The dust has almost settled from Ash Wednesday. In my own case, that meant a fourteen hour day, with four liturgies at Trinity Church, Wauwatosa as well as a few hours standing on the corner with clergy from other area churches (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic) praying for folks on a street corner in front of our local Starbucks as a part of the grassroots movement called “Ashes to Go”. By the end of the day, our group had prayed for over 150 folks, heard plenty of stories, witnessed tear-filled eyes, held hands of those who were hurting for one reason or another, and had people literally bound up to us with big smiles on their faces, thanking us for our efforts.
I’ve learned over the past several weeks that there are a number of people who have reservations about this practice of imposing ashes out in public. I think some of their concerns are worthy of consideration. Certainly taking an action requires reflection upon the action taken. I’m not so much interested in defending the practice or arguing with folks who have a different view of it than I do. Instead, all of the arguments for/against “Ashes to Go” have had me thinking about other practices that are prominent around parish churches during this season.
At the parish I serve, we are offering an additional mid-week opportunity to worship and receive the Eucharist. We are praying Morning Prayer early every weekday morning. We’ve mailed two lenten devotional booklets to everyone on our mailing list. We are conducting a weekly evening class for adults. I’m teaching a Sunday afternoon class on prayer book spirituality. We’ve got a special Sunday morning adult forum class planned. All of this is in addition to the regular round of weekly liturgies, committee meetings and pastoral concerns that occupy the day to day life of any parish. In the midst of the lenten fast, we’ve got a smorgasbord of activities to feast upon.
Most of the things that are happening “at the parish” are for the benefit of parishioners, even though they are certainly open to the public. My hope is these additional opportunities will nourish parishioners’ spiritual lives and equip them to better serve their Lord in the world about them. Yet, for all of the energy that we will expend through this season, we will remain mostly invisible to the community around us. We will continue to be the red brick building on the corner with the lovely welcome garden. All of this is well and good. But aren’t we called to more? And if we are called (as I believe we are) to “go into all the world”, what does that “going out” look like in a distracted, conflicted culture where religion is consistently pushed to the realm of private devotional practice?
At the end of this season, most of us who work inside the walls of a church building will collapse into a heap at the conclusion of the final Easter Day liturgy. Shortly after that, folks will begin to turn their attention to summer vacations and outdoor activities. By the beginning of June, the average Episcopal Church will enter its summer stasis as planning begins to ramp up for another round of insider activities that will begin in September.
I think instead of arguing about the merits/dangers of “Ashes to Go”, I’m going to figure out a way to stand on some more street corners…to talk with and pray for the folks who pass by. I don’t think such behavior will increase the Sunday attendance at the parish I serve or resolve our budgetary challenges. I’m pretty sure it won’t do much to get people to contemplate their life’s mission or make radical changes in their politics. But it just may plant a few seeds of Good News. I could go for a bit more of that. Seeds out of ashes? Stranger things have happened.