[April 2012 Synchroblog] Is There a Christianity without the Resurrection?

This month’s Synchroblog explores the question: What if Jesus never rose from the dead? If there were no resurrection, would there still be a religion known as Christianity?

My first thought is, without the resurrection I don’t think Christianity would have survived. After all, after the crushing blow of Jesus’ death, there had to be something big that happened to have caused those first century Christians to risk their lives and endure 300 years of intense persecution and torment at the hands of Rome. Something happened that opened up a whole new way of seeing life, hope and the Kingdom of God. And as a result, the Church has survived for 2000 tumultuous years.

However, it seems it’s been really hard to recapture the early passion of the church. I sat with several friends this week for whom the Easter season felt flat, even sad. “Why bother?” they asked. There’s tons of historical and psychological explanations to explore, but in a nutshell what I see in our present day is major memory loss on the part of the church.

The liberal theology that has flourished since the 18th century de-emphasizes the supernatural events of Christ’s life such as the virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection in favor of an earthy, incarnational faith that concentrated on feeding the poor, caring for the sick and imprisoned, and outcast, and treating the least of these as Christ Himself. This became known as the social gospel, a Christianity to make a difference in the world. To be fair, not all denied basic orthodoxy as truth, but there was and is a definite concentration of the actions of Jesus and his command that his followers do the same. It’s cool stuff really, however, there is a major problem. This liberal reductionist theology has not produced on its promises: that humanity alone can change this world for the better. It cannot change the human heart. In its blindest moments, it allows evil to remain unchecked.

Conservatives on the other hand, have inexplicably thrown out the social gospel in their fervor to preserve the basic tenets of orthodoxy (virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection). On this end, the faith has become dangerously more about having an accurate Christology than about Christ. The actions and life and teachings of Jesus are seen primarily as a means to the Cross and personal eternal salvation, over against having a significant purpose of their own. The emphasis then has shifted from caring for the world to personal and social morality. This has overshadowed the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in and among us, a subject about which Jesus spoke frequently. Though a creedal understanding of events like the resurrection is a necessity (and I’m grateful for the preservation), the words of Peter Rollins come to mind: “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.”

The problem with both “ends” is that extreme wickedness remains throughout our human societies. The social gospel is not able to diminish it in this hurting world, and the emphasis on eternal salvation and creeds has not diminished it in the hearts those of us who call ourselves “saved”. Both poles seem to act as though the resurrection never happened (except as an assurance for heaven perhaps) and it’s not working out so well. True transformation does not seem to happen much when we live in extremes.

If resurrection is to be believed, it must be about much, much more than doing good stuff or believing the right stuff, no matter how sincerely these things are done. The resurrection happened within this world, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it then, that it has a whole lot to do with this world. It is not merely a hope that lies in the future outside of this world but a renewal right here, right now within it.

NT Wright says,

[The resurrection is] the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new one. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a NEW CREATION. (emphasis mine)

To paraphrase Wright, there is a new world being reborn in Jesus, and in this world Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. God’s saving rule is breaking in. As my pastor often says, Jesus didn’t come to make us good, He came to make us new. There’s something beautiful and powerful and real enough to change the intractable narcissism of our hearts. And, it’s not just about us, it is about the renewal and healing of everything. Old things have passed away, the new has come.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of striving. We’ve all blown it in some way. We’ve all decided that we’re right and our way of doing religion is better than that of “them over there”. And I’m not going to give a “10 steps to the Resurrection Life” schpiel because I don’t have one. I hope that is a relief. I think the way is simply like that of the early church: Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth.

Richard Rohr says,

Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all of that private, ungrieved, unnoted suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we believe in God at all? How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another? Jesus is the blueprint, the plan, the pattern revealed in one body and moment of history to reveal the meaning of all of history and each of our lives. The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God. The resurrection is the banner of what God does to us in return. Easter is the announcement of God’s perfect and final victory.

He is God’s life-affirming yes to the universe. And yes, Resurrection says, this is not the end.

