Pandemic Prayers for Proper 17

In the past week, my clergy groups have been full of posts and comments about how tired you are. Not just because you’re working so hard, dear clergy, or even because you need a vacation. Though, I imagine, those add fuel to this exhaustion but it is not this tiredness that you lament.

It is the exhaustion of your people complaining that church isn’t supposed to be a place where we hear more political banter after you raised your voice to offer voice to the voiceless. You preached to a screen about racism and immigration. You dared to call out the systems of neglect and violence only to be scolded by email. I would be tired too. You have not pointed fingers or cursed evil. Maybe you did but that’s not what I’ve seen. I’ve watched you lament that something about the love of Jesus has been misunderstood. You have bemoaned that the call of the gospel isn’t as strong as other powers.

You are so tired that I can’t quite imagine how this week’s gospel sits with you. Does it further convict you? Does it cause you greater despair? Are you tempted to skip it to opt for something in the Epistles or Hebrew Scriptures? I wouldn’t blame you.

In this moment, you might be struggling to figure out God’s way. These prayers invite you to preach what you truly believe no matter how much doubt you might have right now. You have a powerful witness to share. Once again, you have an opportunity to tell that story and you get to encourage those you pastor to boldly tell their own version.

Gathering into Worship

Maybe you’ve started to think about stewardship and wondered how to empower your people to think about the particular blessings of the church. Maybe you wonder how to share the power of the remembrances that Psalm 105 invites us to do in your life, in your own church, and in the world. Maybe starting with a video like this from the Fund for Theological Education might spark some energy.

Maybe it flows into your own call story or a retelling of Moses’ call story. Or perhaps you share your conviction of what the church is or could be. Maybe this video leads to an activity in coffee hour break out rooms where people write visions of the church for this moment.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. This is supposed to be the beginning of worship. Maybe you start with words like this.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 105

Let us come to give thanks
for every good thing
that God has done.
Let us tell
of all of
God’s wonderful works.
Let us remember
when we first
believed that God loved us
and remember how it felt
to know that we
were forgiven.
Remember. Remember
how we came to believe
that church wasn’t just
a building and
that the good news
in all those confusing
and confounding parables
mattered for this moment
and this world.
Let us come together
again to remember
these miracles
but let us also
remember the struggles.
Let us remember where
we failed and
when the church failed
and even still,
God did wonderful things.
Rejoice! Give thanks!
Praise God!

That’s one option. Here is another.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Matthew 16:21-28 and Romans 12

We come because we think
we know something about great suffering.
This has gone on so long.
We have lost so much.
Too many have died.

We come because we thought
we knew what great suffering
could be until another headline
flashed across the screen
and we could only utter,
God forbid.

We come because we know
there is more than we know.
There is greater love
and more hope to rejoice in
when we can be anything but patient.
We come to worship
and praise when we can barely
hold together what is good.

Guided Breath Meditation

My friend Katie Yahns mentioned a while ago that her people like guided meditations. It’s not something she finds the space to create in the space of her worship planning right now and while this isn’t exactly that, it is a nod to something that her people value and could be used in the space of a confession. It borrows imagery and words from Romans 12.

Let us find a minute
to catch our breath

after all that has happened
in six months
and in just one week

let us breathe in love
breathe out fear

breathe in hope
breathe out every evil

expel all the air
so that there is nothing
left but mutual affection

feel that catch in your
throat and let go
as you fill your lungs
with honor and zeal
for people and creation
and even the future

breathe in what will serve
God and fill your spirit
feel that stuff
pump through your veins
with every bit
of oxygenated wonder

push the uncertain
discomfort that has
lived so comfortably in every fiber
of your being for the the
past several months
out through your pores

release the toxins
that have held you back
from believing
that God is with you.
God is in every
breath and every hope.
God is in every
blessing and
every need.
Breathe in
this faith.

Breathe in.
Catch your breath so that you are not be overcome by evil
but let that evil go and know that evil will
only be overcome with good trouble. Let us
catch our breath so that we can be the
good trouble God needs.

It’s weird and a little different so you might prefer something from Jurgen Moltmann. I also like this prayer of confession from John Birch.

Pastoral Prayer

Black_Lives_Matter_logo.svgAs we dare to comprehend great suffering, another black child of God was shot seven times by those that are supposed to serve and protect. His father watched. Jacob Blake has been paralyzed while racism thrives.

