I saw God on Ash Wednesday in the most interesting places…

For a lifelong Protestant, I’ve often envied the more traditional liturgical elements of the Catholic church. In previous years, I would see my Catholic friends returning from an Ash Wednesday service with the visible reminder of their attendance on their forehead and wonder what would happen if I showed up at Mass and asked for ashes. Like many Protestant congregations, the church we attended for the last 2 decades did not celebrate Ash Wednesday in the ancient ways of the church. Yet, I’ve always been drawn to this symbolic acknowledgement of our need for God and the decision it represents to intentionally, thoughtfully, prayerfully begin the observance of the season of Lent.

This Ash Wednesday was different. The church we recently joined offers a service on Ash Wednesday that embraces this tradition celebrated by Christians around the world. More by coincidence than design, this year Ash Wednesday occurred the same week that our church was hosting the hypothermia shelter. Our county agencies work with local area churches during the cold winter months to provide shelter for our neighbors who have no home of their own. Each week from October to March, churches in our area open their doors each evening to provide food and a warm place to sleep for our homeless brothers and sisters. This past week was our week.

Truth be told, I still feel like the “new kid” at church. I don’t know many people in my new church family yet, but I know the best way to build the relationships I desire is to find a place to contribute. Because of my work with the Lamb Center, it made sense for me to sign up when they were seeking volunteers for the hypothermia shelter…300 people from the church volunteered in some way this year!  For me, this was an opportunity to get involved in a meaningful way and to spend time with my Lamb Center friends, many of whom avail themselves of the hospitality of the hypothermia churches. Because of our cold and snowy weather this week, I ended up being able to serve Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  I was blown away by the gracious care our guests were given, and extremely impressed by the organizers’ careful attention to detail.

Wednesday night, the church was packed! Our hypothermia guests were relaxing in the foyer as the rest of our church community gathered for worship. Partially because I wanted to attend the service as well, I recruited our guests to tag along. I ended up sitting with a gentleman who I’ve known for some time at the Lamb Center but had never gotten to know well. Because he thinks of me as the “bible study lady” from the Lamb Center, a place he loves and trusts, he was willing to go with me into the worship service. In respect for his privacy, I will call him Dan.

Dan and I found a seat near the back of the sanctuary, providentially right behind my favorite new friend from church, Suzanne. She has been been a gift from God as I have made this transition, inviting me into her small group and always making me feel included and welcome without pressure to move any faster than I am comfortable. We knew each other casually through mutual friends before; I think God knew I would need her to make this leap.  Suzanne had gotten to know Dan the day before when she had volunteered with the hypothermia program, so it was fortuitous that she was there to also welcome him in the extremely crowded sanctuary.

The service was lovely. A beautiful homily, inspired music, a sense of reverence and grace and humility, culminating in the imposition of the ashes. I was on the verge of tears throughout the service. While I am a loud and enthusiastic singer of whatever songs we are singing, I noticed my friend Dan was fairly quiet until the last song. These are the words that inspired my homeless friend to finally join in the singing:

He makes beautiful things,  He makes beautiful things out of the dust. He makes beautiful things, He makes beautiful things out of us.

After we went forward to get our ashes, Dan turned to me and said “I haven’t done that since I was a child. I liked it. I like this church.”

As we walked out of the sanctuary after the service was over, Dan looked at me and said “What do I do now?”

I asked him what he meant. He said “How do I do Lent now?”

We sat down and had a conversation about my understanding of what it means to observe Lent, how he might go forward from this place of surrender, what it would look like to live life a little differently during this season.   While his story is not mine to tell, I was humbled and honored to hear more about his journey to this place and his desire to consider a slightly different path moving forward.

While we were talking, another guest came over and joined our conversation. We will call her Brenda. Brenda had also attended the service and I was interested to hear her evaluation of the more contemporary style of music and liturgy…not necessarily her “cup of tea.” Yet this conversation about liturgy led to an opportunity to hear her story as well. We ended up talking and laughing for well over an hour, long after Dan abandoned us to our “girl talk.”

Brenda both broke my heart and inspired me. 60 years old and what she liked to call “situationally homeless.” Brenda was a jumble of health issues, probably alcoholic, a life story rooted in the faith of her Lutheran pastor father. She told me about each of her 7 siblings and how proud she was of the people that they had each become. As she spoke, I silently wondered if they knew how much she loved them. She was sad, hopeless and simultaneously charming, beautiful and full of life. She had a smile that lit up her tired face and eyes that sparkled when she knew she was being funny or mischievous. Having lived and worked all over the world in the hospitality industry, she now found herself lost, lonely, unable to work, and at the end of her rope in Virginia. She was mad at God, but still talked to Him daily. She was delightful and engaging and probably a little bit drunk.

After we had been talking for some time, she looked deep into my eyes, took me by the hand and said these words, “Why are you so serious about all this?”

I didn’t understand the question and asked her to explain. She continued, “You could have just dropped off some food or donated a coat if you wanted to help; why have you spent all this time talking to me?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer so, like all good Sunday school attendees, I gave the best answer to any question: “Jesus.”

I went on to tell her that I believe that we are all connected and that her story matters. I told her that I am convinced that God loves her, so I love her too. I told her not to give up on herself, that she had value and that she owed it to the world to keep fighting. We prayed together before she went to her bed on the floor of the church. I asked God to allow her to see herself as I see her and, more importantly, the way He sees her. I asked Him to bring her healing and the help she needs to move forward. I thanked Him for bringing us together on this cold winter night.

We made a plan to meet at the Lamb Center next week, but I’m not sure she will remember.

Since Wednesday night, I’ve continued to ponder her question. Why AM I “so serious about all this?” Should I have told her that I am an entitled, wealthy, inherently selfish person and, in light of the grace extended to me, it is the least I can do to simply  listen to her story?  That if not for a few different choices and different circumstances of birth, it could be me in her chair desperate for someone to tell me that my life matters, in spite of my failures?  Could I tell her that I am often haunted by the notion that someone, somewhere along the way may have sat and listened to my drunk father talk about his kids when I was too angry and hurt, perhaps like her family, to listen to him myself?

Do I tell her that there is no place where I more regularly and powerfully experience the tangible presence of Jesus that in conversations just like ours?

It was a messy, beautiful, holy, divinely ordained meeting between two women who love God, but don’t always understand the ways in which He works.  No answers, just love.

And the whole encounter happened with ashes on both of our foreheads.

Most of the time, we can’t fix each other…almost never, in fact. But I believe we have the ability to do something even better. We have the privilege and the opportunity to see people with God eyes and to tell them what we see- To name them Beloved.  And that makes space for God to do the fixing.

God showed up at my church on Ash Wednesday. I also decided to show up, so I got a front row seat to see Him do His thing.  I love you too, God.