Check out our other Synchrobloggers:

[February Synchroblog] Christianity and Creativity: Why It Matters

Years ago, I attended a church that avoided beauty. They met in a little white steepled building with a wood paneled arched ceiling within it that I just loved. However, the rest of the furnishings in there were worn and sparse, making it look like a forgotten and neglected room in an old house. I happened to mention to a friend once that the sanctuary would look so beautiful if it only had a carpet with a rich, deep color to set off the earthy tones of the wood. My remark was met with a terse, “It’s not that sort of church.”

Being new to the faith and having not yet discovered my own voice, I recoiled in embarrassment. I had obviously missed something important or perhaps I was engaging in the dreaded sins called lust of the eyes or the pride of life. I learned to believe that beauty was something that should be suspect, and that my love of beauty could be a character flaw. I learned to not trust my inner senses.

I have since come to understand that those church folks were simply afraid, for beauty can be a perilous thing. It sparks the imagination and moves it beyond safe boundaries, carrying the soul away with it to uncharted and unknown places. If we don’t protect ourselves, we become caught up in it, far beyond the mind and beyond the words in which we have always felt at home and so confident of what we know.

Many others have described to me their experiences of transcendent beauty, whether it be on a mountaintop in the Rockies or during a sunset on the beach. And so often, when they have described their sense of awe, wonder and encounter with sheer Presence, it was tamped down quickly by a well meaning Sunday School teacher who wanted to protect them from those new age-y ideas. Like my little church, they felt it best to keep this experience of beauty reined in.

However, an essay about creativity and Christianity is, in effect, an exploration of beauty. Beauty inhabits the cutting edge of creativity, says John O’Donohue. He proffers the idea that beauty speaks of things beyond words and rouses memories hidden in the depths of our hearts- memories of things both ancient and beyond time. Beauty reveals the wholeness and holy order of things. Beauty infuses our creative acts with meaning.

Frederick Turner adds that beauty enables us to go with, rather than against the deepest tendency or theme of our universe. It calls us back to something deeply ordered and good. In other words, beauty leads us to truth. It speaks of God. Therefore, the church is the right place to develop eyes for beauty; to learn to truly see. For in our relativistic world that is embroiled in either polarizing arguments or apathy in regards to what is good or true, beauty is able to transcend.

Beauty calls forth from our hearts the capacity to love and gives us sight to find the sacred anywhere on earth. It sees beyond exteriors, even the loveliest ones that tempt us to get caught in measuring a person’s worth by their physical attractiveness or charisma. It also sees beyond off-putting exteriors and actions that offend those who only have eyes to see failure or sin. O’Donohue says that beauty creates in us a reverence of approach for each other. Beauty does not allow us to see a mere human being. Instead, it gives us eyes to see sacred space, a container of the Holy in the other. We are led to draw near to one another with quiet astonishment.

Beauty gives us eyes to see God in the most distressing of disguises. Years ago there was a huge kerfluffle about Andre Serrano’s photograph, “Piss Christ.” It is a disturbing portrait of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of the artist’s own urine. Many people were deeply offended at this, feeling that the photo was an act of blasphemy. It became a prompt for all kinds of philosophical arguments and meanderings.

I cannot say what was in the mind of the artist when he made it. But my first reaction was “Oh my, he got it.” For isn’t this idea the essence of the gospel? On the cross Jesus submerged himself into the depths of what is dirtiest and darkest about us, plunging into our refuse, our shame. The unabashed and unhesitating descent of God into our garbage is love in its most powerful manifestation. The cross is that scandalous and it is that beautiful. Typically, our religious eyes want to claim only what is most clean and acceptable as a fitting receptacle for God. Yet God came not for those who are already well, but for those who are in most need of healing. Eyes for beauty will illuminate the presence of God in those whom we are very certain are offensive to him. Eyes for beauty may also help us to see God in ourselves.

