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.
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.