We had twelve people for Ash Wednesday service. The sky was gray but the weather was pleasant and the sun poked out a bit behind the clouds. Brian brought another deaf friend, and a friend who can sign. Pablo just happened by and decided to stay. We waited until five after 11 to start and were done by 11:20. My worries about being encouraged to leave by the city did not materialize. It was just nice.
Joel 2 and Psalm 51 were both about the ways that God is looking to pull us back, looking for us to return to the fold. We shared stories of God being there, even when we thought that God was not. A story about how we think God has moved away, but really God is there and we have moved. A story about how we can wander further and further from God’s path, and then, when life seems at its worst, can realize that we’ve had God with us all along. A story about how choosing to follow God doesn’t solve anything, and yet it makes everything better.
And we received our ashes and we blessed one another and we were on our way. A small group of us stayed on the common to hand out ashes to those who were passing by. Right away we figured out that it was awkward to offer: it felt pushy in a way we didn’t like to say we had ashes, but there was no other way for folk to know it was available. Next time we’ll bring a sign! But we fell into a routine of asking “do you want ashes for ash Wednesday?” and then smiling and saying have a good day to those who said no.
And a surprising number of people said yes.
There is debate out in the social media as to whether “Ashes to Go” is a short-cut, an inappropriately simplified offering, a giving in to the non-stop motion of the secular world. I agree with the need to ask whether it is a good thing to offer ashes on the forehead without appropriate liturgy, without prior relationship, without the focus on seeping into the season of lent.
Indeed, at least half of the people who received the ashes on Worcester Common took off their hat, accepted the ashes with a quiet amen, and moved on with their life. It was truly “Ashes to Go”.
But the woman at Worcester Common who turned to me and said "Ashes? I haven't had ashes since I was a kid" and then told me about her life since the last time she'd been to church, and how the church had hurt her, and how she was now thinking about God again for the first time in a long time, that woman? When I put ashes on her, she understood what was happening in that ritual as well anyone who had time to sit inside.
And the young man who said "No, thanks" and then came back and said, "Can I change my mind?" and told the story of the fight he'd had last night and how he was ruminating about that when I offered ashes, and realized that he has to get right with God if he thinks he is going to get right with his girl friend. That young man, he understood enough to accept ashes without going inside.
People really told stories. People really cried. People really reacted like this was an unexpected gift, unexpected because they weren’t sure they deserved it, weren’t sure that the church could offer it, weren’t sure that God was with them. And the ashes said “yes, God is here” and “yes, you are deserving” and “yes, the church is in the world with you”.
Yup, it’s a short cut. It’s a short cut to God available to those willing to take it.
In March 2011, Worcester Fellowship was discussing Ash Wednesday. Although I’d gone to an Episcopal Seminary, this was not a tradition I’d practiced in churches I grew up in, or in any church I served.
But in this highly Catholic town, people, including people at Worcester Fellowship, felt that ashes are a necessary thing.
I wasn’t excited by the idea, but agreed it was wise to offer an Ash Wednesday service on Worcester Common. “Ashes to Go” was just becoming popular, and I figured I could offer ashes for a while on the common after the service. I was mostly glad that no one thought we should greet the commuter rail at 6:30 am. 10 am is a more dignified time, don’t you think?
Tuesday afternoon, while others were enjoying pancakes, sausages and other shrove Tuesday events, I finally got around to figuring out how to get ashes for the next day’s service.
Which is why I was standing at my backyard grill in a foot of snow, trying to burn palms.
If you are ever threatened by forest fire, be assured, you can use Palms to protect you from the oncoming heat. They do not burn. Obviously that is not completely true, you've seen the burnt palms at Ash Wednesday services for years. But it is true that a lit Palm will not stay lit. The ashes only burn if there is a heat source aimed directly at them. After an hour of frustration and very wet shoes I brought in the scrapings of ashes and a lot of chunks of partially burnt leaves.
“Maybe I can fill it out with burnt paper.” It was cold outside, and getting dark, so I lined a frying pan with aluminum foil and filled it with crumpled newspaper. I turned on the stove fan and lit a match.
For those of you who don't already know this, newspaper DOES burn easily. With huge flames. Up into the microwave above. Up into the vent.
Moving quickly, I found a lid, plopped it onto the pan, and went to take the battery out of the now blaring smoke detector. I wondered how long before the sprinkler system went off.
Once the smoke cleared I found that I did indeed have ashes, which I ground together with the palms. I then burned it again to hide the few pieces of text that still showed, and the hunks of palm fronts. I put the two teaspoons of ashes in a plastic container.
It was windy, cloudy, and cold, but not snowing. Cold enough that no one came to the service. Well, Terence came early, but left when I arrived, and Rose chatted a bit, but decided to leave as soon as I started the service.
“Wait, I have to give you ashes!” Surely that’s why she was there, right?
I opened my little container, only to have the ashes fly into the wind, into my eyes, and Roses, and onto the ground. Eyes watering I finally got a bit onto my finger, and from there to Roses forehead.
"Thanks!" She said cheerily, and then she was gone.
“Okay” I said to myself, tying my hat more securely under my chin, “now what?”
At the bus station people moved nervously away when I offered ashes. At the street corner, people turned away. But finally I ran into Jacque who was thrilled to see me. He had the key to his new apartment and wanted to tell me all about it.
“Do you want ashes?” I asked.
“How about a coffee?”
“It’s really cold,” I replied, “maybe we can get a donut, too.” And so I thought about how we are created from dust, and to dust, we return, over coffee and conversation at Dunkin’ Donuts.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.