An Easter Pageant for a Pandemic Year

This year, we have done things differently. Worship has been different and there have been surprises.

There are things that have happened in worship that never would have been possible if we had not been forced into online worship for the care of every beloved child of God. Sometimes, different is good. It invites us to dream. It challenges us to imagine what else is possible.

It might even challenge us to take risks.

A pageant might not feel like that much of a risk because our first association is so often the costumes on the sweet cherubs that refuse to stay in the chancel and tell the story of Jesus’ birth. It especially might not feel risky because so many of the pageants I saw online this past Christmas were so wonderful. They had all of the wonder and all of the joy that warms our hearts every other year.

The risk, instead, is in telling the story of death and resurrection in a way that speaks to this moment. It does not feel faithful to leap into the good news of new life when so much has been lost this year. We still need to find space to lament and grieve. We need to honor the liminal space we still find ourselves in waiting for the world to change again.

The risk is inviting households within your church family to tell this story in a way that is meaningful to them.

This Year is a pageant for this pandemic year that encourages creativity and honest storytelling for asynchronous worship. It offers scripted narration that might be shared between two or more narrators and detailed explanation for each of the seven scenes including Last Supper Preparations where Peter has to make a curbside pick-up for provisions and a brief scene where we feel the heaviness of our grief in seeing Mary weep. It is a telling of how hope comes alive in that focuses on that space between death and new life so there is a scene where the disciples are Trapped in an Upper Room. It is familiar to us what their feelings may have been because we have felt that tension build in our closest relationships while in quarantine. My favorite moment might actually be where the tension breaks and the disciples try to do something normal and familiar. They go fishing but there is an invitation to share images and videos of what so-called normal feels like now.

There are other video clips, as we have chosen to call them, where the beloved community can share the wonder and glory of their garden. That was inspired by the church member in my first call that would bring photos of her garden to the church office each week. It is our hope that this isn’t a story that is just told by the youngest in the congregation but an invitation to tell the story in a meaningful way for every age.

There are music suggestions included as the story unfolds from the Gospel of Mark. We chose to include both endings in the gospel telling where there is space for both terror and amazement and space for proclamation of the good news. I love how this script evolved in collaboration with Skyler Keiter-Massefski.

Years ago when Skyler was wee, we sat at their parent’s kitchen counter for one afternoon during Christmas Break and wrote a fresh new pageant for the church I then served as their pastor. Skyler was a determined youth with strong ideas who had just confirmed their baptism the year before. I remember that it wasn’t too much later after that that I wondered aloud if Skyler might consider the ministry.

Now, Skyler is a candidate for the Masters of Divinity at Yale even though I told them to go to my alma mater. They are busy presenting brilliant ideas at the Academy of American Religion and caring for children and youth at the South Amherst Congregational Church where they have already generated enthusiasm and excitement about this script. I am so humbled they said yes to collaboration on this project and so grateful for the wisdom and creativity they shared.

As we were chatting about this project, we didn’t just want to make space for the grief of this past year. We also wanted to provide moments for each congregation to celebrate the ministry that has been done and the ministry that awaits. This Year begins and concludes with opportunities to celebrate and remember. It gives an opportunity to look forward to what hope looks like in this particular place at this particular time as resurrection becomes real again. You can purchase this full and complete script with suggestions for props, costumes and locations here.

I am so excited to share this pageant for this pandemic year and hope it is a blessing to each congregation that chooses to share in its story during Holy Week. As always, dear pastors, I offer it to you this resource for purchase with many prayers for your faithful ministry in this season and beyond.

Holy Week in Coronatide

I hadn’t yet started writing pandemic prayers when Holy Week came along last year. Like so many, I was blissfully unaware of what was ahead. We had cancelled a vacation that we will actually be venturing into next week. My husband had just redeployed from Korea. I have had a mental block about how closely related all of these events were. We weren’t really sure what was happening but I remember my friends were already tired. They were just trying to figure out this whole wild new world of online worship and were struggling with the technology so much that I’ve never heard it said that seminary never taught this.

I had to remind myself of that when I went looking for what I had offered last year because it feels like I’ve been doing this a long time, but it hasn’t been a year yet. Not for me. Not for this practice of caring for my colleagues in ministry. I didn’t start this project until after Easter came and went. We still believed that it would only be a few more months and I thought I could write weekly prayers for a few months. I love writing liturgy after all. Why not?

It wouldn’t be the same kind of experience this year though. We still find ourselves in this liminal space between what was and what could be. We are keenly aware that something is coming but it is not here yet. That is what interests me this year and how I hope to imagine these high holy days.

