Churches get creative for Ash Wednesday services
By Lindsay Peyton
Ash Wednesday, arriving March, 2 this year, begins the season of Lent, a time of spiritual discipline. The imposition of ashes, a tradition that traces its roots to the 10th century, first appeared in the rituals of the United Methodist Church in the 20th century. Pastors in the Texas Annual Conference are preparing their sermons – and getting creative with sharing the message of repentance and grace.
Back to in-person at Good Shepherd UMC in Cypress
Good Shepherd UMC in Cypress will return with in-person services this year. In 2021, COVID precautions prompted a digital ceremony instead, complete with pre-bagged ashes that members were able to pick up in advance.
Associate Pastor Ben Burnside was prepared to lead the service, when Winter Storm Uri hit. Fortunately, Associate Pastor Dr. Sterling Allen still had power and the internet. “He took over for me,” Burnside recalled.
Burnside is looking forward to imposing the ashes this year – and returning to the church. “Ash is not a sacrament. It’s simply a reminder,” he explained. “When we put ash on our foreheads, we remember that in fact we are mortal, that God is all powerful. This is a way of experiencing that vulnerability before God.”
For some, the ashes function as a conversation starter. “For me, that’s not what it’s about,” Burnside said. “It’s a symbol that says, we are mortal.”
Contemplating mortality allows people to surrender control to God, he added. “It’s really a humbling moment,” he said.
Then, the entire congregation is marked with ash, including the pastors. “It’s about community,” Burnside said. “We are encountering God in that moment – and we’re all in worship together.”
During the pandemic, he explained, people do not have to be reminded of their morality as in other times. “How does Ash Wednesday look different when everyone has faced death?” he asks. “You don’t need to harp on the fact that life is fragile.”
This year, Burnside will focus on hope. “Because we realize that we are fragile and life is a gift, we can rely on God,” he said. “At the end of the day, we aren’t anything but ash. We need to turn away from short-term solutions. Ultimately the one who will sustain life, beyond the brief time until we are ash, is God.”
Devotional for First United Methodist Church Marlin and Cedar Springs UMC
Rev. Cameron Supak has two appointments – FUMC Marlin and Cedar Springs UMC. Instead of having events in the congregations this year, the pastor will lead an online devotional that all can attend from the comfort of their homes.
The devotional will focus on repentance, a key theme of the Lenten season. “Lent is an opportunity to look inward,” Supak said. “It’s an opportunity to start over and grow closer to Jesus in your faith walk and in your life.”
He added Lent does not only have to be about fasting and giving something up. The season can also be about adding. For instance, some families add a daily prayer, additional time for contemplation or purposeful good deeds.
“It’s about internal focus to achieve an external goal,” Supak said. “There's beauty in repentance and self-examination.”
And when we think about God’s grace, he added, there is an expectation to keep in mind. “With repentance comes change,” he said. “We’re expected to turn around.”
Supak explained, “You are empowered by Jesus to act differently, to choose differently,” he said. “God wants your life to change, and He’s going to help you. You don’t have to do it alone.”
Prayer walk at Wildwood UMC
Wildwood UMC in Magnolia is hosting a prayer walk for Ash Wednesday. Jessica McMullen, minister of children and families, explained that since COVID prevented gathering last year, the congregation wanted to go above and beyond for its observance this year.
There will be 12 different prayer stations, each designed by a different group at the church. For instance, a group of mothers of children at Wildwood Christian Academy will take charge of one stop on the walk, and a student group will cover another.
“We considered all ages when we created the prayer stations – and all of the senses,” Executive Pastor Deanna Young explained. “It’s all a very interactive way to pray.”
One will have a water feature, another will engage participants in writing in sand and at the next, individuals can draw ashes on canvas paintings. One station will have communion and another intercessory prayer. Activities will also include creating art and building a vessel with clay.
Each station will display a scripture to contemplate while engaging in the activities. Attendees will have a booklet with a map to follow that describes each stop. “And you don’t have to do them in order,” Young said. “Everyone will find something they can do to feel connected.”
The walk will end in the sanctuary, where the church will also feature “worship in the round” for the first time. “All of the chairs will be placed in a circle and everything focuses on the center,” Young explained. “People will be facing each other. We’re trying to create a whole new experience.”
She and McMullen have created prayer walks in the past – and combined their ideas to make this Ash Wednesday one to remember. Families are invited to attend, and all ages are welcome.
“Ash Wednesday is about knowing we are mortal,” Young said. “It’s a time of deep reflection on our sinfulness. As Methodists, we also focus on God’s grace.”
“I love the idea that God can make something beautiful from ash,” the pastor added.