Lent Kit from Elm Springs UMC.
By Caleb Hennington
Digital Content Editor
Ash Wednesday is the annual day of remembrance that kicks off the Lenten season, and while many churches are celebrating the traditional imposition of ashes differently this year, churches around the Arkansas Conference have not slowed down their commitment to recognizing this important day.
Traditionally, Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent and the six weeks before Easter. It’s a time of repentance and moderation.
According to UMC.org, Ash Wednesday asks Christians to reflect on two themes, “our sinfulness before God and our human mortality,” and the way that Christ has conquered both for us through his death and resurrection.
Churches from every corner of the Arkansas Conference are taking more precautions this year in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, while still emphasizing the importance of this centuries-old day of self-reflection.
“Normally, an Ash Wednesday service is conducted in which participants receive the ashes. However, in the interest of safety, we opted to prepare ashes to be provided to families on Sunday, the 14th, just ahead of Ash Wednesday,” said the Rev. Jemmie Reynolds, senior pastor at Mayflower UMC.
Mayflower is including a daily devotional book called “The Sanctuary for Lent 2021” in their take-home kits, as well as instructions and information on the Lenten season.
At Elm Springs UMC, the Rev. Jennie Williams is taking a similar approach with her church’s own take-home Lent Kit.
The kits will include ashes for self-imposition (the traditional placing of ashes on the forehead), as well as a weekly devotional book, “Lent in Plain Sight” by Jill Duffield.
“In light of COVID, we are taking the first rule of Methodism, Do No Harm, very seriously, so we have chosen to alter our Ash Wednesday plans to make a way to observe the beginning of Lent in a safe and meaningful way,” Williams said.
They will also have a virtual service on their Facebook Page at 7 a.m. on Facebook and YouTube.
A devotional guide from Mayflower UMC, part of their Lent Kit.
Reynolds said the decision to move Mayflower’s Ash Wednesday service to a safe, at-home experience was made for the wellbeing of the congregation.
“I have personally conducted one funeral for a dear friend who was infected. The threat is very real. Members and families of members have been affected … There are so just too many unanswered questions to ignore the situation. In the words of a wise man, ‘Do no harm. Do good. And stay in love with God.’”
The Center for Disease Control and Arkansas Conference guidelines for COVID-19 have led churches to conduct alternative worship services throughout the pandemic, with many choosing virtual or parking lot worship services instead of in-person gatherings. But for a service that requires more physical contact and close proximity than guidelines allow, churches needed to shift to a more individualized approach to Ash Wednesday.
St. Jame United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff decided to create take-home kits as well, but have also made the decision to take their service virtual this year.
“Rev. Samantha Meadors and I wanted to create a service that would be meaningful and contemplative,” said the Rev. Natasha Murray, senior pastor at St. James. “We will gather for our Ash Wednesday observance on Zoom that evening and go through the items that create a kind of sensory station that will connect us during our time together as we contemplate the meaning of Lent.”
St. James’s Ash Wednesday boxes will include a burlap cross that participants will use as a reminder of their journey during the 40 days of Lent. It will also contain crackers, a nail, and ashes mixed with oil for them to place on themselves and their loved ones in their bubble. Clay and frankincense resin that congregants can burn are also included in the boxes.
The Rev. Russell Hull, senior pastor at Star City First UMC, is also conducting a virtual service on Ash Wednesday, but will also have a variety of events to serve every comfort level.
“At 6 a.m. I will lead a Facebook Live option. People can either make their own ashes or pick up an ash-pack at Worship on Sunday morning or at the office Monday or Tuesday. From 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. we will offer a drive-through option at the church. The ash-packs will be available but will include a printed devotion. And at 6 p.m. we will offer a more traditional style in-person gathering. The ash-packs will be used here as well, with self-imposition of ashes,” Hull said.
A burlap cross, one of the items included in St. James UMC Pine Bluff’s Ash Wednesday box.
For each of these pastors, reflection and repentance, as well as the hope for a better future, is at the forefront of their minds.
“Lent, and Ash Wednesday in particular, is an opportunity for each of us to confront our own mortality and brokenness, while still remembering that we bear the Imago Dei, the image of God,” said Williams. “My prayer is that we spend this Lent in self-denial and in reflection on the journey of Christ to the cross, and on our own journeys of faith.”
Reynolds said that he has seen the challenges of the pandemic firsthand, but also knows that there is a lot to learn from the struggles.
“This pandemic has created challenges to normal in house worship. But isolation has also pushed families together … The Lord has always had a way of using the most difficult situations to create new life. We are beginning to see how risk may have opened a window for revival. We are praying for revival.”
Ash Wednesday is Feb. 17, and the Arkansas Conference is also offering a virtual worship service for any clergy member that wants to join. Bishop Gary Mueller will lead the service on Facebook, starting at 8 a.m. More details can be found on our Facebook Page.