Gathering with community

As the preview news stories begin, and more and more people are sharing their Ashes to Go plans on Facebook and via other media, the comment conversations have also begun: Is it right to make Ash Wednesday so “easy?” Is it right to separate the ashes from the worship of the church community? Every comment stream I see has shock and dismay AND people sharing the power and promise of Ashes to Go.

After several years of offering and promoting Ashes to Go, I still consider these questions regularly. I want people in church on Ash Wednesday. I love what we do there, together, hearing scripture, praying a litany of repentance that reminds us of all the error, sin, despair, and brokenness of our world and lives that’s so much bigger than what’s on our minds at the train station, grocery, or where ever we might encounter Ashes to Go. And together, in church, we place ourselves and our community in God’s hands to receive and strengthen our repentance, and then we break bread together. I love every bit of the traditions of Ash Wednesday.

But Ashes to Go, ashes outside the church, in momentary encounters, also becomes more and more important to me every year. I am not at the train station for the people who come to church all the time – I’m there for the people who can’t come to church: because their work is not flexible enough or because they have been hurt by the church – or simply bored by the church into believing that the truths and actions of our faith don’t matter in daily life and “the real world.” We go out because the community defined by the doors, walls, and especially hours of the church is not the target of the gospel, or God’s call to repentance.

But more and more, now, I go out with Ashes to Go because of the community that is formed and defined at the train station. There, strangers connect with other strangers – tipped into a “congregation” with fellow commuters by the act of receiving ashes in this secular sacred space. And members of my congregation experience the powerful connection to the community of all God’s people, sharing ashes and prayer with people to whom it would never occur to them to speak of God at any other time. The power of mortality, repentance, and reconciliation sinks in to our hearts even more deeply when our own thumb makes the cross of ashes on someone else’s forehead, when we discover that we have the power to communicate God’s presence, and God’s invitation. Members of my congregation from 14 to 74 discover the evangelist within themselves and within each other, reflected in the eyes and hearts of strangers to whom we offer ashes, one by one. And we recognize God’s children in our unknown neighbors – deepening our definition of community in a way that begins to reflect the kingdom of God just a bit better than the faces in our pews could alone.

Yes, it’s about gathering the community.
But it’s also about meeting God’s community, ungathered, and letting grace happen.

And it’s okay if you hate it. That’s God telling you that you yourself need to be in church. That the community inside the walls needs your presence, your time, your faith, your hope, and your repentance. So I’ll see you at the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, and it will be a gift.
And in the meantime, God is out on the streets, too, surprising the people offering the ashes just as much as the people receiving them – making sacred space of time that isn’t measured in hours and posted worship times, and making community that isn’t measured by attendance, familiarity, or predictability.

Absolutely, Ash Wednesday and the practices of our faith are about community, and about time. But both are God’s, where ever and when ever we go. Thank God.

Prep time

One of the things I love about Ashes to Go is how very simple it can be: a few people, outside the church walls, with a container of ashes and an openness to God’s people on the streets or anywhere in the routine of life. But of course there’s still some prep, and the beginning of Lent is also a very busy time for most church folks.
So at two weeks out, you probably want to recruit your team – clergy and lay people can share the ministry – and know your site.
If you’ll be visiting a business like a coffee shop, grocery store, or mall, it’s helpful to check in with the management ahead of time to be sure they’re comfortable with your presence. Places that host Christmas bell ringers and girl scout cookie sales probably have good foot traffic and some experience with having non-profit ministries at their doors. Colleges and universities also have a lot of foot traffic, and a lot of people who have never imagined the church could be adventurous and interesting. Many have chaplaincies in place that will celebrate Ash Wednesday, but not all.
If you’re headed to a downtown business district, park, or transit stop, usually all you have to do is plan to show up on Ash Wednesday, and be flexible.
If you’re planning to set up on your own property, plan your signage and space use now. At it’s best, Ashes to Go is about the unexpected encounter and the church in the midst of daily life, not merely a drive-by convenience. How can you invite drivers and passers by into the sense of God’s presence in their commute?
Once it’s all planned, share your site here. We keep the list on the site for mutual support and inspiration, and to help media covering the story and people interested in this holy adventure see the scope and the specifics of your ministry!
And of course, now is the time to be praying for your team, your community, and all those who will encounter God’s grace on Ash Wednesday!

