Ash Wednesday in Coronatide

Lent is a mere six week away. Do you remember Lent last year? Do you remember that awkward feeling of sitting in church that first Sunday when we were told not to touch our faces? I remember laughing about it with the person next to me in the pew as someone then touched the face of my nursing baby. (Do not touch babies even when it is not a pandemic.) Do you remember feeling like we would only have to worship remotely until Easter? Or maybe Pentecost?

Here we are nearly one year later preparing to honor that same holy season when the pandemic began.

Tradition holds that Lent is a time to contemplate our humanity. It has been a season to wonder about our limitations and our possibilities beginning with the dust that graces our foreheads on Ash Wednesday soon followed by temptations of all shapes and kinds on the first Sunday of Lent. We give up those things that muddle of our connection to God and take on things bring God closer. You know all of these things already, dear pastor. You would probably have better wording for the theological implications of this season and probably have a few things to say about what it means to be a human right now.

One of my dearest friends claims that she now believes in the depravity of humanity though she never did before this long season of coronatide. I don’t think she’s wrong but I’ve also been thinking about those palm branches. It is a strange twist where the joy and hope of last year is charred and burned. Ashes are what is left after the fire. Nothing will become of them. They are swept up and disposed. There is no other use for them but Lent is always an awakening. It always leans into the hope of renewal where what has been reduced to ashes will find new life. I can think of no better way talk about this moment in 2021 as we anticipate a world transformed by disease and destruction. It is that that we are preparing for this Lent. We are preparing for what will come.

It doesn’t need to be palm branches though. There is no rule about this as my colleague Leah Robberts-Mosser recommended we “go to our local tobacco store or head shop. Buy dime bags. Put a teaspoon or less of ash in each. Make kits with whatever folks need for your Lenten worship series to distribute. Given how long it will take for vaccinations, it’s safe to assume we won’t be gathering in person until mid summer at the earliest. Plan for a remote Lent.”

This year will be different. We’ve said this so many times but why not live into the wonder of this possibility. One of my all-time favorite post How to Make Ashes reveals my bias that this bonfire is something to be shared.

It’s something we can encourage in the priesthood of all believers. We can invite this spark to ignite what we hope this year will be. When so many of us are looking for something to do, especially in the midst of so much brokenness, we can dare to believe that lighting a fire might prepare us for the work ahead.

Such preparation requires ritual and prayer. You’ll find both in this simple free downloadable bulletin to share with your church community. Download Fire and Ashes: A Ritual to Begin the Season of Lent here. It requires your supplies but hopefully these are things that already exist at home and do not require an additional trip for curbside pick-up.

It was my first instinct to let this service be shared at home without any gathering online.

I thought, instead, it might be more more fun as we approach Lent again to follow another suggestion I saw from a talented and wise minister. She plans to celebrate Shrove Tuesday by hosting a Zoom cooking lesson for kids to test various pancake recipes. This sounds fun but let’s include adults. We need fun too. I don’t know how in the world you do pancake races online but they are my favorite part of Shrove Tuesday and silliness might be just want we need this Lent. Plus, who doesn’t love playing with your food?

That was my first instinct. It was not my last because there are many living alone. There are many, like me, who have not formed a pod. There is so much loneliness even for those surrounded by children and relatives that they can now never escape.

There has to be something for those blessed souls to begin this holy season. I might suggest using the same liturgy because it’s less work for you, dear pastor. Lead it from your backyard and stream it as you usually do. Or gather everyone on Zoom and share in this ritual together which will be lovely except for the fact that unless you sent ashes home, these good people will have nothing to impose. No problem. They’ve got oil in their kitchen for something: olive oil, vegetable oil, canola oil all works. If they really want to have ashes, tell them to burn a piece of toast and scrape off the charred bits with a butter knife into a tiny bit of oil. This might be what they are doing while you are building the fire in your backyard. Or you might ask them to write down all of their sorrows on paper they then tear to tiny shreds. This will make more sense, of course, after you have downloaded Fire and Ashes and decided if it is the right thing for your congregation right now. You know your people, dear pastor. You know what is needed in this holy season.

I know, too, that there are pastors considering skipping Lent this year. It is too much. I wrote Fire and Ashes with this in mind. It’s traditional but not. It has some of the familiar elements but after all that has happened this week in Washington DC, I want to talk more about possibility than mortality. I want us to believe that we don’t have to burn it all down or even that this life is just a dumpster fire of destruction and loss, but that there is something else. We can emerge from the ashes. We can imagine new life together. We can still be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

Pandemic Prayers for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday

I have been thinking about this tweet since I saw it.

