Return to God – We’re Here for You (My First “Ashes to Go”)

Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, DSC04323with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. – Joel  2

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him – Luke 15

I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  The raucous Facebook debates and snarky commentaries (like this latest in the Living Church) left me suspicious of “Ashes to Go.”  I was prepared to feel let down by the hype, prepared to agree that “take out” sacramental acts were indeed the equivalent of spiritual junk food – alluring, but ultimately unsatisfying.

But the Spirit had something else in store.  On a frigid winter day, with many layers under my alb and a trusty verger and seminarian by my side, I put ashes on the foreheads of nearly 200 souls at the Capitol South metro station in Washington, DC.

They were lawyers and government workers, tourists and interns (lots and lots of interns).  A custodian at the National Archives.  A security guard from the Library of Congress.  A Pentagon worker who missed early mass “because of an emergency briefing about ISIS.”  Whole families away from their home churches, on college tours and vacations.

There was Tammi, who lives on the street near the Capitol.  In addition to ashes, she was hoping for a cup of coffee and a blessing.  “What should I pray for today?” I naively asked her.  “I need everything, Father,” she said with an exhausted smile.

Some others came with tears.  Some with smiles.  Some with elaborate excuses about why they missed church.  Some admitting they hadn’t been in a very, very long time.  Many with heads bowed and eyes closed.  At times, there was a line five or six people long.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Beloved child of God, walk in peace this day and always.”

With the ashes, we gave a booklet of prayers.  And over and over, people said “Thank you.  Thank you for being here.”  Or they simply nodded, with a weary look that said silently: I needed this; I needed you here today

But what should I say back?  “You’re welcome” seemed too tame a response to the moment we just shared.  I found myself responding, over and over again, “We are here for you.”

We are here for you, right where you needed us – on this one day a year when we put dirt on our faces to remind us just how crazy our lives have become, how out of control, how far from God’s dream for us.

We are here for you – on this day when our protective masks are tarnished, when the dirty mortality behind our power suits and sunglasses gets revealed for all the world to see.  The day we remember that Tammi and I are equal before God, beloved creations, dust from dust.  The day when God calls us ALL back home.

“The people who forget our common mortality—and by extension our common humanity—are usually those of us in positions of power,” my colleague Sarah Monroe reminds us in her blog, A Wandering Minister.  “In situations of oppression, when people begin to lose hope, there is hope in words that remind us that no human person or institution lasts forever. That oppression itself cannot last forever.”

For me, there was power in “Ash Wednesday on the Street.”  (Maybe “Ashes-to-Go” just needs a re-branding).  Power in naming fragility in the halls of government.  Power in breath and touch.  Power in the awkwardness of literally standing in front of people on their daily commute, with dirt in hand, saying by our presence: “Return to God” AND “We are here for you.”

And for those who came to receive, power in accepting the invitation to stop, turn around, and publicly undertake an act of worship.  This seems to be what Ash Wednesday is all about.

There are limitations, for sure.  There is no guarantee that any one of those 200 ash-covered souls will do more than stop for a moment on the sidewalk.  No guarantee that those ashes will lead to prayer, or fasting, or giving alms; no guarantee that they will prompt a conversion that will motivate the ash-covered one to take on God’s desired fast of justice and mercy.

But I know it was right for us to be there, for me to be there.  It was right for the church to ease the first step, to clear the way for a first turn back toward God.  Lord knows the journey of faith is a struggle.  That sacrifice and challenge lie ahead.

But it begins with a return, a possibility of a different future.  Like the prodigal father in the parable, I believe Jesus would want us to run out ahead of the returning one, to be ready with a smile and an embrace.  “I am here for you.”

Return, because of God’s steadfast love, the prophet Joel says.  Turn, because there is mercy.  Repent, because there is grace.

I understand the desire for commitment.  I hear the critique that ashes to go are cheap grace, but I think the opposite is true.  At last at Capitol South, I saw visibly the repentance, the turning.  Looking up from their phones.  Taking their headphones off.  Looking me in the eye.  Allowing an unknown priest to mark their bodies with a sign of mortality.  Sometimes, with a tear.  Sometimes, with a smile.

Because we were there, because the church cared enough about them to stand in the cold and stand in their way.  Because of this, they could take a first step. It was just a beginning, for sure, but an important one, because commitment comes after the turning, and after the embrace by the grace of God.

I hope the people of St. Mark’s will be out on the streets way more than once a year.  Not just at the subway, all dressed up in alb and stole, with ashes and prayer on offer.  But in the alleys and cafes, the bus stops and heating grates, the corridors of power and the custodial rooms; blessing, loving, challenging, organizing, uniting the people of God. In our common mortality, our common blessedness, our common mission.

But first, return to God, knowing that God is there for you – and so are we.

#AshesToGo #HereForYou #ReturnToGod

Listen to Him

St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

Lent 1B / 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Mark 1:9-15 

How do you hear the voice of Jesus? And what does he say to you?

Two Sundays in a row, we encounter in Mark’s Gospel a voice from heaven. This week speaking to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son.” Last week, speaking to the disciples (and to us): “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Listen to him. Words not just for Peter and James and John on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration, but words for us, as well.

From heaven, we can almost hear that same voice say

Listen to him, who proclaims good news.

Listen to him, who declares God’s justice.

Listen to him, when he says feed the hungry.

Listen to him, when he says heal the sick.