Getting the word out

Three weeks from today, I’ll be back at the neighborhood commuter train station, offering ashes again as people hurry to work and get started on their busy Wednesday.  This is the time to recruit your team, if you haven’t already, and to think about publicity.

One of the gifts of “Ashes to Go” is that the church becomes visible in new ways, and one of the best ways to enhance that is to share your story with local media.  Ashes to Go can be very photogenic, so many local media will appreciate the story.  This is a good time to begin the contact with local reporters.  Find out who covers religion, community events, or your particular neighborhood, either by calling the media outlet or surfing their website for similar stories, and let them know that something interesting is coming up on February 13.

A sample press release, meant to be adapted to your own context, is available on our resources page.  If you’ve done Ashes to Go before, share a photo or a compelling story about someone who received ashes.  If someone has begun to come to your church because of Ashes to Go, share that story – it bucks the usual trend of church stories.
Some smaller local papers will be happy to print your press release and photo; for others, you’ll need to provide reporters with a succinct couple of sentences to sell your story – novelty, trends, and tension help make a story appealing.  Good media relations means making sure that everybody gets something useful from the encounter.

It’s worth investing some thought and time in how your Ashes to Go story is told, as media coverage reaches more people with the good news of the church coming out into the world than you’ll ever see at the coffeeshop, train station, grocery or street corner.  And you never know – the person you’re doing this for could be the sitting in front of their TV or reading the morning paper while you’re out on the street!

So reach out, pray for all the lives you’ll touch, and get ready to go.

Five weeks and counting

Ashes to Go was phenomenal last year! Phenomenal in the sense of an extraordinary event, with people across the US participating and experiencing God and God’s people coming to meet them in the midst of life, and phenomenal in the sense of the Greek root meaning to manifest, appear, or shine.  God’s grace shone and manifested through all sorts of encounters with puzzled or grateful people, tears and laughter, and all sorts of grace in moments of repentance and acceptance – a few of the stories are here.

Now it’s time for the movement to come alive again.  It’s just under five weeks to Ash Wednesday, February 13, so it’s time to start thinking and planning.  Ashes to Go can be incredibly easy to offer – just take a container of ashes, and an open, prayerful attitude out of the church to any place where God’s people can stop for a moment – but these are the days to think about just where you want to be, and what context you want to offer.

Ashes to Go flourishes in places where people can easily see you and pause for a moment – places with pedestrian traffic, or an easy place to pull out off the stream of cars.  That makes transit stops, business districts, school campuses and some shopping areas ideal.  If you’re headed on to private property, check ahead with the owner or manager.

And think about the context you create.  The moment works whether you’ve got vestments, incense, signs and symbols –  or just a few people with ashes in hand – but think ahead about the community you’re in, and the community you represent, and decide how much or how little church you want to bring to the streets.

Finally, this is the time to plan your takeaway.  The ashes are enough, but a bookmark with prayers or a booklet of Lenten Meditations may provide people with ways to deepen and continue their experience of grace.  And a contact card or a leaflet with Lenten programs may help people reconnect with a community of faith.

Blessings in your preparation, and in the countdown to Ashes!