What is probably most surprising about beauty is that it is enhanced by flaws. O’Donohue says that the beauty that emerges from woundedness is a “beauty infused with feeling; a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form.” This sort of beauty can compel us to cross the threshold of our separate selves into the experience of another in the form of compassion. It is the beginning of healing in the world. Some of the most amazing gifts in my life are my friends who are lifelong members of alcoholics anonymous. They trod along day by day, trading their thirst for the vine into thirst for the divine, carrying each other’s burdens and teaching the rest of us how to do it as well. Their lives have taken on a lovely Eucharistic shape. They exude beauty in a way that too few may ever understand.

Beauty illuminates the gospel story. It reminds us that the gospel is not a piece of theological doctrine to be apprehended, but a love story that tells of God breaking down walls of separation and then joining together God and man, heaven and earth, neighbor and enemy. Beauty “mediates between the known and unknown, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, visible and invisible, chaos and meaning, self and others.” Beauty transforms.

Ultimately, the question we must ask is not what is beauty, but who is beauty. I think it is right to say that God is beauty. To quote O’Donohue one more time, “When we claim that God is beauty, we are claiming for beauty all the adventure, mystery, infinity and autonomy of divine who-ness. Beauty is the inconceivable made so intimate, that it illuminates our hearts.”

Amen, church. Teach us to see.

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Links to Synchrobloggers below. More will be added as they come in!

pentecost 2009

pentecostI don’t know about yours, but my Tribe will spend Pentecost avoiding it. Pentecost is barely recognized by the evangelical church. Perhaps if it had a few commercial products attached to it we might give it more notice. It’s one of those things that we all know about but tend to dismiss as over-hyped, like crop circles. It represents something about Life that is far outside our locus of control and understanding. For most, it’s a story best left in the past as a marker of the beginning of what we have come to understand as Church.

It was, after all, a strange day. Those who believed in the resurrected Jesus gathered together to pray and to wait, as instructed. No doubt they had probably been boggling and marveling over some of the amazing events that had occurred and were trying to make some sense of it all. Many of them had watched His cruel death – this man who lived a subversive “in your face” to the power structures of their world and who wanted His miracles kept quiet but His love for untouchables and outcasts proclaimed. Many of them had actually seen Him alive again, cooking breakfast for His friends on the beach, serving them as He had always done. Then they watched him taken up into heaven. They were beginning to realize that it was the Almighty who had come and washed their feet. Everything was different now. What could it all mean?

My friend Karey (my very awesome Christian calendar friend) reminds us that Pentecost refers back to the time when God gave His Law to Israel from Mount Sinai, a gift of God to His Bride Israel in order to bring them Life, as a cloud came and hovered the mountain like a canopy in the Jewish wedding ceremony. The people of Israel had been instructed to wait for Moses to return with the gift – the Law of God inscribed by God’s own finger into tablets of stone. They could not wait, instead turning to idols they could fashion themselves. It is thought that the breaking of the glass at the wedding signifies the breaking of the tablets, as Israel could not wait for the Bridegroom. Here at Pentecost now comes the Spirit of God, the promise of this new covenant of the Bridegroom and His Church, which is foretold to be called from all nations. And under the canopy of the Spirit, the finger of God is ready to inscribe the New Way on our very hearts. (Yes, there’s a whole lot more about feasts and counting days and weeks and all but y’all can look it up.)

Waiting is a waste of our valuable time. (How many times this last year has someone made known what they’d like to see happen in the church and punctuated it with a warning, do this or I’m gone.) We want a faith that makes sense and brings clarity and that puts some sort of a face on mystery, like a golden calf. It’s troubling that we call that faith. In that light, an expression of God described as rushing wind and overflowing waters, tongues of fire and intoxication is just too much. We hesitate to bind ourselves to such a spouse because after all, we are not crazy. We cannot hold the Spirit in a theological box nor predict Her movement. Our orders of worship, services, programs for good Christian living and even building structures are designed to not allow in disruption. No surprises. Even for those who do mark this day, it is always with the assurance that we have it figured out and safely contained, like plutonium.

Yet 10 days after the Ascension, the Spirit rushed into that little room, filling the waiting people with God, causing them to break forth into languages that could be understood by “every nation under heaven”. I believe in this story lies the portrait of the church as she was always meant to be – of one accord in prayer, filled with voices of both men and women, pouring in, pouring out, giving, living, eating, making space within themselves for gathering in.

