Pandemic Prayers for Vacation Bible School

It is Vacation Bible School week in our house which means there is a ton more screen time than usual as we share in learning about the light of the world. It’s a curricula entirely created by the staff and volunteers at our sweet Texas church and I’m reminded again how amazing it is to witness what can be accomplished in these strange times where we choose not to gather for worship.

There are also a number of amazing resources for VBS that have popped into my email including Tumbuh’s God’s Global Kids and Illustrated Ministry’s Compassion Camp. Both feel timely and wonderful as people continue to swarm into the streets to march and protest for the simple fact that black lives matter.

My mornings are spent with Bible crafts, singing This Little Light of Mine and sharing with my sweet toddler what this faith means. I’m also spending a lot of time thinking about what I’m teaching her about race and racism. That might seem unimportant. It may seem like I should be working harder on my own racism but this reminder that how the littlest ones test our faith made me wonder about how white people pray with their children to resist and oppose racism.

Gathering Together

Psalm 100 challenges me to consider the songs I’m teaching to my children. I might not be bringing them to protest right now but I want them to know the songs when we get there. Many of those songs are songs of faith so what if worship began with some freedom songs? I’d be eager to include this one and this one both sung by the Freedom Singers. I’d encourage kids to find some noise makers even if they’re just banging on pots and pans to make a joyful noise.

Perhaps then there should be some gathering words inspired by the Psalm. The children might continue to bang their pots and pans or whatever noisemakers they’ve found every time the refrain “make a joyful noise” is offered. Prompt the children to listen for those words and pause each time to look at the gallery of delight in your Zoom worship.

Gathering Words
Inspired by Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise, all the earth.
Praise God for young minds
and older hearts
eager to grow and change.
Praise God for sunshine
and babies
and the radical hope
that nothing is impossible
with your love.
Make a joyful noise, all the earth.
Gather us in with songs
of protest and freedom
of hope and change.
Teach us new songs
to sing in the foreign lands
that almost seem normal now.
Make a joyful noise, all the earth.
Bring us together
from the many places we are
with powerful internet connections
and spirits eager
to be renewed.
Make a joyful noise, dear children of God.
Know that God is good
and that we sing praise to
all that is good.

You might also choose this Intergenerational Call to Worship by Carolyn Brown or this Improvisation on Psalm 100 by Maren Tirabassi though I might add something about digital doors because “these doors” doesn’t mean the same thing in the midst of pandemic.

Prayer for Children

I always opt for prayers for children from Marian Wright Edelman. Over here on Prayers for School Children, I might adapt the final prayer for all children as a blessing for VBS. Or I might opt for something like this with language that is familiar to young children.

Blessing for Vacation Bible School
Inspired by Matthew 9:35-10:8

God, as Vacation Bible School begins,
our children will go about villages and cities
sharing your good news. May they feel love
from every adult who reads a story
and every song leader.
May they learn that faith is big
and sometimes really hard.
May they find joy in wondering
and delight in listening.
May they know that there’s
so much more to learn
and be excited to go on the next adventure.
God, we bless [names of children].
These are the names of the children
we will hold close in prayer
this week as Vacation Bible School begins.
Amen.

Passing of the Peace

A few weeks ago, I referred to an idea from a mentor of mine where individuals might be invited to share reflections of peace in the passing of the peace. I wonder if instead we might model to our children and remind ourselves of the work we are struggling to do to wrestle with our whiteness by sharing something we did or read or heard that challenged the racism that lives under our skin.

Maybe two or three people offer this short reflection and concludes by saying something like, “The peace of Justice and Love also be with you.” For those using Zoom, there might be some musical interlude that follows where people could share in the chat what other things they’ve wrestled with in their racism. That list could be gathered from the chat and shared in the weekly email that follows that week so that the conversation might continue as much as our support of each other in doing this work.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

How Shall We Pray?

For the past several weeks, I’ve offered prayers as a gift to my colleagues in ministry who are serving faithfully during this pandemic. I’ve written liturgies following the Revised Common Lectionary that I have hoped were copied and pasted into Facebook Lives and Zooms and every other platform that congregations find themselves gathered in this moment.

I opened my email on Monday to find that two of my favorite cooking blogs are not offering new content. Yes, that’s how white I am. I faithfully read cooking blogs still these two particular cooking blogs are hitting the pause button. They are intentionally stepping back to wrestle with their own racism and the various ways that they unintentionally play into white supremacy. It’s something I know many of us are doing.

Before reading their words, I already knew I wasn’t going to offer prayers this week. I wasn’t going to attempt to assert my privilege into the grief and pain after the unforgivable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed and Tony McDade because of the racism burning in our blood.

We have heard enough from white women.

White women should be asking, like all white people, how shall we pray?

We shall not pray for peace because we do not know the grief and pain of this moment. We do not wish that there was a better way because too much has been broken. We have dared to assume we could build on a broken system and only now can we see that wrong, but then, how shall we pray?

How do you pray when your country is on fire? How do you pray when there is greater concern for property than people? How do you pray when the grief and despair is too big to name?

EZYHcAoVAAA3BAKI am listening for what I do not understand. I’m opening my heart and mind to the grace of God as I wrestle again with the demon of my own racism.

I cannot pray with my own words.

I won’t. I can’t.

I want to confess the sins of my own racism starting with my White Privilege as captured in a poem by Judith Lockhart Radtke found in The Anti-Racism Prayer Book created by Trinity Church in Boston. There are several other powerful prayers collected in this digital booklet.

Those that are still feeling the winds and fire of Pentecost might opt to use this Prayer by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat written way back when in 2014 in honor of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. It might need only a slight adaptation to feel that wind that moved over the waters of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a.

As social media blacks out to focus on the wisdom of black and brown bodies, in churches in my own United Church of Christ and other white dominated congregations, this litany of confession for Lent might be adapted to evoke the power of Creator, Christ and Spirit. This prayer remembering the last words of Eric Garner from Praying with James Baldwin might also be fitting or one of these two prayers addressing white supremacy found on enfleshed. Martha Spong offered a beautiful Trinity Prayer meditating on Psalm 8:4 in her weekly email that she admits is a prayer for majority white communities of faith. 

The United Church of Canada somehow always has words for the prayers closest to my heart as they do in this prayer To Root Out Quiet Racism.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has a Black Lives Matter Worship Collection which includes a reflection about singing Lift Every Voice and Sing by the Rev. Aisha Ansano that I found powerful especially because I remain unconvinced that it should be sung in white congregations.

When I can’t find the words for my own prayers, I turn to poetry. This poem by Ross Gay popped up in my timeline again this week. As the fires blaze in riots across our country, I find myself returning to Christopher Gilbert’s Fires Gotten Brighter. Donte Collins’ what the dead know by heart sends chills down my spine and leaves me staring at my own palm. I’m not sure how you’d use these in worship just as I’m not sure how a white congregation might meaningfully use Get Home Safely which the SALT Project is offering for free download.

For better or worse, I know that my prayers as a white woman aren’t the same as my black and brown sisters and brothers. I know that as much as my throat catches watching that video, it’s not the terror I feel every day for myself or my children. I can cry listening to the Rev. Otis Moss III preach powerfully but I also learned something that I’m sure black and brown folks have known for a long time. I am new to this fight no matter how many anti-racism workshops I’ve attended.

My prayers are different because I’m not in the streets right now. I’ve got time and space to contemplate how I might pray when others are struggling to stay alive or even assert that their lives have worth.

I believe we should pray just as I believe in the power of God to do things that I cannot fathom in this moment. I’m going to hold onto that hope as I confess the sins of my own racism. That’s what it feels like these prayers are.

These are prayers to confess that we bought into the idea that this system actually worked even as we balked at 45’s great campaign slogan. We thought we knew. We thought we had done the work until this moment when a pandemic should keep us inside our homes but the grief is just too damn big.

I confess that I want to hear something like Maya Angelou’s Alone on Sunday because it might not be just about some idealized kum-ba-yah moment like in 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 but it could actually say something about our collaboration with the Trinity. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what I might want or how big I might like God to be. It’s not a question of my comfort.

I’ve been too comfortable. That’s the problem and the challenge of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.

Worship has already changed. It already feels so different ten or eleven weeks into this new normal so perhaps how we pray and when we pray and how long we allow God to speak needs to change too.

We shall pray that black. brown and indigenous lives matter because God already knows they do. We shall pray so that we might be changed.

Pandemic Prayers for Pentecost

For churches in the United States of America, there seems to be some creative tension between the winds of the Spirit and the President’s order for churches to reopen. There’s something about the hot air coming out of the White House that contrasts so powerfully with what the church is called to be and do. It’s something I feel like I missed in that Invitation to the Offering last week. It’s something I’m trying to illustrate from my own isolation bubble and something I’m wondering about how to teach to my children. 

Going to church has become the moment where Mommy grabs her iPad and we settle onto the couch. It feels like a gift each and every time and I wish that my littles allowed me to bop around to the many worship services I’d like to attend virtually, but I shudder that my sweet girls might think that church is something on a screen. (Will they remember this time? How long will this actually go on?) I want them to know that the church is an action. It’s a movement. It’s a response to the world’s deepest need and a desire to dream of of God’s greatest love in every living thing.

I confess I’ve been uncertain that the world will look any different after this is over but if the church is the church, then change must come. It must be the change in our prayers.

Opening Worship

I don’t know how many churches are embracing this season as an interim time. I thought these were wise and wonderful words about that possibility. Embracing this interim pandemic season might mean delving into that wide and curious of what makes the church the church. Worship could begin with individuals sharing a testimony of what this church has meant in their life or those same two or three voices could speak to the ideals of what brings them to be part of a worshipping community before concluding this opening with Acts 2:16-21.

Worship could instead begin with a familiar hymn and an invitation to consider our breath. The liturgy I wrote last year for my Texas church began with words adapted from Walter Bruggemann’s To Make Things New That Never Were from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth which would follow this hymn nicely. Another possibility follows.

Gathering Our Breath

Breathe on us, Breath of God.
Fill our lungs
with courage and hope
so that your life
beats through our veins
and urges us toward
justice and peace.

Breathe on us, Breath of God
because “I can’t breathe”
was heard again
and we’ve whispered too often
that we don’t know what to do
to put an end to racism.

Breathe on us, Breath of God
and remind us what the church is called to be.
Fill us with the fire of your love
and the promise of your peace.

I also really like the Call to Worship by Julia Seymour in the RevGalBlogPal’s Worship Words this week.

Passing of the Peace

In the limited church hopping that my children have allowed me, I haven’t yet seen a passing of the peace happen on Zoom or Facebook Live. I suppose it would be super awkward if you record ahead of time but especially if you use the above Gathering of Our Breath or if you plan on preaching on the Gospel Lesson, it seems like this should be the Sunday to try it.

