In the final moments of Ash Wednesday I found myself propped up against the dingy Greenwich Village barroom wall with a drink in one hand and my wife nervously holding the other, I realized I had just experienced a perfect 18-hour liturgy.
It actually all began, as days like this often will, the night before at a bar on Fat Tuesday. I’d only just taken a few sips of my Cabernet while chatting with a jolly midtown bartender when a gentleman sat down next to me and ordered a martini. L was downstairs in the dining room attending a business dinner that I had no interest in attending while I was enjoying a quiet drink and Thai appetizers waiting for the rest of our evening to begin. The conversation with the generous bartender turned to what I would be doing in the city the next day and I told him I’d be hanging out in Union Square for a very different sort of Ash Wednesday service. This turned the head of my barstool neighbor and he and I began chatting (I’m a comfortable extrovert if you haven’t figured that out). As we exchanged the usual American “so what do you do?”, I was astonished to find that out of the gabillion people in that city I ended up sitting next to the dean of General Seminary. Really, really! So we ate and drank and talked of many things – and laughed at the crazy way God moves and the utter joy of indulging in good food and making new friends on Mardi Gras in a town of 8 million people. When LeAnne and her colleague Grant later joined us at the bar, I was further astonished to discover that Grant and Rev. Patrick Malloy had friends in common – friends of Grant’s who has studied under Dean Malloy. When we all parted ways on that brightly lit city corner, with hugs and still more laughter, I was simply buoyant with the mystery of how God creates community in this world.
We made our way back to our hotel, just a block north of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and stepped into a country western bar for a night-cap. Yeah, irony knows no limits.
I fell asleep that night, close beside the distant snores of my partner, dreaming of an exciting day exploring the city.
Call to worship
When the alarm on my iPhone disturbed our dream-laced slumber, I slipped out of bed before she could fully wake, threw on my clothes from the previous night and let to fetch a couple cups of decent coffee a few blocks away. I returned before light and we enjoyed a quiet moment of coffee and scones before our day diverged along different routes.
Dressed and ready for our day, she walked around the corner for an all-day meeting and I headed south on 5th Ave. to Union Square. As much as I wanted to blend in, I surely looked the part of a gawking tourist as I looked all around and up at the soaring heights which true New Yorkers never seem to do. I simply was not inclined to repress the silly-ass grin smeared from ear to ear. Not much more than a mile away, the walk took nearly an hour because I wandered into parks, stopped to take a picture or two and lingered over a tad more substantial breakfast.
With a full belly and renewed energy, it took a few minutes and a couple of text messages but I found the little community I had come to worship with that day.
See, a week or so before heading off to NYC I realized I would not be in Atlanta with my beloved Kirkwood UCC for Ash Wednesday. Yeah, weird that this recovering Baptist, post-denominational gal would care about such but as it turns out Ash Wednesday means a great deal to me. So as I often do, I had turned to Facebook to find a solution. Folks quickly recommended plenty of lovely places where I could receive ashes but it was an invitation from my friend Kellie Anderson-Picallo that made my heart sing. Join us, she said, to distribute ashes, prayers and love in Union Square! Well, duh – where else would I be?!?
I found them on the south steps of Union Square, about five or six in all, with signs offering free ashes, hugs and prayers. Amongst the leaders of this merry band of faithful were my friend Kellie (that’s Rev. Anderson-Picallo to y’all), Rev. Mieke Vandersall (Executive Director of Presbyterian Welcome) and John Russell Stanger.
After receiving my own hugs and ashes (and love I could feel emanating from each of them) a bowl of ashes was placed in my hands. Now as much as I’d like to say that we were overrun with New Yorkers lining up to receive ashes from this obviously awesome crew, alas, not even close. Folks popping out of the subway or briskly headed across the park would more often than not give us an odd sideways glance, if they looked at us at all. A couple of people stopped and snapped photos since John was proudly holding the sign above his head. But there were some who came – some who allowed us to enter their lives for a brief moment with ashes and those words “from dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
Now don’t laugh, but tears rolled down my face each time it happened. Whether from my hands or one of my ministry partners that day – the spark of grace that passed between the two was visible to all who had eyes to see. I had the honor of sharing ashes with three women, Gloria, Maribell and Sybill. I was utterly undone by the trust and truth that could be shared in that place, in that act.
