Vomit and Ashes

We took ashes out into Dupont Circle this past Ash Wednesday. At 8:30am on Wednesday, Jeff and I roamed around Dupont Circle, stopping at the Dupont Metro for awhile, letting the strangers we were among know that it was Ash Wednesday. “We have ashes for Ash Wednesday. Would you like to receive?” In the evening, we went back out again before our Ash Wednesday service. I went on this shift with Andy Thomas, Pilgrims Young Adult Volunteer, to share ashes in the dark and freezing cold.

Andy and I walked up P Street, stopping a few folks along the way, asking if they’d like to receive ashes. At one point, we were two for two.

That quickly changed as we parked ourselves at the south end of the Dupont Metro. People just blazed past us. It was ear-bud-palooza out there in the evening commute. Don’t want to interact with your environment? Wear ear buds while walking around. Need an excuse not to make eye contact with another human being? Ear buds.

After getting a whole lot of “No’s”, Andy and I walked up to Dupont Circle, traffic circle + public space + resting place for many among the benches that encircle a large, stone water fountain. In reasonable weather, the benches can be lined with bike messengers, homeless folks, folks wearing ties, folks wearing pencil skirts, folks playing chess.

With the temperature around 25 degrees, the benches looked empty until Andy and I noticed 2 figures sitting on the outer circle of benches. We headed over. As we approached the two guys, I noticed one leaning over. As we got closer, we realized the guy was puking.

Stomach bile. Chunks of food. Mouth spit.

First thought–This is fucking gross, turn around and head back to Pilgrim.

Second thought–This is fucking gross, share the ashes.

I asked one of the bench buddies if he’d like ashes. He looked at me with eyes glazed over, slowly rocking back and forth. Somehow he gave a “No.”

I turned to his companion who at this point was sitting upright and wiping puke off his mouth.

I asked him, “Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?”

With the same type of glazed over eyes, with the same type of rocking back and forth, this guy said, “yes.”

I looked up at Andy as if to shore myself up for this moment. Then I blurted out to Andy, “remind me to wash my hands after this.”

Clearly not the most pastoral of words. And true.

I started to lean in to our friend on the bench and he slowly, I mean slowly, lifted up his winter skull cap to make room for the ashes.

“From dust you have come, to dust you shall return” and plunk went the ashes on his skin kept warm by the winter hat. He slowly pulled his skull cap back in place.

Andy and I hustled back to Pilgrims for our 7pm in-the-building worship.


Ritual and liturgy on the streets creates a mash-up of people. Strangers get knocked-up against each other. Separated out from the liner, sequential movement of an in-the-building type of liturgy, ashes on the streets expose ritual’s power. Gone are the pews, the communion table, the font. Gone is the church architecture that sets the context and initial meaning of the ritual.

On the streets, ritual gets blown apart from the confines of Church walls and can be interpreted a million different ways with no one in a robe or a title or ordination status to define.

I have no idea what our friend on the bench was thinking when I asked him about the ashes. What we did see was the lifting of his skull cap. Even though this guy was completely inebriated, he had enough awareness/memory/body memory to lift his hat to make room for the ashes. Does he even remember?

Dupont Circle isn’t too far where the million dollar row houses of Dupont and Georgetown exist. Embassy Row is right up the street. The gardens and front stoops are Southern Living beautiful. The neighborhoods are images of stability.

Dupont Circle absorbs the grid of the city street architecture–Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues come together to create this circular public space. public street space goes from linear and grid-like to circular; the Circle itself being a shape that has no beginning and no end.

Grid of Dupont Circle. The green dot is the Circle.

An experience like our friend on the bench vomiting, and then saying yes to ashes, tells me that the sheer unpredictability of ritual on the streets makes it near impossible to assume the direction of God’s Spirit. We’d like to think faith and Church life move in a grid-like, sequential way: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, funeral.

