Pandemic Lighting of the Advent Wreath

There are some readings that can be handed out to the families of your church without explanation. They know to read the script and light the candles. This is not that.

This Advent is not that. We have learned to do worship differently in the past two years. Our traditions have shifted and we have made room for new possibilities. It will soon be cold and some congregations will return to online platforms for their worship because it’s not possible to safely gather in their sanctuaries at this point in the pandemic. The risk is still there. It is still too great or it may be the designated worship space is being completely remodeled as it is at Old First United Church of Christ in Philadelphia, PA and there is no alternative space that would quite work.

Old First was the inspiration for digging up this liturgy from too many years ago when I first imagined how we might share simple stories about our faith. It has back in those days when we were all excited about testimony. Or at least we were in the United Church of Christ and I spent a whole lot of time trying to imagine how our traditional New England worship would allow for more truth telling. (They were so patient with me and I’m still proud of the risks we took together. I’m so grateful for the ways that they taught me to do church.) The liturgy that follows is adapted from one I wrote way back then but it needed to be spruced up a bit for the wonderful people of Old First who will be using this liturgy with their pandemic pods.

Their brilliant pastor and the elders formed groups to meet on Zoom early in the pandemic. It’s a urban congregation where people knew names and faces and a smattering of tiny details about each person but these groups have introduced a new level of intimacy and connection. They’ve stuck together through all of this and it’s changed their community in the best way possible. Old First won’t have traditional families lead these candle lightings, but these new pandemic families who will share some part of their story and connection as they light the Advent candles.

These scripts do not require a ton of extra explanation for the church people that have done Advent a few times, but they are not the kind of thing that can be read without advance preparation. And so, I offer the following instructions to share with your good people.

  • Please read the whole liturgical moment for your designated Sunday and then decide how the reading might be shared, if it is desired to use more than one voice.
  • Read slowly and with intention. Allow us to feel the expectation and wonder in each word.
  • Pray together with those that you will share this candle lighting about what the vision will be that you’ll share. It does not need to be a long explanation. It may only be two or three sentences to explain something you experienced together. Try to make it personal to your shared experience.
  • You may choose to script the vision you’ll share or invite someone within your group to speak that truth in their own words at the designated moment. Try to make it brief but powerful. Tell the truth with great love.

Surely, you will add to this list as certainly as you will make a series of technical choices that make sense for your community in sharing in this moment of worship. Hopefully, this gets you excited to do this thing that you’ve done so well throughout this pandemic. Dear pastor, you are a true wonder. Thank you for all you do in the world. I am blessed by it and so it is with gratitude I offer this liturgy for lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath.

First Sunday of Advent

Our expectation begins now.
It starts here after so much 
has happened but we still 
expect more.

We begin our journey, like Joseph and Mary,  
in darkness. We cannot see the way ahead.
We cannot know what hope will come but
we trust God to journey with us,
beckoning along with the prophets,

"The days are surely coming, 
says the LORD, when I will fulfill 
the promise I made to 
the house of Israel 
and the house of Judah.
It is coming." This is our hope 
today as we light the 
first candle of Advent.  

[First Candle is lit.]
		
We light this candle 
to remember what was promised
and every dream we dared to dream
about what could be. We light this
candle full of hope because 
we know the days are surely 
coming as we have seen signs 
of God's hope in…  

(name a vision of hope 
you’ve recently seen 
in your daily life, 
in your relationships,
or in the news).

With this hope, we know
that the days are surely coming
and so we pray together:

O God, who gave us the Light, 
thank you for giving us hope 
in the form of a child at Bethlehem.  
As we prepare to celebrate 
the birth of this holy child, 
may we see signs of your hope 
in the darkness of despair. Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent

When so much feels uneven
and unsteady, we push 
into the wild possibility 
that change will come. 
We imagine the peace 
how the world might 
shift in the hope 
John the Baptizer 
dares us to dream,

"Every valley shall be filled, 
and every mountain 
and hill shall be made low, 
and the crooked shall be made straight, 
and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
It is in this wild possibility that we light
the second candle of Advent.  

[Second Candle is lit.]

We light this candle 
in search of your peace.  
We look forward to the days 
when all the rough places are smooth, 
but for now we seek your comfort…  

(name a time when
you have recently 
been found comfort 
in words, in a kindness, 
or even in an idea).

