Week of March 24th
By Nate Mason
We do things wrong all the time, and that’s ok. Our lives are full of busy and important things, so sometimes we shlub over the little details because we lack the bandwidth to give it proper attention. For example, most of us probably use Q-tips the wrong way. At least, I always have, and still do! Apparently, we are only supposed to clean the outer ear and not venture into the ear canal. Our bodies naturally clean that part out through the motion and flow of the jaw. Who knew?!?! (Probably most of you). Another example is how we store our food. Do you put tomatoes and/or onions in the refrigerator? How about bread? SINNER! The cold actually damages these items and makes them decompose faster. Think about the grocery store: do they store it in the cooler or in a room temperature bin? Unless it’s in a preserved jar or other container, you should store your groceries like they do in the store.
I bring up these examples to build the case for changing how we think about Ash Wednesday. Every Ash Wednesday, we see people walking around town with little smudged crosshairs on their foreheads, posting ashed selfies, and in many other ways showing off their participation in an Ash Wednesday service. Maybe, just maybe, we’re doing that wrong too.
In general, I am all about being proud and sharing your faith. As Midwestern, mainline Protestants, we often apply the first two rules of Fight Club to our faith (1. We do not talk about Fight Club/our Faith. 2. WE DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB/our faith.) We are a very humble and reserved people. Most of the time when I ask for an “amen” in church, the best I get is a slight smile and nod. So I am all about a vocal witness of faith, but we should really consider the context and timing of our sharing.
Same verse, every year for a reason
Every year on Ash Wednesday, the Revised Common Lectionary gives us the same verses for worship. For the non-clergy who might be reading this, the RCL is a guide that helps us figure out what verses to use in worship. There is a three-year cycle, and in those three years, we cover most of the Bible. Most holidays cycle through the verses according to the three-year cycle. We get three different Christmas Eve readings, three different Easter readings, but Ash Wednesday is one of the exceptions. We read the same verses every year.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
6:1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
6:2 "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
6:5 "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
6:16 "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
6:18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
6:19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;
6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.
6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Every year we get the message that Jesus tells us to be careful about flashing our faith around town all willy nilly. Every year we get that message on the day we see everyone walking around with their faith plastered out their as plain as the nose on their face (just a few inches higher). Oopsie daisy. I think most of us missed the memo on that one just like we missed the memo on the Q-tips!
But that’s ok. If showing off your ashes makes you feel good, if it makes you feel connected and excited to begin your Lenten journey, keep doing it. I just want to talk a little bit more about the spirit behind Matthew 6, and why it’s important. It’s a much bigger deal than strutting around with your ash art. To show you what Matthew 6 is talking about, I want to share with you the ongoing tragedy of Kanye West.
Life Ain’t Yeezy at the Top
It doesn’t matter if you are into hip hop or modern fashion, I am sure everyone has heard at least a little something about what’s going on with Kanye right now, but just in case you are better sheltering yourself from this sort of thing than I am, I’ll give a quick update. For the past eight years Kanye (who is a famous rapper) has been married to Kim Kardashian (of reality TV fame… I think… the line “she’s famous for being famous” comes to mind). Kim and Kanye have four kids together, but a year ago, Kim filed for divorce. That divorce has been very messy and very public. Kim has been relatively silent in public settings about the conflict, but Kanye has been explosive, vulgar, and frequently uses threats of violence towards his ex-wife, her current S/O Pete Davidson, and anyone who defends them. Kanye recently released a music video where a Claymation version of himself brutally murders Pete Davidson.
Divorce is always ugly. The more public the conflict, the long it goes on, and the more people who get involved, the uglier it gets, thus making this divorce particularly ugly. What makes this conflict of particular interest to me, is how Kanye has used his Christian faith as a weapon against Pete.
The Rise and Fall of Kanye’s Faith
Kanye has been causing all kinds of controversy for the past two decades. Most of us, no matter what music you listen to, will remember when Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift during an acceptance speech, but Kanye’s need to be provocative predates that. In 2005, during a Hurricane Katrina live televised fundraiser, Ye (which is Kanye’s legal name) declared that “President Bush doesn’t care about black people.” If you take the time to watch that video, focus on Mike Meyers’s facial expressions. My heart goes out to that poor man! It starts with annoyed impatience at Ye’s lack of professionalism to abject terror as Kanye drops the big accusation against the President.
