“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” were the words uttered as ashes were smudged in the sign of the cross upon my forehead (recalling God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19).  The imposition of ashes has been a longstanding Christian tradition, marking the beginning of a season of contemplation and sobriety: Lent.  The ashes are formed in the shape of a cross: a reminder of Christ’s solidarity with the conflicted, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. As these words make clear, we are marked by our own poverty in death, sin, and disease.

This tradition of the ancient Christian church dates back into the 10th century.  Ashes, a symbol of penitence and purification (see Numbers 19:9, 17; Hebrews 9:13; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13), serve as a sign of sorrow and regret.  (Penitence was a means of re-entry into the life of the Church when grave sins had been committed.) And the ashes serve to remind us that we are mortal: that we are not self-created, and that we will ultimately meet our maker.  They are a sign of accountability; a mark of culpability.  In this sense, the ashes really do serve as an imposition (the laying on of a burden or obligation).

But the words themselves do more than just remind me of my own guilt and subsequent mortality: they are not, after all, really my ashes.  Instead, they impose in the sense that they mark me with a certain form of authority—authorized, if you will, by the bodies of those who have come before and constitute the very materiality of our being and context of our faith.  As the apostle so aptly described it “I bear on my body the marks of Christ” (Galatians 6:17).  And in a very real sense, the marks of Christ are eschatologically borne by the entirety of the Christian body—the saints of the past, present, and future.  The ashes become the occasion of praise and thanksgiving.

But they impose in another way: when we commit infidelity against the Christian body in its fullness–those whose bodies constitute the dust from when we are created (the past), who force us to get our hands dirty (in the present), and those whose dust we become (the future)–we are exposed for the impostors we are.    

I am reminded of Gregory of Nyssa’s atonement theory in this sense.  By Gregory’s account, the illegitimate gasping for power by claiming authority over an Innocent (that is, Jesus of Nazareth) exposed the Devil’s true nature–in this account, sin is exposed for what it is and collapses in upon itself.  Such is the nature of Christians who bear the marks of the saints, but fail to live up to their calling (the calling and guidance from our past, and the trajectories of our faith and actions into the future)–they are exposed as illegitimate, and their systems and facades implode with the weight of their own falsehood.

The saints are a real imposition. They refuse to allow us to drift into a private spiritual solipsism; we are forced to acknowledge from whence we come, and the trajectory of where we are headed;  and in that sense, we are forced with the staggering gravity of the present.  

 


Three years ago my mother was ordained as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene.  The service took place in an off-the-beaten-path Tabernacle (an old converted airplane hanger) on the district campgrounds in Southern Illinois.  This was a much anticipated ordination service for our family–not simply for the novelty of a woman being ordained, but because of the arduous process my mom went through in order to make this happen.  In the midst of newly diagnosed breast cancer, radical surgery, and chemotherapy, she pursued her qualifying ordination exams, only to face numerous delays: the wrong test was sent, the tester didn’t show, etc.  One might speculate on why a known and tried denominational process could be so horribly broken: at best it appeared to be incompetence; at worst, intentional delay.

But she never relented from pursuit of her calling, and for those of us who stood helplessly by while she struggled with the process, the evening was a night for celebration.  Friends and family gathered from across the nation, across denominational lines, and across cultural and sexual orientations to celebrate and affirm her on this sacred occasion.  

Paul Cunningham, General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene, preached the sermon and administered the laying on of hands (a symbol of apostolic succession of the rites of ordination) during the service.   He assessed the crowd and delivered an amazing sucker punch: a sermon against homosexuality, couched in the fear that were the denominational stance breached on said topic, the future and identity of this holiness denomination would be compromised.  In a heavy-handed fashion, he laid hands upon the mother of some of those threatening infidels, and physically placed upon her the burden of denominational politics–at the expense of her own children.  He associated her calling with a form of exclusion which hit many of her present supports below the proverbial belt.

I watched as her shoulders began to shake and the tears began to flow freely.  For those outside the family circle, it was an apparent movement of the Spirit.  For those within the familial lines, we saw abusive and wretched pain being transmitted.  She stood, newly ordained, and faced an expectant crowd: muted by the abuse of power.

I spent the evening and the next days reminding her that we are not Donatists: the sacraments do not require a perfect priest.  And that her ordination did not come from any single General Superintendent, nor from any particular denomination; instead, her ordination was to, from, and in the church of Jesus Christ.  It is he who called her and brought her out.  No one else.  And her tears would calm.  

