Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
The prophet Joel’s anguished, urgent cry to the people Israel, his cry to us today, rings in my ears.
This past week, Ash Wednesday, we entered the solemn and holy season of Lent, the Church’s time of fasting, prayer and self-denial. Along with clergy and lay leaders across the diocese, I offered “Ashes to Go.”  As in past years, I went to the Trenton Transit Center, arriving at 6:00 AM and staying until 9.
I was joined by Dean René John and by Deacon Rachel Tyler of Trinity Cathedral. The benches toward the main entrance of the station were filled with homeless folk, sheltering from the cold. The Transit Police seem to understand and left them alone, mostly, occasionally stirring those who fell asleep.
A number of the people hanging out at the station were clearly “strung-out.” Others exhibited clear mental health challenges with rants and angry outbursts as commuters coming into, and leaving from, Trenton passed quickly by. We offered ashes to all comers. It is always a profound experience and always makes me mindful of Jesus moving among the people of his day, and especially the most marginalized and vulnerable. It is my hope and my prayer that when we do this, we are “living reminders” of Jesus, to use Henri Nouwen’s powerful image. Christ and Christ love are as needed now as much they have ever been in history.
Today marks the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their ongoing war with that sovereign nation that they had begun in 2014.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 85 mass shootings in the United States in 2023, and the year is not even two months old. Recently, in Linden, New Jersey, near St. John the Baptist Church, a father killed his wife and daughter and critically wounded his son, before later turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.
The CDC reports that more than 108,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2022. This is part of a mental health crisis that has been ever growing in this country.
This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) also reported that the number of suicides in the United States increased in 2021 and did so “significantly” for Black Americans. According to their report 48,183 people in the U.S. committed suicide.
The United States Census Bureau estimates that more than 42 million Americans live in poverty. According to the Rutgers University State Policy Lab, “…estimates based on the ‘True Poverty Level’ suggest that close to 3 million residents—a third of the state’s population—lived in poverty in ” and trends suggest that the number has only grown. In the meantime, wealth disparity between the richest Americans and the poorest continues to expand.
Blow the trumpet in Zion, in the United States, in the world….Sound the alarm! (Joel 2:1)
Yes, we need to hear and heed the prophet Joel’s anguished cry. We also need to hear God’s love and invitation to return also revealed to Joel:
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. (Joel 2:12-13)
This holy, solemn season of Lent is a time to turn away from the sin, selfishness, and violence that pervade our world and our lives and to return to God in Christ, return to our full humanity, return to the persons our baptismal identity and call intend us to be.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, Joel writes. Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann writes about the prophetic words of return that we hear during Lent, observing, “The imperatives are summons to come back to an original identity, and elemental discipline, a primal faith.” Speaking presciently and prophetically himself about our American context, Brueggemann continues:
I suggest, moreover, that these are just about the right imperative for Lent among us Christians. For I believe that the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, part affluence.
The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has the high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism…’child of promise,’…’to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism, overheated consumerism; easy conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.
It is Lent 2023 and we do indeed have much to ponder in our broken world and lives. Holy Church’s Lenten invitation summons us:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.
I pray God will give us all grace to accept this invitation to repent and return to God’s own love and mercy this Lent, to return to our identities and lives in Jesus who is the Christ. God bless you in your Lenten journey.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
 Book of Common Prayer – 1979, p. 265
 Please note that in the photos accompanying the story, Dean Rene John is misidentified. I did send a correction to the author.
 See Nouwen, Henri The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977)
 See Pietro, Andrews “U.S. Poverty Rate by State in the U.S.” – Forbes, Nov. 4, 2021 found at U.S. Poverty Rate By State In 2021 (forbes.com)
 The “True Poverty Level” factors in such things as differentials in cost of living, inflation and other variables. See “Perspectives on Poverty in New Jersey, 2008 – 2019” – Rutgers New Jersey State Policy Lab found at Perspectives on Poverty in New Jersey, 2008-2020 – New Jersey State Policy Lab (rutgers.edu)
 See Wealth Inequality – Inequality.org
 Brueggemann, Walter A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent (Louisville, Ky: John Knox Press, 2017),2
 Ibid, 2-3
 Ibid, 3
 Book of Common Prayer, p. 265