Monday, March 02, 2009

Ash Wednesday


intransitive verb

: to bear witness : testify
: to bear witness to one's religious convictions witness for Christ — Billy Graham>


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time of repentance leading to Easter. A lot of us associate Lent with the idea of giving something up, of sacrificing something. Typically things like booze, chocolate, gambling, get the idea. Growing up I never had much of an understanding of its meaning beyond that most basic idea of sacrificing something you enjoyed. From what I've read recently, I have a better understanding (I think) of Lent as a time not only of sacrifice, but of a greater commitment to prayer and good works. A time of preparing and trying to make myself more open to receive God’s love.

Please forgive my poor attempts to talk about theology here. I really don't have the knowledge or language for it. As I mention occasionally, I have struggled for years with my faith, my lack of faith, and my relationship with God. I just wanted to set the stage for what I wanted to talk about.

Ash Wednesday this year found us in New Orleans, and we ended up spending much of the day talking about faith and religious observation. We received our ashes in a Catholic church for the first time in years. The church we wandered into was Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street. We read the message from the pastor and were impressed in that it stressed doing something positive for Lent instead of just giving up something. In other words, I shouldn't just give up bourbon for the next 40 days--I need to take that booze money and donate it to a worthy cause. Stuff like that.

Now here's what struck both of us. The Gospel reading was from Matthew, Chapter 6:
1 "(But) take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites 2 do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
I italicized a couple of those lines for a reason.

We were not prepared on Mardi Gras for the large numbers of self-identified Christians who flooded the French Quarter. When I say self-identified I don't mean that I could tell they were Christians by their conduct, good works or preaching. I mean self-identified because they wore matching tee shirts with "JESUS" emblazoned on them, or crosses, or words like "FEAR GOD HATE SIN"...or I recognized them once I got close enough to hear them screaming. Not preaching, screaming.

I turned to MizBubs at one point and asked her what kind of faith could drive someone to this kind of behavior? We saw several different groups. The largest group was in Jackson Square, decked out in matching blue tee shirts:

They had a band set up on the steps of the Presbytere that was playing some moderately upbeat contemporary worship music. They were not yelling at anyone. We paused to check them out and MizBubs asked me what I noticed. I was stumped.

"They're all men. There's not a single woman with them."

Now, to their credit, I didn't see them confronting people on Bourbon Street or getting in anyone's face. I think that maybe what they were doing was bearing some type of relatively quiet witness to the debauchery going on everywhere else in the French Quarter that night.

The next group we saw was right in the middle of the crowd on Bourbon Street:

Obviously they had to work harder to get noticed, what with nearly everyone around them being drunk or obsessed with catching a glimpse of some naked lady breasts or both. In addition to displaying a big "TRUST JESUS" sign and a helpful list of sins for which we'll be judged, they were engaging in a fair amount of screaming.

Angry, veins-throbbing-in-the-neck screaming. Like the group in Jackson Square, it was an all-male revue. Maybe they felt that they could not expose their women folk to this volume of sin. Because of where they were, they were a magnet for every loudmouth drunk and party girl who felt like taunting them. It was a strange spectacle.

Now let's assume that these are genuine people of faith, and not merely people seeking attention, or appearing in public for their own aggrandizement. Maybe back home they lead everyday lives full of quiet prayer, modesty and works of charity. What would make them think that they were doing anything Godly by planting themselves right in the middle of Bourbon street and becoming part of the freakshow? By wading in there with those crazy signs they just became one more part of the carnival sideshow. Did they, on some level, savor the abuse they got from passersby, and feel like they were suffering for the Lord? Did they believe they were fighting the good fight and bearing witness? I don't know.

MizBubs mentioned that she thought a few of them might be making extensive use of the in-room porn at their motel rooms later that night, or otherwise pleasuring themselves to their adrenaline-charged Bourbon Street memories...

I saved the worst for last.

On Ash Wednesday we strolled over to Jackson Square and got there just as the noon mass was letting out. There were hundreds of people coming out of church, and the priests were standing outside greeting the parishioners as they left. There were the usual crowds of people in Jackson Square, the fun mix of tourists, fortune tellers, artists and gutter punks all milling around.

Then we heard the screaming, and noticed the police cars.

A small group of zealots were taking turns screaming at the people leaving the cathedral. They were all wearing shirts that identified them as "Christians" (I should probably use the Coaster Punchman "Kristians" to describe these wackadoos). The first one I noticed was their videographer--yes, they had a video guy saving the memories--because at first I thought his tee shirt said "I AM A HOLY ROYAL PEST".

