Backpack Blessings in Coronatide

In my first attempt at brainstorming for worship planning in the pandemic, I wondered how many blessings there might be as the school year begins. I wondered if there will not only be the usual backpack blessings but also blessings for teachers and parents (and other caregivers). It could be a whole service. Or it could be an event for which you’ll find options below.

There is this whole service that I thought might work for this moment with some adaptations. It was written several years ago and is intended for in person gatherings, but this Service for the New School Year would speak powerfully to the fears and hopes in this upcoming academic year. I could see the index cards suggested being adapted for the Zoom polling feature. I do not know how you do the interactive parts in pre-recorded worship. I don’t think it’s impossible but I haven’t seen it done yet.

This is not an exhaustive list of resources but I hope that some of it is easy to adapt to your context so that you might find an opportunity to offer blessing. As with the other prayers I’ve offered in this pandemic, you can give me credit. That’s lovely but my goal here is really to help you worship plan, dear pastors. You are doing so much.

Tangible Blessings

Many churches are inclined to offer stickers, buttons or tags to adorn on a child’s backpack to remind them of their belovedness during the school day and even when they reach in their bag to dig out homework. This year is no different. In fact, it seems even more important.

Traci Smith is sending out such blessings to the children in her church with these stickers. I have always adored the work of Suzanne L. Vinson and think that these stickers might be an amazing blessing stuck to the laptop of a parent or teacher. Or I might opt for these blessed buttons. Then again, knowing that there may be a delay in getting these resources in time, I’d be inclined to get crafty. I’ve heard of several churches doing photo contests to engage in intergenerational fellowship and I see no reason why blessings shouldn’t be the same.

My first thought was something I saw on Pinterest when I was trying to find fun things to keep my toddler entertained: homemade shrinky dinks.

To make this an all church project, you might tell people to dig into their recycling and pull out a #6 plastic. Clean it. Draw on it with sharpies. Maybe you further instruct that they use the same word like blessed or love or breathe in the center of their drawing. You could either have them bake it themselves or you can have them delivered to the church so that they can be baked, assembled and delivered all together. I dare you to pick up a sharpie to do this without thinking of this gorgeous essay. This is 110% prayer.

Or you could xerox the church logo with the word blessed or loved or whatever word you choose and make your own stickers. Clergy friends, I am not advising you to take on these crafts yourself. Please seek out the talented people in your congregation who can make these dreams come true. You are tired and need a vacation. You do not need to do it all.

Blessing Events

I’ve also seen that some churches are considering socially distanced events. There are churches that are providing a blessing arch for individual cars to drive through. I know there are other churches that plan to do backpack blessings in parking lots. Maybe the blessing event is a socially distant parade like we have seen so many celebrate their birthdays in this pandemic where stickers, supplies and prayer cards are delivered.

I heard one kind soul created a scavenger hunt through her area for children to go hunting for school supplies. I have no idea how this would work but it sounds so sweet.

Backpack Blessings

student-2794246_1920Some churches affix prayers to the tangible blessings that they send home. Others find a way to do it in worship. Ordinarily, this is my favorite version of the backpack blessings written by Quinn Caldwell for such moments. There is also this one and this one. You can google and find your own favorites but few of these prayers are written for this particular moment of social distancing in our pandemic reality.

With complete gratitude to Wendy Claire Barrie, I’m choosing to adapt her prayer for this moment. It is in truth only adapted slightly.

God of Wisdom, we give you thanks for learning and for the teachers and parents who help us grow. We thank you for this new beginning, for new books and new ideas. We thank you for sharpened pencils, pointy crayons, and crisp blank pages waiting to be filled. We thank you for the gift of making mistakes and trying again. Help us to remember that asking the right questions is often as important as giving the right answers. Today we give you thanks for children, and we ask you to bless every child beginning this new school year with curiosity, understanding and respect. May their backpacks be a sign to them that they have everything they need to learn and grow this year in school (and in Sunday School). May they be guided by your love. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who as a child in the temple showed his longing to learn about you, and as an adult taught by story and example your great love for us. Amen.

