Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Today the Baptist church I serve, gathered with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of the Season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.

In my previous setting in Oregon, we shared this ritual with a Roman Catholic congregation.  For the Latino/Latina members of that congregation, it was the largest service of the year.  It was beautiful to worship in Spanish and English.

Here in New England, we gather with an Episcopal Church.  The crowd and diversity may not be the same, but the meaning we find in the company of one another is a constant.

For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.  It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes.  You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.

In our highly individualistic culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural.  This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return.  The placing of the ashes on the forehead is an ‘in  your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality, and hyper individualism,  is just that, an illusion.

There is something strangely reassuring, in acknowledging one’s mortality.  Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday is a reminder to savor the gift of life, to take care of each other.  A reminder that one day, each of us returns to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

Remembering Billy Graham

My call to Christian ministry came when I was fifteen.  I sensed that I was being ‘called’ to become a pastor.  That I’ve maintained that sense of call for forty-five years is for me a testament to the working of God’s Spirit.

I have many influences that helped shape my faith.  One of those early influences was Billy Graham.  Rev. Graham died today at age ninety-nine.

As a boy I remember watching Billy’s evangelistic ‘crusades’ on television.  The messages were always straightforward: ‘God loves you and all you need do is confess your sin and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and eternity with God is yours’.


Billy would hold up his  Bible and with the warm cadence of a preacher from North Carolina, he’d proclaim ‘the answer to every human longing is to be found in Scripture’.   His sermon would always conclude with a choir singing ‘Just As I Am’ as people were invited to profess their faith.

As a kid from stoic New England, I was moved by adults of all ages and races coming forward by the thousands, often with tears, to receive a prayer of forgiveness and acceptance.  Many people were then connected with local faith communities within which to continue their life as disciples.

It is estimated that this farmers son from North Carolina preached to 215 million people from more than 185 countries.  Throughout it all, Billy maintained a spirit of humility and never succumbed to the scandal of the prosperity gospel with its opulent wealth, nor inappropriate conduct too often found with ego driven evangelists.

It has been a long time since I was fifteen. I remain grateful for the easy cadence of Billy Graham’s preaching, which helped awaken a ‘call to ministry’ within me.

My own theology is broader than that of Rev. Graham and his primary emphasis on a personal  faith commitment.  With notable exceptions (refusing to preach to segregated audiences and speaking out against the proliferation of nuclear weapons) he avoided social issues.

The impact of my own relationship with Christ, has brought me to picket lines for racial justice, against war, access to health care and for immigration reform.  My partners on the line include Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims Unitarians and secular partners.

The older I’ve become the more universal my faith is.  I find beauty and truth in other faith traditions too.  Yet, my personal relationship with Jesus remains primary to my call. I have Billy to thank.

The essential message that he preached for so many years, remains central: “God loves you”.  To this I say ‘Amen’.

For the life of Billy Graham, we give thanks to the Lord. May his message of ‘love’ rooted in faith, continue to be spoken by many languages and by many faiths.

 

 

 

 

Church of Woods and Water

Last Sunday I worshipped at the Church of Woods and Water.  The church is located on the upper reach of the Charles River.

The Charles is a hard used, inspiring waterway which runs 80 miles from its headwaters in Hopkinton to the mouth of Boston harbor. The drainage is 312 square miles.

For 350 years this iconic river has provided sustenance to Native Americans, inspired poets and been hard used by industry.  The Rock classic, ‘Dirty Water’ by the Standells says it all https://www.bing.com/search?q=song+dirty+water+by+the+standells&form=EDNTHT&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&refig=cf18a1912bf84fffb481c8a6ae04ea85&sp=5&qs=RI&pq=dirty+water+by+the+&sk=AS4&sc=5-19&cvid=cf18a1912bf84fffb481c8a6ae04ea85#CA!VideoFavoritesAddItemEvent

For the last 40 plus years, since Richard Nixon (bless him) signed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the Charles along with a host of other rivers, once used as a toxic dumping ground, has gradually become cleaner.  Insects, fish, birds and mammals have returned.

The woods, water and soil have slowly healed.   As a Christian, the theology of grace, restoration, resurrection come to mind.

Sure there are elements of toxic metals that remain in the soil and silt.  Points of pollution from fertilizer, to engine oil still find a way to the water.  But the Charles and rivers like it are much cleaner than anyone thought possible before the Clean Water Act was signed.

It is ironic, that Donald Trump is in the process of gutting the EPA by 30% and refers to Climate Change as a ‘hoax’.  The Charles, this fragile waterway which has come so far, is at risk of returning to the toxic pre-Nixon era.  That this newest Republican doesn’t respect the vision of his Republican predecessor is painful to see.

But last Sunday I put my worries for the river’s future aside (if for a few hours).  With my wife Tricia we slipped our kayaks into a stretch of the upper Charles and paddled upstream for several miles.  There were few signs of other humans… a few canoes, a few houses, the muffled sound of a distant car.

For the most part our companions were flowering dogwood trees, old growth white pine, maples, oaks, witch hazel. Birds were in full throat calling to mates, building nests.  Beaver lodges stood as sentinels along the bank.

As we paddled we were accompanied by the wisdom of prophets and mystics.  I heard Isaiah say ‘listen and your soul will live’….I heard the Trappist monk, Thomas Keating ‘the Creator’s first language is silence…everything else is a poor translation’….I even heard Martin Luther: “The sound of birds, wind in the trees, the fragrance of flowers, the mud, rocks, water…all are Logoi, ‘little words’ from the Creator.”  https://www.facebook.com/kent.harrop/videos/10212994239355454/

As dusk approached we allowed the current to return us.  We loaded our car, synched the ropes and left the river.

Soon the Church of Woods and Water will call out to my soul.  I’ll need to return to the woods and  water to be restored, to be healed, to be blessed.

Dr. King Still Speaks

This most recent presidential election season saw the normalizing of white nationalism and fanning of racial tension for the cause of political expediency.  The Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that racism, particularly within the judicial system, where people of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated, remains a persistent stain upon the soul of our nation.

We have much work to do.

Dr. King was a prophet.  He spoke truth to power. His message was rooted in the righteous anger of prophets like Amos 5:24 and Jesus who wept over Jerusalem and said ‘If now, even now, you knew the things that make for peace.’

Dr. King’s letter from his jail cell in Birmingham still speaks.  Speaks to those of us who are complicit in our silence.  Speaks to encourage those standing up for those on the margins (people of color, the poor, refugees, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ, women denied equal rights).

Dr. King still speaks.  Let us listen.  Let us respond. ~ Kent Harrop

mlk-jail

Letter from Birmingham Jail or Letter from Birmingham City Jail, is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an American civil rights leader. . He gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

King’s letter is a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled “A Call For Unity“. The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. They criticized Martin Luther King, calling him an “outside agitator” who causes trouble in the streets of Birmingham.  Below are highlights from the more lengthy letter penned by Dr. King.

 

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

16 April 1963 My Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” ….

…But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”  So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.