I don’t think that I’m selling a brand. I hope not. That’s not what I’m aiming to do but I know I haven’t uplifted the voices of people of color in a meaningful way. I haven’t kept demanding justice when it is still so needed. Pleading with God in my private prayer isn’t enough. God has no hands but our own.

This is also what has bothered me about this Sunday. I serve a white denomination. I have been a part of and led very, very white churches where this might be the one Sunday a year that we talk about diversity. That was the word used in my first call. It was a day for diversity, not racism. Not the unique experience of black and brown people or even the poor people that ultimately got the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated. It was a Sunday for diversity.

Diversity is great, but it’s not the point. Last year, in the midst of a global pandemic, George Floyd was killed. Riots erupted around the world. Riots is a bad word. Good white people prefer the word protest but rioting is what causes the National Guard to respond. Rioting is what causes people to die in the streets. Rioting is what happens when we have confined ourselves that racism is a thing of the past. Racism defined the past year as much as the pandemic as this gorgeous choir makes clear.

Auld Lang Syne is covered by the CCLI license but it is not clear if this particular recording would be included.

I want to suggest that this year we do better. I want to do more than suggest it but I’m still a nice white girl. We don’t just make this the one Sunday we talk about racism in our very, very white churches. We commit to somehow keeping this dialogue going even when so many of our faithful balk at any confrontation of their privilege. I know, dear pastor. I remember what it was like to lead those conversations and patiently listen to their rant as I tried to find the light of Christ in their heart. I remember.

Don’t let that stop you from signing up for a class by Austin Channing Brown or leading a group study on Zoom around Sandhya Jha’s Pre-Post Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines. Sandhya is also looking forward to an amazing online learning opportunity based on that book in Rise Up for Racial Justice: Resources and Strategies for Your Personal Journey. Or if you have already read all of these books and are looking forward to what Sandhya might inspire us with next, your might invest in their future work to connect racial justice and our relationships with our ancestors’ wisdom by becoming a patron at their patreon account. 

You might even choose to engage with the author of the above tweet in reading his book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S..

Or you might make this the focus on Lent using the liturgies of confession and repentance curated by the Disrupt Worship Project.

There are tons of wonderful resources out there. Choose something. Do it and then choose another.

Imagine this Sunday as an opportunity for storytelling. I have always been surprised in the congregations I’ve served to learn who was there at Selma and the March on Washington. In each of the congregations I’ve served, there were people there fighting that fight and witnessing to that possibility that we still have not realized. This Sunday, I’d be inclined to give them the floor. I’d use Psalm 139 as the central text. I might opt for reading verses 1 through 18 rather than omitting the bit that the Revised Common Lectionary suggests. I’d begin by sharing in hearing the first six verses and then I’d ask someone that had marched to answer two questions in reflection:

  • How did you rise up to learn about racial justice?
  • What are you still learning about racism now?

That reflection could end in song or you might use a prayer to conclude each reflection like this one from Black Liturgies. I’d be inclined to use the prayer and not the preceding quote but would be careful not to edit the prayer otherwise. In these prayers, especially in white congregations, our purpose is not to edit away discomfort.

You could repeat this pattern by reading verses 7-12 of Psalm 139 and then asking another voice to answer these questions rooted in the psalm. Maybe you don’t have as many people who marched in the movement then. Maybe you choose someone who protested last year or a youth eager to dismantle white supremacy. Questions for reflection might be:

  • Where did you first find God in your anti-racism work?
  • What are you still learning about racism now?

That reflection could end in song or you might use a prayer to conclude each reflection like this one from Black Liturgies. Again, I’d skip the quote and focus on the unedited prayer.

A final voice might reflect on the following questions after sharing verses 13-18 of the Psalm.

  • What has God shown you about what it means be fearfully and wonderfully made in struggle with white supremacy?
  • What are you still learning about racism now?

That reflection could end in song or you might use a prayer to conclude each reflection like this one from Black Liturgies. Again, I’d skip the quote and focus on the unedited prayer. If you use these prayers, please consider becoming an Official Patreon to Cole Arthur Riley’s stunning work.

