Friday, February 24, 2017


Ashes have a context.
Ashes are not decorative.
Ashes hold memories and lead us into the future.
Ashes come with words that pierce our hearts and and our lives so we will see more clearly.
Ashes have the power to transform - shake us up.
Ashes come with a meal - a full meal - a meal in which all of us who fall down rise up to look each other in the face and then face the reality of who we are and who we are graced to become.

Do not let me walk by and be marked and then go on my way as though I know what this smudge means and you also need to know what it means for me.
Do not let me drive by and be marked - like the scene of a drive by shooting that leaves behind victims and no healing - just a mark of blood on the sidewalk and a bundle of wilted flowers.
Do not let me walk around with a black cross painted on my forehead so that the world will come to think that dress-up is what I do when I claim to follow Jesus.
Do not let me walk to the cross with Jesus thinking a soiled forehead is like a humble get-off-the-cross-free-card as I enter Lent.
Do not let me fool myself and my neighbors with a smudge that allows me to believe that I need not budge from my way.

Ashes come with a bit of silence.
Ashes come with glances around the room to see others also making ready for a journey to the cross.
Ashes come with the poetic images of who we so often become and offer images of who we are meant to be.
Ashes come with the faces of old men and women - marked for a movement through death and life.
Ashes come with the faces of young children in the arms of adults - ashen faces.
Ashes come with the remembrance of the night in which he was betrayed and a holy line of saints open to be fed with the gift of life.
Ashes come with a touch that is more than the passing of a finger over our foreheads - it is the touch the comes when wounded and broken and burnt people can look around and smile and weep and wonder at how we will walk in the way of the Christ - together.

Ashes are placed on the foreheads of the followers of Jesus to open up our hearts - not to alert others that we have been to church - or we claim to be Christians - or look how we follow disciplines that make us appear holy.
Ashes are placed on our foreheads so as to sink into our heads and move us into new life that opens our hearts and minds to the creative genius of our God who is for us before and after all that can come upon us.

Ashes mark us for us - not for anyone else.
Ashes shape our witness - they are not our witness.
Ashes help us see the full story - they do not tell the story to others.

Over all the years of marking and being marked with ashes, I have followed a practice that has made sense to me. After our community gathering and sharing and living and dying together, I look in the mirror at my ashen forehead - and I wash the ashes off. They are not there for others - for strangers - to make a witness. Those ashes become like commandments written on hearts - the life that emerges will be the display of the way of Jesus among us - fearless in the face of the ashes of our lives.

So, when I hear about drive-by ashes available at your local discount congregation, I wonder what other discounts are available. That, I guess, is the shape of Christianity that appears to have some appeal these days. Cute - easy - convenient.
Drive by is like -  having it my way.
Drive by - keep going at our own pace - keeping within our own space.
Drive by - taking what you want - disengaged from community and font.
Drive by - like taking the freeway that has cut through and has forgotten the stations of the cross of the lives - over which it passes.
Drive by - on the way to a holy act over there - because ashes close to home cannot be shared.

From dust we came - To dust we shall return.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Our Sacred Things - Usually Divide Us

Let me begin with a short comment: It would be a wonder-filled world if religious people did not try to secure their identity in that which they eat - or wear - or the patterns of their lives - or how they pray - or with whom they are able to share their lives. Odd, I just now thought of the whimsical stories of Dr. Seuss - what a wise social critic. Could it be that over the centuries, we have let ourselves lose the grand vision of our humanity - our one humanity - in order to settle for a way of life we can call sacred, blessed, bestowed with special powers, and one that is then elevated above the life others have also deemed sacred...

Even in an age when all religions attempt to speak and act with some degree of acceptance and inclusivity of folks from other religious backgrounds or none at all, too many of us hang onto that which is meant to keep us separated. This separation that we have hung onto for as long as history allows us to remember has become special. This separation is one we say is called forth by our God - oh my - really! There's nothing more powerful than saying, 'Our God told us to do this and make sure we do it forever and ever.' Ancient tribes had a way of securing their way of life by making sure their stories were full of commands and instructions by their God. For the most part, those stories did indeed help a tribe endure through the ups and downs associated with the changes in culture. This-is-us and we-are-not-them is a powerful tool of control that simultaneously can be a blessing and a curse.

When I was a young Roman Catholic, my maternal grandmother wore a head coverings when she went to mass - as did most women. The coverings were simple. Sometimes it was only a kerchief hastily put in place. By the time I was in college, only the oldest women kept up that practice. Did it - does it - matter? Was a woman more beloved - was she special in the eyes of God - did she live out a more devout life because of this - was she showing honor and respect to God - were those head coverings necessary after all. I want to answer with a resounding No. No head covering makes a person one who honors God. No clothing of any type makes a person blessed by God. Rather, I want to say that our lives - how we go about the day at hand  - is the cover that is to be put on and worn. This is for both men and women. What good is it if a person wears a prescribed bit of clothing or eats a very specific diet or goes on a pilgrimage or keeps a distance from people not just like them or observes religious holidays? 

For me, it has all become lost  - not necessary - not helpful.  It is as though certain doors in time were opened to new expressions of life and then, rather than being opening that were liberating, they became closed up or sealed up or bound up or called sacred so they could not be changed - altered - dismissed. If those doors somehow would be opened and the forms of identity that were once deemed sacred were left behind - as people move through other doors leading to new views of life - then, we are so often told, there will be chaos - we will lose touch with God. Really? Oh,  wait, excuse me, that may be right. We will lose touch with the god we have made for ourselves so as to keep the world as we have been told it must be - a world constructed by those before us who needed a story to keep their lives ordered and under control. Therefore, stretching back in time a string of women wearing head coverings - or men wearing special clothing - or those following a prescribed way to pray - or the keeping of days and diets and hours became a necessity - a sacred act of obedience and devotion and an identity. This image of head coverings in the Roman Catholic world of my grandmother's day is a very insignificant part of the controlling patterns of life deemed to provide us with life in the image of God. But it is one in which I have found myself.

I think I need others to point out to me how easy some of my ways and practices of life can be turned into sacred patterns that may need to be let go so that the ways I deem as sacred do not become the roadblocks to building bridges so that no person is considered an outsider - unclean - other - beyond our kind. In other words, that which is so frequently labeled sacred - might just be the complete opposite of that which is sacred for rather than be a part of the creative genius of our God - it divides rather than unites.

Before you think I merely am speaking about the rituals and rites and practices of the various world religions, please don't limit me to that world. Probably the first shrine used to keep the world as we want it is displayed in our families - our homes - our tribes. We want life to follow our pattern and adhere to our way of taking-on-the-day. Within that closed culture - wearing a certain style of hat may become the way to be a member. We dress like this. We eat like this. We celebrate holidays like this. If someone in our family does not follow along, then there are ways to handle such acts of dissent. The leverage of family pressure can be immense and make any movement away from the family tradition or norm or name - an act of rebellion that carries a cost. I'm not saying that a family of Cleveland Browns fans may choose to stone any of their members who become Steeler fans - but don't laugh. Instead, simply try to see how such a foolish family action may actually be on par with the many ways religious practices have kept their people in place - in control. To a number of people I know, religious groups are well-schooled in these acts of control and submission. In both of these scenarios - the Browns family and religious groups - we divide the world in such a way that our one humanity suffers and our ancient tribalism does today - what it was intended to do over past millennia - make the world into our world not a world for all.