Pandemic Prayers for the Ascension

At the end of the last week, I sat on a picnic blanket in my backyard with my two babies reading the Ascension from their new Sparkhouse Story Bible. (I discovered that Sparkhouse is offering a discount for Bibles to support families during this pandemic.) When I’ve preached on this passage from Acts, I’ve always been drawn to that bit about the disciples gazing up toward heaven.96310241_904628923324224_3491067924926431232_n

I rather like how the Story Bible turned this around for me. It caught my attention and made me wonder what it was that I’m doing right now to carry on the love of Jesus especially for those that feel like God has abandoned us. In the Story Bible, the narrative doesn’t end with the question about staring up to heaven. It doesn’t end with any sort of claim about when Jesus will come back but picks up with a disciple daring to be brave enough to say, “Right! Meanwhile, we have some work to do. Let’s get going.”

These prayers pick up on that hope because it’s been eleven weeks and I’m tired. I’m riddled with doubt that any choice I make to stay home or wear a mask actually matters. I need to hear a bit more from scientists and God.

Opening Worship

I really wanted to write something else about face masks but I’ll settle for the gorgeous art. Instead, I offer a simple responsive prayer to begin worship.

Welcoming the People of God

People of God, where is your hope?
Our hope is in God
who has blessed us
and given us great joy.

Why, then, do you worry?
We fear the unknown.
There is so much that is unknown.

Where do you look for hope?
We look to the scientists
eagerly working in labs
with more than 78 projects in process.
We marvel at what they have learned
in a mere five months
and we hope the healthcare workers
know how much we admire them
and appreciate them when
we are not banging pots and pans. 

Where do you need God today?
We need God
to help us to understand this moment
as much as we might understand
the scriptures.
We need God
to remind us there
is still work to do
and great joy to be found.

Unison Prayer

In the first church I served and the church of my childhood, there was no prayer of confession. There was something dubbed a unison prayer meaning that it was something we all shared together in one voice. Might I suggest something like this this Sunday even if you skip over the Ascension and find yourself in Easter 7A? Consider a Prayer for Medical Scientists or a Prayer for Chaplains and Healthcare Workers. There are surprisingly few of these out there.

Something for the Offering

I wanted to write something about wearing masks and staying home and socially distancing and how all of these things are the things we can do in this moment, but everything I came up with was garbage. (Yes, garbage.) This isn’t the perfect solution. It assumes a point of privilege and that’s not what I hope, but I did want to add something simple to celebrate our gifts to the church and beyond. It admittedly leans heavily on church. Oops.

I use Luke 4 in the second to last response but it could easily be adapted to include your church’s mission or vision. Remembering who we are and who we belong to in these days is critical. Use the words that your congregation has created. Remember. Celebrate. Adapt everything.

Invitation to the Offering

People of God, why do you stand
looking up toward heaven?
Christ has gone up with a shout,
but he will come again with trumpets and praise.
How then will you live?

We will live in hope
and be guided by peace.
We will dare to believe that
there are better days ahead
but we will do all that we can to protect
this earth and its people. We will love.

Who will you love?

We will love the forgotten and the ignored.
We will love the discarded, abandoned and abused.
We will love brown bodies, black bodies
immigrant and refuge bodies, fat bodies
and hollow bodies that feel they’ve nothing to give
but we will give.

How will you give?

We give with our whole hearts
with our bodies and souls
to support the things that matter most.

People of God, why do you give?

We give to bring good news to the poor;
to proclaim release to the captives and
recovery to the sight of the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and allow all people to believe in hope.

How will you hope?

We will put our hope in our church.
We will believe in its mission
so much that it becomes an extension of ourselves.
We will hope that every dollar 
and every cent
is used to make Jesus Christ present
We will hope with out who hearts
and reach out to the world in love.

I may have had this song in my head while I was writing this particular prayer.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 6A

When this all started, there were lots of reflections about God’s absence.

It wasn’t my experience. I didn’t feel like God had given up or disappeared anymore than I felt like God had brought this pandemic upon the global community.

