Thursday, March 02, 2006

An Ash-less Wednesday

This is my second Ash-less Wednesday in a row, and I’m missing it. Protestant Cameroon doesn’t celebrate any part of Lent – “too Catholic,” they tell me.

In our weekly prayer meeting this morning, Pastor Simeon Nomo told me he’d lose half his church membership if he started talking about Lent. It’s still a sad fact about us United Methodists that we tend to identify ourselves by what we are not, rather than by what -- and Whose -- we are.

That’s to be expected, I suppose, since we are a rather odd ensemble of characters. We are mostly a church of “exes” – ex-Catholic (too ritualistic), ex-Pentecostal (too flighty), ex-Presbyterian (too “dead”), ex-traditionalist (too superstitious), ex-Baptist (too confining), ex-Evangelique (too leader-driven) …

We are people who don’t fit in elsewhere, who have fallen out with pastors, who have been in and out of prison. We are people have been attracted to the UMC by American accents, by our belief in good deeds, by our emphasis on holiness, by our short(er) services, by our liturgy. We are all first-generation United Methodists, but third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Christians.

And so I have to accept the fact that celebrating Ash Wednesday would be a bit radical in this time and place.

It’s not for lack of appreciation of Lenten values. My pastors know how to fast, for example. They do it all the time! They have an enormous capacity for self-deprivation; they can fast for days, taking nothing but water. They are rather scandalized by the fact that I have never attempted to go longer than one day without eating for the purpose of something important like intercessory prayer.

No, this is plain and simple anti-Catholicism. I step back at this point, for this is a contextual crisis. I defend Catholics every chance I get, especially to the preachers, but they’re stuck in a common pastoral dilemma: how to gently change the hearts and minds of a congregation without running them off. (I can’t say I’ve ever been very good at this myself in my own parish experiences, so I hesitate to criticize anyone!)

But I still wish someone would smear my own forehead with greasy ash and say the words that are so powerful and redemptive: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”