It could be a moment of Pentecost wind where everyone is unmuted and the whole host of angels greets each other in the name of Christ. It could hurt your ears or you might opt for something more structured.

Maybe you prompt your community to bring a pen and paper to worship. When this moment of peace approaches, the congregation is invited to name one thing that brings them anxiety to share in a word or two on the paper. Hold that paper up and then someone leads this Breath Prayer for Anxious Times. That prayer time might conclude with everyone ripping up their paper and throwing it in the air like confetti. (Sorry for the mess.)

Or instead, invite a youth who would have been confirmed this year on the chancel steps if it were safe to gather for worship to share one thing that has brought her peace in these pandemic days. Maybe she shares something in particular about the beloved community in her youth group experience. Invite her to conclude that thought by saying something like a blessing.

May the peace of Christ also be with you.
May the Spirit of God bring you hope.
May you feel the love of God
in every breath. Amen.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Pandemic Prayers for the Ascension

At the end of the last week, I sat on a picnic blanket in my backyard with my two babies reading the Ascension from their new Sparkhouse Story Bible. (I discovered that Sparkhouse is offering a discount for Bibles to support families during this pandemic.) When I’ve preached on this passage from Acts, I’ve always been drawn to that bit about the disciples gazing up toward heaven.96310241_904628923324224_3491067924926431232_n

I rather like how the Story Bible turned this around for me. It caught my attention and made me wonder what it was that I’m doing right now to carry on the love of Jesus especially for those that feel like God has abandoned us. In the Story Bible, the narrative doesn’t end with the question about staring up to heaven. It doesn’t end with any sort of claim about when Jesus will come back but picks up with a disciple daring to be brave enough to say, “Right! Meanwhile, we have some work to do. Let’s get going.”

These prayers pick up on that hope because it’s been eleven weeks and I’m tired. I’m riddled with doubt that any choice I make to stay home or wear a mask actually matters. I need to hear a bit more from scientists and God.

Opening Worship

I really wanted to write something else about face masks but I’ll settle for the gorgeous art. Instead, I offer a simple responsive prayer to begin worship.

Welcoming the People of God

People of God, where is your hope?
Our hope is in God
who has blessed us
and given us great joy.

Why, then, do you worry?
We fear the unknown.
There is so much that is unknown.

Where do you look for hope?
We look to the scientists
eagerly working in labs
with more than 78 projects in process.
We marvel at what they have learned
in a mere five months
and we hope the healthcare workers
know how much we admire them
and appreciate them when
we are not banging pots and pans. 

Where do you need God today?
We need God
to help us to understand this moment
as much as we might understand
the scriptures.
We need God
to remind us there
is still work to do
and great joy to be found.

Unison Prayer

In the first church I served and the church of my childhood, there was no prayer of confession. There was something dubbed a unison prayer meaning that it was something we all shared together in one voice. Might I suggest something like this this Sunday even if you skip over the Ascension and find yourself in Easter 7A? Consider a Prayer for Medical Scientists or a Prayer for Chaplains and Healthcare Workers. There are surprisingly few of these out there.

Something for the Offering

I wanted to write something about wearing masks and staying home and socially distancing and how all of these things are the things we can do in this moment, but everything I came up with was garbage. (Yes, garbage.) This isn’t the perfect solution. It assumes a point of privilege and that’s not what I hope, but I did want to add something simple to celebrate our gifts to the church and beyond. It admittedly leans heavily on church. Oops.

I use Luke 4 in the second to last response but it could easily be adapted to include your church’s mission or vision. Remembering who we are and who we belong to in these days is critical. Use the words that your congregation has created. Remember. Celebrate. Adapt everything.

Invitation to the Offering

People of God, why do you stand
looking up toward heaven?
Christ has gone up with a shout,
but he will come again with trumpets and praise.
How then will you live?

We will live in hope
and be guided by peace.
We will dare to believe that
there are better days ahead
but we will do all that we can to protect
this earth and its people. We will love.

Who will you love?

We will love the forgotten and the ignored.
We will love the discarded, abandoned and abused.
We will love brown bodies, black bodies
immigrant and refuge bodies, fat bodies
and hollow bodies that feel they’ve nothing to give
but we will give.

How will you give?

We give with our whole hearts
with our bodies and souls
to support the things that matter most.

People of God, why do you give?

We give to bring good news to the poor;
to proclaim release to the captives and
recovery to the sight of the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and allow all people to believe in hope.

How will you hope?

We will put our hope in our church.
We will believe in its mission
so much that it becomes an extension of ourselves.
We will hope that every dollar 
and every cent
is used to make Jesus Christ present
We will hope with out who hearts
and reach out to the world in love.

I may have had this song in my head while I was writing this particular prayer.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 6A

When this all started, there were lots of reflections about God’s absence.

It wasn’t my experience. I didn’t feel like God had given up or disappeared anymore than I felt like God had brought this pandemic upon the global community.

It’s eight or nine or fifty-two weeks later and I’m not quite sure I have words for what God is doing right now. My faith tells me that God is always up to something. It pushes me to get in the balcony and look for the big picture. It assures me that I don’t need to be anxious and worry because somehow it will be alright in the end. My husband loves to say this. He loves the bright side and it has made me bite his head off more than once in the past few days. I am not proud of this but it’s a fact.

These lections push me to go looking for what God is doing. I was pushed further into this search after reading this encouraging word from Karoline Lewis. It reminded me of this essay by Sara Miles from years and years ago. These prayers search for that divine accompaniment.