Palm Sunday

I still want there to be a parade this year. I want there to be the pageantry and the sense that things are going to change. The world can and will turn upside down when hope parades through our streets. Maybe it would look something like this with strikers and spirit signs. Or maybe it could be adapted from this interactive liturgy. I wanted to write one of my own but I haven’t had the inspiration yet. I’m still thinking about it.

I also wanted to offer something that might tell the whole story of these high holy days that might be something special but totally different from what we usually do at Easter.

I found that I was not the only one with this brilliant idea and most of these good souls got these materials out way faster than I did. Glenys Nellist offers a lovely adaptation of her new children’s book as an Easter Pageant. There is a super brief version offered by Carolyn Brown on Worshipping with Children. Church Publishing offers both a Passion Play and an Easter Walk. Illustrated Ministry recently released their Easter Pageant and I think any one of these would be a wonderful way to begin the week in worship.

I recruited one of my former youth who has now become a colleague as a brilliant third year seminarian to write a version of my own. We had written one together when they were wee in one afternoon — and I could think of no one better to create something meaningful for this season. Ours is a little different from those that I’ve previewed (and I haven’t gotten my hands on all of these wonders to review them) because we really wanted this telling of the good news to reflect what good news feels like right now in another pandemic Holy Week. It includes lots of opportunities for people of all ages to act, sing, film and share photographs that help to tell the story in a meaningful way within that community. We also really wanted something that would not be exhausting to edit into a seamless video to launch on Sunday morning and pray that we were able to accomplish just that. You can purchase This Year: An Eager Pageant for a Pandemic Year here.

If neither of these possibilities interest you, you might be interested in this complete liturgy for Palm and Passion Sunday or these other prayers for the drama of the whole week that I wrote a few years ago. I also really love this poem for this year especially. I found it last year but I really love it for this year.

Maundy Thursday

I recently got lost in gorgeous collection of illustrated poetry within the OnBeing YouTube channel. I’m imagining a service particular to this day centered around this favorite pandemic poem that I will soon share but I also can’t quite escape the questions about what it means to gather at table when we cannot be in the same place.

I wonder about the number of businesses that have struggled to survive as the pandemic has raged on and the amazing kindness of people who feel called to feed the hungry in all kinds of different ways. After all, the table is a metaphor for the world we imagine. It is always an invitation to possibility. I wonder about how we care for each other and how we talk about the kind of love that we are called to be in the Gospel Lesson for this holy day. I might use this song to explore this possibility.

Though this is available on YouTube, please support artists for their creativity. The Many offer this video for congregational use through the Convergence Worship Project.

Maybe this is a day where worship doesn’t happen online in any form but it is a day of service like this church did.

Maybe what is offered instead is a project to care for neighbors in this pandemic with a soundtrack to sustain the work and a big pot of vegetarian chili waiting in the church parking lot for people to nourish their bodies and souls after doing things with great love. That meal could be blessed with this Blessing of the Meal from enfleshed or you might opt for one of these Communion Liturgies. I’d be enclined to opt for the one entitled In the Uncertainty. That seems to name it all right now. I don’t think I need to say this but just in case: please don’t do a seder of any kind. If you are even a tiny bit tempted, read this.

Good Friday

I have never liked the violence that comes with the traditional observances of this day. I don’t know if this would be the year that I would tackle atonement theory but I’m glad to know that there is something out there for understanding the cross — and the good people at the SALT Project even though to make it a take home resource.

I wonder if there is another way to speak to the grief of lost life especially after so much has been lost this year. Maybe you wouldn’t do this in other years but what if this year, there was just lament on Good Friday. It was a space to grieve all that has been lost. You might opt for a using this pay-and-play service from The Many or these prayers collected by Sojourners that particularly speak to the loss that has become way too familiar in this pandemic. Another option would be this poem entitled simply God’s Grief.

Or you might allow the liturgy for the dying from your tradition structure how this holy observance feels. There is something about these familiar words that will care for the most broken parts of our hope. Somehow it feels like this could fit into that worship experience.

Jan Richardson shares the particulars on permissions for her work here.

I might also include this poem on The Seven Last Words. I would also be inclined to add to this worship experience any number of these prayer poems for grief and loss from enfleshed. They also offer this contemplative service of story and song among their free resources for Good Friday. This lovely prayer for healing might be a good fit too.

If you don’t opt for an Easter Pageant at some other point this week, or even if you do, you could host an Online Stations of the Cross including the gifts of these Illustrated Ministry Coloring Posters and a separate devotional, Virtual Stations from Busted Halo or possibly the Easter Story Walk in the packet of goodies from ‘Twas the Morning of Easter. Weather permitting, this could also be done as an outside event with large posters made at a local printer posted along the edge of the church parking lot or another smooth open space. Building Faith also offers this Way of the Cross with a video meditation and reflection guide that could also fit into this realm of possibility.

