Ash Wednesday.

Yeah, I know it was a week ago, in fact a week ago today (at the time of this writing), but a story from an Ash Wednesday about 16 years ago has been rattling around in my soul since last week.

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I have no memory—zero, nada, zippo, zilch—of going to an Ash Wednesday service. Our church may have had them, but I don’t recall ever going. We were pretty darn regular at worship, even went to Sunday School, but the only midweek service I have a definite memory of attending was the Maundy Thursday service when I received my first Communion. (Times have changed in the Presbyterian Church since then, but that will be a matter for another day.)

So when I landed in Seminary, and Ash Wednesday was a significant deal, and everyone started talking about “giving something up” for Lent (like liver and onions, maybe?), my learning curve was pretty steep. But I’m a quick study, and I caught on pretty quickly.

Then I graduated from Seminary, and was turned loose on the church. That first year, the church I was serving had an Ash Wednesday service, as did every church I served. Until I moved to the thriving metropolis of Pascagoula, MS, and started serving the First Presbyterian Church there (more in a moment).

These Ash Wednesday services in Protestant churches were powerful, meaningful, and liberating. In each of them, at some point, there would be a large urn in the front of the chancel, and at some point in the service, people would come forward, and place a small piece of paper in the urn, on which they had drawn a symbol, or written a word, and the paper was dropped in the urn as a symbolic act of releasing whatever was written on the paper. More often than not, this was a kinesthetic act or turning loose, and what was drawn or written reflected what was holding the person back from giving themselves fully to God, or some habitual sin that they could not walk away from.

The act was powerful, made even more so by the burning of the pieces of paper, symbolically burning what held one back from God. After that, the sign of the cross would be placed on everyone’s forehead, to remind them that they have been sealed by God’s grace.

So it came as a surprise to me that when my family moved to Pascagoula, this coastal community in a largely Roman Catholic-influenced culture, there was no Ash Wednesday service. Maybe it was a reaction against the prevailing culture, or something else, but I was surprised to find there was not tradition.

So I started one.

The first year, the service was well attended, and we followed the practice of writing something on paper, dropping it in an urn, and burning it. But I made a critical error. I used blank index cards. They took forever to burn, and filled the Sanctuary with this noxious smoke that choked people, and left a lingering (unpleasant) scent for several days. Before that service was over, I knew what we needed to do.

“Theatrical flash paper,” I said to the chair of the Worship Committee. “That’s what we’ll use next year.”

And so we did. I located a source, bought some (it’s not cheap, and I was trying to do this inexpensively (because I’m a tight-fisted Scot Presbyterian), and practiced burning a small piece a few times to make sure it would work. Flash paper burns fast, leaving nothing—NOTHING—behind, It’s gone in a flash!

SO Ash Wednesday came around that year, and we had over a hundred people attend as I recall. We reached that point in the service when people were invited to bring their small pieces of paper forward and drop them in the urn. The lights of the Sanctuary were dimmed about 90%, leaving only a very little bit of light for folks to see and move around by.

I should add at this point that the urn we were using was really a brass flower container, maybe 18 inches tall, about five or so inches wide at the top, sloping down in a conical shape to a point at the bottom.

All of the lights in the church were out now, and I struck a match, and as I looked at the flame, right before I dropped it in the urn—with 100+ pieces of flash paper, remember—I thought, “You know, I’ve not done this with so much flash paper before; I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And I leaned back slightly, then dropped the match into the urn. I watched as for about two-tenths of a second, the paper started to burn away, when suddenly, kaWHOOSH!, there was this explosion of light as an intensely bright, incredibly hot ball of flame shot up out of that urn, into the air before it dissipated!

I kid you not; women screamed, children started crying, and I was shocked, blinded by the bright light in eyes that had adjusted to the darkness. I could not see anything.

And the heat; it was so intense, I wondered if my face had been scalded or scorched, if the hair on the front of my head had been burned off, if I’d lost my eyebrows.

But I knew I could not say or do anything to attract attention to myself (I learned later that our daughter Anne asked, “Mom, is Dad OK?”); I knew that I needed to root my comments in such  a way that the congregation was directed to what God was doing in their lives.

But I was wigging out. One side of my brain was talking to the congregation, saying things like, “It’s all gone. Whatever was holding you back from God is gone. The Lord has taken it away. It’s all gone.” While the other part of my brain was thinking, “Oh, no; what do I look like? Is my face burned? Is it black from soot? Do I have hair?” then I had the thought as I was talking that I could reach up and adjust my glasses, and as I did so, I could feel to see if I still had eyebrows. By now my eyes had readjusted to the light, and I was searching the faces of those up close to me to see if they were reacting in any way. I felt and knew that I still had eyebrows, so all was OK.

