The Great Ash Wednesday Debates of 2015

Yesterday, there arose two great Ash Wednesday debates online. They have spilled over today into various posts across the blogosphere, so I have decided to dip my toe into the water.

Debate number one: To #AshTag or not to #AshTag

The first debate I encountered in my social media sphere was about the promotion of Ash Wednesday on social networks. It centered around the hashtag “#ashtag” and its use accompanying essentially selfies of people’s ash-marked foreheads. Is this a good witness and encouragement to our spheres of influence? Or is it a direct contradiction to the traditional lectionary passage from Matthew 6, which calls us to practice our disciplines in secret. In fact, in some places, the discussion turned to whether we should even be using an exterior sign at all.

Debate number two: #AshesToGo versus #GetYourAshInChurch

The second debate revolved around whether it was acceptable and/or even appropriate to offer “Ashes To Go” in church parking lots, street corners, or other public spaces. Those that offered and defended this ministry called it an outreach ministry. Those who disagreed saw it as catering to the sin of busyness. People should be willing and able to attend a 30-45 minute service if they really cared.

Now, if you will notice, I haven’t come down on either side of either debate, and I don’t plan to. I feel like both sides of both debates have valid points of view. Is this a cop out? Perhaps. But I think it really comes down to intention. Sure, we are called to practice our disciplines in secret in Matthew 6, but you can flip a page to the left to Matthew 5 and see Jesus tell people to let their light shine so that people will see our good works and glorify God. Sure, we are also called to gather in community whenever possible for acts of worship, but I know a particular Methodist named John who took ministry to the people where they were (after honestly struggling with whether it was appropriate or “vile”).

Sadly, this post isn’t ultimately about the content of the debate but about the spirit of it. I am all for well formed and passionately held opinions. I am for vigorous debate. Yet, as I wrote in another post about the debate at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, what seems to be missing is any attempt to see whether or not the Holy Spirit is moving through the “other side’s” expression. It was all “here’s why I am right and they are wrong.” I didn’t see any “how did it go for you?” And, to be fair to those who were practicing Ash Wednesday as an outreach, it may take time to see the fruit (if it will even be seen by them at all- some plant and others may harvest).

It is critical to have theological and theoretical discussions and reasonings behind what we do. But to ignore or discount experience is to miss one of the ways we have discerned God’s will. To return to Acts 15, Peter’s argument that led to a major watershed decision about Christian practice was declaring that God had made no distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. How did he determine this? It was by recognizing the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in their lives. And how did he do this? It wasn’t by checking to see if the Holy Spirit had given them some easily visible external mark. It was by engaging, interacting, and experiencing. If, after doing this, we determine that our understand is more faithful, then go forward with how God is leading you. I just wonder how we can be so sure that God did or didn’t move through someone else by 2pm, 5pm, or even 7pm next Wednesday without asking.

If we struggle to have a generous debate over the particulars of our practice of Ash Wednesday, how are we going to navigate issues that come pre-loaded with emotion and volatility? And, since the focus of this site is ultimately about worship, preaching, and communication, what message does the tone of this public debate send to the people who “overhear” it online?

Image by Flickr user MTSOfan. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited from Original.

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