Why Ash Wednesday?

Imposing ashes is one of the distinctive attributes of Western Christianity. It is the beginning of Lent – the Great Fast of Spring. Lent begins on Wednesday a traditional day of fasting for weekly practice. Friday is the other traditional fast day. Carnivale and Mardi Gras are celebrations before the fast begins. They are celebrations of being alive. Shrove Tuesday – the English version of Mardi Gras – is much more subdued. It is a time for giving thanks for being alive.

My first participation in the ritual of Ash Wednesday was while I was in seminary. I was working as a hospital chaplain near Atlanta. It was part of our practicum or “field education.” A few Roman Catholic lay ministers brought ashes to the hospital and went to every patient’s room asking if they would like to receive the ashes to begin the fast. I thought it was nice. But, I saw very little reason for it. I also note that it was Ash Wednesday 2001.

The next Ash Wednesday was much more significant. The Ash Wednesday 2002 took place six months after the coordinated terrorist attacks that now are simply called 9/11. I was in my second year of seminary. I went to chapel for the worship. The message the visiting Lutheran minister gave us was oriented to the aftermath of the attacks. Dust was his topic. We remembered the images of the people running away from the cloud of dust, people being covered with the dust, and the absolute fear of death everyone felt. The words used in imposition, “You are merely dust and to dust you shall return,” were sobering. Yes, the second time was much more meaningful. Years later, after several Ash Wednesdays have passed, I am forced to ask what does it continue to mean?

The doctrine known as substitutionary atonement presents a theological stumbling block for many people. One person confided to me, “I can sooner believe the Resurrection occurred than believe Jesus died for my sins.” Why? It’s very simple. Punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is unjust. No, it does not matter the Christ was raised three days later. Murdering him for the sin of everyone in the world including those who murdered him is an injustice. It would not alleviate any “original sin.” In fact, it only makes it and the associated feelings of guilt worse.

The questions remain. What is the significance of the death of Jesus? What is the “propitiation” which St. Paul discusses in Romans 3:25? John gives a curious understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. Christ lays down his own life. It is not taken from him. Why? He does it for divine love of the world. When St. Paul discusses what happened with Christ’s death he includes the Resurrection. We are reconciled to God by Jesus’ obedience, righteousness, and life. The “sacrifice of atonement” or “the propitiation” as the King James version puts it is actually the place of atonement. Jesus is the Temple. Sin is remembered at the Temple. And reconciliation is made at the Temple. The Temple is where God dwells. But God is greater than the Temple. Prayers are made facing in the direction of the Temple. Why does the Temple exist? Does it exist for God? No, it exists for the people.

Now we are ready to answer the question of why Ash Wednesday. If “Jesus paid it all,” Ash Wednesday is an unnecessary fast. In fact, all fasting would be unnecessary if the sacrifice was punishment that satisfied divine law or honor. Fasting is necessary if we are continually seeking to find the experience of God.

I visited a church one time where I heard the pastor describe God in this way. “Until God sees the blood, either yours or Jesus’, you will not be forgiven.” I told a friend who was a member of that church that I really despised the idea of a bloodthirsty God. Another time I was appalled when I heard that before the end of time the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrifices would be restored. It was still the bloodthirsty God I had heard about before. When a member of a congregation I served made such a claim I told her that such an action being supported by Christians was Anti-Christ. Even if Christ was the substitute why would we support something extra?

Fasting is not meant to satisfy God with suffering. It is meant to remind human beings that we are weak, self-righteous, and in fear of death. For all the bravado and swagger we demonstrate, we are cowardly covering up these characteristics for which we cannot be proud.

Jesus cautions against swearing oaths on glorious stuff. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say ‘whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by it and everything on it, and whoever swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.'” (Matthew 23:17-21 NRSV)

There is another caution about the attitude of prayer this time from Luke. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9) The parable is about two men who go to the temple. One man prays thanking God for making him so great, pious, and better than many others including the other man who is praying. The second man asks for God’s mercy. Jesus says the second man is justified by God.

Jesus told us to fast because of the beatitude characteristics we could learn and re-learn. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Advent are times for every spiritual good we wish we otherwise had time to receive. Fasting is not about punishing ourselves, trying to feel guilty, or even self-loathing. The Lenten fast is about remembering the life work of Jesus was bringing about and teaching life in reconciliation with the divine that is within us and surrounds us.

May all of us look forward to the celebration of Easter, Pascha, or the Resurrection and be ready for it.


The World of Cleverly Devised Myths

Transfiguration Sunday has passed. St. Peter reminds us that the world is becoming new. The experience of the Apostles was real. Jesus was giving his disciples a preview of the glory of the Resurrection and the life it would bring. 

