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.

Ingredients for Worship

Way back when I left my last full time call, nearly five years ago, I established this little home on the internet. I had read a bunch of books about blogging then. The trouble was that my internet home wasn’t what those books had imagined.

There isn’t a whole lot of click bait in worship resources and ministry ideas. I wasn’t going to trend even if I had been consistent with the features I imagined way back when. And I wasn’t. I wanted to write. I imagined a book. I spent hours upon hours writing that book and it was too much to maintain both my writing practice and this internet home.

Most of that book is now written. There is one last chapter to write and a whole bunch more editing to do. I’d spent the very end of last year writing a book proposal. Friends gave me feedback on that proposal and then a worldwide pandemic walloped all of us. The world is not the same as it was. No matter how ready I had been just a week before to send in my proposal, the urgency disappeared. It no longer felt like it mattered.

IMG_7147
This is my quarantine.

I’ve occupied my time in isolation potty training my toddler. I have spent most of the past month staring at my bathroom tile, reading books about poop and dancing around like a maniac when my sweet darling actually peed. Poop is a whole other story. At the same time, my baby girl learned to crawl. She has decided she has places to be.

I haven’t read much nor taken on any projects. I have not written a word outside of a text message but it was in a text chain that I felt a nudge to revive one of the old features. Some of my favorite clergy women were lamenting the fatigue and exhaustion that felt all the more palpable after Easter was over. Somewhere in the middle of Lent, they got locked within their own rooms. Few of them were upper rooms. It happened fast without much preparation. They innovated the crap out of those last few Sundays in one of the most holy seasons in the Christian calendar. They became producers and televangelists. They brought meaning and purpose. They built community in a format that most of their church members have bemoaned before the pandemic hit. And then, they made Easter happen with butterflies and choral anthems. It was amazing to watch. I am truly in awe. Then, Easter was over and all of the hope that this might only last through that Sunday vanished. They are tired. They are grieving.

They have no idea how much longer this will go on. They are, as we are all, hunkered down which another dear friend described really well earlier this week. They don’t know how to temper the expectations of those in their congregations any better than they know how to filter their own feelings. It is so much. It is just so much.

Before Easter, and especially during Holy Week, these amazing women told me that there was a wealth of resources. Artists and musicians were gifting free material to use in worship during those High Holy Days. There was so much good stuff that could be copied and pasted so that they could spend the time figuring out how to do a funeral for the saint that died in isolation at the nursing home or the young man who fell victim to this virus that has upended all of our lives. This broke my heart.

So I’m reviving this old feature so that my colleagues and friends can copy and paste into Zoom and Facebook Live when they are doing so much.

Ingredients for Worship will once again feature prayers following the Revised Common Lectionary. New liturgies will appear each week on Tuesday for the upcoming Sunday starting this coming Tuesday. All of the prayers will focus on this strange new interim season in which we now find ourselves. Themes in these prayers will emphasize change, uncertainty, discernment and discovering who we are and who God is now.

It’s a small thing that I can do and I hope it helps.

I’m praying with you and for you, dear clergy.

Embracing Wonder with Children

There are specific things with instructions that parenting requires. Potty training, I am learning, is one of them. There are steps that your child must understand for success. First, she’s got to pull down her pants and then sit on the potty before she pees. There is an order to this process.

It’s important not to skip steps or accidents will happen. Such has been my past two weeks. There have been lots of accidents even as my toddler learns. She’s making progress but she’s still learning the steps.

41QTbYRZWeL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_Mystery does not have steps. There is no process. No order but instead it is something to behold and even embrace. It was the first thing that caught my eye about Amelia Richardson Dress’ new book and it was right there in the title. This is the Mystery of Easter is an adaptation of a pastor’s careful reflection on how to share the power of death and resurrection with the children. It reads like a children’s sermon with clear reference to scripture and a tenderness toward the hardest part of the story.

The crucifixion isn’t skipped or ignored. Nor is it glorified and lauded. It’s instead shared carefully just as a parent might share the difficult news of a pet’s death or the news of the coronavirus. It’s something hard that has happened. It is something sad that causes the people to be sad. It breaks their hearts.

There are several pages devoted to this mystery with beautiful illustrations that hint toward the feelings that children might be feeling in hearing such news. Death isn’t explained. There are no steps outlined as to how Jesus got onto that cross but that it happened and it was sad because it was the opposite of love.

