What we think they see

A strange adventure at Costco last Wednesday. As I was pushing my cart, doing my shopping and people watching I saw a lady walk towards me with what looked like a nasty bruise right in the middle of her forehead. I thought to myself ‘I wonder what she walked into?’

A few minutes later I saw another guy with a bruise in the middle of his forehead. I thought ‘wow, I wonder what these people are walking into here at Costco’. Within the span of another 10 minutes, I saw another three or four people with this strange bruise in the middle of their forehead...

And then it hit me. It was Ash Wednesday!  It was not bruising on their forehead but schmutz from the ashes!

I shared this story on social media last Wednesday because I felt absolutely silly.  Silly because I thought I should have clued in long before I did that these weren’t bruises, rather ashes from a very precious ritual for many in the liturgical church.  The same liturgical church I came to faith in, and for the better part of a decade and a half participated in Ash Wednesday.  Also walking with several directees who observe Ash Wednesday - well, I really should have known... sooner.  I felt so silly that when I clued in, I laughed out loud - right there in Costco.

Most of my friends laughed with me, some even shared their own stories of Ash Wednesday faux pas.  It’s so good when we can laugh at ourselves.

As I reflected on this over the next couple of days, a familiar nagging sense was circling my thoughts.   A friend made the comment that they thought that it was courageous that these Christians would go into public with the ash still on their foreheads as a declaration of their faith. I believe that rituals like Ash Wednesday and the anointing with ashes can be a very powerful, meaningful experience for people in particular religious traditions,  I wondered what people who are not in on the tradition think?

I suspect a decreasingly few connected the dark mark on the forehead of others because Ash Wednesday wouldn’t even be on their radar.  They would have no idea what Ash Wednesday is about.  To them, they are seeing people with a dirty face or... like me... a nasty bruise on the forehead.

I have been perplexed over the past decade with what do church folks think they are communicating and what is actually being understood.  My experience walking with more and more folks outside the church is they often don’t understand what religious folks are saying or why they should even care.

For people of faith, we have a rich tradition and context for the kinds of slang we use, the metaphors and symbols we use.   They are like suitcases - they hold tons (most of the time) in an easy to carry form.

The problem is when folks outside the club do not share our traditions, our stories and symbols they can’t possibly understand what we think we are communicating to them!

Some of the churches in our town gather once a year in a local park to hold a joint worship service.   Many folks in the church community are genuinely blessed and encouraged by it.  But part of the rationalization for the event is to show our town that there is unity in the church - except for this group, oh and that group, and...

I was curious about what my friends who were not part of a church or don't have a religious memory thought about this service.

Few knew anything was happening.  While they thought the idea was “nice” it didn’t communicate unity to them nor did it impress them.  It made me wonder if unity is a bigger deal to those of us in the club?  I suspect it is.

I was at a gathering in a large city and we were invited to share with a variety of folks from different backgrounds and faith.   It was an amazing time of sharing stories back and forth - a very rich time for sure.   It was time for the ‘formal’ part of the evening and the young musicians started the chorus “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  A couple of issues - without context blood can be a whole lotta creepy but the topper was the line ‘What can make me white as snow? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.’  Well, my new friend who was also black looked me square in the eyes, then looked down at his black hands and back at me and mouthed the words “what the _______ ?”

Context matters.  We can’t always assume others understand our stories, slang, metaphors, and this also means being aware of our privilege too.

So this question nags me - how is what I am saying and doing being understood by those I am saying and doing it for?  I cannot assume a beloved chorus, ashes on my forehead or folks gathering in a park are actually communicating to others that which I take for granted.

If we desire to be good, effective communicators of Good News it behooves us to consider our audience - to avoid unfortunate misunderstanding and just as tragic - bewildered indifference.

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