Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!

Agenda-less

May 15, 2019

What a beautiful reminder of the possibilities when things aren’t overscheduled or over-planned.

Wednesday evenings I lead a Bible study.  It started out for people in my congregation who couldn’t make the mid-afternoon weekly study.  We started with one set of topics.  But over time, those folks quit coming, while another group began attending.  A group of three to seven ladies from a local drug & alcohol residential recovery program began coming.  It’s a slightly different group each week, so I’ve had to keep the programming relatively loose.  At times, I worry that our time together lacks direction or purpose on any given evening.  And other nights, I’m reminded of how God can step into situations where there’s a gap.

Tonight there were three ladies who came.   I know these three ladies.  Shortly after they arrived in the program (in one girl’s case – the next day from her arrival)  our family began opening our home each week to the ladies from this program, having three of them over at a time to help cook & eat dinner, to hang out, play board games or video games, and just be part of a family for an evening.  They’re committed to a year-long recovery program that takes some of them out of their families for  a long time, and a chance to just be has turned out to be a welcome thing for them.  Who knew?

But also on hand was a woman from a Friday Bible study I lead at the retirement and assisted living community next door to us.  She’s attended Friday Bible studies for probably five years now – ever since I started offering them there.  She’s 96 years old.  She’s lived long enough to begin worrying about her siblings and now children dealing with cancer and death.

One of the recovery ladies started out, when I asked tonight if there was something they wanted to talk about, simply asking for help.  Her sponsor told her today she thought there was some sort of block between this girl and God that was inhibiting her relationship with God and threatening the success of her recovery.  She was understandably frightened by those words, even as she  acknowledged that she’s suspected this herself for some time.  It was frank and open and honest.  Humble and vulnerable from a young woman known much more for her mischief.

Her honesty set the tone for the evening.  One of the other recovery ladies shared about how she’s been looking for work now for several weeks as she enters the final phase of the recovery program.  But so far her diligence has only resulted in rejections.  And the rejections are piling up and she’s having trouble dealing with them.  Rejection isn’t any fun.  And rejection after seeing your life transformed must be even harder.  She shared – both as part of her story and as encouragement to the young woman who had just shared her difficulty connecting with God – that her way of re-connecting was to look at plants and flowers.  To study one particular one up close, observing it in detail, and that this would lead her to eventual worship of the One who must have created it.  She spoke more this evening than in the entire nine months I’ve known her, and her honesty was breathtaking.

The third lady shared how she had just been admitted – by surprise and two weeks early – to the final phase of the program, and that she’d be starting a transition class at the local community college in the summer but was looking for work in the meantime.  Once again she shared and was open in a beautiful way.  She shared about the way her mother loves her, and is so excited for the new possibilities in her life now that she’s free from her addictions.

Finally the older woman from next door spoke.  She’s a very shy, private woman.  But it was obvious she was delighted and touched by meeting and listening to these younger women.  She talked about how she could relate to each of their struggles, as she had already lived through each of their stages of life.  She offered words of simple encouragement, even as she shared a little of her own struggle in having a husband and siblings pass away before her, and now watching even some of her children struggling with disease.

I heard more tonight from these ladies than I have in months or years.  After I prayed for them each, they exchanged hugs with the older woman, as they were touched by her care and concern for them.

It’s so easy to worry all the time about schedules and plans, agendas and objectives.  Tonight was a beautiful reminder of how God can work in the spaces we leave open.  That given the opportunity beautiful things can and do happen, opportunities to give him thanks and praise as He draws us together in unexpected ways.  I’m grateful for that humbling reminder that it isn’t about me, or about always doing or teaching, and that listening is critical.  When the opportunity arises, listening can be holy work, or more accurately a holy blessing.

Thank you, Lord.

 

 

Missing the Obvious

May 13, 2019

It’s funny how sometimes you don’t see the simplest things right in front of your face.  It’s nice when you can think of it as funny, when missing the obvious doesn’t kill you or cause disaster of one form or another.  But when you can appreciate the irony of how wrapped up we are in ourselves that we sometimes forget who we are.

