Thursday, February 27, 2020


Ash Wednesday is about sin and death.
We prefer not to think about such things.
The word for that is denial. 
Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death,
     won the Pulitzer Prize for showing how
     most of our human nuttiness can be traced
                 to our efforts to pretend we will never die.

We start by denying death, then get in the habit of denying
     all sorts of things.
No long ago, I ran across several people furiously denying
they were racist though no one had hinted 
     that they were.
Back in Georgia we used to say, 
         It’s the hit dog that hollers.

I am not a racist.
I am not an alcoholic.
I am not anti-Muslim. I am not homophobic.
I am not this. I am not that. I am not mortal. 

Some people accuse religion of existing 
      precisely for denial.
They call religion escapist,
a pie in the sky fantasy for hiding our eyes 
from hard truths.

Sometimes they are right.
A lot of our clergy say We are an Easter People
     and so violate the rubrics to add parts 
     of the Easter service all year long.
Many a sermon today will reassure congregations
     that we don’t want you to think 
      about anything unpleasant.
All sorts of cute variations on the imposition ashes 
      will be done to hide the message.
I fully expect some priest somewhere 
         to change the words from 
Remember that you are dust 
     Remember that you may get an occasional virus
     but with Tamiflu and Tylenol you will feel better soon.

Escapist religion is on the rise.
It is more pleasant and more marketable. 
But the most formative theologian in history, St. Augustine, 
defined sin as precisely this kind of escape. 
Sin is disengagement, he said. Sin is denial. 
Sin is hiding our eyes from the truth. Religion can be sin.
In our Old Testament lesson,
Isaiah listed the religious pieties and self- 
mortifications of his day.
They were jumping through the religious hoops
     so they could bypass the hard stuff.
But Isaiah said God was not impressed.
According to Isaiah, God says, 
         On the day of your fasting . .  . 
      you exploit your workers.
     Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . . 
     Is this what you call a fast? . . . .
     Is this not the fast I have chosen:
                 to loose the chains of injustice
                 and untie the cords of the yoke,
                 to set the oppressed free. . .  .?

Isaiah wouldn’t stand for a religion 
           that ignored our part in injustice.
He had no use for escapist petty pieties like giving up 
coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days.
He thought we had real issues to deal with.

Escapist religion is just smoke and mirrors
     to distract us from the violence and injustice
      of our lives. 
But Isaiah’s God says, Let’s get real.

This is what’s real.
We are awash in unspoken repressed grief
     that life is not living up to our expectations.
In a fragmented, alienating society, we are lonely.
The state orders us, the market manipulates us, 
          and we are angry.
When things seem to be skidding out of control, 
          we are afraid. 
We are not who we want to be, 
         so we are ashamed. 
That adds up to a load of anger, fear, and shame 
     none of which we dare to express.

Episcopal theologian Luke Bretherton says 
        grief and repentance 
are not respectable in our society,
     so we avoid them with a clever two-part strategy
     of denial and projection. 
The denial piece includes escapist religion.
But there’s more. Upbeat psychologies, pop philosophies, 
 chemical mood enhancers, 
and various entertainments
                 all help us escape our situation.

Escapist strategies take us farther and farther away
     from each other and shrivel our capacity
                 to connect with care and appreciation.
Escapism flees from the common life of family, church, 
and civic engagement that require hard things 
like sacrifice and compromise.  

Escapism alone, however, isn’t enough 
        to anesthetize our unhappiness
with the world and with ourselves.
We need part two: projection. 
We blame all that negative feeling on someone else 
and denounce them.
We find scapegoats for all that is wrong with life.

Bretherton calls it the politics of denunciation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it theological dualism. 
Same thing.
It means finding someone to blame for our grief,
     someone to serve as a screen on which to project
     the parts of ourselves we don’t want to admit.

I am not a racist. I am not Islamophobic. 
I am not angry, and I’ll fight the man who says I am.
I am not violent or lustful. 
I do not have any of the psychological baggage
     that Freud and Gerard say afflicts everyone else.
No not me.
It’s the Syrians, the Salvadorans, the gays, 
     the homophobes, the bigots, or the billionaires.

We are apt to be like the Pharisee in Luke.
     The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed,
     ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people –
     robbers, evildoers, adulterers, 
       or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week (and tithe).
The Pharisee stood /by himself. // 
Escapism and projection.

But the tax collector he was condemning prayed,
     God have mercy on me a sinner.
Jesus said it was the tax collector 
         who went home justified. 
He didn’t escape. He didn’t project.
He owned his grief, his disappointment with himself, 
         and repented. 

So if you want a spiritual discipline for Lent, try this one:
Lower your weapons, by which I mean 
          withdraw your projections.
Psychotherapists tell us that the road 
      to personal wholeness
     begins when we withdraw our projections. 

So, whoever you are demonizing, give it up 
            – at least for 40 days. 
In an election year, maybe you are demonizing  
          a political candidate.
A cool rational disagreement is good sense. 
A vote is our civic duty.
But a passionate personal animosity is probably fueled 
         by projection.
Maybe you are blaming someone in your family 
     or church or neighborhood
     for your anger or unhappiness. 
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.

Maybe it’s Syrians you fear may be terrorists 
     or Salvadoran refugees you think are after your job. 
Maybe it’s gay people redefining your marriage 
or homophobes curtailing your freedom. 
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.

Then we’ll be ready to spend the coming 40 days
     doing some serious soul-searching,
     cultivating a healthy, if not always comfortable, 
We may find stuff in ourselves that isn’t pretty.
But we may also find the capacity to forgive ourselves
     for the shameful sin of being human. 

If we practice the gentle art of forgiving ourselves,
     we will find it a lot easier to forgive someone else.
Eventually we may even forgive life itself 
     for disappointing us,
     and set ourselves free to actually live it.  
Wouldn’t that be a Resurrection! 
Wouldn’t that be an Easter!