Stop, Look, and Listen: the call of an ashy God
Last year I wrote about the “imposition of ashes” (you can find it here). This idea still is sitting with me this year – that the we are meant to be imposed upon. Ash Wednesday (Lent, discipleship, Jesus, God… take your pick) is not meant to be convenient but is meant to be an interruption of our normal routines and responses.
So I’m sitting with this thought this morning even as I see and hear about friends, colleagues, and neighbors who are dispersing ashes to people on street corners. The part of me thinks the church needs to get out from behind our walls loves this. The part of me that is dwelling on imposition struggles with it. What happens when me make our rituals convenient? Are we simply hawking jewelry for people who have no interest in making time to be imposed upon? I wish, in asking this, to wrestle with it for myself (but with you) so please don’t hear this as simply belittling those outreach efforts, by all means keep dispersing and reaching people where they live – the gospel desires to be preached and practiced in a myriad of ways. I simply wonder where is the line of when the church places convenience as a greater priority to the depth and work of discipleship – which is entirely inconvenient. Jesus’ calls to discipleship require people dropping nets, abandoning family, and leaving work undone.
And the church struggles with this. Our desire to be relevant and our fear about declining numbers makes us think of ways to reach people who not otherwise be willing to engage in rituals of communal faith. We recognize that small spirit led moments may lead to deeper engagement that would never happen without a chance encounter on the street corner. We also feel the call that the church is more than a building and we cannot make everyone come to our home court and fit our cookie cutter images of faithful practice.
But when Jesus bids up pick up our cross and die, to drop our nets and follow… immediately, and to be one who walks in the way of him who has nowhere to lay his head Jesus is calling us to something radical and life-stopping: a full-on interruption of our way of being. Such a stopping (I’m not saying pausing… I’m thinking full-on stopping) is about as counter-culture as you can get these days. Our lives have no time for stopping. I read an article recently about the side-effect of “convenience technology” thanks to my friend and colleague MaryAnn McKibben Dana (who has lots of life transforming things to say about Sabbath… another “stopping” moment that is life-giving) that speaks unexpected but wonderfully to this (you can read it here). My summed up version is that when technology makes things faster we sometimes lose its deep fulfillment. The best analogy the article offered is that we can hike up a mountain and get a wonderful view and a sense of accomplishment. The same view can be had by driving – but do we really get the same sense of fulfillment when we eliminate the sense of journey, of struggle and experiences, that hiking to the view offers us?
What happens with drive up ashes? I am not saying it isn’t significant… but I can’t help but feel it has lost most of its deeper meaning as the ritual beginning to a season of lent, of repenting (turning and re-orienting) and following in the way of Christ as he travels to the cross… and beyond. Easter without Good Friday means nothing. Good Friday without Palm Sunday is not nearly as unexpected. Holy Week without the journey is – to me – lacking in its holiness. Christmas Eve is my favorite evening of the year, but Lent is my favorite season. Something of its ashy somberness appeals to my soul. My most profound understanding of God is one who brings life from death – and experiencing and engaging the death is as important (if not more important) than the life. There is so much death we cling to we must find ways to part with it. And I believe this requires that we stop. That we look the death in the eye and name it for what it is, and then we must let it go. This is the way to abundant life. And the way this ashy God invites… no imposes upon me to stop, alters my understanding of grace and connects me to resurrection life in a way that no triumphant assembly ever can. It is entirely inconvenient, and that is well with my soul.
Thanks be to God.