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.
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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.