Administering Ashes

Someone emailed me from the church and asked if I’d volunteer to “administer ashes and pronounce a benediction” for the Ash Wednesday service. I said I’d like that (not at all knowing what I’d actually be doing). Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the forty days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter in some of the older Christian traditions. Our church is not old; it is artsy. Gutsy. It is both cutting edge and traditional, free and intentional, open and accepting and loving as all get out. It is like God, but barely. Just an image, really.

Imago Dei.

And, I like sacrament and ritual and I really like knowing people who follow the church calendar. So I said yes to the opportunity.

Benediction? Great. I love to bless people.

Administering ashes? Not sure, never done that before.

I’m quite familiar with ashes: knew a cat with the name, Ashes; carried my Dad’s cremated remains from Texas to Oregon, a canister of “ashes”; I have set many things on fire and once witnessed what I thought was an entire camp tent being set ablaze and reduced to ashes (turns out, as I saw the burst of flames and ran across the campground to warn them, that I was looking through their screen tent and seeing a BBQ grill that the camp dad had doused with WAY TOO MUCH lighter fluid, and then struck a match); I have flicked the ash off the end of a piece of rolled up newspaper that my cousins and I tried to smoke as punk kids, thinking that smoking cigarettes was so so sophisticated, but way too sophisticated for us to try to buy a pack of the things, so the newspaper (noxious), and a piece of grapevine once (weird), and some straw (impossible), and then later in our adolescent fervor we’d pick up used butts for one or two horrid puffs (misguided); and I’ve used ashes to supplement nutrients in a garden (smart). But, I’ve never administered them.

Here goes! It is almost time to catch the bus, and I will report to you later.

It’s four hours later. I left the service quite some time ago, with an ash cross on my forehead. It is the same kind of cross that I put on the foreheads of a dozen people or so. There were eight pairs of us “administering the ashes”, first to each other, and then to any who came forward, which turned out to be everyone there. I checked. I saw no forehead untouched by the sign of the cross. The rest of the service, well, it was too deep in meaning for me to write about. I left changed, challenged, and confirmed, and I believe that I might profane the sacred by saying too much more.

Many people who participate in this time also choose to give up something for Lent. Traditionally it is a certain food, like a mini fast. But in the past, I have given up ideas, time, money, and years ago I gave up accepting criticism. This year I chose a luxury and a symbol. And in giving it up, it is not a sacrifice; it is an offering. And a statement. And a testimony. And a commitment. I decided three days ago to give up chocolate. That picture up there is a fine 72% cocoa content semi-sweet from Belgium. It is the best chocolate for the money that I have ever had. Not the best, but the best when money is an object.

The rest of what I am about to write, I am not writing to get you to think anything about me. I am writing it to bless you, and to let you know how easy and natural it is–all of it–when the self is released, and the flow of the true love of God pours in. Because it then pours out, freely.

I left that Ash Wednesday service and went to catch the bus, to go back across the river into downtown. I checked the schedule and sat down next to a guy with headphones on. A young girl with nice boots walked up to my left and stood outside the shelter, and I moved my backpack to offer her a seat.

Then, this woman walks up. She is holding a red box and is walking with a youthful gait. When she gets close, I can see that she is maybe 60 years old and, I guess “active” would be a good word for her. She opens the red box and asks Headphones, would you like a piece of chocolate? He ignores her. Then to Boots, would you like a piece of chocolate? Oh, no thank you, but it is nice of you to offer. To me, hi how about you, would you like some chocolate? Not a piece, this time, but some chocolate. I said no thank you, but I truly appreciate what you are doing and what you are offering. The bus pulls up and Boots sits to wait for another bus line, and I get on after Headphones and Active. As I get on after her, she is asking the bus driver, would you like a piece of chocolate? No thanks. She sits down, and I sit in an adjacent seat, and she turns to me, “Are you sure you don’t want some chocolate?”

I do want chocolate, I tell her, but here’s the thing: I have given up chocolate for Lent. She says that’s wonderful and she tells me something like, “I was baptized a Catholic but I am Jewish sort of and I found a synagogue but I also go to churches and I embrace all faiths and to me it is all . . .”

“One thing”, I say to her in that pause. It is all one thing. And she smiles, and says, “And the thing is?”

