Ash Wednesday. The first day of Lent. I saw him in a Birmingham supermarket. He was young. Latino. Maybe 11 or 12. He was wandering through the aisles, helping random people.
I have been writing this column for a decade now. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days you can’t find things to write about. Some days you come up dry and resolve to give up and get a job at Old Navy.
Other days, a column falls into your lap. This kid was a gift from the column gods.
I was visiting the supermarket to buy beer and necessities. The kid was in my aisle, helping an elderly woman reach something from the top shelf. I eavesdropped on their conversation.
“You don’t have help me,” said the old lady. “I’m perfectly capable of reaching this on my own.”
“Please, let me,” said the kid in a pronounced Latino accent. “It would be my pleasure to help you.”
I saw the kid again. This time in the Cheez-It aisle. I was buying Bold Cheddar Cheez-It Grooves. You have not lived until you’ve eaten Bold Cheddar Cheez-It Grooves. The kid was helping someone else. A middle-aged woman. He was lugging the woman’s heavy basket. I was touched.
When the kid passed me, I noticed the ash mark on his forehead. And that’s when I realized today was Ash Wednesday.
I don’t keep up with the traditional church calendar because I did not grow up celebrating many traditionally observed holy days.
Ash Wednesday is a day when millions of Christians around the globe participate in fasting, abstinence and prayer for 40 days until Easter.
Sadly, my family was Southern Baptist. In my religious tradition, we practiced 40 years of uptightness until you got constipated and your preacher ran off to Miami with his secretary.
I followed the boy around the store, taking mental notes.
I saw him in a checkout lane. He was helping an elderly man scan his groceries and bag his items.
I followed the kid out to the parking lot. He was pushing a young mother’s cart, loading her vehicle with bags of groceries.
I waited for the kid to ask the lady for money, but he never did. He God-blessed her and moved on.
In the parking lot, I asked him what he was doing. I asked if he was a Boy Scout or something.
“No,” he said. “I’m helping because today is Lent.”
It is my understanding that Lent is all about “not” doing stuff. Not performing random acts of charity and goodwill.
“Everyone does it in their own way,” he said.
His family is from Guatemala. His parents came to America, hitchhiking on a train. They earned their citizenship when they were in their late 20s. Life has been very difficult for them.
His mother cleans with a cleaning crew. His father is a commercial roofer. The kid’s life fell apart when he was only 9. The boy was helping his father with a roofing job when the kid fell off the roof. He broke his neck.
“I knew I would die,” said the boy. “But my mother, she ask God to heal my neck, and God did. God saved me. From that day, my mother say I belong to God, and not me.”
He had a simple innocence about him. The kind of innocence that the world will eventually take away. Although I hope it never steals his.
The kid asked if I needed help with anything. I said no, I was fine. I asked him what the ash stood for on his forehead.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “But I know it’s something my family does every year, and I know it’s something very good.”
Works for me.
Judy B Alexander - February 23, 2023 6:18 am
What a beautiful way to start the 40 days of Lent. I hope his parents know what a special young man he is. God spared him for a purpose. I believe he found it. Thanks for sharing. Ashes are to remind us from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
Susie - February 23, 2023 2:52 pm
Thank you, Judy. THAT makes sense.
Christine - February 23, 2023 9:27 pm
Thank you Judy Alexander, blessings.
jb - February 23, 2023 7:12 am
Very simply and very sincerely…thank you Sean. Wonderful reminders.
Dolores - February 23, 2023 11:33 am
The ash mark is meant to show that a person belongs to Jesus Christ, and it also represents a person’s grief and mourning for their sins – the same sins that Christians believe Jesus Christ gave his life for when he died on the cross.
Fasting may mean just one meal a day or abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays. Or it can be giving up a particular food, like sweets or eggs, for the 40 days of Lent. It should be something that would be a sacrifice (unlike broccoli) to remember the great cost that was paid for us.
It can also include acts of mercy, as demonstrated by your young friend. This in remembrance of the mercy extended from the cross. I prefer the good deeds too for their outreach.
From the mouth of babes, it’s every Christian’s goal to live for others and God, not ourselves. A daily battle for sure but thank God for mercy. God bless this young man, may he find his godly purpose.
