Ash Wednesday vs. the Primary (A Homily About Being Told What We Don’t Want to Hear)

So, it may just be me, but if feels like there are less people here in New Hampshire than there were yesterday. The cable news vans are gone. No one is speaking at town hall. Even the commercials are off the air.

For campaigns the run-up to yesterday’s Primary began a year ago, or more in some instances. And, despite the fact I have voted in every major election I could have since I was 18, I have never felt more popular as a voter than I did in the past few months in New Hampshire. Everyone wanted a minute of my time. Everyone wanted to tell me how they would make things better. And everyone wanted to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear.

But today, one day later, no one is telling me what I want to hear anymore. At least, not here in New Hampshire. The show has moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, and people will be hearing exactly what they want to heard state by state throughout the spring.

Now, before we New Hampshirites feel too badly about being left behind, I want to argue that maybe the timing of this year’s Primary, and this year’s observance of Ash Wednesday, is incredibly poetic for us. Overnight we have gone from being told all the things that we want to hear, and all the ways we are wonderful and powerful and important, to perhaps the one thing that more than anything else we don’t want to hear: that we are mortal.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

It’s not a slogan that’s going to win any elections. No one is going to put it on a bumper sticker or a yard sign. It’s not something we like to acknowledge. And yet, maybe it is the one thing that we need to hear more than anything else in the world.

The reality is that this world is bigger than we are, and has been around far longer than us as well. And one day, when we draw our last breath and return to dust, the world will go on. At some level, no matter how comfortable we might be with that, it’s still a little terrifying.

And so this ritual that we take part in once a year? It’s terrifying too. Put it in plain terms: earlier today I took the left over palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service, and I burned them on the front steps of the church offices. Then, Cat and I mixed them with oil. And in just a few minutes I am going to invite each of you forward, and smear these palm ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross while telling you that one day you are going to be dust.

12715285_10101107105583378_7085126143383140490_nMaybe it’s no wonder that this isn’t the service that draws the big crowds. Easter and Christmas make sense to us, but this day? Not so much. And every year, no matter what church I’ve been at, I always overhear people who say they won’t come to this service.

And that’s okay. But I always feel a little sad about that because the truth is that Ash Wednesday, as much as it makes us hear a hard truth, also teaches us something beautiful. Ash Wednesday, like the Apostle Paul, says that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.

And if you are really listening closely, it also tells you this: we are more than we think we are.

The one from whose love we can never be separated is the one who created us, and it is to that Creator that we will someday return. When you think about that, that is an amazing comfort. It’s a reminder that “in life and in death we belong to God”, and there can be no better source for hope or joy than God.

But this is about more than just where we are going. On Ash Wednesday we must not dwell on death but instead embrace this life too. And so, on this day we are reminded most of all about two things: whose we are, and how to live in this world knowing that.

In that sense Lent is about something that might scare us even more than the thought that one day we will be dust. That something is “humility”.

Humility isn’t an easy thing for us to think about. We hear it and we conflate it with humiliation, or a brutal way of putting someone in their place. In that light we might think that this whole ritual tonight is a kind of religious humiliation where we are told we are dust and physically marked as such.

But this is humility, not humiliation. And those are two very different things.

Far from ripping us down, true humility is about being what some would call “right sized”. It’s about knowing that, to be sure, we are not God. But it is also about knowing that we are loved by God and marked as God’s own children. These ashes are not marks of shame; they are marks of our own identity.

They are also signs in a world where out-of-control egos reign supreme, and where people will rush to tell us exactly what we want to hear, that God loves us too much for that. God won’t let us settle for what gives us happiness for the moment. God wants us to have real, sustaining joy.

The crosses are our signs that we are not our own, but we aren’t for sale either. We belong only to God, and we trust only in God’s promises. Beyond that, they signify that we are here not for our own agenda, or even a party or group’s agenda, but only in order that we would find God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s children. The ashes are a reminder of who we are, and who and whose we serve.