Or you could tell the story in worship using one of the many scripts that Joanna Harader faithfully provides on her blog Spacious Faith. I think this one might be most friendly to an online format. Living Liturgies also offers a contemplative Tenebrae-like service for Good Friday full of light and bravely naming the hardest parts of this story. Praying Light into the Shadows is available for download for a $20 fee for congregational use.

Holy Saturday

This is the day where nothing happens. We gather on Good Friday and then again to wonder about what has happened when most of us went about our ordinary lives. In this time that is far from ordinary, invite your people into the tomb. It doesn’t need to be somber or depressing. It can be expectant. There should be a sense that something is happening but it hasn’t come yet and we are going to do our thing by singing that hope into being after gathering songs of struggle and hope that are beloved by your members and share that playlist on Spotify to accompany the waiting between what is and what will be. (Roll Away the Stone by the Mumford Sons would be my addition to such a list.) Or instead encourage your people to go on Resurrection Awe Walks to hunt for signs of hope in their neighborhoods.

The church I served in South Portland, Maine held a vigil from after the Good Friday service through the Sunrise Service on Easter. The Christ Candle was carried from the Sanctuary to the Chapel where two or three would keep watch in two hours shifts all night. Prayer books were provided in this time of silent meditation. This seems possible online with hourly prayers led by deacons, elders or someone capable and generous that is also not you, dear pastor. These hourly invitations to prayer could be streamed to Facebook or another chosen platform and an eternal flame thing could stand vigil on the church building steps or a candle in an online chat room. I’m less certain of that part but I think that the hourly calls to prayer would be lovely.

Resurrection Sunday

Just as I shared a bonfire experience for Ash Wednesday, I am offering a free liturgy for an Easter Watch Service. It’s not really a sunrise service and not even close to the full drama of the Easter Vigil but if your people are looking to gather at a safe distance and share in some spark of hope, this Easter Watch Service might be what you need. You can read more about this special service here.

There is this gorgeous Communion Liturgy for this day by Joanna Harader and this invitation to possibility might be a wonderful way to begin this service of exploring the resurrection this year. I could link all day to Maren Tirabassi’s gorgeous poems for these high holy days. I have them saved in my files and use them year after year but I am particularly curious about this Latvian tradition of hanging swings. What a fun way for a church to celebrate Easter that is socially distant and playful. I can’t resist linking to this poem she offers inspired by another favorite by Howard Thurman. Easter Sunday might also be when you encourage your people to find words to speak to this wondrous power of resurrection in their own words. I offer Pandemic Easter Affirmations for just this reason and hope that it gives you a break to find hope again in fresh words of brave faith.

I don’t tend to include ideas for the blessings bags that I know many of you send home but you might want to include this Easter Scavenger Hunt to encourage the searching that we all do in the unknown. If you frame it this way for parents, it will add depth to their participation though this framing will make little sense to young children. I also shared a Pandemic Neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt with coloring sheets suggestions that could be mailed out and posted in windows for a socially distanced hunt in the neighborhoods among your church community.

I would also keep an eye on the Brim Worship Project as they will soon release materials for Holy Week. I hope that this offers inspiration to your worship planning. Though it has become my custom to offer these seasonal roundups in my newsletter, I decided to mix it up and offer it instead in the pages of my blog and I pray it wasn’t posted too late. I am also working on a similar roundup of Eastertide resources in my newsletter.

I pray blessings upon you dear pastors for all of the wonder and hope you are busy creating for this holy and tender time. I pray that you are taking extra good care of your sweet soul in this season by calling your spiritual director and coach for the support you need along with that particular cohort of clergy that you can be most yourself even if it is over Zoom. It’s not like all the other Zoom you’re doing right now. I’m praying for you to find joy and hope this Easter. May the resurrection work its wonder through your entire being.

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.

Woman, Behold Thy Son

Tonight, I will share in worship with my home church at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in the remembrance of Good Friday. It is the tradition in many places to share in hearing and reflecting upon the seven last words of Christ. I have never actually been in a place that has done this so when my pastor asked for volunteers, I said: PICK ME! PICK ME!   Thus proving, yet again, I’m a big ol’ church nerd. What follows is the reflection I’ll share tonight on the third of those seven sayings. You can find the whole passage in the Gospel of John in my preferred translation because I loathe the King James Version here.

 

Woman, behold thy son. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved most standing beside her, this is what he says to his mother. Behold, this is your child.

Here is your beloved, the immigrant, the refugee, the man who happens to be homeless, the woman who depends on that welfare check to provide for her children. Here is the woman who is not paid enough for the work that she does. Here is the person you are supposed to love, your family, your very heart.

It’s something that Jesus had heard before any of this transpired. Before his ministry began, before he hung on a cross, God said these words to him. From the waters of baptism, he emerged to behold the wonder that he was God’s child.

