There was an evangelist at a flea market my family used to go to for fun several times a summer in South Jersey while I was growing up. He’d painted the walls of his stall with a mural of heaven and hell and across it in huge black letters he’d written “Where will you spend eternity????” He stood in the way of the foot traffic, handed out religious tracts and shouted Bible verses. I found him memorizing. While the rest of us were intent on finding discount watches, wholesale socks and fried apples, this man was trying to turn our attention towards something we couldn’t pick up for five bucks or eat on a stick. And as much as I wondered how he could love a God like the one whose handiwork his mural depicted, I couldn’t help thinking he was onto something.
By 5pm the flea market would be over. In a half hour I’d be sick from funnel cake and in two days the whoopee cushion my little brother bought for fifty cents would be ripped, lost and completely forgotten. Still, each of us would eventually have to face the question that the flea market evangelist wanted us to face at 10 am on Saturday morning by the honey roasted peanuts and Elvis clocks: Do our lives matter? Where are we really going?
Who knew thirty years later I would wind up being that guy every Ash Wednesday?! For at least seven years now I’ve joined other clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and hung out, fully vested, by train stations, bus and subway stops on the first morning of Lent. I stand against the crowd, just like the flea market evangelist, and offer ashes instead of religious tracts. And when someone stops I press my soot covered thumb on their forehead and declare something deeply true and personal about each of them: You are dust and to dust you shall return.
Calling hundreds of complete strangers to repentance makes me feel like an Old Testament prophet for and makes me just about as popular. That’s because repentance is a hard sell.
Most people (thanks in part to my flea market colleague) think of repentance as something to be done under threat of divine punishment, but I think it’s really about turning away from everything that sucks the life out of you and the world instead of making more of both.
Examples: Holding a grudge- life sucking. Welcoming the stranger: life giving. Regretting the past- life sucking. Being grateful for and stopping to listen to a bird singing by your window- life giving. To repent mostly means to be reminded that life is finite and asking yourself what you want to spend the rest of yours on: a bag of cotton candy or a gift to Doctors without Borders? Watching Judge Judy re-runs or visiting your lonely neighbor?
Every year I’m surprised by what the people who stop to receive the ashes will say. One very old man in pants that were two sizes too large, whose voice was little more than a whisper leaned towards my ear and said “I’m surprised you don’t have a crowd around you.” Another woman asked that I come to the out-patient oncology center where she works. One woman nearly broke into tears in front of me and said “I need this.”
Grace Family, it’s Lent: Drop what you’re doing for a minute and think: can you free up some time to make your life as a disciple of Jesus more of a priority? Could you give thanks before you eat that pear, really take a day a week off, try out giving to everyone who asks just to see what it’s like, spend some more time with your church family (there are plenty of opportunities) or make a point of getting to know a stranger?
I don’t think you should do any of that to make God happy with you. The guy at my flea market was wrong: God loves you know matter what. If you take on a Lenten discipline, do it because you are made in the image of God and want to take a break from everything and one who wants to give you a make-over.
You are the lamp on the lampstand that Jesus said gives light to the world. Time’s a-wastin.
The Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm