Ash Wednesday in Coronatide

Lent is a mere six week away. Do you remember Lent last year? Do you remember that awkward feeling of sitting in church that first Sunday when we were told not to touch our faces? I remember laughing about it with the person next to me in the pew as someone then touched the face of my nursing baby. (Do not touch babies even when it is not a pandemic.) Do you remember feeling like we would only have to worship remotely until Easter? Or maybe Pentecost?

Here we are nearly one year later preparing to honor that same holy season when the pandemic began.

Tradition holds that Lent is a time to contemplate our humanity. It has been a season to wonder about our limitations and our possibilities beginning with the dust that graces our foreheads on Ash Wednesday soon followed by temptations of all shapes and kinds on the first Sunday of Lent. We give up those things that muddle of our connection to God and take on things bring God closer. You know all of these things already, dear pastor. You would probably have better wording for the theological implications of this season and probably have a few things to say about what it means to be a human right now.

One of my dearest friends claims that she now believes in the depravity of humanity though she never did before this long season of coronatide. I don’t think she’s wrong but I’ve also been thinking about those palm branches. It is a strange twist where the joy and hope of last year is charred and burned. Ashes are what is left after the fire. Nothing will become of them. They are swept up and disposed. There is no other use for them but Lent is always an awakening. It always leans into the hope of renewal where what has been reduced to ashes will find new life. I can think of no better way talk about this moment in 2021 as we anticipate a world transformed by disease and destruction. It is that that we are preparing for this Lent. We are preparing for what will come.

It doesn’t need to be palm branches though. There is no rule about this as my colleague Leah Robberts-Mosser recommended we “go to our local tobacco store or head shop. Buy dime bags. Put a teaspoon or less of ash in each. Make kits with whatever folks need for your Lenten worship series to distribute. Given how long it will take for vaccinations, it’s safe to assume we won’t be gathering in person until mid summer at the earliest. Plan for a remote Lent.”

This year will be different. We’ve said this so many times but why not live into the wonder of this possibility. One of my all-time favorite post How to Make Ashes reveals my bias that this bonfire is something to be shared.

It’s something we can encourage in the priesthood of all believers. We can invite this spark to ignite what we hope this year will be. When so many of us are looking for something to do, especially in the midst of so much brokenness, we can dare to believe that lighting a fire might prepare us for the work ahead.

Such preparation requires ritual and prayer. You’ll find both in this simple free downloadable bulletin to share with your church community. Download Fire and Ashes: A Ritual to Begin the Season of Lent here. It requires your supplies but hopefully these are things that already exist at home and do not require an additional trip for curbside pick-up.

It was my first instinct to let this service be shared at home without any gathering online.

I thought, instead, it might be more more fun as we approach Lent again to follow another suggestion I saw from a talented and wise minister. She plans to celebrate Shrove Tuesday by hosting a Zoom cooking lesson for kids to test various pancake recipes. This sounds fun but let’s include adults. We need fun too. I don’t know how in the world you do pancake races online but they are my favorite part of Shrove Tuesday and silliness might be just want we need this Lent. Plus, who doesn’t love playing with your food?

That was my first instinct. It was not my last because there are many living alone. There are many, like me, who have not formed a pod. There is so much loneliness even for those surrounded by children and relatives that they can now never escape.

There has to be something for those blessed souls to begin this holy season. I might suggest using the same liturgy because it’s less work for you, dear pastor. Lead it from your backyard and stream it as you usually do. Or gather everyone on Zoom and share in this ritual together which will be lovely except for the fact that unless you sent ashes home, these good people will have nothing to impose. No problem. They’ve got oil in their kitchen for something: olive oil, vegetable oil, canola oil all works. If they really want to have ashes, tell them to burn a piece of toast and scrape off the charred bits with a butter knife into a tiny bit of oil. This might be what they are doing while you are building the fire in your backyard. Or you might ask them to write down all of their sorrows on paper they then tear to tiny shreds. This will make more sense, of course, after you have downloaded Fire and Ashes and decided if it is the right thing for your congregation right now. You know your people, dear pastor. You know what is needed in this holy season.