You could use this litany against white supremacy by the Disrupt Worship Project as the Prayers of the People. Or you might find prayers from this liturgy written years ago helpful to framing your worship for this Sunday. You might even conclude worship with this song from Common Hymnal.

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 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 Prayers for Advent 3

I hope you already found the beautiful prayers gathered by RevGalBlogPals in their weekly Worship Words. I am honored to contribute to this collection of wonderful prayers and appreciate the nudge that to remember that those in the Southern Hemisphere welcome this celebrations with an entirely different set of metaphors.

I wanted to use the words of familiar carols to fill our prayers in full awareness that one of the things many of us will be missing this year is singing together these favorite tunes. These carols, especially the one featured over on Worship Words, have a bias toward the cold and frost that is familiar to me at Christmas. I know there is a collection of songs that sing a whole different experience of this birth but they are unfamiliar to me. It’s a complicated place to be in right now. I both want the familiar but know that it won’t be what it was. Those familiar things will not be the same, not this year.

Here are a few prayers for worship on Advent 3B peppered with the words of familiar carols before I go back to working on Epiphany and Christmas worship for next year. Can you imagine writing prayers for next year? What will the world look like? How will we welcome that birth then? Yikes. Don’t worry too much about it, dear pastor. There are people faithfully writing those prayers for you. You don’t need to think about it now. That’s my job.

Call to Worship
Inspired by What Child is This?

Shepherds and prophets keep watch and wait
wondering what child is this?
They were like those who dream
of a world turned upside down
where joy erupts like laughter.

This, this is not how it is now.
This is not how it feels 
in these dwindling Advent days.

Haste, haste to bring 
such joy and love 
even into this 
pandemic year.

Let us greet such wonder 
with anthems sweet
and joy. Let there be
joy in our worship today.
Prayer of Confession
Inspired by John 1:6-8, 19-28 and O Little Town of Bethlehem

Who are we? Who are we now?
We’ve asked this question so many times
over so many months of isolation. 
Have we changed? Does it matter?

Our meek souls wait 
to receive the Christ Child
into this world of sin. 
Or at least into 
our little pod of sin.

What do we have to say about ourselves?
What will we say now
as we pray together for the hopes and fears
of this very long year?
O God, cast out our sin
and enter in. Become
light and joy to us today. Amen.
Words of Assurance
Inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 

So much has happened 
in just a few months. You have tested everything.
Now, hold fast to what is good. Give thanks 
for the joy God finds in you every day.
Beloved, you are made in joy. Thanks be to God.

Pandemic Longest Night and Christmas Eve Worship

If you’ve been clicking around From My Kitchen or found my newsletter earlier this week in your email, this is old news to you. You are busy, dear pastor. You have already seen this. You can go do the many other things on your list.

If you were not so lucky to find these things yet (and I do hope these are things that make you feel lucky and joyous), I’m thrilled to finally share with you the services I’ve been working on for Longest Night and Christmas Eve. These were surprisingly hard to write. I am not exactly sure why that is.

Advent began with decorations on our tree and lights filling the house. It wasn’t the same as hanging the greens at church. I am feeling that loss as I know so many are in this strange new season — further compounded by the fact that I couldn’t get worship to stream from our tiny Texas church. It is one of those pandemic frustrations of having technology fail when it is our life line and it still annoyed the crap out of me, but I’ve been working on these liturgies long before the tree went up. As the year ends, I’m finding it hard to both find words for the grief of this moment and to find the joy that should overflow when we’ve finally found our way to Bethlehem.

After all, Advent feels as though it started in March when the first stay-at-home orders swept across the country because of the rampant spread of the coronavirus. We have been apart from each other for much of this year which has made 2020 feel like an especially long year.

I dove into the ancient psalms of lamentation after trying really hard to make the creation story work in how we talk about the night at this moment. I found comfort in psalms that didn’t express my lament but reminded me of the hope that we find in God. Those are the words we love and need to hear again and again, right? I hoped to make space for how hard it is to name the immensity of our grief right now because it’s not just that we have lost someone dear. It is not just one death but millions of deaths worldwide due to a virus that is not yet contained or really understood. It is the devastation we have seen to our planet while glued to our screens. It is the anxiety of constantly refreshing our browsers for hope and maybe some good news and it’s the backward summersault that too many of us have done into anti-racism work this year. We have lost more lives than we can imagine and maybe we have wondered if we even lost a tiny bit of ourselves.

