During the 1990's a Presbyterian church unlike any other I'd served called me to be their associate pastor.
Its massive modern, oxidized copper roof and steeple nestled and projected from the golden hills of a Bay Area suburb. Its constituents — by and large well-healed successful business folk — tended to practice what I considered a more secular form of faith.
In keeping with this approach, they looked to the nearby wine country to define worship celebrations outside what they offered on Sunday mornings, i.e. "varietal services." To this mix in my first year there I added "Ash Wednesday."
I'd recently found myself drawn to the liturgical tradition known as Taizi — one largely defined by the singing of chants and periods of silence. "This ought to get these folks out of their heads," I, with an unflattering air of superiority, considered.
Expecting only a few would attend this first-time midweek event, I reserved our small chapel and recruited three colleagues to join me. One played guitar, one flute and the third, Tim, served as liturgist. To our surprise the room filled to capacity.
After distributing pencils and paper, I instructed worshipers to jot down, as we chanted or sat quietly, things impeding a closer relationship with their "higher power" — however they defined it. We planned to burn these in the small hibachi I'd brought from home. This would provide the ash to mark foreheads with the traditional sign of the cross. I insisted that this was in no way mandatory, expecting most would opt not to seek imposition.
As the service progressed, I noticed worshipers writing intently — almost feverishly. Some even sought additional sheets of paper. When we then collected our would-be fuel, it overflowed its receptacle. I compacted the heap as Tim pulled out his lighter.
Soon we had a minor conflagration on our hands. Tim eyed me questioningly as these scribbled sins and issues continued to burn and the time quickly approached for he and I to carry the not-yet-ash down the center aisle. We kept our distance as we removed the hibachi from its perch and walked it hurriedly toward the narthex.
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the entire congregation filing out of their pews behind us to line up for ashes. I quickly rushed into the nearby coffee break room to grab a couple cups. Making a beeline to the men's room, I returned with water to douse the hot mound. What we, as a result, smudged across the presented foreheads resembled mud more than ash.
Undaunted, the fervent worshipers one by one stepped up to our extended dripping thumbs.
I'd only begun to get to know these people but their openness at that moment stirred within me deep affection for them. I knew that the 3 year old of a couple present — one disappearing beneath the surface of their swimming pool as they greeted arriving guests — was no longer with us. Another couple had recently brought their marriage to an end when the husband could no longer deny his true orientation. Still they accompanied each other to this service. A confident prominent CEO had recently lost his coveted position.The wife of the imposing Swede who'd helped construct the very building we gathered in came alone. Her husband had been reduced in the past year to a feeble, bed-ridden mute.
As I looked into each pair of eyes, I recognized I hardly need offer the prescribed liturgical reminder, beginning: "Ashes to ashes ..." The final words of Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardinal in his reflection on the Big Bang bringing all life into existence made more sense:
"From cosmic dust we come / to cosmic dust we shall return / but cosmic dust in love."
Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Dawson’s essays, short stories and poetry appear in several print and on-line journals.