Pandemic Prayers for Epiphany 5

The other night I read such encouraging words from the editors of the New York Times reminding us again that we shouldn’t get caught up in the ineffectiveness of the vaccine. It’s not even infections that scientists are worried about with such things, but their focus is on the tally of deaths and hospitalizations. Those are low — nearly nothing actually. This is good news.

They used that phrase. They reminded me to believe in good news. Granted, it’s not the good news that we preach exactly but it is the promise of life. Still, I’m weary.

I’m not sure if I trust this good news. I want to but I hear the nagging questions in Isaiah and I know that I’m not there yet. Maybe you are. I hope so. Still, these are prayers for the frustrated.

Prayer of Invocation 
Inspired by Isaiah 40:21-31

Come close, O God.
Come to lift up our eyes
so that we can see
the wonder of your creation
because clearly 
we haven't looked.

We haven't dared to look, O God, 
because we are so worried 
about the future. We are so tired 
of this present moment but 
it's impossible for us to believe 
that there will be anything else 
but this. We know. 

We know. 
O God, we know.

You ask us what we
have known and 
what we have seen.
You ask for our attention
and our willingness
to dream. O God, come
because it feels 
like a dream 
just to remember 
what you made.
We are too afraid
to really look.

Lift up our eyes
and call us by name
so that we can remember
what power feels like 
in our exhaustion. 
We are tired of waiting
but we need your understanding
so come. Come into our worship  
and renew our strength.
Come close, O God.

This second prayer was actually written for my little Texas church originally. They were — at that point and still are — doing the hard transition work of interim ministry between settled pastors. I offer it here without any adaptations because I just like it.

Prayer for those Weary in Transition 
 We come tired, weary and worn. 
 We have already done so much work, so much heavy lifting. 
 We long to hear assurances or maybe even “a job well done,”
 but instead we are invited again to roll up our sleeves. 
 We must haul out the boats and put in another hour, maybe two. 
 There is more to be done. There is always more to be done.
 We wade together into the deep water, dragging the boat out of the sand,
 wondering what could change. What will one more hour do?
 We let down our nets, just as we are told. 
 We wait for what will catch us. O Holy One, catch our tired bodies today.  

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

Pandemic Prayers for Epiphany 4

Healings just feel like a weird thing to explore right now.

Many of us are refreshing our browsers wondering when we can get in line to get the vaccine. Or we are eagerly seeking out that first dose for a loved one. We are not amazed, but we are asking each other, “What is this?” We just want to be clear on what this is. I don’t know that we can answer that — at least not yet. I’m not even sure I want to go there.

Epiphany is about the revelation. It’s about what you learn about God and so I wonder at this moment what we think we know about God. That’s what inspired these prayers.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 111

It begins here.
It begins with love. 

Love is in the beginning of 
all wisdom. It is the work of God's hands. 
It is what gathers us here
across wires and signals
to praise and give thanks.

It is love
that delights us
It is love
that changes us.
It is love 
that we practice
in our worship
today. 

It begins here
in the wisdom
we seek. 
Let us worship.

I really want an alleluia but I can’t find one on YouTube that actually leads me to worship. And yes, I have heard your laments about a song by that name that is not a hymn. The secular canon of hymns is small, friends, but we need music and it is why we offer these refrains to each other. They remind us of something. Art speaks when our words do not. So, here’s a song that might draw upon the blessing that we are not God but we need God’s goodness. That is the epiphany.

This song is covered by the CCLI license.
Prayer of Confession
Inspired by 1 Corinthians 8:1-3

O God, we have puffed ourselves up.
We confess that we have thought 
more than once that we had
all of the necessary knowledge,
but we are still learning the ways 
of your love, O God.

We see in the mirror dimly. 
We know only in part
what wonder your love 
can offer to this world
and to our lives. 

O God, forgive us
for believing in ourselves 
more than you. Amen. 

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

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.

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.