There has been so much loss. There is still so much that is unknown even as a new church year has dawned. When the Night Has Already Been So Long, we are looking for some way to speak to that immense grief. That’s what I hope this online worship experience will offer to the gathered community huddled around candles in their own homes. I hope it’s a chance to be together and hold vigil for a new day to dawn. 

I actually wrote the Christmas Eve service first. It felt really strange to me to write Advent liturgies before writing Christmas Eve this year because I have always worked backwards. I have always needed to know what Christmas is going to look like and feel like until I can really figure out how Advent might feel and I’m not sure these services are at all related. Shadows and Light is really a service that makes room for more grief than the typical Christmas celebration. I hope there is joy. I hope it gets there in the music and poetry I’ve selected but Christmas always has a quietness to it.

It’s that quietness that has always puzzled me. When the birth of Christ is most vivid, we turn out all the lights to sit in the dark and sing a lullaby. It’s beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just not really joyous. (I know. I know. Don’t mess with tradition.) But I did.

I did mess with tradition when I was in my last settled call. It came out of a worship planning conversation where we talked about more light and so I created an Advent wreath (except that it wasn’t a wreath) where more candles were added each week and we named the light we saw coming into the world aloud. Then, on Christmas Eve, I didn’t do Silent Night. It wasn’t there. I got lots of complaints because church people love tradition without questioning why we do what we do.

If you are reading this and you were one of the wonderful people at that church who allowed me to experiment and play so much, I want you to know I am grateful for the space you gave me. I’m even more grateful that I got to be your pastor.

If ever there was a year where we could do something a teeny tiny bit different, I thought this year might be it. I thought maybe we could try it again and see what we might learn. You know your people best, dear pastor. You know if this is what is needed this year or if tradition is really what people need right now. You know.

Inspired by the Tenebrae tradition that is so familiar to Holy Week celebrations, Shadows and Light flows like a service of Lessons and Carols with song and story weaving together the good news of this birth.

More and more candles are lit to welcome the Light of the World before Joy to the World is sung with full gusto and glory.

As usual, I use quite a bit of poetry and you’ll find I’ve updated Poetry for Lessons and Carols to reflect some of the choices I’ve made for this service. (Ok, I also added a bunch more that I just loved and didn’t include in this service.)

Both liturgies are available for $10 each using the above links by immediate download. Or if you are interested in both worship services, you can find this Shadow and Night Bundle for $15 here.

Music suggestions are provided in both liturgies and was quick to add a few more when I discovered these FREE Christmas Carol videos especially for online worship. I know that pastors are not the only ones that are tired right now.

I also decided to make Christmas Eve Under Pandemic Skies available for just $2 for those are looking for a safe way to worship outside in a pandemic. It was part of the outdoor prayer station experience I helped to design for my sweet Texas church. And yes, I know this won’t work on some church properties and especially in many climates. If anything, you can tell your worship committee (or other angry church member) that such a thing exists and you would be overjoyed if they would take a lead in planning it.

I know how busy this time of year is for you, dear pastors. I am holding you close and lighting candles for your courage, your strength and your abundant faith.

Pandemic Prayers for Advent and Christmas

Though I am not posting weekly prayers during these four weeks, I do not want to leave you orphaned. I also do not think that I am Jesus. For some reason, that Gospel Lesson is working on me so there it is. If you are looking for prayers for this season, I am here for you. That’s what I meant.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Pandemic Liturgy for Advent. It is a complete liturgy centered around a series of worship videos with some things left open for you to customize to your context.

If you are looking for more prayers, be sure to check out RevGalBlogPals Worship Words updated each and every week. I will look forward to sharing in that collaboration and you can look for my words on Advent 4 but I really love this collection of voices. Use these gifts. I also commend to you the work of LiturgyLink which includes some of my older prayers. There’s a search bar on the left to find the particular Sunday you need. You might also check the archive of News from My Kitchen to find a few other wonders I found. (Click on the previous link and then click on the red View Letter Archive.)

I can’t resist not sharing SALT Project’s Advent Candle Lighting Litanies. I just think that everything they do is gorgeous and I’m so excited my little Texas church sent me a blessing box with some of their materials for Advent. I know there are other great candle lighting liturgies out there and I’ll attempt to link to them on Instagram. You can find me @pandemic.prayers.

Oh, but I also want to share one more from the amazing Theresa Cho who shared this At-Home Advent Ritual Set last week. It’s just stunning. Download it even if it’s just for you.

