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Ash Wednesday: Would You Like Tacos To Go With Your Ashes?

USA Today reports on an initiative called ‘Ashes To Go‘ in which Episcopalian priests are today offering the traditional Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes out on the streets for people in a rush, the same clientele who grab breakfast to go in their daily beat-the-clock dash to work. (According to the article, Roman Catholics officially disapprove, since it should take place within a proper church service of repentance.)

According to the Ashes To Go site,

“Ashes to Go” is about bringing spirit, belief, and belonging out from behind church doors, and into the places where we go every day.  It’s a simple event with deep meaning, drawing on centuries of tradition and worship to provide a contemporary moment of grace.

I have found an ashing service powerful in the past, but I’d never thought of taking it to the streets. Specifically, I have noticed that it has not been the ‘traditional’ Methodists who have appreciated ashing, but the more charismatic Methodists. This may seem surprising that such a liturgical act might appeal to those who are regarded as being ambivalent to overt form and structure, but I think the connection is found in the sensory experience.

For me, to receive the imposition of ashes and then to share it with others is moving to the point of being emotionally troubling. That is not a criticism, as I hope you will see as I explain. I deal in the currency of death through ministry, offering comfort to the bereaved and celebrating lives well lived. That makes the connection graphic, especially last week when twice I buried the ashes of someone whose funeral I had taken a few weeks previously. As I watched the crematorium attendant release the lever on the urn and witnessed the ashes pouring down into an empty cube of soil, I wondered what the grieving families were thinking. Were these ashes really a beloved husband or father? What will I think when it is the cremated body of one of my parents?

Not only that, five years ago I had a cancer scare. It was a false alarm. A routine medical found blood in my urine, and I was referred urgently for urology tests. Nothing sinister was discovered. The doctors assumed I had either had an infection or was under stress. (I think it was the latter.) Ever since that episode, my inflamed imagination has wrongly interpreted every bump as a carcinogenic intruder. Silly, I know, but true. I live thinking almost daily of death, and whether I am ready to meet Christ. In moments of spiritual fever, I think more about my sins than God’s grace.

All of which brings me to an excellent editorial in today’s Guardian. It tracks changing attitudes to death in connection with Ash Wednesday. To quote a chunk of it:

These days, if we are asked how we want to die, we generally say that we want it to happen quickly, painlessly and preferably in our sleep. In other words, we don’t want dying to become something we experience as a part of life. This would have made little sense to generations past. For centuries, what was feared most was “dying unprepared”. Death was an opportunity to put things right. To say the things that had been left unsaid: “Sorry”, “I was wrong”, “I always loved you”. We used to die surrounded by our extended family. Now we die surrounded by technology, with a belief in medical science often replacing the traditional puzzle of human existence.

Ash Wednesday inculcates that idea of being prepared for death. The putting right of relationships, the readiness to meet our Maker, and so on. And if that’s the case, then maybe there is a missional application for the imposition of ashes. Perhaps those Episcopalian priests in the States today are doing something significant. When someone asks the ultimate questions about life, death and meaning, it’s not surprising when God comes into the thinking. Ministers will identify that at the other end of life’s spectrum when a couple have their first baby. Facing death in all its reality rather than the saccharine illusion so regularly trumpeted today could well mean a gospel encounter. I am sure earlier generations understood that better than we do, where death is on the NHS.

Yes, dust we are and to dust we shall return. But one day our mortal bodies will be reanimated by the Holy Spirit in resurrection.

HT for video and USA Today story: Bob Carlton on Facebook.)

Sabbatical, Day 29: From Mountain To Valley With A Bump

So we roused Mark at 9 pm yesterday. Despite the pain in his ear, he protested that he wanted to go back to sleep rather than see a doctor. Eventually, half way to the hospital (where the out of hours GP service is located), he began to be half-awake enough to view the trip as an adventure. 