Susie - February 23, 2023 2:50 pm
Delores, thank you for the all-encompassing, great explanation of Ash Wednesday. Nice to know what it stands for.
Carolyn from Georgia - February 23, 2023 7:50 pm
Your stories are excellent!! Criticism is uncalled for Those of us who read your column everyday know you and all the nice Church stories you write about and the nice Church ladies and all the great southern food they cook. And we know when you are just kidding. Love & Prayers!!
Mary Ann Tilghman - February 23, 2023 12:23 pm
I thought that your comment about Southern Baptist made me sad😔. I grew up Southern Baptist and have never changed but I have friends and family who are of other denominations. All have issues that need to be worked on!! It was very unkind of you to choose one group of people of faith to criticize!!
kingswaydaughter - February 23, 2023 4:09 pm
I agree….I am not Southern Baptist but I know good people who are and I listen to some of their pastors. It was a most unfortunate comment for what was otherwise a good story about the young boy. It actually detracted from the article.
Marcia Loffredo - February 23, 2023 1:00 pm
Beautiful. God bless that child and his family. We need a lot more like him! Blessings to you and your loved ones. The cross of ashes is to remind us that from dust we came, and to dust we shall return. But our spirit lives on in God.
Clyde - February 23, 2023 1:43 pm
I also grew up in a Southern Baptist home. You pegged it! I have always said that to a Southern Baptist if something was fun or felt good it was a sin.
Cindy Gallop - February 23, 2023 1:49 pm
Sean, Both you and this young man are givers! Thank you both! You, my friend, keep on writing! I need your column desperately! My friend first encouraged me to read your column….your stories have certainly encouraged me, and the regular encounters you share help in a therapeutic way. ( I have been faced with heartbreak! Trying to heal.) I am also a Southern Baptist…..please don’t hold that against me….through my many years as a member, I have witnessed this group as one of the BEST groups of givers to local and foreign missions. I agree there is some uprightness …..Truthfully, our relationship with our Father is what drives our heart…..not a church membership….a sign of heartfelt love for our Lord is the act of giving, loving and encouraging mankind! May this lent season bring us closer to Him as we share His love by our actions! God bless!
Rebecca Daffin - February 23, 2023 11:12 pm
Cindy-Please look into GriefShare. It is a wonderful faith-based organization that provides support for individuals who have lost
someone. There is website that tells you the closet group near you. Although I went to GriefShare because one of my children was killed, the information I gained helped in other areas as well. Praying you get the healing you need. P.S. I was a Southern Baptist for 44 years and so grateful for the love and training I received from wonderful teachers and pastors.
Shirlea - February 23, 2023 2:16 pm
Good words, Cindy! You nailed it.
Sean, you’re awesome as usual!
Patrice - February 23, 2023 2:22 pm
I don’t know how long ago this happened but I pray he still has the same attitude and gratitude. This world needs all the love it can get.
Patricia Gibson - February 23, 2023 2:24 pm
Judy - February 23, 2023 2:30 pm
And God is very good. I am now sorry I washed my ashes off before going to bed.
Helen - February 23, 2023 2:48 pm
Usually I enjoy your entire column. You come from a unique prospective. Sometimes I wish for editing rights as I would occasionally just leave out one paragraph (one which I deem unnecessary and question why you would include it, but for some personal animosity). [But of course it is YOUR column]. Do you have a reader before you send these out? You are a talented writer. Discretion would be an improvement. Otherwise, I love the southern-ness!
Deacon Nick - February 23, 2023 2:52 pm
Sean, Peace to you! Having been raised Southern Baptist, totally understand your constipation! As a Catholic Deacon, married to Donna for 49 years, happy to fill in some gaps of the 40 days of Lent we practice each year. Drawn from Christ’s 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness (before being tested by Satan I should add); we are called to 40 days of prayer, fasting & almsgiving. And while the fasting often includes giving up things, like chocolate to remind us that all of life is a gift; it also challenges us to add things, such as an additional hour of prayer beyond our current daily prayers. Most importantly we are called to give alms to the poor, as this child of God does so beautifully! And to do so such that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, as you often do in your daily life. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, whereby we are reminded that our bodies will die, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, but our souls are eternal. And where we spend eternity is determined by our choices in our brief instant in time here on earth.
