A Service to Break Down Walls on Ash Wednesday

Sometimes cooking begins just by opening the pantry and realizing that that something delicious with peanut butter (because you mysteriously have a surplus of peanut butter) sounds really good. That’s kinda how this service came together.

It all started with an email from the Salt Project which brought me to their blog to read this familiar poem. Or at least, it should be familiar. It should be one that I know well but I realized as I read these words that I don’t think I’ve ever read the whole poem. And then, there’s the fact that there is a larger news story that activates this poem. It gives it new energy when the United States has gone through a shut down, a national emergency, charges of sexual abuse of young children and ongoing separation of families all because of an imagined wall along the Southern border of our nation.

Lent begins with a similar tension. There is awareness that something is amiss. The world is not as it should be but no one quite seems to know how to fix all that is wrong. It is a season in the Christian calendar when we recommit ourselves to seeking God’s help. We confess that we’ve made other gods. We’ve separated ourselves in countless ways and we need help. We want to break down those walls that we’ve built with our very own hands.

To imagine such a thing, I’ve called upon poets. There are three poems in this service. I’ve linked to the poems in other places. You’ll hear lines of those poems repeated in the liturgy as we move through the ritual actions of this day.

It is a service that invites dramatic play with the news headlines in that the congregation is invited to literally break down a wall that has been set up on the communion table. Each brave soul gets to carry one of those rocks home with them, holding onto it through the 40 days of the season. I didn’t dare interpret what it might mean to carry that rock but trusted that God will lead in making it known what it means to carry that weight.

I’m really looking forward to being in the pews and experiencing this myself.

A Service for Breaking Down Walls 

Gathering Music

– WE GATHER IN FAITH

Welcome

Opening Words of Meditation

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

Song of Invocation

Beginning the Journey

One: We begin this journey together
on the other side of the wall,
feeling separate, distant and alone.
All: We have built this wall.
We have placed each stone
for our own protection,
to feel safe and secure.
One: We begin here, again,
wondering what we have walled out.
All: Each boulder was set in place
to guard our hearts and souls.
One: We meant well but this construction has blockaded us
from so much more than we ever intended.
All: Holy One, help us to move these stones.
In the forty days ahead, help us to break down
the barriers we have erected from your love.
Blast through our arrogance
and push us toward your grace.
One: We know now that we’ve separated ourselves from
neighbors, friends, strangers, and our truest selves,
but Holy One, we’ve distanced ourselves the most from you.
All: Holy One, give us strength for the journey.

WE LISTEN FOR GOD’S WORD

Song of Illumination

Seeking the Word in Scripture

Psalm 51:1-17 

These words of scripture are to be read with an introduction that fits the norm of that congregation by a liturgist or pastor. 

Song of Illumination

The people are invited to sing the song once more.

Meditation on Scripture

Lent 1991 by Maren Tirabassi

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

Anthem

–– WE CONFESS OUR BROKENNESS ––

Call to Repentance                               

One: We begin this sacred journey by remembering together, the very things
that challenge us from experiencing and knowing God’s love. These are the very things that have caused us to build walls.
All: We are called in this holy season of Lent to struggle against
anything that leads us away from the love of God and neighbor. We
recognize that so much is broken in this world and even in ourselves and together we commit to partner with you, Holy One, in mending what has been so very broken.
One: You are invited to come forward and find a rock along the constructed wall
along the communion table. Take that rock, the one that calls to you as a
reminder of all that has separated you, all that has distanced you from love, all that has caused you to seek protection instead of grace. Take that rock from the wall and place in your pocket to keep with you on the journey through these next forty days to remember that you are called to mend what has already been broken. You are called into love.

You may come forward, as you feel so moved, to remove a rock from the constructed “wall” on the communion table and place it in our pocket for the journey through the next 40 days. 

Kyrie

Affirmation of Faith           

One: Having stepped into the unknown together, daring to seek another way,
we are upheld by God’s grace as we remember:
All: All things, even our troubles, become dust. We give over to Holy Mystery that which we cannot solve or heal alone. We dare to trust the promise that the Spirit of Christ takes these first steps with us. We begin this journey courageously together into the unknown love that awaits us.