Thinking through possibilities for the future for my congregation and family, it struck me today that these considerations all come through the aspect of me.  It was not a pleasant thought at first.  After all, who am I?  Certainly, my ideas and hopes and dreams and whatnot should be more objective than that?  Certainly, how I cast a vision for things should be clear to others as the logical, reasonable way forward?

Yet that’s not the case.  Whether I like it or not, and I don’t.

The cult of personality in our culture is so strong and pervasive that I recoil from it as often as possible.  I’m not here to promote me.  Yet in the process of doing what I do, I do it as me.  And therefore, how I do it is different than how anyone else might do it.  This might not be true in some vocations, but it’s true in mine, and I have to deal with it.  Acknowledge it.  Come to grips with it.  Try not to let it destroy me.  Try to determine if what I propose for others is really as reasonable as it seems to me.  The danger of the I overreaching is always crouching nearby, waiting for an opportunity.

So that needs to be taken into account.  The vision I have may not make sense – at least initially to others.  There’s no way to really escape from that.  It may not be a bad thing, but it’s something very pertinent and real to bear in mind.

There’s so much more to learn, even in just the basic, simple, obvious things.

Protecting Penance

May 2, 2019

I met with some folks earlier this week for a private discussion, which began in part by them querying my responsibilities as a mandatory reporter.

As an ordained minister of religion, the state recognizes that people may tell me things as part of private confession, and that those things should remain private (the eventual fortunately didn’t entail anything controversial!).  But there are folks who think that this should no longer be the case.

California State Senate Bill 360 would remove the clause in the existing Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act that exempts confessional statements from existing mandatory reporting requirements for clergy.  Some clergy members are speaking out against this as dangerous, and for good reason.

As it stands now, I have to report if I think a child is being abused or neglected, or if I come to that awareness by any number of possible ways.  But if someone discloses private information to this effect, I am not required by law to report it to authorities.   In our day, this sounds like pretty important stuff.  Why wouldn’t a priest or clergy member report possible criminal activity – particularly against children – even within the more narrow confines of Confession & Absolution?

The difficulty is in the relationship of a priest/clergy member to someone desirous of and in need of confidential handling of sensitive information.  I like how Father Pietrzky is quoted in the article – The Catholic Church holds that the information received by the priest in confession does not belong to him.  It belongs to God alone.

The current law indicates that any kind of private communication could be exempt from mandatory reporting, not just the more narrow confines of confession and absolution.  I could see an argument being made for a more narrow exclusion to mandatory reporting, but then again that would complicate matters considerably.

The reality is that priests and ministers have a unique role and relationship both to their parishioners and those who relate to them in their professional capacity.  I’ve heard private confessions from people wracked with guilt over things they’ve done in their lives.  I’ve heard horrible things.  Nothing, thankfully, that was ongoing or led me to believe that anyone was at risk of harm, but still things that are hard to hear.  Just as it’s hard for them to say them.

But it’s my job to hear these things, a direct command from Jesus to those who would become his church.  I am to convey his forgiveness to these people, for these specific sins.  Some might argue that the same thing can be accomplished in general or corporate confession, or through privately praying to Jesus.  But Christians have long understood that we have an enemy who works against the hope and confidence we are given in the death and resurrection of the Son of God through our baptism.  We’re prone to sitting in church, or at home after prayer, and telling ourselves that the forgiveness the priest or minister declares isn’t really for me.  Not for what I’ve done.  For everybody else, sure, but not for me.

Private confession provides very specific assurance of forgiveness by Jesus’ authority and command.  This is exclusively something that has to do with our relationship before God.  Who else on earth can someone go to in complete honesty?  Who else can someone verbalize things to, and then hear forgiveness promised to them due not to the civil or criminal justice system but solely and completely based on the death and resurrection of the Son of God?

