Friday, January 16, 2015

Years A,B,C - Ash Wednesday (February 18, 2015)

Other than Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is probably the day on which children are least expected or planned for in the sanctuary.  The prophet Joel, however, insists that parents bring their children to the meeting he has called to point out to the whole community that they are sinners.  Today, there is much for children to learn from seeing their parents and the leaders of the congregation wearing ashen crosses and even more from wearing ashes themselves.  The experience deeply binds them to their faith community.

+  The imposition of ashes is amazing to children.  They marvel at the sight of adults wearing the ashes.  At first they wear their own ashes as a sign that “I am one of them” or “I belong.”  Over the years as they hear the language about sin, forgiveness and repentance, they begin to wear them as an admission that “yes, I too am a sinner.”  This is not an easy step for those children who are repeatedly told that they are wonderful and capable.  It also flies in the face of all the adult insistence that they can make good choices which is often taken to mean “if you try hard enough, you won’t be a sinner.”  Sharing in Ash Wednesday worship makes it easier to make the admission that “yes, I too am a sinner” by setting it in the presence of everyone else making the same admission. 

We are all first marked with the cross using water (and sometimes oil) at our baptisms.  At that time to be marked with the cross is a wonderful thing.  We are identified as the loved children of God.  On Ash Wednesday we are marked with the cross using ashes and the words, “remember you are dust.”  The ashes and words remind us that we are not so wonderful.  In fact, we are all sinners.  Fortunately the sign is not an X, marking us as hopeless rejects, but a cross reminding us that God loves and forgives us, sinners though we be.   

+  For children the ashes themselves remind us of all the horrible things we do to hurt each other.  They look like burned buildings.  They remind us of all the war pictures we see.  And, they remind us of all the ways we make war on each other every day with hitting, name-calling, telling lies about others, and so much more.  Write some of these words on a piece of white paper with a finger dipped in the ashes.  Try to erase it making a smudgy mess and note that once we start doing those things it is almost impossible to get them cleaned up.  It’s a real mess.  It leaves its mark on each one of us.  Only God can get us out of our mess.  On this day we wear ashes to admit that we are messed up sinners, but we make those ashes in the shape of a cross to remind ourselves that God loves and works with us to do better no matter how we mess up.

Avoid the temptation to turn this into an object lesson about sin and forgiveness.  Children will not follow you.  Instead leave it as a meditation on how messy we and our sins are. 

WARNING: In the Comments recently one reader noted that children often worry that the ashes will be hot and will burn on their forehead.  She makes it a practice to show with her hands and note aloud that the ashes were once hot, but are now quite cool.

+  Create a responsive prayer of confession with the leader offering confessions of sin and the congregation responding to each “Forgive us our sins/trespasses/debts” from the Lord’s Prayer.  Before praying point out the response and its place in the Lord’s Prayer which we pray every week.  Include confessions about sins children will recognize near the beginning of the prayer e.g.

God, we can be really mean to each other.  Even when we don’t plan to we say unkind words, we call people nasty names, we hit, we hurt. 

God we want to always tell the truth, but we don’t.  When we are caught in something that will get us in trouble, we lie.  When we want to pass a test, it is easy to cheat.  When we get mad at friends, we tell awful lies about them.

+  Give children and all worshipers a simple prayer to pray as they wash their face at the end of the day.

         “God wash away my sin and help me live like your child.”

+  In spite of their interest in the ashes, for children Ash Wednesday is mainly the beginning of Lent.  Lent is for them spring training for disciples.  We begin the season admitting to ourselves and others that we are not perfect disciples and are fortunate that God loves and forgives us anyway.  We then commit to doing better.  When children are offered specific doable disciplines that will help them be better pray-ers, better Bible readers, better at serving others, they respond enthusiastically.  Having committed themselves to such disciple training, they come to communion as to the training table.  Here they are reminded of God’s love of those who try and do well and also to those who try and do not do as well as they wish.

+  Go to Observing Lent and Easter in Year B (2015) for Lenten discipline plans for families: a different discipline for each week, a Jesus figure to move around the house as stories of Jesus are read, a bookmark listing a story to read each week, a prayer challenge complete with pretzel reminder.

+  Many congregations mark the beginning of Lent by changing the paraments and adding special crosses to the sanctuary.  It is very appropriate to make these changes on Ash Wednesday.  But, if the reality is that many will not be part of the Ash Wednesday service, consider stripping the sanctuary for that day leaving it somber and then adding the Lenten colors and symbols on the first Sunday of Lent when you can call the majority of the congregation to observe Lent. 

+  Another way to set the sanctuary for Lent is to cover the Table or hang a large banner made of natural burlap that has been painted with black crosses.  At Blue Ridge church last year, worshipers of all ages painted this one during the Ash Wednesday service. 

+  In Sharing the Easter Faith With Children I offer detailed plans for 2 Ash Wednesday services.   Neither is built on the lectionary readings for the day.

One is a traditional sanctuary service built around the stories of Peter who had to repent frequently.  It uses many traditional prayers selected with the presence of children in mind, a call to confession, the imposition of ashes, changing the paraments, introduction of Lenten disciplines, and communion.

The second begins with a pancake supper at which soap crosses are carved or wooden crosses are sanded and rubbed with linseed oil.  After supper people follow the tolling handbells to the sanctuary for a short service of stories about picking up crosses and following Jesus. 

+  Go to Bread not Stones: Remember You Are Dust to read an essay about how important Ash Wednesday can be to children.  Don't miss Rebecca's idea in the comments about how to encourage children to come to the service.

Looking for a good story to read during Ash Wednesday?

