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.

Pandemic Prayers for Baptism of Christ

I love this Sunday.

I have been known to do some really silly things in worship because I love the joy of remembering this wonderful and strange ritual we share where we remember we are God’s beloved. And so I want to make this Sunday special. I want there to be unique things that do not require a ton of work for you, dear pastor, as you try to offer this blessing again. If you read my newsletter, you’ve already been chewing on some of those ideas but here are a few more.

What if this Sunday was a series of prayer stations? Yes, that means you don’t need to preach. It also means in this reality of online worship (as I’m assuming your congregation is still online and will continue to be until at least March) that your people will need to gather materials to set up. It will be a tiny bit of chaos but you get to send them on a scavenger hunt and who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt?

Here’s the list:

  • 10-15 sheets of paper
  • bowl of water
  • 10 small rocks or pebbles
  • markers, crayons or pens in assorted colors
  • 5 recent news stories about water (bookmark or print out articles)
  • matches
  • candle for each worshipper
  • extra credit: photos from family baptisms, baptismal candles/shells and/or baptism certificates

In the 10 days or so before Baptism of Christ Sunday, I would send out this list. I would send out reminders about this list by email and social media. I would maybe offer prizes for people that post pictures of all of their items on social media. I would begin worship reminding the gathered that this service has some tools required. I might even plan for the stressed-out parents who forgot because of all things and have some special music planned while they race to get the items. Or I might skip the music and have some sort of Mission Impossible countdown clock because I already sent you 5000 communications about this and I’m annoyed. These are the moments where I really miss leading church, right? This is actually endearing to me now. Silly church people.

What follows is a fairly complete liturgy. It’s missing a couple of things that you probably require in your usual worship format but I hope it gives enough creativity that you can delve in and use this opportunity to create a few Powerpoint or Canva slides for your worship presentation and move onto next Sunday. (If it works to use the slides below, please do so.) And if you are planning ahead to next week, here you go.

Gathering Around the Baptismal Font

Come to this font 
to find blessing and 
hear the divine echo
sweep over the face of the waters
calling out blessing and joy.

Come to pull up
a chair beside this basin
or bowl or whatever you found 
in the back of the cupboard
to remember that God's grace
doesn't require gold or silver,
but is poured out in 
abundant love.

Come to splash
and wade into this water
to hear again that you are beloved.
You have brought pleasure
and glory to God's name.

Come and touch the water 
to remember God’s love for you.
This version by Chad Garner and Robert Robinson is covered by the CCLI license.

Share in hearing Genesis 1:1-5.

If it is your tradition to gift Bibles to the newly baptized, I might opt to read this creation story from the Bible that you gift to the children.

Worship leader would prompt gathered to gather markers or crayons and one piece of paper for all worshippers. Worship leader could lead the prayer prompt below. Or it could be displayed on a screen image. If read aloud, it may need to be broken into parts.

Allow 3 minutes. Meditative music might play in the background.

Share in hearing Mark 1:4-11.

Worship leader would prompt gathered to move the bowl of water to the center of their focus. They can push the markers and paper out of the way and pull the new stories up in their browser or put printed articles next to the bowl. Just as before, worship leader would lead the prompt below.

Allow 5-10 minutes. Meditative music might play in the background.

Prayer for the Many Waters 

Awesome God, we thank you for the water in our bath tubs and sinks.
We thank you for the water that rains from the sky and the water inside our bodies. 
We thank you for rivers and lakes and Barton Springs*. 
We thank you for oceans and ponds full of fish, turtles and frogs. 
We give thanks for the gift of water. May water always remind us 
of your love. Amen.

*include local body of water that would be familiar to your congregation instead of this fresh water pool in Austin, Texas

Allow 5-10 minutes. Meditative music might play in the background.

Share in listening to the good news in Mark 1:4-11.

Invite the gathered to place a piece of fresh paper before each person. Place the markers or crayons within reach.

Allow 10 minutes. Meditative music might play in the background.

As with most songs by The Many, this song is covered by the CCLI license.

Invite the gathered to notice all of the objects that they have collected. Marvel for just a moment at the ways that we are learning to be church together. We are becoming something new and wonderful. There is lots to praise here.

Now invite them to bring the candle and matches to the center of their focus before leading the final prayer station.

Allow 3 minutes. Meditative music might play in the background.

Baptismal Waters Litany
Written by the Rev. Melissa Reed

When they say: you are alone.
These waters say: You are “with.”

