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Yikes, do I have to use that word? Even if it is Lent? (see my former blog about Ash Weds).
Let me start from the beginning: My faith community began Lent this year by worshiping at common cathedral. Stop here: check out www.ecclesia-ministries.org. Common Cathedral is a church made up entirely of the homeless. It is a robust community, seeped in the gospel. During that first Lenten service Father Brian spoke about repentance. Initially, I wanted to flee the moment he uttered the word. My knee jerk reaction questioned his choice; shouldn’t he be speaking love to this group of marginalized people? Thankfully, I continued to listen to his faithful and loving words.
Father Brian reminded everyone gathered about the Lenten practice of repentance, why it was foundational in our faith journeys as we sought ever to grow closer to God. All things I had heard before. But then, he talked about Jessie Jackson Jr. He mentioned things most who had watched TV or read the papers knew: a Rolex watch, Michael Jackson’s fedora, corruption. Jackson apparently said to the presiding judge that he hoped people would remember him for the good he had done, instead of his “misuse” of campaign funds. And then the judge spoke powerful words to the corrupt politician: if he wanted to make things right, then Jackson needed to return the money.*
Wham! Repentance: Give back the money. Make things right. Sorry isn’t enough. Change.
I looked around me at the many faces that surrounded me that morning. I knew everyone in that crowd, from homeless to pastor to those in my own community, needed to repent of something. But I wasn’t thinking about the sort of repentance too often associated with an inability to live an “ideal” Christian life (whatever that is). But a difficult, authentic repentance in which we recognize the brokenness to which we cling. The judge at Jackson’s trial was calling the politician beyond a cheap repentance of regret to the difficult repentance of change.
Against my knee jerk reactions, I have tried to practice some repentance this Lent. (Don’t look to me for any serious advice on this matter, I am still a novice). I have tried (being the operative word) to at least acknowledge my own brokenness. I have tried to move beyond sorry to acting differently first. I have tried to do the real work of spiritual change. I’m still clinging to my brokenness, but in some small way this Lent, I recognize more clearly how that brokenness gets in the way of my relationship with God and with others.
Repentance? I can get on board if we in the Christian tradition start talking about real change.
*I have looked tirelessly for the newspaper article that confirms this is what the judge said, but I cannot. This is only what I remember from Father Brian’s sermon. As many know, we hear what we need to hear in a sermon, not necessarily what is spoken. Father Brian allowed me to hear that morning that repentance is about change, not guilt or some old fashioned doctrine. Thank you Brian.
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.