Kanye has been very open about his struggle with mental health. He’s had numerous public meltdowns (even less planned that the previous two mentioned). In 2019, he announced that he was rejecting traditional mental healthcare and was relying entirely on faith to be made well. Evangelical Christianity rejoiced at this announcement! Kanye started leading weekly “worship services,” that featured several modern hip hop songs with lyrics changed to become Gospel songs. Major evangelical leaders appeared with him celebrating Ye’s conversion.
But the funny thing is, Kanye had always been a Christian. 15 years before this conversion, Kanye released “Jesus Walks,” a song that was a spiritual cry for help. In this song Ye criticizes the systems of power that oppress, declares Jesus walks for “hustlers, murders, drug dealers, even the strippers/ To the victims of welfare for we living in hell here, hell yeah” In 2007, in her book, Raising Kanye, Donda West tells us that Kanye always walked in faith, and that his dedication and success was dependent upon that faith.
If Kanye was always vocal about his Christianity, why did his 2019 conversion matter to the Evangelical community? Probably because his spiritual change of heart coincided with a political one. Kanye became a very prominent supporter of President Trump, which was a huge turn around from calling the last Republican President a racist. The Evangelical community saw Kanye not as a saved soul, but as a way to say “If Kanye is one of us, we can’t be racist.” If this was about spirituality and religion, there are no less than a dozen rappers turned pastors we could lift up. MC Hammer, Rev Run, even the Beastie Boys expressed their faith in song. It takes some serious talent to rhyme “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
I don’t want to sound like I’m questioning Kanye’s faith, or even his politics. I have every confidence that Kanye’s spirituality and political beliefs are much more complex than we see. I believe that everything he does comes from a place of good intentions and prayer. I lift this up as an example of why Jesus tells us to be wary of practicing our piety in public. I’m going to assume that most of you reading this are not into hip hop, but you have to understand that Kanye is good. Really good. He’s released ten full studio albums, and millions of people buy and listen to them. I have no doubt that there are thousands of people who came to know Jesus through Kanye’s work, but there in lies a problem of its own.
Judge by our actions
In my first ministry job, we took a large group of 45+ confirmation kids to Denver to get a multi-cultural religious experience. As with most educational things, the leaders learn more than the students. For example, I got to learn about the religious experience of hell in the form of taking 45+ junior high kids to a metropolitan area. I’m kidding… mostly… But one of the truly transformational experiences was going to worship at a synagogue with a man called Rabbi Jay.
Rabbi Jay explained that he didn’t always have wear his yarmulke, but he chose to because it reminded him that others will judge his faith by his actions, and he always wanted to represent G-d in a way that honors them. He gave the example of going to the grocery store and cutting in line with a load of items. If he’s not wearing his yarmulke, the people behind him will judge him for him, but if he IS wearing his yarmulke, everyone else will think less of his faith. It moves him to be more accountable. Following that visit, we loaded kids onto the bus (an activity akin to the herding of cats,) and drove to our next stop. On
1 These worship services were paid concerts only available to select people. I don’t mean to sound critical of Ye’s faith, but the traditional side of me refuses to believe a worship service features back up dancers. Maybe I’m just jealous that my worship services don’t have back up dancers.
2 I will own the fact that it took 2 Googles and 5 attempts to get “yarmulke” spelled close enough to correct for auto correct to help me out.
the way there was a very vulgar political protest. There were disturbing pictures of mutilated bodies, and lots of Bible verses on signs. On one corner there was a homeless man that said “Homeless Vet. I’m hungry. Please help,” and the protesters on that corner, all with Bible verse signs, cowered away from the man. After hearing Rabbi Jay, I cannot help but wonder what all the onlookers now thought of our faith. Just like now I cannot help but wonder what all the people who believe in Kanye’s Christianity think about Kanye’s current actions.
Kanye has been targeting his ex-wife’s current boyfriend, Pete Davidson. He’s been referring to him in a very derogatory word that most people don’t understand less it be censored! What’s worse is that he’s been using his faith to justify his attacks against Pete and Kim. Even worse than that, Kanye’s followers have been doing the same. Pete will have hecklers online and in real life shout at him “Find God,” “God hates cheaters!” and other religious based hate. Pete has shared at length about his mental health struggles. He has quit social media multiple times over the damage it does to his health, but his career necessitates an online presence. Pete could really benefit from a supportive religious community to aid him in his struggles, but there is next to no chance now that he will find faith due to the attacks of a misguided religious mob. Perhaps Kanye should have listened to the Ash Wednesday lectionary.
For better or worse, all of the actions of the faithful impact how others understand Christianity.
So what can we do?
Two things, the first is be vocal about the vulnerability and fallibility of Christians. Isn’t that why we wear the ash after all? Kanye is hurting, and his actions come from a place of hurt. That does not excuse what he’s doing to his ex-wife, but we need to acknowledge that all Christians fall short sometimes. As a society, we find repentance to be a sign of weakness. Scripture tells us the opposite is true, so we need to be vocal in our failings and how we repent of them. I would love to see Ash Wednesday selfies posted with a statement of repented sin. “I wear this ash because I lose my temper with my kids,” “I wear this ash because I often put work before my relationships,” “I wear this ash because I do not practice kindness the way I should.” We need to give a positive example of repentance to those who don’t know Christ, otherwise they see the destructive acts of faith like Kanye’s and assume that’s ok.
The second thing we need to do, and this is the hard one, is hold each other accountable in how we display our faith. This gets very complicated in church life! As a clergy person, I don’t really ever get to take off the religious hat. I try to, I should be able to, but in reality, everything I do will be viewed through the lens as the actions of the clergy. Sometimes I slip up, but I am blessed to have colleagues and friends hold me accountable.
Back in 2020, in the weeks following the Derecho, I made an insensitive Facebook post. I posted not as a pastor, but as a father who was overwhelmed and angry because several days went by and our apartment still didn’t have electricity. We had to live off flashlights and coolers in 85+ degree weather. I was angry, hot, oh Lord so hot, and tired, so I trashed talked the state of Iowa and how it can’t handle a little wind, unlike my home in South Dakota where 100mph gusts are weekly occurrences. Did I have the right to vent a bit? Maybe, but many of my congregation were in similar or worse situations. They needed a Christian who was centered. Luckily a pastor friend/mentor/teacher of mine was quick to call me out in a loving but direct way before I could let that post stew for too long and stir up resentment. We all slip up. We all have our moments of anger and frustration, so we all need help being held to that Christian standard. I pray we have the strength to support each other and the humility to receive that help.
This goes beyond the roles of the clergy though and extends to every person present in the church. Just by being in church we are practicing our piety in front of others, so we REALLY need to be aware of our actions in church. How we act and interact within the church affects the people around us. In 2018, when Justice Kavanaugh was being confirmed to the Supreme Court, it created a lot of tension within the church I was appointed. We live in a complicated space where we believe the victims of sexual violence while maintain the innocence of the accused until proven guilty. It seems contradictory, and it is very hard to do, but it’s the only way we can live as a just society. I was very disheartened by the commentary of some of the people at church. They villainized Dr. Blasey Ford and said some very aggressive things about her. Here's the thing, 1 in 6 women in the United States are victims of sexual violence, and most of them do not report the abuse. When these comments were made there were 15 women present, so statistically at least two of them had experienced something similar to what Dr. Blasey Ford had gone through, and I know for a fact at least one of them had. That conversation did irreparable harm to that congregation. I as a leader failed to dive into the discussion because I didn’t want to come across as political, but my silence reinforced an atmosphere that was hostile to victims of sexual violence. They did not feel safe in their church, and they did not trust their church would believe them.
How many potentially hurtful comments do we let fly in church? Most churches have “that person.” You know, “that person” who frequently goes on offensive rants, but you just let it go because it’s “Just old ‘so-in-so.” As a church we have failed to hold these people accountable for so long because we want to avoid conflict, we don’t want to chase of “old so-in-so,” but our silence has become permission. We let “old so-in-so” scare off countless people who are too hurt to speak up.
Our actions, just like Kanye’s, have given people the wrong idea about who Jesus is. So be vocal in repentance, be open to guidance, and, most of all, guide each other with Grace and Love.