ashes, charcoal, fire

Photo by Magnus S on Unsplash

Poking around in the ashes

A reflection for Lent

by Ken Rummer   

Last year’s palm branches are burning down to ashes as I write. Tonight we will receive a smudge of those ashes on our foreheads as we repent and remember and head into the wilderness with Jesus.

Growing up, I didn’t have much experience with Lenten ashes. The ashes of my acquaintance followed the burning of charcoal in the barbecue grill. 

I remember the will-they-or-won’t-they uncertainty around getting the briquets to light. My family transitioned from lighter fluid to an electrified loop of rod. Then we switched to the metal chimney that ran on wads of newspaper. 

Whatever the method, the goal was the same: white briquets glowing red, spread evenly beneath the metal rack. Then the meat went on, usually hamburgers, followed by more uncertainty around timing the flip and getting to doneness.

Finished burgers met up with buns and cheese and ketchup and sweet pickle relish. And we topped off our plates with potato salad and orange Jello mixed with shredded carrots and pineapple. Seconds, anyone?

My favorite part came after the meal: marshmallow time. But did enough fire remain to toast them?

By then the charcoal had burned down to a lumpy layer of pale gray. I found that if you stirred around in the ashes with a stick, you could often find bits of charcoal that still glowed red, live coals hidden under the ashes. A little gathering of them together, a few (or more) puffs of air, and you had the makings of a second fire, one just right for roasting marshmallows. 

I liked mine golden brown all over, but I learned that  preferences vary, ranging from “if it’s not in flames it’s not done yet” to “why bother with a fire when they taste so good right out of the bag.”

As I make a sudden and unsignaled jump from the patio to the pew, I wonder about the ashes I’ve noticed on some of my church visits.

Back in the day,  the congregation was on the rise. So many families came they built on a classroom wing. And on Easter Sunday it was standing room only.  But years passed and times changed. Now some of the classrooms sit unused, and a good turnout leaves more places empty than filled.

Isaiah 6 offers a hopeful vision.  A seraph, one of the heavenly beings, tongs one live coal from the altar. Just one, but it’s enough to launch a prophet.

Poking around in the ashes of your congregation may turn up more live coals than that. You may well be one of them! And from those still-burning embers, gathered to receive the Spirit’s blowing, a second fire may flare, the kind that can transform a mess of marshmallows into a taste of heaven.

Ken Rummer writer

Ken Rummer, a retired Presbyterian pastor, writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. Previous posts can be found at http://presbyterian