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Presbyterians leave Ash Wednesday services looking and feeling different

Four historically Black churches in Louisville gather to begin their Lenten observance

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ahna Ziegler via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterians and millions of other Christians left Ash Wednesday services looking and feeling different — and it wasn’t just the ashen crosses they were sporting on their foreheads, a reminder of the dust by which they were created and the dust to which they will return.

“We are glad to be in the house of the Lord today,” the Rev. Dr. Angela Johnson, the pastor of Grace Hope Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, told worshipers observing Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent, from the four historically Black congregations in Louisville, part of Mid-Kentucky PresbyteryPeace Presbyterian Church, Shawnee Presbyterian Church and Westwood Presbyterian Church being the other three.

The four churches had not worshiped together in person since the Ash Wednesday service in February 2020, just before the pandemic. Johnson lit four candles to help those in worship remember members and friends at each church who died during the pandemic. “We recognize they were pilgrims passing through,” she said, “and have completed what God had ordained for them at their baptisms.”

Singing played a big part during worship on Wednesday, including “Your Grace and Mercy,” “Lord, I Want to be a Christian” and “Soon and Very Soon.” Dianne White, a ruling elder at Shawnee Presbyterian Church, read Psalm 51:1-4 and 10-12. Ruling Elder Marcus Long of Westwood Presbyterian Church then read Matthew 6:1-6.

The Rev. Dr. Angela Johnson

“Remember what Lent was like for you as a kid? For me it was a time of fasting, no candy. Fish or tuna on Friday, egg salad sandwiches for lunch,” Johnson said during a homily she offered as words of encouragement. “Egg salad after your lunch has been hanging in the back of the classroom for four hours washed down with lukewarm milk” is not Johnson’s favorite school memory, “but thank God I had something to eat.” Growing up Catholic, Johnson said she recalls Lent as “a time of sacrifice” before her family would “go to church for three days in a row” wearing new dresses or suits and coming home on Easter to discover the whereabouts of their Easter baskets and then enjoy a large family meal.

“I understand Lent better now because I understand life better,” she said. “Lent is about 40 days of consecration to God, slowing down the rat race of life.” Think of Lent as “an annual corporate season of housecleaning for our souls,” she suggested.

All of us can be “recreated, rehabilitated and restored, all because of the character of God,” Johnson said, and we need to look no further than Psalm 51, a psalm “especially appropriate during the season of Lent” and one that David wrote after being confronted by the prophet Nathan.

“David wrote Psalm 51 as a prayer asking for God’s forgiveness,” Johnson said, reciting part of what had been read earlier. David’s message is both straightforward and heartfelt: “God, I admit what I’ve done. Please forgive me, and don’t stop there,” Johnson said. “Please recreate and rehabilitate this heart of mine.”

“David is reminded of a fundamental truth about God through this debacle of his: that God’s mercy is bigger than any sin we can commit,” Johnson said. “If you can’t forgive yourself, know that God can and will forgive you.”

Be like David, Johnson said. “Promise yourself you will tell someone about what God has done. God’s goodness is not so much about our sins, but about the character of God. David poured out his heart about the sin he committed against God” and against people including Bathsheba and Uriah, “plus he sinned against his own family and the community of Israel,” Johnson said. “Sin has a ripple effect in our lives. David knew he needed God’s forgiveness so he could move forward. But like us, he just didn’t want to admit what he’d done.” Still, he managed to write a psalm that resonates today. “We can all learn from David,” she said.

The season of Lent can be “a time of housecleaning of the soul. Take this time as one of reflection, repentance and prayer,” Johnson advised. “Let’s be intentional about consecrating ourselves to God for 40 days and to be intentional about what we’re willing to sacrifice to those in need, and about our prayer lives. Amen?” she asked, receiving “amens” in reply. “Thanks be to God.”

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