Here is another idea inspired by this hand blessing. This would work best in Zoom where all of the hands could be seen in a gallery view. It is meant to be led by one voice to avoid any unnecessary complications to this blessing. As with the Blessing for Teachers that follows, it is rooted in the wonder of creation.

A Pandemic Blessing for New Learning

Over the first waters of creation
the spirit hovered
above what was still unknown.
Light would come.
God would bring
bright shining light
just as God will bring
new ideas and wonderings
into your heads in this new school year.

It will be different this year.
You might not get to hold the hand
of your best friend
or reach for the monkey bars
or even shake your teacher’s hand.
You will wash your hands more
than you ever have before
even if your classroom is in
your dining room this year.

You will still grow and change.
God’s light will shine with you
as so many spirit hover close. And so, we bless you in new learning.

Feel our hands hover close (to your screen)
in blessing for the light that shines in you,
in the light that is just beginning to shine,
and the bright light God will bring into your life this year.
We bless you to grow in our love. Amen.

I would want to conclude with this hymn because it was in my head while I wrote this prayer. It could also lead into the blessing for teachers.

Blessings for Parents and Teachers

I would like for there to be separate blessings for teachers and parents because their particular petitions are different. You may have seen this circulate like I did.

It’s funny but it also highlights that parents are not teachers even if many of them will be doing some version of homeschooling this year. Some teachers are parents and being forced to make decisions about their children while also trying to secure their livelihood. Several weeks ago, I’d read something about how many teachers have put in extra time this summer to update their wills before the school year begins. Teachers need blessing. I imagine this following the blessing for children which may or may not be separated by music. While hands were used to bless the children, I wanted to use some alternate visual and opted for light. This would therefore require everyone in your Zoom gallery view to have a candle ready to light. You could, of course, pull out the candles from Christmas Eve and distribute them with the stickers and prayer cards that you’re delivering. Here is what I hope will be a simple blessing for teachers to let them know how loved they are.

A Pandemic Blessing for Teachers

In the beginning, before you knew
what you might learn from washing children’s hands,
washing blackboards and designing lesson plans
with special attention for the particular people
in your classroom, you were called to teach.
You were inspired by those who taught you.
You were energized by what you saw happen
in an ordinary classroom. A light began to shine.
A light that continues to shine
through every adaptation
from countless administrations.
That light has shined
brightest when you watched
your students get it.
You radiated in that hope
and we have seen it shine in you.
Today, dear teachers, we light a candle

Pause to allow everyone to light their candles at home.

for the spark of imagination
and the flicker of love
that will shine in you this year
even if it is hidden behind a face mask.
We pray that you feel the warmth
of these lights that we hold for you.
We pray blessings upon you,
dear teachers, as you begin this new school year
in the middle of a global pandemic.
We pray for you now
but these candles will continue to glow
every day of this year. Our prayers will
be with you every day
for we know that you have been called
to teach and you will do so
with God’s great blessing.
We pray God’s blessing upon you,
now and always. Amen.

If you did not opt for music to follow the first blessing, you might choose to do so now. It could simply be a recording of your church musician playing a favorite creation hymn. If possible, I would do this toward the end of the service where it actually possible not to extinguish these candles until after the service has concluded. Ideally, I would invite folks to wait until they turned off their cameras. Alternatively, you could simply adapt the above prayer from Wendy Claire Barrie to include parents and children. Or that might just be the version you publish on your social media on the first day of school to remind teachers, parents and students how loved they are.

Even if I’m not writing an actual blessing for parents here, I did want there to be something tangible for both parents and teachers. I first thought of the breath prayers for anxious times that Sarah Bessey offered months ago when we thought this surely would be resolved by the end of the summer. Breath prayers seem particularly poignant with masks covering our mouths and noses, ventilators in high demand and the echo of too many black voices saying “I can’t breathe” under the foot of a police officer. I’m thinking of the stress that parents and teachers are already carrying as they watch headlines tick away revealing the overwhelming voracity of this virus. I want them to have a blessing to carry in their pocket when they can’t remember that shining light within them. I made prayer cards to download. You can find those Breath Prayers for Teachers and Parents here. It’s not everything but it’s something.

