Thursday, February 23, 2012

No catches, get your ashes

Do you ever have a great idea, but then agonize over the execution? Some clergy I admire offer public ashing in their communities--on street corners, in front of movie theaters, on university campuses, in abandoned places of empire. My idea was to go and do likewise. I typically have a little bit of free time combined with nervous energy on the Wednesday afternoon of Ash Wednesday. Plus the whole idea sounds kind of liturgico-missional, right up my alley.

Here is where the agony comes in. I couldn't decide where to offer ashes, and I couldn't decide if I had the nerves to do it. The logistics kept boggling.

Warning: this next part is a painful inquiry into the psychological state of someone (me) getting the nerve to do something. First, I posted a question on Facebook in our group page. "Do you want to join in this activity? Where should it happen?" Whenever I'm uncertain, I enlist outside opinion.

Then, I started pondering where properly our "parish" is situated, and whether it would be proper to offer ashes outside the boundaries of that parish. So, for example, although there is a lot of foot traffic on Dickson Street downtown, there are plenty of churches on Dickson, whereas we actually sit geographically in a residential neighborhood of NE Fayetteville. Would our presence on Dickson implicate other churches in something they hadn't planned themselves? Should I call the pastors and check to confirm they would be okay with what we were doing? If I did offer ashes in our neighborhood where there is less foot traffic, would anyone actually stop by?
We considered offering ashes at the library (again, need to check propriety), the mall (how would that work?) and a variety of other places (including Rick's Bakery, an idea I still quite like because we could eat donuts--is that allowed on Ash Wednesday?).

By this time I had pretty much dissuaded myself from going out and offering ashes. Plenty of other very worthwhile activities for a pastor to pursue at the beginning of Lent. Mark it on the calendar as something to consider for next year. Then move on.

However, Wednesday came around, and the weather was spectacular. Worship was rehearsed and ready by 3 p.m., so I decided to go out and offer ashes impromptu, in learning mode. Posted again briefly on FB indicating a 4 p.m. arrival at the intersection of College and Rolling Hills, and off I went with a jar full of ash and a sign printed, simply, "Ashes."

One member of our congregation came out to join me, as did a family I am friends with who were staying at a motel at that intersection. So within ten minutes we had all been ashed (the kindergartener called the ashing "going God"), and in addition, I had the chance to explain to the kids what Ash Wednesday was all about (they come from a tradition where they know the biblical stories but don't "enact" them liturgically in quite the same way we do). 

Then we stood around for a long time watching traffic drive by and no one stopped for ashes.

After a while, we decided to walk over into the strip mall parking lot, eventually landing at the corner across from the movie theater. Still, no takers. We looked pretty cool as a group, young friendly kid faces, three of us approximately 40, one wearing an episcopal collar and dressed in black, all with ashes on our foreheads.
Frankly, we looked like religious freaks. Really nice and friendly freaks with an awesome clan of children. But there was that sign that read "ashes" and that weird jar of black ash and a dude in clerics.

One typical response we received to our offers of ashes was, "No thanks, I'm baptist." Mostly, people avoided eye contact.

It was at this point, and only then, that I really started to learn. Sometimes failure requires you to readjust your expectations in order to actually be open to the learning available in a given situation.

First of all, regardless of whether we ashed anybody else, we had ashed each other, we were sharing time and space and conversation together, gathered in remembrance of our own mortality. There is value in that.

Second, I learned some narratives. My friend, for example, mentioned that she has seen, more than once, since living in this area, that sometimes religious people offer a station you can approach, or invite you into conversation, but there is always a "catch." Come do this activity, and then let us try to convert you to...

One of the great strengths of Lutherans (there are weaknesses also, but let me list a strength) is our humility around evangelism. We share our faith, like offering ashes, but it is almost never instrumentalist. We don't offer you one thing only to then bait and switch to something else. What you see is what you get. If we're offering ashes, that's all we're offering. Ashes.

So we brainstormed a sentence for our sign next year, "No catches, get your ashes." 

After about an hour we walked home. I stopped by the local rehab center to offer ashes to a member there. Before the actual Ash Wednesday service, I had the opportunity to ash a few more folks on their way to volleyball, the nursing home, and so on. Ashes flowed around the borders of the actual Ash Wednesday service in some new ways.

Then in worship we seriously ashed the large group gathered for that purpose.

Intriguingly, I already have volunteers for next year, including another friend and neighbor who attends the Episcopal church and wants to join us. I have another person who would like to take the ashes to the university campus. Yet another was in a meeting and couldn't join us but loves this kind of thing. Still others suggested (and offered to help lead) a morning or noon Ash Wednesday service in order to get ashed earlier in the day.

So the volunteering is snowballing, and it makes me wonder if I should be brainstorming some other "take liturgy into the real world" type events between now and Ash Wednesday 2013.