Our prayers are many during the COVID-19 pandemic but I pray this injustice and outrage might focus our hope for the future of what the church is called to be. Here are some prayers that might inspire your worship planning:

Prayer for Kenosha, Wisconsin by Maren Tirabassi

Together We Pray by Salt & Light Media

Litany for Racial Justice by John Carroll (June 2020)

I hope to update this list with more prayers that particularly uplift Jacob Blake.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. If you find these prayers helpful and would like some help thinking about the fall, click over here to do a little pandemic worship planning together. I’ve also shared some ingredients (though maybe not a whole recipe) for stewardship and backpack blessings. If there is something you have zero time for but your people like, as it was for my friend Katie, drop me a note.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always. I’m also sorry that I’m posting this so late in the week. I know many of you post your services on Thursdays. I’m praying for you all the more.

Who Is My Neighbor?

With my coffee in hand, I spent this morning flipping through the pages of my Feasting on the Word commentary to study the Gospel Lesson for this Sunday only to discover that I’ve preached this one before. Of course I had. I couldn’t quite escape that feeling as I had started writing earlier this week but there wasn’t anything in my files. There was no manuscript to be found.

I finally did the math and realized that it was the summer of 2013 that this lection last appeared. This should have been obvious, but I was clearly under-caffeinated. Three years ago, I was pastoring the United Churches of Olympia. It was my first summer there, actually. And it was the summer that I had decided to preach without notes! A ha! I am, however, no good at getting up and speaking spontaneously. So there was definitely something written so I searched the archives of my blog and discovered this post.

I remember this vividly. I remember waking up that morning and reading the news. I remember the horror I felt so that I felt I had to scrap what I’d written earlier that week. I remember that I began that sermon from the aisle of the Sanctuary with a question. Or perhaps it was a statement. I inferred that every one gathered for worship that day knew what I knew. They had read the horror. They had seen the headlines and their outrage matched mine. But, they hadn’t yet seen it. They didn’t know that the verdict had been made the night before so that it took some time to get to the same place.

It’s something I often feel as a preacher. I feel the discord. I feel the tension as my heart and soul marches for justice through the words I proclaim. It’s not what they want to hear, those people in the pews. They want to hear good news. They want to be told it will all work out in the end. I want that too but it chills me to the bone to read these words again when in the last 24 hours the horror has hit again.

There are new names: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. There are new names of beautiful hearts and souls that have been stripped and beaten and left for dead and it feels like words do not matter. But, they do. Words like these matter and if we can actually hear these words within the context of the Gospel then perhaps this parable matters too.

It matters to me.

It is not my words or even my interpretation of these words that matters but how we dare to answer the lawyer’s question. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. There has never been a more important question. It is the question we must ask when we continue to label differences between us rather than insisting upon the humanity we share. We must ask this question again. We must continue to ask it until we — good white Christians — stop turning our backs on our black sisters and brothers.

Who is my neighbor? Three years ago, I concluded this:

The message is pretty simple (impossibly hard to do, but simple): if you want to feel God’s presence, if you really want to feel that kindness, you need to allow yourself to get uncomfortable. In the way this story goes, this sounds passive. You just wait for help to come along — and then when it finally comes from the last person on Earth you ever would have wanted, you receive it. I don’t want to sound too jaded, but you could be waiting a long time. What’s more: you’re not alone. There is someone else that is asking those exact same questions. There is someone else that feels as stripped and beaten as you do. Why are you waiting in a ditch by yourself? If you believe that change is possible, that we could live in a world where every neighbor might feel safe and protected, it seems to me that you can’t just wait around for someone else to inspire you. You gotta seek that out yourself. You gotta ask the questions that everyone is afraid to ask. That is how we will go and do likewise.

But, we haven’t. We haven’t gone and done likewise and so there has been a slow and steady loss of humanity because we haven’t made ourselves even a little bit uncomfortable. Now is the time. Get uncomfortable. Challenge your own arrogance and I’ll challenge mine.

Running Naked

It was only a few weeks ago that I found this beautiful passage from a colleague’s sermon on her blog Spacious Faith. That little passage from her sermon archives inspired what I preached that Sunday. I tend to be in the camp that thinks I have to write something new each time I preach on a particular passage. I’m setting myself up for that challenge this week — but that didn’t stop me from rereading a sermon from my archives.

I distinctly remember reading this story in Runner’s World when a friend posted it on Facebook a few years ago which I translated directly into the story of Bartimaeus in this week’s lectionary gospel reading from Mark 10:46-52. Here is a excerpt from that sermon.

Like the blind beggar, I want to throw off my cloak and run. Naked, even. Adam Cohen was just that brave when he toed up to the starting line for the Trail of Tears 5K in Oklahoma. He was tempted to wear a long t-shirt, but decided that if he was going to truly participate in this “clothing optional” race, he better just do it. You might say that he threw off his cloak and ran, but as his wife so keenly observed before the race began, “There’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.”

