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Saturday, February 16, 2013

I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name...

Simon, Levi, and Saul (at least) all got new names when they embarked down the Jerusalem road, literally or figuratively, with Jesus. So, why not a Lenten name for all of us? I thought of three as I reflected for the millionth (or so) time on the Ash Wednesday gospel. First, two quick thoughts...

One thing that strikes me is that because of our (relative) success is isolating church and state in this country we miss the political implications of all scriptural writing. When we read religious imagery, we’re able to intellectually isolate it to the sphere of religion in our society. But for the ancients, from whose cultures all of these writings emerged, there was no such separation. The church and state were one. In some cultures, notably among the Egyptians of the pharaonic age and Rome of the Caesars, the identification of god and the pharaoh/emperor was complete. A critique of one was a critique of the other. Since we have separated our lives into secular and religious compartments, or maybe physical and metaphysical, we feel that, for instance, the call to conversion is a call to change our religious hearts. Our political hearts and economic hearts, we feel, can stay where they are. When we hear, “turn away from sin and believe in the gospel,” we something like “be nice, be fair, and go to church,” instead of the more radical call to turn away from one kingdom and one king and toward another, and to believe in the other king’s way. But "gospel" is a political word. It’s political good news about an emperor, or a military victory. It’s not a Time-Life biography of a messiah.

I also reflected on the word “hypocrites” which recurs in the gospel, and the fact that the word is so weighted in our vocabulary, possibly precisely because of its usage in the Sermon on the Mount. Among the ancients, though, it meant, pretty much literally, “an actor on the stage.” I remember reading that artisans like the Jesus's father Joseph, and presumably Jesus himself, would have been involved in building theaters and stages of Galilee, in places like Capernaum and Herod’s great city Caesarea Maritima, and probably knew actors in their towns. Thus the references to make-up and emotive public kvetching mentioned in the gospel today could be thought even funnier if one imagines Jesus pantomiming the antics of religious zealots acting holy. Jesus’s point seems to be less about the privacy of deeds than about their authenticity; or perhaps, letting their secrecy seal their authenticity. Truly loving deeds, deeds that proceed from agape, are not interested in being noticed or in reward or even affirmation. They’re done from a surfeit of love or habit of grace, a way of life that wants to give life away.
And this is, of course, Clay Achin'.

Back to “change my name” now. Take your pick of these three stunning Lenten appellations, sadly somewhat taken already, but certainly could be shared for forty days:

Clay Achin': The apostrophe is kind of lame, I know, but I like the theology of it. We are clay (made of stardust, thank you, Carl Sagan.) We are clay aching for creation, an ache that St. Paul in Romans 8 attributes to the Holy Spirit crying out from within us. We know we are broken, we want to turn around and believe in a different God, but we just don't think we can do it. If my name were Clay Achin', God could more quickly identify me as someone who is waiting for the Spirit to create me again.

Dusty Baker: I like this choice for both aspects of the nomenclature. “Dusty” evokes the “remember you are dust” admonition of the ash minister. This phrase comes from the story of the fall in the book of Genesis. It’s meant to evoke the curse of death, of course. But the curse is evoked in the context of creation: what God can do with dust is, of course, create a new person. So while it is an admonition to be aware of one’s mortality as inescapable, and to use that information as an aid to better living, it is also an act of faith in the God who breathes into the dust of the earth and creates us again, as Psalm 51 says.

Then, of course, there’s the “Baker” aspect of the name, which evokes the work of Christian in feeding the world, specifically with bread, and precisely, with the bread of life, Christ, a part of whose mystical body each of us is by reason of our baptism. The bread that we bake and break and share is Christ, head and members. Christ gives us away for the life of the world.
Left, "Muddy Waters," the great blues guitarist. Right, "Dusty Baker," the great Reds baseball coach.
Blues and Reds. Coincidence? I think not.

Muddy Waters. “Waters” of course evokes the baptismal aspects of the Lenten season. Lent is for catechumens a 40-day retreat to prepare for baptism. For the baptized, it’s a season of preparing to renew our baptismal promises more authentically, to consider the ways we’ve been co-opted by the kingdom of Caesar and not fully turned toward the reign of God. The echo of splashing waters of life pervades the season, no more so than on the third Sunday of Lent with its story of Meribah in the desert, and the Samaritan woman and Jesus at the well of Shechem. “Muddy” suggests that in all of us the baptismal waters don’t run as clean and clear as they should, on the one hand. On the other, “muddy” suggests the clay in the hand of God that is sculpted into the human being adama, and into which God breathes the breath of life to make a world.

Dusty Bakers of the world, Muddy Waters, even you Clay Achin’s, let’s keep walking, turning, moving together, and hope that when the Lord changes our name, it’ll have enough power in it to change the rest of us as well.

And so that you have a song to sing as you wear your Lenten name, you can listen to some of Tom Kendzia's brilliant song "Changed My Name," from his CD Clothed in Love, by clicking on the song title or the button below for its iTunes link. 

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