It was the first time we had ever attempted to take Ash Wednesday outside the church. Last week several of our clergy took to the streets of the Detroit suburb of Berkley between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. At the stoplight right in front of the Berkley church building, one of our multisite campuses, they offered ashes as well as free doughnuts and coffee to passersby, whether driving or walking. Offering ashes on the street was a unique way of extending God’s blessings, sharing the gospel and reaching new people with the love of Jesus.
At the same time as ashes were offered to commuters, the doors of hundreds of thousands of churches around the world were open to all who felt called to begin the Lenten season by hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday found me in a somber mood because the previous day I was part of a group that was lamenting the tragic events that seem to be daily occurrences in our world. A gunman kills two people in Copenhagen, Denmark at a free speech seminar and a synagogue, perhaps inspired by the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. ISIS fighters (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) video a mass beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya. Young girls and teenagers are routinely sold to ISIS soldiers, who subject them to repeated rape and physical abuse. Some prefer to use the name ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, because the Levant is a larger area of the Middle East.
“We feel so helpless to make a difference.” Unusual words from a group that will spring into action the moment they hear of a need. The discussion is far-ranging and intense. Is the religion of Islam to blame for these brutal murders, or are the ISIS fighters an extremist faction that does not represent mainstream Islam? Hasn’t Christianity also had dangerous fringe elements over the last two centuries? Is ISIS a threat to our country? How can we protect the rights of all people without racial profiling and making assumptions about others based on how they look, dress or speak? What responsibility does the United States have to take leadership in standing up to ISIS at the same time as we seek to work together with the rest of the world?
How can Christians respond to evil in our world? As we travel through Lent, the ashes we received last week may provide clues. First, we can respond with penitence. In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of our utter dependence upon God for life itself. As ashes are placed on our forehead, we confess our sins and recognize our mortality in order to prepare ourselves and our community to live out resurrection in the face of death. The ashes demand something of us: the free gift of ourselves, our assent to God’s grace, our submission and our willingness to change. In the end, the only one we can change is ourselves.
Pope Francis wrote last week in his annual Lenten message, “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience… Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades… We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
Christians respond to evil in our world through a personal and corporate penitence that results in action. As our pastors stood on one of the busiest corners of Berkley during rush hour, they waved doughnuts in zip-lock bags, inviting drivers to use parking spaces along the street.
A mother with three young daughters pulled over in her minivan. She was an Armenian Orthodox Christian and said that she would have no opportunity to attend a worship service that day. Pastor Chad administered the ashes and the three girls received doughnuts. An Episcopal priest pulled over and said that his church in a nearby town was also offering drive-by ashes. He wished our pastors well. One person drove by and gave a thumbs-up. Another texted Pastor Lindsey and said, “I was so excited to drive by and see that you are offering ashes!” In the name of Jesus we humbly said “yes” to penitence and “no” to indifference by administering ashes, serving coffee and doughnuts and smiling and waving to hundreds on their way to work.
How can Christians respond to the tragic events in our world? By the ashes of protest. In the Bible, ashes not only symbolize sorrow over our personal sin, but they are also a sign of protest over the presence of evil in our world: individual, corporate, and systemic evil. In 2 Samuel chapter 13, after Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon, she puts ashes on her head, tears her long robe, puts her hand on her head and goes away crying. Tamar wears ashes in protest of an evil done to an individual.
In Esther chapter 4, Haman, the top official of King Ahasuerus of Persia, issues a decree that all Jews are to be killed on a certain day. Mordecai, the cousin of Queen Esther, both of whom were Jews, was so distraught with the decree of death that he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry. His fellow Jews followed suit. In this case, the Jews wore ashes in protest of a systemic evil about to be inflicted upon an entire group of people.
It is our responsibility as Christians not only to protest the actions of ISIS but to name injustice and oppression wherever people in our world are rejected, dissed, dehumanized or terrorized. President Obama’s request that Congress authorize military action against ISIS earlier this month was met with some skepticism from both parties. On the evening of Ash Wednesday, former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani attended a private group dinner for Governor of Scott Walker in New York City. In remarks related to the President’s ISIS response Guiliani said, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
Now I know why I had to redo my ashes on Wednesday evening. Any time people make accusatory statements, express negative opinions based solely on assumptions or denigrate the integrity of others, no matter who they are, we are called to speak truth. We are also called to continually examine our own life, including our thoughts as well as actions. The ashes of protest represent the radical love, acceptance and reconciliation that undergirded the life and ministry of Jesus, the one who never returned evil with evil.
How can Christians make a difference in a world filled with sadness? By the ashes of prayer. It was noon when the fourth of eight Ash Wednesday services took place on the main campus. Shortly after the service began, two mothers came into the back with three and four young children respectively. My heart was especially heavy that morning as I found myself praying for children around the world who are traumatized by the violence of terrorism. I attempted to engage the children during the service, and when they came forward for the imposition of ashes, I just about lost it.
I thanked the children for being a sign of hope for the world and prayed that one day our world’s children will finally teach us adults how to love one another. I also said that the penitence, protest and prayers of millions of Christians who are wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, including theirs, will make a difference in the world.
I remembered again the conversation of the previous day. Some in the group compared ISIS with Nazi Germany and wondered what might have happened if the U.S. had entered World War 2 sooner, that too many Americans simply ignored the horrific evil inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews rather than protested.
Then one woman quietly said, “I was born in Germany and was a little girl during the war. Despite your regret over not entering the war sooner, I want you to know that it was the Americans who saved our lives after the war was over. When we Germans had nothing and were existing in the midst of the ashes of destruction, you were not indifferent. You were there with food, clothing, shelter, prayers and hope. Thank you for saving my life.”
May the ashes of penitence, protest and prayer change your heart, guide your Lenten journey and be a sign of hope for our world.