Monday, February 27, 2012

Ashes-to-go and the Oscars:
the case for public forgiveness-seeking

Struggling for ways to endure last night's Oscars - which at least ended well - I turned to twitter, where I found my friend @StuShelby asking this question: "Scandalous idea here?  Ashes-to-go proves Episcopalians are at a Council of Jamnia moment.  How can we be faithful without our land/temple/etc?"  Great question!  Billy Crystal, I'll catch up with you.

A little background:  The Council of Jamnia is said to have been convened  by Jewish leaders around 90 AD in order to firmly establish the Jewish canon of Scripture and, because of the dating, presumably also to answer questions of Jewish identity after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 AD.  Ashes-to-go is a movement within the Episcopal Church that gained momentum - and its own hash tag! - this year:  acknowledging that the days of communities oriented around church campuses are almost certainly behind us, priests distributed ashes to people from overtly secular public places: Walmart parking lots, for example.


Does ashes-to-go represent a Jamnia-like wrestling within which churches are learning to be faithful without their holy turf?

On the one hand it strikes me that I only have the luxury of writing this question as a Christian because lots of Christians before me understood the call to live and move in the secular realm, beyond the physical walls of the church building; if you're a Christian, somebody told you the Good News.  The Church is always - and has only ever been - for others. That is, this impulse is not new.

On the other hand, Christians are rediscovering as never before - many by necessity - the call to creatively and publicly engage the secular world.  Ashes-to-go represents a creative, visible, and - perhaps most significantly - generous posture toward a world that is not used to a Church that is creative, visible, and - most of all - generous.  

To my thinking, ashes-to-go gets points for creativity, visibility, and generosity.  On the level of those three traditional deficits within the Church, it's a win.

My concerns for ashes-to-go are hopefully concerns that can further grow the Church in creativity, visibility, and generosity.  Here are the concerns:

1.  Ashes-to-go, sans Eucharist (admittedly neither required by the rubrics nor dependent on being inside or outside of the building) separates a reminder of our mortality from the sacramental presence of Jesus and so also our resurrection hope. Dust to dust without the resurrection hope is not the whole of the Good News with which we have been entrusted to share.

2. Is ashes-to-go, sans Scripture, honest?  That is, is it responsible to give others the gift of ashes without the readings that make that gift at the same time a convicting invitation to self-examination of even - indeed, especially - the Church's piety: "When you pray, close the door...wash your face..."  And especially Isa 58: "Do you think this is the fast that I desire of you?"

The contexts of Word and Sacrament matter, even if it's true - and it is - that the Church must do a better job of being present to other contexts.  But Christian faithfulness need not - must not - be an either/or game.  So I asked @StuShelby: What would a faithful public engagement shaped by (but not simply a parrot of) Ash Wednesday look like?  He helpfully suggested something like the reverse confessional that Donald Miller wrote about in Blue Like Jazz, and which Dan Merchant practices in his fantastic and challenging film, "Lord, Save Us from Your Followers."  In the film, Dan takes a Gay Pride parade as an occasion to seek forgiveness from gay and lesbian sisters and brothers against whom he and the larger Church has sinned.(1)

It may not be as sexy as ashes-to-go, but public forgiveness-seeking feels like an uncomfortably faithful alternative with the promise of transformation not just for "them" but for us, too.  That is, after all,  how I find my own heart for the world informed by Ash Wednesday: the reminder that I need to spend more time in the world, but not to make the sinners more like me; I need to spend more time in the world so that, as a sinner, I may continue to feebly reach out and live into the reconciliation that Christ on the cross has made true for us all.


What would a faithful public engagement shaped by (but not simply a parrot of) Ash Wednesday look like?

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