Making ash

Today I dug the sifter out of the back of the cupboard.  I don’t bake very much, so it only comes out a couple of times a year – like today, on Shrove Tuesday, when we burn last year’s palms and then sift and crush the ashes to be ready for Ash Wednesday.
I have to admit, the people who do this commercially do a better job than I do – their ashes are finer, and stay put a little better when I thumb the cross onto people’s foreheads.  But I’m not about to give up making ashes.  The kids enjoy “helping” me burn the palms.  And while they watch the flames, we talk about God making dust, and palms, and people, and being able to see and love us and do important things with us even when we’re as small and messy as the ashes.
Then I go off into the sacristy with the sifter to crush the bits of burnt palm into soft, skin-ready ash.  By this time, I’ve been thinking about ashes, and repentance, and dust for days or weeks – there’s a sermon that needs writing, and this year, reporters to explain the symbols to.  But as the ash gets ground into my fingernails, up under the cuffs of my sleeves, and all over the counter, no matter how hard I try to contain it, all those ideas become tangible, real – and likely to spill on my shoes.
It’s messy.  Really, really messy.  The struggle with stubborn bits that won’t sift, and the time and effort it takes to tidy up what the flames have done makes the ashes a more powerful symbol of mortality for me.  My life is like this, too, after all.  Full of bits that don’t want to be smoothed out, leaking into actions and places I never meant for it to go – and just as vulnerable to destruction as the palms were to the flame.
I don’t talk about this part at the train station.  But what I do with the burnt palm bits on Tuesday evening is exactly what we do in church on Wednesday – exactly what the ashes invite us to do, whether we get them at the train station or at the altar.  We take all the broken, burnt, nearly unrecognizable bits of our selves and our lives; we sift them down to dust: discovering the material God uses to create us, and the place we all return in the end.  Then, with the sifted ash in hand, we offer it to God, allowing the palms and our lives to create a space for forgiveness, and become a symbol of faith to carry into a waiting world.

It’s exciting!

Ash Wednesday is less than a week a way, and excitement is building.  I have to admit, for most of my life I didn’t think of Ash Wednesday could be exciting.  After all, it’s about admitting where I’ve gone wrong, and what I’ve done and left undone.  It’s the doorway to a long season of “self-examination and repentance;…prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and…reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (to quote the Book of Common Prayer.) Lent isn’t supposed to be fun – fruitful, yes, but not usually entertaining.  And Ash Wednesday starts it all off with the reminder that we’re dust.  We die.

Thanks to Ashes to Go, I’ve discovered that that’s actually exciting.
We’re dust. We die.  And the good news about it is that God never meant for us to be immortal, infallible, and perfect.  It’s a relief to remember that brokenness is natural – and because it is, healing is possible. We call that repentance and forgiveness.

In the end, Ash Wednesday is a reminder that it’s not ultimately up to me.  It’s up to God.  And that discovery belongs to the everyday world even more than it belongs to the church.  That’s good news for the world in which I miss deadlines, hurt friends by careless words, leave important work undone, and slide past some of the moral commitments I want to keep.  The world of commuting, and groceries, and a long day’s work.
I learned that from the people at the train station.  The people who spend all of every Wednesday in that imperfect world, and were touched, delighted, and grateful that the Ashes came to find them.  People who prayed with me about mortality and repentance and left strengthened for the daily grind (what was that about dust, again?) They taught me that this truth matters even more in traffic, offices, classrooms, kitchens and stores than it does in a quiet, candlelit church.

Some of our Ashes to Go encounters will be lighthearted.  Some will involve tears.  Others will be brief and unemotional.  But the exciting part in every encounter is that the truths we’ve kept inside the church for so many years will be set free in the daily, ordinary world. And that’s exciting.

Ash Wednesday is February 22!

Sometimes it’s hard to get to church on a Wednesday.  There’s soccer, meetings, traffic, dinner, errands and much more to squeeze into our days.  And it’s much harder to get to church on Wednesday if you’ve gotten out of the habit of church entirely, but Ash Wednesday is especially for people whose relationship to God isn’t perfect.

It’s about confessing the messiness of our lives, and claiming our desire for renewal, forgiveness and healing.  So Ash Wednesday belongs in the messy places of our lives: the commute, the meetings, the kitchen, classroom or office.

And this site is about how to bring Ash Wednesday to people who need it, but can’t find their way to the church.  “Ashes to Go” has been bubbling up in Episcopal congregations around the country, and this year, you can bring the gift of ashes to your community.

Explore and find out more!