Messy Ashes

Jen Bradbury
Feb 22 · 5 min read

It’s Ash Wednesday. I was supposed to be serving at church today, imposing ashes on people for an hour this afternoon.

Strangely, I was looking forward to it. While Ash Wednesday is morbid, there’s also a sacredness to it that I appreciate.

Instead, I’m at home, isolating because after three years of dodging it, COVID found my family.

So today, instead of being at church, I find myself thinking about church.

Two years ago at this time, I still worked for a church. At that time, we were trying to figure out how to impose ashes in a COVID-safe way.

Then I took a new job and we relocated, moving back to an old, cherished community where I once was on staff at a church. Initially, we had hoped to return to that church. We sensed that it would feel good, comforting even, to be surrounded by a familiar community that we loved.

But a conversation with the church’s new-to-me pastor made it clear that wasn’t an option; That our return would violate protocol and, she feared, potentially harm the youth ministry.

We respected that and moved on.

We church shopped and learned the hard way how unwelcoming churches can be before landing at a place we’ve grown to call home.

This place is unapologetically justice and Jesus centered. It’s affirming. It’s liturgical (which, as it turns out, is really important to our family.)

Our girls love Sunday school and we love that it’s Godly play.

I’ve gotten to plug in and lead in ways that I worried would be off-limits to me once I no longer worked for a church. I preach on occasion and lead youth group twice a month - Two things I know would have been off-limits to me even had we been welcomed back at our old church.

When I unexpectedly ended up hospitalized over the holidays, our pastor stopped by the hospital for the exact right amount of time and then brought us a delicious homemade meal. We were cared for and loved.

Most days, I love our church and am thankful we landed where we did.

And yet.

Some days, despite all the ways in which our new church has become our home, church still makes me really sad.

I wish that going to church didn’t feel so damn hard.

I wish that after 18 months, more people greeted my girls by name.

Heck. I wish more people greeted me by name, not because I’m wearing a name tag but because they actually know who I am.

I wish the same thing I’ve wished since I became a parent: that when I get to church, someone else would pull my kids into an embrace and tell Doug and I, “You got them here. We’ve got them now.” Impractical, I know… But still.

I wish it was easier to connect with people in our community in a meaningful Christ-centered way.

I wish there were people from church who invited us to their homes and people from church we knew well enough to invite to ours.

In short, I wish church was easier.

That’s what I’ve found myself thinking today each time I’ve seen a social media post of someone’s forehead smeared with ashes.

I wish someone would notice our absence today and check in on us, not to make us feel guilty for not being there, but to remind us that we matter to our community.

I wish I could go to church and if not impose ashes, receive them.

I wish someone would tell me, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

I wish I had ashes smeared across my own forehead to remind me not just of my own messiness, but of the messiness of the church that my family has chosen to be part of.

Because that’s just it, isn’t it?

The church is messy.

No matter how great a church is, it’s not perfect because we’re not perfect.

No wonder church is hard.

Thankfully, church doesn’t have to be easy to be good.

The beauty of church is that we get to bring our messy selves to a messy community where God is present, no matter what.

And so today, as I see pictures of ashes smeared on people’s foreheads, I’m reminded not just of the finitude of life, but of the finiteness of community.

And I’m grateful for the messiness of both.