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Amy Butler: Strangers seeking ashes

Reminders of our failures are all around us every day. Why seek them out? Why do we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much?

iStock/Ben Beltman

February 12, 2013

The church that I pastor sits on a busy corner in downtown Washington, D.C. It's the kind of neighborhood where most people, whether they live or work in the area, rarely if ever think about attending church.

Like everybody, I'm always reading articles about the church's trials today, so I understand the reasons for this phenomenon: life is too busy; nobody really thinks you need to go to church to be a good person anymore; many young adults grew up with no formal religious tradition, so going to church is not even an option that crosses their minds; the church has consistently hurt people -- all kinds of people -- and who needs more of that in your life?

Still, our urban congregation spends an awful lot of energy trying to get those folks through the doors, to demonstrate in real and meaningful ways that the gospel -- and sometimes even the church -- has something of value to offer their lives. Attractive signage, convenient scheduling, witty sermon titles, easy parking, thoughtful worship, free child care -- we do the best we can to pique the interest of someone, anyone, in the stream of people who walk or drive by our building every day.

Oddly, every year it's Ash Wednesday when we welcome so many people whom we've never seen before. Out of all the days of the church year, it's this day -- the day we focus on our sin and humanity -- that draws in the most strangers. Past the imposing steeple, in through unfamiliar doors, up the steep stairway and into the dimly lit sanctuary they come, seeking the imposition of ashes.

Every year when I see unfamiliar people wander in among the regulars, I wonder why we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much. Why do we crave reflective moments to ponder our shortcomings?

Reminders of the ways in which we've failed are all around us every day; why seek them out? But people do.

I do. And I am coming to believe that we do because we all desperately need a place to stop for just a little while, to lay down the heavy burdens we carry, to be -- if only for a moment -- honest about who we are.

Because this busy world in which we live never seems to give us a break. Like the shiny church signs advertising only exciting, intellectually stimulating topics for worship, we get up every morning challenged to convince the world that we're worth its time.

We're smart and good, pretty and talented, witty and full of great ideas. We go to work every day wearing our titles like Boy Scout badges informing the world that we know what we're doing. But secretly, we're scared someone will find out that we really don't.

Our families appear to the world like the picture of happiness, but truth is, we live every day with the pain of disappointment, betrayal and broken relationships. We tell the world we are peaceful and purpose-filled, but inside we're scared and lonely, and we wonder all the time about life's deeper meaning.

And so, from places near and far, many of us will make our way to quiet sanctuaries on Ash Wednesday. There, marked with the dust of our world, we will pause or kneel, and someone will meet our eyes and say in solidarity:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

And in that moment, no matter who we are or where we come from, we can and will face, if only briefly, the truth of our lives, with all their failures and missed opportunities and disappointments. We can be honestly, openly human.

Experts wonder these days about the future of the church. In 20 years, will communities of faith have a place in big cities like mine? On Ash Wednesday I am certain that they will, because every year I look out at a congregation filled with people who have intentionally sought this place, a place of solidarity in the struggle to live authentically in a world that only wants us when we're perfect.

And when we gather together in all the diverse expressions of our humanity, we become -- stranger and regular alike -- one of the best representations of what the church can be in this world. There we are, shoulder to shoulder, stripped of the facades that decorate our regular lives and yearning together for those words of honest declaration:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

We stand together, in all our shared humanity, unified in our yearning for forgiveness and grace, and together buoyed by the reassurance, ringing in our ears as we go back into this cold, hard world:

"… but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever."