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Bring ‘Em Back
For many of our folks, this was the first time they’d ever attended an “Ash Wednesday” service. After discussing what Ash Wednesday was all about—repentance, recommitment, preparation for the Lenten journey—they were on board, but still didn’t know what to expect. Much time was given to discussing whether it was better to take the ashes on your forehead or on the back of your hand and opinions abounded for both positions. Furthermore, since this community Ash Wednesday service was happening at Ascension Lutheran Church—one of our partner congregations who hosts one of our Thursday night meals every month—there was some discussion of just how communion would be happening. We went over what it would look like and, for some of our brothers and sisters, how to indicate they’d prefer juice over wine.
On the night of Ash Wednesday, our diverse little band of brothers and sisters arrived in cars and vans, packed in tightly and buzzing about the next night’s dinner plans. That night, we numbered 25. Voices hushed as we entered the sanctuary and we were once again impressed by the beauty of the space and reminded that tonight was a special night—a holy night. With whispered voices, we discussed the candles and which one represented Jesus. We looked for our favorite symbols on their kneeling pads and elbowed each other when we found one we didn’t recognize. With hushed consideration, we examined each of the minister’s robes and stoles, each of us picking out the one we thought was the best. We took some time to look around the sanctuary and see representatives of so many congregations in Danville. Many of the congregations represented were partners with us and we were glad to recognize so many faces.
The service was thoughtful and contemplative—a style many of us are very comfortable with—and we considered the scripture and the words of the preacher. We partook of one loaf and one cup and proclaimed our unity with those gathered and with the great Church Universal. We wore ashes on our skin with that curious mix of quiet confidence and contrition that is so common to Ash Wednesday throughout our world. There were so many things that were new and strange to so many of us that night. We came because it was where we belonged on a night like that, but we brought so many questions and curious thoughts with us.
A local minister implored us to remember the many folks in Danville who were hungry. She said to us, “Maybe none of us here has ever been hungry…” and my eyes flew to a number of our folks who have known hunger all too well—who have felt its desperate grip and struggled to find not just their daily bread, but their barest sustenance as well. They gave me a sheepish grin and shrugged their shoulders. I looked around at our little flock gathered in that beautiful space and considered how many of our leaders and beloved were precisely the people that the imminent offering was intended to serve. The plates were distributed Ascension’s ushers and an offering was called for one of our favorite organizations, God’s Storehouse, to help provide food for those without.
The plates passed so quickly that some of our folks barely saw them coming. In a moment, the offering plates had moved on to the pews in front of them. Though there may have been many things that night about which we had questions, this was one that seemed crystal clear to our little crew of beloved and lovely folks. One of our more recently developed leaders—half-rising from his seat—gestured to one of the ushers that we’d like to contribute. Piercing the silence of that gorgeous space, he softly said, “Bring ‘em back.” The shocked usher stood still for a moment and then brought a plate back to pass. From our pockets came both crumpled ones and fives and crisp twenties; both hastily written checks and handfuls of change. Too many of us knew hunger too well to let those plates pass silently. People who once had depended upon charity to eat (and some who still do) gave of themselves and eagerly called for the opportunity to do so. For a few short moments, the Kingdom reigned in that place and in those pews.
The rest of the offering, and the night itself, went off without a hitch and 25 of us piled back into cars and vans with ashes on our skin reminding us that it is from dust that we came and it is to dust that we shall surely return. But, in the meantime we’re going to keep calling back the offering plates and pouring our lives into all those places where the world tells us we’re wasting our time. We’re going to keep cultivating grace and mercy in desperate places—confident that nothing can hold back the Kingdom of God from springing up all around us.