Listen to him, when he says love your enemy.

Listen to him, when he says do not judge.

Listen to him, when he says “take and eat”

Listen to him, and take up your cross

Listen to him, and do not be afraid

Listen to him, beloved of God. Listen to the voice of Jesus.

So simple, it seems – but not so simple. Because we hear other voices. Voices not from God.

Voices that draw us off the path of life. Voices that distract us from our focus on Jesus.

In Lent, this 40-day season of simplicity and focus, we are invited, over and over again, to return to God. To return to the One who created us, who loves us, saves us, heals us, strengthens us, challenges us to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, to be a people of love and justice.

In Lent, we learn to listen, again. To listen to the voice of God, to hear the voice of Jesus more strongly than all the other voices. To listen with the ear of the heart, as the Rule of St. Benedict says – the deepest listening, from the deepest place inside us, to the deepest longing in the heart of God.

But how? How can we learn to listen?

It may not surprise you that the church has no shortage of “helpful” tips. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten shorthand. Fish on Fridays, give up chocolate, and all the rest.

Maybe it was always this way, but it feels like Lent has become a kind of spiritual “bootcamp,” a chance for normally laid-back Christians to go hardcore in a disciplined spiritual life, to undertake a massive program of repentance and self-improvement – a second chance at those pesky New Year’s Resolutions, a moment to confront our destructive desires, to undo the habits that keep us stuck in a festering dissatisfaction, to set aside the built-up resentments and fears that divide us from one another.

It may also not surprise you to learn that – in my younger days – I was a bit of a spiritual overachiever.

At Pilgrim Congregational Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, I sang in the choir, starred in the Christmas pageant, took up the offering as a junior usher, and made sure to have perfect attendance at Sunday School. At home, I prayed before meals, even when my parents didn’t, and I would listen to hours of evangelical radio preachers at night before bed.

But I was so jealous … of the Catholics. Not only did they get to leave school early for Catechism class, but they came with ashes on their foreheads once a year, made the sign of the cross when they prayed, got to be altar servers, and gave things up for lent.

So, it also may not surprise you to learn that when I found the Episcopal Church in college, I embraced Lent with gusto.

I was into every spiritual discipline – no meat on Fridays, formal prayer four or five times a day, no shopping, giving away most of my discretionary income, silent retreats, centering prayer, Wednesday soup suppers at church and the plan to make my way through every Lenten devotional booklet on offer at church – Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Episcopal Relief and Development, Forward Day by Day.

I did it all. Or at least I tried to do it all. Because if there is one thing that is true of every Lenten discipline, every spiritual practice I have ever attempted, it is this:

At some point, it was a failure.

A failure, at least, in the fact that it didn’t go exactly as planned.  And this, I think, is the point.

Because the disciplines (in and of themselves) are at best irrelevant and at worst foolishly-offensive to God.

On Ash Wednesday, the prophet Isaiah reminded us that God has absolutely no interest in the particular, visible signs of piety like fasting from food, or putting ash on our forehead – unless they also lead to the fast of God’s choosing, which Isaiah tells us is this –

to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.

Lent is not a second chance at New Year’s Resolutions. Not a 40 day wilderness self-improvement program. Not a chance to emerge holy and proud of ourselves when Easter comes. Not about being the spiritual overachiever of my childhood dreams.

No, Lent, at its best, undoes us, pierces us, unravels us, exposes us.  It is precisely our Lenten failures which bring us closer to the voice of God.

When we try, and fail, to fast –
we feel the competing hungers in our bodies and souls.

When we try, and fail, to pray –
we notice our distracted, hurried days; our weakness even in the simplest things.

When we try, and fail, to give alms –
try and fail, to share our bread,
try and fail to break the yokes of injustice
we confront the power of evil, the weight of the sin that ensnares us all.

When we try, and fail, we begin to come out of hiding. When we try and fail, we begin to notice the many voices calling our name. We begin recognize the voice of Jesus.

Give up chocolate; take on prayer; stop and talk to a person living on the street, ask them their name; turn off Facebook for a week, a day, an hour; open the Bible and actually read it.  Whatever else you do or don’t do for these next forty days, bring yourself to the place where you hear Jesus.

And that place can be anywhere. Because as distracted as we are, as tempted by other voices, as prone to wander as we may be, we are never outside of God’s saving power, never that far from the voice of Jesus.

Nestled in our New Testament reading today is one of the Bible’s hidden gems. Jesus, it tells us, “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”

This is the scriptural source for an old Christian teaching called the harrowing of hell; that during the three days between Christ’s death and resurrection, Jesus went down into the farthest reaches of death’s grap, to proclaim Good News to everyone – even to those who were most unwilling to hear God’s voice in their own time.

Christ’s descent to the dead, which we proclaim in the Apostles Creed, is a symbol of just how far God will go to reach us, a proclamation that no one, and nothing, is beyond God’s salvation. Because, we remember, the rainbow covenant made after the flood, was not just with all humanity, but with every living creature – past, present and yet to come.

With that confidence in God’s presence, let yourselves be broken. Let your failures be a blessing. Take on some practice, for sure, but learn from your struggles and failings, and focus on the fast of God’s choosing …

And listen, listen hard, listen deep for the voice of Jesus – a voice calling out to you, even to the depths of hell, even to the depths of your heart.

How do you hear the voice of Jesus? And what does he say to you?


For more about listening from the heart, I recommend this reflection by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold: