November 30, 2020

My Ash Wednesday Dilemma: In Which Your Internet Monk Asks for Help From The Audience

girl-ashes-3.jpgFor the past hour, I’ve been trying to find a Protestant church nearby where I can go for Ash Wednesday service on February 6.

If you don’t know where I live, let me put it this way: There are probably more churches marking Ash Wednesday in some Muslim countries than there are churches doing so within an hour of me.

My research says that participating in this ancient and meaningful beginning to the season of repentance and preparation for Holy Week and Easter will require me to go no less than 50 miles in any of three directions. In two of those options, I wouldn’t bet they will have a service because they barely have enough living people for Sundays and must share a minister with other congregations.

My closest sure thing is an hour away, which is sounding pretty good right now. (They’ve even got pancakes going on Tuesday night, which is even more persuasive.)

Don’t take this as a lack of interest in church in our area. There will be any number of “Gospel singin’s,” youth pizza parties, snake handling services, prayer meetin’s, revivals, and business meetings the same day. If my spiritual life were defined by these things, I’d be in heaven.

It’s a simple matter of post-evangelical reality. What Christians are doing around the world and for hundreds of years has almost vanished entirely here in rural Kentucky. Were it not for the Roman Catholics and a few hardy Episcopal older ladies, Ash Wednesday would only be accessible in a Wikipedia entry.

Yes, I see that question. Am I whining? Oh YES SIR. You are correct. That whining sound is a whining sound.

So, I’d like to offer the IM readership some input here. In order to move me past my whining, narcissistic ways, I’m going to put some choices out there and solicit your views on what I should do.

Remember the following details: Wednesday is a work day for me (teaching school), so if the service is in the morning, I’ll have to allow 3 hours round trip, and will still miss some classes. If it is in the evening, no work will be missed. Let’s assume it’s noonish….then I’ll have to miss most of the work day. (I don’t like to miss work for any reason.)

My wife works too. She’ll probably go the Roman Catholic service. I won’t (You can fuss at me about that if you want. I’m up for it.)

The past several years, I’ve had Ash Wednesday services here on campus as part of campus ministry. They are attended by about 15-20 co-workers. If I do it in the evening, I have a few more people, with some of our students participating as well. But I’d like to just participate, not create and lead the service.

So should I:

a) Forget about this Ash Wednesday nonsense and think like a good Presbyterian regarding the trappings of popery.

b) Have an Ash Wednesday liturgy at home for family devotions.

c) Ignore my current estrangement from the RCC and go to Ash Wednesday at the local RC church, forgetting all that “separated brethren” shell game that I find so annoying.

d) Quit being such a whiner and create and lead an Ash Wednesday service here at our school.

e) Take time off work and go somewhere that’s having the service. If it means that much to me, what’s a couple of hours off work?

f) Go to the pancake supper and ask the rector if he can mark me a few hours early since I bought extra pancakes.

g) Other

Your answers should contain at least one explanation for your choice.

There is a small chance I’ll abide by the suggestion of the group. Small.


  1. What are you problems with the Roman Catholics? I think you owe us an explanation. Personally, I would go to the RC church. Though I don’t consider myself Catholic, I have learned a great deal from Catholics and love what they bring to the table.

  2. I have written volumes of material on this web site about my struggles with Catholicism. It’s a major theme of my 7 years of blogging. Without being rude, I’ll simply ask you to use the search function.

    Try the Essays: Thomas Merton Where are You? and The River is Deep.

    Or try “Five Questions on the iMonk and Roman Catholicism.”

    And please don’t suggest I’m anti-Catholic because I’m not impressed with the state of Protestant-Catholic relations. You won’t find many Protestants as positive towards RCs as me, no matter what differences we have.

  3. Michael, honor your Baptist heritage, skip the ashes and go to Wednesday night prayer meeting. If you’re really lucky you’ll get to hear a traveling evangelist. 🙂

    In all seriousness, I wish you the best in your search for a service that will be meaningful to you.

  4. For me the beauty of Ash Wednesday is communal call to repentance, so doing it at home in a family devotion doesn’t seem to capture the essence of the liturgy. It doesn’t really sound to me like you’d get the most out of an RCC service right now, so that doesn’t seem like the best option to me, either. I’d go with D or E, preferably E (just personally, the church context would be important to me).

