Well it's lent again, and I thought I would try and make a more intentional effort to write every day (or at least a few more times a week)... so here is my first reflection on Lent & Ash Wednesday...
For some reason, Ash Wednesday is one of those days in the life of the church that reminds me both of the reasons why I do ministry and of the ways in which we as humans seem to fall a little bit short of the mark. I think that every Ash Wednesday will remind me of an Ash Wednesday of years past, when I was a seminary student working at my field-ed placement (an internship type of deal) as the youth minister/Christian Education person. It was a couple of hours before service, and I was the only one in the office and a woman walked in the door. She had been driving down the road and decided to stop and wanted to know if I could impose the ashes on her forehead. I told her I would be happy to, but unfortunately I didn’t have the ashes. (Our Senior Pastor was in charge of that and was bringing them with him.) So I did the only thing I could think of—I asked her if I could take her to the sanctuary and pray for her. (I thought that the presence of holy space might make up for my lack of ritualistic supplies.) And she said something that to this day I have never forgotten, and that still hurts my heart. ‘I can’t go in there… I’ve done too many bad things to go in there.’ In a stunned, seminarian moment, I offered to pray for her there in the office, gave her a blessing and she then left. As she walked out of the door I knew that while I did my best to offer her a moment of grace and love, I knew that somehow it just didn’t seem to be enough to make up for whatever/whoever caused her to think that she wasn’t worthy of love and acceptance.
Last night too, I had a moment where the reality of what it means to live out faith became bigger than the ritual (and all of the details that we as clergy and others in ministry do to make ministry ‘happen’.) All throughout the day I had been working on details for the rotating Warming Center that a number of the churches in our city coordinate on to keep the homeless men in our city safe on the coldest nights of the year. That day I had ended up picking up a lot of things that I don’t usually take care of, and so it had become a pretty stressful endeavor, especially for a Type-A personality who wants to make sure everything comes together well. This, while at the same time, knowing that I would need to be involved in the Ash Wednesday worship that was happening around the same time that the warming center would be opening. As the guys arrived to be picked up and taken to the church that was hosting that night, I popped down to where they were waiting, just to make sure we had enough drivers to get everyone there. As we were waiting, I introduced myself to the guys and we chatted for a bit. When we knew everyone was there who was coming, as I said goodbye, I shook each one of their hands, received their names, and offered them a simple blessing of ‘stay warm’, knowing that was all I could offer them. As I shook their hands, I saw a sense of appreciation in the acknowledgement of their humanity and in an effort to build relationship and connection. After they left, I returned to our Ash Wednesday service with a heart heavy with the knowledge that the work that I do isn’t about me and that even though I had done all of the details necessary, I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to meet their needs.
A colleague in ministry, Pastor Trey Hall, posted a picture of their ‘Ashes to Go’ project in Chicago with a post about how while sharing ashes on the street corners, and at el stations wasn’t perhaps the most theologically appropriate way to share the rituals of Ash Wednesday, it was a chance to ‘meet people right where they are to remind them/us that we are all at once bearers of the image of God and sinners in drastic need of grace.’ That this duality that we all participate in is ‘no less true in any of those spaces [under the el track, in the public square, at the ice-choked city intersection] than it is in the sanctuary.’
There is hope in the knowledge that we are all in need of grace and at the same time, the ones to bear a sense of hope and the love of God to others too. It is not always about the details of the ritual, but more about how we participate in that ritual, share that ritual, and make a connection to others through that ritual.
For the woman that I met that Ash Wednesday years ago, I have to think that the important thing wasn’t that I had ashes ready to give her, it was that even though she felt she was unworthy to walk into sacred space, that she was able to receive a blessing by God and be deemed worthy of God’s love. And for the homeless men in our community, a simple handshake was just as good of a reminder on Ash Wednesday as the ashes on a forehead, of what it means to be Christ to another (as well as a reminder for me that I too am in need of grace when I start to think that my work is about me…).
When the ashes are imposed on the forehead during the ritual, we often say something to the effect ‘Remember you came from dust, and to dust you shall return.’ It’s a reminder of death, of nothingness, of the low points in life, and of the cyclical nature of life. The ashes themselves are burnt out of the Palms of last Easter, as a reminder of the new beginnings that are created out of the things that are allowed to die. Last night we added a line, one that reminded me of one of my favorite worship songs. The ritual said ‘God can make great things out of dust. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. Gungor’s song, ‘Beautiful Things’ reminds us that God makes beautiful things out of dust. And as I received the ashes, and I reflect on Ash Wednesday as a whole, I am reminded that God has made beautiful things out of the dusty places in my life in the past (and the present), and Lent is a reminder in the hope and faith that God will make beautiful things out of all of the dusty places, whether it be the lives of those who feel they are separated from the community of faith, or from those who struggle to find a place to call home or a sense of dignity in their lowest moments.
And for this clergy person/youth minister, I will continue to be reminded that my ministry isn’t about me, and its certainly not about getting all of the details right for the plethora of programs that I’m involved in, but it’s remembering Pastor Trey’s words—that ministry is about taking the opportunity to ‘meet people right where they are to remind them/us that we are all at once bearers of the image of God and sinners in drastic need of grace.’