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I’ve always liked the words from dust you have come to dust you shall return. To me it conjures genesis images of God breathing life into the earth and bringing forth Adam. The Hebrew root “adamah” means ground or earth. I am past thinking God first created a man and I certainly do not read genesis as a scientific account of creation. Still, with all of these flaws, I find the genesis image of God breathing life into the very earth and bringing forth humankind weighty. It reminds me that my very mortality is connected to God’s very own being.
But I must be the only one who loves these ancient words. At least @Grace, the emerging Christian community I serve, they aren’t so keen on the image. In fact this motley crew of disciples isn’t so keen on confession either. It does not matter how many times in our theological conversation our resident PhD theologian (this does not matter to them, rightfully so) has pointed out that the flip side of repentance is grace, they don’t like it. And it does not matter how many times on Ash Wednesday I have preached that confession is not about guilt or making lists of each imperfection or misstep. It does not matter that I have gently invited others to acknowledge their own brokenness. In eleven years of ministry Ash Wednesday continues to be the lowest attended gathering of the faithful I serve. They just don’t like it.
This year I quit. (Gasp!) This year as we gathered for our annual Fat Tuesday bacon eating frolicking, I decided I was not going to make them listen to a long winded defense of confession. I was not going to speak about broadening our view of the “s” word sin. And I was not going to be denied the opportunity to mark deeply faithful people with ashes. Instead we did something very different @Grace last night.
This year, before Fat Tuesday arrived, I thought more openly about why it was these beautiful disciples did not want to begin Lent with confession, the mark of ashes, and the words: dust to dust. I wondered if what these faithful folks are doing (being a part of a progressive Christian community) doesn’t take all of their energy in a mostly secular culture. I wondered if they would much rather learn how to act, how to live, how to follow Jesus in the 21st century, rather than what not to do. I wondered if this wasn’t at the core of their visceral reaction to confession and ashes.
After we ate our full last night (plates of bacon, gumbo, chocolate trifle), we gathered and heard Eugene Peterson’s translation of Galatians 6: enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience. I called those before me to 40 days of kindness and then marked each person with ashes in the sign of a heart, speaking the words: let your heart break open with love.
A few remarkable things happened. For one, our collectively blasphemy did not bring the wrath of God down upon us in the form of locust or lightening. Second, and most poignant, people came forward who have never wanted ashes before. I was not denied by one person. Everyone wanted to be marked with an ashy heart. We left that night not with our heads down, not in silence, not with the symbol of roman torture smeared on our foreheads, but with kindness brewing between us, smiles on our faces, and the mark of God’s heart.
I have no theological answers, just the experience of the disciples @Grace Community Boston. They voted for hearts and grace over crosses and repentance.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.