LENT: WITHDRAWAL AND EVANGELISM

One summer, I went to the Chicago Bears’ training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin, a quaint small town that for a few weeks every summer was literally overrun by orange and blue and the entire machinery of an NFL organization.  We camped at a local campground and, from time to time, made treks into town to see the practices and get autographs.  One night, we found ourselves hanging out on in a place on Main Street, feeling we were best buds with the squad of hulking professional athletes who also happened to be in the bar – letting us buy them drinks, mind you.

It’s an odd thing, these mobs of fans who gather around spring training for their favorite baseball team (or is it just a good excuse for Midwesterners to travel to Florida?) or flock to little towns in the late summer to watch their favorite football team practice.  That’s what they’re doing, after all: they’re practicing.  Occassionally, they have scrimmages and occasionally there’s something to watch, but the point is, well, practice.

Lent is Christianity’s spring training, our tradition’s practice field.  There’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with being intentional and serious about practicing.  The introduction to a holy Lent, found in the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (pages 264 & 265), summarizes it quite well:  “Dear People of God…” the Celebrant or Minister says, telling the story about why we do Lent, why we do what we do on Ash Wednesday, in particular, and for what we are preparing.

There’s a great deal of ‘company speak’ in these Prayer Book paragraphs.  It’s not really for public consumption and, no, for once we’re decidedly not talking about filling up our pews, bringing those who do not yet know Jesus into the church.  Lent, we say, is about “converts to the faith” being “prepared for Holy Baptism.”  They’re newbies, but newcomers who’ve already converted, who’ve already joined the body.  Lent isn’t necessarily the season to meet them on the street and bring them in.  Lent is a time to help them prepare.  We also tell ourselves Lent is about bringing back those “notorious” sinners who’ve been “separated from the body of the faithful,” reconciling them and, indeed, all of us.  Lastly, Lent is about reminding “the whole congregation,” those already active members of the body, that they, too, need “continually … to renew their repentance and faith.”

Learning to more intentionally practice the Christian faith is an important discipline and accords with everything early Christianity held dear.  The early Christians had no problem with and, in fact, thrived because they were considered outcasts and oddities, they were counter-cultural and perfectly fine with that.  That afforded them the opportunity to withdraw and gather together as a new and distinct society.  That afforded them the opportunity to develop their own spiritual and evangelistic muscles.

And yet everything shifted when Christianity was no longer persecuted but made legal (Constantine, 325 CE) and then, a few decades later, the official religion of the Roman empire (Theodosius, 380CE).  Everything changed further around the 8th century with Charlemagne and the unique coupling of the eventual establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and the Carolingian Renaissance which swept across Europe, firmly planting the ideal of Christendom in the western world’s  consciousness, a chain of events which leads up to our contemporary moment.

Sadly, we can place the theological revisions to Lent and Ash Wednesday alongside these cultural, largely political changes.  As Christianity became legal, then official, then the very definition of the status quo, so too did Lent become less counter-cultural, less inward and more about maintaining good order and a Christianized society; likewise, so too did Ash Wednesday become less and less about authentic, heartfelt repentance and more and more about community norms and practices.

It’s ironic that behind the movement to make Lent and, in particular, Ash Wednesday so much more public, so much more accessible, so much more a sign of what we can bring to this world there’s an implicit vaulting, once again, of the ideals and norms of Christendom.  When some among us realized they weren’t coming to us any longer, at least not so much on this inaugural fast, we went out to find them and bring them back.  Further, we brought a veritable symbol of the establishment, carrying out into the public square the very Christendom so many of them had long ago left, some quite intentionally so.  “You know where you were supposed to be today!” I’m afraid Ashes to Go implicitly insists, like a liturgical father berating his flock.  Sure, some respond positively; some are no doubt appreciative.  But many were just too busy to come to church in the first place and most probably didn’t make the connection between the obvious smudge of inescapable death and the real gift of new and life in Christ.  The creativity [and as I’ve written elsewhere I do think Ashes to Go is creative] of this movement is a good spark for a day or two, but making disciples and empowering the body of Christ isn’t done in a flash.