“Love”, I proclaim to her eyes. And I swear that she almost jumps out of her seat with joy, and she says in a slight accent, “Jyes, jyes that’s it!”

I explain to her that I am not Catholic in that sense, but that our church follows the calendar and she tells me about living in Israel and more, and then she says “What is your name?” I’m usually that guy, who asks names, and I like it that this joyful older woman is asking mine, so I tell her, Timothy. And she says “I’m L****” and her handshake is firm. Then we talk for one more stop before she says she must get off in two stops and would I possibly have a phone number that I would share? Yes, I will share it, and before she gets off she calls me so I will have her number.

Okay, I get it God: I give something up and step aside, you make sure I am committed to hearing you, and then you are there already to give me something better.

When I’m at my stop downtown I decide to wander around the city a bit, with my cross, just to see what’s what. I love being in the city at night and listening to the sounds, experiencing the scent of a day passed and seeing the occasional lone wanderer or a couple walking arm in arm. I am also walking by dumpsters in back alleys with the wonderful stench of an entire business in a box, the sole purpose of which is to collect what nobody wanted that day. But, I see people who crawl into those boxes and pull out something that is good to them, something they can take to another box, one they call home.

And me? I am walking around with my cross, sure, but I have money in my pocket and I think that giving up chocolate from the pods of a tree in another hemisphere and then blended by people in Belgium and then shipped by boat across an entire ocean is some kind of sacrifice? But, I also know it’s more than that, and God can work wonders in relative luxury or in dark, dank misery.

I need something in my stomach soon, so I stop at the grocery store where I know most people, and I think maybe if they see the cross that they will ask and I can start a conversation or whatever. But nobody notices, and I get in the checkout line behind an older crippled man. He is able to walk, but his back is bent at such an angle that he has to turn his head sideways and then up to see the clerk. He has his food for a week piled on the belt, and as the clerk scans each item, the man is smiling, looking at all the food he will have, but also looking at the running total with something that affects his smile. I think he is worried as he puts in his “food stamp” card. And then the clerk says there is a problem. The man is Asian and speaks broken English and says something about his monthly allotment, that it is pending. Pending, pending, he keeps repeating it, still smiling. But he says he has cash. “Eighty dollar” I hear him say, and the clerk says okay I will take a few items off and bring it down to eighty. The clerk apologizes to me, and I say it’s fine, but the lady behind me huffs and the guy behind her goes to another line. I watch this poor man who cannot stand up, but needs his food and his allotment, and I see item after item come off, and he says, “Sorry, so sorry” to me, and I say it’s really okay, that I had this happen to me once when I forgot my debit card and had to use what I had in my pocket, so he smiles.

The clerk gets it down to $85.00 and before he can take another item off, I grab this five dollar bill from my backpack and put it on the counter and the cripple says oh no and I say oh yes, I want to. It’s fine, really. And the man’s week is saved by a piece of paper with the number 5 on it that is nothing at all like a sacrifice. It is an offering too, and so is picking up the bags that this gentle happy man is spilling all over the floor because he cannot stand up or bend to load his cart, and it is all fine. It is easy and natural and it is supposed to be that way, and I thank God right there for all of it.

So, I leave thinking about Ash Wednesday and the people who looked into my eyes as I brushed their bangs to the side and drew a cross on their heads, and I’m wondering as I walk what that cross is going to mean to them this week, and the next, until the glory of Easter. And I pass the cripple who is waiting with his bags for a ride I guess, and I say are you okay and he says, beaming with joy, yes and thank you thank you. I want to shout at him thank YOU you dear man, but I don’t. I just keep walking.

And then my phone chimes with a message, and  L**** says that she doesn’t mean to be too forward, but would I like to meet for coffee to talk more about the things on the bus? Yes I would, and it is not too forward, I tell her. And she replies that she stopped by a homeless shelter and was able to give away all of the chocolate. And I am SO grateful for this night and for the God of the cross, and beyond. Far beyond. So it’s set for next week, L**** and some coffee, and I have no idea what God will bring.

But, I know that if I wear the fading cross and reflect that it is not about me, or you, I will also understand that it is about us together as his willing servants. And, I know that the marvel of majesty will use us to flip this world upside down and restore his kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.