There was also a "REPENT OR PERISH" shirt on one of the worst screamers. The invective pouring from his lips was horrifying to witness.

It was then that we noticed something truly moving. As the different screamers would take their turn, a different parishioner would calmly step in front of them, placing themselves between the spitting rage of the bible thumper and the people leaving the church. They would stand there, silently, and absorb all that hate.

I wish I had known how to work the video function on our camera better, but that was what I got.

So, in terms of bearing witness, whose faith is deeper and more righteous? I'll go with the average Joe or Jane who takes it on him or herself to stand humbly in the face of rage directed at their church.

I know I'm not a good Christian. Anyone who's ever visited this blog knows I am a sinner, and I know I am as well. I understand that to many people of faith, things I find entertaining might be considered worldly at best, and deeply sinful at worst. I can understand being called by your faith to protest an injustice or evil. I can see that something like Mardi Gras, or the whole French Quarter for that matter, might be seen as a perfect emblem of sin, full of drunks and degenerates. I don't agree with it, but I understand it.

Here's my point.

What happened to the idea of letting people know you are Christian by your humility, by your kindness, by your treatment of others? After seeing all the proclamations of faith in the form of signs and tee shirts and yelling through megaphones, I ask myself: how is this behavior in line with what is asked of us in Matthew?

For all those dozens of men out on Bourbon Street waving signs and yelling, there were dozens of lost souls puking in doorways and passing out. There were young men and women crying by themselves after being abandoned by the friends they arrived with. For the biggest party in America, there were a lot of very sad and lonely-looking people on the fringes of that crowd. I'm sure they could have been ministered to--if that was ever the intent of all those tee shirt wearing, sign waving men.

I'm just saying.


Mnmom said...

WOW Bubs - incredible post!!
I often look to that scripture you mentioned. And I often think of Max Von Sydow's line in "Hannah and Her Sisters" that if Jesus Christ came back today, and saw everything that is going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.

I also struggle with faith issues.

To stand outside a CHURCH and scream at the parishoners??? WTF??!!

One song we always sang in the non-dogmatic Methodist church I grew up in: "And they'll know we are Christians by our love". Somehow I don't feel the love coming from any of those folks.

Some Guy said...

When I was at Mardi Gras in NOLA I was out walking around one morning. I encountered one of the wacko Bible-thumpers on a corner and decided to pass some time. I listened and sipped from my bottle of scotch as he explained how I was going to burn for eternity. Somehow in my drunken state I was able to first calm him down and then lure him into a maze of circular logic from which he could not escape. I take pride in knowing I shut him up for at least a little while.

Megan said...

Amen, brother. Very well done.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I can't understand why people think that beating their religion into your head makes sense? That being said, the people that knocked on my door three times Saturday morning to share they religion bothered me also.

Bill said...

Aren't those the lyrics to a PiL song?
Or was it Psychic TV?

SkylersDad said...

I usually get them to stop by asking if they will come on in or drop by and sit with me in my pentagram - naked...

Evil Genius said...

She moves in mysterious ways.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I could not agree with your more on the "What ever happened to..." part. Falwell and Pat Robertson made it fashionable for the sheep to scream their "faith" instead of living their faith. When someone out of the blue tell me they are a Christian, I back off and leave them alone, especially if it is inthe business arena. You should be able to tell a person is a Christian by the way they act and treat others not by their claims.

Erik Donald France said...

Right on, man. Eloquent and to the point of the season.

I remember in '83 it was the same, only fewer of these voyeurs rocking the casbah. Who knows WTF they're doing. It's plain bizarre.

Tenacious S said...

Thank you for giving voice to the issues I struggle with in my own life on a daily basis. I think sincerity goes a long ways in God's eyes. At least, I hope so.

FranIAm said...

"I know I'm not a good Christian. Anyone who's ever visited this blog knows I am a sinner, and I know I am as well. I understand that to many people of faith, things I find entertaining might be considered worldly at best, and deeply sinful at worst."

Bubs - oh please, let us not get into conversations of what a constitutes a good Christian. You are a good man, that is all I know, a really good man.

I am so deeply moved by your post, more than my words or time will let me say right now.

A lot of people have a lot of issues and this causes them to act like idiots and cruel idiots at that. Who knows what their story is.

I think that we all need to get up every day and just be and try to be good, good to one another. It is that simple. Call it Christianity or not, if it is not kindness and compassion, then it is nothing.