+  The Quarreling Book, by Charlotte Zoltow, is not really about quarreling and might be a perfect story to read on Ash Wednesday.  It traces a series of mean things people do to others in response to someone doing something mean to them.  After reading the first half of the book pause to note that we all get involved in such spreading meanness AND that we can stop it.  Then read the second half of the book in which a series of kind acts reverses the situation.  Note that on Ash Wednesday we admit the mean things we do, then during Lent work on making the second half of the book come true each day. 

+  Balance the harshness of the ashes on the foreheads with one of the children’s classics in which a parent loves a child who is not always good, e.g. Mama Do You Love Me?, Papa Do You Love me?, or Runaway Bunny.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

+  This text can frighten children with its threat of God punishing people.  Isaiah’s message with its call to change your ways is complicated, but gives children a way to respond other than simply be frightened. 

+  Incorporate Joel’s trumpet into the call to worship.

Trumpet alarm (not a fanfare)

Leader:          Blow the trumpet; sound the alarm on Zion, God’s sacred hill.
Tremble, people of Judah!
The day of the Lord is coming soon.
Come back to the Lord your God.
He is kind and full of mercy;
he is patient and keeps his promise;
he is always ready to forgive and not punish.

Trumpet alarm repeated.

Leader:          Blow the trumpet on Mount Zion;
give orders for a fast and call an assembly!
Gather the people together;
prepare them for a sacred meeting;
bring the old people;
gather the children
and the babies too.
Even newly married couples must leave their room and come.

(Joel 2:1, 13b, 16 – Today’s English Version)

Isaiah 58:1-12

+  Though this is a complicated passage, when it is explained to children, they respond.  Isaiah is saying we don’t need to be sad about the bad things we do.  Instead, we need to stop doing those things.  We need to change our ways, to repent.  Verses 6 and 7 are key.  When they are explored and linked to specific Lenten disciplines offered to the congregation, children take them up enthusiastically. 

+  Introduce fasting as going without something.  Point out that frequently it means going without food.  Some people plan to go without something they like for the six weeks of Lent, e.g. go without chocolate or sodas or desserts.  But Isaiah suggests that we go without some bad habits and cultivate new ones.  Isaiah would say to children,
Fast from being greedy, feast on sharing
Fast from telling lies, feast on telling the truth
Fast from hating, feast on loving
Fast from teasing, feast on kind words
Encourage worshipers to make up their own fast - feast challenges and to undertake living by them during Lent.  (This is based on a more adult list found at What the Tide Brings In.)  The worksheet below is one way to present this challenge to children.  Urge them to post their papers somewhere in their room at home where they will see it often. 


                                  During Lent I will

Fast from _________________________________________

And feast on_________________________________

(Your name)


Psalm 51:1-17

+  King David arranged for a man to be killed in battle (accidently on purpose) so that the King could marry his wife.  Adult Bible students will know why David wanted to marry Bathsheba, but the murderous theft of a wife is significant in itself to grab the attention of worshipers of all ages.  What do you pray to God after you do that?

Transgression   Iniquity   Sin  Evil  Guilty
+  Verses 1 -6 are descriptions of how sinful humans can be.  They include lots of unfamiliar “sin” words –transgressions, iniquity, sin, evil, and guilty (NRSV).  Write one or more of these words on a large sheet of poster paper in black crayon or dip your fingers in the ash pot and write them as you point them out.  Briefly describe all the ways we hurt and sin against each other and God.  Specifics help.  Name calling, hitting to hurt, cutting someone out, teasing someone to hurt them, and telling a lie or a secret are familiar sins to children.  Point out that we don’t like to admit we do these things, but that all of us do.  Then note that on this day every year (and perhaps during each Sunday worship service), we take time to be honest with ourselves, with God and with each other about this.  We are all sinners.

+  Verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me” is an interesting word picture that has to be explored before children can grasp it.  The literal picture is both odd and right on target.  Children need to be told David did not want God to cut him open and wash off his heart.  But, he did want God to help him “clean up his act.”  He wanted God to give him a second chance or a fresh start and wanted God to help him do better.  He wanted to repent.  When we pray this prayer we join David.  (Even though we haven’t done anything as bad as having someone killed, we have done lots of other hurtful, sinful things).  If you have done the sin words poster, add REPENT in purple marker.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

+  For children on Ash Wednesday this is simply a call to repent now.  Now, during Lent, is a good time to work on being better disciples.  “Just do it!”  They will not hear this as the passage is read, but depend on the worship leaders to restate the call in other ways during worship.

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

+  This is another “just do it” message.  Jesus says we should not make a show out of our Lenten disciplines.  We don’t need to tell everyone we know and remind them of how good we are being by doing it.  Instead we are to make it between us and God.  Talk to God about it.  Ask God to help us.  Thank God for forgiving us when we fail.  Tell God why we are doing it.

An idea to save for another year

Janelle Hooper emailed me the following about how she used the Jesus figure on Ash Wednesday.  It looks like a saver to me, so I'm sharing it with you for later.  Thanks for sharing, Janelle.

Blessings! Thought I would let you know I used "flat Jesus" for Ash Wednesday, putting a sticky note with a black cross on his forehead. I reviewed with the kids Transfiguration and flat Jesus, then explained the ashes on our foreheads as a sign of needing help. I tied it into last years palm branches (using a picture) and the palms/Hosanna as signs of help.  And that wearing the ashes our like raising our hands asking for help. And that even Jesus needed help on this difficult Lenten journey.  Also that we can be that help in the world. I gave them small money collection boxes to take home to help raise money for our sister synod in Peru. And briefly talked about what it means to help sisters and brothers.  The kids seem to be enjoying it, thanks for the inspiration.

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