Another Pandemic Christmas Eve

I was busy updating my favorite poems for Christmas Eve when a colleague posted about permission for a beloved Christmas poem she hoped to use Christmas Eve. It was just another one of those reminders that pastors, like you dear one, are juggling so much right now. You’re not just crafting worship but tending to all of the legalities that might exist around every bit of artistic inspiration you might use.

I use a lot of poetry on the highest of holy days to give new meaning and insight to our hearing of those more familiar stories from scripture — but this season is busy enough. You don’t need to chase down permissions for the rest of Advent. You need to print the bulletin, assemble the slides and move onto the next thing. So I’m giving another option for Christmas Eve that doesn’t require chasing down permissions. Everything is either public domain or permission has been granted for this purpose by the artist. Credit should be given to the artists those attributions are at the very end of the liturgy. It will require you to click through to find these things in other places because I did very little actual writing for this liturgy — and my colleagues in the United Church of Christ are just so dang talented.

The liturgy follows the Proper II for Christmas Eve because I never, ever choose it and I wondered what it might look like to use these lessons. It’s a lot of scripture because I think that scripture tells it best — and I wanted there to be a push toward Howard Thurman’s The Work of Christmas, which is my very favorite Christmas poem and how I like to conclude every Christmas Eve service but it’s not public domain.

I did find that Bosco Peters wrote a hymn with the poem text so that might be an option if you’re interested in introducing a new song on Christmas — though after a long season of not singing together and that thing where we don’t sing carols in Advent, people are likely to want to only sing carols. Maren Tirabassi also has this improv poem inspired by Thurman’s beloved words. Or you might swap out Michelle’s candle lighting for this simple Advent candle lighting also by Maren. Especially if you are using the Prayers of the People I offer, it might be worth doing the whole thing where the Advent candles are slowly lit in this service. It might need to be shortened a bit for that to work but it’s a really lovely option.

Carol: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Invitation to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 97

We lift our voices 
with all of creation 
in praise and wonder 
for all that will be 
born this night. 

We are listening
to all that can change
and all that will change
with this birth.
Light will dawn
and there will be 
rejoicing on the coastlands
and way up high in the mountains.

The landscape of our imagination
will shift and it will be glorious. 
It is this change that we have
been waiting for. We have been
waiting so long. 

Carol: O Come All Ye Faithful

Engage Worship offered these Christmas carol videos last year for free. They are still available and free to use for Zoom or other worship formations.

Prayer of Invocation (Responsive)

Prayer of our Savior

First Reading: Isaiah 62:10-12 from the Common English Bible

Prayer for the Lighting the Christ Candle

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7 from the VOICE translation

Prayer for the Light
Inspired by Psalm 97

It could happen
like this where
a tiny spark changes 
everything. 

Tonight, O God, 
by this feeding trough
and listening
for the sounds 
of little ones
too delighted 
to keep quiet, 
assure us
that it could 
happen just 
like this.

The world
we have prayed
for could begin
with one light
that is shared 
again and again
and again. May
it be so tonight.

Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Engage Worship offered these Christmas carol videos last year for free. They are still available and free to use for Zoom or other worship formations.

Gospel Reading: Luke 2:1-7 from the Message

What it Was: A Christmas Poem by Michelle Torigian

This is the big moment — and it deserves more than four voices in a choral reading. Consider adding sung responses to each bit of good news that is shared from beloved carols like Hark the Herald Angels Sing or The First Noel. Or move pieces of a nativity set into place as the readers share the story. (This would work on Zoom too if you focus the camera on a central spot and move the figures slowly toward that spot. This reading could also be easily shared by four readers in different households on Zoom.) It may even work to have the readers in costume as they read. For copyright reasons, I didn’t alter the text but I really want to make it inclusive.

Heralds of Good News in Four Voices
From the Voice Translation 

First Voice
Nearby, in the fields outside of Bethlehem, 
a group of shepherds were guarding their flocks 
from predators in the darkness of night. Suddenly 
a messenger of the Lord stood in front of them, 
and the darkness was replaced by a glorious light—
the shining light of God’s glory. They were terrified!

Messenger
Don’t be afraid! Listen! 
I bring good news, news of great joy, 
news that will affect all people everywhere.
Today, in the city of David, a Liberator 
has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, 
the Supreme Authority! You will know you have found Him 
when you see a baby, wrapped in a blanket, 
lying in a feeding trough.

First Voice
At that moment, the first heavenly messenger 
was joined by thousands of other messengers—
a vast heavenly choir. They praised God.

Heavenly Choir
To the highest heights of the universe, glory to God!
And on earth, peace among all people who bring pleasure to God!

First Voice
As soon as the heavenly messengers disappeared into heaven, 
the shepherds were buzzing with conversation.

Shepherds
Let’s rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let’s see what’s happening! Let’s experience what the Lord has told us about!

First Voice
So they ran into town, and eventually they found 
Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the feeding trough. 
After they saw the baby, they spread the story of what 
they had experienced and what had been said to them about this child.  Everyone who heard their story couldn’t stop thinking about its meaning. Mary, too, pondered all of these events, 
treasuring each memory in her heart.

The shepherds returned to their flocks, praising God 
for all they had seen and heard, and they glorified God 
for the way the experience had unfolded just 
as the heavenly messenger had predicted.

Carol: Joy to the World

Engage Worship offered these Christmas carol videos last year for free. They are still available and free to use for Zoom or other worship formations.

For this next moment in worship, I imagine each person is given a globe stress ball or eraser or whatever palm-sized globe you can find in bulk with the current supply chain issues. If that’s not possible, maybe just a small coloring page of the globe would work with some crayons. You will want to edit the italicized directions based on what you find and also edit the OR in the Christmas Prayers.

Imagining the Joy the World Needs

Joy to the world! And this world needs joy.
In another pandemic year, there is so much 
isolation and loneliness. We have seen how far
we are willing to go to take care of each other.
We have felt the earth weep from climate devastation
and have witnessed the acceptance of words like "Black lives matter"
and even "Love wins" even when violence toward black, brown and queer bodies continues. This world needs more joy -- 
the joy that we have seen and heard with the shepherds.

Tonight you hold the world in your hands
and it is your joy to imagine 
how you will begin the work of Christmas
to repeat the sounding joy of this good news.
What kind of joy can you imagine for this world this year?
What can your hands do to bring hope to hurting people?

Ponder these questions, like Mary, as music plays softly in the background. Sharpies might be provided to write a word representing your intention on the globe. Or you might ponder the joy the world needs in color with the crayons provided.

Christmas Prayers 

Emmanuel God,
it has happened again.

We have heard your good news
and just begun to imagine
your liberation and hope.
We have heard the familiar chorus
of the angels singing of peace.

We have considered your world
and all the joy it needs.

Like shepherds, we are cautious 
about this news and approach your possibility slowly, 
illuminating the shadows of this world with one candle,
and then another, and another, and another...
until we light your candle, O Emmanuel.

In your candle, O Christ, 
we see your face shining upon us, 
We see the miracle of our own light 
shining through the hopes and fears of all the years.
That candle reminds us that there is work 
to do toward your liberation and peace.
It is a hope that you ask us 
to share with our hearts and hands
even when we are still pondering 
these great mysteries in our hearts. 

Help us to shine 
and to announce peace, 
to encourage joy,
and to share the love that begins – 
but does not end – 
in this small child 
in a feeding trough.

May this love be felt 
especially by the sick and hospitalized...

May this love reach
around the grieving and broken-hearted...

May this love inspire us 
all to bring justice and peace to...

May love carry each of us
and encourage us to hope
through all that we do not understand
and all that we dare to dream
and may we find ourselves, like the shepherds,
so excited about this good news
that we can't stop thinking about 
it's meaning and how this good news 
might change how we live. 
We carry the world 
with us in our pockets
OR folded up in our wallets
to reminds us that this good news
repeats with our sounding joy.

Bless us, O Christ, 
with possibility and 
understanding. Wrap us
up in your love and
encourage us to grow
with you in the work 
of liberation and peace.
Amen.

Carol: Silent Night

Christmas Blessing

Carry your light
into the world to bring
joy where it needed.

Bring the love 
of this newborn child
into the whole wide world
so that all might see
their own image in God's glory.

This child was born
for you. It was born
for the hope of this whole world.
God is with us. Alleluia! Alleluia!

The Prayer of Invocation is by Eliza Tweedy. The Lighting of the Christ Candle and What it Was: A Christmas Poem are both written by Michelle Torigian. Used by permission with deep gratitude.

I know that this platform has made it very difficult to copy and paste for some. In the new year, I’m contemplating moving these prayers entirely to my newsletter on Substack. Or it may become a separate newsletter. I haven’t quite decided this but I’m troubleshooting as best I can. I offer this complete service for free download here.

I offer no instructions for Silent Night because I think you know what to do there. It’s everyone’s favorite moment and it simply requires some candles safely distributed within the gathered body. The blessing could be done in the dark or the lights could come up a little. Again, you know this part well.

I want there to be other rituals on Christmas Eve than gathering around the table. That’s me. I know I’m weird on this one so I didn’t include a communion service but you might opt for this one by Thom Shuman. His words at Lectionary Liturgies are ones that I’ve turned to often in my imagination of what worship could be again and again.

As Christmas comes again, I’m praying for you, dear pastor.

Pandemic Prayers for Another World Communion Sunday

The world doesn’t feel like it did last year when I offered pandemic prayers for what I had thought would be the one and only pandemic World Communion Sunday in my lifetime. It feels different now.

This is the song that has been at the center of my prayers with each and every headline. The refrain soars from the deep when I read what we have done to each other. So much has happened that it seems impossible to believe that we were planning for World Communion Sunday only one year ago. It feels longer but here we are again to wonder what it means to be a global community sharing in one bread and one cup.