When they say: You are too broken, damaged goods, too wounded, not enough.
These waters say: Enough, beloved. Enough.

When they say: You are too brown, child, Too black. Too queer, child. Too fat.
These waters say: Beautiful, child. Beautiful.

When they say: You are too addicted, stranger. 
Immigrant, alien. Criminal. Too far gone, stranger.
These waters say: Home, neighbor. Welcome home.

When they say: We could sell these waters and turn a profit!
These waters say: We are the waters of the Jordan, 
the waters of the Atlantic, the waters of the Charles. 
We are the waters of your Mother’s womb, and we are free!

When they say: Fear.
These waters say: Trust.

When they say: Commodify. Consume.
These waters say: Life.

I would really like to close this worship experience with In Water We Grow but it is sadly missing from any YouTube search I can manage. Perhaps this is when you use the talents of your own congregation. Or maybe you’ll offer a blessing of your own.

When I first posted this, I included links to where I find these prayer stations I adapted. Canva doesn’t let you link but I want to be sure I give credit where credit is due. Inspiration for these prayer stations came from Theresa Cho’s Interactive Prayer Stations for Baptism 2, Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church’s Prayer Stations for Baptism of the Lord Sunday and Sybil MacBeth’s Praying in Color.

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

Pandemic Prayers for Epiphany

A new year dawns. 2020 is over.

That is the hope that we have put all of our energy into as we count down the last few days of this wretched pandemic year. We are waiting even after Advent is over. We are waiting for what is still to come. Maybe this will be the year that we will grasp that Christmas continues for all twelve days when so many that haven’t put up a tree in years have done so just to experience a little bit of joy. Will they also log into Zoom to hear the promise that this season offers? Will we imagine that this good news will truly lead to better days?

I confess I’m not there yet so I’m gonna keep singing carols for as long as it’s even remotely acceptable. The first Sunday in January is the ninth day of Christmas and is technically the Second Sunday of Christmas though many will likely celebrate Epiphany on that day. I would have zero qualms about putting a carol into worship especially one that is as beautifully fresh in these new words.

I had shared in my last newsletter some ideas from Epiphany including recommending Traci Smith’s resource for families looking to practice a new way into experiencing the twelve days of Christmas. You can find it in her Etsy shop.

Maren Tirabassi wrote this beautiful communion liturgy for this Sunday as she has for each month in coronatide. She plays with the imagery of the Twelve Days of Christmas which I confess I had to sing through all nine days until I could remember that there are nine ladies dancing. I think singing the song or playing the song instrumentally before communion (even if its secular) might help for the worshipping community to hear what I didn’t catch too quickly. It’s fun though. We need fun and I will always recommend Maren’s words.

This could be the Sunday that you preach the Prologue of John. I’ve been playing with that for next Christmas and I have no more ideas than what I’ve already written for it so these prayers might not speak to you. I am using a hybrid of inspiration from the second Sunday of Christmas and Epiphany Sunday so I hope these prayers might carry you into the new year. If you find yourself leaning into the hope of the new year, there are a whole bunch of new year prayers on re:Worship. I’m also not assuming that all of these prayers go into the same service but wanted to provide options and follow where the sections led me.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Jeremiah 31:7-14 

With weeping we have come,
feeling blind and lame
and barren
without hope
even in this season
full of hope.

We come wobbly 
and uncertain
but God assures
us that we will not stumble.
We will not fall
but we will rejoice.
We will sing.
We will dance 
and hold hands
and be merry.
We shall not languish forever.
God will shepherd 
us into the future.
God is leading us 
under the stars.

I’m not sure where this song should go but I like it and I thought this pastor did a lovely job with the visuals. It also wouldn’t let me save it to my epiphany playlist which I found annoying. Because it is still Christmas and I am not one to put away the Advent wreath until Christmas is actually over (that is, after January 6), I always include a liturgy for the lighting of the Christ candles. That version is responsive with the same refrain repeated by the congregation. I don’t think that works online so it’s been adapted again.

Lighting the Way of Christ
Inspired by Sirach 24:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-6

In this season of possibility, of wisdom telling of her glory to all the people,
 of love made known and peace kept close at home, still we seek light.
 
We seek light from the highest heavens
wondering what this year will hold, 
fearful and hopeful 
and praying with 
all our hearts that 
this year will be different.

[Light first of the Advent candles]
 
We seek light over the waves
of the sea, and all the earth,
for creation is hurting
and we too often feel
like we have no sway.

[Light second of the Advent candles]

We seek light as we listen
for God's command and wonder
what the ministry of the church,
this church and every church,
will be when the world 
has changed so much 
in just one year. 

[Light third of the Advent candles]

We seek light because
we have not yet found a resting place
to dwell where there is enough 
for the immigrant, the refugee,
the poor and the widow,
or even for those who
abide in black and brown skin.

[Light fourth of the Advent candles]

We come seeking light
in the One is Light
and Wisdom and Love.
It is in this great light
that we will rise and shine
for our light has come. 
We will open our mouths
and share in the glory
that continues the work 
of Christmas. 

[Light Christ candle]

Epiphany is rich with so many images but my favorite has always been the stars. I am fasciated that the star stopped or that it felt that way as it does when the hairs stand up on our necks and we know that we have touched some glimmer of God’s grace. I went back to look at old liturgies I have created for this day and none of them seem to speak to this moment of online worship in ten million months into a global pandemic. Can we speak of these things in the same way? Do we need new inspiration to speak of what the heavens reveals in these tiny bursts of gas?

I might find a prayer that speaks to this moment like Joyce Sutphen’s Naming the Stars which names the hope of those future reunions full of hugs, at least to my reading. Or maybe this poem by Mary Jo Bang written early in the pandemic. Mary Oliver has a lovely poem on stars and Ann Weems has a whole bunch of poems that might work especially well if you are doing star words. I think it would be fun to adapt this poem by John Daniel into a Call to Worship but I’m not sure we all share the same vision of the post-pandemic future. There are some universals, of course, but do we all begin in the same place with that hope? I’m not so sure but it would be fun to play with that poem and the Gospel. Here are a few prayers that muse on the wonder of stars.

Prayer of Confession
Inspired by Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21 and Matthew 2:1-12

O God, lead us 
on different roads 
from the paths that 
brought us here into this new year. 

Open us to new treasures
from the chests
that we have carried 
over so many miles
always assuming that 
this was what was needed
because you imagine 
more than just one moment 
of revelation. Your light 
does not stop with that star
in one spot in the night sky.
You continue the 
orbit of love 
beyond that 
brief pause. 

We have thought 
we were holy and blameless.
We thought so all last
year and so we did
what we thought was right.
We took risks
that were comfortable 
for our own comfort
and read headlines
only to the point 
that we could 
sit with our own
racism and privilege. 
We still don't really 
know what freedom
means for those that 
are truly oppressed.
We thought we knew.
We thought we 
were so wise.

Lead us
by another way, O God,
where light teaches 
us humility and grace.
Lead us through
all our blunders
and missed opportunities
to find new signs
and wonders 
that overwhelm us 
with joy. Lead us 
ever into joy, O God.

Like so many, I really wanted to do something with this Christmas Star business. I went outside at dusk with my children to try to find it on the horizon. In one of the many news reports I listened to for some hint that this could have anything to do with Christmas (and I confess I’m still unconvinced), it was suggested that the Star of Bethlehem might actually have been an alignment of planets as Jupiter and Saturn aligned on the Longest Night. I can no longer find where I heard that. Sorry. I am using a lot of poetic license with this prayer and so my apologies to the scientists and maybe also to the psalmist.

Prayer for the Stars Alignment
Inspired by Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Will the stars align, O God, 
so neatly in the sky
that it might feel 
like this is what
you always dreamt 
would be?

Will the paths of planets 
reveal more to us
of your justice and love?

Will these celestial events
change how we live 
in this world 
as it was once sung
in ancient song?
Will we see your justice
come into the mountains 
and hills? Will hope for 
the poor and needy
rain down in stardust?

O God, we need a little bit 
of that hope right now.
We need some sign
in the heavens that will 
assure us that you are 
leading us, all of us, 
into justice and joy.
Align the heavens 
above with our
hope-filled prayers
for justice and joy. 

That’s all I’ve got for you this week, dear pastors. You’ve made it into the next calendar year. You have done amazing things for the love of Jesus. I mean that. You embody the love of God right now. Hold fast friends. We will get there.

Pandemic Liturgy for All Saints Sunday

This is one of my very favorite celebrations of the church. I have long lamented that there are not enough spaces in the church calendar to share our grief. This is one of the few.

