Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Smudgy Living

 Ash Wednesday 2023

A common Church ritual that takes place on the first day of Lent each year is where the church gathers and receives on their foreheads a smudge of ashes on their foreheads.  The liturgy calls to mind one's sins, and in the words of the imposition of ashes: From dust, we come to dust, we shall return.  The smudging of one's forehead with ashes this year reminds me of how we allow all kinds of things around us to smudge up or interfere with our pre-birth-given image of God.  As good Christians, we strive to be accurate and truthful reflections of Christ and the one God wants us to be.  Yet, we know we often fall short of that ideal.  If we were perfect reflections of the Holy, we would shine forth with all the radiance of hope, compassion, charity, generosity, kindness, healing, and wholeness... but we don't.  The cross smudge says, "Yeah, I've fallen short." 

An Ash Wednesday service is sometimes a bit comical in how resistant to smudging some people are.  Some just don't want to be smudged, and that's their prerogative.  But others' foreheads just seem impervious to the imposition. Do they have purer transparency of the holy than foreheads that just welcome full-on black smudges?  I pause to hope. 

The world around us grows more smudged up with unholiness weekly.  The US society has yet to have a day in 2023 when a mass shooting has not happened.  The vitriolic rants, tweets, news -- many of it from self-proclaimed Christians, leave me wondering what it would take to polish their foreheads and transform the bitterness and violence to empathy and peace. How do we turn from our darker ashy side and be the clearer, shining light of the Holy?  

Therein is the purpose of Lent.  Lent is the 6 weeks of personal devotion, reflection, and practice of wrestling with the scrubbing process to increase deeper and wider transparency of the sacredness that is grounded in each of our basic constitutions.  I encourage you to take advantage of the many activities and offerings that churches all around provide to aid in that process between now and Easter. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Set Aside Tithing

One of the common suggestions to regular churchgoers is to tithe to their church. A tithe is based on a biblical notion that 10% of one's income (harvest) is to be given to God directly off the top. It is a commonly used "goal" suggested when churches do annual pledge drives for the church budget. It is an idea that is as old as the Bible itself. The Christian Church adopted the tithe early in its history, and it continues today in most denominations. Many denominations teach that the tithe is the minimum level of giving expected, with other offerings considered over and above the tithe. I'm going to argue that it is time for the Church to lose the idea and word. 

Through time, the tithe has been intertwined with some of the less Christ-like manifestations of the Church. The Crusades against Muslims in the first few centuries of the Church, for example, were funded by tithes. Tithing was, in essence, a tax extracted by the church around suggestions (or, in some cases, demands) that a person's salvation (from hell) depended on satisfying their tithe. Economically, slavery declined at the tail-end of the Roman Empire, being replaced by feudalism. The aristocracy held the major portion of wealth. While feudalism was a modest step up for the typical family, their "wealth" was marginally held in superficial (and tenuous) rights to the land, not in cash. The Church could use guilt, fear of the hereafter, and persuasion to get the parishioners to give, but if you don't have it, you don't. This is where the Church became more transactional in its approach to giving. Indulgences, a transactional system of tit-for-tat, augmented tithing. "We'll pray your sin away for a small fee." "For an offering of gold or silver, we will ensure your loved one will not have to spend eternity in purgatory or hell." To our modern mind, we might wonder just how gullible were people? Yet, in pre-science cultures, fear brought by superstition and belief in a wrathful God can be intense, and in truth, the hierarchies of the Church weren't that shy about exploiting theologies of God's wrathfulness. 

Because of this historical baggage, the Church would do well to walk away from and bury the term "tithing." No amount of money will "save you" or put you in any stronger position with God than the infinite amount of love God already has for you. One cannot buy more infinity. For churches to say, "Give us a tithe,(just because we've always done it that way,") is a morally bankrupt idea. If the church can't be better at inspiring hope and a vision for a radically different world than we are experiencing, they do not need a block of money just to keep a building standing!