–– WE SHARE OUR GIFTS AND HOLY COMMUNION ––

An Invitation to Mend the Brokenness

One: Here, now, we enter into Lent.
We draw the holy comma
between what was and what could be.
We stumble over our humanity. We admit we’re stubborn
and confess that sometimes we think we know better even than God.
We begin here, at the table, where all are fed.
We begin here where grace abounds.
We begin here to mend what has been broken
in the ourselves and in the world
with the crazy contradiction that we don’t have the answers.
We don’t know what is best
but we dare to believe that resurrection matters.
Change can come and so we place ashes on our foreheads.
The dust of a thousand stones reminds us that we have
come from earth and one day will return to earth.
We remember here that life is fragile and delicate
but so deserving of blessing, as are we.
We come to remember that blessing
with bread and cup, oil and earth,
that will mend all that has been broken.
All: Holy One, give us strength for the journey.

Holy Communion and Stations of Devotion

All are welcome at Christ’s table – members, guests, first-timers, long-timers, baptized or not – all who desire to know and share the love of God are invited. When and if you are so moved, you may visit any or all of the following prayer stations during our time of communion: 

    • Imposition of Ashes: All are invited to come forward to receive ashes to remind us of the hard truth of limited lives. The sign of the cross in ashes will be given to all who desire saying, “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
    • Anointing: You may also receive this ancient blessing of the church to remind us of the never-failing power of God’s limitless love. Holy oil will be placed on the top of the head or hand saying, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
    • Holy Communion: By the side aisles, you may receive communion by intinction, coming forward to take a bit of bread and dipping it in the cup.
    • Offering: Finally you may place your tithes and offerings for the work of the Church in the plate.

Table Song

The Prayer of Our Savior

using these or whichever words are closest to your heart:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

–– WE GO FORTH TO SERVE ––

Closing Words of Meditation

In My Soul by Rabia

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

We Are Sent Forth

One: We go forth, O Holy One, on a quest to find you.
All: We go forth with our senses heightened
to recognize the needs of the world around us.
One: We go refreshed with our hearts lifted up to you,
All: With our minds open to your leading,
One: With our gifts to share with others,
All: And always with your word of peace on our lips.

Sending Music

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

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Ash Wednesday

My sister died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It’s a fact that has haunted these first few months of my own daughter’s life.

She died before I was born but the memory is alive. I wake to hear my little girl breathing. I check. I triple check. I am careful to keep every blanket or pillow as far away from her mouth as possible so that history will not repeat itself. She’s almost made it. My little girl is nearly four months old, which is how old my sister was when she stopped breathing. She was only four months old.

As with so many of those stories, I don’t know the specifics. I know now that there are many things that could have contributed to her death. My father was a smoker. She was probably lying on her tummy. There were definitely bumpers lining the crib in the hope of protecting this blessed child, but even with these facts, I don’t know much about that story. It reads from my family’s history as something that happened, but not something that wanders into conversation.

There’s not much to be said. She died. It was terrible. Of course it was terrible, but what else can be said about such things?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it today as the Gospel Lesson was read before ashes were placed upon my forehead. My daughter wiggled in my lap. Her little toes kicking, dancing to some distant beat. Alive. Unrepentantly so. Alive and kicking.

Here I was sitting with this squirming little reminder of life to hear it proclaimed again that we are dust, both she and I. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Life will end, even when it is so new. It will end. We do not know the day or hour, but life will end. It always does. Sometimes it happens far too soon.

It is always that way. It was that way in Florida today. While I sat in my pew, seventeen children were killed in a high school in Parkland. Seventeen children were killed. It bears repeating because it’s too terrible and the specifics are even more overwhelming.

It is the eighteenth school shooting this year. It seems impossible.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This doesn’t have to happen, but somehow we have failed. We have missed something. We have allowed this to happen and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with what happened in that tiny chapel this afternoon.

When it came time to receive the ashes and remember that we are dust, I stood in the aisle waiting with the other worshippers bouncing my baby girl in my arms. I heard the familiar refrain repeated again and again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return until I stood before the deacon and he pressed his thumb into the ashes. He took a breath, looked into my eyes and said again, Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. And then, I turned so that he could offer this same mystery to my daughter peeking over my shoulder.

I heard him say the words, just as I heard her coo, but when we sat back down in the pew there were no ashes upon her forehead. Somehow we won’t allow ourselves to believe that children die.

 

Toward Transformation This Lent

The holy season of Lent begins in just a few short weeks on Valentines Day, if you can believe it. Even if you can’t quite fathom this holy and profane confusion, get ready. Easter will fall on April Fools Day six weeks later.