Now, three years later, I still find myself occasionally having to remind her of that.  And the times she’s set foot in one of that denomination’s churches since her ordination, can be counted on one hand.  She has found better means and ways of ministering beyond denominational boundaries with those most forgotten and insipidly ignored by the church: the mentally and physically challenged.

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Yesterday, I witnessed and participated in an ordination of another breed: American Baptist.  Within the free-church tradition, it is the local congregation which recognizes the gifts and graces of the candidate and presents them for ordination.  In this case, the ordinand was Ann-Louise Haak, the associate minister, who over the past five years has served my local congregation with a commendable level of sensitivity and service.  She and her partner and two foster boys have brought their own unique perspectives and experiences in honesty and humility–dreams and sensitivities which cross racial and sexual boundaries and break down bourgeois notions of what it means to be family, and what it means to be community.

It was no mere coincidence that her ordination service was on the Sunday we also celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  The parallels between Ann-Louise’s journey, and the dream of being judged by the content of our hearts instead of the color of our skin, etc. cannot go unnoticed.  Bob Thompson, the senior pastor, so aptly reminded us that our task, as a congregation, and the ways in which Ann-Louise has led us and will continue to lead us, is the welcoming of anyone and everyone through the front doors of the church (no back-door, hidden, covert ecclesial-citizenship).  And the music swelled with the voice of a young Samuel saying, “Here am I, Lord”.  No one in the congregation was exempt from this calling.

The laying on of hands in this service seemed not to weigh her down with responsibilities, but rather to make Ann-Louise light as a feather: the congregation’s children gathered round her, including her own two African-American foster boys and laid hands of grace, support, and hope upon her.  They reached forward and touched her, sensing perhaps that somehow, they were also sensing their future: a future in which all are welcomed and affirmed.  The elders then surrounded the children and laid hands upon them, also participating in a sweeping gesture of hope and affirmation. The congregation then laid hands upon the elders, affirming the saints of the past, the present, and our future.

And again, I am reminded: we are not Donatists.  Perfection is not required for a sacrament to be efficacious.  But this time I feel hope: the promise not of the arrival of a state of perfection, but rather the hope of the faithfulness of the Spirit who promises to perfect (future tense).  This is the hope of holiness.


The calendar year opens with the Christian feast of Epiphany: oft celebrated as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles–a commemoration of the Magi’s recognition (and therefore worship) of the child as Divine. Beyond belting out strains of “We Three Kings” at Christmas, as a child Epiphany served as a form of ‘shock and awe’ for me growing up: it was evidence of the majesty of God–a literal account that indeed, “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess.” What made Epiphany so special was that even pagans were forced to recognize that Jesus was Divine: none could escape the magnitude of his being. It always came across to me as a bit of theological slight-of-hand: surely these wise men weren’t anticipating a baby in lowly conditions.  And no doubt it demonstrated the ego of God: that the wisest of men were made to bow and worship a child.  Epiphany was a lesson in humility.

I think I subconsciously continued this interpretation of events, even through my adult life.  The story of the Magi was about God inverting normal structures of power so it seemed: the mighty and knowledgeable in humility pay homage to the weak.  God demanded and commanded full (all encompassing) fealty.

But was this simple inversion proved to not be a transformation of power, but a simple repetition of the same.  It’s not satisfying: the egomaniacal God who demands (and commands) worship.  This interpretation lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.  It didn’t quite match the rest of the gospel accounts of Jesus.

In recent years, my theology has shifted somewhat from the triumphal demands of a God who lords-over creation towards something simpler and gentler as I read and interpret this story.  What if Epiphany was less about ‘fixing’ God in any certain location, and more about noting the scriptural call to give of our best to the poor?  The story of the Magi isn’t about humility, but rather about charity: a lesson of generosity and compassion.  Those deemed wise by scripture gave of their best (their gold, frankincense, myrrh) to the poor. In this interpretation, God is among the weak, the homeless (or those in temporary housing).  God was found among the poor.

My local congregation takes this interpretation quite seriously: on January 6th, they bring gifts to the homeless shelter as a means of honoring God among and in the poor.


My uncle is in the process of becoming a Cistercian monk.  It is a lengthy journey, full of long periods of silence and contemplation over a period of years.  During this time, the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty are considered. 