In the book of Acts, we glimpse a more egalitarian hope-filled vision of Church life. We see the communal understanding of the Church. Church is where we find belonging. It is where we can work together to expand and implement the foundational experiences of God's/Jesus' intent for humankind. Utilizing an ethic of Equality in Love, together, people can build the Realm of God on earth. This is not a church built on guilt or arm twisting or fear. It is built on the expectation that my neighbor is part of my family and that working together, we can accomplish much more in this life than any of us can achieve alone. So, giving to the church is giving to our community, which increases our effective outreach to make a difference in the world we find ourselves in. All will benefit intrinsically and extrinsically. The degree to which your passion for that evolving vision grows should be the primary driver for how much you want to contribute, not whether the church hits a set budget number or how much you worry about a non-existent hell. The only hells exist in what human beings do to one another, largely due to the generational trauma imposed for hundreds of years on our families and psyches that nobody - including the Church - has dealt with in a compassionate, understanding, healing way. This is a large part of the work sitting in our laps, waiting to be done.

So, rather than expecting blank checks with "tithe" written on the memo line, let us transform our idea of giving to the church into being an investment in our "Beloved House of Belonging."

Tuesday, March 22, 2022



This morning I awoke. I awoke to just how profoundly embedded human physicality is sacredly tied to the rhythm of Mother Earth. In Mother Earth is all essence, all essential lessons of living (and dying.) The repeated cycling through of the seasons- seasons of the soul; the soul that is the very deep internal unbreakable linkage to all that is: light/darkness, winter/spring, frozen/thawed/blooming/fruiting/bearing/dying back/resurrecting. As we see in nature, so we see taking place in ourselves. Over and over again. The dark night of the soul, lying in the cold dark frozen ground- the valley of the shadow of death- psalms of lament, “Why? My God, have you forsaken me?” Then the faint pulse, the surge of a new possibility of… is that hope? Is that what I think it is? A stirring deep within me of a sprout? A bud? A tentative finger reaching out, wiggling its way out of the ground? Cold blustery wind blasts back the first courageous wakening. Retreat. Regathering. More lament. More waiting and wailing. More nurturing of soul to bust past- past the uncertainty of trying again. Regrouping to make a Camus-like bursting forth from the Abyss that attempts to poison our life with futility and always to hold us back. Frustrated with trying. Impatient for spring, for a life fulfilled.

There is something built deep into the DNA of all things that forgets, ignores, wallows, doubts, and yet responds once more to an unshakable belief in the Eternal Cycle of things. The biggest human trait over which we all struggle most is our impatience. Our mistaken, fanciful, thinking that we can will ourselves an exception, a way-out/around/beyond the time(s) of being forced into the dark ground. The uncomfortable, but special, times where we are pushed to cozy up to the smallest bit of compost for the tiniest measure of warmth that will get us through until our moment, the right moment as set by stars and planetary travels for our sprouting once more. Such is the way of love. Love Divine all loves excelling.

There is great human mythology that human beings can “do things our way.” Indeed, we’re given just enough latitude of heart, will, and strength to foolishly believe we can control— nay should be controlling— our destiny. But one wonders, in moments of deep pondering, whether the seed ever aspires to have this power and authority over the raw power of life within itself? The worst advice comes from these power wishers, who like Job’s friends, press us to self-blame or side-step “and cheer up” and self-determine how and when we bust forth, thrive, and prosper feverishly- usually by their definition and according to their mini-god plans.

The certainty of faith, the assurance we have of the heavenly workings of Love, is that everywhere we look around us- if we give ourselves the mind’s eye, the James Webb telescope of perspective- where we see death, there is new life sprouting out of it. Nothing is more eternal in Love than the rebirths we despaired were gone for good. Even in death, even in suicide, there is no prospect that does not involve life sprouting again, taking hold again, and coming around again. After each and every time of being a seed, something new arises, usually unexpected and of at least partial surprise. In the 23rd Psalm observe that the part about the banquet with head anointed with oil falls after the valley of the shadow of death, where we are admonished to “fear no evil.”

So, if you are in a seed phase, be grateful and exercise patience. Especially, be kind to yourself in your processing and waiting. If you are blooming, be grateful and full of joy. If you are in your harvest, be grateful and enjoy your fulfillment. If you are in your decline, be grateful and step back to see the larger scene laid out in all glory of what will be again. Again, Amen.