Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ritual outside the walls

For the third year Trinity has offered "Drive-thru" ashes on Ash Wednesday. From 11-11:45am (prior to our noon service) and from 5-6pm (during pick-up time at our pre-school) we have offered the opportunity for those desiring to come and receive prayer and imposition of ashes from the convenience of their car. Two years ago we received some media attention for these efforts. Front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But now it has become more common and even in bitterly cold places pastors and priests are making this option available. We are not so hardy here in Fort Worth (if it were under 40 we would be huddled inside) but this year we were afforded beautiful weather for our annual Ash Wednesday Drive-Thru Ashes.

I see this as a simple attempt to raise awareness of a day in the life of the church that has historically had spotty observance outside of Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles (I will never forget being asked the question in Bible study during my first call in Wisconsin when the "Synod" made us start using Ashes on Ash Wednesday. It seemed still, SO Catholic.)

This might seem benign, However, I have heard other voices that critique this movement. Saying it is cheapening the ritual. It has become hipster. Or worse, and in probable violation of the 8th commandment, that those who do this just do it as a publicity stunt. That we are catering to a culture that is vacuous and craves easy spirituality. 

These are relatively good points. Worth consideration. By making things easier on people we do in fact lower the bar. They don't even have to go into a church to experience and ritual and tradition. Their experience of God doesn't require coming into an often strange building and a willingness to sit through a service we lead. Perhaps it is indeed too easy. Yet if pastors and others are doing this for a media notice, for a front page article in the local paper. Well, they are years too late. That has been done and believe me, after the first year, the media isn't coming back.

Yet I will continue doing drive-thru ashes next year because of...
-the teachers and staff from the local elementary school who have come each year during their break because their church only offers ashes at lengthy worship services they can't attend due to work and family obligations.

-the grandmother who is caring for her granddaughter who in her 60+ years of life had never received ashes because she was taught by Lutherans that it was "too catholic." Yet she came because we taught the pre-school children about the Ash Wednesday ritual and included them in the burning of the palms. After this her grand-daughter asked her why if she had received ashes why hadn't her grandma.

-the mother of two who came by with a sick infant and toddler. Who wanted to be a part of this day in the life of the church but works during lunches serving meals. Feeding them dinner and waiting for a 7pm church wasn't going to happen this year. She needed to get her babies home so they could rest. But because we offered this option she could receive ashes, pray with her pastor, and even posted a selfie to prove it.

-the graduate of our pre-school whose home church doesn't do this. But her mom remembered we did this and stopped by. The smile on that little girl's face at seeing "Pastor G" again and "getting her ashes" made standing outside for any length of time worthwhile.

-the Jehovah's Witness who walked by and told me he doesn't do this ritual. But he applauded us for being out and present in the community. To remind people of God and their need for God in their life.

-the dad who a day later asked me to help him explain to his daughter what we should call a woman priest. Roman Catholic, they attend our school and the daughter calls me Father G. But what should she call the woman in the collar, one of our seminary students, who was with me on the curb? Is she Father? Or Mother? Who is she? And a conversation about gender, faith, and tradition ensues.

Perhaps we are just catering to a self-indulgent generation who expect everything curbside. Or perhaps we are being on the edge of the "missional" movement and pushing boundaries. Or perhaps it is simpler than all that.

I don't have the fancy words for that conversation. I am a praxis guy, a leadership guy. Yet I do, and will continue to do, drive-thru ashes because I believe it is deeply pastoral. I am not walking around asking for attention. Going uninvited into other people's space. I am simply being vulnerable enough to stand on a curb across from the drive-thru at McDonald's. To offer ashes and prayer while folks get the happy meals my daughters would later eat as they waited for 7pm worship.

Drive-thru ashes is to be present on the street. To pray with and be present. Being allowed, invited, to make the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of any person is a deeply profound and symbolic moment. To do it on the street corner does not cheapen the ritual but I would argue deepens the ritual. It is easy to stand in the chancel and await the faithful. It is safe.

To wave at a passerby, to be ignored by another, to be gawked at, to be mocked...yet in the same moment asked to pray with and mark a stranger with ash, that is mission. Christ is present on the street. I pray this isn't a hipster movement. In fact I believe, because I am a Gen Xer, cynical to my core and not a hipster, that this is more than that. That this is what Christ calls us to do. Get out, get on the street. Pray and preach and proclaim. In ashes if you must.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Leave Taking

On December 23, 1783 General George Washington appeared before Congress. There were many who thought, some hopefully, that he would claim dictatorship or kingship over the nation. Instead he simply handed a letter to the president of the Congress and resigned his commission. He laid down his sword and picked up the plow.

As a result of this gracious leave taking Washington came to be known as the American Cincinnatus. This image drew on the memory (mythological?) of the great Roman general of the 5th century B.C. Pressed into service to save Rome Cincinnatus came off his farm to lead the legions to victory then quietly returned to civilian life. Washington's exit was not what was expected. It led even his former enemy King George III to remark that Washington was “the greatest character of his age.”

Jon Stewart is certainly no George Washington. But he has been an important figure in our national conversation during the 17 years of his time at The Daily Show. His work created an entire genre of satirical/serious news coverage that has multiplied into many different shows. As the court jester he could poke and prod. Asking questions and holding up the light of truth in ways that other mainstream news agencies couldn't, or wouldn't, for fear of losing their privilege.

Stewart no doubt could have stayed on for a long time and no one would question him. But last night he figuratively laid down his sword. He is taking leave of his job at The Daily Show to do other things. While he enjoyed the people and the position he recognized it was time to move on. "It is time" he said "for someone else to have this opportunity."

Interestingly the response I have seen from Facebook and Twitter to this decision has been largely one of grief and fear. "Who will take his place?" "Where will I get my 'news'?" "Without Jon Stewart how will I keep sane?" This is understandable and betrays a regular reaction of followers to a leader's decision to step away. The fear of the loss of what the follower knows. The fear if the unknown. This leads us to uphold the status quo and so often to keep the same people in place time and again.

Leaders, generals or satirists, have a right and in fact a duty to step aside. If for no other reason than for them to have their own lives. Stewart jokingly noted that this decision would enable him to have "dinner, on a school night, with his family...Who, sources tell him, are lovely people." In that way he did resonate with Washington's pledge to Martha that, for the first time in a decade, he would be home in time to "pour the Christmas cordial in her glass."

Stewart deserves our praise for deciding that after 17 years it was time to take leave. He joked that this was, by 16 years, the longest he has ever held a single job and his audience didn't deserve a "restless host." As a fellow member of Gen X (Stewart was born in 1962), I can understand that sentiment. We have been raised in a world of uncertainty and continual change. This is our reality but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. And as we look to the future it is also imperative that those who have held positions be willing to allow others to come along and have their opportunity to lead.

No one can replace Stewart. However, that is not the goal of leadership. Leadership should be about multiplication not replication. Good leaders do not create clones of themselves but encourage others to follow their lead and use their talents to take them in new directions. Good leaders give others the opportunity to step forward. This is why we have term limits on Presidents. It forces the country to look for new leadership and gives new opportunity to those who follow. Washington knew this instinctively. I hope other leaders will also begin to see this need as well.