With this possibility, we believe
our rough places will be made smooth
and so we pray together:

Prince of Peace, you came to us 
in the innocence of an infant.  
Comfort us when the world feels too rough.  
Give us the courage to find friends 
in unlikely places as we work together 
toward your peace.  Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent

We come find warmth 
together in the light
of God’s love. We have
often felt so misunderstood 
and even unloved, but today
we marvel in the love that
begins in God. We celebrate
the love we have known
in the words of the Apostle Paul,    

"And the peace of God, 
which surpasses all understanding, 
will guard your hearts 
and your minds in Christ Jesus."
It is in this peace that 
our guarded hearts break 
open to welcome the light
of this third candle of Advent.

[Third Candle is lit.]

We light this candle 
to celebrate your love 
that unites all people.  
In the warmth of 
this shimmering hope, 
we dream of that all people 
might experience this kind of love 
that surpasses all understanding. 

(Share a brief story about 
how you’ve experienced love together. 
Begin this story 
with the words, “I dream…”)

With this love made real,
we find new understanding 
of what love could change
and so we pray together:

Loving God, pour into our hearts 
this day the light of your love, 
warming us to one another, 
enlightening our understanding of others,
 and revealing the love that 
guards our hearts and minds. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

We might not feel quite ready, 
still we praise God. There is
joy in the inexplicable and
the extraordinary. We celebrate wonder
of what could be just as
Mary sang,

"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor 
on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on 
all generations will call me blessed.”
It is with this joy that 
our souls unite to magnify 
the good news so full of blessing
in the lighting of this 
fourth candle of Advent.

[Fourth Candle is lit.]

We light this candle 
to celebrate our joy for the world. 
Like Mary, we might hesitate
and be cautious with our praise
but when we remember how
what God has done, we 
can only sing with joy.

(Share a brief story about 
you’ve been surprised by joy.. 
Begin this story with 
the words, “I remember…”)

With this deep joy,
our hearts join together
in prayer to God:

Eternal God, who magnifies 
each of our souls, 
surprise us this joy 
in these last few days 
before Christmas. Warm our hearts 
to feel the joy of your presence 
in our lives and in your world. Amen.

Christmas Eve

In the silence of this night, 
we celebrate the tiny hope 
of birth in Jesus, our Christ. 
As we wonder what this 
birth means to us, we recall 
all that we have found
on the way to Bethlehem. 

We remember every bit of
hope, peace, love and joy 
we have shared in sacred story.  
These lights shine bright
as the work of Christmas begins.

(Reader pauses as each candle is lit in order.) 

The light of hope ... (Candle is lit.)
The light of peace ... (Candle is lit.)
The light of love ... (Candle is lit.)
The light of joy… (Candle is lit.)

Now, as the shepherds worship 
and the cattle low, we sing 
with the angels that 
God has come into the world. 
We join in that song, singing,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
It is in this glory and awe 
that we light the candle of our Savior.

(Christ candle is lit.)

We light the Christ candle 
to celebrate our Savior. 
We join the chorus of angels 
with our glad tidings and great joy.
God has been made real 
again. God has come close. 
We add our praise, 
remembering...

(name a time, at Christmas 
or some other time, 
when you’ve been 
able to see God
in another person.)

As God becomes known
again in human flesh
and ordinary wonder,
we join our hearts
to pray together:

Holy God, we rejoice in your presence! 
The birth of this baby at Bethlehem 
gives us wonder and delight. 
The birth of your holy child 
is your answer to our unrest, 
our confusion and our sorrow. 
Tonight we live in Hope, 
we pray for Peace, 
we share your Love, 
as we are filled with your Joy. 
Thank you for sending 
your Child to be our Immanuel. Amen.

As you encourage your good people to find their words, there might be interest in these special workshop opportunities offered by Maren Tirabassi following the release of her book of poems last year entitled Christmas Eve at the Epsom Circle McDonald’s. (I have a copy. It’s really, really good.) This year, Maren is offering two workshops Zoom for the price of 10 books. Find out more here.

There is one more candle lighting buried in the archives of this blog. You can find it here. You might also be interested in this Pandemic Liturgy for Advent from last year. If you’re looking for more ideas for Advent, you can find some liturgies and group studies in my kitchen. I have a few more things cooked up for you as the season draws near including the my very occasional potluck newsletter that is just about ready to land in your mailbox. You can sign up here.