I know, too, that there are pastors considering skipping Lent this year. It is too much. I wrote Fire and Ashes with this in mind. It’s traditional but not. It has some of the familiar elements but after all that has happened this week in Washington DC, I want to talk more about possibility than mortality. I want us to believe that we don’t have to burn it all down or even that this life is just a dumpster fire of destruction and loss, but that there is something else. We can emerge from the ashes. We can imagine new life together. We can still be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

A Service to Break Down Walls on Ash Wednesday

Sometimes cooking begins just by opening the pantry and realizing that that something delicious with peanut butter (because you mysteriously have a surplus of peanut butter) sounds really good. That’s kinda how this service came together.

It all started with an email from the Salt Project which brought me to their blog to read this familiar poem. Or at least, it should be familiar. It should be one that I know well but I realized as I read these words that I don’t think I’ve ever read the whole poem. And then, there’s the fact that there is a larger news story that activates this poem. It gives it new energy when the United States has gone through a shut down, a national emergency, charges of sexual abuse of young children and ongoing separation of families all because of an imagined wall along the Southern border of our nation.

Lent begins with a similar tension. There is awareness that something is amiss. The world is not as it should be but no one quite seems to know how to fix all that is wrong. It is a season in the Christian calendar when we recommit ourselves to seeking God’s help. We confess that we’ve made other gods. We’ve separated ourselves in countless ways and we need help. We want to break down those walls that we’ve built with our very own hands.

To imagine such a thing, I’ve called upon poets. There are three poems in this service. I’ve linked to the poems in other places. You’ll hear lines of those poems repeated in the liturgy as we move through the ritual actions of this day.

It is a service that invites dramatic play with the news headlines in that the congregation is invited to literally break down a wall that has been set up on the communion table. Each brave soul gets to carry one of those rocks home with them, holding onto it through the 40 days of the season. I didn’t dare interpret what it might mean to carry that rock but trusted that God will lead in making it known what it means to carry that weight.

I’m really looking forward to being in the pews and experiencing this myself.

A Service for Breaking Down Walls 

Gathering Music

– WE GATHER IN FAITH

Welcome

Opening Words of Meditation

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

Song of Invocation

Beginning the Journey

One: We begin this journey together
on the other side of the wall,
feeling separate, distant and alone.
All: We have built this wall.
We have placed each stone
for our own protection,
to feel safe and secure.
One: We begin here, again,
wondering what we have walled out.
All: Each boulder was set in place
to guard our hearts and souls.
One: We meant well but this construction has blockaded us
from so much more than we ever intended.
All: Holy One, help us to move these stones.
In the forty days ahead, help us to break down
the barriers we have erected from your love.
Blast through our arrogance
and push us toward your grace.
One: We know now that we’ve separated ourselves from
neighbors, friends, strangers, and our truest selves,
but Holy One, we’ve distanced ourselves the most from you.
All: Holy One, give us strength for the journey.

WE LISTEN FOR GOD’S WORD

Song of Illumination

Seeking the Word in Scripture

Psalm 51:1-17 

These words of scripture are to be read with an introduction that fits the norm of that congregation by a liturgist or pastor. 

Song of Illumination

The people are invited to sing the song once more.

Meditation on Scripture

Lent 1991 by Maren Tirabassi

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

Anthem

–– WE CONFESS OUR BROKENNESS ––

Call to Repentance                               

One: We begin this sacred journey by remembering together, the very things
that challenge us from experiencing and knowing God’s love. These are the very things that have caused us to build walls.
All: We are called in this holy season of Lent to struggle against
anything that leads us away from the love of God and neighbor. We
recognize that so much is broken in this world and even in ourselves and together we commit to partner with you, Holy One, in mending what has been so very broken.
One: You are invited to come forward and find a rock along the constructed wall
along the communion table. Take that rock, the one that calls to you as a
reminder of all that has separated you, all that has distanced you from love, all that has caused you to seek protection instead of grace. Take that rock from the wall and place in your pocket to keep with you on the journey through these next forty days to remember that you are called to mend what has already been broken. You are called into love.

