Truth Beneath the Ashes

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When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses.

Several years ago in Waco, TX, a couple hundred of us gathered for a crack-of-dawn Ash Wednesday service led by a team of seminary students. All kinds of folk—Baylor students, doctors, construction workers, grandparents—gathered at the shoreline of Lent, sleepy-eyed and somber. Fiddle music beckoned, “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy…”

No Ash Wednesday service would be complete without the imposition of ashes and pronouncement from Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We spilled into the aisles, ready to receive the mark of the cross, after which we would turn and mark the forehead of the person behind us. Just ahead of me in line stood a college student, a kind, cheerful young woman named Rae. We waited our turn, then Rae received the ashes and I stepped forward to receive mine from her. That’s when things went…um…slightly askew.

Rae pushed my bangs aside and smudged the sign of the cross on my forehead, according to plan. But as she drew her hand away, somehow she got some of that inky schmeer on my nose. Horrified, she tried to wipe it off and in the process, managed to spread the greasy mixture to my cheeks, my chin and, as best I can recall, one of my earlobes.

Finally there was nothing to do but laugh at this epic Ash Wednesday fail. I hugged poor, mortified Rae and returned to my seat, looking like a coal miner.

But as I sat there, blotting my face with a tissue, it occurred to me that what Rae had just done, quite unintentionally, was to paint a picture of how it really is with me.

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses: As with those ashes tucked conveniently beneath my bangs, either I try to cover up my sin so that no one will see—or I try to “pretty up” my sin in order to make it appear more respectable. I’m okay wearing my dust in a smart little liturgical shape, along with everyone else. In fact, when worn that way, the dust actually becomes a sign of my spirituality. But the greasy truth is this: my sin is all over me, in blotchy smears from head to toe.

The Apostle Paul also found himself covered in dust one day—sprawled face-down in the dirt of the Damascus road, blind as a bat. But even as he lay there, picking grit from his teeth, a promise began to stir inside his heart and mind which, later, he would put into words for all of us: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

That’s my story. I’m gratefully sticking to it.

Julie Pennington-Russell_smJulie Pennington-Russell is pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia. She has served there since August of 2007. Julie previously served as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, California. She earned a B.A. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, and M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. Currently, Julie serves as a trustee for Mercer University. Her sermons have been featured on the television broadcast 30 Good Minutes, Day-1 Radio, and the Festival of Homiletics. Julie is married to Tim Pennington-Russell, a website designer and sometimes poet and bass player. They have two teenage children, Taylor and Lucy. Julie blogs at juliepenningtonrussell.com.

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