It’s eight or nine or fifty-two weeks later and I’m not quite sure I have words for what God is doing right now. My faith tells me that God is always up to something. It pushes me to get in the balcony and look for the big picture. It assures me that I don’t need to be anxious and worry because somehow it will be alright in the end. My husband loves to say this. He loves the bright side and it has made me bite his head off more than once in the past few days. I am not proud of this but it’s a fact.

These lections push me to go looking for what God is doing. I was pushed further into this search after reading this encouraging word from Karoline Lewis. It reminded me of this essay by Sara Miles from years and years ago. These prayers search for that divine accompaniment.

Opening Worship

I’m opting for simple phrases that can be repeated again and again by the congregation. I want for there to be a musical element that is sung in response to the spoken word. I can’t figure out how to make it work but that’s where I keep going. Maybe this favorite Taize song follows the Invitation to the Spirit below. Or instead, maybe worship begins with this teaching bit from John Bell.

Call to Praise

This week was harder than the last.
We do not know when this will end
or what the world will become when it is over.
Still, we come to praise.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

God has heard every prayer.
God has listened to our deepest fears.
God will not give up on us.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

We have been tested.
We are being tested every day
so that we struggle to know what is right.
God waits with us
and hopes with us.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

We do not feel like we are doing enough
in one moment and in the next
feel like we should be doing more
to end the pandemic of racism,
the virus of hate,
and the greed of capitalism.
The burden is heavy on our backs
as we hunch over screens
wishing and praying
for a better world.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

God is with us.
God will not leave us orphaned
even when we cannot see what God is doing,
God is listening.
God mourns with us. God hopes
and God dares to dream with us.
Bless our God, O peoples,
let God’s praise be heard.

Invitation to the Spirit

Words inspired by Richard Swanson’s Gospel Translation

Come breath of truth
and blow through our fears
about what could have been
or should have been. Come
into this beautiful broken world.
Come, O Spirit, come.

We do not see you.
We haven’t noticed
your place by our sides
but we know it is promised.
You are coming. You are here.
Come, O Spirit, come.

Come dear advocate
to remain in the discomfort
with us. Come to hold our hands
and breathe your truth
into our own lungs.
Come, O Spirit, come.

Affirmation of Faith

When I shared last week’s prayers on Twitter, I joked that I didn’t include a confession. It’s honestly felt clunky to write these and I couldn’t figure out why. I got an instant reply to my tweet from RevGalBlogPals that there are others that skip confessions and assurances in the Easter season. (They are also curating this gorgeous thing called Worship Words that you should check out.) Right. I would usually swap the confession and assurance for some words to remember what we do believe.

Listening to Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded me that I need to remember and repeat these words. We don’t just need good preaching. We need to put words to our own faith.

Here are my very favorites.

A New Creed from the United Church of Canada

The Affirmation of Faith from page 481 of the New Zealand Prayer Book

United Church of Christ Statement of Faith in the form of a doxology

A Statement of Faith by Ann Weems (Reaching for Rainbows, 1980)

Advent Statement of Faith by the Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison

Creed by Meg Kearney

The Immigrant’s Creed from the Book of Common Worship (PCUSA)

Oh, I should probably mention again that I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ. As part of a non-creedal movement of faith, I believe in a holy bit of irreverence. This is why poetry makes the list and I think that’s fine.

I also really want to insert this somewhere into worship. Maybe it goes here. Can an Affirmation of Faith be sung?

Prayers of the People

I can’t stop reading hymn lyrics since we found out we can no longer sing together. This might also be why I want to insert a hymn into the Affirmation of Faith.

This Sunday, I’d be tempted to offer the words of In Our Brokenness as the Pastoral Prayer. Another option might be this prayer originally from RevGalBlogPals.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 5A

I join the circle of preachers who have expressed their familiarity with this text at the graveside. It’s the Gospel Lesson I always choose when the family doesn’t steer me in another direction, not because of the many mansions or rooms but for what it says about grief. I love the repetition that Jesus holds before us. I am in you. You are in me. 