I hit post and shared on social media only to realize that I totally omitted Sunday School and the kick off of the church year. Is that happening this year? Is it different?

Dear pastors, I’m praying for you as you offer hope and encouragement in this moment. I pray these things help you to do the work you do so well.

Blessing of the Backpacks and Briefcases

Today social media is awash with smiling children on front porches and stoops waiting for the yellow school bus to arrive and take them off to school. It is the day after Labor Day and it is the day where everything changes in our routines.

Gone is the leisure of summer. Here is the alternate pace of school lunches and homework. It is not just our children that experience this shift, but any adult that drags children out of bed and brushes their teeth before sending them off on the bus. It is a rhythm that changes all of our time, especially in the church. Our church calendars ebb and flow with the school calendar. When children go back to school, we mark that transition in the church with things like Homecoming Sunday and Rally Sunday to intentionally begin anew after a summer of relaxation.

I admit that this always feels a bit weird to me as discipleship doesn’t ever really have an off-season. Every year, when this shift arrives, we are in the middle of Ordinary Time. It is a time that we mark on the church calendar between Pentecost and Advent to grow in our discipleship. It is not stuff that can be done with any sort of leisure as the gospels remind us every week. Still, we need leisure. We need sabbath and restoration as much as we need each transition to be blessed. Several years ago, blessings of the backpacks started to become popular. This is a version that I adapted several years ago to include everyone in this time of transition and growth.

There are two selections from scripture to be read in this litany. I have recruited two people to help read, usually one that is older and one that is younger, to help lead this moment of blessing by reading these two biblical passages. That intergenerational connection is really important to me and it’s one that I want to overwhelm this moment of blessing. So you might choose, as I often do, not to worry about everyone having a bulletin but leading that unison prayer at the end in such a manner that the gathered congregation is more focused on holding onto each other than reading the words on a piece of paper. Encourage those still sitting in the pew to grab hands too. They are part of this blessing of holding onto each other, to be sure. I highly recommend with moving from this blessing into song. Something upbeat and uplifting would be ideal.

*Blessings of the Backpacks and Briefcases (Responsive)

Invite everyone to bring their backpacks and briefcases forward. This is not just a blessing for the children but for the whole family of God so be sure to add a few extra words of invitation to those that carry paper calendars in their pockets or purses. For those that carry their entire lives on their smartphones, that electronic briefcase is surely worthy of blessing. All are invited to come forward – with their bulletins – to receive this blessing for this new season of change.

One: There is nothing that should not be blessed. Each moment and every opportunity is worthy of God’s blessing. God began in the beginning of creation with the day and the night. God blessed the setting of the sun and the beginning of new wonders in great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. God blessed them all.

As the calendar changes again, and we prepare ourselves to see and do new wonders upon the great seas of life, we listen for God’s blessing in this new season. We need to hear words of blessing for we worry about whether we will like our teachers or if we will make new friends. We worry if we will be successful and honor God in all that we do and so we need to hear God say:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

As young school aged children, adults bustling to work, and retirees carefully keeping calendars of activities, we know that life is to be lived. We know that there’s a lot more life to experience, a lot more living to do and tons more to learn.  In this time, we ask for God’s blessing upon this shift in seasons for we remember the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8, 11)

We ask God to make this new season of commuting and learning, growing and changing, a blessed time for every living creature that moves. We ask God to release our worry and open us to enough grace that we might hold each other through all that troubles us. In that hope, we hold each other’s hands for the comfort and support and ask for God’s blessing in one voice,

Invite worshippers to hold hands, whether or not they are holding a symbolic object.

All: God of seasons and calendars, God of homework and alarms, bless these ordinary objects that represent the change in the seasons of our lives. Bless our backpacks so that they are not too heavy to carry with all that we hope to learn.  Bless our briefcases that they might bring work that reflects our love for you.  Bless smartphones and paper calendars that they might each allow for time without worry.  Bless us all as we try to live in all your seasons with wonder and delight.  Amen.

Check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!