The journey of Ashes is a Call Deeper

Right about now…7:12ish PM on February 18th, I ought to be standing in the pulpit of Crewe UMC with a cross of ashes on my forehead to reflect on the words we should have just heard. My favorite words, the words I most often choose to say are “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.”

The call in Joel 2 to blow the trumpet call to the community for repentance.

12“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
14Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

As people of faith we are called to not only a pointing to the positive, speaking to hope, encouraging others (and ourselves along the way) but we are called to a life that is honest in all regards. The only way to return to God often is with fasting. With weeping. With mourning. With recognizing that we are far less the individuals than God desires us to be and that we can only be saved, not by our own heroic efforts but because God in his mercy and love has saved us. At some point we have to start with honesty about our own need for saving and the distance we really truly are from God because of our sin.

Along with the call to repentance, and I would argue equally important, Joel reminds us that God calls us not just to a right relation with Him, but His call is also a call to assemble.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.

Too often we are ashamed of being repentant. Ash Wednesday is a nice break, a socially acceptable way to acknowledge our bent towards sinning. But the trumpet that blows on Ash Wednesday demands more of us than a ten minute ritual. It demands a willingness to be honest with ourselves about the distance we have put between us and God because of our sins and also the truth that God is asking us to assemble and walk with others who have less, as much and sometimes more distance than us. The call is not that we would journey alone. Ashamed that we are repenting. Ashamed that our sins have carried us so far away. Ashamed that we are more dust and mortal than holy and sacred. The call is that we would return, together. That our witness would help others and that their witness would help us. That the conversations along the way would bring us clarity in our journey and that we would be able to help someone else from turning back. We are not made to journey alone.

That is what Ash Wednesday reminds us. That while we are dust and to dust we will return, God has given us an incredible gift. His love. His Son. His community.

At the Bedside of A Wounded Church

 

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Often time, when a church member is struggling with dying, hospice, the nurses or I as the pastor, will coach the family to offer love and forgiveness and give permission to their loved one. Many times I have sat at a bedside telling someone it is okay to no longer fight, to go quietly to the place that has been prepared for them. I have been at bedsides where the family cried and wept and wailed. Where they told their loved one that they cannot leave yet, that they will not be able to live without them, that surely God is not yet calling them home. I have been at other bedsides where the family lovingly and without prompting, tells the person they love that they will be okay without them, that they want them to be at peace.

I have seen very sick individuals who have fought against dying because they could not let go of the living. I have seen those who medically might have recovered go peacefully into death. Finally, I have seen those who are sure to die, recover and live on.

We cannot predict death. But as people of faith, we have to believe and live into resurrection.

We are a church in hospice with a self inflicted wound.

I am horrified as I watch what is happening to the United Methodist Church. Not because we are dying. Not because I am afraid that I am going to lose a church I love before I have had enough time with her. But because there are factions on both sides of the bed screaming, “YOU CAN’T LEAVE US!!! WE CAN’T SURVIVE WITHOUT YOU!”

I don’t understand how people on either side think we can possible divide something that is United. We are the UNITED Methodist Church. We are the church that took risks, having to send lay leaders because the gospel was spreading so fast that we didn’t have enough time to prepare and ordain preachers for all the communities who were hungry for God’s word. We are the church that very early on let women be among the group of those lay preachers (even though ordination for women was hard and rocky). We are the church that sends Korean and African American pastors to churches where racism was so entrenched that property deeds often stated that whites only could be members and if a member of another race was permitted the property would be returned to the gift giver.

We are United. More than anything, we are the denomination that found a way to bring together people. We brought together city and rural people with a shared vision of transforming the world. We are the denomination formed from other denominations.

I am standing at the death bed, whispering quietly to our church, “its okay. we will survive without you. we will thrive without you. you are not the gospel. you are not the salvation. you are not the hope of the world. if it is your time to go, go and know we will keep doing your work.”

I know and believe more than anything else death leads to resurrection. I am not sure the United Methodist Church will survive because we are so focused on one issue, one pain, one political stance that we are not living or proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and there are no churches that can survive without the Living Word of God at their center. We have forgotten our name. We have abandoned our rich history of doing what others said could not and should not be done so Christ can be lifted up above all.

I find myself with tears of grief and lose and hurt streaming down my face, trying patiently to hold in the screams that are building in me. I want to say to those who are focused on division, go…go away and do what God is calling you to do but do not call it United Methodist because it is not. I want to scream, “let our church have peace so that it can die and be raised to new life or so it can regain its strength to rise up and do what United Methodists have always done so well, transform the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I want to throw both sides out into the waiting room so that the church I love can hear me whisper, “its okay. you can go to the place God has prepared for you. we will not stop living or loving or following Jesus if you do. you are loved and your work will not stop with your death.”

Oh, I how I grieve. I will not go to the right or the left but will stay here, beside the church that has shaped and formed my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I do not think any good will come out of division and so I will stay United Methodist until that identity is no longer there to claim. Then I will turn, look to Christ, and follow Him from the death bed into the world, where His work is still waiting.