In his final days of the process, he met with the Abbott and made confession.  As he tells it, my uncle poured his heart out in confession, admitting to the most private and vulnerable of thoughts and actions-those things he’d shamefully and fearfully held so close to his heart. Through tears and pain he laid bare his soul, holding nothing back.  When he was done, he knew he’d risked everything: his future at the monastery, in the spiritual community he’d grown to love and identify with so strongly.  He was out of alternatives: he no longer had a life outside the monastery; he’d dispossessed himself of all his material belongings.  This was it: the breaking point.

The Abbott observed his brokenness and gently reminded him that Jesus proclaimed “blessed are the poor.”  Instructed the Abbott, “You now know, dear man, what it means to be truly poor.”  And with open arms, he welcomed my uncle into the community.

I mention this story for two reasons: 1) can we with such utter abandon lay bare our faults to the world in confession and vulnerability?, 2) can we (the church) truly embrace the poor (the broken, the sinful, the undesirable)?  

Can we pray to become truly poor?


I had an early (7:30 am) dental appointment yesterday morning. The dentist is about 8 blocks away from my building, and there was a significant snow storm blowing in. The walk there wasn’t bad, but the walk home was different: the snow was wet, the dentist had been late, I was cross, half my face was numb from anesthesia, and a good extra 6 inches of snow had fallen. My eyes were watering, and I reached up to wipe them and realized I’d smeared my mascara (or what was left of it) all over my face. To top it off, on my route I was fast approaching a homeless guy and I just didn’t feel like dealing with the begging.

As I approached he called out “M’am! M’am!” I turned towards him, preparing to blow his requests for food or money off as nicely as possible. “Wha…?” I mumbled through my half -droolly, numb smile.

“M’am! Could I buy you a sandwich or a cup of coffee? You look really cold.”

Damn, I love the city. It will never let you escape poverty: that of others, and that of your own


When I saw the news online Monday, that Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother of now -President-elect Barack Obama, had passed away just 48 hours before he became the first African American to be elected President of the United States, I grieved.  At the age of 86 and having faced all sorts of discrimination against both her daughter and grandchildren, it seemed grossly unfair that she’d not lived to see his moment of personal triumph, and the vindication of a nation’s history of racism.

Since then I’ve learned that she had participated in early voting via mail, and in a very unique way, her vote still counted–she posthumously helped elect her grandson!  

I’m reminded of the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints–that great cloud of witnesses spoken of in Scripture.  I can’t help but think that the ecumenical creeds function in a similar fashion: in some sense they are the early votes of our spiritual ancestors.  These ‘votes’ from citizens of the Kingdom have helped plot the trajectory and shape our collective, catholic imagination.   

Does this trajectory determine our paths in some fatalistic fashion?  Are we able to deviate from the path (for good or ill)?  In the same way that many of us (likely including Dunham herself) never imagined that an African American would be named leader of the free world in our life times,  I believe the Spirit continues to move and shape our faith as scripture testifies: a (re)newal of our hearts and minds.  The creeds don’t have to function as limitations, but can instead be a spring board for the Spirit’s flight.  “Behold, I will do something new. Now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness; rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19).


 

My view from the train as this gentleman wakes and begins to shift to his chair.  Taken Nov. 5, 2008.

My view from the train as this gentleman wakes and begins to shift to his chair. Taken Nov. 5, 2008.

Each morning I take the elevated train (‘the El’, if you are from Chicago) into the heart of the city (the “Loop”) from the north side.    This is the third year I’ve made this daily commute, and there are identifiable landmarks which help me gauge my progress: I look for the colorful Vietnamese shops along Argyle; I’m hopeful as I pass Wrigley at Addison; and I’m entertained by the joyous morning rituals of canine re-unifications at the dog park near Diversey.  One sight, however, always gives me pause: near the Lawrence stop my attention is drawn to the back of an old warehouse.  In the corner of the old loading dock is a long roll of blankets.  Adjacent to the platform is a wheelchair.  Usually the man who sleeps there still rests, bundled tightly in his blankets.  But occasionally I see him shifting from the dock into the chair, beginning his daily routine.  He is there through all four seasons, in various degrees of ‘bundle’.  The corner seems to shelter him from the majority of the rain and snow, and provides a small amount of shade in the heat of the summer.

 

Lately, just south of the Lawrence stop, another sight catches my attention.  Someone has tossed a Bible from the ground up onto the elevated tracks.  It sits, just beyond where human hands might reach it by any normal means—to the outside of the ominous, electrified third rail.  There it sits, come rain or shine, wind or calm.  I’ve watched it fade in the sun.

 

And I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a parallel between the two: the homeless man sleeping on the loading docks and the ‘Good News’ which seems beyond reach.