It's Ash Wednesday and I'm preparing for tonight's service. Over the last week or so I've received several e-mails and comments from folks who found the report on our 2011 Ash Wednesday service. I do remember it being special... perhaps unique, because we aren't repeating it this year. But if you are looking or interested in a different approach, you might enjoy reading the account below.
We thought we'd try something different this year. I'm not talking about content-wise; we still focused on sin, our own mortality, and repentance. We still had the imposition of ashes. But here was the particular dynamic we had in view...
One of the exciting fruit of our searchlight vision (in general) and "Wednesday Night Experiment" (specifically) is a blessed pandemonium on Wednesday nights. Our pattern has been to draw all of the Wednesday night crowd in for the Ash Wednesday service. But now, rather than the group of 40-over-40 from several years ago (see "Blessed Pandemonium"), we had 100 or so folks, with 30 under 12, various reading/ADD/learning style challenges at the child to adult level, and an exciting number of "I've never been to church before" folks in attendance.
And we were going to work through a liturgy about sin, death, and repentance using the wide-ranging and weighty words of Psalm 44.
We recognized that so much of our worship is word-oriented (and Word oriented!), musical, and visual - and all delightfully so. But maybe something different tonight? Psalm 44 has a number of references to "hands" - and the series from Lent I (this Sunday) through Easter is called "I Will Stretch Out My Hand" in reference to God's statement in Exodus 7:2 to that effect. So, we decided to have a more kinesthetic learning-style service (yes, I remembered that word from developmental psyche back in college!!).
We used Psalm 44 as the structure for the whole service, and we used our hands (literally!) to understand and work through each part of it. Here are the basics, and I will link to the order of worship below. When I realized we'd be using our hands throughout, we did away with the bulletin and projected all the scripture and music on the screen.
Psalm 44:1-8 We opened with a Call to Worship and time of thanks and praise these verses, which celebrates God's faithfulness in times past. We saw a visual of a strong hand.Did it "work?" Well, we focused on God's Word and the Spirit was present; this wasn't about a gimmick. But, I do think it was an effective way to enter into that Word. The chaperones for the kids we tutor and for the group home guys caught up with me after taking their folks home and said the conversation on the way home was significant. I asked my own 8, 10, and 12 year old what they thought - and they are usually pretty honest if they are bored - and they all really seemed to like and understand it. The gestures (clenched fist, etc...) seemed to help explain/experience some verses that probably would have been hard to process in a normal sermon-type delivery.
We sang "The Potter's Hand" which talks about God's molding, guiding hands (like a potter). :)
Psalm 44:9-14 We talked about anger and blaming God for our circumstances and read these verses together while tightly clenching our hands into fists and holding that through these "God, look what you have done to us" verses. I then spoke briefly about them, connecting them back to the anguish and frustration in Exodus 6 (last Sunday's text), then we let go with our hands.... (after 2-3 min of tight clenching, that's an interesting feeling!)
Psalm 44:17-19 The Psalm moves into more of a pleading tone, saying, "but we have not forgotten you (Lord)." We clasped our hands into a child-like prayer gesture and prayed these verses together. I then spoke briefly, asking whether Israel (and we) might have forgotten God, despite these words.
Psalm 44:20-22 We continued with "extended hands" (as if grasping for something), focusing on the words about "extending our hands to a strange god" - and I spoke briefly on sin and idolatries we sometimes reach for instead of God.
And with that move from anger to pleading to self-examination (which reminds me of the stages of grief!) led us into a prayer of confession. I had been looking for a time in which we could join hands. This didn't seem the obvious time, but we did and I reminded the congregation that though sin isolates, we are never alone - indeed, scripture reminds us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" - and so we prayed a prayer of confession together - eyes open reading screen - and holding hands. Very interesting...
Psalm 44:23-24 These verses literally ask some questions of God - "Why do you sleep? Why do you hide your face?" - so we raised one hand like a child would at school if asking a question, and we read these verses together. I spoke briefly about how multiple times in Exodus 3-6 (the text we have been using in worship the past month) God's word to the people was, "I see you; I hear you; I remember you and the covenant; I will deliver you."
Psalm 44:25 I noted that this verse is the next to last in the Psalm and is where we end up without God intervening to save. "Our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth." And at that point we had the imposition of ashes.
Psalm 44:26 Then the Psalm ends with a plea for help and hope: "Rise up, be our help, and redeem us..." We read that, sang another song ("Give Us Clean Hands") - yes, another hand song. :)
The benediction was from Romans 8:35-39, which quotes Psalm 44, which we had just read: "For your sake we are being put to death... sheep to the slaughter," but which surrounds that with one of the most hope-filled declarations of the Gospel in scripture: "Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ..." I asked the congregation to hold out their hands in a receiving gesture as I spoke these words of blessing over them.
So, that's what happened. We won't be shaking fists every Sunday, but this definitely was something new and something to return to in different ways.
Here are the notes I was working from and what was projected on the screen (with lots of "handy" artwork by Kathy Larson). I can even send the PowerPoint slides if anyone is interested (just e-mail me at email@example.com).