You may come forward, as you feel so moved, to remove a rock from the constructed “wall” on the communion table and place it in our pocket for the journey through the next 40 days. 

Kyrie

Affirmation of Faith           

One: Having stepped into the unknown together, daring to seek another way,
we are upheld by God’s grace as we remember:
All: All things, even our troubles, become dust. We give over to Holy Mystery that which we cannot solve or heal alone. We dare to trust the promise that the Spirit of Christ takes these first steps with us. We begin this journey courageously together into the unknown love that awaits us.

–– WE SHARE OUR GIFTS AND HOLY COMMUNION ––

An Invitation to Mend the Brokenness

One: Here, now, we enter into Lent.
We draw the holy comma
between what was and what could be.
We stumble over our humanity. We admit we’re stubborn
and confess that sometimes we think we know better even than God.
We begin here, at the table, where all are fed.
We begin here where grace abounds.
We begin here to mend what has been broken
in the ourselves and in the world
with the crazy contradiction that we don’t have the answers.
We don’t know what is best
but we dare to believe that resurrection matters.
Change can come and so we place ashes on our foreheads.
The dust of a thousand stones reminds us that we have
come from earth and one day will return to earth.
We remember here that life is fragile and delicate
but so deserving of blessing, as are we.
We come to remember that blessing
with bread and cup, oil and earth,
that will mend all that has been broken.
All: Holy One, give us strength for the journey.

Holy Communion and Stations of Devotion

All are welcome at Christ’s table – members, guests, first-timers, long-timers, baptized or not – all who desire to know and share the love of God are invited. When and if you are so moved, you may visit any or all of the following prayer stations during our time of communion: 

    • Imposition of Ashes: All are invited to come forward to receive ashes to remind us of the hard truth of limited lives. The sign of the cross in ashes will be given to all who desire saying, “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
    • Anointing: You may also receive this ancient blessing of the church to remind us of the never-failing power of God’s limitless love. Holy oil will be placed on the top of the head or hand saying, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
    • Holy Communion: By the side aisles, you may receive communion by intinction, coming forward to take a bit of bread and dipping it in the cup.
    • Offering: Finally you may place your tithes and offerings for the work of the Church in the plate.

Table Song

The Prayer of Our Savior

using these or whichever words are closest to your heart:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

–– WE GO FORTH TO SERVE ––

Closing Words of Meditation

In My Soul by Rabia

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

We Are Sent Forth

One: We go forth, O Holy One, on a quest to find you.
All: We go forth with our senses heightened
to recognize the needs of the world around us.
One: We go refreshed with our hearts lifted up to you,
All: With our minds open to your leading,
One: With our gifts to share with others,
All: And always with your word of peace on our lips.

Sending Music

If you use these prayers as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear about any adaptations you make for your context and hear how it goes.

Ash Wednesday

My sister died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It’s a fact that has haunted these first few months of my own daughter’s life.

She died before I was born but the memory is alive. I wake to hear my little girl breathing. I check. I triple check. I am careful to keep every blanket or pillow as far away from her mouth as possible so that history will not repeat itself. She’s almost made it. My little girl is nearly four months old, which is how old my sister was when she stopped breathing. She was only four months old.

As with so many of those stories, I don’t know the specifics. I know now that there are many things that could have contributed to her death. My father was a smoker. She was probably lying on her tummy. There were definitely bumpers lining the crib in the hope of protecting this blessed child, but even with these facts, I don’t know much about that story. It reads from my family’s history as something that happened, but not something that wanders into conversation.

There’s not much to be said. She died. It was terrible. Of course it was terrible, but what else can be said about such things?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it today as the Gospel Lesson was read before ashes were placed upon my forehead. My daughter wiggled in my lap. Her little toes kicking, dancing to some distant beat. Alive. Unrepentantly so. Alive and kicking.

