Good and not-so-good reasons to share an #Ashtag selfie


Confession: I may or may not have posted an Ash Wednesday selfie in years past. Not so I could win a publisher’s contest offering free merchandise in exchange for so-called #ashtags (that IS troubling), but because I was taken by the novelty of the ceremony.

Admittedly, it seems odd to call an ancient ritual “novel.” But that’s what it was for me—and for others like me, who grew up in nonliturgical church settings. Strangely enough, it was in an evangelical megachurch that I first received the imposition of ashes. When the church started experimenting with liturgy in its worship, I was hooked. The perceived novelty was intoxicating in the best way, precisely because of the way liturgy invites into us into something bigger than ourselves.

Many of us are just now stumbling into the liturgy. And for us it’s like a discovery. The weekly Eucharist, the prayer book, the liturgical seasons—we had no idea these things existed, much less how powerful they are. So for some of us, an #ashtag (much as I hate that term) might simply be an expression of our excitement at this “new” way of faith we’ve “discovered.”

We’re like infants taking our first steps in a world where everything is captivating, new, and exciting. And because social media is a natural extension of our lives, posting an #ashtag selfie might, for some, be the most natural way of sharing what the liturgy means to us.

On the other hand, there’s a time for putting away childish things. And Ash Wednesday selfies might be one of them. It worries me when organizations try to make a promotional opportunity out of a sacred ritual. There’s something incongruous about taking a lighthearted selfie moments after a ceremony meant to remind us of our mortality. It’s like “whistling past graveyards,” as David R. Henson put it. It reduces a holy encounter with the immortal God into a social media trend. It inadvertently shifts the focus from the divine to ourselves, as Peter Chin suggests.

Is that really such a good idea?

Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—the incongruity of the #ashtag selfie is highlighted a little too well by the appointed gospel reading for Ash Wednesday:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The appointed reading challenges us to think critically about our practice of Ash Wednesday selfies. Now, I don’t believe most people sharing #ashtags are doing so primarily to win others’ approval—though there is something dangerously intoxicating about seeing the number of likes or retweets your post gets. For most, I think the practice is a genuine expression of what the liturgy means to them, and a genuine desire to share that with others.

Still, I hope we reach a point where those of us for whom all this is new no longer need #ashtags, where the ceremony itself is enough, where our initial exuberance gives way to a quieter, less visible—and ultimately more sustainable—form of piety.

Image: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College on Twitter

An alternative prayer for Memorial Day

If you feel conflicted over Memorial Day, you’re not alone. On the one hand, it is right we should honor those who sacrificed everything, driven by the noble desire to serve. On the other hand, it feels less right that we should baptize their sacrifice as a pretext for the next war, and the next one, and the next one.

Other voices for nonviolence have shared their Memorial Day reflections. (See, for example, this prayer from Kurt Willems and this excellent post from J.R. Daniel Kirk two years ago.) For this post, I tapped into the two theological streams I’m drawn to most—the Anglican and Anabaptist traditions—to write an alternative prayer for Memorial Day…


We remember all who serve in the armed forces. We pray for their safekeeping.

We remember those stationed overseas. We pray they will be reunited with their loved ones soon.

We remember those who have experienced combat. We ask you to restore peace to their souls and wholeness to their bodies.

We remember those who have died in combat. We pray for the repose of their souls and the comfort of their families.

We remember the innocent victims of war:

We remember those imprisoned by war, including those at Guantanamo Bay. We pray for those innocent of wrongdoing, those cleared for release but with no freedom in sight, and those held more than a decade without trial.

We remember the children killed in our drone strikes:

Wajid, 9,

Ayeesha, 3,

Syed, 7,

Talha, 8,

Zayda, 7,

Hoda, 5,

and many more.

We remember civilians killed in war, including the 137,000 who died during and after the war in Iraq.

We remember the children of Syria, Nigeria, and everywhere conflict deprives a child of his or her right to live in a safe and nurturing environment.

We confess that evil is real and that it lurks within our hearts. We have been quick to condemn the violence of others while ignoring the deeds of our own hands.

We confess we have put nation above church, flag above cross. We acknowledge that Christ’s followers have but one Memorial Day, commemorated with bread and wine, not with beers and barbecue.

We confess we have failed to care for those we’ve sent into combat, for those who bear the physical and emotional scars of war. We acknowledge our duty to them, a duty that does not end when our attention turns elsewhere.

We confess we have not obeyed our Lord’s command to put away our swords. We acknowledge that war to end war is a fantasy, redemptive violence a myth, and that peace through conquest is an unattainable lie.

We confess that true freedom is not won by a soldier spilling someone else’s blood, but by a lamb who allowed his own blood to be spilled, refusing to take up arms.

We give thanks for the cross, God’s answer to a world addicted to violence. We mourn all whose lives have been sacrificed on the altar of war. We pray for the resolve to pursue another way, to “let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One.” On this and every Memorial Day, we ask that we might prove ourselves worthy subjects of the Prince of Peace.