From the beginning the Spirit waited, hovering like a canopy over chaotic waters, ready to bring Life and beauty, wild and diverse and free, springing forth, filling and multiplying. Perhaps our resistance to this same Spirit is our anxiety about this wild diversity, that S/He will loosen the voices that will change the structures to which we have bound ourselves. The voice of Martin Luther King, who was refused admission by every conservative southern seminary, went on to topple segregation and bring about the civil rights movement. What will the church look like when the Spirit pours in again and once again, everyone has a voice, everyone can let go of what we think we need to measure our well-being and everyone is welcome?  What will the world look like as a result?

Perhaps the prayer and the waiting is what it takes to open the last of our clutching fingers so we can give God full sway to bring the Kingdom forth. I pray for the courage to let all prophesy and to dream dreams again, (whatever that means) for if all have voice in the Church, the church is no longer something we can own and predict and control. If all have voice and dreams, each of us is changed by the other as we learn to shift to make room for the different, new and unexpected.

Pentecost celebrates that we are brought to our truest selves. It celebrates the truth that we are the Beloved of God. It proclaims the truth that we all belong to one another. It brings men and women together as equals, and joy that overflows to the point where ownership and status and hierarchy fall away. We can live in the Really Real (see last post). It is the beginning of the great gathering in. Robert Webber says that we are living out the Pentecost experience- an “in between time”- between the Holy Spirit’s coming and Jesus’ final coming. I think our current economic woes are God’s way of blowing though and saying, wake up to yourselves again, enough. Remember who and whose you are. So it is not a time to be afraid. It is a time to lean in and wait for the power of God.

One thing I have heard over and over again from many places lately is our need to pray of one accord, even if we can’t agree on other things. Pray, wait (learn silence), receive. Dare to unlock doors of we’re right and they’re wrong, open the stained-glass windows, let in the rushing wind. Receive what is our heart’s desire.

finding hope when the money is gone [April Synchroblog]

People are crying out for hope in these times of great economic uncertainty. And for far too many, the economics are no longer so uncertain; they have become a rock hard reality of joblessness, food stamps and evictions. We are all caught up in this beast of an economy run by a corrupt world order. People are afraid.

In times like these it helps to go back to our stories of hope. At our church we recalled together the stories of Jesus as He fed the 5000 (plus families and all). This story is familiar – the people are hungry and Jesus has compassion for them. A young boy offers up the bread and fish that he has brought with him. Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, breaks it and gives over and over till all are fed and there are 12 basketfuls left over. This same Jesus doesn’t bat an eye as we watch our riches slip through our fingers. He is the One who takes what little we have and multiplies it till our baskets are full and our nets break. The difficulty for us is trusting Him with our little.

This story is told again in a delightful little film from 2004 called Millions. (It is directed by Danny Boyle, who is also the director of this year’s Oscar favorite, Slum Dog Millionaire.) It is the fictional story of a young boy of a simple, devout faith who has lost his mother. He often turns to conversations with the saints of old for consolation. One day he finds millions of pounds just days before England is going to switch over from the stirling pound to the Euro. He believes that the money fell from heaven. He’s sure it came from God, after all, he reasons, who else would have that kind of money?

Damian is too innocent to fully comprehend how others will perceive and lust for his newfound wealth. He just wants to give it away to the poor. With his limited understanding of how the world works, he has a difficult time finding ways to give the money away. His practical older brother wants to hide it from the government (They’ll take 40% for taxes. Do you know how much that is? That’s practically all of it!) The older brother also feels that they should invest in real estate because giving it away to the poor “just isn’t practical”. The harshness of the greed that Damian encounters seems all the more discordant when reflected through his guileless eyes.