Here I was sitting with this squirming little reminder of life to hear it proclaimed again that we are dust, both she and I. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Life will end, even when it is so new. It will end. We do not know the day or hour, but life will end. It always does. Sometimes it happens far too soon.

It is always that way. It was that way in Florida today. While I sat in my pew, seventeen children were killed in a high school in Parkland. Seventeen children were killed. It bears repeating because it’s too terrible and the specifics are even more overwhelming.

It is the eighteenth school shooting this year. It seems impossible.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This doesn’t have to happen, but somehow we have failed. We have missed something. We have allowed this to happen and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with what happened in that tiny chapel this afternoon.

When it came time to receive the ashes and remember that we are dust, I stood in the aisle waiting with the other worshippers bouncing my baby girl in my arms. I heard the familiar refrain repeated again and again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return until I stood before the deacon and he pressed his thumb into the ashes. He took a breath, looked into my eyes and said again, Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. And then, I turned so that he could offer this same mystery to my daughter peeking over my shoulder.

I heard him say the words, just as I heard her coo, but when we sat back down in the pew there were no ashes upon her forehead. Somehow we won’t allow ourselves to believe that children die.

 

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?

How to Make Ashes

Every year, I enjoy the ritual of transforming last year’s palms into ashes. This year, I posted something about this ritual on Facebook which spurred a series of responses from some dear clergy friends who had little success in making ashes. So, this is my attempt to come to the rescue of my dear friends.

First and foremost, do not attempt to perform this ritual inside the church. Do not attempt this in your home. Do not enclose yourself in any interior space. Please, go outside. Your lungs will thank you. Before you go outside, make sure you gather your supplies. Every ritual has its required elements. So, for this particular rite, you’ll need:

  • The leftover eco-palms from last year* 
  • Bulletins from last Sunday 
  • Catalog that one might use to order ashes (or other glossy paper) 
  • A large coffee can 
  • Matches  

Once outside, far from a building and preferably not on grass, rip up those bulletins and the catalog. It’ll burn easier if you give it a little breathing room. I don’t understand why that is but it’s something I’ve learned over the years. I use these extra paper items because it gives you more ashes. There’s also the added benefit that it gives another hue to the ashes. The palms themselves create whispy ashes that are hard to get on your finger — which is kinda required for the imposition of ashes — and the paper helps to give it a little umph. Put the ripped paper in the coffee can and light it on fire.

Here’s where you might singe your eyebrows so please be careful. When the flames really get going, and you feel a little bit like a pyromaniac, that’s when you start adding the palms. Gather a bunch in your palm. Place them into the can so they start to catch the flame. Let go, silly. They will not catch fire easily or rapidly. It’ll probably just smoke for a while. It will take some time before flames start to fly but there’s no need to risk it. You do not need to become dust in this ritual. Get it all burned. It will still be smoldering and the can is hot. So please be careful. If you live in Maine, like I do, throw some snow on top and this will cool off the fire sooner.

Now, you can bring your can of ashes back inside. You’re going to want to mash them up a little bit because there will be chunks of paper and palms. That’s not going to glide on anyone’s forehead easily. Amazingly, you’re still not done though. Spoon some out into a small bowl (the one that you’ll use for the imposition of ashes) and stir in some olive oil to make a paste. You don’t want it to be too gooey but there’s no science to this. Mix it until it looks right to you which may require using more ashes from your stash from the coffee can. Who are you kidding? It definitely will.

As another friend on Facebook said, it’s lovely to think that you might find this ritual to be deeply spiritual with intense prayer but you may find that you’re more worried about not burning down the church. I think this fits the ritual too. It’s so human — and in the end, you’ve made ashes so that like Job you too can “relent and find comfort in dust and ashes” (42:6).

*Mysteriously, the palms pictured above are not eco-palms. The church I serve stopped ordering these palms two (or three?) years ago. Still, we had them in mass supply in the sacristy. I can’t explain this. It’s a Lenten mystery.