As far as I could tell I was the only person in the grocery store sporting an ashen cross on his or her forehead. I was coming from a morning Ash Wednesday service where our pastor, not known for her subtlety, had taken her thumb dipped in olive oil and then dark ashes and tattooed my forehead with a big cross. Though there were other tattoos and piercings in full view at this hip natural foods store, I felt self conscious. Sitting in the car before entering the store, I was debating whether to wash it off or not. Is it a matter of displaying my piety before the world? Or, was I washing off my witness ashamed of the gospel as St Paul said he was not. I decided my discomfort wearing the ashen cross was worthy of some kind of Lenten sacrifice. I had not considered giving up anything for Lent this year. Last year I didn't buy any books during Lent and that was hard enough. What habits, actions or behaviors did I want to be intentional about fasting from over these next 40 days my Lenten program guide asked. None sprang to mind. Not that I would not benefit from some sacrifice and not that none were needed, I may have been simply distracted. I had other things to do after I left this service. That's the way it usually is. Thinking about what's next instead of being in the moment. I'm not good at that. I was listening to a podcast on the way to the church and it was about finding God in the ordinary. We are afraid of silence the author being interviewed said and that is why we fill potential silences with screens. I could give up screens I thought for a second. I do have trouble finding God in the ordinary stuff of life. The author said it was more like making space for God to find us. God is not hiding from us, she said, it only seems that way because we are not paying attention. True. I could meditate more, I could take 15 minutes a day for silent meditation. Sounded good but I knew I wouldn't. Even my prayer times are mostly me talking. I must be a hard person for God to find.
The verse from Psalm 51:10 was read at the service. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit in me." I have read about cleansing diets, and I just finished cleaning our car after a week at the beach so what would a clean heart feel like? Whatever it is I can't do it. Create in me, the Psalmist wrote, so it is God's work. I could ask.
The ashes are imposed. Interesting word. We are not supposed to impose our values or beliefs on someone. Our presence can be imposed, sorry to impose upon you, we might say. Ashes like the repentance they symbolize need to be imposed. It's not really something I am looking for. Imposed ashes make me self conscious. I have ashes on my face but that does not mean I have repented. If it's a witness, it's a false one. I have been to an Ash Wednesday service but that does not make me any holier than you other shoppers.
I was aware of a catch in my throat when the pastor imposing ashes said, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return." Nearing my full social security retirement age, I am more in touch with my mortality than ever. Ashes are not the only sign of mortality I am sporting as I stroll through the store. It is easy to see that I am no longer a youth. The clerk at least used to take a long second look at me when she checked out the bottle of wine I was purchasing. What she is checking for has become obvious.
Turns out the ashes are a good reminder to be grateful. For this moment. For what God has given to me. For the heart God keeps cleaning. Truly, God does find us when we make a little space.