That’s what strikes me about this strange little detail where a beggar throws off his cloak. It’s more than being vulnerable or exposed or even finding the right words to express exactly what you believe. That cloak is probably the only thing he owns. It’s his only possession in the whole world. He’s probably not naked underneath that cloak. It’s probably just an outer garment, something that has been keeping him warm beside of the road. But, throwing off that cloak, he exposes something private. He reveals something about himself. After all, there’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.

It’s about admitting what you really need. It’s about that desire to see more clearly than you ever have before. It’s about throwing off that word that isn’t working for you anymore. No matter how much warmth and security it has given you in the past, it doesn’t fit who you’ve become. Maybe the word has changed. Maybe you have changed. Something has changed — so that now, you just want to run naked unadorned of the words that may have once defined you.

A DIY Faith

It was only a month ago that I dared to imagine what might be possible with the good folks gathered from #NCLI15. Together, we dared to imagine to get past the headlines preaching decline and destruction of the church and we did so by entertaining these popular trendlines from crowdsourcing to the sharing economy to the local movement to DIY.

Each trendline was its own breakout group where we got to talk about what this thing is and how it functions. Then, we tried to grasp what it might mean for the church. Is there good news in these trendlines that counter the narrative of decline? It was assumed by the organizers that the answer is obviously yes. These trendlines tell another story. That’s what we were supposed to feel in each breakout group.

I remained unconvinced.

I remain unconvinced. As much as I wanted to believe that there is another story, it felt like a gimmick. It felt so forced that each breakout session seemed to conclude with some aphorism of faith that we’ve heard a thousand times before.

Maybe we need to hear those things again. Maybe they are still true.

Maybe that’s the whole point but it’s hard to sit with that old, old story when there are big promises of something new and exciting.

It introduces a different kind of despair because the other thing the headlines continue to tell us is that those people out there don’t want that old, old story. They’ve heard it before. They are not interested.

I wonder if that’s the destructive story that we’ve claimed as gospel. People don’t want religion. We’ve come to believe this so much that we’re contorting ourselves to be new and exciting when what we really want — what we really need — is the old, old story. Because there is no news like good news.

While religious leaders and organizations have slumped into despair because no one wants our old, old story, the good news continues. It’s still out there. It’s still happening.

It’s just more of a DIY kind of faith. It’s what the non-profit Kevah is doing to bring people together in studying the Torah. Reading the Torah isn’t new and exciting. It’s something that is expected of any Jew or any Christian or any Muslim. As people of the book, we’re actually supposed to read those sacred words. We’re supposed to meditate on them and try to figure out what in the world they mean. Kevah is inviting people to study that old, old story in groups of their own creation. Be it geographic or demographic or particular topic of interest. They form their own groups — and then Kevah offers them a trained teacher. There’s a fee that comes with that finder’s fee. But, once that match is made, the group gets to create its own adventure in Torah study.

open-343297_1280It’s not a gimmick. It’s not forced. It’s responding to a genuine need that what people really want is relationship. We want something genuine and real. We want people that we can trust surrounding us in a sacred circle so that we can ask the hardest questions and know that we won’t be shunned or mocked.

There is no reason to despair because this DIY approach is creating something that religious institutions and religious leaders have completely failed in doing. It’s not something I really understand but it’s something I hear about from people that stumble into the bible studies I’ve led. They haven’t felt loved. They haven’t felt supported. That’s what they are looking for as much as that sacred study. So, when they come to bible study, they are very quiet. They think they have to be an expert in Greek or Hebrew more than their own lives. So, they don’t speak.

It makes me sad every single time. Because, for whatever reason, we have focused so much on the text that we have forgotten to listen to each other’s hearts. We aren’t focused on the people before us but on the words on the page. Those words matter but they matter so much more when they are connected to the person holding the text beside me. Sometimes that means we go off topic. Sometimes it means that there are more questions than answers. Of this I am convinced, as much as the trendline wants us to believe we can do it on our own, the truth is: we can’t.

A DIY faith is one where we realize that we are each called to be disciples and apostles and teachers. There are some that are set apart to shepherd us. I am one of those ordained people that gets to do that cheerleading but I know that I can’t do it on my own. I can’t change the headlines all by myself. I need others that will help me. This is something that I’ve tried to instill in the churches I’ve served. The pastor doesn’t need to be at everything. She doesn’t need to teach every class. She doesn’t need to lead every prayer. She doesn’t need to have any idea for every new program because the better ideas are out there in the congregation. I created my own DIY approach in this step-by-step guide about how to start a small group ministry which you’ll find in my Ideas and Resources page. Download it. Use it. Because I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone. We must do it together.

That’s the old, old story that never gets tired. It’s the gospel we need to remember when the headlines tell another story. We need each other. We need every disciple, every apostle, every teacher and every person with a crazy idea that will help us re-member that good news within ourselves.