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.