Feeling Uncomfortable with Ashes to Go
Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 was the first time Ashes to Go was offered in Shippensburg. There were no TV cameras, no newspaper reporters and no protesters, just Mother Barbara and me with a sign that said, Ashes to Go, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, some handouts and our containers of ashes. We stood on the sidewalk near the post office, a very busy place at noon time, feeling rather uncomfortable for our own reasons. I was never very comfortable with evangelism, I feel like a lot of Episcopalians that the best strategy is to just be ourselves, loving people, listening to them, praying for them, and being whatever help we can. Then here I am standing on a busy sidewalk with a cross of ashes on my forehead and offering something a lot of people didn’t understand.
I also believe it was the smudge of black ashes that I was uncomfortable with. I have had ashes imposed for more years than I want to remember but if I was planning on going somewhere after the service I was sure to clean them off before I left. I was concerned people would stare at the black mark on my forehead and I would have to explain why it was there. No it’s not dirt, no I didn’t forget to wash my hair, yes I am a Christian and I had ashes imposed on my forehead to mark the start of Lent. Then here I am standing on a busy sidewalk with a cross of ashes on my forehead prepared to answer those same questions.
The longer we stood there we come to realize that although we were uncomfortable being out in public with our faith for everyone to see, we were making the people passing by just as uncomfortable. They would read our sign as they parked their car or as they were walking up the sidewalk but they would pass us with their heads down or looking the other way. As more and more people came from the post office after receiving their mail they would pass by reading their junk mail as if it was the most important information they ever received. Those that did response to us said they would be in their own churches later that day but I couldn’t help but think why more people didn’t stop. Did they think were selling something, asking for money or trying to convince them to come to St. Andrew’s? I hope that wasn’t the reason. One young man told us he wasn’t allowed because he wasn’t Catholic. He was a little surprised when Mother Barbara explained that we weren’t Catholic either and it was perfectly alright for him to receive the cross. He bent forward as I imposed the ashes and Mother Barbara said a prayer on his behalf, we all said amen and he walked away cheerfully expressing his faith for all to see.
Why weren’t more people like that young man? Was it a lack of understanding or a lack of faith? Was it that they were afraid we were selling something they didn’t want or that we would convince them to come to a place they weren’t ready to go. I don’t have a answer for that. I do know that I am willing to try this again. I kind of like having that uncomfortable feeling and I think both Mother Barbara and I enjoyed making other people uncomfortable with us being there. We made them think about their own faith or lack of and what it means to be a Christian and that can be a good thing.
Let’s do this again next Ash Wednesday with more people involved. Sometimes it’s good to be uncomfortable together.