Ashes to Ashes

I was looking around for a church that did Ash Wednesday services. It is coming up. I go into work in the afternoon that day, so I need one that is early enough that it won’t affect my schedule. I can’t go to an evening service because I’m closing that day.

I looked around and there are very few options nearby. Not every church has an Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes service, so I’m already limited there. I could go to the nearby Catholic church, but I’d have to fake being Catholic. While that is easy to do from my many years of Episcopal worship, I resent that I’d have to. I resent the whole idea of exclusion in church. Jesus didn’t make any such rules.

Jesus wasn’t Catholic. Jesus wasn’t a member of any denomination. Any denomination that says they have a lock on the Word hasn’t read it right. Any denomination that says only members can participate hasn’t gotten the message that we are all members of the same Body. There aren’t any limits. We are all in.

I could go to an Episcopal service at another church. I’m not stepping foot inside the one I used to go to. But even if I did go to another parish, I feel that it would get back to the priest at my former parish. I don’t feel like giving her the satisfaction of feeling like I’ve caved in.

Then I thought I could go to a Lutheran or Methodist church, but by this point I realized something. I really just don’t like the idea church as it exists right now. I don’t like that it seems more social club than social justice. I don’t like the idea of the division of lay and ordained. I reject that whole idea as not being of Jesus.

Then I thought that I could do this myself, at home. I’ve got the palms from Palm Sunday from last year. I could burn them on Shrove Tuesday (which is also Mardi Gras). This is what is traditionally done. The very same palms that we waved to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday are kept for a year. They are dry and brittle by that point – and perfect for burning. They are burned in a fire and the ashes are sifted and mixed with a little anointing oil. It is then applied to the forehead with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Easy. I can do this. I have all the ingredients.

And then I really woke up. What am I trying to do? What do I expect to gain from this?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. It is the beginning of forty days of penance and sacrifice. It is in memory of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the Devil. During all that time he gave up eating and drinking. During this time, many liturgical Christians traditionally just give up meat, at least on Fridays. Some go all the way and give up oil and eggs and a slew of other things in addition to meat, for the whole time.

Some people give up more than that. Some people will give up drinking, or chocolate, or playing video games. The idea is to give up something that you like. The idea is to then make space for something that you’ve not made space for. The idea is to make space for Jesus.

In Lent, we give up so we can take on. In Lent, we gain far more than we give up.

But the unspoken message of it is sacrifice, and in a way, that we are being punished. The unspoken message is that we aren’t worthy of God’s love unless we give up something. The unspoken message is that God has to be appeased in order for us to get anywhere, or anything.

And that isn’t the message of Jesus.

So I’m skipping Ash Wednesday. I’m skipping Lent. I’m skipping the whole idea of it, because the message of Jesus isn’t about making myself lesser than what I am in order to be considered worthy.

Jesus says I’m worthy just like I am, and that is good enough for me.


So many people say that they follow Jesus, but they don’t. They can’t. They don’t know Jesus. They know their pastor’s idea of Jesus. They know their denomination’s idea of Jesus. But they don’t know him for themselves.

All they have to do is read the Gospels for themselves, and ask Jesus into their hearts. It really is that simple. But they’ve been taught for years that they aren’t good enough to follow Jesus on their own. They’ve been taught that they need an intermediary, a go between.

Jesus is directly accessible to every one of us. We don’t need someone else doing the interpreting. He speaks directly to us if we let him.

Many of us were raised in churches where we were taught that we are not worthy, or that we are not capable of even approaching the idea of Jesus. Just look at the physical layout of the standard church. The congregation sits in one place and the minister sits in another. The minister sits closer to the heart of the holy space, which is removed from the people. If your denomination has weekly communion the altar isn’t right next to you. It is far back, removed. Sometimes it is up stairs. Sometimes there is a rail. Only the priest and a few chosen people are allowed near the altar.

This is exactly the same as in the Holy Temple, where only the High Priest could approach the Holy of Holies. Not the people. Not even a regular priest. Just one, just once a year, a special person was allowed to enter this sacred space. There were different levels of approach all the time, but this area was more off limits than most.

When Jesus died on the cross, that all changed.

Let us look in Matthew 27:50-54. This is just as Jesus is dying.

50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (NKJV)

The veil of the temple was torn. This is what kept the common people from seeing the Holy of Holies. The old way of doing things has been removed. There is nothing more that separates us from God. There are no divisions. There are no barriers. There is no need for intermediaries.

Jesus did this for you. Yes. You.

He tore away everything that stood between you and God. He still does it now.

And if anybody tries to make you think that you are not good enough, not smart enough, not capable enough to approach God directly, then they are standing in your way. They are not acting in the place of Jesus, as they might say they are. They are doing the exact opposite.

Ugly – beauty is more than skin deep.

Dustin Hoffman said that when he was filming “Tootsie” he wanted to be made up into a really beautiful woman. The makeup artists told him that they did the best they could, but it wasn’t possible for them to make him more attractive. He thought that was a shame. He wanted to be really beautiful, because if he looked at a woman who looked like he looked, he would never take the time to talk to her.

And then he got it.

He’d been taught this, by society, by marketing. He’d been taught that only beautiful women were worth his attention and time. He’d been taught that beauty is all that matters. And then he felt really sad, to think about all the amazing women he didn’t get to know over the course of his life because they weren’t beautiful in his eyes.

Many women are taught this same way of thinking. We are taught that who we are isn’t worth anything – that only our looks matter. We are taught this by our parents, by our boyfriends, by the magazines and books that are marketed to us, and by the shows we watch. We are bombarded with overt and covert messages that say we only matter if we are beautiful, and our only focus in life should be on being attractive.

We are taught in so many ways that we are only worthy in relation to other people – if we can attract someone else, then we have value. Not before. Not on our own. Our value is inextricably linked with other people’s perceptions of us.

When an older woman starts showing the signs of age, she is seen as ugly and tired. When an older man looks the same, he is seen as distinguished. Women in politics are judged more for their hairstyles and clothing choices than their policies or decisions.

But this isn’t just about women. This isn’t just a female plight. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

How many people have we not gotten to know because they were not what we were looking for? Too old. Too unattractive. Too unfriendly. Disabled. Discredited. How many people have we walked by or ignored because they were ugly, smelly, rude, strange?

We have to start seeing everyone as the child of God that they are. We have to start seeing everyone as if they are Jesus in disguise. We have to start seeing everyone as God sees them.

Forgiven. Beautiful. Worthy. Loved.

Look for the light within each person, and don’t get distracted by the packaging. The more we give time to people, the more they open up. The more we seek, the more we will find.

This is how we will have true peace on Earth – when every person is truly seen and heard. When every person is noticed and appreciated. When every person is cherished as the beautiful and amazingly special individual that she or he is.

Compatibility test

If you want to find out if someone is compatible with you, do any activity where you have to work together. This is true for business or personal relationships.

Simply ordering a pizza is a good indicator of whether you can get along with each other.

Does he want all meat, and you think meat is murder? Is she allergic to all your favorite toppings? Do you have to get two separate pizzas to both be content? This does not bode well for a harmonious relationship.

Try doing a jigsaw puzzle together. Does he try to work on the same area you are working on, getting in your way? Does she get jealous when you finish an area before her?

You both don’t have to do the same things or be exactly the same. That would be a little weird. But you do both have to work well together, encouraging each other and building each other up.

Relationships are a lot like three legged races. If you aren’t working together, you are going nowhere.