Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ashless Wednesday

I went to an Ash Wednesday service at Plymouth Church this week. Honestly, I completely forgot it was Ash Wednesday. I just went for the jazz service, as I usually do. I like the music and the service helps me get through the work week.

As soon as I looked at the program, I realized what day it was. I also realized that I would not be going forward to get ashes. Even before the pastor started talking about how this was "an outward manifestation of faith," I had worked out that this was the kind of sacrament that as a Quaker, I should not participate in (Quakers also do not take communion or have water baptisms; the idea is that all of life is sacramental or holy). So as everyone went forward, I stayed in my seat, the lone Quaker in the sanctuary with no ashes on my forehead.

In the convergent Friends workshop at Ben Lomond, one of the things we spent a lot of time on was the idea of how to be plain in the modern world. We talked about how some Friends choose to wear plain clothes and made a list of ways that we could be plain. Suggestions included only eating fair trade chocolate, taking an internet sabbath once a week, giving away the clothes we don't really need, and many other ideas.

One Friend commented that although she feels that many of these things are good ideas, she doesn't feel led to do them. As we were talking, I realized that what drew me to the idea of plain dress was the fact that people notice the Friends who wear those clothes and ask them why they dress that way.

I don't wear clothing with writing on it, but that is more about me not wanting to be a billboard or give others a reason to stare at my chest than it is about my Quaker values. I do not feel called to aprons and long skirts. But I wonder what I am doing in my life that makes people ask why. Does my life speak louder than the things I wear?

In the Ash Wednesday service, the pastor quoted Isaiah 58 and suggested that one of the sins we should be thinking about during Lent is the sin of taking more of the earth's resources than our fair share. If she is right that this is a sin, and I think she is, then we all have a lot of repenting to do.

At the same time, I don't want Quakers to start patting ourselves on the back for our conservation efforts. Last week, Timothy wrote a post on Quakers and sin that made me laugh out loud when he said,
Far too many of us are pretty darned self-satisfied and believe that the only transformation that needs to happen is that others need to vote for liberal Democrats, recycle more and listen to NPR. Oh, and lately, drive a Toyota Pious cheerfully across the earth in a socially responsible way that looks out for that of God in everyone.
A lot of the ideas we came up with in our plain discussion are really good ideas. And if we all did them, it would probably make the world a better place. But our task as Friends is not to be the best liberal democrats we can be. As I was reminded last weekend, we are supposed to listen to God and live up to the light we are given. The real question is, what is God calling us to do?


  1. The real question for me appears, at first, to be "How is God calling me to be changed?"

    Then the obvious floats up--I know how God is calling me to be changed. The question is how can I stand aside and let Christ do that change in me--without my putting limits and conditions on it.

    From the change comes the "doing."

    The doing can help change us, no doubt. But love is the first motion. And it's not love of what we think we are--something that others should emulate. It's love of all those who we think should be more like us--more like how we see ourselves.

    It's not about making the world a better place. It's about ourselves being made better people. The better place will flow from from the better people.

    There was one who could speak to Fox's condition--not the condition of Fox's world.

  2. Nice post. It reminds me of the difficulty I had in choosing and discerning not to receive what was billed as a sort of "secular communion" during a Quaker friend's interfaith wedding a while ago.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  3. Wow, I was really shocked to learn that Quakers don't take communion or practice baptism, I feel very strongly that these are rituals that Christians are called to practice. Specifically since Christ himself was baptized and took communion (and instructed Christians to do so). What exactly do you mean that all of life is sacramental or holy? And why would taking communion and being baptized contradict that belief? I don't believe that the reason Christians are instructed to take communion and be baptized is because the two practices are "holy" but because of the meaning and significance of the rituals. I think you might need to explore this farther : )

  4. Hi Emily,

    To answer your question, I turned to the glossary
    from Freedom Friends Church's Faith and Practice. It's so much easier when I don't have to create this stuff from scratch!

    baptism: This word comes from the Greek word which means ‘to dip’. Many early religions, including the Hebrew faith included a ritual bath to prepare oneself for prayer or the temple. John the Baptist, (Matthew 3) was revolutionary in his washing of people in the muddy river Jordan, saying that cleansing came from God and the confessing of your sins, not from the Priests or the temple. Jesus was baptized by John, even though John protested that he needed to be baptized by Jesus (Matt. 3:13). There is not much evidence that Jesus performed baptisms, but the early church clearly had a water baptism as part of their membership rituals. The Catholic and Orthodox churches consider baptism to be a sacrament - that means a thing that is necessary for spiritual life and salvation. Protestant churches have varying views and practices of baptism, for instance - baptizing babies or only adults - and how much water? sprinkle, pour or dunk? Quakers in the 1600’s made a really radical interpretation of baptism and maintained that it is the immersion in the presence of God, and that water and ritual are not necessary. They base this on Jesus’ prophecy that a time will come when worshippers will worship “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:23). They took this to mean that there is no outward ritual that is required to bring one close to God. Most Quakers today maintain this practice of ‘dry cleaning’.