I feel the tremendous wonder of these words in the eighth week of sheltering in place. I feel the weight of it as the news ticked across my screen last week announcing the death toll was now higher in the United States than the lives lost in the Vietnam War. As I sit here with my laptop in my lap watching my children enjoy their third snack of the day after our morning walk, that death toll is reported to be 67,465. The Washington Post reports that number will double by June 1 with the number of states relaxing restrictions. Lord Jesus. I am in you. You are in me. 

I have watched as clergy post masked selfies at their first graveside service in the wake of this pandemic. I’ve listened as they’ve carefully considered how to keep the grieving socially distanced. I’ve heard their sorrow and regret and felt their tears. This is a new season for grief. It is different and still the same. Mourning hasn’t yet turned into dancing. We need space. We need time. We need to remember that no matter how death came, there is this promise in life after death. There is the mysterious power of love that continues. It lives on.  I am in you. You are in me. 

These prayers lean into that grief and the strange awareness that we are even more connected than ever.

Opening Worship

I know that we are not able to sing together and won’t be able to do so for some time but I want to believe that there is still a way to do so. I want to believe that video worship will somehow allow us to sing from the comfort and safety of our own living rooms while still hearing each other sing so I keep checking Singing from the Lectionary for something that might work. This week, I found John Bell’s Don’t Be Afraid which might work for a recorded response after the stanza of a poem like Amber Tamblyn’s To A New Dawning or this community sourced poem If the Trees Can Keep Dancing, So Can I. This could be a lovely way to begin worship.

This Gospel Lesson also reminds me of one of my favorite John Bell songs that would be a lovely gathering into worship. You can find it on YouTube here.

I also found When Human Voices Cannot Sing which is set to LAMENT but could also be sung in the more familiar (at least to me) ST COLUMBA. The lyrics spoke to my heart so much that I adapted it below to gather the beloved community into worship with the words of Psalm 31. The second option leans into the confusion of what will emerge from this. I know there are pastors leaning into this strange interim season. This might be something that works for that intention. There’s another beautiful option for this intention over on Spacious Faith.

Gathering in Grief and Hope

Words adapted from Shirley Erena Murray’s When Human Voices Cannot Sing

When human voices cannot sing
and human hearts are breaking,
we bring our grief to you, O God,
who knows our inner aching.
Incline your ear to us, O God.
Be our rock and refuge.

Set free our spirits from all fear —
the cloud of dark unknowing,
and let the light, the Christ-light show
the pathway of our going.
Incline your ear to us, O God.
We commit our spirits to you.

Make real for us your holding love,
the love which is your meaning,
the power to move the stone of death,
to find the hope of Easter morning.
Lead us and guide us, O God.
Our time is in your hands.
Our worship and praise is in your name.

Gathering into the Way

Thomas shares our doubt.
He doesn’t know what will come next.
We do not know where we are going.
How can we know the way?

Christ calls us to remember.
We do not know what God is doing
but we know who Christ is, so we know God is too.
We have known God and have seen God.

Philip pushes against the new normal.
He leans into what he thought he knew
before everything changed.
We have done the same.
Show us what God can do.

Christ soothes our troubled hearts
and invites us to believe.
I am in you and you are in me. 

Let us find a way into this truth.
Let us worship God together.

Shared Ritual Action

Instead of a confession, I was inspired by this prayer I saw on Facebook from Rabbi Valerie Cohen. (I jotted this down on scrap paper when I saw it but now I can’t find the actual post. If you can find it, please link to it below. I hate that I can’t find it.) Way back when on Good Friday, I virtually wandered through a Stations of the Cross where each reader donned a mask. This was before I owned one. It was before they were recommended in Texas though my husband reports to me how many people he sees actually abiding by this practice. On that Good Friday, before each reader read the station they were assigned, we watched them pull off their mask and then replace it after they had spoken. It was powerful.

Then, there was this horrific news in Michigan. I need a prayer to remember that this simple action is a prayer. I thought it might fit well into this worship experience. It appears below as a graphic that you’re welcome to share.

