Home-churchless on Ash Wednesday

For years, Ash Wednesday was one of my favorite church services. I enjoyed its somberness; the liturgical emphasis on sin and death felt more real to me than a jubilant Sunday morning pipe organ or a rollicking praise band. I would sit in my pew, often alone, and experience a sort of release. But this year I will not be observing the holiday. I won’t go to church and I won’t have ashes imposed on my forehead. I won’t even make inappropriate ash-based puns, because I’ve come to realize that, for my own sanity, I must give up the god of Ash Wednesday.

The formula I learned growing up as an Evangelical was this: human beings are inherently evil, sinners from birth, capable of nothing virtuous apart from the grace of God. God was a distant Father, someone whose perfect standards could never be broached. No matter what we did, it was never enough to please God. The only hope we had for God’s acceptance was the death of Jesus. This is how Luther’s “sola fide” was taught: that humans are inherently evil and unworthy of God’s love apart from our faith in Jesus.

As I sat in my pew those many Ash Wednesdays, I experienced a rush of pent-up emotions. The Pastor placed the ashes on my head and repeated, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” and it felt like validation of my worthlessness. It was painful enough that I often left the service sobbing, but in a strange way, it was also comforting. It was a confirmation of what I had always suspected, and I hoped that if I could just humble myself enough, maybe God would be satisfied.

I recognize these feelings now for what they are. The perfectionism, the anxiety, the endless guilt, they were not nudges from the Holy Spirit, they were mental illness. Unfortunately, it took years for me to reach this conclusion. How I wish that someone in my church could have recognized what was going on and pointed me toward help. Instead, my worst impulses were validated by Christian theology.

This year I will not be observing Ash Wednesday. I will not be fasting or giving anything up for Lent. I will try, instead, to take better care of myself. I will drink water and take medication. I will repeat affirmations in my mirror, no matter how silly it makes me feel. I will kill the God of perfectionism, I will tear down a belief structure that says that I am worthless apart from my faith in Christ. I will continue to deconstruct my faith, and, if there is any God left in those ashes, I hope to find her.

For me, this is what #emptythepews is about. It’s not simply that there are bad apples in American Christianity, it’s that the core of our theology is rotten. The doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and Hell all point to an idea of human worthlessness that is completely at odds with the image of God as our loving parent. A loving parent simply believes in the worth of their child, a loving parent understands that moral development doesn’t happen overnight, and a loving parent forgives their child unconditionally. If your God cannot do these things, why is he worthy of worship?