In my last post, I talked about my experience of Ashes To Go. My post has gained a lot of support, but I also have heard some criticism from my fellow Episcopalians about doing it. I heard through a parishioner of mine that a few are likening us to “Baptists” or other denominations who stand on the corner and preach. First of all, that kind of Christian elitism has got to go. It only makes Jesus cry. Second, my post was not intended to say that every church should do Ashes To Go. In fact, some churches need to NOT do Ashes To Go.
Ironically, or not so ironically, in the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, Jesus says this:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This is a real danger and those of us who do Ashes To Go need to heed this warning. There is a temptation to say, “Look at us! We are so ‘missional,’ aren’t we? Look how holy we are!” Jesus certainly walked that tightrope himself, seeing as how all of his ministry was done in public. How did he resist the temptation to look manipulative or holier-than-thou? It had to do with his heart and his intention, and no one really knows our heart or intention except God and us. (Jesus, by the way, got lots of criticism too, if you remember.)
Keeping Jesus’ warnings and his public ministry in mind, what are some things a church needs in order to do Ashes To Go successfully?
1. A need in the community and a call from God. The leaders of FOCUS, our local outreach ministry, have often said that while FOCUS does a great job of providing for the physical needs of the community, we need to think of ways to provide for the spiritual and emotional needs as well. We never know the spiritual baggage people are carrying, especially the clients who come into FOCUS. They need to know that God loves and forgives them. So the need was there. I happened to be scheduled to work at FOCUS on Ash Wednesday. I was worried that I might have to cut out early in order to prepare for the imposition of ashes that I provide my congregation. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I could offer this service while I was working. It was clear. However, I believe God speaks through community as well, so I asked the leaders at FOCUS what they thought. They gave me the green light. Also, I knew I couldn’t do it alone, so I asked the leaders in my congregation if they wanted to join me. They were more fired up than I was. If these leaders hadn’t wanted to do it, I would have had to rethink it.
So the need was there and the call was clear. Congregations who are considering Ashes To Go need to be sure the need is present in the community for the message Ashes To Go sends. They also need to make sure the decision to do it is not done in a vacuum, but with the full consent of the leadership of the congregation. If there is resistance for whatever reason, heed it, because God often speaks through the voice of people with whom we disagree.
2. A congregation that is bold, friendly, and compassionate. It is risky business to stand on a corner with your religion on your sleeve. For everyone who received ashes, there were 10 others who drove past with strange looks on their faces. You need people out there who are bold and willing to talk about their faith. They also need to be friendly, not demanding. If someone refuses ashes, that’s OK. You’re there to offer a gift, it’s up to them to receive it. You also need people who are compassionate, knowing that you may bear the burden of hearing someone’s story. Therefore, you need people who can listen, not judge, and pronounce God’s love in their eyes and on their lips. We can do a lot of damage out there if we don’t possess these qualities. If your congregation is fearful of risk-taking, cranky, or judgmental, then this is not for them.
3. Banked trust in the community. If you are a lay or clergy person who is new to your church community, and you’re wanting to do Ashes To Go for the first time, you need to wait. You need to go out, meet the community in which you serve, and create relationships. I have been in Harris County 5 years, and know that if I had done this any earlier in my ministry here, it would have flopped. The problem often with street preachers is that no one knows them and that’s why no one wants to listen to them. We are called to serve not just our church community but the surrounding community, and if we’re not doing that, we need to rethink things. After a while and you’ve got literal “street cred,” then you will be ready to offer Ashes To Go. Meet the local business owners, talk to the people walking down the street, serve on a non-profit board or civic organization, wave at the neighbors, not in order to get people into your church, but to simply be present to them so they know you’re there and can be trusted.
4. A clear sense of who you are as a congregation and a clear sense of your mission. Why are you where you are? If you don’t know that, then why would you think offering Ashes To Go would be a good idea? You may be wanting to offer ashes, when what people really need is something else. For us at St. Nicholas, a core component of who we are is that all people are welcome at God’s table. That’s just who we are. But we recognize that not all people are willing to come to the table, so perhaps we should move the table outside once in a while and see if that helps.
Jesus knew his mission clearly, and that’s what grounded him so that he wasn’t looking holier-than-thou. If you had sandwiches, and you went into a hungry neighborhood, and you knew that your mission was to feed people, then wouldn’t you give them away? Would that make you look manipulative or hypocritical or holier-than-thou? Probably not.
Know your call, know your congregation, know your community, and know your mission. If you do these things, then you are likely to have a meaningful experience with Ashes To Go. If you don’t have these things, then go take a nap.