Thomas Patrick - February 23, 2023 2:57 pm
It is very sad to me that you must constantly put down the Baptist Church and Baptist people. I have been going to various Baptist churches for 81 years and a member for 68 years (I joined when I was 13), so I know a little about this organization and the people you seem to hate so much. While they are constantly not perfect,they are some the most loving and caring people I know. I very thankful my family was Southern Baptist.
Katherine Colbert - February 23, 2023 3:02 pm
“I belong to God, and not me.”
He gets it.
kingswaydaughter - February 23, 2023 3:07 pm
Wonderful story about the young boy, but your article could have been just as poignant without slamming the Southern Baptist. I, myself, am not Southern Baptist but I have had a close walk with Jesus Christ for almost 51 years now. I listen to some pastors who are Southern Baptist, and to discredit these people’s faith was not necessary. I am sure anyone at anytime can find fault with any Christian faith….the deal is we are not Jesus, we are people who fail and make mistakes- we are just forgiven by Jesus because we are human.
Carol - February 23, 2023 3:09 pm
As the priest/preacher marks your forehead, he/she says: “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Others say: “Remember that you are dust and you will return to dust” so that reminds us we are only here on this Earthly plane for a little while. I hope his family catches a good break! Will pray for that.
Carol - February 23, 2023 3:17 pm
Amen and Amen….I’ve long held the position that instead of or in addition to taking something away for Lent, try to add something. For me, like this young man, it’s mostly acts of kindness and service. Always helped to make me feel fulfilled as opposed to deprived…
Debbie g - February 23, 2023 3:28 pm
The child and you are beautiful
Thank you so much
And I was raised Southern Baptist
We should all be able to smile at ourselves
Love to all. Please pass it on
Jeanne Hays - February 23, 2023 3:37 pm
You so often write or highlight good news, Good Samaritan stories, very uplifting, inspiring and encouraging. This one is all that and more. Moreover, I’m happy to report that many Southern Baptist churches are not longer uptight but have become other-focused, serving the community and those in need, doing ministry the way Jesus did, does and will.
Stacey Wallace - February 23, 2023 3:41 pm
Sean, thanks for this sweet column. I am a Christian and choose to worship as a Southern Baptist. I am truly sorry for your experience in a Southern Baptist church. Please come and visit my church, Central Baptist in Opelika, Alabama. We are a loving church; we will welcome you. Also, we won’t make you feel uptight or constipate you.
Pam - February 23, 2023 3:45 pm
Lovely words to take to heart, and helping others in love is always a celebration of our faith. Oh that we all could could do this one good thing. There would be nothing to argue about or criticize each other about. And Sean, just like we say about relatives…when you’ve lived with them, you can criticize them, but nobody else can! I totally get where you’re coming from and it’s your life and your column. Carry on. ❤️
Ann - February 23, 2023 8:02 pm
Pam, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Anyone that has been following Sean for any length of time knows his humor. I’ll just bet that he knows that the SBC is one of the many reasons he is such an amazing guy. It ,along with his many other influences growing up, made him the sensiitive, caring, thoughtful and loving individual that he is. And if others are offended by what he wrote, maybe they ought not to voice it and be so critical. One critical remark to Sean’s heart probably negates a lot of all the wonderful, positive notes that his readers have written. And what is the point? But to bring him down. This offended thing has gone way to far!!!! . You, go, Sean!!! I love you!!!!
Pubert Earle Bozemann - February 23, 2023 4:32 pm
Like you Pone! This kid is doing the Lord’s work. Beer and all… Have a good ‘Urn! Too bad everybody is not like that.
Kathy Byrnes - February 23, 2023 4:35 pm
Sean, ashes placed on the forehead are an acknowledgement that we came from dust, & to dust we shall return. It is a reminder of our humanity, our true lowlyness, versus the pride which Satan loves to engender in us.
Helen De Prima - February 23, 2023 4:43 pm
Lent should be about giving to, not giving up.