He is discouraged with how difficult the task of giving to the poor becomes. One of his saintly friends, St. Peter, reminds him of the story of the fish and loaves, only with a slight change. St. Peter recalls that a boy of Damian’s age offered his bread and sardines. Jesus put them on a plate and started to pass it around. The first man who got the plate took nothing because he had a piece of lamb in his pocket. He took the meat from his pocket and pretended that he got it from the plate. “He’s looking out for number one, you know,” says Peter. The man passed the plate on and the same thing happened over and over. And finally, the people started to take what was in their pockets and add it to the plate. It went round and round and everyone ate and the plate was returned to Jesus heaped with leftovers. Peter thinks Jesus was a bit taken aback by this. But He called it a miracle. This was because, Peter said, “doing this made each of us bigger”.   

Now I struggle when some attempt to de-sacramentalize the works of Jesus by diminishing the supernatural act of multiplying the fish and loaves. That kills our longing for mystery and places us back into the realm of modern reason where anything that doesn’t measure up to that is cast aside. But I do understand the “miracle” that is described here. For us to each give up our hoarding and to give what we have that God might multiply it is an act of deep faith. It is an act of those who have tasted of the right-side up Kingdom. Perhaps the miracle is that we begin to understand that by really pouring out, we “become bigger”. And we learn as Damian learned, “The money just makes it harder to see what’s what”.

Interestingly, not too long after we began to discuss this “breaking and multiplying” story of God in our church, a guest preacher came in and told of how he recovered a lost fortune because he went about it “God’s way”. I could see the congregation visibly relax while hearing this. Having a way to insure the safety of our bank accounts settles us all back into this upside down world. Surely God will give us a means or a plan to make enough and more for ourselves. But sure enough, hope shrinks back down again to mere trust in what we can see and what we believe we can control. (Though I would hope that this economic crash might finally help to kill the illusion of control!) It takes so little to shrink our prophetic dreams down to safe and manageable portions. We lose our Kingdom vision and begin to pad our own small fortresses.

Our stories help us to recall who we truly are again. We are the mass of people trying to find a place to sit in the shade as our stomachs growl. Our shared hunger pains bring to mind our primal inter-connectedness as human beings. And we see and taste our interdependence as we feast on bread that has been made from grain harvested by our neighbor’s hands and ground under his millstone, then mixed and kneaded by a neighbor woman’s hands. The fish recalls the friend who spends hours mending his fishing nets after straining the sea for food. Our quiet fear is addressed as we each embrace the courage to offer what little we have for God to break apart and increase for the greater good. We learn that when our brother’s stomach is filled, our own is nourished as well. We are comforted by the truth that we are not meant to exist alone. In remembering this, we grow bigger.

Whether we offer our loaves and fish in faith that God will supernaturally increase what we place in the communal baskets, or whether we begin to embrace again the ability of creation to bring forth more than enough for everyone so that we each take only what we need, both can be considered miracles. Whether manna, oil, fish, bread or good wine, increasing what we give into shared abundance is one of the things God does best.

We bring hope into this world just as Jesus did. He said, “You give them something to eat.” And then Jesus became the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave over and over …

Now You are multiplied-
We are your fingers and Your feet
Your tender heart We are Your broken side.

Take and crumble small and cast us
On the world’s waters-
Your contemporary shewbread.

Feed us to more than 5000 men
And in our daily flood of living
Pour Yourself out again!
~Lucy Shaw


Other Synchrobloggers: (I will add links as they come in – it will be slow as I will be away this week)

Beth Patterson: hope and other non-sequiturs




what if this was how the Church showed up in the world

What fun! I love this as a metaphor for the Church in this world. All shapes, sizes, stages, talents and stations of life  are welcome. All are dancing in time to the song of the Singer which vibrates through every cell of our bodies and through every fiber of the universe. And anyone can join in if they wish. Unity, joy, freedom, life-giving. Worship. 