Children know what love does. They know how it feels when they are loved and when they are not. They know what it feels like to be loved even when their parent is having a really rough time after being stuck inside for the millionth day in a row. That’s what I love about this book. It doesn’t attempt to explain things that are hard for even adults to understand. It picks up on something we all know even if we don’t feel like we have felt it enough. It shares a mystery that is already known.

It puts that wisdom int this man called Jesus who “loved big enough to change the whole world” and encourages children how they too could “love God, love yourself [and] love everyone else.”

Maybe there is some kind of step-by-step instruction for how to do this. Maybe there is some magical parental formula that explains death and resurrection to children but I haven’t yet found it. Nor am I quite sure that it exists because we have a hard enough time explaining it to ourselves as adults. We opt for metaphors. We ponder questions like those that the author indicates were important to how she told this story:

  • Why do we have a cross hanging in our church if the cross was a bad thing?
  • Why did Jesus die?
  • Who killed Jesus?
  • Did God want Jesus to die?
  • How do we act after someone dies?

We pray that the hard thing is not the last thing but it is a matter of faith. To choose the resurrection. To claim that love will change the world. To live into the mystery isn’t easy. There are no simple steps. Nor is there ever really a moment when it is fully mastered whereas I hope potty training has that end point. Dear God, please. Let it be so.

As much as my toddler lights up when she goes pee in the potty, I want her to experience that with God. I want her to be proud of what she knows and what she can do. I want her to feel like she has something she can do to help but I also want her to experience awe and wonder. I want both my girls to play within the mystery without ever feeling like they need to explain it. I want them to feel it even when they don’t have words for it.

There is no greater mystery than the one that begins and ends this children’s book. It is that good news that we are in God and God is in us. God’s love can change the world. It can change us. I’m so glad to find a children’s book that invites my children into this mystery. I hope it grows right along with them.

I am thrilled to share This is the Mystery of Easter after I learned about it from the author and was asked for an honest review. You too can download a free digital copy after subscribing to Amelia’s weekly newsletter or you can order a copy for your children’s Easter baskets.

Ingredients for Worship in Holy Week

Though I’ve continued to write liturgy throughout the season of Lent for my lovely church here in Texas, I have completely failed to pepper my blog with any of those prayers. I managed to share semi-regular posts during Epiphany but it seems that my writing project which has long since surpassed 70,000 words has taken up all of my head space. Or perhaps I’ve been cooking up other things. I’m honestly not sure.

Nonetheless, Holy Week is here. On Sunday, we’ll wave palms and find ourselves in the midst of a confusing celebration before we find ourselves washing feet and weeping at the foot of the cross later in the week. Pastors and musicians are busy creating meaningful worship moments for this holy season of transformation and change.

These particular prayers pick up on theme of stones and hard places as you may have found in the liturgy I wrote for Ash Wednesday. On Palm Sunday, we pay particular attention to the stones shouting out and focus our devotion on Easter on the stone being rolled away.

Poetry plays heavily into the style of worship at my lovely church and so I’ve included a selection of poems we shall be hearing in these holy days, plus a few that I found just yesterday from the beautiful offerings of my sisters in the RevGals community.

Poetry for Holy Week

States of Being by Luci Shaw

Sweet Darkness by David Whyte

Who Baked the Bread by Katherine Dale Makus

Like The Water by Wendell Berry 

Roll Away the Stone by Janet Morley 

It’s All About Her by Liz Crumlish

If These Were Silent by Rosalind C. Hughes

Ingredients for Palm Sunday

Call to Worship

One: We begin here, together,
waiting and wondering
what could happen.
Many: What will happen when
Jesus enters through those gates.
We wonder what will change
and how it might change us.

One: Hosanna! We chant with the whole crowd
for we need saving. We need for things to change.
Many: Blessed is the one who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

One: We begin this holy week
pushing through the crowd
kicking at the stones
and hoping that this year will be different.
Many: We begin waving our palms
and hoping that God’s steadfast love
really does endure forever.

Benediction

One: Go into this holy week
raising your voice:
shouting for justice,
speaking your questions,
naming even your doubts aloud.
Many: We will ask for God’s salvation.
One: Dare to hope and dream
that change can come. Change will come.
Love will endure again.
Many: May love find us when we are silent.

Ingredients for Maundy Thursday

Call to Confession

On this holy night, when we remember
friends gathered in an upper room,
we step into the sweet darkness ourselves.
We wonder if this new commandment includes us,
and we lament all of the ways we already fall short.