Making disciples is done in the quieter, less visible work of practice.  There’s nothing wrong with withdrawing, at least for a six week season of intentional spring training and spiritual preparation.  In this world in which we think we need to be ‘on’ all the time, 24/7; in this culture in which we, the current incumbents of the institutional Christian church, feel like it’s our fault that average Sunday attendance isn’t what it was, say, in 1957, it’s okay for at least a few weeks to quiet the anxiety and set aside the marketplace and deal, first and foremost, with ourselves, our own struggles and blessings, our own failures as well as our gifts.

In fact, there’s everything right with withdrawing for a season.  Try as we might, the images and symbols we’ll inevitably display still bear the unmistakable sign, for many, of Christendom, of establishment; we haven’t yet developed the language of a counter-cultural society.  The world needs vibrant, living members of Christ’s body; the “saints” the writer of Ephesians talked about, reminding us that the reason God gives a multitude of gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Sometimes withdrawing for a season to train and practice, to develop new language and more subtle and no less revolutionary skills is much more important than spinning our wheels and expending more energy.  The circus of this world and the draw of others will be there, sure enough, and there’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with the quiet, less visible, diligent, demanding, interior work of practice.

RELATIONAL EVANGELISM

At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus expanded his mission to the outlying territories, commissioning 70 disciples and sending them out to heal, to prepare for his upcoming arrival, and to preach a simple message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (see Luke 10)  They go out in pairs and they’re to be fixed, solely, on that kingdom and its message.  They carry pretty much only what’s on their back, and they go in haste – “greet no one on the road,” Jesus tells them.  They are solely dependent on God’s intervention, and their only livelihood is to knock on doors and spread the message.

This is what we tend to think of as the dominant form of evangelism: door knocking.  I don’t know if this makes me a bad priest, but I’ve never knocked on a door to talk to a complete stranger about God or their faith life or the Christian church.  Nor have I ever started a conversation by saying, “Let me tell you about Jesus…”

But I tend to think that I’ve won some souls to Christ and I’ve been a decent-enough ambassador of God’s good news.  Sure, I’m a work in progress, as you are, too.  And I’ve never gone out with an agenda to convert people and I, too, am comfortably surrounded by plenty of creaturely comforts.  But through my life’s witness, in general, and, from time to time, my own words, I know God has acted through me.  I think it’s time to spread that good news, as well.

The Episcopal chaplain at the University of Maryland – one of the campus ministries in our Diocese of Washington – has been developing over the years what he’s called “relational evangelism.”  It’s not door knocking, and it’s pretty agenda-free.  Maybe some might say it’s not evangelism, per se, but I can see God acting in and through this kind of strategy, too.  It’s all about relationship.  Think about it: as you get to know someone, what do you learn first about them?  What they do, where they grew up, if they have a family, and other basic facts of life.  Then, over time, as a relationship develops, that person might share with you their hopes and dreams and aspirations; what’s on their heart.  After even more time that person might share with you their struggles and sufferings and shortcomings.  God is in that, even when God’s name isn’t necessarily used and even when you’re not trying to get that person to come to church or accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  In fact, the degree to which you, yourself, open expose your own deeper hopes and hurts will determine the degree to which that other person will do the same.  In that truth, then, there is the gentle yet profound hand of God working, developing something new, something truly worthy of being called “good news”, something which is life giving in the boldest sense of that term.  What’s to say that relational evangelism isn’t as effective or gospel-sanctioned as knocking on doors or setting out to win souls to Christ?  Who’s to say that God isn’t acting in and through that deepening relationship, and your own ability to show forth His grace in you.

On a campus of 41,000 students, the Episcopal campus ministry in College Park, Maryland might attract 41 or so … and that’s on a good day!  That handful of students and inquirers and faithful are getting what you get in the Episcopal Church every week, every time we gather for worship: they and you are getting a full dose of Jesus.  Ours are not necessarily “seeker friendly” services, although we try to be welcoming and hospitable at the same time.  What we’re doing in here – and they are doing at the University of Maryland Episcopal campus ministry – is giving people a full taste of God in Christ, in the hopes that you and I will continue to become the Body of Christ on earth.  That’s why I paraphrase a sermon from St. Augustine every time I invite you to come and receive Holy Communion; in just a few moments you’ll hear: “These are the gifts of God for the People of God.  Become what you receive: the Body of Christ.”  We’re all works in progress, of course, and no one among us has got it all figured out.  But in our destination as well as in our journeys – as broken and marked by fits and starts as they surely are – we are reflecting or, I should say, we are capable of reflecting God’s abundant, just, gracious, and life-giving kingdom, right here on earth.