Like I said, none of what I’ve just told you would ever win an election. A cross of ashes is never going to replace a catchy campaign pin. But then again, we’re being called to something a little bigger here. Something that existed before any of us, and something that will go on long after. That may not be the words that we want to hear, but they are the words we need to hear. And they are the words that can begin the process of transforming us this Lent, if only we will let them. Amen?

Holy Week in New Hampshire, Ten Months Before the Primary

Last week, just after Senator Rand Paul announced his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, a new message hit my email box:

The first email.

The first email.

I live and pastor in New Hampshire, so political emails and phone calls are not unexpected, even though I am still relatively new to the state. But the wording of this email was curious. For instance, the assumption I “supporting” Senator Paul’s efforts to “bring Constitutional values to Washington” or to “advance the conservative movement”.

I had never signed up on any Rand Paul list, or even any Republican party list. So, I came to a logical conclusion about why I was getting the emails: my college friends who delight in signing one another up for political causes we find objectionable had scored another victory. “Very funny, y’all,” I thought, as I posted a screenshot of the email up on Facebook calling them out.

In the end it turns out that my college friends had nothing to do with it. In fact, that Facebook post made it clear that I was far from the only New Hampshire pastor getting spammed by Rand Paul’s campaign. First one clergy colleague, and then others nearby reported receiving the same emails.

That was when I actually checked which email address was being used. I have a personal email, the one my friends would know, and I have a church email address, one that someone looking at church websites or lists of clergy would find. And it was the church email address, the .org of a non-profit religious organization, that was being used for the political ads.

Later that same day I received a second email from Rand Paul:

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In this email a video of Senator Paul’s faith testimony is included as well. Presumably our shared Christian faith is supposed to make me feel like I should vote for him. At the bottom of the email was also a link to a “feedback” site where I could say what was important to me as a Christian by signing a “statement of faith”.

It looked like this:

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Let me be clear. I have a personal statement of faith, and Rand Paul is in no way whatsoever a part of it.

Through the last few days I have received more emails from Rand Paul’s campaign. I have contemplated unsubscribing, but at this point I’m interested in seeing what he sends to me. I’m also curious how many other candidates will also be finding my email address, and those of my colleagues, and sending us unsolicited campaign announcements.

Why does this disturb me? It’s not because I’m not interested in politics or good governance. In college I spent my summers interning in the U.S. House of Representatives before deciding the ministry was my real calling. But, I have always kept abreast of elections, and made informed voting choices. In fact, I’m excited to watch the New Hampshire primary play out in my community over the next year. The town I live in frequently draws visits from candidates, including to the town hall right next to the church. I find this all fascinating.

But that is who I am as a private citizen.

Yes, my faith plays a role in my voting. When I enter the polls I don’t leave my faith behind. And, as a pastor I encourage people to vote, and to make their decisions about whom to vote for out of their own personal faith commitments. But, beyond that, I never encourage anyone to vote for a specific candidate or party. Because that is not the role of the pastor, or the church. In fact, it goes against everything we believe in this country about separation of church and state (a tenant that protects not only the state but also the church).

If a pastor is telling their congregation how to vote, they are overstepping both legally and morally. And yet, I know of some pastors who do exactly that. Some even openly challenge the IRS bans on promoting specific candidates. I find this deeply problematic.

I believe Rand Paul, and perhaps others, know that. And perhaps when they went looking for the email addresses of New Hampshire pastors, they hoped that we would start talking about Paul’s faith or his candidacy. Maybe we would help to being Christian voters onto his campaign, and give him a leg up in this first primary state. And perhaps somewhere in Iowa my clergy colleagues there are getting the same emails too.

But Senator Paul will have no place in the pulpit of my church. And, frankly, he will have no place on my ballot next January either. The pulpit is reserved for Jesus. The ballot for one who will respect the lines drawn between church and state.