The service opened with the lyrics, “You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you,” and I knew I was in trouble. Certain songs are permanently linked to soft times in my life, and singing those songs opens me up, like a chink in my dragon scales, leaving a clear path to my heart. And so, that’s how my first ever Ash Wednesday service began.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day period of prayer and abstinence known as Lent. The name comes from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God.
Through the years, I’ve seen people walking around with an ashen cross on their forehead, and I knew what it meant, but I’d never participated. We always had something else to do at our own church.
But this year, First Presbyterian Church in Midland invited my church, First Baptist Church, to join them for Ash Wednesday. It was another one of those serendipitous relationships that have grown out of an unfortunate fire in our building. A surprising bit of grace.
The Presbyterians made us feel very welcome. In fact, sitting side-by-side in our church clothes, we all looked alike. Both churches are too large to know everyone, so there was a bit of uncertainty whether the new person sitting next to you was one of us, or one of them. As it should be.
After the service, I went to our friends’ house for a five-family potluck. Twice, someone came and sat next to me and looked at the smudge of ash on my forehead and asked, “Don’t you go to First Baptist?” The Baptists they knew didn’t usually go for Ash Wednesday, or Lent, or Maundy Thursday, or anything like that.
And my mark, originally a cross, was now more of a smudge. Of course, it could have been that way all along. I have no idea since I was the only person who couldn’t see it. And besides, it was painted on my forehead by the least experienced of the available ministers. Who knows if he used the best technique.
Well, I’ve spent my entire life in Baptist churches, and Baptists don’t do liturgy. In fact, we run away from it as fast as we can. We don’t even like someone reading a printed prayer; if it isn’t straight from your heart, if it isn’t improvised on the spot, we aren’t sure God actually pays attention.
So because it is so different from my upbringing, a liturgical service always catches me off balance. Liturgy is not magic. It can become stale and repetitious just like any form of worship. But being surprised by God is magic, however it happens.
I suppose I was more susceptible to surprise than I normally would’ve been because I’d already spent a large portion of the day thinking about surrender. It was the topic of discussion for a lesson I was to teach early Thursday morning; surrender was firmly on my mind.
As I read along with everyone else: “Open our eyes that we may see ourselves with clarity and truthfulness, that we may have eyes to see all that is within us that is not pleasing to you,” I understood something. There is an element of surrender in reading a liturgy aloud. You end up saying things you aren’t brave enough to say on your own initiative.
The thing is, I tend to be good at surrendering easy stuff, the stuff I don’t mind giving up, the parts of my life I have no control over anyway.
But I don’t like surrendering my favorites, like freedom, for example. I don’t like giving my schedule and time-management to someone else. I don’t like giving away my weekends, or weeknights, or days, or hours, or even minutes. I don’t like surrendering my attention span or projects or goals.
I left the Ash Wednesday service quickly and quietly, working my way silently through the crowd and out the back door. I was too soft to talk to anyone, and I wanted to linger in the moment a bit longer.
As I was crossing the street to the parking lot, I heard another song in my head. This one by Rich Mullins: “Surrender don't come natural to me; I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want than to take what You give that I need.”
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32