Maybe it’s appropriate for this year in American Christianity where we are not quite sure how to define the sacred from the patriotic. Maybe it is a challenge to us to move past the rhetoric from the White House to define what needs to be restored, renewed or even resurrected not just for ourselves but for our world.

Several years ago, with the good people in the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine, I wrote a curriculum that reflected this desire. They wanted to experience this thing. They wanted the resurrection to come alive not just in their lives but in the world. They were looking for hope when the world was still frozen and nothing would ever grow.

CoverWe created this guide which we called Toward Transformation through the Psalms to imagine such a possibility, but we were careful not to get too stuck on the thing that happens to Jesus. We didn’t want to get lost in the particulars that may or may not have made it a bodily resurrection. We are, after all, a diverse people in the United Church of Christ and this is always a question. Instead, we wanted to take it into our own bodies and look for change.

We all agreed we hated change, even if we knew it was good for us. It was hard and it was unlikely any one of us was going to choose it even if we knew full well that the very good news we proclaimed pivots on the hope that people can and will change. So we set aside Lent to understand this about ourselves so that we might see it in the world. It wasn’t a hope to make Christianity or even ourselves great again. We weren’t looking to capture something from the past but to repent or turn around to be changed.

Years have passed but as the calendar changes to approach Lent, I always return to this guide. There was something amazing that happened within those six weeks. We broke through the noise and got real about our hopes. We were changed by the way that we shared our struggles and our slow movements toward change and Easter was different. We were different and it’s why I want to offer it to other groups seeking such a possibility. I want you to have this experience. You’ll find the whole resource with leader notes and a weekly group discussion reflecting upon the Psalms here.

Take a step Toward Transformation this Lent and download this guide today. If you have any questions or want to know if your group really needs to follow this guide exactly as written, please contact me. I’d love to share this wonderful experience with you.

I aspire to write other resources for group exploration when I’m not so busy cooking up this baby but in the meantime, you might be interested to find what else is currently in my kitchen. However you might choose to explore this holy season of Lent, may it be blessed.

Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

Jesus is…

In the midst of another holy season, my pastor invited us to ponder who Jesus is. The question stuck with me and inspired a whole preaching series on christological terms. It’s what has led us in the church I’m serving as interim pastor through Lent. Every week, as worship began, we’ve asked ourselves: who are we are who is our God? Today, between palms and passion, I dared to give my answer of who Jesus is. It was a service with a lot of scripture. Before the sermon, we heard both Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 22:39-23:25. Worship concluded in the poetry of Luke 23:26-49 but it the sermon that follows.


Jesus is… Jesus is… the one who leads us toward peace. The one that saddles his hope and his love upon a colt and parades his way into the city where he will die. Through the gate and into the city, with people on his right and on his left, waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna! Hey sanna! Sanna Sanna Ho!” 

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout without ever really understanding what they announce. Jesus is… the one who cannot be stopped. He will wash feet and break bread. He’ll pour just enough wine so that we do not miss how precious this life is. He will do all of these things under watchful eyes. He will do it without their blessing or even their understanding. He will turn tables and resist definition. He will not let their praise and their honor forget that God is a God of love. God requires love. God insists on love. God gives love especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it. 

  
Jesus is… Jesus is… the light of that love. He is the Light of the World. The one that removes darkness, exposes darkness and dares to declare even in the darkest places that there is light and that it is good. At times, he glows. He radiates that light so much that even his clothes become white as snow. Other times, that light is so faint and dim, like a candle blowing in the wind. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people, not to be overcome or overwhelmed but as steady as the light cast upon the sea by a distant lighthouse. Guiding us. Encouraging us. Seeking us out. Leading us to where we are called to be. Jesus is… the great light that shines in our deepest darkness.He is the true light, that just might enlighten everyone, that light that is coming into the world. That is already in the world. That can’t be contained by this world.

It is something that can only be understood in the face of death. Only as we wonder why any life or any hope or any revolution must come to an end can we glimpse the face of Christ who was in the world…even if the world did not know him. But, it was always there. He was always there. In the very beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus is… the Word, in your words. In our words as much as he might be in all our hopes and dreams. Jesus.. is the very logic of the divine. He is the flesh that reveals God’s deepest wisdom. He is the reason and the order of God’s love for this world and for its people. Jesus is… the articulation of that love. He is the very expression of the reason that God loves, but it is a reason without logic. Or without our logic. God loves because God loves. That love has no beginning and no end.

