As I was burning the dead plants from our garden in preparation for our Ash Wednesday services, I was overwhelmed with uncertainty. Am I doing this right? While we practiced baptism, leading communion, and discussed funerals and marriage ceremonies, we never burned ashes. Perhaps it’s because the celebration of Ash Wednesday isn’t all that common in baptist churches or perhaps it’s because there is ample opportunity to buy ashes already burned and ready for imposition. Perhaps it’s because part as communities of faith, we often assume that the way we’ve always done things will hold up.
As I watched the dead plants become ash while trying to keep our 16 month old a safe distance from the flame, I remembered the first time I had seen someone bearing the mark of the cross on an Ash Wednesday. It was my best friend who I knew attended the Catholic church across the street from my Southern Baptist Church and when she arrived to school, I tried to clean her forehead hoping to save her from embarrassment of having dirt on her head, which is what best friends do in middle school.
She stopped my hand as I tried and said, “It’s a cross. I went to mass this morning because it’s Ash Wednesday.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed to wear my cross earrings to middle school and often hid my WWJD bracelet under my long sleeves, but here she was bearing the mark of the cross on her forehead for all to see. Her profession of faith and confession that she was dust and to dust she would return didn’t match my understanding of Catholics as “the others” and “nonbelievers.”
19 years later, as a I prepared the ashes for our own Baptist Ash Wednesday service, I was overwhelmed with the question: Am I doing this right? Am I including all? Am I welcoming all? Am I remembering that we are all the people of God overcome with our own dustiness at times and wanting only to find the divine breath that made us come to life? As a minister, am I challenging our human tendency to group ourselves into us and them, believer and nonbeliever, faithful and unfaithful? Am I questioning the times that we turn a finger to blame someone else for handing us the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil unwilling to admit that we did indeed take a bite?
And as the tomato stalks that had yielded fruit only to be eaten by bugs and plagued by blight turned to ash, so too did my question. Maybe it isn’t whether I am burning ashes “right” or ministering “right,” but rather that I am a witness to the miraculous power of creation to die and rise again. I am a witness that out of dust can come to life because the Divine walks among us.