There wasn’t an Ash Wednesday service at Third Church this year. There hasn’t been much of one any year for that matter. Attendance has dwindled (like many churches) and it seems that attendance on Ash Wednesday hit bottom last year when three people came for the service. Two of those people had visited the church the Sunday before and decided to explore what worship was like a little further… while I think they had some meaningful moments at Third, they moved on.
The usual Days for Girls’ events are on Wednesdays (usually almost a 12-hour shift for me) so I brought ashes with me just in case someone decided to show up to a service that wasn’t happening. Lately I’ve been more intentional about letting people know I am a pastor and trying not to do it the same way people find out who is a pilot and who does cross fit and who thinks essential oils are better than vaccines. To be honest, it’s easier for me to tell strangers about my menstrual cup than explain that I am a pastor. Being part of the menstrual cup tribe is way more socially acceptable than being part of an organized religion and yet I’m still draw to “my cup runneth over” as my go-to phrase for when I need to manage my menstruation. Anyway, back to Wednesday. A few women asked if Third had a service this year, mostly to feel out if they should go to the one they had already planned to attend or sew a little longer and just run upstairs at the right time. Another asked if we were ending DFG early because of Ash Wednesday. And maybe it was good that these were conversations that didn’t lead to me saying something like “oh, you should stay for our Ash Wednesday Service because it is so… meaningful?”, because clearly it isn’t and hasn’t been for a while. Social media allows me to know what my other clergy friends are up to, so I was able to share a few stories of what people I know were doing. A few people go to the airport to offer ashes, others were burning paper instead of palm leaves for symbolic purposes, some were mixing ashes with frankincense essential oils this year, and a ton of people were posting ashy foreheads and thumbs showing how beautiful this tradition is through Instagram filters. It is beautiful and I am jealous.
This is the first year I have not participated in an Ash Wednesday service since in a decade…or more… my vanity is preventing me from doing the real math. My experience with Ash Wednesday has been complicated as I’m sure it is for many people. I don’t remember going to Ash Wednesday services growing up. In high school, I was part of a community choir that preformed a passion play on Ash Wednesday which prevented me from getting Ashes. I went to a Baptist college and Ash Wednesday services weren’t popular there. I did go one year with a Catholic friend since he didn’t want to go alone (We had some comradery being sprinkled as infants and not dunked in a believer’s baptism. Our frenemies weren’t sure we were really baptized.) As a seminary student, I interned at a church that did an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service with other local churches because no one had great attendance on a Wednesday evening so if we were all together at least one sanctuary would have a respectable amount of people in it. I got to preach at one of those, because I was sort of the “spare” and everyone else was a solo pastor preparing of other Lent services or bible studies or at least working on the egg hunt and Easter services; other pastors always seem busier than I feel. Because we were from all different Christian traditions, we gave people the option of getting ashes on their hands or heads. I rotated between the two options for the years I was part of that group. Sometimes it depended on who was going to be touching me, Ash Wednesday sometimes feels too intimate for me… so do foot-washing services but that’s another issue. I like giving ashes more than receiving them, that’s probably some weird control thing I should work out in therapy later. Since my first church gig was a part time non-ordained position, I had always had another job or two. One of my favorites was teaching music. I taught at a Catholic school and wasn’t sure if I was allowed to get ashes at the school Mass or if it was like communion and I had to politely excuse myself, and it took me a year or two to ask (I was allowed to receive ashes). When I got to Third Church, they had a service but didn’t do the ashes as part of it. The service ended in silence and people left when they were ‘moved by the spirit’. I stayed at the front so that those who wanted to leave with Ashes could receive them.
So, what did I do this year? Nothing. It was weird. I just sat with the weirdness. And I had weird thoughts. Here they are:
Ash Wednesday is often skipped because people think it’s sad or guilt ridden. But I was sad, and guilt ridden for skipping out on being made to feel sad and guilt ridden.
I was also sad that I missed out on making a really nice Instagram post. Then I was embarrassed that I was falling for the social media trap of “everyone’s life is better than mine” and I thought for a minute about giving it up for lent. And then I read the 10th obnoxious “I’m leaving social media for lent and if we were really friends you know how to get in touch with me in real life and I’m going to be doing more spiritual things while I’m not on line” and my first thought was “like making your virtual friends feel like crap?”.
Some people say, “you are but dust and to dust you shall return” and I can’t help thinking “butt dust”.
I read “Learning to Walk in the Dark” by Barbara Brown Taylor. She explores how we feel about darkness (usually negative) and she finds positive experiences in the darkness. I won’t ruin it for you, but it isn’t “Jesus experienced suffering and darkness and he is with you” stuff that isn’t always helpful. The book was good stuff; real stuff; and actually, helpful spiritual stuff.
I watched Disney’s Frozen Two with my niece. And since I was already looking for amazing and beautiful experiences with darkness, I found them in that movie. Also, lots of transitional ministry stuff. Like you have to lose everything to save it kind of transformation that ‘the church’ needs. Seriously, I don’t think ‘the church’ is dying, the institutions are dying. And maybe they should die with dignity and let the new things God is doing rise from the ashes.
Maybe the church is transitioning. Maybe Patriarchy is our dead name.
I know “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” is supposed to inspire thinking about mortality and reminding us to repent, but I think it’s so cool that I’m made of dust, the same dust the universe is made out of. Can we say, “you are star dust and to the universe you will return?” Or is that too spiritual and not religious enough? I do like to think that the same creator who put the sun, moon, and stars in place made me out of the same stuff… it feels special. And it makes me want to live up to that specialness; maybe through repenting sin and believing I can be something better, maybe I can be as special as Mr. Roger’s believed I am. Can we say, “beloved star dust, you will return to your loving creator”? That feels promising… like there might be a resurrection after all of this lent stuff.