Opening Worship

I’m opting for simple phrases that can be repeated again and again by the congregation. I want for there to be a musical element that is sung in response to the spoken word. I can’t figure out how to make it work but that’s where I keep going. Maybe this favorite Taize song follows the Invitation to the Spirit below. Or instead, maybe worship begins with this teaching bit from John Bell.

Call to Praise

This week was harder than the last.
We do not know when this will end
or what the world will become when it is over.
Still, we come to praise.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

God has heard every prayer.
God has listened to our deepest fears.
God will not give up on us.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

We have been tested.
We are being tested every day
so that we struggle to know what is right.
God waits with us
and hopes with us.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

We do not feel like we are doing enough
in one moment and in the next
feel like we should be doing more
to end the pandemic of racism,
the virus of hate,
and the greed of capitalism.
The burden is heavy on our backs
as we hunch over screens
wishing and praying
for a better world.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

God is with us.
God will not leave us orphaned
even when we cannot see what God is doing,
God is listening.
God mourns with us. God hopes
and God dares to dream with us.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

Invitation to the Spirit

Words inspired by Richard Swanson’s Gospel Translation

Come breath of truth
and blow through our fears
about what could have been
or should have been. Come
into this beautiful broken world.
Come, O Spirit, come.

We do not see you.
We haven’t noticed
your place by our sides
but we know it is promised.
You are coming. You are here.
Come, O Spirit, come.

Come dear advocate
to remain in the discomfort
with us. Come to hold our hands
and breathe your truth
into our own lungs.
Come, O Spirit, come.

Affirmation of Faith

When I shared last week’s prayers on Twitter, I joked that I didn’t include a confession. It’s honestly felt clunky to write these and I couldn’t figure out why. I got an instant reply to my tweet from RevGalBlogPals that there are others that skip confessions and assurances in the Easter season. (They are also curating this gorgeous thing called Worship Words that you should check out.) Right. I would usually swap the confession and assurance for some words to remember what we do believe.

Listening to Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded me that I need to remember and repeat these words. We don’t just need good preaching. We need to put words to our own faith.

Here are my very favorites.

A New Creed from the United Church of Canada

The Affirmation of Faith from page 481 of the New Zealand Prayer Book

United Church of Christ Statement of Faith in the form of a doxology

A Statement of Faith by Ann Weems (Reaching for Rainbows, 1980)

Advent Statement of Faith by the Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison

Creed by Meg Kearney

The Immigrant’s Creed from the Book of Common Worship (PCUSA)

Oh, I should probably mention again that I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ. As part of a non-creedal movement of faith, I believe in a holy bit of irreverence. This is why poetry makes the list and I think that’s fine.

I also really want to insert this somewhere into worship. Maybe it goes here. Can an Affirmation of Faith be sung?

Prayers of the People

I can’t stop reading hymn lyrics since we found out we can no longer sing together. This might also be why I want to insert a hymn into the Affirmation of Faith.

This Sunday, I’d be tempted to offer the words of In Our Brokenness as the Pastoral Prayer. Another option might be this prayer originally from RevGalBlogPals.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 5A

I join the circle of preachers who have expressed their familiarity with this text at the graveside. It’s the Gospel Lesson I always choose when the family doesn’t steer me in another direction, not because of the many mansions or rooms but for what it says about grief. I love the repetition that Jesus holds before us. I am in you. You are in me. 

I feel the tremendous wonder of these words in the eighth week of sheltering in place. I feel the weight of it as the news ticked across my screen last week announcing the death toll was now higher in the United States than the lives lost in the Vietnam War. As I sit here with my laptop in my lap watching my children enjoy their third snack of the day after our morning walk, that death toll is reported to be 67,465. The Washington Post reports that number will double by June 1 with the number of states relaxing restrictions. Lord Jesus. I am in you. You are in me. 

I have watched as clergy post masked selfies at their first graveside service in the wake of this pandemic. I’ve listened as they’ve carefully considered how to keep the grieving socially distanced. I’ve heard their sorrow and regret and felt their tears. This is a new season for grief. It is different and still the same. Mourning hasn’t yet turned into dancing. We need space. We need time. We need to remember that no matter how death came, there is this promise in life after death. There is the mysterious power of love that continues. It lives on.  I am in you. You are in me. 

These prayers lean into that grief and the strange awareness that we are even more connected than ever.

Opening Worship

I know that we are not able to sing together and won’t be able to do so for some time but I want to believe that there is still a way to do so. I want to believe that video worship will somehow allow us to sing from the comfort and safety of our own living rooms while still hearing each other sing so I keep checking Singing from the Lectionary for something that might work. This week, I found John Bell’s Don’t Be Afraid which might work for a recorded response after the stanza of a poem like Amber Tamblyn’s To A New Dawning or this community sourced poem If the Trees Can Keep Dancing, So Can I. This could be a lovely way to begin worship.

This Gospel Lesson also reminds me of one of my favorite John Bell songs that would be a lovely gathering into worship. You can find it on YouTube here.

I also found When Human Voices Cannot Sing which is set to LAMENT but could also be sung in the more familiar (at least to me) ST COLUMBA. The lyrics spoke to my heart so much that I adapted it below to gather the beloved community into worship with the words of Psalm 31. The second option leans into the confusion of what will emerge from this. I know there are pastors leaning into this strange interim season. This might be something that works for that intention. There’s another beautiful option for this intention over on Spacious Faith.

Gathering in Grief and Hope

Words adapted from Shirley Erena Murray’s When Human Voices Cannot Sing

When human voices cannot sing
and human hearts are breaking,
we bring our grief to you, O God,
who knows our inner aching.
Incline your ear to us, O God.
Be our rock and refuge.

