Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"I Ain't Dust!"

On Ash Wednesday, many Christians will be entering churches and emerging with the sign of the cross, made with the ashes of burnt palms, on their foreheads.  They will have heard those heavy words:

"You are dust and to dust you shall return."

Ash Wednesday is a tough love day in the calendar.  Words of the penitential Psalm 51 reverberate off the walls to remind us that today, we are low and lowly before God.  Coming on the heels of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday where we've partied hearty and lived life up to its fullest, we are brought back down to earth, to the dust. Because we are dust and to dust we shall return.

But one of my favorite people in the community of St. John's Episcopal Church has steadfastly said, "No!" to Ash Wednesday and its guilt-tripping practice of the imposition of ashes.

"I ain't dust!  I am a child of God!"  says Rev. Lee Graham, the rector emeritus and one of the wisest men I've met in Tallahassee.

I was interviewing him as part of a church project, gathering some of the more recent history of St. John's and its topsy-turvy travels down that bumpy path of schism and rebuilding in the last decade.  As a priest, Fr. Lee has stood on the battlefield of segregationist Alabama in the 1960s, dealt with the hue-and-cry over women and prayer books in the 1970s, and is one of the few Episcopal priests in Tallahassee who openly preached on the need to include the LGBT community in the church and to recognize the LGBT struggle for equality as the next civil rights struggle.  He used to preside at the noon day Eucharist on Fridays where it was my pleasure to serve along side him as a Eucharist Minister.  At 91, he has finally fully retired in large part because his eyesight has been failing.  But bad eyes have done nothing to dull his mind.

"I think we ought to have a demonstration on Ash Wednesday. People ought to have placards that say, 'We Ain't Dust!' "   I didn't interrupt him as he went on, fingers drumming on the table top.

"Dust is the most useless thing in creation." he said.  "Even dirt will raise a crop, not dust.  The church says to me, 'You are dust,' I ain't dust: I'm a human being. That's not dust.  I'm a baptized Christian.  I'm a child of God.  For the church to say to me, 'You are dust.  You ain't nuthin'.  You're like a hound dog!' is not only degrading to me, but to the Church.  I think the Church should be embarrassed.  And to add, 'and to dust you shall return.'  The second of the last two lines of the creed are we are going to eternal life.  This (dust) is just patently false.  It's crap!"

It is particularly crap to a man who has been ministering to his friends and neighbors in his retirement community.

"When I was having service out here, I refused to do it.  I got some oil, chrism.  That's what we got at baptism.  And so that's what I would do for these people here that are clinging on to life.  And I'd tell them, 'You are a child of God.'"

Then he looked at me.  "What do you think?  Do you think you're dust."

"You know, I hadn't thought about it."

"You're just gullible.  You need to think about your faith."

We laughed at the exchange, but he'd made a good point.  I had become complacent instead of questioning.

Our conversation did leave me thinking about this practice that happens every year as the set up for a penitential time.  The history of Ash Wednesday traces back to practices of the early church where the 'notorious sinners' were set apart and had the sack cloth and ashes treatment until they publicly repented of their sins, whatever they were, and then could be integrated back into the community.   Today, the Episcopal Church doesn't make such a demand of those who have sinned.  If it did, the buildings would likely stand pretty empty for the period of Lent.  But it has incorporated the practice of doing the imposition of ashes on the forehead.  And, depending on who is doing it, you either get this indiscernible smudge or this massive cross.

As a child and teenager, I didn't like the imposition of ashes because it usually was something we'd do in the middle of the day, and then I'd have to go back to school and deal with the other kids wondering why I had dirt on my face.  I would try to pull strands of my hair down so as to cover the thing.  I didn't like the attention.  It was not a "teaching moment"; it was something that separated me from my peers which I was already experiencing estrangement as a tall athletic girl.

As an adult, I have been able to handle the weird looks I get after Ash Wednesday service.  But I also would find a bathroom and wash the black cross off my forehead.  It has nothing to do with being ashamed of being a Christian.  But it has everything to do with my belief in how I show that I am Christian.   Ashes on my forehead?  Or paying attention to the people around and standing right in front of me, and engaging them in eye contact to confirm, "I see you, child of God, and fellow traveler on the planet"?

It's interesting to note that although everyone expects to be marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday, the 1979  Book of Common Prayer makes that part of the Ash Wednesday service optional.   If a church should so choose, they could forgo the imposition of ashes, and stay strictly with having everyone kneel and recite Psalm  51 and the Litany of Penitence.   Plenty of time to reflect on where each of us are at this time of the church year.

And what might we reflect on?  As Fr. Lee says, you might think about what it means to be a child of God.

"If that's so, I better be thinking about me for this Lent.  Am I living like a child of God?  Am I getting ready for heaven?"

Those words, and the challenge they pose, are more weighty than telling us that we're dust and to dust we shall return.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad I read this before I went to the Ash Wednesday Service. I hope I can strive to be a Child of God. Maybe that is what I shall pray for during Lent and hope others will also.


Phoebe McFarlin said...

Interesting blog. After the service at the Capitol, I was asked a question about the gospel 'do not look dismal as the hypocrites do for they disfigure their face so as to show others they are fasting.' It was a brief but helpful discussion. Glad I had heard about Fr Lee's stance yesterday.

SCG said...

I heard the Gospel lesson this evening, and wondered again, "So, why are we so intent on putting ashes on our foreheads?" I'm becoming less enchanted with the practice the more I think about it. Its roots are in people who were cast out of the community because they were "notorious sinners." Are we that "wretched"? I don't think most of us are. Do I fall short of living into my Baptismal Covenant? Yes, I do. And for that reason I need to be aware of my shortcomings and make efforts to do better. But I don't need to be told that I am dust and to dust I shall return because if I am just going to dust, then what's the point? And does that mean that all the promises of eternal life are canceled because of course I'm just dust anyway? There are some theological inconsistencies that come with this practice. And it is optional in the BCP. So, why are we doing it?

Phoebe McFarlin said...