I understand people’s concerns – that ongoing harmful or illegal behavior will continue despite confession & absolution.  There may be the idea that crime could be curtailed if clergy were forced to be mandatory reporters for child abuse.  But of course once established for one class of crime it would be a slippery slope towards mandating reporting for any illegal activity.

All I can say is that in over a decade I’ve never heard a confession that involved child abuse or any other major crime (murder, etc.) or anything that would even remotely incline me to report, or wish that I could.  Perhaps it isn’t really crime or child abuse this bill is after.  Perhaps it’s just another attempt to eradicate freedom of religion.

 

 

 

 

 

Interpreting Authority

April 9, 2019

We had our monthly gathering of pastors in our denomination today.  We come together spanning a stretch of territory just shy of 100 miles in length, and we were at the far southern terminus of our area today.  The study we started briefly on had to do with proper pastoral authority.  What authority does the pastor have (and not have), and where does he derive it?  It’s a theological discussion with a rich tradition, but not one that I’ve had to have many conversations with lay people about.

But it coincided with some other thoughts on authority and how we interpret it.

Two out of the last three weeks I have worshiped in places that sing the song “Our God”  by Chris Tomlin.  It’s got a catchy rhythm and, while being somewhat vague on details, is a fun song to sing.  But both times it was used, the bridge got me thinking:

And if our God is for us then who could ever stop us

And if our God is with us then what could stand against.

Now these words are true, but I wondered how the people singing and swaying along to them interpreted them.  In both settings there was no further explanation of this very strong claims.  And barring interpretations, people are prone to filling in their own explanations.

The words  could easily be interpreted to mean that as followers of Christ we can’t suffer any setbacks, any failures, any disappointments, let alone any meaningful persecution or violation of the rights and privileges which we – as American Christians in particular – have come to enjoy and expect.

God is indeed for us and with us, and as such we are indeed conquerors in Christ.  But we need to remember that Christ conquered through his death, and his command to his followers was not to go out and dominate culture and society and politics but rather to pick up their crosses and follow him.  To expect the kind of suffering, even, that Jesus experienced and, perhaps, to even be killed for our confidence and faith in him.

That is a very real, very powerful victory indeed!  Satan cannot stand against us in any eternal sense.   Those  who cling to Christ may lose everything else – health, wealth, prestige, honor in the eyes of the world, even our lives – but we inherit so much vastly more.  It is a promise that has held Christians faithful on their way to the gallows or the shallow graves, in the face of guns and knives and fists and fire.

But is that how people today hear it?  And what if they seem to be stopped in their lives?  What if their jobs disappear or that promotion never materializes?  What if their family life is a struggle or they deal with the very real threat of sickness and disease?  Does this song support and encourage them to trust completely in Jesus and endure all things and all losses?   Or does this song leave them without a means of explaining their struggles?  Does it set up a false hope or point them to  the only true hope and definition of victory in Christ?

Only time will tell, I suppose.  But the rates at which people seem to be leaving their faith behind for the none category in survey after survey, the rate at which participation in worship continues to decline, I have to wonder if these kinds of songs – which can and should be so powerful and comforting when provided the proper interpretation – are leading people to a shallow, straw-man sort of faith in a god-djinni who grants wishes and offers protection rather than dies and rises again for them?

Those are the conversations I’d rather be having with my colleagues.  How do we equip our people to face real suffering and loss rather than letting their shallow roots wither and die in the blistering sun of an enemy?  Defending and explicating the proper role and use of pastoral  authority requires, after all, a congregation of people to explain it to and live  it out with.  That might require some more diligent preaching and teaching rather than letting them define their pop hooks by the world’s standards rather than God’s.

 

No Excuses

April 8, 2019

Last night was another exhausting exercise in building trust and relationship with wounded people.  I wrote a few weeks ago about deliberately choosing to be shorter in response to some things one of our Sunday evening folks was putting out there.  Last night the follow-up conversation I knew would come eventually came.  I’m not sure if the conversation is done yet, but it at least began.

