On Ash Wednesday 1977, my friend Bill Ratliff and I arrived at Saint Luke’s United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to conduct our first ever Ash Wednesday celebration which marks the beginning of Lent. We were excited about our spiritual adventure and thought we were prepared for the beauty of that ancient rite.
Then, the crisis: “Where are the ashes?” we inquired with Edenic innocence.
“What ashes?” a deacon replied, instantly driving us from Paradise. “The minister furnishes the ashes.”
Panic seized us. Like Reverends Dumb and Dumber we searched madly but to no avail. Where could we get ashes?
Then, the obvious: Why not improvise? Build a fire, put it out and, presto, improvised ashes. A deacon rushed in with a newspaper. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Inquirer, I know not, but we burned it in the kitchen sink, doused it and created, not ashes, but soot – disgusting soot.
No time to quibble. Again, we improvised, cereal bowls containing our precious treasure, and off we went to worship.
At the appointed time, our newfound Christian friends came forward to hear the ancient words of repentance and mortality: “Remember my brother/sister that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With those words came the emblem of faith, a soggy, sooty thumbprint on their foreheads.
What a farce, that evening. Isn’t it just like a couple of Baptist preachers to turn Ash Wednesday into Saturday Night Live? We took soot and cereal bowls and claimed the presence of the living God. If that’s not improvising grace, nothing is.
“As the year 2020 unfolds, we Christians find ourselves improvising grace amid radical changes, turmoil and fissures in church, politics and culture.”
Yet something happened that terrible Ash Wednesday evening to my friend Bill, to me and to a congregation of saints in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Something good, unexpected and akin to grace. In spite of our bungling, the Spirit overtook us; a moment of grace that lingers 43 years later.
Whatever else, Lent is the church’s reminder that we are ever improvising, seizing the half-baked idea or the unexpected moment of irony, tragedy or failure as an occasion for grace.
Isn’t that what Jesus is doing in chapter 10 of Matthew when he commissions the Twelve and through them the rest of us? Sending them on a deadly serious errand with an almost frivolous mission. He calls them to announce God’s New Day without a contingency plan – without a gospel first-aid kit. They are to jettison all the “things” that might give them security, to live at the mercy of others, to make themselves vulnerable to the vicissitudes of political and ecclesiastical policy makers.
“You’re on your own,” Jesus says. “Go out and grow up. Heal, raise, cleanse, cast out, but don’t so much as pack a bag. Don’t anticipate every possibility. Tell them, ‘God’s New Day has come near,’ and WHEN you are arrested, fear not; the Spirit will speak through you.” There will be grace – grace to improvise when necessary.
As the year 2020 unfolds, we Christians find ourselves improvising grace amid radical changes, turmoil and fissures in church, politics and culture. The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, describes our Lenten journey this way:
“In times of great national concern and urgency, people of faith have returned to ancient practices of repentance, prayer and fasting as ways of interceding with God on behalf of their nation and the world. This is such a moment for us in the United States. On Ash Wednesday I will join with other Christian leaders observing this Lent as a season of prayer, fasting and repentance on behalf of our nation….
“Our appeal comes during a time of profound division and genuine crisis of national character. This is not a matter of party or partisanship, but of deep concern for the soul of America.”
Bishop Curry’s words capture our national, spiritual dilemma: “profound division and genuine crisis of national character;” a concern for America’s soul. We are a country desperate for grace, but increasingly hesitant to receive it from one another, let alone from God.
Given those Lenten realities, might we confess:
We need the grace of repentance as church and nation, past and present.
It’s a long list. The week before Ash Wednesday 2020, Wake Forest University issued a public apology for its slavery-related origins. At its fall convocation, university President Nathan Hatch declared: “I apologize for the exploitation and use of enslaved people – both those known and unknown – who helped create and build this university through no choice of their own.”
In his convocation address, Jonathan Walton, dean of the School of Divinity, offered a call to repentance, asserting: “We must also acknowledge that our history at Wake Forest is both beautiful and terrible. Noble and tragic. Honorable and despicable. We owe our very existence, in part, to the exploited lives and enslaved labor of people of African descent. Men and women like Isaac, Pompie, Caroline, and Lucy sold from the John Blount estate in 1860, precious people whose humanity was sacrificed to prepare young, white Baptist men for the ministry. Baptist young men whose conception of Christ supported America’s serpentine system of slavery. Men whose theology was a religion of white supremacy. Campus officials who sold off human beings like metal tools or farm animals.”
“Hence, this moment in the life of our university calls for neither denial nor defensiveness. The question of whether you are ‘guilty’ of past indiscretions is a luxury we can no longer afford….
“You and I must muster the moral courage and intellectual candor to craft a more inclusive and thus more productive future. In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’”
Next, Wake Forest and other schools owning slave-based origins must put actions (and money) where their repentance is. Repentance is costly for us all.
We need the grace to repudiate vitriol and claim civility in our national and ecclesiastical discourse.
Vitriolic conversations have long characterized American life, but 2020 “trash talk” seems the national norm, spewed across social media and government press conferences, infecting denominations and local congregations. Such diatribes often incorporate the language of violence or threat, provoking more than verbal consequences. With each new day, Americans increasingly find themselves unable to talk with or listen to each other without rancor or cruelty.
“We are a country desperate for grace, but increasingly hesitant to receive it from one another, let alone from God.”
William Sloan Coffin insisted that civility is less about “good manners,” than “a profound ethic, practically synonymous with morality,” and “without a healthy dose of it our profoundly ailing democracy has small chance of recovering.” He wrote those words in the “good old days” of 1999. Twenty years later, that “small chance” for civility seems even more minuscule.
In 2020, one of the church’s great challenges involves modeling the difference between vitriol and dissent, because:
We need the grace to embrace dissent.
From its colonial origins, the United States has often been the land of the free and the home of the dissenter. In 2020, the voice of dissent may be freedom’s last hope. Clearly the rule of law and the Golden Rule are under threat among us. Silence now anticipates a time when silence may be mandated by principalities and powers.
In Dissent in American Religion (1973), Edwin Gaustad asserted that “the dissenter is a powerful if unpredictable engine in the service of a cause,” “a threat to civilization” or “the restorer or the inspirer of civilization.” Dissent, he wrote, “is a high-risk undertaking.” Yet without it, the new wine of God’s New Day “will sour as community yields to anarchy, as mystery equals muddleheadeness, as joy turns to joyless pursuit.”
Sounds like 2020, doesn’t it?
Repentance, civility, dissent; these are essential venues for improvising God’s grace here and now. But we’d better hurry.