  5. Michael:

    It’s not that “shell game” hurts feelings – it’s that it simply doesn’t make sense for you to feel left out and have your feelings hurt by having your participation in a church body whose teachings you express contempt for (and “shell game” is not disagreement. It’s contempt, brother.) restricted.

    I disagree with you, but I still want to be a part of you.

    It makes no sense.

    That’s all.

    I have never understood why you can say things as you did in a comment – that Catholic ecclesiology is NOT OF CHRIST – get what you’re saying? – and then get all huffy when Catholics respond. You can say anything and accuse Catholic teaching of being not of Christ but it’s unkind and untoward of Catholics to respond to your assertions that the teachings they assent to diverge from Christ and the Gospel.

    And again, if Catholic ecclesiology is so wack, why bother to be offended by how it impacts you personally?

  6. Other: Take a nap.

    Only being half-flippant here. I’m so exhausted, that if I didn’t have to go to Ash Wednesday services (I’m the organist — I don’t have a choice), I’d stay home and sleep. You sound like you could make this decision on your own if you just got a few hours of ZZZs. Sleep does wonders for the confused mind.

    Then get up and get busy making all those other Lenten decisions (what to give up …)

  7. C, and offer your suffering up as a miniature martyrdom on behalf of Christian unity?

  8. You confirm my nightmares. It’s Rome or atheism. Evangelicalism has gone nuts. There’s hardly a doctrine we won’t change, reduce or ignore. Evangelicalism is peddling as fast as it can but there are no sprockets on the wheels. I have lived long enough to see the church go through so many phases of “being an effective church” that we don’t even have a definition of church anymore. It’s hard for me to imagine what is next – other than people, good people who love the Lord, to finally say they have had enough. Hello, RCIA.

  9. Not having read all the responses, and realizing that I don’t know all that goes on in your life, I think I would consider b, c, and d realistic options.

    Here are advantages and drawbacks:

    (b) would be simple, but at the same time since this is a church ritual, it would be less meaningful done at home rather than in a congregational setting;

    (c) would probably take some effort in view of your current feelings, but since receiving the sign of the ashes does not require full communion you could just forget about the shell games for a day.

    (d) would also be an option; if you do not want to lead the service, is there no-one there who participated the last few years who could lead it this time?

    Anyway, I sympathize with your frustration, including your frustration at some of the comments.

    God bless,


  10. 1. I’m not “huffy.” You’re reading that into my responses. It’s not there.

    2. If you think Protestant ecclesiology is of Christ, then why aren’t you a Protestant? Well…. same rules.

    3. I don’t “want” to commune at the RCC. I deplore the divisions in the body of Christ. Shouldn’t we all? This idea that I am whining that I can’t get to communion in the RCC is mythological.

    4. I grew up in a church that said there were no Christians but themselves. The RCC says I am a Christian. They say the creed with me. They say I am somehow part of the true church, but that my church is not a church and my ministry is not a legitimate and I can’t come to the Lord’s Table. Definition of a shell game: Leading me to believe something is there when, in fact, its not, and you know it.

    5. I spend zero time in life wanting to have Catholic sacraments. I spend a lot of time upset over what the RCC is doing to my family and marriage.

  11. Jenny Bluett says

    f. but only for pancakes with real butter, the Wisconsin gift that keeps on giving. If I were in a brazen of enough mood of pre-lenten indulgence I’d “byob” of REAL maple syrup. Shell game? I’ll give you a shell game, offering that carmelized crap.

    and then b.


  12. Barbara Watkins says

    My answer is really what I have been taught as a child and try to do when making important decisions. ASK GOD FIRST. In kneeling to pray about any situation, remember that God sent The Holy Spirit to comfort and guide us. If we would only seek His counsel first, we would not be weighing all the opinions of others. Pray with your wife about the situation. The answer will be revealed to you in a way that will leave no doubt. May the peace of our Saviour remain with you always.

  13. To be fair, Ash Wednesday was ditched by almost everyone–including Lutherans–because of superstitions that had grown up concerning the mystical power of the ashes. But it’s made a huge comeback among Lutherans, even less liturgical Lutherans. I don’t know if there are any LCMS or ELCA parishes near you, but it’s worth thinking about.

