Ash Wednesday and the Reluctant Blesser


ashes at station

I didn’t really want to put on my white robes, slash a purple stole across my body and stand with an ash pot on the train platform before dawn. I don’t enjoy standing in public looking odd—no one does—but it’s more than that. I’m worried that no one else wants to do something “religious” out in public, so no one will come. I will stand there like a sandwich-board preacher on a street corner while busy, normal, discrete people walk condescendingly by.

Nevertheless I got up at 5 AM today, vested and drove to the station. My colleague Carrie met me there. She held the sign ASHES TO GO and a stack of prayer cards to hand out. A few commuters walked by us. We said good morning. Some did double takes. I wanted to go home. But in a moment a woman stopped. “Is today Ash Wednesday?” she asked. We said it was, and she stepped forward to receive the imposition of ashes. I asked her name and smudged a cross on her forehead with the age-old words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Then I added a blessing, asking the Trinitarian God to bless, preserve and keep this daughter of God all the days of her life. Carrie said, “Here’s a prayer to take with you today,” and the woman beamed.

A moment later a man stood before us. After the imposition and blessing he said, “Thank you, father,” then he paused, leaned in and asked if he could speak to me privately. We stepped away. “Stage four lung cancer,” he said. “Could you say a prayer for me?” I was stunned. I have been asked to pray with hundreds of people—but not strangers in public. I placed my hands on his head and prayed for his healing. He smiled bravely and disappeared into the crowd.

It went on like that for next two hours. People in pajamas who had thrown on a heavy coat to drive someone to the station got out of their cars and slipped in line for ashes. Children came, young people came. I saw tears in many eyes. Folks who had received the blessing called their family and loved ones from the train, and they drove to the station just to receive ashes.

A priest once told me about a trip to Guatemala and a visit to a small village that had not seen a priest in years. The people came out of their little houses and the children clung to his legs. I remember he said: “They pulled the blessing out of me.” That image struck me. The blessing wasn’t something he gave or pronounced (something religious professionals are pretty good at doing in church). It was pulled from him, from his heart.

That is how I felt this morning. I did not want to be there in the first place. My ego was so worried about looking weird or crazy, but the blessing was pulled out of me. I believe in the power of God because that is the only power that was at work on that platform. Not mine. In fact, the power of God was manifest precisely in my unwillingness even to be there. Let me show you what I can do, God seemed to be saying with a wry smile, even when my servants don’t feel like cooperating.

I heard those divine words that St. Paul heard so well: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

22 Responses to Ash Wednesday and the Reluctant Blesser
  1. Jonas Svedlund
    March 1, 2017 | 12:10 pm

    Wonderful post! And a wonderful activity.

    • David Anderson
      March 1, 2017 | 3:40 pm

      Hey Jonas–we MISS you–love to you all!

  2. Ellie Massie
    March 1, 2017 | 12:53 pm

    This is wonderful!

  3. Matt
    March 1, 2017 | 3:02 pm

    That brought tears to my eyes.

  4. Judith
    March 2, 2017 | 11:20 am

    This post was so moving. Thank you!

  5. Emma Tracy
    March 2, 2017 | 11:33 am

    Thank you…so very moving!

  6. Jackina Stark
    March 2, 2017 | 11:47 am

    It made me tear up too and I’m not in the tradition that does Ash Wednesday. It’s just how God works. It’s the need. Thanks.

  7. Mark
    March 2, 2017 | 12:06 pm

    I tried so hard to make it but school dropoff did not cooperate.
    Awesome post David.

  8. Barrie Summers
    March 2, 2017 | 1:07 pm

    We were so moved by this writing. Thank you David. You have always left space so we can see God’s presence. Patrick and Barrie

  9. Michael
    March 2, 2017 | 1:37 pm

    Wish I could have been there David. Way to carry the good news beyond the pews.

  10. Tiffany
    March 2, 2017 | 3:34 pm

    My husband was one of the lucky commuters you blessed yesrerday. It really did mean so much to him to see you there and to receive the ashes. Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone so that all those commuters could step out of theirs.

  11. Karen Spivey
    March 2, 2017 | 4:38 pm

    Wonderful post!

  12. margaret
    March 2, 2017 | 5:38 pm

    David – This was such a blessing. Our whole family got up and bounced out of bed so that we could go receive our ashes at the station – alongside the commuter in our family. Thank you for braving the cold and lonely moments in order to bring divine love and care to the community.

  13. Marty Gilbert
    March 2, 2017 | 5:53 pm

    Once again
    You have opened the way for Blessings to shower all of us. Thanks

  14. Karen Hughan
    March 2, 2017 | 8:36 pm

    Yesterday, I received the annual little wooden cross, distributed at St. Luke’s Ash Weds. services. This years cross is engraved with the words “Brave.” You embodied this, as did the commuters and their families who were blessed by you. Thanks to all of you for walking the walk.

  15. Richard Gregory
    March 2, 2017 | 10:57 pm

    Dear David,
    I believe you were exactly in your comfort zone. This is who you are. A man and a spiritual leader who helps us all reach out of our own perceived “comfort zone” and grow on our spiritual journey.
    Thanks for being that man, our leader and spiritual partner in our spiritual home.

  16. Denise Trogdon
    March 3, 2017 | 8:49 am

    Dear David,
    Thank you once again for giving me a different perspective. I did not go to the metro station on Ash Wednesday, that is less than a half mile from my church, because I have been of the mindset that I do not want to impose ashes without also the blessing of absolution and the Eucharist. It has felt incomplete, and yet I was moved by the notion that God pulls the blessing out of us, even out of our reluctance and limitations, and plants seeds of blessing, where we least expect. While I had many visitors come for Ash Wednesday to the church, I think next year I will trust that God can work to reach those who need it with blessings I can’t even perceive.I need only to be open to God’s leading to go where God’s people are. Thanks for once again inspiring new thoughts. Blessings to you this Lent. Denise

    • David Anderson
      March 3, 2017 | 3:04 pm

      Great to hear from you, Denise–the landscape keeps changing and so does our ministry….

  17. Chuck scholer
    March 3, 2017 | 2:42 pm

    David this post comes at particularly meaningful time .Hope you ,Pam the kids and little ones are all well. Blessings

  18. leslie smith
    March 9, 2017 | 9:30 am

    Thanks, David. One of many reasons that I do not usually wear a clerical collar unless leading worship is that I do not feel comfortable looking different in public. Not very brave of me. You did a good job Ash Wednesday. Best, Leslie

  19. Johnna Fredrickson
    March 9, 2017 | 11:01 am

    Wonderful to read your words again, David. Blessings and Peace, and a good sense of wonder and humor, as you and yours move through Lent. Johnna

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