Thursday, March 3, 2022

Ashes & Gratitude


Ash Wednesday

Perhaps of all the services we hold over the course of a liturgical year, what we do today is the most counter-cultural.  In a “look at me” society placing a premium on self-aggrandizement, the Ash Wednesday service lifts up modesty, discretion, and privacy.  In a society teaching us we are perfect and anything that goes wrong in our lives is someone else’s fault, this liturgy directs us to own up to our failures, shortcomings, and misdeeds.  In a society which says you can (and should) have it all, this service calls us to fasting and acts of self-giving and selflessness.  In a society where people scurry to outlets and sources which defend and reinforce what you already hold to be true, this service says one aspect of a holy observance is the intentional reading of Scripture and meditating on its meaning.  In a society obsessed with youth, beauty, and vitality, the Ash Wednesday liturgy speaks of mortality… remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

Is it any wonder prosperity-gospel mega-churches and the power of positive thinking houses of worship and pop-culture imitating big-box churches don’t impose ashes and won’t engage their consumers in a Litany of Penitence today?  They won’t call on their members to examine all the ways their faith and practice have been absorbed into the climate of our times.  And they definitely won’t speak of mortality beyond if you died tonight do you know where your soul would go.  Yes, what we are doing is counter-cultural. 

And it is ancient.  The association of ashes with penance and mortality predates Jesus and is found in the Old Testament.  The Imposition of Ashes emerged in the Christian Church somewhere in the 6th Century.  The practice in our country was associated mostly with Roman Catholicism until the 1970’s.  Around that time, as people in other denominations began to discover the value of multi-sensory spiritual experiences, the Ash Wednesday service grew in popularity.

More recently, something called “Ashes-to-Go” has taken off.  It was initiated by a Chicago-area Episcopal priest on Ash Wednesday 2010.  He took ashes to a station where commuters waited for a train into the city.  The idea was to provide access to the ashes to folks whose schedule might not allow them to attend a service in a church.  He found people were hungry for a moment of prayer and reflection in the midst of their busy life. 

He shared the story of his experience and the practice is catching on across the country.  Clergy vest and stand outside coffee shops, busy civic centers, and basically anywhere you might expect a large number of people to congregation as they transition from home to work.  Some worry the practice disassociates the Imposition of Ashes from the broader and deeper call to observe a Holy Lent.  Still, Ashes-to-Go has enabled some folks to reconnect with their spiritual roots and in so doing has led them back into the life of a congregation.

As you know, our Lenten focus this year is on gratitude.  It would seem like what we do this day is about as far removed from gratitude as possible.  Focusing of personal failures and broaching the subject of death does not seem like the kind of thing to be doing if our Lenten aim is to inspire a deeper appreciation for all that is good in this life and a keener awareness of all who contribute to making the richness of our lives possible.

In the book The Gratitude Project, from which I am drawing heavily for our Lenten program, Nathan Greene writes an article about how his mother’s death at age fifty-three after a six-year battle with cancer, helped him (in time) to approach life with a deeper sense of gratitude.  Watching her fight every day for another day to be with her family led him to value life even more than he had before.  Years later, while working on a doctorate in childhood loss, trauma, and resilience, he came across a research article describing how a study determined our sense of gratitude actually increases when we reflect in a personal way on our experiences of loss.  The authors attributed this to something called “the Scarcity Heuristic”, which holds we value things more when we know them to be rare or scarce.  Greene might argue an Ash Wednesday service will make you more grateful for life because it reminds you each day is a gift, not a given.

Greene and another colleague interviewed 350 people who had lost a parent in childhood.  They wanted to understand the impact of gratitude on depression, a sense of well-being, and post-trauma growth.  Not surprisingly, those who rated themselves higher in gratitude also reported lower levels of depression and a greater sense of contentment and progress in life. 

Robert Emmons wrote another article about how gratitude can help us through hard times.  He argues it is essential to look back on painful memories in order to discern what we have learned from them and how we have grown as a result.  Reflecting on where you were and how far you have come will help you to be grateful; moving you past feeling like a victim or a failure or whatever. 

About a year after my marriage ended a parishioner called me in tears to tell me her husband had left her for another woman.  Listening to her I knew exactly how she felt and what she was going through.  I was surprised to realize I was no longer in that place.  Believe me, I was not close to being healed or whole, but for the first time I recognized the process to get there was underway.  More recently, I had the same experience as I listened to a colleague describe how his eighteen-year-old daughter is distancing herself from him and he fears she is on a course to cut off all contact with him.  And I know all too well exactly how it feels.  It is death by a thousand cuts.  As I listened I realized I am no longer there.  I didn’t get the outcome I hoped, but at least the cutting has stopped.  I have no fresh wounds and I am able to put energy into those things which add to my life.  I am grateful for this insight.

Emmons suggests we can benefit from an intentional period of looking back on unpleasant memories and asking questions like these:

·    What lessons did the experience teach me?

·    Can I find ways now to be thankful for the experience, even if I wasn’t thankful at the time?

·    What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?

·    How am I now more the person I want to be because of it?

·    How have my negative feelings about what happened affected my ability to grateful in the time since it occurred?

He goes on to write this: “Remember, your goal is… not to relive the experience but rather to get a new perspective on it.” 