Towards the end of a two-hour long emotion-laden conversation with this person, he asked me a question, the precise nature of which I can’t remember exactly in the fog of the evening.  Something to do with why we welcomed him to our house every week.  My response was immediate.  Because I love you.  He responded with a follow-up question – why do you love me?

It’s the type of question from a wounded person who needs and wants affirmation and encouragement as he’s rebuilding his emotional life.  It was an invitation to make comments about him personally, comments that would in some ways soften the blunter responses I gave him a month ago.  I knew there were things I could have said that would have made him happy, but I also was convicted that the right answer was theologically, not emotional or psychological.

Because you’re a child of God.

The disappointment was immediate and palpable.  And he drew the conclusion I assumed he would – that such a basis for love was relatively indiscriminate.  The same rationale would apply to any person who walked through that front door.  I agreed.  And I went on to affirm that yes, the rationale was indiscriminate in quantitative terms.  I am called to love every person I come across in my life because God created them.  Whether they like me or visa versa is irrelevant.  The command from my Savior is unequivocal.

This prevents me, ideally, from favoritism.  I’m not allowed to love some and not love others.  It will be easier to love some more than others.  I may like some more than others.  But I am called to love everyone.  That decision has been made for me already by my Lord and I am under his command in this regard.

But the love that I show to the people in my life does differ qualitatively.  It is in this category that I need to figure out the best way to love each particular person.  One person is more delicate and needs more encouragement.  Another is more cocky and sometimes needs a challenge.  Each needs to feel welcomed and important but hopefully in ways that are best received by them.  This should not be favoritism, though of course everyone has favorites.  There’s nothing wrong with having favorites but there is something wrong with favoritism (read James 2:1-12).  It can be a tricky line at times.

I imagine there will be more conversations ahead.  In talking and debriefing with my wife today, she commented that I was brave to be willing to confront this individual as I did a month ago, and then to follow-through with the harder work of working through that with him.  Community and relationship is a two-way exchange, though.  In our culture that demands that everyone accept everyone else for who they are there is no actual exchange, no actual interaction between real people.  The relationship is artificial if there is not honesty.  That honesty should be conveyed in love, but sometimes the loving thing to do is not the polite thing to do.  Ultimately I believe that committing to this way of relationship ultimately offers the greatest hope of real relationship, and then the greatest hope of the Holy Spirit being at work in that relationship to point the way to Christ.

Not easy but necessary.  In a culture of convenience, just as I’ve rejected the use of a microwave in our home as antithetical to the kind of life we want to embrace, certain relational short-cuts have to be eschewed as well.  It might mean that people who aren’t able to handle this will walk away.  But it does encourage the people who remain (myself included) to really learn and grow in how to relate to one another as children of God pointing the way to Christ.

 

What’s on Your Pastor?

April 4, 2019

A famous tagline for a credit card is What’s in your wallet?  A simple question posed by smiling, wealthy, successful entertainment spokespersons that imply perhaps your credit card should be the same as theirs.  After all, if it’s good enough for the rich and famous it should be good enough for you, and perhaps it will bring you a bit closer to that status yourself?

But should parishioners be paying attention to what their pastor is wearing?  Some folks think that it’s worth consideration, and I can’t really fault them for raising the question.  Of course part of my agreement is couched in the comfort of knowing that nobody is going to call me out for $1000 shoes.  One of my parishioners expressed surprise a few years ago when I wore a different shirt to teach Bible study class.  My wardrobe is sparse, perhaps too much so.

