It was Wednesday night at the church, about 20 minutes before the youth group was scheduled to meet. The deliveryman arrived with their pizzas and noticed that something was amiss: someone had been smoking...and it wasn't cigarettes. As Pastor Ben forked over the money for the food, the pizza guy winked and said, "Someone started the party a little early, eh?" So Pastor Ben responded, "Oh! That's just Pastor Mike doing his thing."
Okay...it was me. I was making ashes for our Ash Wednesday liturgy. But it was with palm branches, not weed. Since it was cold out, I decided to burn the palms right outside the education wing, where I could watch from inside and stay warm. Well...maybe I held the door open too long while I watched them burn. I'll admit, the building really smelled suspicious.
And now the pizza guy thinks that I'm the coolest pastor in town. In reality, however, I'm just an old geezer...who manages to commit these klutzy gaffes at inopportune moments. Really cool pastors don't have to say "Oops" as often as me.
Reflecting back over many years of ministry, it seems as though I have uttered "Oops!" on Ash Wednesday more than any other holy day. What is it about Ash Wednesday? I can sail through Advent and Christmas without a glitch. At Easter I'm virtually flawless. And in over 40 years, no one has ever complained about how I pull off Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, or Peace with Justice Sunday. But alas, Ash Wednesday is my downfall.
In 1986, while I served Trinity Church in Granite City, a blizzard hit town on Ash Wednesday. I stuffed the palm branches into my old discarded coffee can and bravely headed outdoors. But I couldn't keep the match lit long enough to get a fire started. So I took the can into the church kitchen, set it on the stove, turned on the exhaust fan, and set the leaves afire. Billows and billows of black smoke roared into the exhaust system.
I thought that exhaust fan blew the smoke outdoors--into the ally. It did not. The ductwork was rigged to empty into an indoor stairway. I discovered this when I opened the door to the stairway. Oops! Within minutes the whole church building smelled like we had hosted a month long hippie fest. I sure had a lot of explaining to do at the beginning of that worship service.
Then there was the first year I was at Glen Carbon. Many of the people there had never experienced an Ash Wednesday service before. I really wanted to impress them...create a yearning in them...so they would want to participate in this beautiful liturgy again and again. I was really nervous that this one be perfect.
An hour before the service started, I stuffed palm branches into the old coffee can and took it outside to burn. When the ashes cooled off, I spooned them into my crystal "Ash Wednesday" bowl. Perfect so far.
As the first group came forward to kneel and receive ashes, I carefully dipped my thumb into the bowl, darkened it with ashes, and then made the sign of the cross on the worshippers' foreheads. I successfully "ashed" the first three kneelers. Then I got to Doris Robinson: a lovely lady, in her 60s, her hair perfectly colored and coiffured, bright red lipstick, a woman with a significant personality, the kind you don't want to cross. I leaned over her, stuck my thumb in the bowl, drew an ash cross on her forehead, and then intoned, "Remember O woman: thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Repent and believe the gospel!"
Just as I was commanding her to repent, a big clump of ash fell off her forehead onto her snout. Oops. If she left the altar rail and everyone started giggling about that wad on her schnozzle, I would surely be sent packing to another church before the end of Lent. Thinking quickly, I flicked my little finger toward her nose, hoping to make the ash clump fly off.
Had it been a fly, it would likely have flown off. But ash clumps do not fly when you flick them. They simply collapse...in this case, all over Doris's nose. Oops.
Hmm...what to do next? My two daughters were little at the time, and it was not uncommon for me to wipe their noses when need be. So I reactively took my index and middle finger and started to wipe Doris's nose. Doris may not have been real familiar with the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but she was pretty sure that this wasn't part of the ritual.
As for me, since my little daughters didn't wear mascara, I had no idea that cleaning Doris's nose was going to get even more complicated.
But by now, I was starting to run out of clean fingers to resolve this situation. Doris, whose fingers were perfectly clean (if not her face) mercifully managed to not send me some sign language...we were, after all, supposed to be keeping silence. I think she just mumbled something like, "I'll finish this up...you just move on down the line and get started on Ruth."
I crossed paths with Doris again last year, at Matt and Stephanie's wedding. We had a good laugh about that long ago Ash Wednesday.
As a pastor, I often have a front row seat to watch the most amazing stories unfold. Some of those stories are funny, some tragic, and some heartwarming. As a preacher of good news, every time I see the glory of God at work before me, I feel buoyed and affirmed. On occasion, I even fancy that some of that divine glory rubs off on me!
But before I can swell up with too much pride, Ash Wednesday comes around again. And the smoke and ash of the palm branch speaks the truth: I too am ash, dust, and flub-up. But it is okay. For as the old Shaker song goes: "Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down, where you ought to be." Thanks be to God. --Mike