Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Yesterday was a convoluted day. It was Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Baseball’s Spring Training. It was also a tremendously busy day at work that included multiple meetings, conducting the Ecumenical Ash Wednesday liturgy, the usual program, administrative, personnel, and facility management issues. Likewise because it was Valentine’s Day I didn’t want to screw it up. Since I usually find a way to screw up birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and other assorted holidays involving marriage it was a bit stressful. Thankfully I did pretty well regarding Valentine’s Day, I started by trying to suck up in the days before Valentine’s Day doing little things to build up some extra points in case I screwed up on the actual day, and for once I didn’t totally screw the pooch, in fact I did rather well, but I digress…
Of course if I had wanted to be an ass I could have celebrated Ashentine’s Day, that is the rare day when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day enabling asshat spouses, fiancee’s, or partners to tell their beloved that they can’t take them out for a fancy dinner because of the fasting rules prescribed by the Church on Ash Wednesday. This confluence doesn’t happen often, the last time it did was seventy-tree or seventy-four years ago, so cheapskates and other turds don’t get the opportunity to do this often, and the fact that I even thought of it means that while I may be a complete turd at times that I would never tell Judy: “Sorry, I can’t take you out or give you anything for Valentine’s Day because it’s Ash Wednesday and I don’t want to lead you to hell.” I value my life too much. That being said I can imagine that there are some people who will do exactly that, not because they really are trying to observe the true meaning of Lent, but because they are cheap asshats who look for ways out of doing something nice for their partner using the cover of religion to do it. But again I digress as I so often do…
The truth is that a decade after returning from Iraq I still struggle with faith and belief, and doubt is always a part of my life and Lent has never really been a good time for me. In the early years of this blog I masked my struggle with humor about trying to make getting through Lent focusing more on the outward displays of faith and the actions of prayer, abstinence, and fasting than really wrestling with why the penitential aspects of Lent are important; far from being onerous they help us remember our shared humanity; especially with the least, the lost, and the lonely.
That being said I do still have faith, more than I have had for quite a few years and when it came time to schedule an Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at my Chapel to compliment our Roman Catholic Mass which was scheduled for the evening I decided to lead it. I am glad that I did.
Since I was not serving at this chapel last year I had no idea how many people might show up or what the composition would be. Since I’m in an odd situation being an Old Catholic Priest, in a sense occupying a line between Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism I never know exactly what to expect in such a situation. Thankfully I have been able to build bridges with our Catholic and Protestant communities in the ten months that I have served here and I had members of both congregations at the service. Again not knowing what to expect I used the liturgy from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, with a couple of more Anglo-Catholic modifications in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which I used in my previous denomination because it kind of splits the difference between Protestants and Catholics.
I do love celebrating the Eucharist and conducting the liturgy and it’s funny that after almost 22 years since I was ordained as a Priest I am beginning to acquire a taste for Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is especially true when I read the Biblical passages from the Lectionary associated with them, especially those of Ash Wednesday which include Isaiah 58: 1-12; Second Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-21. When I read them, especially the passage from Isaiah I am continually amazed at how they speak to the state of American Christianity in the age of Trump. I’m going to try to avoid politics for tonight but I could see Isaiah preaching them today almost any church in America, especially the great Evangelical and Charismatic megachurches, and television ministries whose leaders have abandoned all pretense of being “Biblical” as they prostrate themselves before the President in pursuit of raw political power masked in an extremely thin veneer of religion.
In my sermon I did not hammer home on that but I did spend a lot of time with the Isaiah passage without being overtly political; which in my position that would have been less than wise. Sometimes it’s better to let the scriptures speak for themselves.
I also talked about doubt, something that many people, including Christians of all persuasions struggle with but few ministers really honor as a measure of faith. I used my own struggle with faith and doubt after Iraq. I struggled and I still struggle with faith, I believe but sometimes I don’t, and I am certainly not someone who thinks that he has the Christian life down, in fact sometimes my witness; my temper, my language, and so much more about me do not reflect Jesus. I am not okay with that, but it is the truth. Since Spring Training began today I let the congregation know that I am a Mendoza Line Christian, meaning that I have a Christian life batting average of about .200, just enough to say in the game.
Doubt is usually ignored, and most of the Christians who I know who struggle with doubt are afraid to talk about it in church, you tend to lose friends by expressing doubts or struggles in most churches. To me it is no wonder that the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States are those people with no religious preference and those who have either fled the church or those outside who look at the Church and find nothing redeeming in it. Sadly, most of these people actually like or admire Jesus, some even believing that he is the Son of God, but who are so disgusted by the actions of Christians that they have walked away. As Pedro Cerrano in Major League said: “Ah, Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.”
As I finished my sermon I decided to read the words of the homily given by Father Flynn played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Doubt. The film is powerful, set in 1964 and I won’t do spoilers to tell you what happens in it and how it ends, you’ll need to watch it yourself. But I will share the words of Father Flynn’s sermon because they are so symbolic of our time when so many people struggle with faith. His words which compare the collective experience of people whose world has been shattered versus those whose struggles are invisible to most people. I know what that is like and because of my own struggles I have come to be able to read the unspoken angst, fear, doubt, and weariness of the lonely.
“Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity?
‘No one knows I’m sick.’
‘No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend.’
‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’
Imagine the isolation. Now you see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people, and on the other side: you.
I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in. And for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost… and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations – had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once… and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. And I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
So as Lent begins I encourage those who struggle and doubt to realize that there are a lot more people like then they realize; and for those who are not struggling not to look down on the lonely, not to be afraid that doubt is contagious, but instead to do the little things that remind people that they are not alone.
Likewise it is important to realize that some of the people who outwardly appear the most sanctimonious, the most sure of their beliefs, and the most rigid in their opposition to others also struggle, and that their display of certitude masks their own doubts and their own aloneness.
So until tomorrow,