Remember the words of Saint Paul set down in the Acts of the Apostles: “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive‘” (Acts 20:35).
On Ash Wednesday, Holy Comforter hosted “Drive-Thru Ashes,” an adaption of the more popular “Ashes to Go.” As we prepared for this event, a thousand questions ran through my mind: “Is this worth it?” “Are we disrespecting the beauty of the Prayer Book?” “Have we divorced symbol from community?” Yet the question that kept me up at night was, “Will anybody show up?”
Silly me. I was thinking about people. I should have been thinking about the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit showed up in a big way.
The Spirit showed up and turned an ordinary parking lot into a sacred space. The Spirit led eighty-eight cars and over a hundred people to Holy Comforter. We gave them a reminder of their mortality, and we gave them our ministry of prayer. Believe me, the Spirit showed up.
I asked a woman who drove through in a Ford Explorer how I could pray for her, and she said, “My husband just died, and I’m all alone.” The Spirit showed up when a parishioner and I offered prayers for her and came alongside her pain.
I asked the same question to a young mother, and she said, “My son has cancer.” The Spirit showed up when I laid my hands on her head and gave her a blessing.
And the Spirit showed up in the form of over twenty-five parishioners who assisted me throughout the day. Two men showed up at 5:45 AM to set up a canopy and put out signs. One parishioner took a full day of vacation from work to participate. Another woman spent nine hours in our parking lot praying with visitors and handing out brochures. The Holy Spirit was there in the service and dedication of our parishioners.
As I talked with parishioners and spent the day with them out in our parking lot, those words from the Acts of the Apostles kept racing through my mind, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Yes, some of the strangers who drove through surely received some spiritual benefit. Yet it was the givers, it was our congregation that was blessed through the experience. We were the ones who witnessed the magnificence of God. We were the ones who grew closer to one another in the name of Christ.
Let me state it clearly: a band of Episcopalians stood out on a street, where over 24,000 cars pass by every day, and said they were there because of Jesus. That’s right, Episcopalians. The same people who jokingly refer to themselves as the “frozen chosen.” The same people who used to stay inside their churches so much they would rent their own pews. The same people who, on average, invite somebody to church once every thirty-seven years. Us. Episcopalians. Standing on a busy street telling people about Jesus.
I don’t know if anybody who drove through for ashes will ever come back to Holy Comforter. And really, that wasn’t the point, because as we are reminded, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Properly translated, liturgy means “the work of the people.” And we worked hard. After three worship services in the church and eleven hours outside on the parking lot, my thumb was jet black with ash. Parishioners poured their hearts out in prayer. We made coffee runs for each other. Parishioners stepped up to the plate, and stood in for me when I needed to go inside to lead services and eat lunch.
We worked. We worked hard. Granted, our liturgical work in the parking lot was not as beautiful or transcendent as it was inside the church; but it was just as authentic and genuine.
Now, I have received some criticism for our Drive-Thru Ashes initiative. I heard it all: “It looks like a gimmick to get more members in your church.” “This is just about making the Church relevant.” “Drive-Thru Ashes feeds into our cultural addiction to busyness.”
I tell you, it was none of those. Drive-Thru Ashes was a mission trip. And anybody who has ever been on a mission trip knows that it is the missioner who is changed, not the person who was helped.
Drive-Thru Ashes was probably the shortest mission trip in the history of Christianity, but it was no less holy. We will do this again next year, not because it’s a gimmick for our church to explode with new members or because it’s the cool thing to do. We will do Drive-Thru Ashes again next year because it is more blessed to give than to receive.