This year, when the death toll of COVID-19 continues to rise over 200,000, it feels especially important to give space for all that we are grieving right now. In my first newsletter, I shared this old liturgy with lots of space for silence. I confessed that I didn’t think it would work for online worship but I wanted to write something else to honor this holy day. If All Saints is new to you, as it was to me not too long ago, I offer this very brief history from an old worship bulletin from one of the churches I’ve served.

As early as the fourth century, days were set aside to commemorate all the saints at once. Today we continue this tradition using the varied practices of All Saints Day, All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead all of which are celebrated on November 1 or 2. Though in the Catholic tradition where this celebration honored unknown saints and to remedy deficiencies in people’s observance of a particular saint’s day, we do not canonize or pray to saints, but we look to these towering figures of our heritage for inspiration and encouragement in our own Christian pilgrimage. All Saints Day should challenge us by presenting us with a variety of figures from different times and places whose often contradictory styles of faithfulness enlarge our notion of what it means to be a disciple and a saint.

Unlike the other prayers that I share on a weekly basis, I wanted to offer a complete liturgy for this day. I not only hope this gives our pastors some space to worship themselves, but it also allows me to play a bit more. Play is good for all our souls. I need to play even if in relishing in the joy of playing I managed to pick the epistle for Proper 27 instead of the selected readings from Proper 26. I knew I was going to ignore the lections for actual All Saints Day though there is a nod to the gospel in one of the songs I’ve selected. I decided not to change it and let the text speak to the lamentation of this time.

Gathering for Worship

Remember When by The Many is available to be freely streamed from YouTube in worship or can be purchased on a sliding scale based on congregational size here. It is covered by the CCLI license.
Invitation to Worship

Let us begin 
our lament here, O God, 
in an act of memory
of all that has happened
in all that we could not 
believe was possible
as good white people
as people who had
never known how far and wide
a virus could actually reach
as people who 
who thought we 
had enough faith. 

Show us 
what we do 
not want to remember
and what we cannot 
bear to remember
after so much has been lost
in only a few short months.
O God, let us begin here
in all full lament.

Lighting of the Christ Candle

On the central screen that guides your worship (which would usually be the primary speaker in Zoom), place a large white pillar candle upon a candle holder or even a recognizable parament from your church’s treasure of beautiful things.

Go slow. Start by laying out the parament or candle holder onto the table on screen and then slowly place the candle in the center. Using a candle lighter or just a match (but please not one of these awful things), light the wick. Do this all in silence. Create a slide to follow these words or simply pray aloud:

O Light of Christ,
bring your steadfast love
here to illuminate 
all that will be gathered here. 
Redeem us from trouble
in the fire of your love. Amen.

Readings for All the Saints

A Reading of Poetry The Truly Great by Stephen Spender

A Reading from Scripture 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10, 4:13-18

Lighting the Memory of the Saints

With the Christ candle at the center of the screen, push a basket of tealights so that it is just barely visible on screen. Use these movements as liturgical actions where you are setting the space and preparing yourself and those watching for prayer. (You’ll need room so don’t push it too close.) Begin by offering these words:

We will not be uninformed about those who have died. We grieve so many. We feel such loss even as we cling to hope. We encourage each other by remembering their names.

You may choose to have gathered a list of names from within your congregation as is your tradition each year. You may search the necrology of your church as you do every year for those that have died in the past year in your community. Or you could choose to use this list of saints that will, sadly, probably need additions before the first of November.

Paul of Tarsus
Priscilla 
Francis of Assisi
Julian of Norwich
Teresa of Avila
Martin Luther
Harriet Tubman
Sojourner Truth
Mahatma Ghandi
Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Mother Theresa
James Lipton
Ahmaud Arbery
Kenny Rogers
Rev. Joseph E. Lowery
Breonna Taylor
Vanessa Guillen
Bill Withers
John Prine
George Floyd
Cornelius Fredericks
Little Richard
Betty Wright
Priscilla Slater
Larry Kramer
Hugh Downs
John Lewis
C.T. Vivian
Regis Philbin
Herman Cain
Chadwick Boseman
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Eddie Van Halen

After each name is spoken, softly and gently, reach for a tealight. Light the tealight from the Christ candle and place it underneath the light of Christ so that the light of Christ radiates with the light of the saints you have named. Continue until the last name is read. Pause. After pausing, then close in prayer with these words.

