Yesterday, my friend Hank gave me a ride to the airport. On the way, he told me he had a surprise for me and stopped in at the Diesel Cafe in Somerville, MA. Since we often go to the Diesel for coffee, I didn’t think much of it at first until he told me we weren’t there for coffee. After we got our coffees, he led me out back where Rev. Molly Baskette, Pastor of the First Church UCC in Somerville, was distributing ashes. Perfect. I had written off trying to get ashes today, but this is why Hank is not only a colleague in ministry but a dear friend. What a gift! Like all good spiritual experiences, receiving the ashes yesterday has sent me into time of contemplation and reflection.
Out of that contemplation and reflection here are some thoughts I think I think and feelings I feel I feel. The ashes sent my mind and heart tumbling once again down the path of resonating with Christianity as a spiritual path as a Unitarian Universalist. One of the things I think I think is that the militant, strident divisions between theists/Christians and Humanists/atheists in the Unitarian Universalist world are lessening. Oh, they’re still there, fundamentalists of all stripes never, well, lose their stipes it seems. Yet my recent experience is that younger colleagues in ministry, both ordained and lay, are not nearly so hung up about NEVER treading into impure theological or philosophical waters or crossing the aisle to use a political metaphor. Spiritual practices, prayer, even deep theological language out of the Christian tradition such as grace, blessing, and especially God, don’t raise eyebrows the way they used to – or perhaps I’ve just been in fortunate locations the last couple of years. A few weeks ago, I had a great conversation with a colleague who explained to me that she is not a Christian because she does not believe Jesus died for her sins or anyone else’s. She doesn’t believe Jesus is her personal Lord and Savior. Then she asked me if I believe these things. I think of myself as a Christian Universalist under the Unitarian Universalist umbrella, but the honest answer is No. I don’t think Jesus died for anyone’s sins nor I do consider Jesus my personal Lord and savior, at least not in the way savior is traditionally understood in mainstream Christianity. I know there are many Christians as well as Unitarian Universalists who will immediately question my claim to the label Christian. After all, without Easter, isn’t Jesus just another nice guy who taught good things and paid for it with persecution and a torturous death. Perhaps.
I don’t consider Jesus my personal Lord and savior, but what does salvation mean? Can’t I find Jesus meaningful and even salvific? If salvation is not being rescued from an angry God, but rather becoming healthy, whole and living whole-heartedly and authentically, then maybe the teachings of Jesus and the example of his ministry are things that lead me to live a more holistic, healthy and integrated life. His life and ministry and even the fact that he died for daring to be countercultural socially, politically and religiously (as a Jew of his time) is an example for me in how to live and be and move through the world. So, like the UU Christian Fellowship proclaims, I freely follow the teachings and example of Jesus to the best of my ability. After receiving ashes yesterday, my friend Hank and I got into a discussion about how many UU’s, if pressed, especially those who are not hard atheists, want, seek and ask for a God they can be in relationship with and not “to whom it may concern.” I’ve met many Unitarian Universalists who either have or have contemplated leaving Unitarian Universalism for progressive Christianity because within that paradigm there is a concrete, solid reference when we talk about God, and its assumed its proper and allowable to reference the tradition, scripture, and talk about prayer and other devotional practices.
Can I, as Unitarian Universalist accept ashes on my head in good faith? I certainly hope so. Ashes to Ashes dust to dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return. You live, you die. All your pressing concerns but brief flickers in an instant in a very short human lifespan. Many religions have ways of calling us back to this place of contemplating mortality. The Five Remembrances in Buddhism do this quite starkly: I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old I am of the nature to have ill health: there is no way to escape having ill health I am of the Nature to die: there is no way to escape death All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them My deeds are my closest companions; I am the beneficiary of my deeds. my deeds are the ground on which I stand. Ash Wednesday takes us to the same place with fewer words. Ashes to ashes. I know of ministerial colleagues who have no idea that yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It may be problematic for Unitarian Universalism as a whole to celebrate Ash Wednesday, but I sincerely hope that more of our congregations pay attention to it. We need it and the season of Lent it ushers in. Perhaps it is another instance in the Unitarian Universalist universe where asking the question is as beneficial as the different answers different Unitarian Universalists may have to the question. Can we adopt more of the liturgical calendar and celebrations such as Ash Wednesday and Lent out of our Unitarian and Universalist Christian roots in an authentic manner? Perhaps this is the same as asking if non-Buddhists can adopt the Five Remebrances?
While you think and hopefully comment on these questions, I was blessed that another Unitarian Universalist minister fed my spirit yesterday by taking me to get ashes from a United Church of Christ pastor in the middle of a coffee sho