I am praying for you, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians. I’m praying for you so much as this season of wonder and light comes again.

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.

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.

Waiting for Resurrection in Coronatide

Easter will come just as it has every year before because resurrection is promised. It happens even when we cannot fully comprehend its possibility. Resurrection still happens.

I have been thinking a lot about hope this Lent. I’ve been thinking about its texture and its sensation. It can come to live inside us and it can feel as distant as the setting sun. Glorious but incomprehensible to the ordinariness of our lives — and our lives have been so ordinary in this pandemic. We have not traveled. We haven’t visited with those that we love most for fear of infection. Death has been so close.

Death is still too close but hope does not give up. It doesn’t sound like there will be widespread of the vaccines for COVID-19 until later this summer. There are other concerns in our world. Or there should be as we struggle against the powers of white supremacy and Christian nationalism and maybe Easter can be that grand celebration where we have overcome all of these terrors. Maybe. To me, it feels like we need to remember this year — and maybe every year — that hope is not always triumphant.

Sometimes hope is quiet and gentle. Hope is a flicker of creativity or.a hint of possibility.

It may not be apparent. It might not be something we all see or feel but something we have to believe into our own reality.

It might be something that actually requires witnesses where we need other people to be there to see and hear this thing. We don’t want to be alone in this moment. We need others to be there with us.

It is everything that I’ve ever felt in those early morning experiences of waiting for the sun to rise on Easter morning. I am not a morning person and this is a feat of God for me to even be at this service. It is even more miraculous if I am the one leading this service but there is something quiet and powerful about the hope that is felt in those services. It’s not the loudness of the festival worship that happens in the sanctuary later that morning.

It is an expectant kind of hope.

I wanted to create something like that for this year. Something that was full of expectation of what could be when we overcome the terrors of the present. Something that would invite us to watch and wait together. Easter Watch is that something. It is available to you here for free.

Unlike the bonfire experience I created for Ash Wednesday, I wanted something that could happen as a worship event outside. It would be masked. It would be possible to maintain six feet so that even those that are not vaccinated could watch and wait in community.

It is adapted from a service I created years ago while I was an interim pastor for a tiny church in rural Pennsylvania. They were used to a sunrise service in the graveyard behind their church but they knew that it couldn’t be that this year. The forecast wouldn’t make it safe for any of us to traverse that uneven ground. So much had already changed there anyway. This could change too so that there was an opportunity to gather and wait for the good news to come. It needed to be different because they were different than they were the year before.

That service had more of the familiar notes of an Easter Vigil but this one is really focused around quiet contemplation around a bonfire as the sun begins to rise. It’s a service to welcome the possibility without knowing really what will come next and I pray a worshipful experience that invites each participant to make hope come alive. As with Fire & Ashes, it is a simple pamphlet that can be shared among the worshipping community. It doesn’t require an ordained leader but invites a few voices to speak between the silences of personal meditation.

The one thing that it doesn’t include is music and I think there could be music. I just don’t think it should be music that requires lugging a laptop or a portable speaker to make it beautiful. It feels like the kinds of experience where a talented musician or soloist (or both) could offer some familiar Easter hymns to make this worshipful experience even more wonderful.

It does, however, require a few worship elements for this worship experience to happen including:

  • Firewood
  • Twigs and sticks
  • Matches, lighter or other tool to start fire
  • Large pitcher full of water
  • Large vessel like a bowl
  • Shovels

As with other things I offer, it is yours to adapt and imagine into new life. I hope it’s a blessing to you this Holy Week as you wait for the power of resurrection to become real.

May it be so.

Recipe for Resurrection Awe Strolls

Here in Texas there has been a terrible freeze. There was snow and it left a good chunk of the state without power including most everyone in my sweet Texas church back in Central Texas.

We did have snow over here in West Texas and it actually stuck around for a day or two but now there is only the faintest hint of white on the peaks of the mountains that surround the city. We never lost power. We have water. These were not worries we had being on an alternate power grid than the rest of the state. Instead, like the rest of the country, we watched in horror and dismay. We wrote angry letters to people in power. We prayed and I thought this was a really stupid thing to post when the sidewalks in places that are not even used to getting snow are frozen solid with sheets of ice.

It is not the right time to go out for a walk but now the snow is starting to melt in Austin. The thaw is coming and hope is always out there waiting for us to find it again.

