One of my favorite childhood memories happened on Ash Wednesday. My mom took us to mass at St. Joes, we got ashes on our foreheads, and then went out to breakfast even though school had already started. I don’t remember the church service or any conversation. I only remember my pretty mom across the booth from me in the diner with the smudged cross on her forehead, and imagined mine looked exactly the same. I felt loved and proud. I belonged, to my mom and to my church. I was set and solid inside.
A few years later we moved across the country and no longer went to the Catholic church. We didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday. I felt relieved. By this point I had a Problem. And there was no way I could go to Ash Wednesday with it. The thought of a priest looking right at me, seeing my Problem, and maybe touching it made me shudder.
My Problem was that I had bumps on my face. Blemishes, acne, zits, whatever. They were my greatest shame. I knew I had no hope at love or acceptance as long as those bumps were evident. When we studied The Scarlet Letter I wondered if everyone was thinking I should wear an A for Acne on my sweaters from Express. I wondered how anyone could ever kiss skin with bumps on it. How would I ever get married someday?
In the late 80’s I got to have bangs, loads of concealer, and a rainbow of eye shadows to distract from my Problem. Friends from those days don’t remember the Problem, but I remember looking like the Elephant Man.
My Problem gave me a personal relationship with the dermatologist. I could have had a job at Seventeen magazine comparing every soap, toner, and lotion. I hated my Problem so much and there was nothing I could do to fix it. I went to bible study and our new beautiful young married leader said, “I don’t know anyone walking with Jesus that has bad skin. When someone has bad skin, it’s because there is sin in their lives.” I hated her.
In time, through the magic of modern medicine and a different wave of hormones, my skin balanced out. My Problem pretty much went away. But still, every time someone touches my face I cringe (sometimes visibly). I’m waiting for their disgust. Twenty years later this still happens on Ash Wednesday.
The priest, deacon, or elder looks me in the eye, looks up at my forehead, and while drawing a cross says:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I don’t have bumpy teenager skin anymore, but I definitely have more than one Problem. I’m sure some Problems in my blind spots are obvious to others, where my image management isn’t on duty. I write out lists of my known Problems in my prayer journal, begging for help with impatience, anger, bitterness, worry, complaining, self-centeredness and the consequences of those things in my relationships with people and God.
This is where Church is hard for me. As a recovering perfectionist, I always want things tight and neat. I often work hard to get myself just right and then go to church. I mean, God wants to see my effort, right? So I get more soaps and keep scrubbing, hoping to fix my Problem. I assume Jesus wants me to keep trying and come back when I’m finally clean and smooth.
I’m told this is not true because of something called Grace. People talked to me about Grace for decades and I just felt sorry for them. Why were they always wanting a free ride? Why were they wanting someone else, like poor Jesus, to fix their Problem? If they really tried hard they’d figure it out. They would stop admitting defeat and make better choices to change their lives.
I finally made friends with Grace in the hot summer of 2008. I had a two month old crying in the baby bjorn while I emptied the dishwasher, my twins were fighting like junkyard dogs, a book shelf had just fallen over and I couldn’t remember when I last ate. I had Problems. I was done. But this time instead of yelling or crying I started laughing.
I reached to put the glasses in the cabinet, with the baby crying hot tears into my sticky chest and chuckled,
“My very best will never be good enough. It’s not possible.”
I couldn’t keep my kids happy. I couldn’t keep my house organized. I couldn’t keep my emotions in check. I couldn’t heal any pain. I couldn’t love anyone consistently. I was a mess. We were all doomed unless something major happened.
Nothing major happened. But very, very gradually a transformation started. Grace moved in and whispered in my ear. Sometimes I listened. Instead of praying, “God, please help me get this baby to sleep by 1pm so I can get stuff done” I prayed, “Help me, God. Give this baby the sleep she needs. Help me with my list of stuff to do. I can’t do it.” Instead of yelling at my first graders for having tantrums, I started to remember that they were 6 years old. Instead of beating myself up when I replayed conversations in my mind, I started saying, “I was having a bad day. I think they were, too.” Grace was introducing me to her friends Empathy and Compassion.
Because of those three friends I’ve started to accept that I’m human. Humans have Problems. Every person has big and little, hidden and obvious, short-term and long-term Problems. There’s no where to run, no where to hide. You’ve got Problems. Me too!
I will take my kids and my Problems (some call them Sins) to the 7am service on Ash Wednesday. I will set the alarm early and coax them into the car and shush them as we walk in late. The kids will color and/or fall asleep, and when the time comes we’ll wait in line for our ashes. I will let someone touch my face and draw a cross on it. I will let the kids wipe off their crosses in the car. (They like to wipe them off instantly and I’d like it on all day, so we compromise.) We’ll go to a restaurant for breakfast on the way to school.
Last year our server saw my smudgy cross and started talking about Ash Wednesday and how he “didn’t know people still did that…hm.” I said something cheery like, “Yeah, I’m just a mess, so I like to go to remember God loves me anyway. You could go, too! It’s just right over there” pointing west. He nodded politely.
I’m not sure what my kids will remember about Ash Wednesday. Probably the pancakes or the frozen baby wipes in the car. But maybe someday when they feel guilty or embarrassed about a Problem they will remember the ashes on their faces. And remember they are human, made of dust, and Jesus loves them anyway.
You are loved.