Ashes in the Street

Having thought very highly of Sara Miles’ Take This Bread, I was delighted when I was sent an advance copy of Miles’ latest book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, which will be released on February 4.

Miles was raised as an atheist and became a Christian in her forties. (She tells the story of her conversion in Take this Bread, which I wrote about here.) She now serves as Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

City of God uses a narration of the events of Ash Wednesday 2012 to illustrate the truth that we can find God anywhere and everywhere. On that day, Sarah and others go out into the streets of the San Francisco Mission District to distribute ashes to anyone who wants them. She is very clear that such an action is not “bringing Church to the streets.” Rather, “[w]e’re simply witnessing to the reality that the Church – not the building or tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory body of Christ – is already there.”

Christianity can be messy. Fulfilling the command to love our neighbor requires that we come face to face with people we would not necessarily choose to befriend. Many of us (including Miles), at least some of the time, “want the benefits of the Church and the solidarity of a movement, without the costs.” We want “to weasel out of responsibility, hoping to calibrate who, precisely, was my neighbor; how much, exactly, I was required to love which people.” Going out into the street to distribute ashes, put Miles “face to face with all kinds of people – strangers, neighbors, and friends alike – who were not necessarily the ones I chose, but the ones God chose for me.” And, as Miles realizes, we come to learn from all of them; as her friend Paul suggests to her we “understand more and more of God, by opening ourselves to those unlike us.”

City of God reminds us that for Christians there is no part of our lives separate from God, no separation between the spiritual and the physical. “[A] spiritual life is a physical life, shared with other people. And it is not always pretty.

Miles is a beautiful writer and the pictures she paints with her words of the people she works with and meets are compelling. And her discussion of grace and repentance (and death) convey the power and joy of Ash Wednesday to the Christian faith. This would be a great book to read before Lent begins.

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