I am interested in how we encourage each other to find hope right now. It’s why I wrote this liturgy to carry us through this whole season until Easter comes again. I want us to see it and feel it. I want to be able to point to it beyond the vaccine card that proclaims that my parents and my husband got their first doses of the vaccine this week. I need tangibles here.

This idea comes from an article I read way back when in Coronatide about awe walks. Another article from Psychology Today describes these walks like this:

An “awe walk” is a stroll in which you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inward. So, you’re not thinking about the tight deadline, the unfinished project, the strain in your relationship with your spouse, or concerns about the coronavirus.

Psychology Today, 3 November 2020

It reminded me of resurrection. There is death and destruction all around us. There is so much that has gone wrong in this Good Friday world but we are people who dare to live in hope. We dare to look for possibility and wonder. We choose delight.

Or at least, we try. Sometimes I think we need to have someone help us see what is possible. It’s why all of the encounters after the resurrection are with a community. It’s a shared experience. We are never left alone to wonder if that amazing thing really did happen. We merely have to turn to the person beside us, and ask, “Did you see that?”

In the original study of these awe walks, there were groups that went walking together. They were not alone. They did not have a toddler with them to point out every bit of fantastic amazingness in this world that it takes forever to walk the half block to the cluster mailbox just to get your mail, but they were together to take selfies before, during and after the walk three scientists were able to observe the changes in their faces with this simple practice. I did not want to assume that others might have a walking buddy whether it might be someone in their own household or someone within their pod. I wrote this recipe as a personal prayer practice. As with everything else I offer, please feel free to adapt it as it best fits your ministry. Use it as a spark of creativity and see where it leads as you encourage people to find hope in this time.

Just as I didn’t want to assume that there might be groups walking together in masks, I wanted this to be an accessible experience to anyone and everyone assuming that the streets in their neighborhood are safe to walk. That feels like a big assumption in itself but I also wanted it to be something that could be done while rolling on a wheelchair or pushing a scooter. (I confess that is my toddler’s preferred method of walking.) I called it a stroll because I didn’t want anyone to get the impression that we were going for distance here. That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter how far you go in your 15 minutes of strolling upon your chosen path. It matters what you see and what you feel. It matters that you train yourself to look for wonder and delight while all of the things that have kept you up at night are left behind the locked door at home.

If I were to encourage this in Lent or Easter, I might borrow from the original study and encourage people to take selfies after their walks to share with the church community on social media with a witty hashtag about the hope that they’ve seen. It would be a simple way to share hope beyond the church community.

We all need hope right now. I hope this recipe helps you to cook up some creative ways to find hope in your ministry. I am praying for you, dear pastors. I am praying so much.

Pandemic Prayers for the Return of Lent

I do not feel ready for this season to arrive.

I know that it will be different. It will be less disciplined but no less introspective than every other day since that first case changed our whole lives. There is the Lent that I typically yearn to experience where I exert extra energy on figuring out who God is now. I don’t know that I will do that this year.

I’m still not sure what I will do to mark this season for myself. I know that sometime on Wednesday or Thursday my family and I will begin the practice of welcoming apologies just by saying thank you. That’s the first practice in A Hopeful Lent. I’ll read some special bedtime stories to my children and maybe I’ll convince my husband to talk about some big questions. (My husband is not a person of faith and though I designed these questions with him in mind, I’m still not sure I can convince him. We are both so tired.) I bought the book my sweet Texas church is sharing in for this season and I hope that that connects me to that community currently covered in ice and so many without power.

Lent will begin even if we don’t have pancakes today. I decided that teaching my toddlers to play with food in pancake races was really a recipe for disaster. Their table manners have already plummeted. Still, I want there to be joy and hope as we wonder together about the promises of God.

Responsive Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 25:1-10

It seems impossible 
that we find ourselves here again
to wonder about who we will be
and what God can do.
We lift up our souls.

We have been waiting
and wondering what will be. 
We yearn for hope 
and knowing more 
of the ways of God.
We seek what is true.

Our minds are quick 
to wander and we have lost
focus more times than we can count
but we hope that in these days 
we will be more and more 
aware of mercy and love.
We learn to walk this path together. 

Lent begins again.
May our souls awake 
to trust and hope.
Prayer of Confession
Inspired by Genesis 9:8-17

O God, it does not quite 
feel like the clouds have parted. 
It does not feel like the storm
has yet passed. It will rain
for several more days. 