O Light of Christ,
we have witnessed
lives well lived and lives cut too short.
We are left below this great 
cloud of witnesses
to continue the struggle
for justice and love
in this world. Still, we lament
that we've lost these partners. 
May their memories be a blessing
and a light to our labor. Amen.

Though I would be more inclined to recruit the talents within the congregation to sing We Grieve the Many Thousands by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) or We Grieve 200,000 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded), I provide the above video as another option. It is covered by the CCLI license as shown here.

Sharing the Feast of God with All the Saints

As much as possible, and assuming that the presider has also spoken the earlier liturgy, keep the Christ candle and tealights in view as communion is shared with the great cloud of witnesses. Bring the loaf and cup alongside. As you share the story of that Last Supper, do not hesitate to make elaborate gestures of the bread breaking and the wine being poured. These things tell the story beyond words.

Invitation to the Feast

More than even the flickering lights,
we feel the waves of grief rise
as we gather around this table
to do what we have always done:
remember, share and bless.

To remember the goodness of God
as we shake the crumbs off 
familiar paraments faithfully mended
over the generations. We remember
who was once here with us.
We feel their absence.

To share in the mystery 
of sacred story that reaches
across lifetimes and generations
to be broken and poured out
with new meaning again.

To bless the grief
that tastes as salty as the bread
and bitter as the wine 
puckering our lips. 
We gather here 
with all the saints
to remember
to share and 
to bless.
Prayer of Blessing

Ancient Spirit, rise
from sacred story
to everyday truth
so that we can find you
again in these ordinary
elements on our shared table.
Even when we are not in one place,
may we find in this bread your wholeness.
May we find in this cup your joy.
Fill our humble bellies with your wonder
as you bless this bread and cup.
Bless our hearts with fullness. Amen.
Prayer after Communion

Holy Three in One, thank you for this feast.
We have remembered who’s we are and who we love.
We have blessed our grief and tasted goodness
so let us go now to be light and salt for this world. Amen.

Blessing

I would let music be the blessing for this time of lament. Allow the candles to keep burning as the Light of Christ and all the saints go with us into the days ahead. I offer two options. I prefer the above song. You can find CCLI license information here. You could instead choose God Will See Us Through which has options for a video download or sheet music for the talent in your congregation.

As always in these pandemic prayers, you are welcome to use part of this liturgy or all of it. I am not asking you to bend over backwards to offer me credit. I am instead offering this as a gift because you are doing so much and I’m praying for you and the ministry you are doing with such love.

Backpack Blessings in Coronatide

In my first attempt at brainstorming for worship planning in the pandemic, I wondered how many blessings there might be as the school year begins. I wondered if there will not only be the usual backpack blessings but also blessings for teachers and parents (and other caregivers). It could be a whole service. Or it could be an event for which you’ll find options below.

There is this whole service that I thought might work for this moment with some adaptations. It was written several years ago and is intended for in person gatherings, but this Service for the New School Year would speak powerfully to the fears and hopes in this upcoming academic year. I could see the index cards suggested being adapted for the Zoom polling feature. I do not know how you do the interactive parts in pre-recorded worship. I don’t think it’s impossible but I haven’t seen it done yet.

This is not an exhaustive list of resources but I hope that some of it is easy to adapt to your context so that you might find an opportunity to offer blessing. As with the other prayers I’ve offered in this pandemic, you can give me credit. That’s lovely but my goal here is really to help you worship plan, dear pastors. You are doing so much.

Tangible Blessings

Many churches are inclined to offer stickers, buttons or tags to adorn on a child’s backpack to remind them of their belovedness during the school day and even when they reach in their bag to dig out homework. This year is no different. In fact, it seems even more important.

Traci Smith is sending out such blessings to the children in her church with these stickers. I have always adored the work of Suzanne L. Vinson and think that these stickers might be an amazing blessing stuck to the laptop of a parent or teacher. Or I might opt for these blessed buttons. Then again, knowing that there may be a delay in getting these resources in time, I’d be inclined to get crafty. I’ve heard of several churches doing photo contests to engage in intergenerational fellowship and I see no reason why blessings shouldn’t be the same.

My first thought was something I saw on Pinterest when I was trying to find fun things to keep my toddler entertained: homemade shrinky dinks.

