Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ash Wednesday & opposition to Snickers candy bars

The other half of the equation that begins "Shrove Tuesday" is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, widely observed in the old church and increasingly in newer incarnations as 40 days (excluding Sundays) of spiritual discipline prior to Easter.

We had what must surely have been for recent years record numbers last evening for the liturgy and imposition of ashes at St. Andrew's, which was gratifying. It is a powerful albeit brief service with strong lessons, including one of my favorites: Isaiah 58 (go on, look it up).

And there can be few sequences of words that focus attention on the eternal present more effectively than, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," spoken as signs of a cross are made on foreheads with ashes and oil.

The question then arises, what sort of discipline to follow thereafter, and the most common practice is to come out in opposition to something --- give up excess sugar for 40 days in opposition to gluttony, for example.

I came across another interesting idea online this year --- fill 40 garbage bags with useless belongings and dispose of same by giving away, recycling or depositing in dumpsters. Spiritual opposition to excessive consumerism.


Another interesting Lenten idea, though the author's focus wasn't on on Lent specifically, turned up in the writings of Brian McLaren, who blogs here. McLaren is a leading figure in what sometimes is called the "emerging church movement" or "postmodern" or "progressive" Christianity. He is widely deplored by traditionalists but generally embraced by many others, especially by those on the verge of becoming "nones" and looking for reasons to continue to define themselves and practice life as Christians.

He was writing here about his understanding of universalism, an ancient thread in Christian thought generally rejected by the church in all its incarnations as heresy because it proposes universal reconciliation in Christ for all. Exclusive control of the keys to heaven always has been a powerful tool of the institutional church and that's an addiction hard to break. If you start letting every in, well ....

McLaren goes on to propose that the heaven-or-hell? question really isn't of too much consequence and that it would be more useful to reframe reality with a question unrelated to who is going to ascend when all is said and done, and who is going to fry. Here's how he put it:

When a different question frames reality - how can God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven - then we have to acknowledge that for billions of God's creatures, God's will is not being done on earth as in heaven. Universalism may be good news for them after they die, but right now, they need good news that God cares about the mess they're in … the mess of injustice, oppression, ignorance, prejudice, hunger, thirst, sickness, loneliness, guilt, shame, addiction, fear, poverty, etc. And that good news can not be in word only. It must come in deed and in truth, as 1 John and James both say (echoing Jesus) … which makes our reply very costly.

I guess this is a case of needing pastoral sensitivity to discern which problem people are facing. For some, the urgent need is to be liberated from a vicious and cruel depiction of God as eternal cosmic torturer. For others, the urgent need is to be liberated from a sense that God may help them after they die, but until then, they're stuck and sunk. Perhaps what we need is a kind of activist universalism - that affirms God's saving love for all creation, but doesn't stop there … but rather sends us into creation to bear and manifest that saving love universally - for friend, stranger, and enemy … for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else … for humans and living creatures and all creation.

That's certainly something to think about during Lent, and later. Christians too often define themselves in opposition to others --- what they're not --- rather than focusing on what they are called to be. Perhaps deeds of activist universalism are in order during Lent --- rather than firm spiritual stands against Snickers candy bars and clutter.

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