Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reconciliation, Race, and Reimagining Ashes to Go:
The End of a Trilogy

Yesterday at St. Francis House, our midweek discussion was about reconciliation, what it is, and how we live it as Christians. At the end of the conversation, I asked students to pair up and write out themes of reconciliation in haiku form. These remarkable haikus appear at intervals throughout this post, which itself is my attempt to put to paper my recent reflections on race in Madison and Ashes to Go.

Our conversation began with a review of those times "reconciliation" appears in Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. In that beginning, we identified reconciliation as 1) a gift of God in Christ, 2) the ministry of all Christians (BCP, 855), and 3) established in the Paschal mystery; baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is central to how Christians live and learn to live as reconciled people.

The cross is mercy
People coming together
reconciled to God

I offered the observation that the Episcopal tradition is very, very, richly equipped with language and understanding for engaging the work of reconciliation. Indeed, our history is full of examples of this good work in some of history's important moments. And yet, the Episcopal Church's unofficial motto, "The Episcopal Church welcomes you," - while reflecting a posture of hospitality we undervalue at our peril - is, at bottom, passive in ways that stop short of the reaching out reconciliation will at times require of us. The welcome of the Episcopal Church names the hospitality another will receive on our turf, once our church has become sufficiently interesting/accessible the other. Reconciliation, though, risks interest in the other, even before the other's interest, and always beyond the place of my comfort zone. It is not enough to be a place of welcome.

[To be sure, generous hospitality is central a central piece of even risk-taking reconciliation. It is a risk to let a stranger into one's midst. Rebekah and I were invited this past Sunday to attend worship at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, an African-American congregation near our home. The welcome we received was overwhelming and humbling. Hugs from strangers. Introductions and welcomes throughout the service. We did not take for granted the risk it was for strangers to welcome us so openly. At the same time, the commitment to radical hospitality exhibited by the congregation both honored and assumed the risk-taking required of those who would leave their comfort zones to meet them there.]

That reconciliation risks interest on another, beyond one's own walls, is why I have come to believe that one of the greatest gifts the Church has to offer the world is her interest in the world, which is a share in Christ's love and interest in the world. Of course, interest in others outside of ourselves is not easily lived out, because the distances between us oftentimes represent real wounds, our own sins. That reaching out might mean naming our sins is precisely why mission must include the repentance of the missionary.

I have become convinced that mission is primarily about reconciliation. If mission is about reconciliation, then mission is about seeking forgiveness for the obstacles to holy friendship I and my people have placed on the path of peace.

Bridges have been burned
We come together in Christ
To heal hurts we cause

Which brings us to Ashes to Go. I first reflected on the practice of administering ashes to passersby on Ash Wednesday a couple of years ago. I wasn't at all comfortable with the practice, but took seriously the counters of good and godly friends. A year later, I wrote this piece, which, looking back, was an attempt to expand on this concluding paragraph from my first reflection:

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.

That conclusion, as it turned out, was the seed of an instinct that good friends and the Spirit have watered in me, making it possible to reimagine Ashes to Go in a way that takes seriously the place of forgiveness seeking in the mission to which all Christians are called. 

So, I am reimagining Ashes to Go this year, which is to say I am participating for the first time. What will that look like at St. Francis House? Two priests on our block. I'm partial to the chapel steps. Cassocks. A sign (but then, you knew we'd have a sign). And before offering or administering the ashes, I'll ask some version of the question I've waited my whole Christian life to ask: 

Friend, is there anything for which I or my Church need to ask your forgiveness? 

One more poem:

Sorry, Jonathan
I could not write a haiku
I really tried though



  1. Brilliant idea, Jonathan, and, after my sabbatical, potentially stealable. It reminded me of something similar that is recounted in "Blue Like Jazz":

  2. Thanks, Stacy! Nothing would make me happier than having this idea stolen by many. I love the Blue Like Jazz story. Dan Merchant stole it for the movie "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers," which is amazing in a lot of ways. I can't wait to hear about your sabbatical - enjoy!


Dear Bishop Sumner,

Grace and peace! I am writing to request the renewal of my license to officiate in the Diocese of Dallas for the coming year.  Of cou...