We confess we are tired. 
We are so very tired.
We have given up searching
the heavens for new wonders
but it feels like nothing 
will change even 
as a vaccine ever so 
slowly rolls out 
and numbers of 
infections and 
hospitalizations
diminish. We 
don't yet see
hope in technicolor
reaching across the sky
and so we pray that you will 
wrap us possibility. 
Remind us again
that your love reaches 
through the doubts
and worries of this moment
and leads us into 
the promise of possibility.
O God, we pray
for the blessing of 
your colorful 
possibility. Amen.

I shared last week the possibility of sharing in Pandemic Easter Affirmations where people could share in the practice of proclaiming what faith feels like right now. I suggested a workshop and that maybe these could be gathered into a booklet to lead the congregation through the Easter season. I also mentioned that examples are helpful to get the creative juices flowing and that I might be sharing such affirmations for Lent. Here is the first for this season.

Affirmation for the Wilderness

We believe that 
God is working wonders
in the wilderness of our lives.
We have felt tested.
We've hit a pandemic wall
but walls crumble
with trumpet blasts
and hope grows 
through the cracks
on the sidewalk.

This is not the end. 
We know this. 
Of course, we know
this is true for we are people 
of possibility and hope
who know that the worst 
thing is never the last thing.

We are people 
who have wandered 
though the wilderness
to find the way to freedom. 
We've crossed seas
and moved mountains 
with faith as small 
as a mustard seed. 

We believe that
these wonders
will come again.
It is the promise of new life. 
It is the promise
that we cannot yet see
but God still reaches across
creation to show us
again and again 
that wonders 
never cease.

We believe 
God is working
wonders in us 
right now.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week, dear pastors. I am praying for you. I am praying for you, as always.

Illuminating the Way to Hope in Another Pandemic Lent

Years ago, and I mean years ago, I wrote this liturgy for the six Sundays in Lent. It was an extended Tenebrae or a reversal of the Advent wreath. I wish I had explained it better in the original post.

I had completely forgotten about it until some kind soul mysteriously found it in my archives. I remembered that the dare came from Ashley Goff when we were sharing in a virtual liturgy lab with Janet Walton. I remembered how much fun it was to share in those calls with our worship professor from seminary but I didn’t really remember the moment in worship. There are some liturgical moments that stick with you. They etch into your being and reframe your hope. This wasn’t one of those but I liked it when I reread it enough to play with it again.

In the original post, I comment about how lovely it was to hear these words spoken by one of our youth. In these days of online worship, I’m not entirely sure that’s possible. I think it might be possible to record the audio and play it over the central set of candles that guide this weekly practice but that also sounds annoying. I wanted something simpler and something a little less somber. That doesn’t feel like the right tone for this Lent. We have had enough quiet introspection about our humanity and plenty of questions have arisen about our mortality so that it doesn’t seem like that should be the focus of this season.

This will not be super traditional and that’s OK. It’s OK to break the rules. It’s ok to play with tradition and sometimes that means that you turn tradition on its head as you try to find hope and make it real. So instead of a central set of candles that is the focus, this imaginative play invites each household to make their own worship centerpiece.

My inspiration comes from this gorgeous Advent wreath created be a member of my sweet Texas church pictured here.

This was an unprompted creation of Kimberlee Flores, but of course our focus is Lent so it’ll look a little bit different.

You might choose to send home these elements in bag of goodies your church offers for each season or you might include a simple supply list (perhaps even using the one below) and see what creativity comes with this invitation.

I’m suggesting some familiar symbols from the season including rocks and water. Rocks recall the temptation Jesus experiences in the wilderness. Sand is maybe a smaller version of that and something that can be dug out of the children’s sandbox easily. Water reminds us of the water that washes the feet of the disciples and the living water that the woman finds beside the well. Bulbs remind us of resurrection and the promise of new life. I really like the greenery in Advent and I am really uninterested in seeing anything barren on my table so bulbs feel right to me. I might just order some paper whites for myself. I received some as a gift years ago and they are a wonder to watch. They fit perfectly in a pie plate if you are not interested in ordering a kit.

If you do blessing bags as my sweet Texas church calls them, you might want to order paper white bulbs to send home to each household. Your local nursery should be able to provide them.

They require no soil to grow and they will bloom by Easter without the gross overwhelming smells of lilies.

