the presence of a candle illuminating a darkened room.  There’s something deeply True about doing that.

It’s kind of like how many of us will burn greens right after Christmas, pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice, and bless houses at Epiphany.

All of these rites, these rituals, help us to breathe deeply  with history, with the Earth’s movement, and with the mystery that connects us to one another and to the Divine.  It’s why I bow toward the cross as it comes into my midst: I want to honor in my body the mystery of salvation.

But a lot of places don’t do this.  Won’t do this.  Indeed, a lot of places think these acts are superfluous at best and superstitious at worst.

I don’t bless candles because I think they must be blessed.  I bless them because, in doing so, I acknowledge that light will overcome darkness. Always. And that deserves blessing.

I don’t pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice because I think that evil resides in the shadows and I must pray it away.  No. I know evil resides in the shadows.  Hence why we don’t tell our secrets…many times they’re too full of evil, guilt, or shame to expose to the light.  So I pray late into the night to acknowledge that, from that point on, it will get lighter and lighter each day as we lean toward Spring.

And then, perhaps, I can allow a little light to shine more and more on my secrets.

And all of these practices help to connect me with a mystery of life and salvation greater than myself.  It’s kind of like our big harvest festival, Thanksgiving.  Ever since our forbears figured out that a dead seed will spring from the Earth, a mix between careful tending and damn luck, they’ve acknowledged that to live, and to breathe, and to eat is a gift.

All of it, gift.

And part of living into that gift is acknowledging that there are moments in life that are just bigger than us…and that should be ritualized. Communally ritualized.

But so much of modern faith is all brain or all heart and no mystery (unless we’re expected to believe that Jonah mysteriously wasn’t dissolved by stomach acid).

We just feel it’s true.  We assent to mental tenets (or reject them).

And yet, deep love is neither mental nor emotional.  It doesn’t make sense to the brain, and is often too fleeting with the heart.

No. Deep love is a mix of the head and the heart and the guts and…and that’s where I find true faith to reside, too.

Timothy Keller and Christopher Hitchens attempt to rationalize everything (they are in good company).  They are the different sides of the same coin. Not everything has an answer.

Likewise, the absolute emotionalism of charismatic and ecstatic communities miss the mark, too, I think.  Things aren’t true because they move our emotions; emotions are fleeting.  “Mystery” doesn’t mean believing just anything.

No. Things are true because they connect us deeply in the past and far into the future.

Hence why myth is True in a deeper sense then pure history.  Hence why rituals are True in a sense deeper than mindless monotony.

A belief system (and, remember, even atheism is a belief system) that attempts to exorcise mystery by finding a formula for everything and explaining everything or, conversely, by necessitating a constant emotional response is a faith that has lost something.

I think it’s lost depth.  My atheism was shallow.  As was my previous faith.  And while I don’t claim that I’ve reached some sort of amazing depth in my faith life now, it’s certainly more connected then anything I’ve practiced before.

Rituals don’t “save” me.


I don’t do them to earn anything.  Rather, they do exactly what “religion” claims to do: they reconnect me.  Re-ligio comes from the same root as “ligament.”  It  reconnects us.

Because we have a way of disconnecting from life.  But, too often, even religion fails to live up to it’s name these days.

So, this Sunday, haul out some candles.  Give thanks for the light.

I’m an Addict

I’m addicted to mapl2-imin1-20y cellphone.

I’m addicted to Ted talks.

I’m addicted to social media.

I’m addicted to being connected.

I’m an addict.  I imagine a not-so-distant future where we have TA meetings in churches.

I’m serious.

When I forget my phone at home, I feel naked.  Like missing my drivers license before a cross-country trip.  Or like forgetting my kid at the grocery store.

No really; the anxiety can be that bad sometimes.

It preoccupies my mind. No, that’s wrongly said.  It doesn’t preoccupy my mind.  It colonizes my mind.

I’ll call my wife from the middle of Target to find out where she is when we’re in the same store.

You laugh.  I laugh.  But it’s serious. It’s like laughing the way we do when a friend describes a drinking escapade that is obviously indicative of an issue.  It’s funny and we laugh because if we were to take it seriously we’d have to change our behavior.

And this is the thing: I know it’s a spiritual condition.

It’s a spiritual condition because my phone and my ipod and my computers prevent me from being present.  Oh, sure; I’m up to date.  I read the New York Times like it’s nobody’s business.  Back articles galore.

And I know exactly where folks are because of Twitter and Facebook and…

Except myself.  I’m not sure exactly where I am in those moments.

Because physically I’m in a room with my family, my boy babbling on the blanket spread out on the floor.

But mentally I’m in cyberspace.

And I don’t want to be.

The thing is, I don’t think that Christianity is talking about this addiction very much.  In fact, I often am encouraged in my addiction by other pastors and professional leaders and leadership gurus who encourage us to “up our presence” on social media, on web blogs and chat sites.

Our Klout scores must rise…

And as it rises, my spirituality falls.  Because I’m never present.

Sunday morning can be a time of presence, of course.  As I ring the meditation bell after the scripture readings at services, I fall into the present in a way that really is transcendent.

That’s the irony that I find in worship: it grounds me in the present by lifting me beyond myself.

And I pray for it at other times in my life.

But the bell of a new text calls me from my present into the anxiety of the digital words on my screen; a different scripture reading of sorts that lays claim on my time and attention.  And I worry some about introducing technology into sacred spaces.  I’m not totally against it…but I have mixed feelings about it.

And it has nothing to do with “old” and “new” styles of worship (whatever that means).  It has to do with breaking an addiction.  And I know I rarely listen to any one thing anymore.  Listen; really listen.  I know that meditation is pretty much the only thing I do in a day that doesn’t involve a computer chip (except that I do prefer old-school books to Kindles and Nooks…though I usually am listening to my ipod when I’m reading).

I don’t think we’re doing this very well, church.  We may be encouraging our people’s addictions.  I’m of mixed emotions on it.

I’m not saying the church should be anti-technology; I’m a blogger after all.

But, by God, we’re very much reinforcing the terrible addictions of so many by our deafening silence on this spiritual issue.  And it’s not only making me a reluctant tweeter, it’s making me a reluctant Christian.

And it’s killing me.  Killing us, I think.

Is technology to blame?

It’s interesting to me that technology intends, by profession, to connect the world, and yet by doing so it cuts us off from those right in front of us and around us. And I’m not complaining like the octogenarian who wishes things were “like the old days.”  The “old days” weren’t all that awesome from what I can tell.

I’m really just wondering if we should do something just because we can.

But, I digress.  No; technology is not to blame.

It’s my need to know. To constantly know.

That is to blame.

Perhaps we should stop texting about it and start talking about it as a faith community.  Because our addictions to know are preventing us from being, now.