Church, Let’s Be Friends
The below guest post is an excerpt taken from Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost ©2020 Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY 10016
I pull into the church parking lot about ten minutes early, and it occurs to me that if I go in now I might have to mingle with strangers. I decide to wait.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see another car pull up a few spaces down. A man hurriedly gets out, robe in hand, throwing a white collar around his neck. Approximately six minutes before the Ash Wednesday service will start, the priest arrives. I open my car door, and he gestures in my general direction, smiling ever so slightly.
The first thing a visitor notices in a Catholic church is its beauty. This particular church is only a few years old, so its stained-glass windows still sparkle like new, showing no sign of fading from the sun. The exposed wooden beams on the ceiling speak to the rustic northern town where the parish is in ministry.
Stepping into the nave, I dip my finger in the holy water because I can never resist it. Every time I reach for that water, I envision a siren going off at my touch: “Protestant alert!” Nevertheless, I keep going; the water holds such a symbolic significance in the Bible, and I love feeling the moistness on my fingers, signaling to my heart that its time for worship. Quickly, I cross myself. Still no siren. Every time it’s worth the risk.
I take an aisle seat on the last row. There are about thirty faithful ones at the service. The beautiful older lady wearing a black mantilla; the gentleman who genuflects before accepting the communion elements. Not many children. Then I see Jeanne, a dear friend I know from the Reformed church I attend in the next town over. What a wonderful feeling to find a familiar face in the crowd.
Suddenly, I hear a voice behind me: “Will you hold this for me just a second, please?”
I turn to see the man I encountered in the parking lot. The priest. He needs to put on his wireless mic, so he hands me the small bowl filled with ashes. I am holding last year’s Palm Sunday branches, now burned up and ground into sacred bits. The ashes rest in my hands. I think to myself, “What if I dropped these right now?”
The service offers several moments of complete silence. not an uncomfortable silence, but a prayer shawl of sorts you could slide over your head, blocking out the noise of our world and aiding the holiness of the moment. This sacred silence brings me to tears that morning. It feels like something I have been missing all my life without knowing it.
It comes time to receive the ashes. The Catholics invite me to join them in this act of penance. We’re all sinners who need to repent and recognize our great need for a Savior. Everyone-Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike-agrees on that.We're all sinners who need to repent and recognize our great need for a Savior. Everyone-Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike-agrees on that. Click To Tweet
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
More tears. The feeling of the priest’s fingers as he swiped the ash cross on my forehead. I’d never received a blessing like this before. Although it reminded me of my need for penance, it felt every bit like a blessing. He made the sign of the cross on me; symbolizing the marking I already had because I belonged to Jesus.
I sat silently in prayer as others (everyone else?) went forward for communion. This concluded the church service.
As I left, the priest stood at the door to greet those in attendance. I told him this was my first Ash Wednesday service. He said, “Are you Catholic?” I said, “No.” He smiled, and then assured me, “It’s OK. We can still be friends.”
Growing up, Mom took us to church but Dad didn’t go. The most important man in my life up to that point, but he didn’t share my faith journey with me. Dad didn’t get religion. Perhaps there was too much baggage in his life to “let go and let God,” as they say. I saw firsthand a life lived with God and church (my mom’s) and a life lived without God or church (my dad’s). I have never doubted which one seemed right and true to me.
I love the church and I’ll never walk away, but we could do better. The next time you’re reading the Gospels, take note of how Jesus communicates. He asks a lot of questions and he tells a lot of stories. This book does that. I think doing these things will help us be a more loving church. The longer I walk this Christian path, and I’ve got more than a few years on me now, I think what the priest expressed to me at my first Ash Wednesday service is true. Church, I believe it deep within me, even in these tumultuous times, we can still be friends.
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