Arriving in the car park, we were still stung at that time to the tune of £3.50 for the privilege of leaving the car in a mostly empty facility. Thanks, Broomfield Hospital. You’re so kind.

Entering the waiting room at 9:20 with an appointment time of 9:40, I let Mark snuggle up to me as I noticed more than twenty minutes go by before anyone else was called into a consulting room. I calculated that with the number of people in front of us, we would probably only get to see a medic around 10:20 – 10:30. For me, the time was passing almost as slowly as it would for a child, and I invoked my interest in Maths to occupy my brain, just as I sometimes stimulate myself on a long car journey by periodically calculating my average speed to two or three decimal points. Did someone say ‘Sad’?

I gathered only one doctor was on duty, but while we were there one more began a shift, as did an advanced nurse practitioner. The pace thus sped up, and just after 10 Mark was called in. We trotted into see the nurse practitioner, along with his Favourite Bear. (He gives his cuddly toys descriptions rather than names.)

Sure enough, it was a routine ear infection and so out came another bottle of amoxicillin, or ‘banana medicine’ as Mark calls it. I wonder whether you can guess the flavour. 🙂

On the way home, he was chatty if still tired, but was very taken by the experience. He said that in future when he was ill he wanted to alternate between seeing ‘Chelmsford doctors’ (by which he meant our GP surgery) and ‘hospital doctors’.

Of course, he didn’t realise that he had seen ‘hospital doctors’ when he was a baby – not only when he was born, but when the root cause of his permanently screaming the manse down was discovered. No, not the shock of having me for a father: he had been born with an inguinal hernia. Diagnosis only happened at seven weeks, after several incidents when Debbie had taken refuge with large glasses of sherry on nights when I was out at church meetings. He had surgery at ten weeks. 

This morning, Debbie took Rebekah to church while I stayed home with Mark. He has picked up considerably, but he has a week of banana medicine ahead of him and although he has been quite bouncy today, we’re keeping him off school tomorrow. 

If I’ve done any thinking about the sabbatical today, it’s just been a temporary musing of the problem of re-entry that awaits me in two months’ time. I’ve had two mountain-top experiences already, and while the church usually aims to ease ministers back in post-sabbatical, it didn’t happen to me last time and I don’t suppose it will this time.

Last time, the circumstances were exceptional: the circuit treasurer had failed to apply for the release of some funds. Realising his mistake, he had put thousands of his own money into the circuit accounts, leaving us the recipients of an unauthorised loan. He was one of my church members, and a decent guy in many ways.

But what exercises me this time is the adjustment to ‘normal church life’. I think it was A W Tozer who once observed that the spiritual temperature in many churches is so low that when someone turns up with a normal, New Testament ‘temperature’, they treat that person as if they have a fever.

Now let me quickly qualify that. I’m again aware how easy it is at a point like this to slip into a judgmental attitude. I can only assure you I don’t mean that, just as I also don’t mean anyone reading this to assume I’m painting myself as the one with the normal spiritual temperature. I’m struggling for language to express the dilemma, and I expect and hope you know what I’m driving at. In a desire to be accepting, inclusive and indeed avoid judgmentalism we have tolerated a low temperature in our churches. There have been many times over the years when I have felt that slowly suck the life out of me. In such circumstances, regular outside support is vital. Sometimes it’s easy to come by, but not always. Even when it is available, it emphasises the disconnect painfully, and has to be channelled into a passion for change.

In other news: I’ve been wading through the five hundred emails that were in the inbox when I returned. Among the gems was yet another article from the wonderful Ruth Haley Barton. I realise this one on Ash Wednesday is now four days late, but you might still gain something from her reflections, or at very least note it for next year. 

And on that positive note, it’s goodnight from me.

Sabbatical, Day 25: Ash Wednesday Soup

I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.

Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.

Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.

Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.

Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.

Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.

At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.

What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.

And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.

So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’

On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.

During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.

See you tomorrow.