My Struggle with Ashes

Anyone who has delved even just a bit into this blog is aware that I’ve moved from faith tradition to faith tradition in my church journey.

And I hope that I’ve made it evident that I have an appreciation for each one of them that’s rubbed itself against and inside of me.

Each have been a part of the whittling away of self that John spoke of –

He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30 ESV

And each have also been a part of the leaving that which is fully me, exposing the image of Him in my uniqueness.

I scoffed at the ashes.

For a long time, I judged the unknown and threw stones with my thoughts.

It started innocently.

What is that on your head?


Hold on, let me get that for you.  Not even realizing that I was about to momma spit clean that friend’s forehead of a holy seal.

But innocence moved. Pharisaical.

Why’s he showing us what he did before I even had breakfast today?

Couldn’t she wash her face?

Yeah, you needed that after your rousing Mardi Gras, didn’t you?

Why bother? You haven’t been to church since Christmas.

Real Christians don’t have to do that stuff.

Real Christians …

Yeah. I went there.

And then one year I got ashes on my own head.

The first full year that I entered into this liturgical, church calendar oriented tradition, I was pregnant. By the time Ash Wednesday rolled around, I’d had a baby and he’d even been infant baptized.

And I thought that baby was some kind of beautiful. Never mind that they told us in the hospital that he was jaundiced and it took several years later for us to look at his just a few hours or days old photographs to see it. Never mind that he (and I) had thrush for likely months. Never mind that he already had such a manly little look about him that he didn’t look right in that expensive smocked outfit that grandma had bought when we found out that he was a boy.

You get the idea don’t you. He was mine. And so he was in so many ways just perfect.

And we took him all kinds of everywhere. Restaurant. Concert. Movie.

And Ash Wednesday.

Yes, on my very first Ash Wednesday service of my entire life, I had an infant in my arms. And the scriptures spoke of death. And because he’d been a healthy one, I’d never considered it. Not really for him.

And I wept.

I had asked one time earlier in that season of my life if we would ever have altar calls in this new church home I’d found where we had communion every week. And a man answered me.

“We have one every week,” he said.

And I believe that he was referring to going down and taking the bread and the wine. Because you can remain seated and not partake. You can also go forward, refrain from taking, and get a spoken blessing.

But while there was no communion that morning, it was an altar call experience for me that first Ash Wednesday. My submission to the truth was not what made it true.

Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.

But submitting to the truth did something to me. I walked down an aisle and allowed a man to mark me with ashes. And my heart was saying as he did that, I know and I believe. I am among the ones who choose evil even when I want good. I am among the ones that live in the knowledge of things that should not be known.

It was hard enough to claim.

But my husband carried him in his arms as he walked down the aisle behind me. They went together. My love and my baby.

And I had always stopped when singing A Mighty Fortress is our God. I’d never sang every word of verse four. I knew that I had trouble with letting “goods and kindred go.”

Yet here they were beside me, marked with ash, my kindred.

I gave my family to God that first Ash Wednesday.

I do it now every year. My baby is ten now.

Except one year. One year I did not make it to Ash Wednesday.

One year I woke to a telephone call so very early in the morning. The caller id was not my kindred. It was St. Francis Hospital. And I knew my daddy had died.

I called that man who had first marked my head with ashes as I drove down the interstate in the darkness. “I won’t make it this morning,” I said. “My daddy is gone.”

It was a bit of a laugh. My daddy being of my old faith tradition. The one that never marked their heads. I kind of thought the joke was on him and that in the end he’d appreciate it himself – him returning to dust on a day he’d never observed.

And I didn’t give up anything that year for Lent. I said I’d given up my daddy and that was enough.

But inside, the real truth was that I was not sorry. My daddy had lived among so much dust, so many ashes.

And that Ash Wednesday, I knew another meaning. The ashes make a cross. And this world is not my home.

Trudge on to resurrection friends. Trudge on.

He rises from the ashes.

Never to return.

And in just a few hours, my love and baby and me are going to get marked. I’ve got some dust I’d love to get rid of in this old heart and body of mine. And I’m glad He’s still whittling away.