Scripture: Psalm 139:23-24
Search me, O God, and know my heart: test me and know my thoughts, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Reflection: Ash... and You Shall Receive
In my first year as a church pastor, I wanted everything to be "home-made": coffee hour delights, communion bread, even the art for the Sunday bulletin whenever possible.
"Authenticity is important," I reasoned. "Let's honor God by being ourselves together, if only for one hour on Sundays. Church should look more like that."
It hadn't been a universal success. But it was in that spirit that I resolved to make our ashes for Ash Wednesday. I'd dutifully save the palms from the previous Palm Sunday on top of the bookcase in my office, where they had withered into the color of old newspaper and taken on the aroma of old hymnals.
"Yes," I thought. "What could be more home-made than ashes from 'our' palms, dutifully prepared for the congregation by the pastor himself?"
But the afternoon of Ash Wednesday got away from me, and so, ninety minutes before our evening service, I grabbed the palms and zoomed back home, where I opened the garage and pulled out our little charcoal grill from its winter resting place.
The sun was setting and it was windy, so I pulled the grill under the shelter of the garage door, baptized the palms with lighter fluid, and... BOOM.
Suddenly grateful for my eyebrows -- and for a garage that was still standing -- it was then that I realized how elaborate a performance my call for "authenticity" had been asking from us all.
That's worth pondering as Ash Wednesday comes again. For those of us who weren't raised doing it, receiving ashes can feel like a performance, too. But we need to remember how grounded it is in a real truth we might just as soon forget: that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
Likewise, Ash Wednesday challenges us to affirm our faith, not as an exercise to be performed, but as an authentic commitment to the God who sees us through the chances and changes of this life -- the God who has the first and last word on us and all Creation.
Holy One, strengthen us for the work of seeking you in faith, especially in the coming weeks, so that in our seeking, we might find you, and find the authentic people you have called us to become. Amen.
Senior Minister of the Second Congregational Church UCC in Greenwich, Connecticut