I suspect this can be a helpful way to approach Ash Wednesday.  Pondering our mortality, our selfishness, and (yes) our sinfulness should not weigh us down.  It should spur us onward.  Our liturgy reminds us we are not helpless and hopeless because it directs us to new perspectives and practices designed to reshape us as the people God created us to be and to restore us to full fellowship with the community of the faithful.  As you engage in this counter-cultural moment, may you find in it the promise of life as God intends it and the path on which to walk in order to find it.

Monday, February 28, 2022

A Time for Silence


Luke 9:28-36

Epiphany Last / Year C

Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor, writes about a time she officiated at the funeral of military veteran.  After she completed the graveside committal, the Honor Guard took over.  Surely you have seen what they do.  Taps.  The salute of guns.  And the solemn, dignified folding of the flag and its moving presentation to a family member.  I think back to last November as we stood in the Church Yard at the Columbarium and the Honor Guard preformed this service for Tom Pruden.  All eyes were on them.  No one spoke a word while the soldiers methodically went about their well-rehearsed task.  So meticulous and serious were they about this duty, before the service began they asked me to show them the flag.  Already folded, the work of whoever prepared it did not meet their high standards.  Alone, in the yard, the two soldiers responsible for preparation went through the process of unfolding and refolding the flag as is the President himself was present.  Every time I have witnessed the Honor Guard’s ritual, it has been a transcendent moment, but this one even more than the others.

Many times over the course of her ministry Pastor Hunt also has experienced this scared devotion to our country and to those who have served her.  “It always gives me pause,” she writes, “to bear witness to the formality of this ritual and to consider the symbolism playing out before my eyes.”  There was one exception for her, however… the time the funeral home director came to her side and offered “a rote and practiced explanation of what we were experiencing.”  “I wanted to kick him,” she writes.  “There are times for words and times for silence and this seemed to me to be a time for silence.”

Plato taught “The wise speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”  Abraham Lincoln famously observed it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

A time for silence.  Have you ever been watching a championship game on TV and noticed how when time expires or the last out is made the announcers go silent?  The elation of the winning team (and their fans) and the despair of the losing team is simply a moment too big for words.  The broadcasters allow the images to tell the story – typically for a good 30 seconds or more.  Talking over a moment like this only diminishes it.  It attempts to contain in the temporal something which belongs to the ages.

In today’s gospel reading Peter finds himself in a moment when silence is the preferred response.  The description of the Transfiguration defies explanation.  Jesus’ entire countenance changes as, for a brief moment in time and space, his humanity is eclipsed by his divinity.  He radiates light unlike anything Peter, James, and John have ever seen.  And there is more.  Moses (the giver or the Law) and Elijah (the founder of the prophetic movement) – the two most important figures in the Old Testament – are present and talking with Jesus. 

This truly is a moment when the old adage holds true – silence is golden.  This is a moment to be experienced, not narrated.  Peter gets rebuked, I think, not so much for what he says (and what he says completely misses the mark), but because he says anything at all.  I sat for a while and pondered what Peter could have said that would have been appropriate for the moment, but I couldn’t think of anything.  All I came up with is if this took place in our day and time, Peter probably would have said, “Let’s take a selfie!” 

The English Poet Thomas Carlyle wrote…

“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together… Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.”

Mother Teresa held God is the friend of silence and cannot be found in restlessness and noise.  She noted how in nature trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence; how the stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.  It was her experience silence is absolutely necessary for the soul to be touched in a consistent way by God.

Before I was ordained a deacon and then before I was ordained a priest, I made silent retreats with the Cowley Fathers in Boston.  Other than the liturgy of the daily offices and a few brief mediations offered by one of the brothers, not a word was spoken for five days.  The opening meditation laid out what we might expect to happen.  At first, we were told, you will realize how tired you are.  For the first day and half I napped in the morning, napped in the afternoon, and went to bed in the evening much earlier than normal.  It is testimony to how we run ourselves ragged much of the time.

Next, we were told, the silence would allow us to hear our own inner voice.  For the remainder of the retreat I experienced a rich internal dialogue.  I learned I have a voice I cannot hear when my world is filled with noise and sound – music, TV, talk radio.  I learned you have to take time to stop listening to everything else if you want to be able to hear how you yourself actually engage the world and feel about it. 

The final part of the retreat never came to me.  This is when you learn to silence your inner voice in order to listen for God to speak.  I have had a few times since then when I was silent enough and open enough to hear a Voice from beyond.  There are many people who practice what is called “centering prayer” who hear God speak on a regular basis and, if you are interested in something like this, I can help you get in touch with folks who teach how to do it.

We are entering the season of Lent with Holy Week to follow.  Our Holy Week services, like the ritual of the Honor Guard, offer experiences of profound silence.  The Tenebrae service on Wednesday of Holy Week is a deeply moving liturgy with psalm readings and the extinguishing of candles.  When it is all over and a single candle lights this space and the power of the silence is palpable.  The same holds true with the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday.  It is akin to the Good Friday liturgy when the simple act of standing by the Cross in silence – as Jesus’ mother, John, and the other women did – changes us.  The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday evening also ends in silence.   No words are necessary.  No words would be adequate. 

Only on the third day will we be ready to speak of what we have experienced and our words will be these:

Alleluia!  Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Maybe a part of your Lenten discipline can be a commitment to inviting more silence into your life, saying less and listening more, and becoming comfortable in the moment without have to comment on it.