Out on the streets, God’s Spirit gets vomited up all over the place, the Spirit symbolized in a circle of puke on a public sidewalk and incarnate in the one who vomits.

The Rape of Tamar

Desolation of Tamar
Desolation of Tamar

This summer at Church of the Pilgrims we are focusing on troubling texts, Biblical narratives that are cringe worthy because they bump up against deeply-held Biblical values. So far we've focused on texts that say women need to be silent in Church, violence that creates an occupied land, Jesus as "the way", and Sodom and Gomorrah.

I preached on the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-21. Tamar was raped by her brother, Amnon. Amnon's father was King David. Tamar was the beautiful sister of Absalom, who was also David’s son.

Context: My dear friend from Union Seminary in NYC, Anna Olson, preached on this text for a worship service we created for a Christian Ethics and Domestic Violence class our second  year at Union. The professors for the class? Beverly Harrison, Mother of Christian Feminist Ethic and Annie Ruth Powell, then the pastor of Union.

This worship service included two amazing parts (other than Anna's sermon):

1) The hymn "Sacred the Body." It was created by Ruth Duck for our Union worship service:

[blockquote indent="]Ruth Duck was inspired to write this hymn after a conversation with Janet Walton, professor of worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Duck notes that Dr. Walton “called to ask if I knew of a congregational song that spoke to issues of battering and abuse using Paul’s concept of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17).” This request came as a result of a conversation among students planning for a seminary worship service at Union Seminary who needed a song on this theme. None was to be found.

Dr. Duck states, “I didn’t know of existing hymn texts on that theme, but the idea inspired 'Sacred the Body.' Writing the text was a source of healing for my distress over a friend’s story of being sexually abused by a religious professional.” [/blockquote]

2) The action: After Anna's sermon, we invited people to come forward and mark their foreheads with ashes and tear burlap, both ancient mourning rituals of Israel Tamar embodied after her sexual assault.

We sang "Sacred the Body" and marked ourselves with ashes at Pilgrims as part of my sermon on Tamar.

Here are excerpts from my sermon (again, Anna's sermon deeply inspired my version):

Tamar’s story raises questions about God, and humanity that matter. The questions Tamar’s story lift up matter because in our Dupont Circle neighborhood, in our city of Washington, D.C., and on the planet on which we all live, desolation is the reality for many, and the ending of many stories isn’t always deliverance...... 

The Hebrew word for rape, or overpowered, in this story is the same word used for rape in other stories, including the rape of Dinah in Genesis and the rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges. Just as importantly, it has a broader meaning of “to oppress” or “to afflict.” In that broad meaning, it is the same root word used to talk about the oppression of the Israelites under slavery in Egypt....... 

So there was Tamar. Thrown out. Standing outside in her ornamented tunic, a dress for princesses, where all the servants who were asked to leave the room could see her. No place to hide her body, her feelings, her vulnerability. No place to feel safe.

In the moment, Tamar found enough of herself, her own power to put dust, or ashes, on her head and rent, or tear, the tunic she was wearing. She put her hands on her head, and walked away, screaming loudly as she went. The beautiful, princess daughter of King David, sister of Amnon, walked down the streets with dirt on her face and clothes torn, symbolizing her status, her body, her being had been torn to shreds.

Ashes as a symbol of mourning
Ashes as a symbol of mourning

She cried out, again invoking the story of the Israelites, as the word “cried out” is the same word used when the Israelites cry out under oppression in Egypt. 

Right after my sermon, there was an invitation for people to come forward, take ashes from the communion table, mark their foreheads with the ashes, and remember themselves, a friend, family member, anyone who is a victim of assault.  People had the choice to mark their forehead in silence or mark and say something about the person they were remembering.

One-by-one over ten people (in a sanctuary with 50+ people) came forward. Some marked in silence. Some shared a name and a short story.

During announcements I extended the invitation for those who needed to talk about the service to come by my office after worship.

People came.

Tamar's story is alive and on that Sunday is was very clear she was sitting in our pews.