To make this an all church project, you might tell people to dig into their recycling and pull out a #6 plastic. Clean it. Draw on it with sharpies. Maybe you further instruct that they use the same word like blessed or love or breathe in the center of their drawing. You could either have them bake it themselves or you can have them delivered to the church so that they can be baked, assembled and delivered all together. I dare you to pick up a sharpie to do this without thinking of this gorgeous essay. This is 110% prayer.

Or you could xerox the church logo with the word blessed or loved or whatever word you choose and make your own stickers. Clergy friends, I am not advising you to take on these crafts yourself. Please seek out the talented people in your congregation who can make these dreams come true. You are tired and need a vacation. You do not need to do it all.

Blessing Events

I’ve also seen that some churches are considering socially distanced events. There are churches that are providing a blessing arch for individual cars to drive through. I know there are other churches that plan to do backpack blessings in parking lots. Maybe the blessing event is a socially distant parade like we have seen so many celebrate their birthdays in this pandemic where stickers, supplies and prayer cards are delivered.

I heard one kind soul created a scavenger hunt through her area for children to go hunting for school supplies. I have no idea how this would work but it sounds so sweet.

Backpack Blessings

student-2794246_1920Some churches affix prayers to the tangible blessings that they send home. Others find a way to do it in worship. Ordinarily, this is my favorite version of the backpack blessings written by Quinn Caldwell for such moments. There is also this one and this one. You can google and find your own favorites but few of these prayers are written for this particular moment of social distancing in our pandemic reality.

With complete gratitude to Wendy Claire Barrie, I’m choosing to adapt her prayer for this moment. It is in truth only adapted slightly.

God of Wisdom, we give you thanks for learning and for the teachers and parents who help us grow. We thank you for this new beginning, for new books and new ideas. We thank you for sharpened pencils, pointy crayons, and crisp blank pages waiting to be filled. We thank you for the gift of making mistakes and trying again. Help us to remember that asking the right questions is often as important as giving the right answers. Today we give you thanks for children, and we ask you to bless every child beginning this new school year with curiosity, understanding and respect. May their backpacks be a sign to them that they have everything they need to learn and grow this year in school (and in Sunday School). May they be guided by your love. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who as a child in the temple showed his longing to learn about you, and as an adult taught by story and example your great love for us. Amen.

Here is another idea inspired by this hand blessing. This would work best in Zoom where all of the hands could be seen in a gallery view. It is meant to be led by one voice to avoid any unnecessary complications to this blessing. As with the Blessing for Teachers that follows, it is rooted in the wonder of creation.

A Pandemic Blessing for New Learning

Over the first waters of creation
the spirit hovered
above what was still unknown.
Light would come.
God would bring
bright shining light
just as God will bring
new ideas and wonderings
into your heads in this new school year.

It will be different this year.
You might not get to hold the hand
of your best friend
or reach for the monkey bars
or even shake your teacher’s hand.
You will wash your hands more
than you ever have before
even if your classroom is in
your dining room this year.

You will still grow and change.
God’s light will shine with you
as so many spirit hover close. And so, we bless you in new learning.

Feel our hands hover close (to your screen)
in blessing for the light that shines in you,
in the light that is just beginning to shine,
and the bright light God will bring into your life this year.
We bless you to grow in our love. Amen.

I would want to conclude with this hymn because it was in my head while I wrote this prayer. It could also lead into the blessing for teachers.

Blessings for Parents and Teachers

I would like for there to be separate blessings for teachers and parents because their particular petitions are different. You may have seen this circulate like I did.

It’s funny but it also highlights that parents are not teachers even if many of them will be doing some version of homeschooling this year. Some teachers are parents and being forced to make decisions about their children while also trying to secure their livelihood. Several weeks ago, I’d read something about how many teachers have put in extra time this summer to update their wills before the school year begins. Teachers need blessing. I imagine this following the blessing for children which may or may not be separated by music. While hands were used to bless the children, I wanted to use some alternate visual and opted for light. This would therefore require everyone in your Zoom gallery view to have a candle ready to light. You could, of course, pull out the candles from Christmas Eve and distribute them with the stickers and prayer cards that you’re delivering. Here is what I hope will be a simple blessing for teachers to let them know how loved they are.