There are some who would say that’s a sin, something I criticized briefly years ago.  Or at least a marketing disaster.  Pastors are in the public eye, and need to take better heed of their personal appearance.  And at some level this is true.  I remember one seminary prof who strongly reminded us to keep our shoes polished.  He once had a parishioner chide him for his scuffed and worn looking shoes.  That anecdote sticks more firmly in my mind than much of my Hebrew lessons, but I still don’t shine my shoes very often.  Are leather shoes, even the sensible, not-too-expensive-but-still-polishable kind an offense, an indulgence or luxury because others don’t have them?

Perhaps.

Though of course these things are relative as well.  I don’t consider my Levis a luxury, but somebody else likely could.  I splurged on my sunglasses a couple of years ago, and undoubtedly that could be questioned.  When it comes to most everything that we do and wear someone could always point out that there is some level of extravagance by some corresponding vantage point of poverty.  At what point do you draw the line?

One of the pastors mentioned in this article asserts that all the pricey items they were sporting were gifts to them.  Does that make the situation any more or less awkward?  If you mention to the rich and famous, if they pay you a salary that many pastors might only dream about, and shower you with perks that aren’t any big deal to them – much as a rural parishioner might drop by a few pounds of pork spare ribs to put in the pastor’s freezer – is it sinful to accept?  It’s a slippery slope, and one I don’t feel comfortable calling others out for.  But pastors should remember that it *is* a slope.  And even if it’s a simple thing and a blessing to them and the giver, people are always watching, and somebody, somewhere is going to be offended.  Even if they don’t choose to put it out on Instagram.

Pastors Evaluating Other Pastors

March 31, 2019

I’m a pastor.  It’s what I do, and what  I have done for over a decade now.  Not long by some metrics, nearly eternal by others.  I’ve never loved what I’ve done as much, for as long, as I have the office of public ministry.  Whether I’m any good at it or not, however, is largely a subjective matter.  I try to keep this in mind.  The fact that I was certified by a seminary and ordained by a denominational body with a respectable history and some reasonably rigorous standards is  no guarantee that I’m a good pastor.  Psychological evaluations and other metrics by professors and others during my graduate work were all an effort to  ensure they ordained a reasonably competent person rather than turning loose a potentially deadly canon.

But those are all best efforts, not guarantees.  As such I try to maintain a modicum of humility about myself and my work.  And I try to extend that  humility when I find myself in the pew of  someone else’s congregation rather than my own pulpit.

Over the past week I’ve had the opportunity to worship in two different congregations.  Two (or more accurately 4) different pastors.  All within my same denominational polity.  All different in terms of personality, worship  styles and preferences, and a host of other things.   Just as you’d expect differences between people  in any professional field, or just people in general.  Yet somehow, among my colleagues,  there is a dangerous temptation to  pass judgment on one another.  I want to avoid this but find myself  struggling with it as well.

Nobody preached heresy.  Both experiences contained historic liturgical elements of one sort or  another.  One was very traditional and the other was decidedly not.   One was packed full of people well-past retirement age, the other was populated by a staggering number of children, young adults, young couples and families, and a few older folks as well.  One pastor utilized a puppet as an object lesson before his sermon, a holdover from the days when he gave children’s sermons, even though there aren’t any children in the congregation any longer.  The other pastor led a rock band praise team.  Literally.   As the lead singer.

I  trust and pray and need the Holy Spirit of God to work in more ways than I’m  capable of imagining or expecting and therefore, more ways than I might  even think necessary or want.  I have every reason in my own life  and the history of God’s people to expect this sort of lavish, ridiculous outpouring of God’s love and effort.  And like God’s people pretty much throughout  history, I don’t always react to it enthusiastically or affectionately.  I’m prone to critique.  To worry.  To furrow my brows, as some who know me well are fond of  saying it.

I like to think I’m not so traditional as to still be using puppets when there are no children in my congregation.  But I also know full  well that I’m no rock star.  I like to think I have a few surprises up my sleeves, but I also know that I’m undoubtedly far more staid and predictable than not.