generative Christians

I was an “emerging Christian” before “emerging” was cool. I was the one asking questions in seminary years ago. I had imagined seminary would be filled with lots of passionate debates and discussion just like the rabbis-in-training had enjoyed in the movie, Yentl. And afterwards, we’d go have tea and bagels (or beer and pretzels if you were really subversive). I was too naïve then to realize that asking questions was simply not done. Certainly not the kind that not only wonder aloud about what we do, but also question our core assumptions, our starting place. One simply does not question what we claim as orthodoxy, nor how it has shaped us not only for good but also for harm, nor how we create positions and postures that seem at the core to foster an insulated, exclusive faith, as well as producing pastors-to-be who were unprepared to deal with the realities of human struggles. Instead of engaging in rousing conversation, people told me they were praying for me. Some looked genuinely concerned, as if I was going to hammer 95 theses to the door of the student center or spontaneously burst into flame. But I thought these were important questions.  I eventually came to realize that neither reaction was necessary; I was disruptive enough just for being female. My questions simply reinforced their idea that Eve could not be trusted.

So I find it heartening in these days that many others are putting their voice and hearts to this same holy discontent. I was unable to attend the big Emerging Church conference in New Mexico this past weekend. But through the tweets and Facebook I heard some of the main points. And it was good stuff but nothing new to me. That is actually a good thing. It’s like the Spirit is once again singing over us and we are all hearing the same tune.

Some call this stirring that is amongst us emerging Christianity, others call it progressive Christianity. Diana Butler Bass (another new favorite author) believes that the emergence that is happening is calling us beyond the categories of conservative-moderate-liberal, and the polarities that these categories create within the Church. There’s lots of questions, lots of hope, lots of longing, lots of one-anothering, lots of old category busting. It can be frightening to those of us raised on “rock theology”, that is, believing we always know and always have our footing. But the good news, she says, is that as untethered and rootless as emerging Christianity seems to be, there is a story that is being recalled, filled with ancient traditions of social justice and worship and following Jesus. There is something to glean from a shared past that is both grounding and freeing. She calls this, “generative Christianity.”

So then, says Bass,

Generative Christians maintain that the past, present and future- the living the dead and the yet to be born- are intimately related in God. In less theological language, [Bellah] insists that “remembering [ancient stories] leads to what is ahead: “Communities of memory that tie us to the past also turn us toward the future as communities of hope.” Tradition is a lifeline to hope. Without it, progressive Christianity easily devolves into yet another political and social agenda, a largely secular worldview dressed up in religious language or blessed by a passing prayer.

 The very cool thing is the traditions and stories she refers to are outside of the “Big C” history of the church. She says, 

“Big C” history is the “us against them” morality tale of a suffering church that is vindicated by God through its global victory over other worldviews, religions, or political systems. Militant Christianity tolerates (and often encourages) schisms, crusades, inquisitions, and warfare as means- metaphorical if not actual – to the righteous end of establishing God’s will on earth.

 The “Big C” story often is the only story we are ever told. And we are rarely called to reflect upon the sad fact that it is the story of when the Church lost herself, partnering with politics and power, altering our self-understanding and our purpose in the world. It may have given us a rock of sorts to stand on, but removed us from the living Jesus.

So Bass has written a history gleaned from stories of Jesus followers throughout the millennia. They are mostly ordinary folk through whom we can trace the presence of Jesus throughout the last 2,000 years – the Jesus who moves within us to love neighbor as ourselves, and who stretches the idea of neighbor to an ever-broadening inclusive sweep. You know, that Jesus who asks us to give to anyone who asks, and to love the stranger, heck, even to love our enemies. That wild man Jesus, who is not to be figured out but loved and trusted. We do not stand on Him, He holds us. It is scary to let go and trust His presence.

And, Butler adds, there is something subversive about hearing the stories of those who did not write the “Big C” history. Theirs are not the stories of conquest, expansion and power yet they can bring down empires. I guess I can relate to subversives. They may feel small, unwanted and ineffective but they follow Jesus, who is still walking amongst us throughout history and time, bringing low the mountains and filling the valleys, transforming one soul at a time.

…And in these days, I think Jesus is reclaiming His Church. 