It doesn’t matter, then, how many people are in worship – whether it’s a tiny campus ministry on a huge university campus or a small parish church in a rural setting or a grand cathedral.  It matters, only, how deeply a few might touch and taste the kingdom of God, right here on this side of heaven, and in being touched might, in time, touch others and share His grace – even when they’re not trying, even when they’re not using the right ‘buzz’ words, only as relationships deepen and they find themselves standing right in the very place where God would have them be: which is the now and the present of their lives.

I take this from the scriptures, of course; in particular, the wonderful story about Elisha and Naaman which can be found in 2 Kings chapter 5.  Naaman, we learn, is a decorated and notorious military commander, but he suffers with an awful case of that debilitating ancient disease: leprosy.  From a slave girl, Naaman learns about a certain prophet who lives in Samaria – that being Elisha – and sets out to find him and, hopefully, find some healing and relief.  When, through a series of events, Naaman and Elisha are poised to meet, the prophet doesn’t even come out of his house.  No, Elisha sends word that that great General is to go to the Jordan river and dip in and out seven times.  That’s it.

What’s Naaman’s response?  He’s enraged, insulted, and hurt.  He’s not at all pleased.  “He won’t even come out of his house to greet me?!” Naaman says, insulted, his ego surely bruised.  Add to that, why would Naaman take a dip in that little, dirty, trickling creek – the Jordan River – while back in his home there are much more beautiful, lush rivers?  He left and headed for home, not only let down but enraged, the scriptures tell us.  A servant approached Naaman, however, and gave him a little nudge: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  At that, Naaman went to the Jordan, washed seven times, and he was healed.

What did Naaman go to Samaria to see?  A prophet, a man, someone to heal him?  Or did he, in fact, go to a foreign land only to find what was in front of him the whole time?  Removed from his comforts and distractions, perhaps Naaman was able to see the truth for the first time – that God, his God, was always already working in him and all he needed to do was the simplest (and yet hardest) thing in the world: listen, trust, pay attention.  So often in life we overlook the simple things, the present reality, those gifts which stand right in front of us, day after day after day.  This life, for one, and those who accompany us on our journey – our friends and family and co-workers and associates.  All of these are gifts.  Opportunities to show forth our own innate talents, as well as those challenges which remind us that we aren’t perfect – that this life is all about stumbling forward, and doing so with the courage to remember that we need God’s grace and good friends. All of these are gifts, presents in the fullest sense of that word.  And it’s all been right in front of us, these incredibly simple and straightforward things which we, too often, overlook on our attempts to become better or different or someone we’re not, yet.

“The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus preached and told his disciples to say the same: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  I hope you know this and, truly, I hope you get a small taste of this today, in worshiping, in hearing and receiving and taking and becoming.  And I hope you not only have the courage to let this truth in but also to let it out, to share it in your life and in your own relationships.  Not by way of an agenda or mission but simply and wholly because you can’t help but want to become His Body and live in the freedom of His kingdom, alone.

……….

A sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland

SUCH A LIFE AS KILLETH DEATH

In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades.  He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church.  The new edifice went up next to the existing building.  It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit.  With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded.  The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase.  This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too.  The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.

To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in.  His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either.  But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed.  It wasn’t what he wrote or said.  It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.

GEORGE HERBERT
1593 – 1633

Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain.  There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day.  A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.

Beware the delusion, however.  We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words.  We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life.  This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series.  Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations.  I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.

Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence.  In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings.  Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called.  A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year.  I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots.  When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there.  That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned.  That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.

I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland.   For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight.  On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.

“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education.  He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless.  And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country.  It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area.  What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.

True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats.  You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks.  You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson.  For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.

At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago.  I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.

Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored.  My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all).  I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less.  I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained.  In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life.  Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

A compelling and, yes, snarky book!