Both experiences lead me to naturally compare and contrast what I do with my own congregation and ministry.  They lead me to examine and rethink.  Both experiences showed me successful pastors and ministries where God the Holy Spirit is at work whether I prefer the methodology or not.  And so both ultimately direct me back to the work that God is calling me to here and now, in my own context.  To follow as I feel his leading, even if I’m exploring uncharted paths.  To continue even though there will be those watching and evaluating, some appreciatively and others with furrowed brows.

Ultimately what I pray is that God would be glorified rather than myself.  That God would be praised for his imagination and creativity as well as his amazing continuity and steadfastness that can hold so many different people and personalities and ideas together into a homogenous body.  Because if  He’s not behind these various things, they’ll ultimately dissolve and blow away in the wind.  Humbling to  remember, and a good reminder to get back to the work.

And that work remains the same: Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.  By  my fellow men, for a time to be certain, but never by Christ.  Solo dei gloria.

Evangeless-ism

March 11, 2019

Evangelism is getting harder, according to one of today’s oft-noted theologians and pastors, Tim Keller.  The reasons Keller cites for evangelism getting harder than it was just a few generations ago are several.  Some are external to Christians and some are internal.

First he cites that evangelism  is more complicated in a highly diverse population that does not have a general, cultural understanding of the Bible and Christianity.  Without a common baseline understanding, evangelism requires a lot more effort.  To someone conditioned by our culture to not know what sin is, and once you explain it to them, to reject the notion as depressing or relative means the person trying to witness has a lot more ground to cover.

Next he cites a greater difficulty in sharing the faith because our culture no longer has a basically good attitude towards Christians and the Church – even if they themselves are not Christians or church-goers.  Emphasis on the abuses and sins of the Church both historically (slavery, religious wars) as well as currently (pedophile priests and other sexual scandals across the denominational spectrum) mean we can’t assume the person we’re talking to even thinks Church or God  is a good thing as a whole for society.  I’d argue that in addition to these factors, there is the deliberate downplaying or ignoring of valuable roles that the Church has played historically and currently, whether in the development of universities and hospitals or current social justice issues.

Finally there is the relativism that pervades our culture now, so that any time someone wants to share the truth, that truth is seen as relative and subjective – maybe good for the sharer but maybe not good or necessary for the hearer.  This can in turn lead to a lower level of empathy among people which makes it hard for them to see things from another person’s perspective.

In a typical evangelical response, Keller cites Christians as basically the problem despite the overwhelming issues noted above.  Nor does he mention sin and an active – though defeated – Satan as elements that contribute to the difficulty of Christian evangelism.  I think he would agree with all of those things he just doesn’t mention them here.

He thinks Christians need to be more humble and sensitive in their witness, and I’d argue that’s always a good thing.  He also thinks Christians need more courage, and of course this is always good as well.  Finally he argues that Christians ultimately don’t really care enough about others to evangelize.  Here I disagree.  I know plenty of Christians who care a great deal about others but their efforts to evangelize have been stymied by many of the factors noted above.  That doesn’t denote a lack of love on their part, but rather a reality of our age.  I question the evangelical assumption that every Christian needs to be an evangelist, since there are pretty few Scripture passages that can be interpreted that way (and those that can are often argued as not applying to the average Christian).

Rather than blaming a lack of love, perhaps we should blame churches for inadequatey catechizing their members, teaching them not only what their church believes but also why.  Perhaps we should blame churches that presume that just because people are members they believe everything the Bible or the church teaches, when in reality most of their lives are lived out in thoroughly secularized school and work environments that are actively hostile to Christians and at times seek to make evangelism an actual offense that could affect admissions or promotions.

Yes, Lord, change our hearts.  But also grow and strengthen our churches and pastors to better ground and equip their parishioners in the faith.

