As deacons, an important part of our call is to “take the church to the world.” I work as a part-time chaplain at a small community hospital, so I do that daily, but in a general way. I try to bring God’s love and light to people of all faiths at York Hospital, where they may be struggling with matters of life and death. This past Ash Wednesday, however,I was able to do that in a more specific way. It all started a year ago….
Last year, on Ash Wednesday, I carried ashes with me when I made visits to patients. When it seemed appropriate, I offered them. The patients who received them were grateful that they had not missed the ashy mark on the forehead that begins Lent. One staff member who happened to be in a patient’s room when I offered ashes, took me aside later and mentioned how nice it would be if ashes could be made available for staff who couldn’t make it to church. I made a note of this, and early this year, got permission from the hospital administration to offer ashes to staff and anyone else who wished them. As the day approached, I wrote an article, created handouts — and got a little nervous! This was a first. What if no one came?
Well, I didn’t need to worry. They did come. 13 people came between 1 and 2 p.m., and three more came between 9 and 10 p.m. Most came because service times at their churches didn’t fit their hospital schedule. I had a chance for some brief one-on-one conversations – one person spoke about grief she was experiencing over a death, another about a complex family situation she was dealing with. Still another person wanted to deepen her faith. Two of our physicians came to get ashes—one in the afternoon, the other in the evening. One staff member who knew I was an Episcopalian asked with a smile if Episcopal ashes worked the same as Catholic ashes. I was able to tell this person that the ashes I was using were “ecumenical”—though they had been blessed at an Episcopal service, I had burned both Roman Catholic and Episcopal palms to make them! That was good enough for him. He received the ashes.
In addition to the scheduled times, there were two other encounters. First thing in the morning, I had gotten in a conversation about the ashes with the van driver who brought me to the hospital. “Is there any reason why you can’t give them to me right here?” he asked. “None at all.” I said. So he pulled the van over, I said a prayer, and marked his forehead. It was an Acts 8:36 moment! Later, as I was walking to the van for the trip back to my car, a staff member approached me and said how sorry she was to miss the hour I was offering ashes. She’d been in a meeting. I had the ashes in my pocket, so we stopped right there on the sidewalk, prayed together and I marked her with the ashy cross. She was moved by the experience—and how the timing worked out. I remember her saying: “I really needed that this year. God’s timing is pretty amazing–He meets us just where we are.” I couldn’t agree more.