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.

Worship with Fire

This is a tough week. The words from the Revised Common Lectionary that will inspire our worship this Sunday are hard. It is hard not to feel like a finger is being pointed directly at you. It’s hard not to feel judged. It’s difficult to feel like there is any bit of grace, but there is. There always is.

So, let’s start there and acknowledge that there is grace. Even when we don’t feel it, even when we don’t deserve it, there is grace. Let that be the first ingredient that we add to our worship planning. Let there be a heap of grace thrown in first. Make sure there’s enough for you, for me and anyone that might show up to worship on Sunday. Throw in an extra dash for those that you don’t really like. Or the people that have made you doubt grace. Say, for example, internet trolls. Or maybe politicians. I won’t suggest which ones though you may well know where my alliance lie by now. Ahem.

When I think of grace, especially having read the gospel for this week, I can’t help but think of baptism. It sounds a bit like Penecost. There is a new spirit in these words that comes with the fire and water that John foretold in the beginning of this gospel. Each and every one of these readings picks up on fire. There’s the raging fire in Hebrews, Jeremiah’s word that is like fire and the vines that have burned and cut down in the Psalm. Fire is the stuff of passion. It’s the stuff of hope. These prayers hope to cook with such fire from the Spirit.

*Call to Worship (Responsive)

One: Kindle the fire of love today.

All: Ignite the hope we need this day.

One: Burn our pessimism into a fine mist.

All: Spark our imaginations with signs of peace.

One:Let embers glow in all our words.

All: May our hearts no more be divided. 

Prayer for Confession (Unison)

Restore us, O God, from the destruction we bring upon ourselves. You entrusted this world to us. You asked us to tend and keep it but instead of caring for this earth, we have burned it with fire. We have cut it down. We have ripped it apart. We have caused the seasons to shift in our carelessness. The scorching heat only causes us to bellow your name, O God, demanding you to clean up our act. Restore our love for all creation. Allow us to be as gentle with ourselves as we might be with this earth. For, we know, you love us both. You call all your creation good. Help us to hear that blessing in this present time as we seek your forgiveness.

Affirmation of God’s Grace (Responsive)

One: In this present time, even as fires still rage, God’s word breaks our hearts into pieces. God makes a way for peace where there was none by saying, again and again:

All: In Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.

Prayer of Dedication (Unison)

Let us not divide these offerings like lots. Let us use these gifts to radiate the love of Jesus Christ in all of our ministry. May all that we offer in your name, O God, spark hope for our broken world. In Jesus’ name, we pray. 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!

Liturgical Lights for Sunday July 5, 2015

J A S M I N EThis Sunday the Narrative Lectionary leads us into the words of Psalm 146 as we continue to focus on the Psalms offered by Working Preacher. There is another reading to pair this one in Luke 7:18-23 but I haven’t used these pairings for the past five weeks. Why would I start now?

This wisdom from Rolf Jacobson rings particularly true for me as I try to approach the possibility of praise encouraged in this Psalm:

These acts are not universal — not everyone experiences every grace from God. The Psalter knows that we grow sick, we can be killed, we are oppressed. But God moves in the midst of sufferings, sustaining God’s people and pulling the beloved creation forward into God’s preferred future. These acts of deliverance are representative of God’s characteristic intrusions into a broken and suffering world.

If the tradition is not to sing these songs in our corporate worship — but instead find them in our private devotion — then how do we approach these words in such a way where every experience of God’s grace is honored? How do we do that after when there are churches burning in our country? How do we do find such praise when members of our congregations are struggling with the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage while others are rejoicing? And there’s more. You know there’s more on our nation’s heart right now because it’s on your heart. How do we find a space for all of this on the same weekend where our congregations want to sing patriotic hymns for our nation’s independence?

Because I don’t have answers to these questions, I find myself wanting to fall on my knees and confess to God all of the ways that I struggle to find praise. Here is the prayer on my heart today.

Call to Confession

We come before our Lord and our God seeking a word of hope and just a little bit of forgiveness because we have foolishly put our trusts in courts and laws and leaders who can’t give what we truly seek. We’ve done wrong. We’ve messed up. We’ve fallen short so that we can’t find the praise we long to sing. And so it is that we come before our Lord and our God seeking hope and forgiveness. Let us pray:

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

Holy One, set us free. Set us free from all that imprisons us. Free us from the shackles of security and false promises. Liberate us from the grief that nothing will ever really change and help us to find your sight. Open our eyes to the long arc of justice that is leading us toward the liberation of your people. Lift up those who are pushed down by terrorism of creed or color so that we might all see how your law reigns. Watch over us, Holy One, because we are blind to what you are doing. We can’t see the long arc of justice and can only see churches burning, people dying and the ruin of creation. We need a word of hope. We need to know that love is stronger than hate and we can only ask your forgiveness for believing that that grace might come from the highest court in the land. We know there is more work to be done. Forgive us for not doing our part.

Shared Silence for Confession and Personal Prayer

Sung Assurance Come and Fill Our Hearts (Taize)

Assurance of God’s Grace (Responsive)

Our Lord and our God reigns forever.
The arc of God’s love is long and it comes to fill you with forgiveness and hope.
God comes to set you free from your fears and open your eyes to love.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

I would love to hear what you’ve go planned for worship on Sunday — especially as this is the last one in this series. I’m taking a summer break from Liturgical Lights. Please let me know in the comments if you’ve found these prayers helpful or if you’ve used them in worship. And, if you happen to use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday July 5, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at revelsaanderspeters.com.