    communion: From the Latin, meaning to share something. Early in the practice of the Christian church it was a shared meal in remembrance of the last supper that Christ had with his disciples. This eventually became formalized into the Christian ritual and sacrament of bread and wine that is called the Eucharist in the liturgical church. This sharing of the meal became the basis of belief in the bread becoming the literal body of Christ and the believer taking Christ into him/herself. This became the most essential sacrament or holy behavior, of the church. A person denied access to this meal by the Church or its priest was considered to be severed from access to God. George Fox and the early Quakers maintained that every person has the ability to make a connection with God and Christ without the need of any priest or ritual. They believed that all of life can be sacramental. Friends believe strongly in the possibility and practice of intimate communication with Christ. This communion can happen in any time or place, and cannot be taken away by any human means. Quakers practice this as a group when they sit together in silent worship this practice is often called "communion after the manner of Friends".

    If it makes you feel better, I was baptized twice in my pre-Quaker days and I have taken communion many, many times!

  5. From a historical standpoint I can see where George Fox is coming from, rebelling against the status quo of the day (i.e. the Catholic Church deciding who could and could not take communion). But I think you are throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just because some groups have used “the sacraments” to control/punish others doesn’t mean that their original purpose was bad.

    Scripture is clear that nothing can be done to earn salvation, and Christ is our direct interceder to God, not a priest. But that doesn’t mean that there is not value in the symbolic nature of communion and baptism. I would agree that every person does have the ability to make a connection with God and Christ without the need of any priest or ritual but that make the rituals any less valid or beneficial.

    Clearly there is a difference between a spiritual baptism of faith and a literal water baptism. I think both are important and so is literal taking of the wine and bread of the Passover meal. There is so much symbolism in both acts and when you really study it the depth of the rituals are actually quite mind blowing. I don’t think it is a salvation issue but I feel bad for Quakers that they are missing out on the incredible blessing of these two traditions.

  6. Marshall Massey wrote:

    First, regarding Christ, baptism & communion: you've already noted that, while Christ sought water baptism from John, into John's community, he did not turn around and baptize John even though he was invited to. (Matthew 3:13-17) But your comment that "there is not much evidence that Jesus performed baptisms" is a remarkable understatement; in the gospels there is *no evidence at all* that he performed *water* baptisms for anyone.

    He did, however, give his disciples a baptism in the Spirit at a point near the conclusion of his earthly ministry, (John 20:22) after having given the importance of the Spirit a great deal of prior emphasis. (John 14:16-16:15) It would seem, then, that Christ might have meant for water baptism to end with him, and for the Spiritual baptism foretold by John (Matthew 3:11) to begin with him.

    Paul, for his part, thanked God that he had baptized none save Crispus and Gaius, and added that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel. (I Corinthians 1:14-17) The seeming implication is that he regarded water baptism as being something of a distraction from what the great Work of the apostle was really all about.

    Matthew 23:25-26 may be taken as Christ's criticism of the custom of water baptism that had become popular among the Pharisees of his day.

    Since Emily asserts that Christ "instructed Christians" to practice the communion ritual, I'd like to encourage her, in a friendly way, to reëxamine the biblical texts where she believes this is commanded. What I myself find when I do this is that Christ said to his disciples, "Take, eat" (Mark 14:22 / Matthew 26:26), "Do this as a memorial" (Luke 22:19), "Drink all of this" (Matthew 26:27), and "Take this and divide it amongst yourselves" (Luke 22:17). Nothing in this simple language appears to me to suggest that Christ was instituting a ritual for generations yet to come; these were simply directives to his disciples as to what he wanted them to do then and there.

    The scholars I've read seem to believe that in the early days the Christians had "love feasts" — in essence, potlucks — rather than Communion rituals. This would suggest that their understanding of the words of Christ was essentially similar to mine, and to that of Friends generally.

    So far as I know, the idea that "all of life can be sacramental" was not voiced by early Friends, and did not come into widespread use until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The point, for early Friends, was not that "all of life can be sacramental" but that the word "sacrament" appears nowhere in the Bible. The early Friends made it clear that they wanted to be faithful to what the Bible taught explicitly, as distinct from things like water baptism and the concept of "sacrament" that had crept into the Church later on. They felt that, in a sense, by shifting its emphasis from straightforward obedience to the words of Christ, to obedience to the customs of later generations, the Church had fallen into one of the great errors for which Christ had criticized the Jews of his day: building their lives not around God's own commandments but around the traditions and commandments of men (Mark 7:6-9).

    To Emily I would say: if you truly "feel bad" that Friends "are missing out on the incredible blessing of these two traditions", it might be worth considering how that "bad feeling" relates to Mark 7:6-9.


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