Sweaters Up for Grabs!

I might also include a blessing for the face masks. I know this is highly charged territory among some of my Christian sisters and brothers. (If you aren’t familiar with this struggle, read this.) This isn’t for everyone but I think we need a blessing. We need to remember that the choices we make are a prayer for the world and for ourselves.

Blessings always remind me of this amazing collaboration from years and years ago. I commend it to you as you figure out how to best outstretch hands in blessing upon face masks. Perhaps words likes these might be shared in your worship on Sunday.

Blessing for Face Masks

O God, bless these face masks.
May the fabric that protects each nose and mouth
be as strong as the fabric that knits together the human family.
May the strings not bind our ears
as we struggle to listen to the fears
of your people. May we feel every bit of sweaty discomfort
as a reminder of our shared humanity
and may that connection give us more courage
to wear these masks upon our faces.
O God, bless these masks
as surely as you bless your people. Amen.

Prayers of the People

As I wondered last week, I’m still not sure what this particular moment of worship should look like. I offer you a prayer below that has been adapted from one in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship.

Be with us through all the unknown days lying before us:
days when where the flowers bloom and trees bud
but every day feels like the day before,
days when the headlines seem to emerge from the worst dystopian reality
but we remind ourselves again that this is the new normal,
days when we are consumed with worry
for the vulnerable, the poor and the sick
but we do not know what to do with our troubled hearts.

Be with us in this unknown, O God.
Do not put us to shame.
Be our refuge and strength.
so that we grow in union with all our sisters and brothers,
so that we may see more deeply into ourselves.

Be with us in this unknown, O God.
Show your full self to us
and allow us to see ourselves in you.
Resist the temptation to show great works
but remind us where you dwell.
Show us your heartbeat.
Let us feel your breath
as close as our own.

Help us to find the faith to believe:
I am in you and you are in me.

Help us understand that for those who are faithful to you
life is not ended but only changed.
Help us join together with all you have created to say:
Great and powerful is our God.
God fills heaven and earth with love and beauty.
It is a beauty we see in doctors, nurses,
chaplains, grocery workers and delivery workers.
It is love that we see smiling in the eyes
above each face mask.
Even in the unknown, O God,
we believe in you.
Help us to believe in each other
and even in ourselves.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 4A

After I posted the prayers last week, I felt awkward. I wondered if these prayers could speak to such a broad audience. I wondered if it was even possible to capture the vastness of this pandemic into a few words.

I felt that strange tinge again on Sunday when I gathered again with my sweet Texas church for another Zoom gathering of God’s people. I noticed immediately that the words to welcome us into this time of prayer and praise didn’t emphasize the isolation or even the virus. The prayers were instead like any other Sunday in the Season of Easter. Is that what we need?

I wonder that especially as we center ourselves into the familiar and comforting words of Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10. I don’t know. Quite frankly, I haven’t had much time to think about what my own faith needs. I’ve focused — as I did before quarantine — on what is best for my children and my family. I’ve spent time cultivating experiences for the family and allowed the grace of these experiences to be my prayer. I do not know how working parents are doing this but I’m glad to see that there is a conversation starting here and here. The fact is that I only really know my own experience of this new reality and this gives me even greater pause in wondering what our prayers should say. Or is there something to be said in leaning into what I can only pray is emerging in Acts 2:42-47. These prayers will do a little bit of everything.

Opening Worship

Though I’m uncertain about this style right now, these responsive prayers are what I’ve written to begin worship forever and ever. It’s a hard habit and so here are some prayers to begin your worship.

Let Us Gather Here

Let us devote this time to breaking bread and sharing prayers.

Let awe come over us.

Let wonders and signs
flicker across our screens
in the faces of this beloved community
and the familiar words of faith.

Let us share what we have.

Let us find ourselves with glad
and generous hearts.

Call to the Possible

Words from Rebecca Solnit’s The Impossible Has Already Happened

We have reached a crossroads,
we have emerged from what we assumed was normality,
things have suddenly overturned.