HT Brian ZahndJ.R. Daniel Kirk, Kurt Willems, Preston Sprinkle

Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom and Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)


Baptismal font at the Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Olney (UK)

Seattle pastor Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in a recent op-ed for about millennials leaving the church.

Richard Dahlstrom is one of my favorite evangelical pastors. Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite bloggers. If you want to see a successful pastor building real community instead of just building his own empire, watch Richard Dahlstrom. If you want a window into the spirituality of millennial Christians, read Rachel’s blog.

Rachel often talks with pastors about why millennials are leaving the church. She’s written about how younger Christians feel forced to “choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness,” how evangelical Christianity has become “too political, too exclusive,” etc.

Thus far, Richard and Rachel are on the same page. Their disagreement comes over what Rachel says next:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions—Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.—precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

To Richard, these are matters of mere preference. He wrote:

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

Well, I’m not sure Rachel ever said liturgy is “better” than low church, that Gregorian chants are better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial (I missed the cutoff by a few years), but I am one of those Christians Rachel writes about, who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity. And I can assure you that the decision had more to do with substance than style. (Which is not to suggest that one form of Christianity is better than the other.)

[Related: 11 things I things I love about the Episcopal Church]

While living in England, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the pews of a 700-year-old Anglican church. We came for the un-trendiest of reasons: someone invited us. We kept coming for the un-trendiest of reasons, too: we made friends. We became part of the community.

But we were also captivated by the liturgy, by the high-churchiness of it all—for reasons that were not merely about style.

A high view of the Eucharist

A few years earlier, on a visit to the UK, a friend showed us one of the historic churches in his hometown of Shrewsbury. As we stood in the round sanctuary, looking toward the front, he asked:

“Do you know why the altar’s in the center and the pulpit’s off to the side?”

Um, no.

“Because for Anglicans, the Eucharist is the center of corporate worship, not the sermon.”

Not that long ago, his words would’ve made my evangelical ears bleed. The sermon’s the main event, not the Eucha — ahem, communion.

After the Reformation, after the Enlightenment, churches increasingly became places to receive information. Very good information, in some cases. Eventually, communion became something evangelical churches did once a year or once a quarter when they wanted to drag the service on a bit longer. (I assumed that was the reason when I was a kid, anyway.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus told his followers to do when they gather together. Regardless of how you understand the Eucharist—transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, symbol only, some/any/none/all of the above—this ancient ritual connects us to the death of our Messiah. It’s participatory, not passive. Yet it’s also a reminder that we come to the table empty-handed, in need of grace.

Christians have been taking, eating, and remembering for close to two thousand years now. The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind.

Recovering a high view of the Eucharist—and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship—is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

An unbroken chain

Two years ago, a bishop placed his hands on my wife and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Years earlier, someone placed their hands on our bishop, confirming his ministry to the church. Some time before that, someone else laid hands on that person, and so on… going all the way back to the apostles.

Anglicans have never been as clear or precise as our Catholic sisters and brothers on what we mean by apostolic succession. There’s a wide diversity of thought in our tradition, as there is on many other things, too. But there’s also a shared belief that we belong to an unbroken chain connecting us—by design, not by accident—to the very first followers of Jesus.

This realization cultivates a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and seek new ways of living our faith in the world today. This Christianity thing didn’t start with us. Our congregations are not autonomous mini-empires, as some independent evangelical churches seem to be. We belong to a much bigger organism, transcending geography and time.

Seeing our place in an unbroken chain of Christ followers is another substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

A reminder of my smallness

The path up to the main entrance of our church in England cut through a graveyard where past worshippers were laid to rest. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was buried there. Some of the gravestones were so old you couldn’t read them anymore.

Every Sunday walking to church, you were reminded of your mortality, of your smallness.

Inside that 700-year-old structure—which wasn’t even the original building—we sang thousand-year-old songs (and a few newer ones as well). We recited prayers that had been uttered on that spot for hundreds of years. We recalibrated ourselves to a centuries-old rhythm.

In the evangelical subculture, it’s easy to become enamored by the Next Big Thing. Celebrity pastors. Multisite churches. Church online. Liturgy offers a helpful corrective to consumer Christianity because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community, not by an individual with a “platform.”

The liturgy  reminds me I am not all that. I am not the alpha and omega. Church didn’t just start getting good when I showed up.

Being reminded of my smallness every Sunday is another substantial reason I am captivated by the liturgy.


None of this is meant as a rejection of more contemporary form of church, like the one represented by Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church, so I’m somewhat familiar with it. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs good ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor am I rejecting “converted-shopping mall evangelicalism,” at least not in its entirety. I kind of like the fact that communities of Christ are reclaiming these former temples to consumerism and giving them a new purpose. The last nondenominational church my wife and I belonged to met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there saved my faith.

Nor is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like the one I belong to have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid. We don’t always allow enough room for the Spirit to move and do something fresh in our midst.

But for those of us who have found value and meaning in the liturgical traditions of the so-called “high church,” it’s not about style. It’s very much about substance.