"Um, excuse me, but you have a smudge of dirt on your forehead."
I was thinking about this on Ash Wednesday, and wondering how I could respond if someone mentioned it. A lot of thoughts came to mind, such as, "Thank you, I must've forgotten to wipe it off," or "I've been to church because it's Ash Wednesday." It occurred to me that neither of these were particularly useful or even an invitation to open a dialogue and help somebody learn something.
Being out of work after a number of years, I'm having to go to workshops in order to learn the new tricks of the trade insofar as looking for, and hopefully landing, a job. One of the things they stress is that an applicant for a job or even someone looking to network into an organization needs to have what they call "an elevator statement." It's telling a potential employer basically who you are and what strengths you have in the space of 30 seconds or so, about the length of time it would take to go from one floor of a building to another. It's a sales pitch, but what you're selling is yourself.
I've heard of churches referring to this kind of tool for use in evangelism; a 30-second presentation that endeavors pique the interest of someone enough to begin a conversation. "Hi, I'm passionate about Jesus. can I tell you about him?" This might pique the interest of some Christians, particularly evangelical ones, but just might have the intended person you want to have a dialogue with scuttling rapidly in the opposite direction. Reminds them of people knocking on the door offering to share Jesus with me and it feels like I'm being cornered .
I wonder — what would happen if all Christians walked around with a smudge of dirt on their forehead, not just on Ash Wednesday, but every day? Some groups of aborigines wear ritual tattoos that in their culture serve as marks of identity and religious significance. A painted circle on the forehead of a Hindu woman can be either a sign that she is married, a cosmetic addition like lipstick or eyeshadow, or dedication to a specific Hindu God. Jewish males are circumcised, something that is a very important religious ritual but hardly one that is openly exhibited. Christians may wear crosses on chains around their neck, a tattoo of a cross somewhere on their body, or walk around with the Bible in their hands. Most people would simply take note of the visible sign and think no more of it.
With the smudge of the ashes, it's a seldom seen sign that most people don't understand. They just look at it as dirt on the forehead. But this smudge becomes a moment of evangelism, a teachable moment, that opens the door that might not otherwise even be noticed. It's an opportunity to practice a 30-second elevator statement that invites and informs and perhaps even opens the door for more in-depth conversation.
"Oh, thanks for noticing. It's a sign that today is special because I'm reminded that I'm human but also the child of God. It starts a 40 day journey whose purpose is to bring me closer to God, and leads me through the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus. It's a reminder that although I will be dust again one day, I was made from dust. It also reminds me that my faith tells me that death is not the end, but just the beginning of a new life with God. Thanks for letting me share that."
What if we wore a smudge on our forehead every day of the year? Would we be reminded that even though we may not have any sackcloth to wear (and people would definitely not consider it a fashion statement), but I can wear the ashes of humility and remembrance. Jesus did things with dust, like writing in it or wetting it with spit and healing a man's eyes with the resulting mud. The ashes on my forehead may be a little messier, but it is also very like dust; it is the product of a breaking down of other things and making them available for other uses.
Even though Ash Wednesday is over for this year, what if we assumed invisible ashes and prepared an elevator statement we could use to introduce ourselves to others as children of God and passionate about reminding them that they are loved as much as we know we are. It could be the most important piece of evangelism we could use.
Come up with your own elevator statement. Practice it so that it comes out naturally and easily -- and joyfully. And don't be afraid to use it. If you need to, put a smudge on your forehead, no matter what day it is. It's a real conversation starter.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 13, 2016.