Shepherding God, open your gate to us.
Lead us into whatever comes next.

We know, O God, that for now —
especially for those of us who are not sick,
not frontline workers,
and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties –-
it is to our task to understand this moment,
what it might require of us,
and what it might make possible.

Prepare us, Shepherding God,
to think big thoughts around your table.
Assure us that goodness and mercy are already here.

Confessing Our Sins

It can be so hard to write prayers around such familiar texts. I liked this confession that I found after I wrote my own. A friend shared this article on effective crisis leadership and it compelled me to write an alternate confession as it seems that our real task right now is not so much worrying about what will come next but how we love each other in the here and now.

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we have doubted.
We have doubted you.
We have doubted those you love.
We have questioned what will be left
after this is all over. We’ve wondered
if it will be better than it was
and we must confess we’ve feared it will be worse.
Forgive us. Open the gates of our shuttered hearts
to your abundant grace. Amen.

Alternate Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we have devoted ourselves to so much.
We have wanted. We have resisted your leading.
We have ignored green spaces and still waters
pooling around the dirty dishes piled in the sink.
We haven’t felt goodness and mercy
and what is worse: we haven’t offered it.
We haven’t cared for your people
behind our locked doors. Forgive us.
Forgive us for not holding all that you love
with the same grace you hold us.

Assurance of Grace

Very truly, I tell you, God knows your fears and doubts.
You are forgiven. God opens the gate and calls your name again
to lead you to the goodness and mercy
that will follow you all the days of your life.
God will be with you, now and always. Amen.

Prayers of the People

I have been tickled to watch one of my pastors juggle the prayers in the chat in Zoom, those that were posted on Facebook earlier in the week, those in the church bulletin and it appears a few last minute prayers she just got by text. She has lots of devices and paper around her but every prayer is spoken. Every prayer is heard. It is a powerful thing and it warms my heart each time.

For churches like ours where prayers are usually shared from the floor, I imagine pre-recorded worship feels most distant and strange when it comes to this moment in worship. I confess I don’t know how to overcome that but I was awestruck by the cell phone children’s choir from my little Texas church that sang Halle Halle this past Sunday. There was something about hearing a child’s voice on Zoom that had such power so I wonder about offering a prayer like this from the good people of SALT Project.

Now is a time when I want to hear familiar words like these words from St. Francis. I noticed as well how many people asked for a copy of the gorgeous prayer that my pastor preached on Sunday. So I thought I’d create something pretty. Here is a Pastoral Prayer for Easter 4A adapted from one I wrote years ago. It is my intention for you to share it. Please do so as it helps your precious people.

Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 3A

Our whole lives have been interrupted. We are attempting now to live as people of the resurrection when death tolls continue to rise. Some states are lifting their orders for shelter in place. Businesses will reopen slowly. Some are even bold enough to say that life will go back to normal while the people of China are living this horror story all over again. Restrictions return. Life does not go on.

We don’t know how long these interruptions will continue but somehow we are called to be “witnesses” to the resurrection. We weren’t there but neither were those that heard Peter preach this sermon in Acts. Neither were they to blame for his death. They weren’t the ones in that crowd. I love how this interruption is explained here. Maybe life feels so interrupted and turned on its head that the Road to Emmaus seems longer this year. I confess that I was inclined to skip over this passage and opt for the emerging church in Acts, but then I read this wisdom from Richard Swanson fixated on the words “we had hoped” (Luke 24:21).

It is my hope that these prayers feel interactive and do what the Spirit needs to bring your people into greater connection and community. I recognize that some are sharing live worship experiences online and others are sharing edited videos through YouTube, Facebook Premiere and a bunch of other platforms that I didn’t even know existed. Still others are publishing liturgies for their members to lead worship together in their homes. For this reason, I’m giving some options.

