A wave of late afternoon light gushed through the great arched window at the head of First United Methodist as the congregation waited to begin Vespers on Ash Wednesday. It washed over the white-tiled high altar, over the off-white walls, and over the creamy upholstery of the pews, and set the masses of organ pipes gleaming as they sent forth their meditative strains. After Reverend Jim Standiford's welcome, the organ started up again, this time marching the congregation through "What Wondrous Love Is This?": "What wondrous love is this/that caused the Lord of bliss, to bear the dreadful curse, for my soul, for my soul." (Hymns permeated the service and the dinner that followed. The congregation sang far more than it spoke, the organ surrounding the voices and governing the mood.)
Reverend Elbert Kim read from Joel: "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your hearts, not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful...and abounding in steadfast love."
Reverend Peggy Goochéy's Gospel reading included Christ's new commandment: "Love one another, just as I have loved you. By this, everyone will know you are my disciples." The congregation picked up the theme, singing "Where Charity and Love Prevail": "Brought here together by Christ's love/by love we thus are bound."
Reverend Molly Vetter offered the Prayer of Confession: "We do confess to you, O God, our own sins. We confess to you that we have failed to live the dream and vision you have planted in our hearts. We have both done things that violate your will and left things undone that neglected your call. Forgive us, O God; turn us from what we have been to what me might be in You.... Help us bear your light, your kingdom, to all the world."
Songs again: the Great Thanksgiving ("The Lord be with you/And also with you...") and the Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts..."), followed by Reverend Yelena Chudinova offering the Communion Prayer. "Pour out your spirit on us gathered together...and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ."
After Communion, Reverend Kim invited the congregation to approach for a healing service. "The root for the word 'healing' in the Old Testament Greek is the same as the root for the word 'salvation' and 'wholeness.' Through healing, God brings reconciliation between God and His family, between individuals and communities, within each person, and between humanity and the rest of creation." He prayed over the oil that would be used to anoint those who asked for healing. "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on these gifts, that those who, in faith and repentance, receive this anointing may be made whole through Jesus Christ Our Lord."
Reverend Standiford prayed over the ashes. "Brothers and sisters, in the name of the church on this Ash Wednesday, I invite you to observe a holy Lent, by examination; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's word." Standiford gave an account of the development of Lenten observances. "It was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. It was also a time for those who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith to be reconciled, with repentance and forgiveness. In this way, the whole congregation was reminded of the need we all have" to repent and renew our faith. He prayed: "That these ashes may be a sign to us of our mortality and penitence, so that we may remember that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life through Jesus Christ our savior." The congregation approached through the now-darkened church to be marked with ashes and to hear the words: "Remember thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return."
After the supper that followed the service, Dr. Marjorie Suchocki, Professor Emerita of the Claremont School of Theology, gave a talk on prayer. "Religions are not the same," she said, but still, "they all pray -- even the non-theistic ones." She read prayers from a broad range of religions and traditions, then asked, "Why is it that all people pray?" Her answer: "God calls them to prayer." Why? "Just play with this for a while: What if God creates the world in and through prayer? Wouldn't everything be called into being by God, and wouldn't its coming into being be its responsiveness to God, and isn't its responsiveness a kind of praying?" And if God creates the world through prayer, "then we have a responsibility to pray...to participate in the creation of a world that mirrors the love of God."
What happens when we die?
"God receives us in every moment," says Suchocki. "When we die, that reception includes our consciousness. We exist through the life of God anyhow, but following our death, we exist within the life of God. I don't think there's a heaven or a hell outside of God; I suspect God is heaven or hell, depending on your experience."
2111 Camino del Rio South, Mission Valley
Denomination: United Methodist
Founded locally: 1869
Senior pastor: Reverend Jim Standiford
Congregation size: 3000
Staff size: 70
Sunday school enrollment: 350
Annual budget: $2 million
Weekly giving: $30,000
Singles program: yes
Diversity: majority Caucasian, plus Asian-Americans
Sunday worship: Traditional Sunday Service, 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.; The Water's Edge contemporary service, 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour