Illuminating the Way to Hope in Another Pandemic Lent

Years ago, and I mean years ago, I wrote this liturgy for the six Sundays in Lent. It was an extended Tenebrae or a reversal of the Advent wreath. I wish I had explained it better in the original post.

I had completely forgotten about it until some kind soul mysteriously found it in my archives. I remembered that the dare came from Ashley Goff when we were sharing in a virtual liturgy lab with Janet Walton. I remembered how much fun it was to share in those calls with our worship professor from seminary but I didn’t really remember the moment in worship. There are some liturgical moments that stick with you. They etch into your being and reframe your hope. This wasn’t one of those but I liked it when I reread it enough to play with it again.

In the original post, I comment about how lovely it was to hear these words spoken by one of our youth. In these days of online worship, I’m not entirely sure that’s possible. I think it might be possible to record the audio and play it over the central set of candles that guide this weekly practice but that also sounds annoying. I wanted something simpler and something a little less somber. That doesn’t feel like the right tone for this Lent. We have had enough quiet introspection about our humanity and plenty of questions have arisen about our mortality so that it doesn’t seem like that should be the focus of this season.

This will not be super traditional and that’s OK. It’s OK to break the rules. It’s ok to play with tradition and sometimes that means that you turn tradition on its head as you try to find hope and make it real. So instead of a central set of candles that is the focus, this imaginative play invites each household to make their own worship centerpiece.

My inspiration comes from this gorgeous Advent wreath created be a member of my sweet Texas church pictured here.

This was an unprompted creation of Kimberlee Flores, but of course our focus is Lent so it’ll look a little bit different.

You might choose to send home these elements in bag of goodies your church offers for each season or you might include a simple supply list (perhaps even using the one below) and see what creativity comes with this invitation.

I’m suggesting some familiar symbols from the season including rocks and water. Rocks recall the temptation Jesus experiences in the wilderness. Sand is maybe a smaller version of that and something that can be dug out of the children’s sandbox easily. Water reminds us of the water that washes the feet of the disciples and the living water that the woman finds beside the well. Bulbs remind us of resurrection and the promise of new life. I really like the greenery in Advent and I am really uninterested in seeing anything barren on my table so bulbs feel right to me. I might just order some paper whites for myself. I received some as a gift years ago and they are a wonder to watch. They fit perfectly in a pie plate if you are not interested in ordering a kit.

If you do blessing bags as my sweet Texas church calls them, you might want to order paper white bulbs to send home to each household. Your local nursery should be able to provide them.

They require no soil to grow and they will bloom by Easter without the gross overwhelming smells of lilies.

They would be a lovely addition to a centerpiece and if you share in this little ritual below, you can compare blossoms over Zoom.

I like hearing diverse voices in worship and I know you, dear pastor, are tired of hearing the sound of your own voice so my hope is that it is easy enough to ask six different households to share in this simple ritual in the beginning of worship. It would be my choice to send this simple liturgy and collect videos from those households. Or if Zoom worship is your thing, I’d unmute that household for this moment but you know what’s right for you and your church, dear pastor.

It could take the place of the Call to Worship or could follow an invitation to contemplate God’s wonder and hope. (Yes, you will see such prayers here soon.) I would repeat these words each week. The things that surround it can change as hope is continually made new.

Invitation to Hope 
Inspired by Psalm 25:1-10

It is in this holy season that we are led into hope.
We have been waiting for hope to come for so long. 

We have put our trust in scientists and experts
and more often than not, 
we have not put our trust in God. 

We have felt unsteady as the sands 
have shifted again and again underfoot. 
We have been waiting for the waters 
to part so that we can find our way
into the hope we know will come.

We need to remember 
that hope is promised. 

Lighting the Way to Hope 
We light one candle today
to remember that hope is promised in 
rainbows and stone tablets. 
Hope is promised in the light 
that shines in you and me.

[Candle is lit.]

I would conclude this moment of worship with song. Maybe the song changes every week or maybe it’s the same refrain about hope that carries us into the promise of Easter. I’m undecided on what that song should be though I am strongly thinking about this hymn. Or really, let’s be honest, I can’t resist singing this song to myself in these strange pandemic days.

This is not covered by CCLI license. You knew that already but it’s a really great version.

That’s all I’ve got so far for Lent, dear pastors, but I’ve got more cooking up on the back burner. Until then, I’m praying for you.

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.