The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song.  This needs to be admitted.  This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say.  In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes.  “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar.  He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.”  Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice.  In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness.  Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.

Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’.  There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here.  There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence.  There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity.  I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness.  Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.

When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same.  “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.”  Intimacy is a two-edged sword.  When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully.  In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that.  I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt.  In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here.  This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey.  And yet it’s not so on the surface.  Not at all.  The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.

EDDIE IZZARD

The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for.  I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely.  The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type.  A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest.  This is ruining our churches.  We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy.  (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office.  The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city.  No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.)  This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years.  As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect.  Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.

And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience.  This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf.  I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert.  The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne.  Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”)  with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:

“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech.  We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”

T. S. ELIOT

Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.”  Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion.  Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.”  Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.

What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation.  That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions.  In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways.  Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within.  Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart.  We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time.  What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.

This is vulnerable, frightening, new work.  And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled.  Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus.  In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing.  Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental.  In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.”  This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:

“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering.  What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place.  For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation.  For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response.  There is a world of difference.”

Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.

There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying.  There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days.  In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond.  I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world  certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.

WHY ASHES? PART 2, A CONFUSED OFFERING

Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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For me, it started with a really basic question:  Why ashes?  As it turns out, this question has nagged Christian communities nearly since ashes were introduced as a liturgical symbol or act.  Ashes had to do with initiation and life’s conversion, and yet they quickly became something else, something, I’d say, less.  What I’d like to see is a return, not so much to the original use of ashes, but rather to the spirit of a church which knew how to practice Christian initiation of adults and, for those already a part of the body, how to mentor and model a life of genuine faith and embrace that which is truly counter-cultural in an world of competing empirical interests – be it the first several centuries or, in fact, this 21st one.

Our pastoral response to increasingly secularized people should not be a continuation, indeed, reification of a centuries-long mishandling of this day.  Our response should be a renewal of the earliest spirit surrounding Ash Wednesday, revisiting the ways in which early Christians practiced initiation and helped form women and men in the story of God’s salvation.  Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be an invitation to the already-initiated, although that’s what it’s become.  Ash Wednesday should be about lifestyle change, about conversion – baptism, at its core.   That’s why, more than likely, I’ll be connected to a worshiping community (note I didn’t say “within the four walls of a church”) on future Ash Wednesdays to come.

Truly, why ashes?  I promise this is no ‘slippery slope’ argument, but consider this: Would it be right to venture forth with the pre-consecrated Host and offer folks at a subway terminal Christ’s Body and Blood?  Or would it be fitting to stand at a street corner with a bowl of water and offer baptism?

By and large, someone’s answer to a hypothetical question about Wafers to Go, say, is more quickly arrived at than their answer to whether or not ashes can be imposed inside or outside the context of a worshiping assembly.  Thus, the first point I’d like to offer is that there’s a very clear, very basic distinction between sacraments and ashes, and that’s something the church should bear in mind, not to mention take quite seriously.  Eucharist and Baptism, of course, are sacraments.  Ash Wednesday has a pseudo-sacramental quality about it.  Eucharist and Baptism share deeper layers of meaning as well as participate much more clearly in the story of God’s salvation.  Ashes were a later addition and not an entirely clear innovation, even at the time.  A body which is broken but gives new life is not only a profound spiritual concept but is also inherently woven to other levels of meaning of the Body of Christ.  Water points to Jewish purification rituals and Jesus’ action in the Jordan, not to mention the process the people of The Way developed for initiation and faith development, a process which was counter-cultural in its larger empirical setting.  Ashes, on the surface, suggest something compelling, but the connections are feeble, the nuances too great, and the revisions and human tinkering simply too obvious.

Why ashes? was obviously a question for Cranmer and those who participated in developing the Prayer Book tradition.  Significant portions of the Sarum Blessing of the Ashes were used in compiling the rite which was was, in 1549, offered as “A declaracion of scripture, with certein prayers to bee use the firste daye of Lent, commonlye called Ashwednesdaie.”  By 1552, the rite was re-named “A Commination against sinners, etc.” At least in common parlance it was called ‘Commination’ for the bulk of the Anglican liturgical tradition, up until the liturgical renewals of the 20th century.  One notable exception is found in the proposed but unsuccessful 1689 BCP in which the High Church party made some inroads in offering the new title “The Proper Office for Ash Wednesday” and drawing a more clear connection to “the due preparation of all persons for the worthy receiving the Communion at Easter,” and which was mentioned “was of good use till superstition corrupted it.”