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18 NRSV)

To say Peter was impressed would be an understatement. Matthew 17:1-9 gives an account of the story where Peter is amazed to see Christ glorified and in Christ’s glory he sees the great Prophets Moses and Elijah. We know the story. Peter wishes to build three shrines. He does not realize that he sees Moses and Elijah (both of whom in traditional teaching had been assumed into Heaven) are present in the glory of Christ and not their own. Peter is corrected on this matter by the voice from God the Father. This second letter attributed to him shows the lesson has been learned. There is no “Oh, and Moses and Elijah were there too” statement. 

The point made in this letter is that it was not a cleverly devised tale. It is not Odysseus building a wooden horse to fool the Trojans. There is no tale of Aeneas escaping Troy to eventually settle near Rome. Nor is there even a rumor that when Caesar Augustus died his spirit ascended to the Heavens. These stories and many like them made a world of heroes and servant/admirers. They made heroes out of weak people and nations. They hearkened to the glorious past. And they legitimized present day (St. Peter’s time) evils done by the rulers who were regarded as heroes. 

Peter says this is very different. He is not creating a new myth. He is giving a good news greater than that evangel previously given by Augustus bringing the Peace of Rome to the benighted world. It is greater and will bring more changes to the Mediterranean world than anyone can imagine. More changes than Peter himself could have thought possible.

Peter saw in Christ the reign of God. He saw the Resurrection and the restoration of all things. He saw Moses in the Promised Land. Peter and his fellow disciples witnessed greatness to come. He saw divine promises kept. And he knew the important action he needed to take was to listen, really listen, to the Son the Beloved to know what being pleasing to God meant. 

What Makes A Pastor?

What is a pastor? It is commonplace to define the words minister, pastor, evangelist, and preacher as labels for anyone who wishes to speak in the name of God. Unfortunately, doing this gives too vague a definition and makes the work done as a pastor as somehow marginal. I want to define the term in this column because many preachers and teachers wish to take that title on themselves without being responsible for the work the title implies.

Evangelists often call themselves “pastor” as in, “I am Pastor John Wesley.” In fact, an evangelist is not a pastor. If a title is given then one should say, “I am Evangelist John Wesley or Reverend John Wesley.” The denomination in which I was raised often referred to the preacher as a “minister.” Usually, the term is given for the person who serves in a ritualistic capacity. The person who officiates at a wedding or funeral is often called a minister.

The word “pastor” is another word for “shepherd.” A pastor has been given charge of the material and spiritual health of a church. The mainline Protestant churches as well as the Catholic and Orthodox churches refer to their clergy given this kind of responsibility as “pastor.” Being a pastor is a task, a job if you will. The United Methodist Book of Discipline gives a very long job description for a pastor. An ordained person may be a pastor whereas a licensed person must serve as an appointed pastor to do the job. I am aware everything is more nuanced than I am saying here. That is the basic gist of the matter.

Only the Christian Churches use this term for their leaders. The only exception that comes to mind is the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am told the Gaelic term translates as “chief sheep herder.” And heaven knows being a pastor is often like herding sheep. Why? Because the sheep tend to wander into areas that are not good for them. Years ago, another clergy person that was not serving a church said that all the lay members of a congregation want is for the pastor to confirm their prejudices. He was correct for many people. Recently, those people have found confirmation for their prejudices in various media. The church does not become a priority for such people. And they like sheep wander off.

Both Jesus and St. Peter use the word shepherd to describe the work of Jesus in the church. Jesus claimed that he was the true shepherd who would call the flock to him and lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:1-18). St. Peter asks the elders who have charge of the “flock of God” to care for those in their charge. Pastors are not to serve for the paycheck. They are not to serve for human glory. Pastors carry out the ministry to the lay people to train them in ministry to others (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Something appears to have gone wrong. The flock of God cannot listen to the voice of the Chief Shepherd. There are too many voices, often competing voices, that so many people want to be true. Why? Many of these voices flatter and stroke the egos of people who then refuse to listen to another voice. Pastors are concerned that the platform from which they speak and lead simply isn’t big enough or shiny enough. Most Christians have listened to serpents and hid from the voice of God.

Pastors often feel isolated. The congregations they serve are confused. Aging congregations are primarily made up of people who live in fear. The outside world scares them. It is not because they wish to see an improved world either. It is because they wish for a world that they thought they saw as children. Younger members of the congregation are expected to either buy into the nostalgia or go elsewhere. And many younger people go elsewhere. Why?

The dying church is both in the world and of it. Those people who are seeking an authentic spiritual life see in the church the same materialism and consumer mentality that governs the rest of the world. The dying church makes the pastor feel isolated. When the pastor surrenders to the world, then the congregation is definitely lost and ineffective.

I know many Pastors who are frustrated and teetering on the edge. They are ready to reject the churches. They are ready to join “the dones” who have already walked away. It is a dire situation. And few clergy are equipped to handle it. What kind of exhausted surgeon, covered in blood and lacking the tools necessary to operate and give care, would be expected to continue? The answer is all of them are expected to do so. The same holds true for Pastors. Morally injured Pastors fill meetings, conferences, and continuing education programs only to walk away with nothing helpful to them. They have done this for centuries.

