Monday, February 18, 2013

Cheap Ashes

The image is striking: a priest stands on a station platform, on a street corner, in the square, vested and wearing a cloak or a cope if the weather calls for it. People come up, and a finger is rubbed in ashes and makes the sign, and the words are spoken: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". And another person, perhaps a passerby, perhaps a churchman whose schedule precludes going to church, is marked with a sooty cross. And perhaps the world is reminded, once more, how it is fallen, and to where it needs to go for redemption.

The Ashes to Go movement, which started in St. Louis with an ecumenical group of churches in 2007, has spread quickly across the Episcopal Church. This year, for instance, found the Bishop of Washington and priests from St. Paul's K Street offering ashes at a DC Metro station; this diocese published a directory of sites, as did others. The notion is appealing in a nation where the church is often enough looked upon as a decorative element or an avocation, and where its message of repentance and redemption is supposed to be cooped up within its adherents, one "spiritual path" among many. But on a chilly Wednesday, its ministers venture into the world, offering repentance to the world, in the sign of a smudge of carbon. And the media have noticed, for this year I see articles from all over on the practice, such as this one from the Dallas Morning News. The International Business Times even included a list of locations in New York, presumably for the convenience of its Catholic readers, an ironic note given that the movement originated out of the observation that Catholics would go to Episcopal churches for ashes but not for communion.

As the practice has grown in popularity, it is inevitable, I suppose, that contrary voices have arisen. And they are voices I respect, so I feel they must at least be addressed. And mostly the criticisms are consonant with one another: Susan Snook writes, for instance, that "Ash Wednesday makes sense only at the beginning of a season that ends with Easter"; the rector of Christ Church Tulsa insists that the practice goes against the very gospel inevitably read on the day, warning against the practicing of one's piety in public. David Creech echoes these comments and talks about how the acts should be fitted within the larger service of contrition and recollection. Another cleric characterizes it as "cheap grace", surely the penultimate denunciation in this Boenhoffer-obsessed church. It is denounced as individualistic, consumerist, vacuous.

All these complaints, I think, are justified. And yet, I am not utterly persuaded. Surely a Christian should, in a Christian community, be joining others in a community act of repentance. But for many of us, this was not possible. I personally was unable to attend any of the services at my church due to the constraints of my schedule; I was fortunate in finding another parish within a short drive of my office that had a noon service, but not everyone has such an option. If hadn't been able to find such a service, I might have sought a priest on a street corner rather than let the day pass unobserved. In any case I must rely upon my own understanding of the spirituality of lenten practice to make it all "work"— and I ran my hand across my forehead before returning to the office.

But I think the more intense focus here, from both sides, is on the unchurched. And here I come upon a number of thoughts, which may or may not be woven into a coherent tapestry. First, on the matter of cheap grace: talk about it is also cheap. Eventually it comes across to me as a cry of despair from clerics frustrated at their unresponsive charges. And while one should not ridicule the professional hazards of another too easily, the fact remains that the seed of grace, at least, is as cheap as can be. One needs only to be baptized, and for many of us, there was no decision of our own needed to make that happen. Yes, the road to final grace leads to and through Calvary, but most of us Americans will never be stood up against a wall for our Lord; mostly we start our paths quietly and without drama, and many saints finish the trek in similar circumstances.

Second: if there is anything this word needs to be taught, it is ashes. The message of American secular culture is that you find a fulfilling job (and it can fulfill simply by getting you lots of money), find someone (anyone, maybe a whole series of someones) to to fulfill your sexual appetites, and throw together some "spiritual" practices to keep your ego properly inflated. People don't want Easter, or rather, they take Easter for granted. They don't think they need grace; some small number think that talk of grace is futile, but the vast majority take grace for granted, putting their faith in a Christo-Hindu-Theosophist-nature-worshipping-pantheist universalist spiritualism whose only expense, perhaps, is the book you have to buy to get your self-affirmations out of. There is no more important task for Judaeo-Christian religion than to teach the world that it is fallen. If the minister goes out to speak this prophecy, to say, "Remember O thou man" and tell them that no amount of self-affirmation will grant the salvation so desperately needed, then this can only be for the better.