So that it seems that God might be a chicken, foolishly opening her arms and expanding her welcome when it seems anything but wise. Much as we might refuse, much as we might think we know better, much as we might reject that love, the fact does not change: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd. Even with a hundred sheep or more to protect, he goes chasing after that one sheep that is lost and alone. He welcomes it home. He dares to claim that lost and sinful sheep to be a member of God’s family. Even that sheep is loved, embraced, affirmed, blessed and beloved. Jesus is… the one who gathers all of those broken and dejected people into his fold, declaring each and every one of them to be so loved by God. Others might mock or scoff. They may sneer and spit but Jesus is… the one who knows that we are like sheep without a shepherd.

And it is because of this that Jesus is… Jesus is… the Messiah. He won’t be a warrior or a king. He will demand justice not for the rich and powerful but for those who want to have life and have it abundantly. He will not kill and destroy for his is not that power. Love is not that kind of power. Jesus is… the anointed one. Jesus is… the restoration. Jesus is… the healer, the redeemer, the savior not just for individual souls but for the whole world. Jesus is.. the rabble-rousing, stern-speaking voice of redemption. It is voice that suggests, posits, even demands another way. There is more to this precious life than violence and fear. There is more than hatred and greed. There is more that love can do. There is more.

Jesus is… the Messiah. He is the hope. He is the love. He is the promise that love is greater than fear. Jesus is.. the force of God’s greatest conviction. Jesus is… that wonder-working, barrier-breaking, hope-restoring, healing and redeeming strength that dares to feed and forgive and bless the love that we are able to find in each other and in this world, because there is more. There is so much more of that love. There is more food to be shared. There is more healing to be done. There is more mercy to be granted. There is more hope to find. There is more love to give.

There are others that might say they know the way. Others that might claim that they can make this world great again. Other presidential hopefuls. Other emperors. Other kings. Other warriors that might lead by force. There are other powers that be. Others that might claim the title but Jesus is… the Son of God. He will not let others define what that means. He knows what God can do, even if we do not.

So that Jesus is… the one who goes to the garden alone. He is the one that prays in his own dark night of the soul. With hosannas still ringing in his ears, he will wonder what can be saved. He will wonder who can be saved while the disciples sleep. 

Jesus is… the one they arrest. He is the one condemned for what they can’t understand. He is the one that will be denied. They will say they do not know him. They had nothing to do with him, no connection to that kind of love. But, Jesus is… the one, maybe the only one, that will not forget that God is love. God requires love. God insists on love. God gives love especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it. 

No one really deserves it. No one deserves to be mocked and beaten. Wearing the shackles of human fear, Jesus is… the one who bears our sins. He washed our feet and he blessed our lives. He gave us food and wine. He healed our broken parts but we stopped him. We never quite believed that love was greater than fear. 

  

We are still trying to believe it. Maybe Jesus is… still the one guiding, encouraging and leading us. Maybe. But, when Herod asks him who he is, Jesus is… the one who did not answer. He is the one who did not speak. He did not speak. He did not try to explain. He was silent. Silent as the crowd shouted, “Crucify, crucify him!” 

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?

They Were Innocent

I don’t know why my daughter was killed.
She was innocent.

I can’t get these words out of my head. Surrounded by cardboard boxes that seem to never quite get unpacked, I keep thinking about these words spoken by the father of an Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob with sticks and stones. I can’t bring myself to read anything more. I have so many questions. I want to understand how this could happen. But, I can’t read another word.

The death of this innocent woman has brought the Afghan people into the streets. Something has switched.

But, as I unpack so many boxes, I’ve only read the one article in The Washington Post that struggles to name the crime worthy of such a punishment. I’ve only read this one article quoting her father, saying:

I don’t know why my daughter was killed.
She was innocent.