A Pandemic Blessing for Teachers

In the beginning, before you knew
what you might learn from washing children’s hands,
washing blackboards and designing lesson plans
with special attention for the particular people
in your classroom, you were called to teach.
You were inspired by those who taught you.
You were energized by what you saw happen
in an ordinary classroom. A light began to shine.
A light that continues to shine
through every adaptation
from countless administrations.
That light has shined
brightest when you watched
your students get it.
You radiated in that hope
and we have seen it shine in you.
Today, dear teachers, we light a candle

Pause to allow everyone to light their candles at home.

for the spark of imagination
and the flicker of love
that will shine in you this year
even if it is hidden behind a face mask.
We pray that you feel the warmth
of these lights that we hold for you.
We pray blessings upon you,
dear teachers, as you begin this new school year
in the middle of a global pandemic.
We pray for you now
but these candles will continue to glow
every day of this year. Our prayers will
be with you every day
for we know that you have been called
to teach and you will do so
with God’s great blessing.
We pray God’s blessing upon you,
now and always. Amen.

If you did not opt for music to follow the first blessing, you might choose to do so now. It could simply be a recording of your church musician playing a favorite creation hymn. If possible, I would do this toward the end of the service where it actually possible not to extinguish these candles until after the service has concluded. Ideally, I would invite folks to wait until they turned off their cameras. Alternatively, you could simply adapt the above prayer from Wendy Claire Barrie to include parents and children. Or that might just be the version you publish on your social media on the first day of school to remind teachers, parents and students how loved they are.

Even if I’m not writing an actual blessing for parents here, I did want there to be something tangible for both parents and teachers. I first thought of the breath prayers for anxious times that Sarah Bessey offered months ago when we thought this surely would be resolved by the end of the summer. Breath prayers seem particularly poignant with masks covering our mouths and noses, ventilators in high demand and the echo of too many black voices saying “I can’t breathe” under the foot of a police officer. I’m thinking of the stress that parents and teachers are already carrying as they watch headlines tick away revealing the overwhelming voracity of this virus. I want them to have a blessing to carry in their pocket when they can’t remember that shining light within them. I made prayer cards to download. You can find those Breath Prayers for Teachers and Parents here. It’s not everything but it’s something.

I hit post and shared on social media only to realize that I totally omitted Sunday School and the kick off of the church year. Is that happening this year? Is it different?

Dear pastors, I’m praying for you as you offer hope and encouragement in this moment. I pray these things help you to do the work you do so well.

Insistent Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.

I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.

It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.

But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.

Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?

I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.

I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.

Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.

In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.

It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.

Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.

I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.

Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.

 

Liturgical Lights for Sunday June 21, 2015

J A S M I N EThe Narrative Lectionary leads us to pray over the words of Psalm 27 on June 21, 2015.

It happens that it’s Father’s Day but this is not a liturgical holiday. I got a lot of flack for this two months ago when I said this about Mother’s Day — but it’s still true for the dads.

There is so much wonderful imagery to ponder in this psalm that I hope our hearts and minds are led there in worship. The good people at Working Preacher suggest that these are words of disorientation. Next week, we’ll be reoriented in another psalm — but this week allows for a moment to consider what doesn’t feel quite right so that I instantly hear Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith asking that wonderful question: what’s saving my life right now? She answers her own question in the book by saying:

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

But, I must admit I rather like this short video from The Work of the People that gets to the same thing. (Sadly, the video will not embed but do follow this link.)

The prayers I’ve written this morning meditate on this question from the illustrious Barbara Brown Taylor — which I imagine would lead to an extended silence where the congregation could individually answer this question for themselves. Perhaps that happens through a prayer station or maybe it simply considered in silence after a brief guided meditation.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

Light came into the world
in the beginning of creation.
It was the very first thing that God created.
And God saw that the light was good. 
When the people could no longer see
the goodness God had created,
Light came into the world in human flesh.
In that flesh was life, and the life was the light of all people.
And the people saw that the light was good.
That light, created in human flesh,
taught the people what they could not believe,
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me
will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

And so, we come because we can’t see the light
shining in our lives and in the world.
We can’t see how all of this has been good from the very beginning.
We come to ask and to remember,
What is saving our lives right now?

Prayer of Invocation

With the following words, I would allow for a few moments of silent reflection as the congregation moves together to seek God’s presence. I imagine doing that by saying simply:

So here we are, together,
to find the salvation we’re not even sure we need.
Let us come before God to ask
for that great and faithful love.
Let us share in silent prayer.

I would love to hear what you’ve go planned for worship on Sunday — especially as summer arrives. Does this mean a transition in your worship experience? I’d love to hear what you’re daydreaming about in the comments below. And, if you happen to use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday June 21, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at revelsaanderspeters.com.