They would be a lovely addition to a centerpiece and if you share in this little ritual below, you can compare blossoms over Zoom.

I like hearing diverse voices in worship and I know you, dear pastor, are tired of hearing the sound of your own voice so my hope is that it is easy enough to ask six different households to share in this simple ritual in the beginning of worship. It would be my choice to send this simple liturgy and collect videos from those households. Or if Zoom worship is your thing, I’d unmute that household for this moment but you know what’s right for you and your church, dear pastor.

It could take the place of the Call to Worship or could follow an invitation to contemplate God’s wonder and hope. (Yes, you will see such prayers here soon.) I would repeat these words each week. The things that surround it can change as hope is continually made new.

Invitation to Hope 
Inspired by Psalm 25:1-10

It is in this holy season that we are led into hope.
We have been waiting for hope to come for so long. 

We have put our trust in scientists and experts
and more often than not, 
we have not put our trust in God. 

We have felt unsteady as the sands 
have shifted again and again underfoot. 
We have been waiting for the waters 
to part so that we can find our way
into the hope we know will come.

We need to remember 
that hope is promised. 

Lighting the Way to Hope 
We light one candle today
to remember that hope is promised in 
rainbows and stone tablets. 
Hope is promised in the light 
that shines in you and me.

[Candle is lit.]

I would conclude this moment of worship with song. Maybe the song changes every week or maybe it’s the same refrain about hope that carries us into the promise of Easter. I’m undecided on what that song should be though I am strongly thinking about this hymn. Or really, let’s be honest, I can’t resist singing this song to myself in these strange pandemic days.

This is not covered by CCLI license. You knew that already but it’s a really great version.

That’s all I’ve got so far for Lent, dear pastors, but I’ve got more cooking up on the back burner. Until then, I’m praying for you.

A Hopeful Lent

Where are you finding hope? What does hope look like for you right now?

In my own struggle with whether or not to get dressed in the morning, I know that I’m struggling to find hope. It feel like a nice idea or even like something that we once had. Maybe even something we will have again but that still feels like a long way off. Like so many, I am exhausted.

My children are little. They know about the yucky germs and know that we can’t go near people without our masks on. I keep more distance because my youngest isn’t old enough to wear a mask and we still live in Texas where there are people that think this is a hoax and refuse to wear their own masks. I worry about what I’m teaching them by telling them to keep such distance. I worry so much about my own sanity and theirs that I’m not sure that I have energy for anything dramatic this Lent, but I know I need something. I need something to reframe my frustration and sorrow.

In her new book, The Hopeful Family: Raising Resilient Children in Uncertain Times, Amelia Richardson Dress invites us to imagine that by doing simple things that hope could come live inside us. She begins by naming parenting with hope like this:

Hope has both an inward component and an outward one. Practices of resilience help us to find courage and trust. They comfort us in times of struggle. But they also inspire us to believe in the vision that Jesus gave us, that God’s reign will come here on earth.

Amelia Richardson Dress

It took my breath away. It is repeats again in other wonderful words throughout the book but I don’t want to quote so much that you feel like you’ve read the book. You should read the book especially if you find yourself struggling in this uncertain time. If you are not struggling, you are a superhero. I am not sure what hope looks like right now. That’s the honest truth and that’s why I need to enter into these simple practices of generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, blessing and storytelling. Yes, all of these are possible even for someone like me who takes quarantining to a whole new level.

With Amelia’s abundant blessing, I’ve adapted the practices she offers for the seven weeks of Lent. It’s seven because it includes Holy Week which means you get one more practice to share in with the wisdom offered in this wonderful book. I can’t take on that much more and I am willing to bet that’s true for the families in your church. It might even be true for you, dear pastor. You are doing so much raising your children and caring for the blessed souls in your congregation. Whether or not you feel on edge like I do, you really are a superhero. You are doing amazing things every damn day.

There is nothing strict about this approach to this pandemic season of Lent. There is a calendar but it’s really only because I don’t know what day it is and I need something to orient me on some kind of timeline. There aren’t practices for every day but something you are trying together as a family each week. As Amelia says again and again, try this. It’s an experiment in hope. Try it. See what it might show you about God.

It could even be fun. There are a few extra practices if you get bored or want to try something else.

Each week, there is a blessing written by Amelia, the practice that will frame your week, and some hints at beautiful books to read with your children in the Bible and from children’s literature. I also included some questions for grown-up conversation so that you can practice talking to grown-ups again about big ideas and stuff that matters.