    Michael, it might be worth keeping in mind that you get the shell game because that’s all Catholics can really do without losing face. When your whole tradition is formed around various megalomaniacs asserting their power–sometimes with screaming and stomping–well, you can’t exactly say “Oh no, we were wrong. You actually don’t have to be subject to this fellow in Rome regardless of what sort of madman he might be or how unjustifiable his additions to the faith once delivered to all the saints are.” They’d lose a lot of face. It would just be embarrassing for them.

    “It’s either Rome or atheism.” Sounds like someone who refuses to admit that evangelicalism never was and never will be what the Reformation was about. It’s always been an aberration. You don’t need a bunch of medieval accretions and novelties capped by a form of government that made its bones with forgeries and megalomania to participate in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church or to have some kind of doctrinal stability (you call Vatican II stability?!). Evangelicals need to stop imagining that the Christian world is bifurcated into American evangelicalism and Catholicism. Plenty of us (millions, in fact) have little to do with either.

  14. “Create and lead an Ash Wednesday service here at our school.”

    I think that worship is not a time for us to take more from God. Worship is not about sucking spiritual energy from God, a pastor, or the people around us.

    Worship is a time for us to offer ourselves to God. In the OT days, people took rams, calves, etc. for offerings. A tangible way we can make an offering to God during worship today is to put ourselves last–after God and after God’s people. This obedience to God’s will is our sacrificial offering.

    IM, you have an amazing gift you can give to God…you can lead others in worshipping Him on Ash Wednesday. Sure it’s a sacrificial offering, but sacrificial offering is the keystone of Christianity.

    Christianity is not for whimps.

  15. IM:

    I am a lay leader in a denomination few discuss – the Evangelical Covenant Church. You can find the Covenant Affirmations (and various position papers) at and if you haven’t heard of us, I encourage you to take a look.

    Covenant churches certainly may, but are not required to, conduct Ash Wednesday services. A number of Covenant churches have discovered the power of the ancient service, and choose to offer it.

    In my particular church, we save the leftover palm leaves and branches from Palm Sunday, and dry them for months. We then carefully burn the dried palm fronds to ashes to make the ashes for the next Ash Wednesday. All of this is solemn and all of it carries, for me, deep connections. The palms of Palm Sunday are not simply cast aside, and Ash Wednesday carries with it the memory of Holy Week from the year before.

    I have not ever heard of a specific date on the church calendar on which it is most appropriate to burn the palm leaves… though I can think of a couple of days that might be appropriate. If you know of a day that is considered proper for this, please let me know!

    By the way – I can call you brother in Christ without reservations or games of any kind, and you would be welcome to participate in sacraments at our church.

    As far as your original question goes, I’d still have to vote for option d). Not that I think you are whining, but because many of us play significant roles in presenting worship services. I know that we should be mature enough to be able to participate in worship that we are also presenting. I also know that I can’t do that anywhere nearly as well as I should. But what you give in a service has a chance to touch deeply and thin the space between God and people.

    If you are burned out on it, I recommend that you recruit laity that are interested in expressing their gifts and their vision and their faith through designing a worship service. Ours is pretty stark, by design… Guide and direct, let go, trust the Spirit, and worship instead of leading.

    I know, I know. All of that is easy to say.

  16. Worship is where God gives us the Gospel. It doesn’t suck any energy out of him, don’t worry. Being omni-everything takes care of that.

  17. Luke,

    I very vaguely remember that my parish priest, in Illinois, burned the palms the day before Ash Wednesday. Because we had a school, the children were there to observe.

  18. Stickshark says

    Goob smacked, floored, dooh, OMG, you have got to be kidding.

    Blown away that you don’t have a place to go for ash Wednesday. In my mind America is portrayed as this very “Christain” or at least “religous” nation. Yet there is no place to go for Ash Wednesday.

    Yet in this nation where people attending church (all types) are in the clear minority, most small towns will have some kind of celebration at either the RCC or the local Anglican…

    And the irony is that I have never been, and this year is the first that I have even considered it, as I am starting to develop a relationship with the chaplain on our campus.

  19. Anna A:

    Thanks! I appreciate that reference, and would be interested in any more.

    Last year, we did it the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent. It was the burning away of the old year in the church calendar, before we celebrated the new year by plunging into Advent and preparing the way for the incarnate Lord…

    I’ve also heard of one church that does it on All Saints Day. I’m not sure I understand the significance of that, but that is their tradition.

    Thanks again!

  20. Having ministered in a similar geographic and ecclesial situation all my life, I sympathize with you list of choices. I don’t think that I ever wrote it down quite so completely, but those were my choices every year.

    Every year I have chosen D. For many of those years I was able to raise up leader who led the service under my direction, but for many, I led the service. My experience varies greatly depending on the which role I have, but in every case I know that my decision to choose D provides an encounter with God and with their own true nature and a connection to generations of Christians that would otherwise be unavailable to most of the people who participated.

    Thanks for sharing your dilemma.

  21. Modify (A) to read – “Think like a good Southern Baptist about anything having to with church history before 1925.”

    In all seriousness, perhaps (B) or (D) would be the best option. With option (D) you have at least have the opportunity to educate others about what Ash Wednesday is all about.

    As I joking alluded to with my first sentence, there are many Baptists such as myself (and Protestants in general) who know very little about Ash Wednesday, other than, “It’s a Catholic thing.”

  22. Memphis Aggie says

    I would say D) bringing Ash Wednesday to those who don’t have it and don’t know it sounds like the evangelical spirit. The novelty would spark interest and help the kids think a bit. IMHO (which ain’t that humble) it’s by far the best choice because it’s not just about your desires but your mission. It may be the only time any of these kids are exposed to the Ash Wednesday service. D no contest.

  23. Memphis Aggie says


    Let me add a bit against choice C, going to the RCC service. If you go you will likely be strongly tempted to mentally revisit your grievance(s) with Rome. You could become distracted from the Creator by the quarrels of His creatures, thereby loosing the beauty of the moment. The ashes are not a sacrament but a devotional sign of obedience to Christ. Why would you make such a sign in a Church you can not obey? Your presence implicitly recognizes the RCC, which I’m sure you don’t intend.

    If you choose not to provide a service (D), then I’d choose the pancakes (F), especially if they have blueberries.

  24. I’d either hit a local RCC service (abstaining from Communion for the sake of the ‘weaker brethren’) or take the long trip for an Episcopal place if I were you.

  25. Jim Hedrick says

    How about a internet community AW service Michael? It could be ash providence where every saint could provide his own ashes. You publish the liturgy online with aproppriate congregational pop-up opportunities where we can click our mouses at the same time and be blessed by the simultaneous time and space thoughts and symbolic images filling our minds. I live in Dubuque IA and I can go a few blocks in any direction and find a worship experience happening and be sure that they are enough ashes to go upon the intergenerational congregations. I think you ought to start a tradition in your own local institution of contextual Christian education. Choices.. Choices.. post evangelical choices.

  26. Michael , I have found an Ash Wednesday Service at a local Presbyterian USA Church on Feb 6th in my immediate area (within 2 miles). I have always been told by my FBC friends that the PCUSA are nothing more than liberal apostates. I’m going anyways with reckless abandonned……Option E.

  27. PS to the last comment . I’m giving up wine for Lent.Except for Sundays. Sundays (Ressurection Day) are Feast Days and are not subject to the rule of fasting whether Catholic Or Greek Orthodox. Thank God, because I make tons of it. I can wait till Easter.

  28. Rev. Tammy Smith says

    I’m not sure where in Southeast Ky you are, but I’m in Jackson, KY and I am having an Ash Wednesday Service at 6:00pm at the First Methodist Church in Jackson, where I serve. You are more than welcome to come. God bless you,

  29. Rev, Rebecca Harrison says

    This is way too late to respond to your query; it’s just a comment from a Presbyterian minister who’s going to be officiating at an Ash Wednesday service in 45 minutes. Many, many Presbyterian congregations now observe Ash Wednesday, and a good share of those include the imposition of the ashes, as ours will.

    I’m curious what your decision was, but think that you will do / did whatever was likely to be most meaningful for you.


  30. REPORT:

    First of all, thanks to all of you who offered kind and helpful advice.

    Special thanks to those who invited me to your services, esp the UMC pastor in Jackson.

    I had an Ash Wednesday liturgy at 7:00 a.m. here on campus with approximately 17 students and staff. It was during a huge thunderstorm, so many people couldn’t come.

    I’m glad I did it, but I still wish there was a church where I could go and simply participate.

    Again, thanks.

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