You might also wander over to YouTube which I never thought I’d spend so much time on before the pandemic where I am always adding songs to my playlists for Advent Music and Christmas Music.

I created a few resources for this season that are unique including Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies. It is an outdoor meditation that wanders through Advent into Epiphany. You probably want to opt for the shorter path if you’re just finding it now but it includes an outdoor Christmas Eve service so you could check that off your list.

I also created a group discussion guide based on the devotional that I had written years ago to explore the grief that is so palpable in the third wave of this %$#!@ pandemic. And just so you don’t have to go searching for it, you can find all the info for Twinkly Lights in Blue Pandemic Days by following that link.

If you are planning ahead to Blue Christmas or Longest Night, I have something in the works for you. If you cannot wait, this Pandemic Liturgy for All Saints Day could be adapted. Unless you already used it in November and then you’ll have to wait for what is yet to come or find one of the other gifts that other talented souls are offering in yet another pandemic holy season. Remember how we thought it would just be Easter? That was funny.

If you are planning even further ahead, you might want to use Lessons and Carols for Coronatide for Christmas Eve. I really recommend it for the First Sunday of Christmas — not only because I’m working on something else for Christmas Eve but also because it gives you a break from preaching and extends the joy of this season. We need some joy. We need lots of joy. Also, you have the option of the outdoor Christmas Eve service from Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies unless you are in a northern climate where there is already three feet of snow, then that’s the worst idea ever. If you are not in that category and want just the Christmas Eve service and not the whole bundle, shoot me a note.

In these four weeks, I’m going to write two more liturgies for the Advent and Christmas season. I might even write one for Epiphany. I have a rough idea on that one where the others are already drafted. I’ll be sending out the next edition of News from My Kitchen including some ingredients for your worship in the season of Epiphany and Lent. I plan to return to weekly prayers after Christmas.

This is a busy season when it is not a pandemic. This is a time of year full of sweet memories and time honored traditions and all of those things will look and feel different this year. I know you will hear this from members of our community. They will lament, but I’m going to hold the space for you, dear pastors, because I know that you are carrying some sadness about this season too. Laura Stephens-Reed named this well way back in September. You are doing an amazing thing right now, dear pastors. You are offering wonder, light and hope even if you do not feel those things yourself.

You are light. I promise you that.

Pandemic Prayers for Proper 29, Thanksgiving and Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies Release

I have already moved into Advent. I made the leap. The Christmas carols have been turned on though I’m refusing to put the tree until after Thanksgiving. It feels like it has been Advent for months already though, doesn’t it? Still, the huge uptick in COVID-19 cases across this nation mean that any worship plans to be together have most likely changed…. again.

My dear friend and pastor at my sweet Texas church wanted to provide something different. Something that allowed the community to experience this season in a new way while still being connected to the physical space of the church, even if that physical space was outside in the garden, outdoor chapel and labyrinth instead of inside the sanctuary. She asked me to help and so I’m thrilled to finally release Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies for all of the changed plans of 2020.

I’m really excited about how this turned out and hope that it might be a blessing to all of your changed plans. It’s meant to be simple though there is a bit of legwork in getting yard signs set up along the two different paths you create on your church property. The meditations unfold over Wednesdays and Sundays throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons with music, reflections, prayers and actions to take. I’ve included sample yard signs in the bundle and even an outdoor Christmas Eve service. Order your bundle here.

I will be taking a break from writing weekly prayers in Advent so you won’t see new prayers for weekly worship here next week, but I do have a few other things up my sleeve so be sure to sign up for my News from My Kitchen so you don’t miss out. That said, I have a prayer for this week. It’s not my favorite but it’s something for the weird cacophony of this Sunday. It feels like too much to me every year. Too many things at once as we try to honor the Reign of Christ, Reformation Sunday and the end of the church calendar. It’s too much especially when I just want to bellow into the unknown future.

I want to know what will be. I’m hoping that the hatred and contempt so embedded in our national life right now will change. I’m longing for hearts to change and hoping that God will be known in new and wonderful ways. I’m hoping for a vaccine but hesitant to name that prayer too loudly.

Prayer for the Wondering
Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46

O God, tell us what can be
where we divided 
and separated 
like sheep from the goats.

On the right 
and on the left,
we need blessing
and grace.