Here am I your beloved, the woman, the broken, the hurting, the uncertain and doubting. Here is the person who just needs to pee but can’t because he’s transgender and in North Carolina. Here is the young black boy walking through your neighborhood in a hoodie eating Skittles. Behold, Christ says, this is your child.

Woman, behold thy son. You will be a new family. You will create something new. You will imagine another way and nothing, nothing — not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword, or even the fact that she is a Trump supporter — will separate you.

The world will build walls. The powers that be will erect barriers and divisions. They will tell you who to love and how to love them. They will try to tell you what love can do. But, don’t believe them.

Woman, behold thy son. Behold the glory of God for it is here in this relationship. It is here in this person. It is here in the love that we dare to find in each other. He wants her to see that. He wants her to understand what he once beheld in the waters of baptism. Behold, he says to this woman who gave birth from the waters of her womb, this is your child.

He does not only speak to his mother, but also to the disciple he loves most which interpreters have wondered if it wasn’t a placeholder. This one whom he loves most is never named. It could be John. Or Mary Magdalene or even Peter. Or it could be a placeholder for you and me. We are the beloved disciple. We are the ones whom Jesus loves most so that he turns to us from the cross, having just told his mother, Woman, behold thy son. He says to us, Here is your mother.

There is no one but you to love. There is no one better at it than you. Behold. “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart.” The wise one Martin Buber wrote that. “But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of [God’s] eternity, you? How would [we] exist if God did not need [us], and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that which is the meaning of your life.”

Woman, behold your son. 

I am your child. 

You are my child.

Behold.

Good Friday Came First

good-friday-300x200Before the alleluias get dug up from the ground, before anyone can look for the living among the dead, before Sunday can come, there will be a Friday.

It is the order of things. It is the way that the calendar pages turn. Before there can be a Sunday to praise, there must be a Friday to mourn.

There are people who sit in our pews every Sunday who say they can’t watch the news anymore. It’s too terrible, they tell me. It’s just so awful that they can’t watch. Like the disciples in the Gospel of Luke, they stand at a distance from the bad news.

Read the full article on New Sacred.

Good Friday Reads

Last night, in a darkened sanctuary, I was called to worship with these words: On this day Christ the Lamb of God gave himself into the hand of those who would slay him.

To this, the people were meant to reply:

We walk with his family, his friends and disciples
who gathered in the upper room
and watched him die for our salvation.

But, I couldn’t speak these words. I couldn’t find it within myself to voice this prayer because that’s not what brought me to that darkened sanctuary. I wasn’t there to memorialize his death. I was there to remember his love — to remember that commandment that gave us. To take into my body with bread and juice. Maybe even get down on my hands and knees and wash a stranger’s feet. But, love wasn’t the focus. Instead of talking about love, instead of taking that love into our bodies, there was talk of sacrifice. For some, I know, it is the same.

Sacrifice is what Christ does. It’s what happens on the cross. He gives his life for the love of this world. His sacrifice is the ultimate way Christ reveals his love. I’ve heard this said many times — but I am not so sure I understand how and why Christ died.

I’m not sure that I ever will.

Because I don’t understand death. I’ll never understand death. I’ve spent the better part of 30 years trying to understand how my mother died and I still don’t know. I have no idea why she died. Explanations have been offered to me. There’s no shortage of that. I’ve been told all sorts of things to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. But, there is no answer. There is no way to explain someone so young and so loved could die.

And I believe the same is true for my Lord and Savior.

So, I won’t go to worship today. I didn’t go. I had planned to attend the traditional three-hour thing at a nearby church with the last words and meditations. But, instead, I chose my coffee and a book. This Good Friday, I decided to read Tony Jones’ A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.

Though I’m still not sure exactly what atonement theory the author has chosen as “better” amid all of the theological possibilities he outlines, I appreciated his certain faith that “God cannot be bound by a law, a moral code, a universal sense of justice, or a ‘deep magic from the dawn of time.'” There is a clear sense that there must be something better than our human arguments.  I like that. Because I want my God to be bigger than whatever humanity is defining as sin.

What I found most helpful in my Good Friday reading meditation was found in his caveat, where the author asserts:

It must be noted, and noted in bold, that the atonement is not, nor ever has been a topic of Christian orthodoxy. That is to say, no historic creed of the church deals with the atonement, and none of the seven ecumenical councils took up the question of the atonement.

The early church never bothered with this topic. It became a concern. Things changed. Time went on. People bothered with atonement. Some time in the Middle Ages — at least according to this author — it became a matter of concern as the people of God tried to understand divine justice. And we’ve never stopped taking up this question. We are still trying to understand how and why death comes.

And we may never know.