(quotes are from “A People’s History of Christianity” by Diana Butler Bass.)

beauty from ashes (Lent #1)

I almost gave up blogging for Lent because I have been so behind. But I am discovering anew that writing is a necessary spiritual discipline for me. Years ago a friend noticed my start and stop writing habits and remarked, “You avoid pleasure.” I knew what she meant. Writing is my creative play, a time for me to experiment with words and ideas and when I can manage an un-self conscious moment, I can see the Holy Spirit dancing on my pages too. I can even see me dancing a bit. My writing can be (occasionally) profound and elegant or (and probably more often) just stilted and pithy (or maybe all these things at once) but it is always my attempt to commune, to explore, connect and share. My avoidance of writing then, is an avoidance of the dance, of communing with God and even more revealing, it’s an avoidance of  me.  It’s easier for me to be a workaholic and try so hard to save the world from all its injustices than it is to allow myself the joy and the discipline of weaving my ideas into something I can hold out as a love offering. I can even make myself believe that taking time to dance with the Creator God is optional, like signing up for the extra workshops at a conference. So for me, writing is less about working than a simple enjoyment of being. I am slowly repenting of my ol’ protestant work ethic which has little room for something as lovely as mere pleasure. Pleasure in this creative sense is worship, and worship is not something I can afford to neglect. This pleasure is not mere.

So as I think about pleasure and being and even though it is a week late I am still going to blog about Ash Wednesday. I had been a good protestant who for many years avoided all sorts of “empty ritual” as something devoid of real religious value, so I have missed out on years of sensuous worship. Sensuous worship means to worship with all of the senses, not just the ears that hear the Word imparted. Pleasure. Wholeness. Being.

If you have ever sifted the cremated ashes of a loved one between your fingers you have touched our startling human frailty. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. The black Lenten ashes feel a bit similar, though they are different in color. Even so, through them we bump up harshly against our own mortality. They are a reminder of what is killing us. They expose our desperation for a firm place to set our feet – how to make sense of things and how to know who we are and how to find a face to present to the world. Doing this feels as natural as slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes. It feels right. But this is not faith, it is certainty. It is something to grasp. The real word is idolatry. We’ve been creating ourselves since before we can remember and we see the results all around us in the pain and greed and inequity of this world. Ask any sage on a barstool what happens when you find something that you believe will help you to ride the raw experiences of this life with some sense of safety. You lose yourself. And you lose God.

Repent, and believe the Good News! I wish all of our people could have seen what I was seeing the evening of our Ash Wednesday service. Receiving ashes is still a relatively new and strange ritual for these Presbyterians. Yet they came, all shapes and sizes of people, young and old, streaming forward wide-eyed and expectant.  There were also a few who looked a little scared and a few kids who looked up at their parents in curious awe, “What is this you are doing?” My finger drew the ashes gently across foreheads that were bumpy and lined, smooth and soft. For some, I had to poke under carefully coiffed bangs. All were warm with life, tender flesh stretched over living bone. With only a few exceptions, their eyes met mine, sparkling even in the somber light. Such life in these dust bin bodies! It was one of those transcendent moments when I could truly sense our communion. We are all clay. We are vulnerable, dependent beings in every moment. We are tethered together by the most basic of needs that are exposed by a growling stomach or an empty wallet. And all of us are sparkling with some semblance of hope, waiting for the triumphal entry, trusting that Life is coming and it can penetrate even the hardest portions of our hearts.  Jean Vanier says, “We feel small and weak, but we are gathered together to signify the power of God who transforms death into life.  That is our hope, that God is doing the impossible:  changing death to life inside each of us, and that perhaps, through our community, each one of us can be agents in the world of this transformation of brokenness into wholeness, and of death into life.” 

And I basked in the simple pleasure of the senses, hands blessing warm flesh, eyes meeting eyes, false selves gone for a few brief moments as the ashes revealed our common lot, casting our pretenses into shadow and freeing our humanus/humility to shine. No pretending, just being. And though Lent marks a time of repentance and fasting, a paradoxical thought popped into my head. I thought of the words of John Wesley, “Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.” And I thought it was a little bit funny that there amidst our dirty, smiling, sheepish faces I could sense the pleasure of God.

Let it be so.