Set free our spirits from all fear —
the cloud of dark unknowing,
and let the light, the Christ-light show
the pathway of our going.
Incline your ear to us, O God.
We commit our spirits to you.

Make real for us your holding love,
the love which is your meaning,
the power to move the stone of death,
to find the hope of Easter morning.
Lead us and guide us, O God.
Our time is in your hands.
Our worship and praise is in your name.

Gathering into the Way

Thomas shares our doubt.
He doesn’t know what will come next.
We do not know where we are going.
How can we know the way?

Christ calls us to remember.
We do not know what God is doing
but we know who Christ is, so we know God is too.
We have known God and have seen God.

Philip pushes against the new normal.
He leans into what he thought he knew
before everything changed.
We have done the same.
Show us what God can do.

Christ soothes our troubled hearts
and invites us to believe.
I am in you and you are in me. 

Let us find a way into this truth.
Let us worship God together.

Shared Ritual Action

Instead of a confession, I was inspired by this prayer I saw on Facebook from Rabbi Valerie Cohen. (I jotted this down on scrap paper when I saw it but now I can’t find the actual post. If you can find it, please link to it below. I hate that I can’t find it.) Way back when on Good Friday, I virtually wandered through a Stations of the Cross where each reader donned a mask. This was before I owned one. It was before they were recommended in Texas though my husband reports to me how many people he sees actually abiding by this practice. On that Good Friday, before each reader read the station they were assigned, we watched them pull off their mask and then replace it after they had spoken. It was powerful.

Then, there was this horrific news in Michigan. I need a prayer to remember that this simple action is a prayer. I thought it might fit well into this worship experience. It appears below as a graphic that you’re welcome to share.

Sweaters Up for Grabs!

I might also include a blessing for the face masks. I know this is highly charged territory among some of my Christian sisters and brothers. (If you aren’t familiar with this struggle, read this.) This isn’t for everyone but I think we need a blessing. We need to remember that the choices we make are a prayer for the world and for ourselves.

Blessings always remind me of this amazing collaboration from years and years ago. I commend it to you as you figure out how to best outstretch hands in blessing upon face masks. Perhaps words likes these might be shared in your worship on Sunday.

Blessing for Face Masks

O God, bless these face masks.
May the fabric that protects each nose and mouth
be as strong as the fabric that knits together the human family.
May the strings not bind our ears
as we struggle to listen to the fears
of your people. May we feel every bit of sweaty discomfort
as a reminder of our shared humanity
and may that connection give us more courage
to wear these masks upon our faces.
O God, bless these masks
as surely as you bless your people. Amen.

Prayers of the People

As I wondered last week, I’m still not sure what this particular moment of worship should look like. I offer you a prayer below that has been adapted from one in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship.

Be with us through all the unknown days lying before us:
days when where the flowers bloom and trees bud
but every day feels like the day before,
days when the headlines seem to emerge from the worst dystopian reality
but we remind ourselves again that this is the new normal,
days when we are consumed with worry
for the vulnerable, the poor and the sick
but we do not know what to do with our troubled hearts.

Be with us in this unknown, O God.
Do not put us to shame.
Be our refuge and strength.
so that we grow in union with all our sisters and brothers,
so that we may see more deeply into ourselves.

Be with us in this unknown, O God.
Show your full self to us
and allow us to see ourselves in you.
Resist the temptation to show great works
but remind us where you dwell.
Show us your heartbeat.
Let us feel your breath
as close as our own.

Help us to find the faith to believe:
I am in you and you are in me.

Help us understand that for those who are faithful to you
life is not ended but only changed.
Help us join together with all you have created to say:
Great and powerful is our God.
God fills heaven and earth with love and beauty.
It is a beauty we see in doctors, nurses,
chaplains, grocery workers and delivery workers.
It is love that we see smiling in the eyes
above each face mask.
Even in the unknown, O God,
we believe in you.
Help us to believe in each other
and even in ourselves.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Easter at Home with Babies and Toddlers

When I was in my very first call and was still saying I wasn’t sure I was called to be a parent, I led a conversation for the monthly potluck shared by parents and children about faith at home. It felt like a new idea all those ten years ago.

Children were supposed to learn about matters of faith at church. They were supposed to ask their pastors and Sunday School teachers. Parents weren’t trained. They weren’t equipped. That was what we thought then when there was never a question about gathering in our places of worship. That was before this pandemic changed things forever. Or maybe just for a little while.

It has taken this new normal for me to actually do the things I taught parents to do with their children. It started really because I was gifted a daily observance for little kids to mark the days of Holy Week from my dear friend Teri. My sweet toddler would remind me every day that it was time for “Baby Jesus” and we would share in whatever the story and activity was for that day. It made me realize I need to do this more.

Just like I find activities for my children to play with bubble foam, finger paint and embark on neighborhood scavenger hunts, I need to find time to cultivate their faith. I want them to learn more about these stories that are so important to me but it also builds up my faith. It reminds me every time we take the time to do so that this is matters to me. Here are some things I’m doing with my very young children to carry us through the Easter season.

My toddler is two and a half and very verbal. My baby girl is nearly 10 months old and is ready to start walking. Or so it appears. She might not get as much out of these activities but she is in awe of her sister and will follow her anywhere. I can’t say these activities will work without an older child to lead.