Our foundations 
have been shaken. 
We never imagined
that this would be
our reality. Here we are, 
O God, wondering what 
could be. Speak to us
in sacred story
and modern parable
so that we can see
your place in every thing.  
We need to 
know that you
are in every thing, 
O God. Fill our jagged
edges and open questions 
with your presence
so that we can 
wonder what will 
be with you. Amen.

At the same time, I’m thinking about gratitude because that’s supposed to be something we are feeling this month. Maybe that’s for only when we are not in the third wave of a global pandemic. My first call was in Maine that marked that occasion with joy of pilgrims. We know better now, I hope. We are working harder than ever at learning from our mistakes and our implicit bias. I think that requires a new language of gratitude that is not tied to that childhood tale of strangers becoming friends around a table of abundance. We will be isolating this year. We won’t be with our families. Gratitude can’t be found in the familiar. At least for me, it’s a little bit sassier.

Prayer for Pandemic Gratitude
Inspired by Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and  2 Corinthians 9:6-15

O God, bring us 
to that good land 
full of your living water
and the abundance of 
good things. Bring us 
to that place where
we might be full 
and satisfied
because 
this nagging feeling 
is exhausting. 

This constant
agonizing feeling
that nothing will 
get better and 
nobody cares 
because we can't 
agree on what love
looks like now
just needs to stop.

We are not cheerful.
Don't ask that
of us, O God,
because we don't
have that in us. 
Sorry. It's true.
Skip ahead 
to the part 
where we 
give to the poor
and multiply the seeds
for the farmers 
and bread bakers
except that we've confused
what we can do in this 
great and terrible 
pandemic wilderness 
with what you can do. 

Remind us 
that gratitude
doesn't have to
turn over every table
but only had to turn 
our hearts 
to notice the indescribable
wonder of living in your love.
O God, with every
breath in our bodies,
help us to live 
in our love
enough to praise
you with thanksgiving.
Amen.

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

Lessons and Carols in Coronatide

Christmas will look different this year.

Our favorite traditions will not have the same warmth as being gathered in the same sanctuary singing beloved carols and lighting candles for the Light of the World. It will be different, but the promise will remain the same. Christ will be born.

Miracles will never cease.

As I’m busy writing other liturgy for this holy celebration, I wanted to also share a service for Lessons and Carols. It was all I knew as a child growing up in church. It was what Christmas Eve was but I’ve come to really love sharing this tradition in the midst of the Christmas season. It’s what I opt for on the Sunday following Christmas as a reminder to everyone — including myself — that the season is twelve days long and we should embrace the mystery of telling and retelling this story. (It’s also when I remind the deacons or altar guild that they are not to take down the decorations until after Epiphany. Ahem.)

Here is a simple liturgy for this beloved tradition that makes room for the weirdness of this season in which we still find ourselves. It is, of course, a wonderful Sunday to feature the musical talents of your congregation. Bring out those handbells and voices. Adjust carol suggestions as needed. I didn’t include a blessing carol so you can feel free to choose something that I would not think to choose. You might even choose to include different lessons. You might find some other poetry here. It’s a list I update every year.

BIDDING PRAYER

Let us pray:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
We gather once again to journey with you 
Through the deepest darkness of our hopes and fears
To be warmed by the mystery 
That your light shines in the darkness.
But, the darkness will not overcome it.

Even as we pray these words of joy,
We know that we pray amid the slaughter of innocents,
Lives lost in earthquakes and battles, persecution and genocide 
and hatred and viral outbreak.
We come searching for your light 
while the poor and homeless huddle in dark corners, 
while the hungry and sick search for wholeness,
while the lonely and unloved wail in despair.
So come into those dark places with us, Emmanuel God.
Let your light shine in the places we fear most.

Help us to follow the light of that star.
Let it illuminate our lessons, our carols and our lives
So that we might be filled with
More hope, more peace, more joy 
And most of all, Emmanuel God, 
More love.

Let us each, in our own way, 
join the chorus of praise, proclaiming the greatest of wonders,
The redeeming presence of God among us here and now.
Teach us in these lessons and these carols to search for that redeeming presence in every place that we might call out your name. 
Let our voices rise like candle flames,
Brightening this place to celebrate a holy child
That is born in our hearts and in our wildest imaginations
On this most holy night. Amen. 