Thank you for this Bubs, thank you so much.

FranIAm said...

And then there is this from Anne Lamott that I meant to include...

""You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."


I wish you were wearing THAT t-shirt in Nola.

Randal Graves said...

Yep, you're gonna burn in the lake of fire. But don't worry, I hear they've got good bourbon.

Anonymous said...

This must be one of those "the lord works in mysterious ways" moments. You head to Mardi Gras for a little debauchery, and come away with big thoughts about serious issues. Nice post.

Cap'n Ergo "XL" Jinglebollocks said...

tasty cake there, friend.

I've been to Burbon St myself and shy-ed away from the Jesus Freaks who scared me more than the performers. I don't get it, either, maybe no one does.

good stuff. Good stuff.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

You just said it all, my friend. A tee-shirt don't make you holy.

Grant Miller said...


Next time you go to NO, let me know and I'll go for some beers!

Gifted Typist said...

What I dont get is how "love" can be so hateful amongst these people. This is a very thoughtful post. Thank you.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Love them anyway, as the saying goes.

And all Blessings to you!

Bubs said...

Thank you, all of you, for your comments.

Kirby, you are absolutely right there. This was an amazing trip, and I came home energized and feeling better than I have in ages.

Fran, thank you. I always go back to the verse from Micah: "And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?" A pretty good guideline I think.

Ten, I think you're right.

SkylersDad, heh. My brother once answered the door in his jockey shorts and a gun belt thinking that would work, and it DIDN'T.

Bill, was that "Chant" from PIL? "Love, war, fear, hate"...

MnMom, it's funny, I was actually thinking about that hymn when I wrote this.

Jay Simser said...

Thank you for this: I remembered the words of Jesus when I read your post:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

My hope is that more and more people will quietly come between their hatred and the love of the Lord.

Paul said...

A powerful post and you had the best at the end. There were hurting, lonely people to whom a ministry of kindness could make a great difference.

Dianne said...

The people in your little videos literally made me jump! and the people facing them made me feel hopeful

I came here from Fran's blog and I'm glad I did


Übermilf said...

I know I'm being dense here, but...

They were screaming about God to people coming out of a church?

Übermilf said...

Okay, I actually listened to the videos. Now I get it.

The saddest thing to me? Those parishioners "absorbing" the hate look like they've done that before. Many times. Like this is a matter of course for them.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Bubs, what a moving and beautiful post. You may be a sinner, but you know more about what it means to be a Christian than the shouting haters. We're all sinners. We all fall short, but I wonder if those folks have any understanding at all of the Gospel. What kind of witness to the love of God do those folks give?

By the way, when I worked in downtown New Orleans, I sometimes went to mass at Immaculate Conception or Jesuit Church, as it was called, during my lunch hour.

Thanks again for a wonderful post.

Bubs said...

Grandmere, good to see you! It was a wonderful church. It was interesting. WHen we walked in there were about a dozen people in the pews, by noon it had totally filled with people, the vast majority in business attire who looked like they worked nearby.

Ubermilf, thanks for visiting! Please stop by again. I found out from talking with some locals that this is, in fact, a pretty regular occurrence in the Quarter. It must feel great to live somewhere that you become the focus of various groups coming on a regular basis to try and "save" you.

Diane, thank you for stopping by! I know what you mean about jumping. It was hard to see in person--you literally recoiled from it.

Paul and Jay, thank you for visiting here, and thank you more for your kind words!

dguzman said...

Like MNMom and you, it turns out, I also thought of that hymn "And they'll know we are Christians by our love." I guess we normal people have a different definition of "love" than these psychos.

Dale said...

You're a good man Bubs. What a brilliant post from start to finish.

Distributorcap said...

bubs --- dont let anyone tell you otherwise a good man = a good christian = a good person --- you dont need to boast about your belief to make you good

those that have to, well...

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post in the mind's eye of this life-long Atheist. Just finished Joan Didion's award-winning "The Year of Magical Thinking;" a portrait of Didion's loss of John Gregory Dunne after 40-years followed quickly by the death of Quintana at 24 their only child.

Didion's Episcopal, Dunne an RC. 39 years with My Wife the Christian left this by-his-fingernails Jew-Boy as MWTC found me: pretty much the same save for being a better person than anyone, especially me could hope. I too live with our 21-y.o whose eerie, secular likeness to MWTC is it's own daily astonishment.

Who knew?