So, this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and oddly enough for this Baptist raised, UCC livin’, progressive/process/liberation/feminist/queer theological mutt, it is a highly significant day in my yearly walk with Jesus.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a Christian season of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter. Ash Wednesday services are somber events that culminate in the ritual imposition of ashes, which is the moment when a pastor or priest applies ashes in the form of a cross to a person’s forehead, speaking the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As some of you may know, I recently moved to Florida to create a new life with my partner, B. For about a week or so now, I’ve been slowly working myself into a full blown bout of pouting, missing my beloved Kirkwood UCC and my dear friend and pastor, Susannah Davis, with and from whom I have received more than a decade of ashes. Sure, I’ve visited a UCC church locally, but I’ve not made a meaningful connection where I’d yet want to share what for me is a tender and important holy day.
So, I reached out to some of my new, and increasingly close, friends here in Florida to find out about their plans for Ash Wednesday. I was pretty certain that they’d have churchy plans since the three of them are active Catholics, and well, one is a priest. Without hesitation, I was immediately invited to attend their Ash Wednesday service… a full Mass.
I was at once overwhelmingly grateful and considerably cautious in my response to the generous invitation.
I imagine it will not come as a shock to any of you that I am actively opposed to a great deal of Catholic doctrine. What may come as a surprise to you is the fact that I also have been greatly influenced by Catholic social teaching and liberation theology. That, coupled with a general respect for other people’s traditions, leaves me with layers of thoughts and emotions to sift through.
Why is Ash Wednesday still so important to me?
Why not receive my ashes in a community where I am genuinely and openly welcome to receive Communion?
Is it wrong or disrespectful to take Communion in a place where I would be denied if they actually knew me?
To whom is it disrespectful, the worshipping community I am visiting…or myself?
How the hell can I even consider worshipping under a roof where officially a great deal of my humanity is abhorred?
This whole process of discernment over just one day of the year is inviting me to slow down and think about my LGBTQIA Christian sisters and brothers who often remain in faith communities that do not affirm their whole, lived personhood, but rather actively reject the way God created them to love and live. I ask all the damn time, why on earth do you stay??
The longer I sit with this quandary, the clearer I am called to articulate significant underpinnings of my own theology.
First, I believe we are created to connect with one another and God through community. Second, I believe church can be community where everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome at the table. Third, and most importantly, anything that creates barriers to connection with one another and God is not of God, and certainly not sacred, but are damnable constructs of human fear, ignorance and control.
While the Church often tries like the dickens to live into the Gospel, many 0f us know all too well, she has often failed egregiously and intentionally. Bless her heart.
So why do people stay?
Connection and community.
All it takes is a few people that you feel connected to, one or two or three people whom you love and who love you in return, and it can be a compelling reason to stay in a community that espouses theology and enforces doctrine that would can be soul-crushing. Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, UCC, non-denominational and a host of other churches have a long history of setting the table for a select few and denying access to many. Meanwhile the many are sitting in those very same pews, quietly hiding parts of their hearts, so they can remain connected with their community.
Let me be absolutely clear that no one needs “connection and community” where our sacred worth is not affirmed. In fact, those places offer neither real connection nor authentic community while the sin of separation from self, others and God is the ground on which the church is built.
I am called to renounce theology and doctrine that excludes anyone from God’s table and to remind y’all over and over again that there are churches where divorced, lesbian, question-asking, authority challenging shenanigators, like me, are welcome in the full life of the church. Not discretely, not subversively, but with proud proclamations that everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome at the table.
Okay, so, back to my quandary – will I go to Ash Wednesday Mass with my friends?
Because I am a human filled to the brim with contradictions and paradoxes, broken and beautiful in God’s eyes.
Why? Because for now, today, I know that I need to receive my ashes, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the few people in my new surroundings with whom I feel a deep and growing spiritual kinship. And I will worship quietly, but with my whole self as we are reminded of our most common human bonds – our rare and beautiful significance (Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.”) and our inscrutable insignificance (V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.”).