BIDDING CAROL Once in David’s Royal City

FIRST LESSON   In the Time of Plague by N. Scott Momday

SECOND LESSON Isaiah 40:1-8

LIGHTING THE ADVENT AND CHRIST CANDLES

adapted from Maren Tirabassi's Advent Wreath Ceremony for Christmas

Leader: 
           
In our homes / in our church and homes
we gather around wreaths
to pray our lost hopes,
broken peace, limited joys,
and love so hard to find and share
in this season of coronavirus.  
We affirm that our candles mean
we claim the power to call this season Advent,
when God’s light comes into the world
and nothing can overcome it.
We light the candles of hope, peace, joy and love.

People/ SL:   
 
We now light the candle of Christ candle
even though we have been so afraid. 
We haven’t truly believed that there is good news, 
but light still shines in the shadows.
Emmanuel, God with us now.
May your love shines through us
and make us radiant with hope. Amen.

CAROL We Light a Candle by Richard Bruxvoort Colligan

THIRD LESSON Hush by Lucinda Hynett

FOURTH LESSON Gabriel’s Annunciation by Jan Richardson

CAROL Mothers and Shepherds by Common Hymnal

FIFTH LESSON Luke 2:1-14

CAROL Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

SIXTH LESSON Luke 2:15-33

CAROL Joy to the World

SEVENTH LESSON You Still Dream by Nikki Grimes

EIGHTH LESSON Now the Work of Christmas Begins by Howard Thurman

PRAYER FOR CHRISTMAS

BLESSING CAROL

BLESSING

If you’re finding these pandemic prayers for the first time, dear pastor, please know that the liturgy here is yours to use. Adapt it. Edit it. Don’t worry about giving me credit. You are doing enough right now. You are doing so much.

You are in my prayers, as always, dear pastors and worship leaders especially as Advent approaches.

Pandemic Prayers for Proper 28

As in the days before ballots were being counted, music is where my heart is led. I haven’t yet turned on the Christmas carols but I’m close. I’m really close.

It was actually while I was looking for music for Advent and Christmas that I found this song. it speaks to what im feeling after th election results were tallied. I know it is mot universal. there are those across the aisle greiving, protesting amd even condemning their neighbors. I saw a colleague pose the question on Facebook as to how we make room for that grief in the purple messy middle that is more common than not in most American churches.

I’m not even sure it could be used in worship and not just because of licensing. I’m not quite sure it leaves room for us all to mov forward together even when that is what we are called to do not only as Americans but as people of faith. As the Christian calendar slowly turns to the hopes and fears of all the years, I wonder about our hopes for this world.

Maybe I’m already feeling the haunting need to sing carols out of tune from the pews. (I am not gifted with voice.) Or maybe it’s that singing is the only way that I can imagine such hope right now. Even when we are not able to sing together, music fills these prayers.

Call to Worship

inspired by Psalm 123

O God, you have been our help

in ages past. You’ve reminded us

what was possible

and pushed us beyond our fears.

You’ve raised our eyes

to higher ground

and made our hearts soar

with the hope of years to come.

Be our guard while

these troubles last

and dare us to dream

in this new day.

Surprise us, O God,

with good trouble

in our worship

this day.

As this prayer alludes to a favorite old hymn, you might opt to follow the prayer with a new rendition of an old favorite. Or instead ask your talented choir or soloist remind us of the power of this favorite hymn.

Prayer of Confession

using sung response Wait for the Lord

inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

We still wonder, Holy One,

how that day will come.

Will it come like a thief?

Will we feel robbed

and frightened

by what we could not control?

We wait in hope, O God.

Verse of Wait for the Lord

We are not sure

what peace and security might look

like or how it might come to dwell

in our marrow, for we

are too preoccupied with

what has been lost

and who has been hurt

and how much work we still have to do

to imagine your possibility and love.

We wait in hope, O God.

Verse of Wait for the Lord

We have felt the darkness

so much more than

we have convinced ourselves of the light.

We have feared more than we hoped.

Our teeth have clenched

and knuckle have gone white

wondering what else could happen

that we have let ourselves

be convinced that

this is just the way it is

rather than daring to dream

that we could encourage

and build each other up

into the hope that you have never

doubted was possible

for the children of light.

Help us, Holy One,

to create with you.

We wait for your muse

and encouragement.

Verse of Wait for the Lord

If you opt for Psalm 90, you might prefer this Call to Worship from a few weeks ago. There are also a lot of wonderful suggestions for this Sunday on Singing from the Lectionary. It is hard to pick just one or two songs to move our souls.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.

As always, dear pastors, musicians and worship leaders, I’m praying for you.