Opening Worship

I’m not convinced that the more traditional responsive Call to Worship is the best way to begin worship. I attended worship at the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City this past Sunday. I did my field education there in seminary and the faithfulness that my colleague the Rev. Kaji Douša has brought to this congregation. Worship began on Sunday with some praise songs and a video meditation shot with Kaji’s phone of something outside her kitchen window. If I understood correctly, it served as an invitation to a faith-filled conversation later in the week so it wasn’t directly connected to the liturgy but I really liked how it called me into greater awareness of the things that God-filled moments in the everyday of this pandemic. It’s made me pause more than once since then.

I am not sure that I would be so tech saavy though so I might opt for this lovely prayer of illumination. Or I might begin worship with words of poetry to center us from the whirlwind of the pandemic. Maren Tirabassi always has beautiful words to offer and this old poem might be something to interject into your worship perhaps in particular awareness of the devastation of COVID-19 among the First Nation peoples. Another poem that shattered my heart when I discovered among the collected poems to Shelter in Poems from the Academy of American Poets was this one by Denise Levertov. This poem, especially, could read as a prayer.

Here are two more traditional responsive readings to begin worship.

Opening Litany

We had hoped that resurrection would be proclaimed
as we’ve always remembered it
inside the comfort of our sanctuaries.
We had hoped to hold one another’s hands
and say again, “Peace be with you.”
We had hoped that graduations and weddings
would be celebrated. We would have danced all night.
We had hoped so much.

Set our faith and hope in you, O God.

We had hoped that the church would grow.
We had hoped that we might raise enough money
to send the youth on the mission trip
and maybe even fix the roof. We had such high hopes, O God.

Set our faith and hope in you, O God.

We had hoped that 170,000 people would not die
and that there would be enough
to keep our doctors and nurses safe.
We had hoped that this wouldn’t happen.
We have thought about it so much
in these past six weeks and
we still cannot understand how any of this has happened.

Set our faith and hope in you, O God.

Call to Worship (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19)

Death’s ropes have bound me;
the distress of the grave has found me again and again—
I come here today face-to-face with trouble and grief.

I love God;
and I’ll call out to God as long as I live
but especially today, I pray:

O Lord, save us.

I’m wondering today
what I can do after 170,000 lives have been taken
around the world by virus that has consumed all of my prayers
because I fear for my own life.

O Lord, save us.

I fear for the lives of my children
for the lives of those secluded to nursing homes
without visitors to bring a breath of fresh air
and for the essential workers
who deliver my mail
and stock the grocery shelves.

I can’t help but notice
each deep breath
each drop of moisture on my face mask
each time my lungs do what my God made them to do.

O Lord, save us.

O God, save us from our fears.
Gather us in hope.
Bring us together across wifi connections
and firewalls to call upon your salvation.

Confessing Our Sins

Both the account in Acts and the gospel story (especially in Richard Swanson’s translation) point fingers at you. It resonated with me enough to make it into these prayers. I was also drawn to the Message translation of 1 Peter 1:17-23 where it is said that “your new life is not like your old life” followed by “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”

Call to Confession

This is an invitation that is most often led by the pastor or liturgist. Words do not need to appear on the screen or in the bulletin. 

You who had hoped for so much.
You who had dreamed that life would be different
and has quietly scoffed at every mention of the “new normal.”
You who have asked God for things
that had never once crossed your mind before,
stop here and feel the heavy weight upon your shoulders.
Let us pray.

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

O God, we aren’t quite sure who we are called to be in this moment. Our lives have changed. Everything has changed so that our new lives will never be like our old lives. Nothing will ever be exactly as it was. Everything will change and this is terrifying. Forgive us for doubt and fear. Forgive us for not putting our whole faith in your love and grace. 

Assurance of Grace

Beloved in Christ, your sins are forgiven. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Know that you have a future in God and do so knowing that you are to love one another as if your lives depended on it. Your new life will indeed not be like your old life. Love will change us. Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Prayers of the People

I do not know how to write anything better than this prayer right now. If you are unfamiliar with The Work of the People, who produced this video, I commend them to you.

If you are a United Church of Christ pastor and eager to connect your church with the wider church, you might want to offer yourself the blessing of this Conference Wide Worship from the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences. I understand there may be other conferences doing something similar. I’ll update as I find them.

Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.