I designed this for myself. It’s what I’ll be doing with my family. I’ll be dragging my husband into the conversations even though he doesn’t do God or church. I framed these questions in such a way that they are not too Jesus-y because I know that there are more families like mine, but I also wanted there to be something like this that would be easy for you, dear pastor, to send to the families in your church.

I know you’ve worked hard to create brilliant and wonderful things for families all year long and that some of you feel like you have no good ideas left. This is for you. You’ll find the link to A Hopeful Lent (for Congregational Use) here. By ordering this version, you have full ability to share it with your whole church for this season in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

I also created a version for families to use at home on their own. You’ll find a link to the A Hopeful Lent (for Family Use) here. When you purchase this version, you’re promising to be a nice person and tell your friends about this cool thing you found and directing them to the link rather than forwarding them the rad PDF you just got in your email.

I’m so thrilled with how it came together and I pray it will help families, like mine, find hope in this pandemic season of Lent. I’m so grateful that Amelia blessed this project. You should totally buy her book even if you don’t do this for Lent. It is, indeed, a gift for this uncertain time.

An Advent Invocation

Remember when I said I wasn’t going to offer weekly prayers?

That is still my intention but it seems that I cannot write Christmas Eve without first wandering into the lamentation and hope of Advent. I have been working on a service for the Longest Night and Christmas Eve but couldn’t quite get into the movement of these liturgies until I first wrote this prayer. It came after listening to this song a few zillion times.

There is another version of the song here though I rather like the visuals in the one above. This shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve seen the liturgy I wrote for this season.

Prayer of Invocation

Sometimes, O God,
it feels impossible.
It all feels so impossible.
For here we are again
watching and waiting
for something 
to change 
so that your hope 
for this world 
might come alive
but now
now
now
O God
the earth is charred
and burnt.
There is weeping 
and wailing
for all 
that has 
been lost.
We are not certain
that change will come
even as we pray 
for the heavens to be torn open.
O God, come and teach us to sing again
for we need a new song. We are ready for a new song.
Come, O God. 

This prayer has sat in the working document for these other liturgies and I decided it might be worth sharing. I hope it is a gift to your planning.

You have already been busy planning for weeks, dear pastors. I know. You’ve wondered how you could possibly share the good news of Christ’s birth this year. I promise it will be perfect. All that you have planned will be all that it needs to be. Your love for these people and your hope for our world will shine through every stress. Remember that Saint Francis encouraged the faithful to preach the good news by walking and use words only when necessary. You are doing this, dear pastor. Every day, you are doing just this.

Words to Speak to the Unknown

I am as uncertain what tomorrow holds as anyone. I’ve done my part. I’ve cast my ballot and now I can only pray that I live in a land that chooses love over hate.

I pray so much and fumble for the right words to speak my hope. I admire you so much, dear pastors, for your courage and strength in reminding us what the gospel calls us to do and be.

I find myself tripping over words in my worry for what 2020 will dish up for us now. When I don’t know how to pray, I sing broken and out of tune. Only my kids really suffer the discordant praise while we are under lockdown. Still, I sing.

i

I don’t know why this is the song on my heart right now but it’s what I’ve been singing all morning. It got me thinking about other words that speak to the unknown fears so many are carrying right now. There are other songs, of course. Even when we cannot sing together, there are hymns that can proclaim our hope like a good poem. Among my favorites are these wonders of words:

  • This Is My Song
  • O for a World
  • God of Grace and God of Glory
  • For the Healing of the Nations
  • We Would Be Building
  • Toda la Tierra
  • Come, O Long-Expected Jesus

I haven’t included links as I hope that these are familiar enough that you can sing a few bars even if you were confused why Advent songs appear on this list. Isn’t that how we feel right now, like the whole earth is waiting even if it’s actually just those within the borders of these United States of America? There are two more newer hymns that I would add to this list. One of these songs was included in the All Saints liturgy I shared a few weeks ago. Those songs are:

There are, obviously, poems that dare to name our hopes and fears of all the years of 2020. (That carol is another I’ve found myself singing lately.) Here are some poems that have spoken to my heart recently and I hope dare to dream of what will be beyond the election results.

There are certainly more words to speak to this moment. You, dear pastors, are offering so many wonderful words of life. Thank you for reminding us all to hope.