Belinda P Bailey - February 23, 2023 4:52 pm
Thank you for continuing to come up with something to write. ( :
johnallenberry - February 23, 2023 4:56 pm
People say there is no God. Those people aren’t paying attention. God is in the sunrise, in a kind Guatemalan boy, and he’s in Sean of the South.
Gloria - February 23, 2023 4:58 pm
That young fella was being the hands and feet of Jesus. The Lord will honor the blessings that he bestowed on those shoppers. Am so pleased that you wrote about him, thanks. Brought a peacefulness into my heart.
Karen - February 24, 2023 12:00 am
You are so right.
Robert Carruthers - February 23, 2023 5:19 pm
Sadly comment. As a retired SBC pastor I do understand spiritual constipation. I laughed at that
I grimaced at the comment about the pastor running off with secretary
In both cases the joy of Jesus is lost.
Today I work part time at a local factory. The joy of Jesus is returning
Have a great day loving on dogs and those in need. Bless you sir
Suellen - February 23, 2023 6:57 pm
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)
davidpbfeder - February 23, 2023 7:07 pm
Great and heart-moving column as usual. But I have to point out a typo. You left out the word “other” in this sentence:
“I was visiting the supermarket to buy beer and necessities.”
lavery - February 25, 2023 12:26 pm
That made my day Dave!
pattymack43 - February 23, 2023 7:36 pm
Each in their own way, choosing Jesus as their Savior and Redeemer. Blessings!
Gayle Wilson - February 23, 2023 8:47 pm
This young man may not understand it all right now, but one day he will. Because he is blessing others, he will be blessed. It’s in there in the good book.
Cathy M - February 23, 2023 9:41 pm
This is so touching as we begging the Lenton season. May we all be more like this wonderful boy. God spared his life for a reason and he is teaching others with his acts of kindness. God bless him and his family. Great story . Happy Friday❤️🙏🏻
Linda Moon - February 24, 2023 12:00 am
So, I’m pondering about why it was sad to grow up Baptist, Sean. I probably know the answers, but I won’t post them here for my Baptist friends to read. Simplicity with God is good, and I’m glad you decided to follow the boy, somewhat like the beautiful old Baptist hymn that brought me joy and still does: “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, No Turning Back.”
Chasity Davis Ritter - February 24, 2023 12:11 am
Leaky eyes for this precious soul and yours too, Sean. I pray there could be more like both of y’all out there (and more Jamies too!)
MAM - February 24, 2023 12:58 am
Beautiful amid tears. I’m glad someone takes Lent seriously and that his parents have brought him up so well. I admit that when I see people with ashes on their forehead, I, too often, have the (sorry, Lord) feeling that they are “showing off” their piety, rather than showing it through good works. And for your edification, good works are just as welcome, maybe more so, in Lent, as in any other time of year.
Hilary Wolfe - February 24, 2023 2:13 am
I LOVE your posts, followed you for years, read your books. Come to the Catholic Church! You seem fascinated, we would WELCOME you to the ONE TRUE church.
Larry Popwell - February 24, 2023 3:24 am
God is good in all people who see the light and go toward Him. Thinking someone always sees something deviant when doing for others is not what Christ wants us to see.
Jeannette - February 24, 2023 4:18 am
Beautiful story Sean. The column gods were good to you. LOVE to read your stories & books. “You make my day.” Thank you.
Anne Arthur - February 24, 2023 3:47 pm
The 40 days of Lent are about prayer, fasting, and alms giving. You can fast not only from food but also from doing your own thing and doing something for someone else instead. Or, alms giving doesn’t need to be giving money to those in need. You can also give your time to help others. The ashen cross is a sign of repentance for the wrongs we have done. Like the people of old in the Bible who tor their garments and sat in ashes as a sign of Repentance for the sins committed. If everyone in the world would act so perfectly as your little friend did, we would live in a better, happier place. Happy Lent, everyone.
Eve - February 25, 2023 6:00 pm
Hmmm. I was kinda thinking – oops this Baptist comment is going to get Sean in a little trouble.
I know you didn’t mean it mean. And if maybe in bad taste – you are to be forgiven!
Because the joy of Angela and this 10 year old girl was overriding! ❤️
Gail Trie - February 28, 2023 10:17 am
Sean, I love your stories. They are a lovely way to start my day! Bless you!