Prayer of Confession (unison)

Holy One, our worlds have been small.
We have settled. We have made exceptions. We haven’t felt like we could
ever be enough. We have felt way beyond love, even your love.
So we have wondered where we fit, believing that someone else could
bake the bread. Someone else could make the wine. Someone else could clean up
the fragments left behind. Someone else could mop up the spilled water
on the floor. We are thirsty for your love. Forgive us
for all the ways that we have allowed ourselves to believe
that we are beyond your love.
A time of silent meditation and personal prayer follows.

Assurance of Grace

One: Lift up your heads, dear ones, to hear the good news:
It is a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as Christ has loved you, and will love you to the end,
we are to love each other but do not miss out on the fact
that God in Christ has loved you from the very beginning
and will love you to the end of the age.
Many: Thanks be to God!

Ingredients for Resurrection Sunday

Call to Worship

One: No more shall there be in it an infant
that lives but a few days, or an old person
who does not live out a lifetime.
Many: No more shall the sound of weeping be heard
or even a cry of distress.

One: They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
Roll away the stone from your hearts.
Remove the rocks from your eyes
and dare to see the new heavens and new earth
that God has created.
Many: Create joy in us, O God.
Fill our hardened hearts
with your delight.

Benediction

One: Roll away the stone.
Dare to be perplexed, even amazed.
Many: We will look for new life.
We’ll try not to expect death.

One: Roll it away! Let the former things
not even come to mind,
but go into this world be glad.
Go and rejoice in what God is still creating.
Many: God is doing a new thing. Alleluia!

If you use these prayers as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear about any adaptations you make for your context and hear how it goes.

Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday

It was months ago when I agreed to preach on the second Sunday in May. I said yes ever so willingly. I was just so thrilled to be preaching again after this new reality seeking (im)possible things.

I didn’t realize then what is all too real now.

The second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day. It is the Sunday where churches offer corsages and carnations to mothers. It is this Sunday where prayers to “Mother God” are lifted in congregations that would otherwise struggle with inclusive language. It is the Sunday where the grieving and the childless stay home along with those that struggle with infertility and those that don’t ever want anyone to know that she had an abortion. There are those that we abandoned by their mothers and those that never knew gentle touch of their mother. They don’t come to church because they know that they will not be celebrated. They will not be honored.

IMG_4444They will not hear so much about the resurrection as they will about mothers. And they know this, so they stay home. Each congregation has their own traditions and there isn’t one of these bodies of Christ that seems to realize that Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday.

The liturgical year moves from Advent to Easter. From birth to death, we are led into the Season of Easter which continues for much more than one day. Because we are still in it. It is the season that we find ourselves us in now. This second Sunday of May is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. It’s nothing flashy really. Just another chance to talk about this amazing thing that happened. It’s a chance to talk about the awesome possibility of resurrection and what it means right now. You know, no big deal. Or perhaps it really is no big deal because it seems that most congregations replace this talk of resurrection with something called the Festival of the Christian Home. (This is also what it is called in my denomination but I can find nothing on the United Church of Christ website about it.) And it seems that churches expect it. Something must happen on Mother’s Day in our worship. Something must be said. Something must be done because that’s what we always do. But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday.

Christmas is a liturgical holiday. Easter is a liturgical holiday. Even St. Patrick and St. Valentine have feast days. But, this isn’t one of them. There is no feast day for mothers. It’s simply not part of the liturgical calendar. You’ll find it on other calendars — those printed for dry cleaners and banks. On the second Sunday of May, it is Mother’s Day. So let there be brunch and flowers and perhaps even some chocolates. Make mom breakfast in bed. Or, at least, give her to break. But, when it’s time to live into the resurrection in the pulpit or pews, let’s remember that that’s not everyone’s story. Not everyone has a mother who was as kind and gentle. Handing every woman a carnation will only remind some of those women how they don’t fit in. Because those women came to church this morning needing to hear some good news. She needs what we all need: to hear the good news of resurrection.

Preach that good news.

Because every man, woman and child needs to hear that good news.

Make that good news the focus of your celebration on this second Sunday of May. Make it known in stories that reveal that what Jesus commands is that we love one another. Make that love known in the caring ministries you offer each other. Make it known in the works of justice and peace. Try not to make every single story about mothers. Please.

And if you need a call to action, read the Mother’s Day Proclamation. Because this is how it really began. There were brokenhearted women who saw a hurting world ripped apart by war. They would not allow one more child to lay down their life. Arise, all women who have hearts, they called out. They called out for new life from death. They called for new stories and new words. They called for hope where it couldn’t be found. Do we have that same heart? Might we rise with those women?

Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday but it is a good time to ask who we are as people of the resurrection.

6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.