Prayer Book

I confess that I have been tired at bedtime and so the long list of people we usually pray for has been truncated. I feel badly badly about it and so when I downloaded Traci Smith’s wonderful at home resource for Faithful Families, I felt nudged by one of her ideas to create a book of people we pray for. I’m adapting a tiny photo book to use in our prayer time every night and every other time my toddler pulls it off the shelf and clasps her hands together.

Jesus Song Time

The churches I’ve served have all had Sunday School during worship. In every church I’ve served, the kids start in the sanctuary until the children’s sermon and then are excused to their classes. This means they usually only hear one or two hymns and one of those hymns may have been difficult to sing. I know this. Zoom Worship has provided the extra blessing for our family that my kids hear the whole service and my baby girl sways and dances every time music begins. music

I want to cultivate that love of music and want them to learn the songs of faith. So we have started to have Jesus Song Time. I created a Spotify station by the same name that we turn on the Roku and jam out in our living room. I sing loudly and out of tune and encourage my kids to play with bean bags and their music instruments including the egg shakers that were in their Easter baskets.

Psalms and Shepherds

In the spirit of familiarity, I am attempting to teach Psalm 23 to my children this week. It’s going really great in that they are not getting it at all. We are going to make sheep from egg cartons this afternoon and tomorrow we will play with those tubes using this prompt from Carolyn Brown on Worshiping with Children:

Using a small cardboard sheepfold, a shepherd figure (maybe from a crèche), and some toy sheep.  Demonstrate how the shepherd would gather the sheep into the fold, counting as they came in and checking each one for injuries, then sleep across the gate so no animal or human thief could get to the sheep at night.  Show next how in the morning the shepherd would call the sheep to the gate and lead them out into pasture.  After showing this, reread John 10:2-5 and comment that just as the good shepherd takes care of the sheep, Jesus takes care of us.

I will also build a pen from the surplus cardboard in our lives. A shepherd will be found from among other toys. I’m not sure which yet. I also really like the idea from Worshiping with Children to spend some time with this first picture of Jesus from the Roman catacombs. The questions would be over the head of my toddler but it might be a fun way to continue to explore Psalm 23.

Jesus Story Time

One of the things that I learned during Holy Week with Teri’s wonderful resource was that I didn’t like any of our children’s bibles. I have a lot of them and I’m still not quite satisfied. With her encouragement, I ordered the Spark Story Bible. We take our special picnic blanket outside of the backyard for what my toddler calls Baby Jesus Story Time. I’m really trying to teach her that Jesus grows up. I’m choosing some of my favorite stories about Jesus’ life and reading them.

Though I’m not sure we will get there by Ascension Sunday, I’m keeping this idea from Worshiping with Children in the back of my mind.

Display pictures of Jesus’ birth, healing, teaching, Palm Sunday, Crucifixion, Empty Tomb, and Ascension.  With the children review Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  Then tell the story of the Ascension in your own words.  Stress that during his life on earth, his disciples knew Jesus as a very special person, after Easter Jesus was different.  He appeared and disappeared sometimes in locked but still ate fish and bread.  Thomas could touch him.  Since the Ascension, people have seen Jesus only in visions and dreams.  Jesus is still alive and is not just with God, but part of God.

My toddler is just at the age where she can tell a story from a picture if we read it often enough. So this might be something we try.

I’m already starting to think about what I’ll do for Pentecost because I haven’t used my Pentecost kites in the longest time. I’m also pretty sure I’ll go searching for other ideas between now and then because I get bored but this is where we are now. If you are doing something similar with your littles, please share your amazing ideas in the comments.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 4A

After I posted the prayers last week, I felt awkward. I wondered if these prayers could speak to such a broad audience. I wondered if it was even possible to capture the vastness of this pandemic into a few words.

I felt that strange tinge again on Sunday when I gathered again with my sweet Texas church for another Zoom gathering of God’s people. I noticed immediately that the words to welcome us into this time of prayer and praise didn’t emphasize the isolation or even the virus. The prayers were instead like any other Sunday in the Season of Easter. Is that what we need?

I wonder that especially as we center ourselves into the familiar and comforting words of Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10. I don’t know. Quite frankly, I haven’t had much time to think about what my own faith needs. I’ve focused — as I did before quarantine — on what is best for my children and my family. I’ve spent time cultivating experiences for the family and allowed the grace of these experiences to be my prayer. I do not know how working parents are doing this but I’m glad to see that there is a conversation starting here and here. The fact is that I only really know my own experience of this new reality and this gives me even greater pause in wondering what our prayers should say. Or is there something to be said in leaning into what I can only pray is emerging in Acts 2:42-47. These prayers will do a little bit of everything.

Opening Worship

Though I’m uncertain about this style right now, these responsive prayers are what I’ve written to begin worship forever and ever. It’s a hard habit and so here are some prayers to begin your worship.

Let Us Gather Here

Let us devote this time to breaking bread and sharing prayers.

Let awe come over us.

Let wonders and signs
flicker across our screens
in the faces of this beloved community
and the familiar words of faith.

Let us share what we have.

Let us find ourselves with glad
and generous hearts.

Call to the Possible

Words from Rebecca Solnit’s The Impossible Has Already Happened

We have reached a crossroads,
we have emerged from what we assumed was normality,
things have suddenly overturned.

Shepherding God, open your gate to us.
Lead us into whatever comes next.

We know, O God, that for now —
especially for those of us who are not sick,
not frontline workers,
and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties –-
it is to our task to understand this moment,
what it might require of us,
and what it might make possible.

Prepare us, Shepherding God,
to think big thoughts around your table.
Assure us that goodness and mercy are already here.

