Pandemic Fireside Prayers for Christmas

There are other things that might be done on Christmas Eve. I have a few options in my kitchen for your pandemic planning. This might not be that.

It could be. You know your people best and what might work to best share this good news but I imagined this service for the days after Christmas Eve when we are still trying to share this story in a way that makes it come alive. This year, after all of the presents are unwrapped and you’ve taken a nice long nap, it’s Sunday again. It will be a low attendance Sunday and you might not want to even push out into the cold to lead worship. (I know you love what you do, dear pastor. You’re allowed to have days like this too.) I imagined this service for Zoom where no one has to bother leave the house.

It is a service that turns back to the story you heard on Christmas Eve and doesn’t opt for the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary that day. It’s not something I do often but I wanted to hear the Christmas story again. Maybe because I can’t hear it enough. I’d encourage you to find spaces in this service after words are shared to listen to the crackling fire together. Allow that meditation to be what it is in the comfort and hope that we need.

Ten hours is surely way too much fireplace action but it might be fun to have this in the welcome screen for those that don’t have fireplaces at home. It might even remain in the spotlight through the Zoom worship experience so that it really feels like we are all gathered around the fire.

Invitation to Worship

Curl up by the fire
and feel the warmth
of the Spirit in
your body and soul.

Gather here
with compassion
and kindness after 
when it seems 
like the celebration
might be over. Everything 
has been unwrapped
but we still long 
to tell this story 
of wonder and
hope. We still 
need hope. 

Stretch out 
and relax for
God is here
and invites us 
to worship and praise.

Poem

Imagine us all together gathered around this fire sharing stories and imagining what could be. Feel the comfort of gathering together all in one place where we can share what this good news means. Listen for the movement of the Spirit in your heart and in the faces of those warmed by the fire as you hear these words of hope and wonder from Wendell Berry in his poem Remembering That It Happened Once.

Song

This version of O Come All Ye Faithful by Audrey Assad may or may not be covered by your licenses. Please remember to check before using any artist’s work.

Prayer

O God, we come.
We come adoring
and uncertain for what 
to do with this good news. 
It's a story we love to hear
and one we tell again and again
in song and story but this year
it needs to be more than a story.
Come, O God, give us
new understanding
of this birth today. 
We pray in your hope.
Amen.

Scripture

This is the story we hear every Christmas Eve before the lights are dimmed and Silent Night is sung. It’s the same story we hear Linus share to disrupt the commercialization of the play in A Charlie Brown Christmas and the story we still long to hear told with wonder of what it could mean around this fire.

Hear again the story of Christmas as Luke tells it in Chapter 2.

It might be fun to share this story from a less familiar translation like this one by Richard Swanson.

Story

This is one of those stories that you’ve probably heard many times before but it’s one of those stories that is meant to be shared around the fire. This is a YouTube version of the 195 recording of Paul Harvey reading it but you can easily find Man and the Birds in many places on the internet, and perhaps in your own files.

Song

YouTube won’t let me post the video here but I really like this version of Joy to the World (You Are My Joy) by the Rend Collective. It may or may not be covered by your licenses. Please remember to check before using any artist’s work.

Shared Story

There is joy in these songs, poems and stories and it reminds of of other joys. It reminds of us of other Christmases and other times that we have felt like this is what it really means. This is what it’s all about. As you feel the Spirit lead, unmute yourself and share a glimpse of that time when Christmas had new meaning for you. Share your story around the fire.

If your congregation hasn’t done this kind of sharing in the passing of the peace or in the prayers, this will be clunky and awkward. It’s OK. Simply remind people to re-mute themselves after speaking and enjoy in the sharing.

Song

Prayers for Christmas

Holy One, we are humbled 
by what you can do 
for it surprises us
again and again
that a child 
could change
our whole world.

It challenges our
privilege and comfort
to hear that it was a poor one
that dismantled the powers
we still assume 
should lead. 

Remind is again
what love can do
when it lives and breathes
for we know that there
is still much hurt
among your people...
as this pandemic still rages... 
as lives have been lost...
and creation withers...
when we resist justice...
and fail to understand
what it might mean 
for Christ to live
in our flesh...

You have come into
this world, O Christ Child, and illuminated
the way ahead with mystery and grace.
Fill creation and our very lives 
with justice and mercy
as only your love can do.

Be our hope again
as we imagine what this 
good news will do to change 
our hearts and mind this year. 
Amen.

I really don’t like writing blessings that others might say. I feel like it comes from you and your love for your people and I know you love your people, dear pastor. You have proven that again and again in this pandemic. So I end this service with this prayer knowing that you will fill in the rest with blessing in song or in words.

My newsletter went out today with all of my thoughts and wonderings for Advent and Christmas. If you missed it in your email, you can find it here. (This link sends you to the sign up page but if you click on Let Me Read First you can see if you want this in your inbox in the future.)

I shared at the very end of that email that I’m working on a new liturgy for those first weeks of January after you’re exhausted from Christmas and have no new ideas but it’s still Christmas and there is still something magical about how we tell these stories. I’m calling it New Year Epiphanies and hope to release it soon.

I’m praying for you, dear pastor, and the ministry you offer this season. I’m praying for you so much.

Pandemic Pentecost Affirmations

I read this morning that there are more churches closing in the wake of the pandemic. I have seen the reports about attendance and listened to how hard it is to wait in that Zoom room for anyone to join the room.

The church will be forever changed by this pandemic. We will be forever changed.

I hesitate to name what those changes are. It feels too soon. We do not know enough.