Perhaps this is just something that parents say because it is just too hard to believe that your child could be anything other than innocent. Or maybe that’s too simple. For surely, there is nothing simple about murder. There is nothing simple about deciding to take another’s life. There is something sacred about this life — whether or not we choose to affirm it. We can deny the existence of any kind of deity but our humanity won’t allow us to deny the gift of life.

virgin-mary-stylized1So that this father’s words could fall on anyone’s lips. But, when I first read these words, I thought instantly of Mary the Mother of Jesus. She must have said something similar when her boy died on that cross.  She must have wondered about how people could be so cruel. She must have been disgusted by the violence. The streets may have been lined with crosses. It may have been something she saw everyday. But, when her boy was murdered in that way, something must have switched.

Something must have changed how she saw the powers of Empire. Something must have changed her tolerance of their occupation. Because, like Farkhunda, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was innocent. His only crime was that he questioned the powers of this world. He dared to critique those that refused to be questioned. Like Farkhunda, he wanted to know if there was another way to treat each other — especially the poorest among us. For this, they were both killed. 

And I can’t get these words out of my head. Because they are my words. They are words I have spoken again and again. Because people are so cruel to each other. Because there is so much violence in this world and I’m still waiting for something to shift. Call it resurrection. Call it justice. Call it human decency. I don’t care what you call it but we have said this too many times. We haven’t lamented time and time again that we don’t understand why this terrible thing has happened. We don’t understand why this 27 year-old woman died. She was so innocent. 

I don’t understand why this had to happen. 

I don’t understand why it had to happen in this way. Plenty of people have told me that Christ died for my sins. Church members in Bible Study have insisted to me that Jesus had to die in this particular way. And he knew it was coming. 

I don’t understand why. 

I never have. I don’t think I ever will.

This is my first Lent not leading a congregation. Instead of struggling with these question is Bible Study, I’m unpacking boxes. I am so confused by this I thought this past week was Holy Week. It’s not. Holy Week actually begins tomorrow on Palm Sunday. So, this week when there is still too much violence in this world, I’m trying to remember how Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan encouraged me consider what Jesus was passionate about

Because I want to be that innocent.

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Lent Comes

Lent has come.

And so I found myself seated in the back of the local Episcopal Church. Because I am not pastoring a church anymore. I concluded my second call on Sunday. It’s over — just before Lent was to begin. I’m trying hard to resist the joke that I gave up being a pastor for Lent. Because it’s not true. I’m still a pastor. I’m just not serving a church right now. So, I found myself being led by an unfamiliar liturgy in another Christian tradition.

Listening to familiar words in an unfamiliar space, I heard something I hadn’t heard before in the readings for this day. This reminder over and over again to change. Or as the homily mused: be reconciled. Be reconciled as it says in that first verse in the reading from the Second Letter to the Church in Corinth. And this is about change. Change your heart and your mind. Change your very being. Perhaps that means we should stop doing things like our giving patterns. Or change the way we pray as it says in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. But, especially in this season, I am not sure what to change. I’m not sure how to change. Because everything feels like change.

Because I am without a congregation and am not sure how I want to live into this possibility of resurrection when I don’t know where I will be on Easter Sunday whether I’ll be at the wedding of a dear friend or celebrating with my family or somewhere else, I have been uncertain about how to approach this season. Because I am without a congregation to lead and uncertain where God will lead me, I am not sure what to do with this admonishment to be reconciled. And because I am not sure I do not know how to practice, but I know that I will need something to guide me through this season. So I’ve been searching for ideas which led me to find Rachel Held Evan’s 40 Ideas for Lent where she mentions how she once “committed to rising just before dawn each day to pray.” I like this idea. Because I hate it. I love sleeping in. I love sleep. I don’t want to give up my sleep and this might just be the very reason I need to do it — but maybe not before the sun rises. Maybe just waking up earlier than usual is enough. Waking up early and allowing myself the space to do morning pages.

Sure. We’ll try that because as I live into these new (im)possible things, I really want to write more but I need to practice my way into that possibility — and I need partners. So, I’ll also be reading Rachel Hackenberg’s Sacred Pause. I had mostly decided this before worship this afternoon — but sitting there in that space, I hadn’t realized how much I needed to hear from Holy Scripture. I’ve been in the practice of preaching every week which has required me to engage with Biblical texts each week but I won’t have that for this season. Hearing all of the readings for this day, as the Episcopalians tend to do, I was reminded how much these words mean to me and how much I need to struggle with them. So, no matter how word weary I might be, I’ll do morning pages with a slight twist. I’ll pull out an old friend and start my morning first with coffee then with scripture before I let my pen flow for three pages until the resurrection comes.