Confessing Our Sins

It can be so hard to write prayers around such familiar texts. I liked this confession that I found after I wrote my own. A friend shared this article on effective crisis leadership and it compelled me to write an alternate confession as it seems that our real task right now is not so much worrying about what will come next but how we love each other in the here and now.

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we have doubted.
We have doubted you.
We have doubted those you love.
We have questioned what will be left
after this is all over. We’ve wondered
if it will be better than it was
and we must confess we’ve feared it will be worse.
Forgive us. Open the gates of our shuttered hearts
to your abundant grace. Amen.

Alternate Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we have devoted ourselves to so much.
We have wanted. We have resisted your leading.
We have ignored green spaces and still waters
pooling around the dirty dishes piled in the sink.
We haven’t felt goodness and mercy
and what is worse: we haven’t offered it.
We haven’t cared for your people
behind our locked doors. Forgive us.
Forgive us for not holding all that you love
with the same grace you hold us.

Assurance of Grace

Very truly, I tell you, God knows your fears and doubts.
You are forgiven. God opens the gate and calls your name again
to lead you to the goodness and mercy
that will follow you all the days of your life.
God will be with you, now and always. Amen.

Prayers of the People

I have been tickled to watch one of my pastors juggle the prayers in the chat in Zoom, those that were posted on Facebook earlier in the week, those in the church bulletin and it appears a few last minute prayers she just got by text. She has lots of devices and paper around her but every prayer is spoken. Every prayer is heard. It is a powerful thing and it warms my heart each time.

For churches like ours where prayers are usually shared from the floor, I imagine pre-recorded worship feels most distant and strange when it comes to this moment in worship. I confess I don’t know how to overcome that but I was awestruck by the cell phone children’s choir from my little Texas church that sang Halle Halle this past Sunday. There was something about hearing a child’s voice on Zoom that had such power so I wonder about offering a prayer like this from the good people of SALT Project.

Now is a time when I want to hear familiar words like these words from St. Francis. I noticed as well how many people asked for a copy of the gorgeous prayer that my pastor preached on Sunday. So I thought I’d create something pretty. Here is a Pastoral Prayer for Easter 4A adapted from one I wrote years ago. It is my intention for you to share it. Please do so as it helps your precious people.

Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 3A

Our whole lives have been interrupted. We are attempting now to live as people of the resurrection when death tolls continue to rise. Some states are lifting their orders for shelter in place. Businesses will reopen slowly. Some are even bold enough to say that life will go back to normal while the people of China are living this horror story all over again. Restrictions return. Life does not go on.

We don’t know how long these interruptions will continue but somehow we are called to be “witnesses” to the resurrection. We weren’t there but neither were those that heard Peter preach this sermon in Acts. Neither were they to blame for his death. They weren’t the ones in that crowd. I love how this interruption is explained here. Maybe life feels so interrupted and turned on its head that the Road to Emmaus seems longer this year. I confess that I was inclined to skip over this passage and opt for the emerging church in Acts, but then I read this wisdom from Richard Swanson fixated on the words “we had hoped” (Luke 24:21).

It is my hope that these prayers feel interactive and do what the Spirit needs to bring your people into greater connection and community. I recognize that some are sharing live worship experiences online and others are sharing edited videos through YouTube, Facebook Premiere and a bunch of other platforms that I didn’t even know existed. Still others are publishing liturgies for their members to lead worship together in their homes. For this reason, I’m giving some options.

Opening Worship

I’m not convinced that the more traditional responsive Call to Worship is the best way to begin worship. I attended worship at the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City this past Sunday. I did my field education there in seminary and the faithfulness that my colleague the Rev. Kaji Douša has brought to this congregation. Worship began on Sunday with some praise songs and a video meditation shot with Kaji’s phone of something outside her kitchen window. If I understood correctly, it served as an invitation to a faith-filled conversation later in the week so it wasn’t directly connected to the liturgy but I really liked how it called me into greater awareness of the things that God-filled moments in the everyday of this pandemic. It’s made me pause more than once since then.

I am not sure that I would be so tech saavy though so I might opt for this lovely prayer of illumination. Or I might begin worship with words of poetry to center us from the whirlwind of the pandemic. Maren Tirabassi always has beautiful words to offer and this old poem might be something to interject into your worship perhaps in particular awareness of the devastation of COVID-19 among the First Nation peoples. Another poem that shattered my heart when I discovered among the collected poems to Shelter in Poems from the Academy of American Poets was this one by Denise Levertov. This poem, especially, could read as a prayer.

Here are two more traditional responsive readings to begin worship.

Opening Litany

We had hoped that resurrection would be proclaimed
as we’ve always remembered it
inside the comfort of our sanctuaries.
We had hoped to hold one another’s hands
and say again, “Peace be with you.”
We had hoped that graduations and weddings
would be celebrated. We would have danced all night.
We had hoped so much.

Set our faith and hope in you, O God.

We had hoped that the church would grow.
We had hoped that we might raise enough money
to send the youth on the mission trip
and maybe even fix the roof. We had such high hopes, O God.

Set our faith and hope in you, O God.

We had hoped that 170,000 people would not die
and that there would be enough
to keep our doctors and nurses safe.
We had hoped that this wouldn’t happen.
We have thought about it so much
in these past six weeks and
we still cannot understand how any of this has happened.

Set our faith and hope in you, O God.

Call to Worship (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19)

Death’s ropes have bound me;
the distress of the grave has found me again and again—
I come here today face-to-face with trouble and grief.