The lights came back up for us to sing the closing hymn, and when I saw one guy looking at me and laughing, I wondered what in the world I looked like—but it turned out I was not burned or scarred in any way, he was simply laughing at the same thing I have been laughing about for the last 16 or so years. It was just plain funny!

The next year, we used a different, MUCH shallower, and wider, urn. And we never again sent a fireball into the Sanctuary!

Sometimes you see things that you just can’t believe. But you know you saw them, and it was in a day and age before cell phones, and cameras were not everywhere, so memories just have to hold onto the images.

During the summers when I was in college, I worked for the Arkansas Highway Department. The money was good, and the work was laborious enough that I knew I did not want to do that for the rest of my life, which meant that my grades stayed good. For the first summer I was the goob out there shoveling traffic and waving the flag; by the middle of my second summer I’d graduated to driving a dump truck some. By the third summer I was driving most every day.

One of the more odious tasks that feel to the maintenance branch (which I worked in) was the weekly—or less often—emptying of the trash cans at the roadside rest area on Highway 65. This was in a day where fast food restaurants were not as prolific as they are today, and this was a state highway and not an interstate, and it was one of those places where people would pull over and eat lunch, take a break, snooze a little (rest area, remember?) before resuming their drive.

There was a small bathroom there, and a full-time attendant who managed it and kept it clean, but from time to time, we were sent to empty the trash cans.

For the record, the trash cans were 55 gallon oil drums. Steel oil drums. They must have weighed a ton (OK, ask.com says they weigh 44 pounds.) But fill them with rainwater, drink cups, ten-day-old lunch residue, diapers (eck!) and the like, and they weighed a LOT.

At the beginning of the summer, three of us would go to attend to this task. One guy would climb into the bed of the dump truck; two others would lift the drum out of its holder, hoist it up, and help tip it over to empty it. Later in the summer, two of us were sent; one to heft it up, the other guy in the bed of the truck.

By the end of the summer, I was sent alone. It was a task to get the drum out of its holder, then climb up the side of the truck while lifting the can with me, then dump it’s odiferous and retch-producing contents into the truck. Oh, there were three of these cans, as I recall.

On this particular day, I’d managed to finish this task, and I was headed to the county dump to drop all the refuse. I saw the Job Supervisor driving towards me from the opposite direction, then his revolving light on the top of his truck came on, signaling me to stop. Joe stopped, jumped out of his truck and ran across the highway.

“Chuck, there’s a dead cow on the county line! Turn your truck around and follow me; DeQuincey (that was the name of the guy, I promise you)  is on his way with the wrecker to pick it up, then we’ll put it in your truck and you can take it to the dump!”

Joe ran back to his truck and took off. I turned around and started to follow him. We reached the county line on Highway 65, but there was no dead cow. Two State Police cars, but no dead cow. Joe got out and spoke to them for a moment, then ran back to me.

“The cow is down at Tamo on the other end of the county; go on and dump this trash, I’ll run ahead and meet DeQuincey and turn him around. You then meet him at Tamo (the county line which marked our responsibilities was there) and y’all deal with the cow.”

I did what I was told, dumped all the trash, and headed on south on 65. I was nearing the county line, getting closer and closer, wondering “Where in the world IS this cow, and where is DeQuincey?” I was headed into a long, blind, left-hand turn, and I knew that the county line was just around the curve. And let me tell you, we did not cross the county line to do anything; if that cow was three feet across the line, it was the next county’s responsibility.

Where in the world IS this,” I wondered, as I came around the curve.

And then I saw it.

You have to understand that our wrecker was an ancient, almost dilapidated rig, with an A-frame design, two strong pieces of steel sloping back and upwards from right behind the cab of the truck until it reached a point about ten feet off the ground. From there, a steel cable could be dropped to wrap around wheels or axles to hoist a truck up.

As I came around the curve, I could not believe what I saw; right there, RIGHT ON the county line, was the dead cow. DeQuincey had gotten here ahead of me, dropped the steel cable, wrapped it around the cow, and there it was, right out in front of God and the rest of the world, hanging about ten feet off the ground! Rigor Mortis had set in, so the legs were sticking straight out from its body, ten feet off the ground! Cars driving by, people rubbernecking, wrecks almost happening, but there it was. A cow, hanging in midair.

I turned around, backed under it, and seconds later heard and felt a big WHUMP, as DeQuincey released the cable, and the cow landed in the bed of the dump truck. We went back to the maintenance yard and ate our lunch, then that afternoon took the cow to the county dump.

I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes. Gee, I wish we’d had camera phones back then!