Third, it seems to me that the choice here, for most, is not between ashes on the street and ashes in church; it's between ashes and no ashes. And I guess I'm less concerned about the spiritual dangers, in that regard, because I compare that with being left undisturbed in sin. Sure, some people at least will get a smear of char on their forehead which they can sport during the day in a state of spiritual smugness. They can do that in church, too, even if the gospel lesson instructs them otherwise. But perhaps one in twenty, even one in a hundred is disturbed enough to contemplate their mortality and depravity, and to start down the road of repentance to be embraced by the church which alone can heal the ancient wound.

Therefore I come down, tentatively, hopefully, on the side of taking ashes wherever they may be borne. We will not win the whole world this way, but perhaps, we may win one or two.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Pogo and Mission

From Tony Clavier comes this post from Titus Presler on the name change of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (or USPG) to just "us". You should read his extensive analysis for yourself, but I would make two observations about the new name. First, it's hard to imagine a more negative symbolic act than hacking "propagation of the gospel" out of the name. And second, the new website address,, simply demands a Pogo response: "We have met the enemy, and we are us."

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

To Tell the Truth, Reverend Sir

Kendall Harmon quotes a passage from a recent article by Willimon:
My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. But I found too many clergy who allowed congregational caregiving and maintenance to trump more important acts of ministry, like truth telling and mission leadership. These tired pastors dash about offering parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth. One pastor led a self-study of her congregation and found that 80 percent of them thought the minister’s primary job was to “care for me and my family.” Debilitation is predictable for a kleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.

Most people in mainline churches meet biblically legitimate needs (food, clothing, housing) with their checkbooks. In the free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning or inner well-being—matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

Well, bully for them. I watch preaching in the Episcopal Church, and too much of the time it sounds like the parody of this. We can buy whatever we need, not with our checkbooks (how backward!) but with our credit cards. Or most probably we already own it. There is nothing else that needs to be done about us, and spirituality is after all unencumbered by theology, for we buy whatever spirituality we need in the "Affirmations" section of the on-line bookstore. Or really, we buy our affirmation through politics, which the preacher encourages through his "truth-telling", the truth being told, of course, being about other people.

I have heard sermons where the teaching seemed to be that the mission of Jesus was all about social action. It is tempting to conclude that Willimon intends the same lesson. And for those upper class, credit- and vote-wielding Episcopalians, faithful to their sense of entitlement to rule the world, it is the most comforting preaching possible, at least of a Sunday. After all, they are confident of being able to afford a contribution to those causes espoused by the preacher, and gratified in their hatred of those who stand in the way of the divine progress of the kingdom. Grace is thus made cheap, payable in installments to the Democratic Party.

In all of this, Martha is satisfied, and Mary turned away. I do not think that Jesus ever said that all anyone needs is to be fed, to be clothed, and to be sheltered. Even the hungry, the ill-clothed, and the homeless need more than that. "Give us today our daily bread" is but one petition. People do mourn, not just for those who die, but for their kin and friends who turn to malice or self-destruction. Those who have credit today find it wiped out tomorrow. Willimon's mocking of this pain, unintentional though it may be, is contemptible.

And still there is another truth. I hear tales of priests who cannot be bothered to comfort those who mourn, and guide those who are troubled, and teach those who have gone astray. Willimon is not entirely wrong, and his vision of a ministry consumed by the therapeutic is not unseen in practice; but there is an equal and opposite peril for preachers: to fall too much in love with their own self-image as a prophetic voice. Away goes any part of the gospel which would tell them to descend from the pulpit and listen to those who prophesize against them, or who even want nothing more than to gather up the crumbs from beneath the table. Eventually it is they who consume the laos in the feeding of their egos, and the people wither, to be blown away in storms of life.