The Book of Common Prayer, 1549

But where Cranmer, in the 16th century, used the gist of Sarum’s rite, he retained barely a hint of ashes in the liturgy itself.  Several key phrases from Sarum’s prayer of blessing the ashes find their way, in Cranmer’s text, into the second Collect following the Suffrages, but that prayer is an appeal to God’s mercy and the phrase “…of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads, etc.” is noticeably removed.  Even the words of the anthem which would’ve been intoned in the Sarum rite while worshipers received ashes is moved, in Cranmer’s text, to a final prayer and was, in 1552, changed from “antheme” to “this that followeth”, again, with no suggestion of ashes – or what many reformers feared to be a late-medieval innovation – being distributed.  Liturgical historian G. J. Cumming argues that there’s an equally strong connection to the Quarterly Excommunication found in the Sarum rite, indicating that Ash Wednesday, for the English reformers, wasn’t so much about ashes or interior life change but, rather, public discipline and the maintenance of good order.  Marion Hatchett says as much, suggesting that “one aim of English reformers was to restore public penance as a means of discipline.”

At least by the 16th and 17th centuries, then, the meaning of ashes – note, in 1549, it’s labeled “the first day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday” – was already disconnected as a symbol denoting interior change.  In fact, retaining the act of imposing ashes, an individual act, detracted from the larger goal of developing a properly-organized, truly Christian kingdom.  Thus the ashes were sublimated, being too disconnected, too ‘superstitious’.  By the time the Prayer Book distilled what its framers would’ve called the best of the tradition, the day commonly called Ash Wednesday had mostly to do with Christian kingdom-building: made clear in the introduction to the Commination in the 1662 version, “…in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons stood convicted of notorious sins were put to open penance, and punished in this world …; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.”  Ashes had become, over time, a communal practice.  And in the English reformation it was judged not necessarily an efficacious one, and thus removed.

But it was, nevertheless, called Ash Wednesday so in many local contexts ashes were used.  For the first time in an American Prayer Book, the BCP 1979 provides a proper liturgy for the imposition of ashes, albeit as an option.  Hatchett affirms that “many felt the need of a special service for Ash Wednesday.  Unauthorized forms, which frequently included the use of ashes, had come into use and seemed to meet a real pastoral need.”  The imposition of ashes was brought back, and perhaps it never really went away, at least in local contexts.  The church simply responded to people’s needs, not dissimilar to the claims made by those who are distributing ashes to go.

But what practices, then, were brought back?  The original intent or the misinterpretation?  And what were the people saying, in truth, when they said they wanted, they needed ashes?  And was it a need worth meeting, or rather one worth getting underneath, one worth transforming?  I would argue the latter, that what we’re offering is not the original use nor is it the most fitting understanding of ashes.  Rather, there’s a deeper need under the desire for ashes.  The church would do well to spend some time getting back there, which would involve work of transformation, not merely service.

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Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

WHY ASHES? PART 1, DEEPER PASTORAL QUESTIONS

Part 1 of a 3 part post.  Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions.  Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused.  Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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Ashes to Go is imaginative and crafty, an inspired pastoral response to a real need.  Also it shows the pluckiness of several young priests who, I imagine, grew tired hearing a church talk and talk, to no end.  So they said, “Let’s do it.”  And they didn’t wait for official sanction or more thorough thinking-through, which I’m sure is no small reason for its attraction.

Source: NBC News photoblog

It’s ironic that the Episcopal Church’s awareness that, on one level, evangelical churches grow and, two, we weren’t so wise to simply adopt uncritically the term – to spur on a decade of evangelizing, for instance – has turned out to be a fairly dysfunctional relationship with “the ‘E’ word”, as I heard it called in another diocese.  We don’t want to let it go, lest we seem completely clueless.  So we mention evangelism, but with a critical distance.  We want to be close to the idea, just not the baggage.  I’ll bet the majority of times evangelism is used in the Episcopal Church it’s something of a straw man by which our approach is, at least, more nuanced or it’s slipped into conversations after the fact, and not without some uncomfortable recognition.  We’re a lot better at doing the business of the church and then calling it evangelism.  We’re not so good at setting out, firstly, to spread the good news.

