Ashes on the highway: An ‘ashes to go’ offering to kick off Lent

By the Rev. Darlene L. Kelley

I confess I start a bit late and miss a few of the early morning faithful on their way to school and work, but the long, unwieldy piece of donated plywood needs a coat of white paint before the sponge dipped in black might march across its rugged surface proclaiming, “Ashes To Go.”

Without any skills in the art department, I flounder even with three little words. The black paint drips at the edges, imitating the grainy black ash it advertises, but it will have to do.

Then after painting the sign at the back of the church, I chide myself for the last-minute plans that don’t include help carrying the sign to the front of the church. Fortunately, Dave Christopher, our local-pastor-in-training, stops by and grabs one end of the sticky plywood while I navigate the other. Soon we have the sign propped against a utility pole on the side of the rural highway our church calls home, and we are wiping our hands and open for business.

Dave and I pray together, and he stands with me for the first early morning minutes of our grand Ash Wednesday experiment. Then my husband arrives, and both men graciously allow me to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, reminding them of the dust we came from and will return to. Their visit satisfied and their ashen crosses complete, they set off for breakfast at the local Waffle House.

Now I stand alone on the highway in front of my sign, in front of the church at the front of Lent. But I don’t stand still well, too jumpy for the meditative life of a monastic. I dance around the sidewalk, waving to the passing cars and declaring real and abundant life at The Langley United Methodist Church.

It is a motivating factor—seek attention for the church, make a joyful noise and let folks know we are here, invite the neighborhood to worship—and I am reminded of Paul’s words, “We are fools for Christ.”

Why worry about looking foolish when you’re in good company? Besides I am having lots of fun waving at the folks on their way down the highway, and there are lots of them despite the momentary stretches of empty asphalt when there are no cars in sight, and it is easy to imagine the past.

But the past doesn’t last long before modern glimpses of metal flash on the horizon and the cars sail by again, traveling in batches like schools of fish; the solo stragglers miles behind. Some speed by without a glance in my direction as though a woman in a white robe in front of a huge, hand-painted sign proclaiming Lent’s inception is par for the course on the edge of a small southern town. Others stare in shock, twisting to see me every second their passing allows, and I worry for a moment that my presence will cause an accident.

Surprisingly, one lonely man doesn’t understand the significance of the white robe or the sign. He just sees a female standing on the highway and stops to ask for a date. More amazed than threatened, I respond with laughter that only increases his confusion until I am forced to get a hold of myself and look him sternly in the eyes.

“Do you think I put on this robe because my hot pants are at the dry cleaners? I’m a pastor! This is a church! It’s Lent. These are ashes.”

I hold the bowl of black ashes up and out toward him, part explanation, part offering. His turn signal is flashing, and he checks his rear view mirror before turning his gaze on the dusty bowl, shipped through the mail from a Christian supply store in Nashville. And for a moment, he leans forward, and I think that he might ask, and so I offer again.

“Ashes? It’s Lent.”

I try to smile, but he shakes his head. Disappointing as a pastor and a prostitute, I fear I make no impact at all, but he does mumble, “So sorry, Miss,” as he checks the traffic once again and pulls away. Repentant? Perhaps.

“Lord, bless him” I sigh and retreat to the lawn chair I am so grateful I remembered to pack. And I sit and watch the souls speed by, and I smile and wave and try to look hospitable, approachable and saintly all at the same time.

Finally, the sun forces me to don my sunglasses, and I retreat behind the dark lenses, taking a breath, trying my best to listen, to soak in the surroundings and hear the community or maybe even the voice of God in the traffic and the wind.

It is Ash Wednesday after all, and to dust we shall return.

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