On Ashes

March 6, 2019

A colleague posted a question on Facebook the other day asking about why or why not we should or should not engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching Matthew 6:16-18.  There were a great many responses – around 40 the last I checked.  Predictably they ran the gamut of ideas and theological ponderings.  Folks who poo-poo’d the idea because it was just a church tradition, as well as those who made a point of doing the ashes precisely because it is a church tradition.  Those who felt ashes on the forehead are pretentious and therefore a violation of Jesus’ teaching, and those who disagreed.  People who prefer to allow individual conscience to dictate and those who see value in the communal practice.  People shared their various practices – including one I really like of including Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday.  The ashes are imposed at the start of the service, and after confession and absolution and Holy Communion they are then washed off using the water from the baptismal font.  Definitely an idea for next year!

If you want to read to opposing (LC-MS) views on the subject, this is a great summary of two articles.  Another perspective is here.

Traditionally people refer back to the Old Testament as a support for the practice of noting repentance or sorrow with ashes and sometimes fasting.  I thought back to Leviticus 16 (and verse 29 particularly)  which stipulates that every 10th day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar is to be a day of solemn fasting and repentance.  Jews today know it as Yom Kippur.  Leviticus stipulates fasting but not ashes.  But it seems a strong starting point with our Old Testament consideration.  God’s people for a long time have shown grief in some particular ways, ways that continued even among believers with a different cultural background from the one it originated with.  And the idea of  a communal day to acknowledge personal and corporate sin goes back to God himself.

Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly followed this command.  What that meant, however, is not clear to me.  The earliest written instructions regarding how to observe the Day of Atonement – other than Scripture itself – are contained in the Mishnah, which was compiled in the early 200’s AD by Yehuda HaNasi, realizing that the Temple wasn’t going to be rebuilt any time soon and that God’s people needed the oral traditions to be written down as they were increasingly dispersed.  In the Moed section of the Mishnah which deals with holy days, in the Yoma section, there are five things prohibited on the Day of Atonement – eating & drinking, wearing leather shoes, anointing oneself with oil, washing, and sex.

Presuming these regulations were in place in Jesus’ day  then, is Jesus in Matthew 6 instructing his disciples not to follow the five prohibitions above, but rather to violate at least two of them?  That seems like a stretch.  Jesus was well known for clarifying Jewish customs, their traditional practices and interpretations of Scripture.  But I can’t think of another place where Jesus is critical of the Day of Atonement practice in particular.  Most of his emphasis seems to be on Sabbath traditions and stipulations.

I’m  comfortable presuming – using an argument from silence – that Jesus and his disciples followed the five prohibitions for the Day of Atonement, and therefore Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 6 does not rule out the idea of public forms of penance or  repentance or the observance of a special holy day.  I presume his teaching to deal with personal, private fasting, aside from public, prescribed days of communal fasting.

How does all of this relate to Ash Wednesday?

Potentially, not at all.

Ash Wednesday is not commanded in the Bible or referenced even in passing anywhere in Scripture.  The closest relative in my opinion is Yom Kippur but they are separated by a rather impressive chasm in Christian perspective.  So Ash Wednesday is not a divinely commanded observance with particular traditions we’ve innovated that may or may not be helpful or correct.  Rather, it’s a tradition.  A tradition steeped in Old Testament language about ashes and sorrow and repentance, (Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 13:18-20, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Lamentations 3:16, Ezekiel 27:30, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6 – to name a few). to be sure, but only steeped.

Interestingly, there are no New Testament references to the use of ashes for sorrow or repentance.

Roman Catholics trace the tradition of Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) back to roughly the eighth century and Gregorian versions of  the Roman Missal. FYI, a missal is a book of prayers used by an officiating priest, not something you shoot at someone to blow them up.  Into ashes.  Get it?

Ahem.

There should also be recognition that – likely based on the Old Testament references above – there has existed a long-standing tradition of associating ashes with public penance.  Someone caught or admitting to serious sin of a public nature would adorn themselves with ashes publicly as a sign of their repentance – their repudiation of their sin and their avowal to strive to live by God’s Word.  Some see this as primarily a clerical practice – for church professionals, as it were.  But an Anglo-Saxon priest by the name of AElfric bishop of Eynsham in England, probably born around 955 AD suggested the practice was more widely practiced and not limited to churchmen.

