Sometimes words come back to me. They linger long enough to make me wonder what I am supposed to hear in them now.
I wrote years ago about my experience on Ash Wednesday with a little boy named Joshua. He was about five. This moment with him is one that will always stick with me, an Ebenezer for my journey with God.
In seminary, I served at Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta. Along with jumping head-first into new traditions, I got to know some of the beautiful people of this historic church. One of my new friends was Joshua.
Joshua was an energetic five-year-old boy who never stopped asking questions.
His mom, Angela, and his two brothers were at church whenever the doors were open.
During Lent, I attended the Ash Wednesday service, ready to help the ministry staff in whatever way I was needed. It turned out that the place I was needed most was right in the pews.
The practice of Big Bethel Church was to invite people to come forward to receive ashes. Then anyone wanting a time of personal prayer could remain at the front, praying at the long kneeling bench. Angela took her three boys to receive ashes and then turned on the Mom voice to give them direct instructions:
“Go with your oldest brother and sit down quietly.” Angela needed a minute at the altar.
Two of the three brothers did exactly as they were told. But my buddy, Joshua, began to dance his way up the aisle, high-fiving everyone he saw. With my best teacher voice, I waved him over, and he plopped down next to me. He wanted to chat.
“Why can’t I dance?” I assured him he could dance after the service.
“What’s that stuff they put on our faces?” I told him it was a mark of ashes, so we could remember that God made us and that Jesus loves us. He seemed okay with that answer, until he looked around the room and then looked back at my forehead.
“But, you don’t have one on your face!” he said. I explained that I was waiting my turn to go up front. Concerned about my lack of ashes, he reached up and touched the cross on his own forehead. He rubbed the ashes from his brown skin and then took my face in his hands. He reached out, made the sign of the cross on my forehead with his tiny fingers, and said, “You can have some of my cross.”
Without a second thought, he shared what he had been given. He didn’t want me to be left out, and he knew he had just what I needed. The gospel according to Joshua has stayed with me for a long time.
Whether you are an aisle-dancing, question-asking, tooth-less grinning boy or an often frustrated, over-worked, sometimes believer, you have something to offer the rest of us. The world needs you. The world needs the story that you have to offer, no matter how messy it looks. Why? It is you who add the flavor and the light to this world.
You are the salt of the earth. Your mistakes, your hopes, your quirks, and your gifts sprinkled into the world in the most ordinary of ways are salt. Your certainties and your doubts in faith, your smallest acts of response to the love you have been given are sparks of light that point to Christ.
When we reach into our own story and scrape up the dust of our lives, we may see that grace looks a lot like the cross we see in front of us. Without your story, this walk of faith is just too dull. What the world may need more than any new Bible study or program might just be more people willing to say, “This is where I’ve been. This is what I am hoping. You can have some of my cross.”
Like Joshua, we can offer quite a gift if we look at what we have been given and don’t hesitate to give it away.
That moment was a game-changer for me. And it was at least twelve years ago.
When I think about Joshua every Ash Wednesday, I wonder where he is now. He was a bright and sweet and chatty little boy. I wonder what his days are like as a young man.
If he’s still living in Metro Atlanta, where would I see him? Is he laughing, creating, expressing, working, hoping, learning, and showing up in the world just as he is? Maybe he’s tall. Maybe he wears a suit and maybe he wears a hoodie.
Is he still exuberant with #blackboyjoy or has he learned the motions expected for a man? How do those expectations weigh on him? Did he get to church in his car? What did his mom tell him about driving in Atlanta?
Joshua and I had this moment because his mom needed a moment to pray at the altar. What prayers does she pray for her three precious sons today? What breaks her heart?
What would it be like if I met him on the street in downtown Atlanta? I wonder about the story he has to offer today.
What is his experience these days when he meets a white lady he barely knows? I won’t even ask if – but what – is prejudice like for him?
Would I sit and listen to him if he asked me, why can’t I dance?
Would I be able to talk with him about the ways he is God’s beloved?
What marks placed upon him would he ask me about?
If he reached out to me, would I be able to recognize that he has something I just don’t? Would I listen and confess that our perspectives are different?
What if he looked at me today and said, You can have some of my cross?
What would I do with his story?
On this Ash Wednesday, I wonder.
What is the Gospel according to Joshua today?