One of the most meaningful parts of my job as a pastor is the gift of making the sign of the Cross on Ash Wednesday, declaring from dust you have come and to dust you shall return. It is an incredible experience, beginning our annual journey to the Cross together by marking everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, with the reminder of our mortality and desperate need of Jesus Christ.
But this year, due to a badly timed cold, I received the ashen mark of the Cross from a friend and colleague as part of our ecumenical community service. As I participated in the slow parade to the front of our fellowship hall, I was humbled as I received the mark on my forehead as a sinner whose life still has hope through the gracious love of God.
I thought that was the end of my Ash Wednesday, because little did I know that there was going to be another encounter with ashes – this time at the Waffle House.
After the worship service, my wife and I headed there. The crowd was larger than we had anticipated at church, so in the midst of preparing for worship and checking the status of the food being served, we decided to fast.
So to the Waffle House we went, that slice of Americana down the street where people from all walks of life and in all places in life come to seek a little comfort in butter and breakfast.
We ate dinner at the counter, rehashing the day, reflecting on our church and our work and our hopes and our dreams, not far from the college students laughing in the corner, a dad and his daughter catching up in a booth, a man demanding loudly that everyone should vote, cooks and servers trying to get through the night, and even a man who had just come from worshiping with us.
As we walked up to the register to pay and leave, our server looked up and asked the question you inevitably get when you go in public on Ash Wednesday.
“Where did you get those crosses?”
Being a good self-promoter, I replied that we had gotten them at the Methodist Church about three minutes up the road.
“What’s it about?” she asked.
I told her that the Cross is a sign that God is with us, a reminder that helps us as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. As an afterthought I told her that churches all over the city were meeting tonight, trying to do the same thing – remembering God’s faithfulness and asking for strength for the next 40 days (I assumed getting into a conversation about how Sundays don’t count would be a rabbit trail that wouldn’t be helpful.)
“Everybody else was in church, and here I was,” she said with a laugh that betrayed the darker emotions of guilt and regret as a coworker drew closer to our conversation.
If I would have been quicker on my feet I would have taken some of the ashes from my forehead and marked her with the sign of the Cross.
Instead, I remembered the words of Barbara Brown Taylor – “To pronounce a blessing is to participate in God’s own initiative. To pronounce a blessing is to share God’s own audacity.”
So I looked at her intently and intentionally – sensing she was tired from who knows what, weary from struggles beyond my comprehension, longing for something that would help her through – and then offered the best blessing I know.
“May God be with you in all that you do and may God give you the strength you need.”
She flashed a huge smile as my wife and I walked away, the holiness of the Cross and the grace of God present and alive in a moment at the Waffle House counter.
Churches might have met all over town Wednesday night, but a church sprung up here too, where God touched us with that grace real enough to bless and cover us all.