That’s why Ashes to Go is refreshing.  It’s an excuse to spend a day offering a public, Christian presence.  It’s really and truly inspired, and motivated primarily by a definitively Gospel-based reason.

Thinking about Ashes to Go, in fact, has helped me identify another, equally strong need that’s emerging, at least in my context.  Lately, I’ve been meeting lots of young adults in my community, some of whom are connected, many barely so, to the congregation I serve; others are friends of friends; others have just moved in.  This is a prosperous and quickly developing area in our state, and yet its lifeblood is defense spending (which may be about to change significantly) and rootedness and life’s meaning are top questions among people entering their 30s and 40s.  Many are seeking and most are genuinely interested in the Christian way of life; case in point, most of the baptisms we’ve done in the last year have been adults or older children whose parents are coming back to church, for the first time in a long time.  Their primary draw is not liturgical and they’re not really looking for symbols or sacraments.  They want to know about Jesus and about how a Christian lifestyle is better, more life giving than other alternatives.

I applaud the inventiveness of Ashes to Go, but I wonder what’s being offered when and if those persons whom we meet decide, in time, to enter our congregations and take us up on the offer to help deepen their lives.  I haven’t bundled up with cassock and ashes to meet the masses, thus far, because the ashes aren’t the sign I’m hoping to extend.  In fact, the original significance of burned palms ground into dust has much more to say to my pastoral context than what became of them in the tradition, a distortion which has continued throughout much of our history and is culminated in today’s, frankly, confused offering.  Maybe we, the church, could stand to revisit the spirit of those which devised the tradition of imposing ashes, and not just offer them to go but present the Christian life as one in which to stay.

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Part 1 of a 3 part post.  Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions.  Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused.  Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

THE AKASIE SCREEN – AND, AT LAST, A CONVERSATION

Look, that whole Jay Akasie Wall Street Journal-thing was a screen, an offensive blocking move which freed up others to make more substantive arguments or — sticking with basketball — shots.  And you, church, fell for it!

The thought struck me at lunch the other day with a colleague.  I’m not that interested in people’s conclusions — whether they come out theologically conservative or progressive, whether they vote Republican, Democrat or who cares what.  No, I’m more interested in the methods by which folks arrive at their conclusion; whether she’s aware of the sources; whether he’s checked his assumptions at the door and, at least, is pretty darn clear about the baggage he’s bringing into the conversation.  Part of it, for me, is the happy fruit of ministry formation in an academic divinity school.  

I don’t care about General Convention resolutions or the reasons why breakaway Anglicans are breaking away.  I don’t care when the Wall Street Journal makes mistakes about the Presiding Bishop’s staff or how much money the Bishop of Eastern Swizzlestick spent on wine and fancy dinners.  Nor do I care that the Bishop of the Lower Heartland ate only $5 footlongs from Subway every day of General Convention, and divided them evenly between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

I just don’t care.  I want to know if the church is having a genuine, authentic conversation.  I care whether we’ve been courageous enough to be a community of “inquiring and discerning hearts,” to quote the Prayer Book. 

The short answer is: we haven’t.  In fact, we’ve been downright terrible about having a real conversation, respecting differences enough to listen, being bold in our faith claims to speak of how we know God to be acting in Christ.

And yet – poof! – out of the blue comes a genuine conversation.  Lots of folks missed it because they got all bent out of shape by Jay Akasie’s silly opinion piece, but here is an actual theological conversation, transpiring in the public realm.  How cool!

Kicking it off, on July 14, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wondered “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  Responding to what he opined has been going on in the Episcopal Church — and, in particular, the 2012 General Convention — Douthat argued that so long as organizations such as the Episcopal Church continue their progressive trends they will only appear to the world as increasingly secular institutions and, in turn, lose members until they ultimately die.  Agree or disagree, I don’t care.  It’s a solid argument.

Of course no card-carrying liberal Christian is going to take that sitting down.  Plenty of snarkyness roiled on social media, but it took Diana Butler Bass’ comprehensive July 15 Huffington Post article to present a compelling counter-argument.  Bass’ “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,” maintained that – one – declining church membership is neither a conservative nor liberal issue, everyone’s struggling with loss; and – two – since liberal Christianity had to wrestle with decline for a longer period of time than other Christian traditions, it might hold out promise for the entire bunch, re-invigorating Christianity by returning us all to a balance between orthodox faith and social responsibility.  Bass concluded: “So, Mr. Douthat asks, ‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity?”

After that, opening Facebook or Twitter was what I could imagine being in a crowd at a so-called professional wrestling match would feel like — no one was saying much of substance but everyone was making plenty of noise, that’s what it meant to be part of the game in the first place.  Blogs were posted like pamphlets of old, as if the thing spoke for itself and summarized everything:  Diana Butler Bass (yay! … hiss!)  Andrew Douthat / Jay Akasie (boo! … yay!).  I still can’t believe so many bloggers took such enormous time to refute the Akasie claims, one by one, and I thank God there was some humor in some of them, lest we, Episcopalians, be rightfully accused of failing to actually read those parts of the bible about how taking prophetic stances isn’t a good first step to making friends in high places!

Arguments of substance were starting to appear more frequently, though.  Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church, weighed in in response to Akasie’s Wall Street Journal piece, and went beyond the tit-for-tat that dominated the blogosphere.  Like a fast break, Sauls concisely asserted that the Church has been “radically faithful” to scripture, tradition, and reason.  Slam dunk.

Taking on Bass, The Living Church ran a July 16 piece by Thomas Kincaid, asserting that she simply “doesn’t get it.”  Kincaid presented a solidly argued conservative theological criticism of liberal Christianity: it’s about salvation, after all, and what liberal Christianity doesn’t get is that the Savior role has already been taken by one Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ.  Like his conclusions or not, Kincaid raises a solid argument, not to mention another point that’s stopped me in my haughty tracks — factoring out immigration from Latin America when determining the numbers of Roman Catholics in this country borders dangerously on racism, if only elitism.

Back to the original players, Ross Douthat blogged a response to Bass on July 25.  Unfortunately, most of Douthat’s “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” is another tit-for-tat, this time quoting whole chunks of Bass’ claim in order to disagree, but he does get around to offering an intriguing counter-argument: Isn’t much of the searching Bass calls “neo-liberalism” happening as (Douthat:) “individuals, rather than as members of the liberal churches and congregations that keep trying to roll out a welcome mat for them”?  So we’re still talking about a decline in religious institutions, and that’s happening at a faster pace in liberal churches than conservative ones.

I want to play coach for a moment, and suggest future moves.  There are several:

One, admit that we are, in fact, talking about the decline, death, and substantial changing of religious institutions, social institutions that are not that old in the first place.  Frankly, this needs to be said — and has been astonishingly mute among neo-liberal voices.  Even our most mission-minded church leaders are still afraid of saying that the conversation we have embarked on will, ultimately, mean the ending of the diocesan/deanery/parochial system.  Say it anyway.

Two, admit that we need to learn from the conservative movement of the 1970’s and 80’s that bypassed denominations and, instead, focused on building a community from motivated individual seekers.  Douthat’s right: we can’t compare liberal and conservative denominations when the dramatic rise in conservative Christianity happened in from dynamic leaders leading much-hyped congregations, not because a denomination said so.  Admit that we liberals / neo-liberals / mainliners / deadliners / whoever we are suck at evangelism, and we’ve got to learn new skills and learn them fast.

But do not admit that we are anything but deeply Christian.  And remind the world that we […if you can’t tell by now, my conclusions line up with a fairly progressive Christian stance] are motivated to make these stands because we spend our days rooted in the tradition, the scriptures, and the gift of reason. 

And stop getting hung up on the non-substantive conclusions — whether they like us, understand us, respect us, or know why our Presiding Bishop carries the stick she carries.  That doesn’t matter.  Engage the deeper, more important conversation about they ways we know God in Christ to be active in this world through the Holy Spirit.  And show how you get there by reading the scriptures, living with the tradition, and responding to ever-opening vistas of grace.  That, I’ll say, is the only conversation that has the power to save people’s souls.