And then came Joey Boots! John tells the story best and I hope you will pop over and read his HuffPost piece (and share a little love in the comments) but here is how I experienced that thin place. Joey approached us ready to be sent away, rejected and scorned, maybe to have a little fun mocking the Jesus freaks in the park, but little did he know he’d stumbled across the wrong Christians for that sort of behavior. Love was all he found, well that and grace. I’ll not spoil it for you, head over and read what happened, I’ll be here when you get back.
Passing the Peace
So after a couple of hours hanging around in God’s Grace, we prayed (yeah, right out in the open like that) hugged, shared Twitter handles, connected on Facebook and said our “stay in touches”. Hands and feet freezing but heart and soul warm, I headed a few more blocks south to the Village ready to find lunch. As I walked along I would see heads smudged with ashes bobbing along among the masses. And once in a while, more often than not really, there was a glimmer of recognition, a tiny flicker of a connection. Not that we were running through the streets hugging and high-fiving or anything (admit it, that’d be an awesome sight) but there were quiet smiles, occasional head nods and even a few pair of glistening eyes. Why? Maybe because amidst all the world swirling around us we felt a micro-second of connection to one another and a larger story. All those lovely faces smeared with the burnt palms from last year shared something ineffable and at the same time tangible. Something we ALL share but here we were wearing it right out in the open. What is it we ALL share? The promise that we have come from God, in God we all dwell and to God we shall return. Every last one of us. And in admitting our brokenness in this ancient act of penitence, so too we acknowledge our kinship with the masses around us, each one broken and beautiful in her own way. A smile – peace be with you. A nod – and also with you.
The rest of the afternoon was spent as one might imagine – wandering around, eating good food, drinking warm beverages, observing of lovers gliding on ice in Bryant Park and lighting a candle at St. Patrick’s with prayers for LGBT Catholics that they might know the peace of God’s love and a community that embraces their whole selves.
At 5 pm L and I reconnected and met former seminary colleagues of mine, Bridgette and Amanda, at The Russian Vodka Room (which looked like it could be a perfect for the next “Russian Mafia bar” scene of Law & Order). With hugs and smiles and laughter we reconnected over a cocktails and happy tales.
The Word Shared
I was unable to linger with Amanda and Bridgette as long as I’d have liked because I had to dash back to Skype in and participate as a panelist in the third session of the Sacred Pixels conversation presenting by the Ignatian Center of Santa Clara University. Along with other folks who are exploring the intersection of faith and technologically formed community, and led by Elizabeth Drescher and Paul Soukup we shared our stories of encountering the Word, God and the other in online spaces. Thanks be to God for online communities with depth and richness!
After a dinner at The Playwright we hopped in a cab and headed down to the Village seeking a little bar I’d learned about early in the day. About 10 minutes later we pulled up to the curb and Marie’s Crisis Cafe sign glistened in the rain diffused light shining from above a small red door. The cab door and the bar door opened at the same moment and the raucous sound of voices surrounding a well loved piano lured us down the steps and into the dimly lit bar. We grabbed a few drinks (cash only please) and settled in, just out of the circle of friends gathered around the piano. We were guests in this intimate space but made to feel welcome none-the-less. The voices all raised in songs of lament or joy, people greeting one another with signs of love and peace, cups raised and shared – it slowly began to dawn on me…
…and then Maggie sang and with tears streaming down my face I suddenly knew without a doubt what I had experienced all day – it was worship. I recorded her song on my iPhone but later found a video of her singing the exact song on YouTube. I hope you’ll take a moment and listen…
My Lent began in New York City, a perfect liturgy shared with 8 million people. More intimately I shared this holy day with: an Episcopal priest, some Presbyterian pastors and organizers, a self-proclaimed “recovering Catholic”, some fully immersed Catholics, a couple of Methodists, a handful of atheists a few agnostics and a whole mess of happy, singing souls. And here was me, a recovering Baptist, post-denominational UCC-loving, emergent-leaning blogger from the south grateful beyond measure to see and be sent forth into the world knowing anew what God’s beloved community does, can and will look like.