Ash Wednesday Tears

I shed some tears today during the Ash Wednesday service at a local church. These were not tears of repentance for sin (although I could shed tears concerning my sins). These were tears of joy for community.

Almost three years ago the congregation at East Rochester United Methodist Church (New York State), dived off the deep end to become an inclusive congregation. They put mission ahead of margin and invited a local human services organization (Heritage Christian Services) to share their building. The organization serves, among others, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The East Rochester church opened their doors to become a day habilitation site for a handful of people who volunteer in the community and use disability services.

Since the doors opened the two groups have sought to become one community. They built bridges of communication, accepted diversity, overcame stereotypes and asked deep questions. The church people invited their new tenants to join their midweek Bible study and potluck luncheons. The new tenants invited the church people to volunteer with them as they made bread for communion and sorted clothing donations for charity. They celebrate holidays together, and (as Methodists are prone to doing) they often share a dish-to-pass meal. There have been some bumps along the way, but they believe that the relationships are worth the effort to overcome the bumps.

The pastor at East Rochester UMC has been diligent about including me in worship planning for the holiday services and events that include both groups of people. When we began our planning of an Ash Wednesday service I made the suggestion that we create a service that would be universally accessible and participated in by all of the attendees. Pastor Todd Goddard did not have to think twice about working together to create a non-traditional service for this traditional Christian observance of the beginning of the Lent season.

The service began with a prayer in unison and the singing of “Have Thine Own Way Lord.” After the song we introduced the four interactive stations that we created in the sanctuary and narthex.  The four stations ran simultaneously and the worshippers had as much time as they needed to prayerfully participate in each station. Rocks represent disciplines to commit to practicing; strips of cloth serve as reminders of the work that Christ did for each of us; woven ribbons express love for God and neighbor; and, ashes represent God’s love for us with the ancient words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Here is where my Ash Wednesday tears happened. I watched as these two formerly separate groups of people worshiped as one. They assisted each other, prayed together and loved as one. Where there had been fear their was love. Where there had been distance there was acceptance. Names were spoken. Hugs were given. Ashes were received.

One devout man stood in the center of the sanctuary, gazed heavenward and repeated, “I love you God, praise you God” as the other worshippers silently bowed their heads at the simplicity of his expression of love.

Our Lenten discipline- community.  Being the beloved community.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday rocks and water station
River rocks and drift wood, made smooth by constant washing

 

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The Ties that Bind

The season of Lent is a time of devotion when we focus on strengthening our spiritual ties to God. Connective links to God include:
Prayer: Having a conversation with God and he hears you.
Meditation: Keeping still and listening (What, only a minute has passed??). He will answer you.
Fasting: Remembering that your body may have its frailties, but they don’t have to limit you.
Sacrifice: Having so many things you think you have to do, you can’t find time to work on relationships. Spending time with others requires time and effort; that’s why it is called a sacrifice-got it!
Service: More than attending Sunday worship; service is about meeting a need of another human being.

We work on our relationship with God, but how much effort do we put into our relationships with each other? Jesus said that what you do good for others, is the same as doing good unto him. My case for faith community inclusion for individuals with developmental disabilities is that people of faith, more than any other group, understand that we are all created in His image. Denying any individual access and/or opportunity to worship God and practice his/her faith, denies the same to Jesus. The fact is, God is the author of diversity. He said, “Love ye one another.” It is not for us to judge if an individual with a developmental disability “comprehends” the nature of God. It is enough that he/she wants to be in the house of worship.

My epiphany came the first year I was working with the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. I was attending a worship service on one of the (residential) campuses, when I noticed a young woman pacing back and forth; first touching a window and then walking over to touch a wall. With a “pastoral” eye, I thought she must be agitated, and was certain this was a distraction to others there to enjoy the worship service. However, after a few moments, I stopped looking at her behavior and observed her countenance. I saw pure joy and peacefulness on her face. She was in a moment of worship – connected to God. It was suddenly obvious to me. I didn’t need to use my intellect or check my theology to know it – I could just feel it!! Furthermore, I found that watching her enjoyment of the service made me enjoy the service even more.

Sometimes we miss what true worship is if we don’t break the attitudinal, architectural, communication barriers that can keep other worshippers out. We will miss so much if we assign some worshippers segregated services or seating in the back. We can miss opportunities and blessings if only the good singers are allowed to sing or only the good readers are allowed to read, etc. The tie that binds us to God is that we love HIM first and then love ONE ANOTHER as He loves us.

Reverend Catherine Patterson
NYS OPWDD Faith Based Initiative

Lent Then and Now

I grew up in a faith tradition that observed the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday our family went to mass and received ashes smudged onto our foreheads, on Fridays we had macaroni and cheese, we were expected to make extra visits to the confessional and, as we got older, we were asked to give something up for Jesus because he gave up his life for us. I liked Lent. It gave me something to do and I believed I needed to do something for him to get his attention so he could see what a good little girl I was. I gave up reading time for more prayer time. I gave up my favorite foods to experience sacrifice. I wore something blue everyday of Lent because I had heard somewhere that it was the Mother Mary’s favorite color and I thought that Jesus would notice me if I wore his mother’s favorite color. For me Lent was all about working to get God’s attention.

Somewhere in my teenaged years someone told me about grace. They shared that I did not have to do anything to get God’s attention, I already had it because he made me and he loves me. My head momentarily shut off so that my heart could listen. I was loved! I was wanted by God just as I was, no perfect behavior or extreme sacrifice on my part was needed! Unfortunately I threw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, and stopped honoring the Lent season. I did not see the richness that this tradition could bring into my life when observed from a viewpoint of love and acceptance instead of works and falling short of perfection. Fast forward a few decades in my life to a point where I was reintroduced to the beauty of a Lent season bathed in grace.

My adult Lent disciplines may mirror my childhood ones, but the motivation is completely different. The childish me sought to be good enough for God to get God’s attention. The adult me practices the discipline to get my attention on God.

My prayer for you this Lent season is that you will know the freedom of being unconditionally love and accepted just as you are.

Contributed by Lida Merrill, Spiritual Life Director, Heritage Christian Services, Inc.