So, to say the least, there is at least a 1000 year tradition of associating ashes with repentance and sorrow, with doing so in a public way, and with doing so particularly on Ash Wednesday.

Do we have to keep doing this, then?  No, of course not.  A tradition is not made anything more than a tradition simply based on how long it’s gone on.  But that being said, there is a depth and richness to long-standing traditions.  There are benefits that can be gleaned from them, even in our day of iPhones and smart watches and self-driving cars.  Are we ever so certain that this tradition of ashes has nothing to do with us, nothing to offer us, and so can be relegated to the ash-bin of history, ecclesial or otherwise?

In a culture where death is so greatly feared and hidden away, might there be something to be gained by someone telling you to your face that you are going to die?  An existential certainty (barring Jesus’ return or another similar miracle on the scale of Enoch or Elijah) we all need to come to grips with, and should do so on a daily basis rather than in a rush at the last minute sitting in the waiting room of the doctor or breathing in the anesthesia before surgery?

I like to think that God gave us senses for a reason, to know things about ourselves and the world around us, and for him to tell us things and remind us things about ourselves and even him.  Our senses were given to us before the Fall.  They’re good, though now corrupted by sin and not nearly as reliable as  before, just like the brain they’re connected to.  Protestants, in moving away from the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, lost a lot of the sensory aspects of worship.  Not surprising, happening in the midst of the Renaissance and not long before the Enlightenment.  No surprise that the mind should push itself to the forefront and the other senses be pushed down.  Primitive.  Animalistic.  Lesser.

Maybe not.

Just as we adore music and the visual arts in worship, perhaps there is something to drawing in the other senses as well.  Perhaps this is why baptism uses water and the Lord’s Supper is something you can taste.  More of our senses engaged again in this life of faith rather than just our mind or that less definable aspect of us, the spirit/soul.

I make the ashes each year.  Following the tradition of using a palm from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  Not because I have to or because it makes Jesus love me more.  But because it is beautiful to me to do this, knowing that children of God have been engaging in a similar practice for nearly a thousand years.  That I, sitting on the bench outside under the shelter of our arched entrance to the Church, protected from the rain a few feet away but able to smell it and feel it  still, using a small gas lighter to turn the palms of celebration into the ashes of mourning, am not so very different from the monk a thousand years ago, sitting outside some monastery listening to the rain drip as he sought to burn palms to  ash as well.  As Normans were making preparations to launch the last successful invasion of England.  As the tribes of Europe fashioned themselves into countries.  As bombs rained down in the world wars.  As the Tesla dealership across the street starts the morning litany of test drives.  Bound together by a simple practice.

Not just individuals doing whatever I personally feel like because that is what my particular culture tells me is more important than anything else.  Doing it with other people.  For other people.  To other people.  The cult of individualism will one day come crashing to the ground into ashes, and from those ashes will arise, I hope, a new sense of the power and need and purpose of community.  Of limiting the self, of seeing membership in the whole as more beautiful than my own personal preferences.

I enjoy the ashes because they are a reminder to me, as I mix and crush the larger pieces into a finer powder before adding oil – this year nard but in previous years myrrh or frankincense – that my sin is my death, but my death is not the end.  That in going to the cross, Jesus took my sin and exchanged it for his righteousness.  Life from death.  Beauty from ashes.  Righteousness from sin.  Change from the past.

These things are what have to be, not the ashes.  I’m free to take or leave the  ashes, and so if you disagree so be it.  Just make sure you know why you’re passing them up.   And be sure you aren’t looking down on those of us who get something from them, a la Romans 14.  And I’ll try not to think less of you as well, as per the same chapter.  Because that, too, is more important than the ashes themselves.  It is part and parcel of the season of Lent that we begin today.

To God be the glory.