I love God;
and I’ll call out to God as long as I live
but especially today, I pray:

O Lord, save us.

I’m wondering today
what I can do after 170,000 lives have been taken
around the world by virus that has consumed all of my prayers
because I fear for my own life.

O Lord, save us.

I fear for the lives of my children
for the lives of those secluded to nursing homes
without visitors to bring a breath of fresh air
and for the essential workers
who deliver my mail
and stock the grocery shelves.

I can’t help but notice
each deep breath
each drop of moisture on my face mask
each time my lungs do what my God made them to do.

O Lord, save us.

O God, save us from our fears.
Gather us in hope.
Bring us together across wifi connections
and firewalls to call upon your salvation.

Confessing Our Sins

Both the account in Acts and the gospel story (especially in Richard Swanson’s translation) point fingers at you. It resonated with me enough to make it into these prayers. I was also drawn to the Message translation of 1 Peter 1:17-23 where it is said that “your new life is not like your old life” followed by “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”

Call to Confession

This is an invitation that is most often led by the pastor or liturgist. Words do not need to appear on the screen or in the bulletin. 

You who had hoped for so much.
You who had dreamed that life would be different
and has quietly scoffed at every mention of the “new normal.”
You who have asked God for things
that had never once crossed your mind before,
stop here and feel the heavy weight upon your shoulders.
Let us pray.

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we aren’t quite sure who we are called to be in this moment. Our lives have changed. Everything has changed so that our new lives will never be like our old lives. Nothing will ever be exactly as it was. Everything will change and this is terrifying. Forgive us for doubt and fear. Forgive us for not putting our whole faith in your love and grace. 

Assurance of Grace

Beloved in Christ, your sins are forgiven. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Know that you have a future in God and do so knowing that you are to love one another as if your lives depended on it. Your new life will indeed not be like your old life. Love will change us. Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Prayers of the People

I do not know how to write anything better than this prayer right now. If you are unfamiliar with The Work of the People, who produced this video, I commend them to you.

If you are a United Church of Christ pastor and eager to connect your church with the wider church, you might want to offer yourself the blessing of this Conference Wide Worship from the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences. I understand there may be other conferences doing something similar. I’ll update as I find them.

Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.

Naming the Dead

On Friday, I attended a conversation hosted by the BTS Center called It’s Okay to Grieve. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the new Executive Director of this organization, is also a friend, He and his wife and sweet girls arrived in Maine while I was pastoring there to plant a new church within an old downtown congregation. I’ve said it before. My colleagues are doing the most amazing ministry with such care, compassion and creativity. I am in awe and I was excited to listen in on a conversation particularly for clergy.

Later that day, I watched the press conference that Andrew Cuomo hosted earlier that day. It’s the same one where he bashes the president. I might have watched it for that reason. Maybe.

I was struck by the slide with the death tally. The total deaths reached as high as 15,683 but it wasn’t the total that appeared on this slide. Instead, it was dates and numbers.

April 13: 778

April 14: 752

April 15: 606

The number of lives lost on these days and the three days that followed. I found a still here. Though the dates were, the death tally wasn’t cumulative. I found this confusing. Or maybe I was just tired because I was watching it way past my bedtime, but I expected the number to go up to reach that overwhelming statistic that has probably increased not only in New York state but in many other places around the world. 

It hit me then that those people had names. It should be obvious just as each and every one of those nursing home and hospitals have a name. They have boards making hard choices about how to manage care. They have doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff that are all essential workers. Every single one of them has a name that was given to them on the day of their birth. A name that originated from their father’s lineage or sprouted from the wonder-filled bliss of two new parents. We shall call this child beloved.

Names are important especially for people of faith. We recall with wonder and confusion that Adam and Eve were given the daunting task of naming God’s creations. It was one of the many ways that they partnered with God to care for these new precious beings.

I felt the rush of sorrow for each and every one of those beloved children.

All 15,683 in New York.

All 23,660 in Italy.

All 4,632 in China.

All 339 in King County surrounding Seattle.

All 743 in Westchester County where my parents still live.

All 477 in Texas.

I remembered in seminary when we had committed to praying over the names of those that died in the war in Afghanistan. I remember when that number reached so high it seemed impossible that we had lost so many young lives as much as I remember the knot in my stomach that the only names we had were for the American soldiers who had died. There had been other lives lost — women, children, innocent bystanders, and even enemy soldiers — but we didn’t know their names. We didn’t pray for them.

There is power in who we choose to name in our prayers just as there continues to matter that we remember Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland. It matters that we say their names as much as it matters that we remember their stories. In the midst of this pandemic, when families aren’t able to gather and memorialize the dead, there are too many dying alone. It feels all the more important that we remember their names and their stories.

I had seen this video on Twitter of someone flipping through the pages of the obituary section in the Italian paper before any of this really felt real. I feel the enormity of that loss. There are so many but each of those names has a story. Each of those names deserves to be honored and cherished. A colleague of mine exclaimed earlier this week that worship shouldn’t feel like a funeral right now. We are already feeling that weight. Worship needs to offer something else, she insisted, perhaps because it was Easter just the week before. I’m not so sure. I wonder if our worship shouldn’t reflect our collective loss right now.

I wonder if there shouldn’t be a time when we pause to name the dead.

There are lists that record the celebrities who have died of COVID-19. In fact, I found several lists of famous people. There’s a list of healthcare workers that have died. It is a HIPAA violation to share those names. I know. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals in my ministry but I still wonder how we name the dead.

And I wonder if it can really wait with all the grief we are already carrying.