This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey
When the cold of winter turns into the bleakness of mud season, hope is hard to find. Yet beneath the hard ground and in the midst of life’s muddiness, there is always new life waiting to bloom. Join Pastor Donna as she reflects on the transforming power of Lent and takes you on a 40-day journey of discovering God’s message of hope and renewal that she discovered in a little white church and in the hearts of the people who called that church “home.”
There I stood in the sanctuary, cold and alone, tired and a bit aggravated. It was Ash Wednesday and the little country churches in the rural area I was serving decided to pool their resources together and hold a combined Ash Wednesday service—of sorts.
I say of sorts because Ash Wednesday worship really wasn’t “our thing.” Or so I was told by one of the pastors who had a long tenure in the area. I guess she was right. After all, I could remember growing up and doing nothing for Ash Wednesday in my church.
For me Ash Wednesday was a Catholic thing where my friends would show up to school or an afternoon play date with strange smudges on their foreheads that I couldn’t decide if they were meant to be crosses or squashed bugs. When I asked my mom about the smudges she would say, “Oh, those are ashes. We don’t do that.”
So the Ash Wednesday service put together by the area churches would not be a traditional worship service, complete with worship bulletins, organ music, choirs singing, pastors preaching, etc. What would be offered to the community was an opportunity to have an interactive worship experience where activity stations would be set up to explore.
There would be an area for writing prayers to our service men and women and another area for making prayer beads. I can’t remember what the other activities were but I do remember volunteering for the station where the ashes would be received. Thus, how I found myself standing in a sanctuary of a neighboring church, cold and alone, tired and a big aggravated… because there were very few people showing up. The snow that fell outside didn’t help an already anticipated low attendance event.
“Why didn’t we just cancel tonight’s activity?” I thought. I was new to the area and so I was still not used to braving wintery elements that surprisingly kept very few folks at home in these parts of the woods. In fact, it seemed nothing was ever really cancelled due to a little—or a lot—of snow falling.
I stood there in the sanctuary waiting for foreheads to show up so that I could master the art of the perfectly shaped ash cross. When I became ordained I vowed I would not have my crosses looking like squashed bugs. (FYI…I have failed in the perfectly shaped cross department but I have excelled at squashed bugs.)
Sporadically, a few people trickled into where I stood and, given the informality of the imposition of ashes, they would linger afterwards and make small talk with me. I, of course, used this time to inquire how bad the weather was getting outside. Each report was not good. The snow had turned into ice and roads were getting tricky. My angst increased, but I tried to focus on my pastoral duty.
From dust you came, to dust you shall return…smudge finger in burnt palms and make a cross…darn, another squashed bug. The next one will be better. I promise.
In the background were the whispers from the few gathered about the icy roads.
How am I going to get home on these country roads that I still was not familiar with. Why didn’t I just stay home?
When it became apparent that no one else would be coming to this joint Ash Wednesday service of sorts, I quickly threw on my coat and said a rushed good bye to the other pastors. I just wanted to face the elements and get home safely.
Sure enough the front stone steps of the church were coated with ice and I slid right down, making me more anxious and frustrated.
I picked myself up and began making my way to my car not looking forward to having to scrape off an inch or so of ice. The hood to my coat was pulled down as far as it could go so as to block the pelting ice from face. The hood, though, blocked something else.
What I didn’t see was the gentleman standing by my car scraping the ice off of the windshield.
“Beautiful night, pastor, don’t you think?” he said, without a hint of sarcasm. He actually did think it was a beautiful night.
“Um, well, I guess. I’m not too happy with the ice or having to drive home in this,” I said, wondering if then he would confess that he really didn’t think this weather was beautiful at all. No confession came.
“Don’t fret. You’ll be just fine. Take it slow and trust God,” he said.
Trust God. I was in no mood for hearing my words thrown back at me.
“Yeah, I guess I can do that. You know you really didn’t have to do this for me. I mean, I do appreciate it, but why did you come out in this storm to clear off my car?” I asked, only then noticing this man wore no gloves and had only a thin jacket on.
Without stopping the ice scraping, he said, “You came out tonight for us, didn’t you? It’s the least I could do for you.”
I guess he noticed the surprised look on my face because he then said, “This is what we do for one another around here. This is our way of life.”
While I didn’t know him, he knew me. He knew I was the “new” pastor from the big city where this way of life, that is, life spent really caring for one another, was a rarity. He knew I didn’t understand yet the beauty of life in a small rural village. In time I would not only understand. I would come to treasure it.
All of sudden my anxiety of having to drive home faded away. My frustration with having to be at a service where hardly anyone showed up melted.
The windshield was free from ice. I was ready to go. As I leaned forward to shake this man’s hand, I noticed he didn’t have a black smudge on his forehead. He didn’t come out in this weather for the worship service “of sorts” we were having. He came out for another kind of service—the one that matters more than a smudge of ashes on one’s forehead. He came out for the ultimate service of helping someone else.
Ash Wednesday really isn’t our thing. I disagree. Ash Wednesday was indeed this little village’s “thing.” For I got to see a true worship service in action in the way of a stranger reaching out to me, the new pastor. I was going to like this way of life.
“This Way of Life” Lenten Challenge:
Seek to worship God out in your community by the acts of kindness you can do for others when they least expect them.