Most definitely, and in the meantime I'm just going to agonize less. Often I look weird even when I'm not aware of it. Getting out and looking weird in the name of Jesus and as a witness to the life-giving God who overcomes even our death and return to ashes is worth it.


  1. I like this, Clint. I agree that this is one of our strengths as Lutherans. We do know how to give or share just for the sake of giving and sharing. You don't need to convert or listen to a pitch, we just want to offer something we see as having value. I appreciate the idea and may have to talk to my pastor about the same thing. Thanks for sharing :)

  2. This is the craziest idea I have ever heard. This is worse than selling Indulgences. Among other things, it is turning a religious object into a commodity.

    So, a housewife goes to the convenience store in the strip mall and comes home with a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and some ashes on her forehead. She points to the ashes and says to her husband, "Honey, some guy gave me this. Does this mean I have to, like, repent of my sins or something?" Quintessential mindlessness. This is exactly what Martin Luther opposed in the 95 Theses.

    Obviously, Lutheranism is in its Rococo Period.

  3. Kathy, you have inserted two things that aren't there. First, we weren't selling anything. Second, salvation wasn't promised as a result of ashes imposed. Your comparison is completely off and completely lacking in graciousness. In fact your response astounds me with its assumptions completely divorced from the description of the actual event.

  4. Kathy4:29 PM

    Clint -- You were "selling" something, if not for money. You were "evangelizing": you were selling your "Faith," your denomination's beliefs. "Salvation"? Who is talking about "Salvation"? This is about Ash Wednesday and ashes! Please! "Graciousness"? Well, maybe, but that is an ad hominem comment. You have read Luther. Was he "gracious"?

  5. Kathy,

    Are you sure you're not misreading the OP? You do seem to be imposing things on it that aren't there.
    Clint states that he left his church with two things: 1) ashes and 2) a sign that said "Ashes." He carried no tracts to explain his faith and no indications of what denomination or congregation he belonged to, and as far as can be told had no plans to "evangelize" the people he ashed. (He even discussed how it probably appeared to people that he was going to "evangelize" them even though he wasn't—that it looked like there would be a "catch" even though there wasn't one.) You seem to think that Clint was "selling" "faith" or "Lutheranism" (which people would "pay for" by receiving ashes?) but there's nothing in the text of the post to support this.
    Indulgences were bad (so I thought) because they represented a transactional soteriology at its worst: You pay money, you (or a loved one in Purgatory) gets salvation (or at least "closer to" salvation), a particularly nasty form of the already nasty idea that you can/must do something to become right with God. So you're the one who introduced "salvation" by bringing up indulgences.
    I think you might be on to something in wondering what the ashes would have meant to the people who would have received them, if any had. I wonder the same thing. But that's a separate issue from "turning a religious object into a commodity" which is totally absent here.
    Finally, I will grant that there are cases in which one must be ungracious to speak the truth. Luther was frequently intemperate—perhaps sometimes rightly. In general, though, people who want to be taken seriously should be polite. Most of us aren't Luther.

  6. Tiff Wimberly5:36 AM

    Great summation that we can all apply to our failures: Sometimes failure requires you to readjust your expectations in order to actually be open to the learning available in a given situation.

    Love the idea of a M*A*S*H Unit...Mobile ASH Unit.

    I always see pictures in the paper the day after Ash Wednesday services that take place in a church and almost always Catholic or Episcopalian. Outdoors and a Lutheran ash dispensation would be something different for sure.

    Love the idea of an earlier in the day dispensation, as well, as a way to have a chance to talk about my faith during the day as I run errands, etc.

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  8. Thanks, Tiff. Your point about the paper is a good example of how Ash Wednesday is already in the public mind because of the newspaper. Thanks.

  9. Kathy, your level of misunderstanding and misconstrual leaves me no proper way to respond.

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  11. Clint -- (I just deleted my comment because, after a brief Google search, I noticed that I had mis-identified the photo! Just a co-inky-dinky! Here is my comment w/o the photo mention.) Even though you don't have a "proper" way to respond, at least you are "gracious" enough to not delete my comments! I really do appreciate that, since I completely understand that this is a Lutheran blog --- I can't remember if I told you, but I have been permanently blocked from commenting on Living Lutheran. (I tried 4 different identities -- Karen V, Luisa, John, kkahler.)

    I do stand by my ashes comments. No one ever said it is easy to talk about religion! Without going into a whole schmiel, ashes are a "good work" -- they help us to become holy. This is a Catholic belief.

    What does this have to do with Lutheranism? Context, context, context.

    You use the word "ash" as a verb, as in "getting ashed." -- "First of all, regardless of whether we ashed anybody else, we had ashed each other, we were sharing time and space and conversation together...."

    This reminds me of my kids playing paintball, or playing video games. What ever happened to the dignity of Faith?