Last week my friend and podcast partner, Taylor Mertins, cribbing from a podcast we did with Fleming Rutledge last Ash Wednesday, argued that the trend of ‘Ashes-to-Go’ must go. I concur with much of what Taylor wrote and I applaud Fleming’s larger point that we who claim the Protestant mantle have become overly fixated on the sacramental-seeming to the detriment of the actual kerygma.
I also see the other side of the argument.
Ashes are not sacraments. Indeed to argue ‘What’s next, drive by eucharist?’ is to underscore Fleming’s point that we don’t know what we’re doing with the ashes in or out of the church.
Of all the things we do as Church, ashes express that which is most existentially and universally felt: you’re going to die (and you’re probably a sinner too). Despite what Fleming says, I’m not sure that requires a scripture text or interpreter for someone to know in their bowels it’s true. I may be self-justifying as I’ve both given and received ashes, not outside in a parking lot, but in a hospital ward shorn of any exegesis or expositor. Because I can see the validity to the counter point, I invited my colleague, Michelle Matthews, to write an apologia for ashes-to-go.
Here you go:
Two years ago I bit my theologically-trained tongue and publically mixed olive oil and ashes for the first time at the back table of our local Peets’ Coffee. That morning, I slapped on my collar and a nametag that read “Ask Me for Ashes”, pitched a quaint storefront chalkboard sign that read “Ashes-to-Go with a Cup of Joe,” and waited, somewhat nervously, for a stranger to approach, someone whose coffee I could buy, whose prayers I could share, whose ashes I could impose.
I could say that doing Ashes-to-Go was merely a practical decision on my part. That if my church had a building, I would have had an Ash Wednesday service. That as a new church planter, without yet a space or a discernible and consistent gathered community, taking ashes to the coffee shop was circumstantial and therefore deemed acceptable for me and those like me.
I could say this, I could explain it away, but to do so would support the common and characteristically condescending assumption that us church planter types get to play at church, do “Ash Wednesday light,” with ashes in one hand and a macchiato in the other, while the rest of the clerical lot in the real world get church right, bearing the burden for us all of liturgical preservation, corporate worship, and communal teaching on a day such as Ash Wednesday.
To say it was a merely practical or circumstantial church-planting decision would also be to undermine the courageous willingness by clergy at churches of all types and sizes to, like the Apostle Paul, try something possibly theologically questionable for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.
I could say it was simply a decision of convenience, but it wasn’t. It isn’t.
Taking ashes to the streets, the metro, the coffee shop – the work of carefully adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the public square – is a prayerful, purposeful, and pivotal decision within the Church in post-Christendom.
When I say prayerful, I don’t mean the kind of prayer that critics of Ashes-to-Go obsess is missing from its representations. I’m not talking about the kind of prayer that is artfully crafted and nestled appropriately within a liturgy, of which a worshipping community consciously and responsively takes part before the imposition of ashes.
No, when I say prayerful, I’m talking about the kind of prayer that is paying attention. The kind of eyes-wide-open prayer where we vulnerably lend ourselves to seeing what God sees, hearing what God hears, where we open ourselves up to conversations, questions, stares, and even concerns of unaffiliated people, who by the grace of God and our presence, now have a fresh curiosity about what the Church uniquely has to offer the world in Jesus.
For the mom in the coffee shop, inclining her body to receive the ashes while tearfully whispering her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Lord in your mercy.
For the jaded and self-professed “ex-catholic” man who, after reluctantly receiving ashes, insists on knowing what kind of church accepts “lady priests”. Lord in your mercy.
For the 19 year old barista watching skeptically from a distance until on his break he pulls up a chair to ask all the questions swirling in his head about God. Lord in your mercy.
For the Hindu man at the neighboring table quietly googling Ash Wednesday and then asking permission to receive ashes because of its “coherence with the virtues of Hindu faith.” Lord in your mercy.
For the woman exceedingly grateful for a complimentary coffee who later returns with her entire book club for communal prayer and ashes. Lord in your mercy.
The decision to take ashes to the street corner or the coffee shop is wholly prayerful and wholly Lenten, as my friend, United Methodist church planter Brian Johnson, believes. “If Lent is calling people to repentance, including people who aren’t otherwise listening for God, beckoning people to turn and encounter Jesus,” Brian says, “then Ashes-to-Go is our best shot of doing this all year.”
Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, but it’s also purposeful.
When I say purposeful, I don’t mean to chalk it up as another strategy for church growth, another attempt at making the church relevant in the Innovation Age. When I say purposeful, I mean that adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the world is a decisive culture-setting, identity-driving work within a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church, where we have spread ourselves so theologically thin, attempting to be the church for all people, that we no longer know who we are.
Who we are is embodied in our worship, vivified in our prayers, hymns, creeds, and history. As who we are becomes more and more obscure to us, it feels safe and righteous, within the panic of losing who we are, to hoard, preserve, and protect our liturgies and sacred habits from the world’s dilution. In so doing, though, we create further barriers between the church and a growing populous who will stay away from the church, not because the church is antiquated or irrelevant, hypocritical or judgmental, but because they have no opinion of the Church at all as we have not adapted our shared language and practice to adequately introduce the world to who we are and why church is worth contemplating anyways.
My friend Matt Benton, pastor of Spirit & Life Church, sees this lack of identity, this lack of discernable culture, even within our United Methodist church plants. “In many ways, our church planting culture has been borrowed from the non-denominational world,” Matt says, “but it hasn’t served us well.”
Ashes-to-Go becomes a means to ecclesial distinction. It is culture-setting, identity-driving. It pulls back the veil and approachably shares with the community who we are. “It says, ‘We do Lent. We do Advent. We do ashes. We do palms. We embody a faith with more than a 50 year (or even 200 year) history,’” says Matt.
Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, purposeful, and, dare I say, pivotal for the Church in post-Christendom. When I say pivotal, I mean the word in its etymological richness. The United Methodist Church’s willingness to carefully adapt and translate our private, sacred liturgies for the public square, our ability to communicate who we are and why it matters to our communities, is the hinge pin, the pivot point, I believe, on which the Church currently spins.
As Brian and Matt reminded me:
Adapting, translating, and trying something theologically questionable
for the sake of the mission
is what Methodists do.
Our ordination does not afford us the luxury of being pretentious about our liturgy. For John Wesley the mission was always greater than the details of what was deemed liturgically and theologically proper.
Taking ashes to the streets and coffee shop is to dust off our fear of evangelism and proclaim who we are and why it matters amidst the backdrop of the Church’s growing invisibility. For my friend Kate Floyd, the offering of ashes and prayers from an Arlington metro station is to proclaim that “none of us have it together, that it’s okay to be broken, and that God in Jesus Christ meets us where we are in our life and in our mess with radical grace” – a message Kate believes people do not hear enough from the church.
There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, space created to turn Christians away from our navel-gazing, to reorient us to our shared mortality, brokenness, and need for God’s healing, to remind us that forgiveness begins with repentance and that we cannot save ourselves. There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, but the necessary pivot lies in us realizing that as beautiful as Ash Wednesday is, it is an intensely internal and unintelligible thing to a world where the church is rapidly becoming inconsequential.