The film Calvary comes to mind. It is about a good priest who pastors a parish that is very normal. The difference is that he is under a death sentence. A member of his parish intends to kill him and told him so. The movie shows the priest go through a very difficult week. He tells his bishop what is happening. The bishop can do nothing. The priest starts to run away towards the end of the movie. His murder is not very dramatic. He doesn’t die at the altar during mass. He dies while asking his killer not to do what he intends.

I see a very good question being asked in the film. What would happen if he quit or never took up the task to begin with. What would these people be like? They would be the same. They would do the awful things they always do. But, in those times when they were nearing despair, where would they go for help? Whether they recognize it or not, they need the pastor.

Being a pastor is a calling to serve, to suffer with, to love, to be merciful, and to give the message of liberation to people called Christians. Pastors have a charge, a task, a job that requires the spiritual strength and faith to fail and be victorious.



“I had no idea?”

The statement above is one I have heard many times since I began the sobriety journey. It is usually said with a varied senses of amazement, pity, and sorrow. One friend in particular said, “I was with you every week for a year; and I had no clue.” It was not a surprise to me that he said it. We were in a clergy covenant group. We met to discuss the issues of our ministries and lives. We were supposed to be there to tell the truth. We usually did. The problem was that the weekly meeting only allowed so much time for discussion. One or two people at most got to bring something forward to the group. I found it very easy not to say anything about my addiction.

Addicts lie. It’s that simple. The situation of the friend, co-worker, relative, and employer who claim they didn’t know proves that the lies of the addict worked. When someone says to me, “I didn’t know.” The answer is simple. “You friend were not supposed to know or ever find out.” I knew I had a problem. I intended to control it until I died with it.

Alcoholics and addicts who enter treatment must learn to admit they are suffering from a problem they cannot control. To put it another way, alcoholics and addicts have to stop lying. I had to stop lying to myself, my family, and others. Once having done this, then putting away the booze or drugs is done.

I was indeed aided and abetted in my lying. The really monstrous lie were the ones I forced other people, especially my children, to tell. I abused my position of being their father to make them cover for me. I hope one day they will forgive me for it. The others who helped were those people of the community who usually do not care to hear someone else’s problems. This is not merely a clergy issue. But clergy members find themselves in the double bind situation of hiding their problems while everyone else wants assurance that this person will be strong enough to be available for their needs. Clergy members are expected when called upon to provide a sense of emotional security to the people they serve. I know most people never consider this issue. I once had a lay person say to me that the congregation(s) usually “minimize” the deaths and illnesses in the family of clergy people. And if the lay members of the congregation will do that, they will also minimize the more “trivial” needs of the pastors (the need for time off, renewal, recreation, rest, and even the continued training required in the profession). Why are clergy in these untenable positions? Because everyone else is or at least has been.

Consider the co-worker who you learn self-harms or commits suicide. The usual response on learning about it is to say, “I didn’t know.” There are reasons for that. The same hiding, lying, self-deception, and cover-up is happening. It is hard to accept the following statement. People do not care to know. It is easier to condemn than to understand. It is easier to disregard than to be concerned. It makes demands on a person’s time to care. And everyone is too busy playing the game of “Don’t worry about me I am okay.”

We believe the lies the alcoholic, addict, and suicidal person tell us. The US military has been plagued with suicides in recent years and is a good indicator of the lack of care for its members. It surprises many people when I say that all illness is stigmatized in some way. If a chain smoker develops lung cancer, what is the usual often unspoken response? It is a judgmental one. When HIV/AIDS became known the people infected were often from already stigmatized people including addicts. Mental health is stigmatized the same way by ascribing moral problems to those who suffer with it. How many people that you know who battle with a mental illness do you consider worthy of trust? People with untreated mental illnesses are the ones that cannot be trusted. Those people who seek treatment are usually worthy of trust. It is because of the stigma that many go untreated. The simple unavailability of mental health treatment is another very important issue.

The only way to overcome the stigmatization of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, and other ailments is to build a culture of care. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General of the United States once said that what is missing most in healthcare is “the care.” He was right. We believe that is a near impossibility to develop a community of caring for other people. And we are correct to think so. But it is not impossible. Cultures of care existed and continue to exist as subsets of communities. The Bruderhof immediately come to mind. Early Mormonism does too. The Book of Acts describes the lives of the early disciples as reflecting what ancient philosophers like Epicurus considered the good society. A people who decide to care for other people will never get it completely right. All of the ones I describe here failed to be perfect. It is the plight of human beings to be imperfect. It is though the privilege of human beings to try for perfection. To care means to believe and to act. Care and charity are from the same Latin derivation. We can believe and act in ways that show more care.

What do we have to lose? If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back to being our worst selves.