In the United States, only 50 percent of the population is vaccinated. Only half. And at the same time the White House is working toward sending over eighty million vaccines to be used throughout our global community to end this pandemic. I pray you’ll continue this effort by supporting the People’s Vaccine. You can learn more here.

We are not there yet but it is important to find space to name aloud where we are feeling called. Pentecost came and went. You celebrated with cake and streamers and even kites. We find ourselves now in that long season after Pentecost when we look for the green sprouts of new growth. We hear familiar stories and remember what matters most — and maybe we even dream.

I know that is hard when looking at the balance sheet. I know it is harder when looking at the empty pews and mourning for so many lives lost in just one year. Our faith proclaims that from death comes new life. It is a bold claim and it is not always easy to claim such boldness so I thought it might help to catch a little of energy from Pentecost and carry it into this moment with Pandemic Pentecost Affirmations.

It’s an adaptation from something you have seen before. During Lent, I offered a simple free printable on Pandemic Easter Affirmations. I have also shared my favorite affirmations because these are words I need to repeat to myself when I am not sure about the future. It felt like something that needed for this moment when so much is uncertain about the future. The changes that have come in this past year have been so fast that I wonder how it is possible to process all that has changed. I wonder if that’s part of why we so often hear that desire to return to normal? Normal might not exist but we crave comfort. We yearn for the the familiar. We struggle when the tiniest things have changed in the traditions of our church and this year has pronounced their end. You know, dear pastor, that it’s not enough to make a bold claim and move on. It has to live in our bodies. It has to wander through our prayers and become part of who we are.

We need to find words to speak to this moment of who we have become and find ways to express what it is we believe the church could be. Our words will not be the same but if we listen to this gift of tongues then we may find the hope we need for the days ahead.

You might use the workshop model I suggested here for the Easter season to gather these affirmations to carry the congregation through the growing season or they might just be something that is used with the leadership board to open your next meeting. You could use it with the youth in the next time you gather on Zoom and share their vision in worship the following Sunday or maybe it’s something to bring to your weekly Bible Study after reading Acts 2 together.

I imagine that there are several other ways that this could be used. I hope so. I hope it’s something that is easily passed on to a deacon or elder or someone who loves to lead adult faith formation kinda things with the encouragement, “Wouldn’t this be wonderful? Let’s try it.”

I hope it feels worth trying. I hope it’s a blessing for you, dear pastors.

I know, too, that there are words you are trying to find for this week. I am not fast enough in my prayer to speak to more gun violence in San Jose and the anniversary of George Floyd’s death but where I fail Maren Tirabassi always has words. Her prayer for San Jose and her prayer for May 25, 2021 both spoke to my heart. We are carried by each other, dear pastor. Alleluia. Alleluia.

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!

How to Make Ashes

Every year, I enjoy the ritual of transforming last year’s palms into ashes. This year, I posted something about this ritual on Facebook which spurred a series of responses from some dear clergy friends who had little success in making ashes. So, this is my attempt to come to the rescue of my dear friends.

First and foremost, do not attempt to perform this ritual inside the church. Do not attempt this in your home. Do not enclose yourself in any interior space. Please, go outside. Your lungs will thank you. Before you go outside, make sure you gather your supplies. Every ritual has its required elements. So, for this particular rite, you’ll need:

  • The leftover eco-palms from last year* 
  • Bulletins from last Sunday 
  • Catalog that one might use to order ashes (or other glossy paper) 
  • A large coffee can 
  • Matches  

Once outside, far from a building and preferably not on grass, rip up those bulletins and the catalog. It’ll burn easier if you give it a little breathing room. I don’t understand why that is but it’s something I’ve learned over the years. I use these extra paper items because it gives you more ashes. There’s also the added benefit that it gives another hue to the ashes. The palms themselves create whispy ashes that are hard to get on your finger — which is kinda required for the imposition of ashes — and the paper helps to give it a little umph. Put the ripped paper in the coffee can and light it on fire.

Here’s where you might singe your eyebrows so please be careful. When the flames really get going, and you feel a little bit like a pyromaniac, that’s when you start adding the palms. Gather a bunch in your palm. Place them into the can so they start to catch the flame. Let go, silly. They will not catch fire easily or rapidly. It’ll probably just smoke for a while. It will take some time before flames start to fly but there’s no need to risk it. You do not need to become dust in this ritual. Get it all burned. It will still be smoldering and the can is hot. So please be careful. If you live in Maine, like I do, throw some snow on top and this will cool off the fire sooner.

Now, you can bring your can of ashes back inside. You’re going to want to mash them up a little bit because there will be chunks of paper and palms. That’s not going to glide on anyone’s forehead easily. Amazingly, you’re still not done though. Spoon some out into a small bowl (the one that you’ll use for the imposition of ashes) and stir in some olive oil to make a paste. You don’t want it to be too gooey but there’s no science to this. Mix it until it looks right to you which may require using more ashes from your stash from the coffee can. Who are you kidding? It definitely will.

As another friend on Facebook said, it’s lovely to think that you might find this ritual to be deeply spiritual with intense prayer but you may find that you’re more worried about not burning down the church. I think this fits the ritual too. It’s so human — and in the end, you’ve made ashes so that like Job you too can “relent and find comfort in dust and ashes” (42:6).

*Mysteriously, the palms pictured above are not eco-palms. The church I serve stopped ordering these palms two (or three?) years ago. Still, we had them in mass supply in the sacristy. I can’t explain this. It’s a Lenten mystery.