Last year, I imagined liturgical elements focused on the central images in our faith: water, bread and cup. I feel the need for something else this year — and not just because this year I’ll actually be preaching with the good people at Old First Reformed Church in Philadelphia. Like so many of your congregations, their worship will be on Zoom again after being in-person for a short while. I crave being together as I imagine so many others do but I’m grateful for the mysterious blessing of the internet that allows us to worship together while I am all the way from Germany.

I’m thinking about this year differently when it feels like so much has been torn apart. Part of me is even wondering about if divorce is how to speak of such things. Any other year I would gladly skip over that passage but this year I might turn my heart into it. I might need to hear that good news for this whole wide world. There are indeed hints of where I am leaning in the following prayers.

Call to Worship

Inspired by Hebrews 1:1-4 and Psalm 8

Long, long ago
God spoke. 

God spoke 
to our ancestors
in many and various ways.

God spoke in and through
the created world
whispering the glory
that could be and 
would be as surely 
as the moon and the stars 
were established in 
the heavens above.

We come to 
listen and to 
listen for God
whispering 
and inviting us 
into glory.
Prayer of Confession

With open ears, we come as a global people
to admit that the world is not as it should be.
It is not what our ancestors imagined
or even what we once dreamed 
could be. O God, there have 
been too many times recently
that we have given up. We have
believed in the worst in people and 
allowed ourselves to be convinced 
that nothing in this whole wide world
will ever change for the better. 

We have not seen glory
but only screaming babies. 
We have not seen the work of your fingers
but only environmental destruction.
We have found no evidence 
that people are coming together
to heal this world but only
the pain of separation. O God, 
forgive us for not seeing
what you can see. 
Give us a hint of 
your glory today. 
Words of Assurance

Today, dear child of God, remember that glory is as simple as this: 
God has crowned you with glory and honor. God cares for us all.
God redeems us all and with God all thing are possible. Thanks be to God.

It has been a long time since I’ve preached and so my creative energy is going into my sermon creation. I really wanted to provide something fun and different for this week but it seems I had more creativity last year and so it might be worth checking out last year’s Pandemic Prayers for World Communion Sunday even if it was for a different set of readings. (I am toying with doing something with this version of Psalm 8 though. I still haven’t quite figured out what though.) Mysteriously, I didn’t include anything for the table last year so here is one for this year. I still feel like I might edit it but here is a first draft.

Invitation to the Table

Inspired by Mark 10:2-16 and Psalm 8

We have been so divided
in ideas and solutions. We have 
separated ourselves and 
felt so alone. 

We have been alone
so much and could only
watch as terror erupted. 
We have been so divorced
from each other that it seems impossible 
that any human being could ever 
be a little lower than God
but here God invites us
through all that separates and divides us
to find wholeness in our brokenness.
We gather around this table 
as global community to 
remember and believe that
in this bread we are one. 
In this cup, we are united
to share in what could be
for ourselves and this world.

We come to this table
again to remember
we have a place here.
Everyone born
has a place at this table.
Nothing can separate us
and in this feast, we will 
become whole again. 

I won’t be choosing music this Sunday because there are talents for this in the church that far exceed my own. (This is nearly always true. I am so grateful for the gifts and inspiration that musicians bring to our worship each week.) Still, I like this one and may or may not be playing it on repeat as I try to form a sermon around that Gospel Lesson.

Though the joke has been made that I’m now an international preacher, the prayers I offer obviously don’t reflect the diversity and brilliance that exists in God’s people. Most denominations have a wonderful gift of resources and prayers which you already knew but maybe forgot. For those of you on Zoom, you might want to search your denomination’s YouTube channel for something that would add to your worship experience on Sunday. The World Council of Churches also offers some prayers from the global church that are quite lovely though it requires a bit of searching. The prayers for the Week of Christian Unity in 2017 were focused on reconciliation and might pair well with this week’s readings. You can find those prayers here. I also really loved some of the prayers in this recent publication of pandemic prayers in a global perspective. There are a ton of other resources but I’ll add more for link to this Affirmation of Unity for times like these.

That’s all I’ve got for this particular Sunday but I am faithfully working on a round-up of Advent and Christmas ideas to be shared in News from My Kitchen. If you haven’t yet subscribed to my very occasional liturgy-filled email, you can do so here.

I am praying for you, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians. I’m praying for you so much.

Pandemic Prayers for World Communion Sunday

In the churches I’ve served, this was always a Sunday people looked forward to. It wasn’t a celebration that they remembered from childhood but it was something that has become meaningful and important. There was always careful planning to make bread, prepare special liturgy and even host special events after worship. The table was always set with bold colors. There was a globe or a map or some other visuals to remind us that we are connected to a global community through the sharing of this feast. I think that is special and worth celebrating so here are some things to try while worshipping remotely.

Sharing of the Bread

My sweet Texas church has been offering communion kits every month including wafers and grape juice that have been blessed by the pastors while wearing masks and gloves. We live too far away to get one but it does make me wonder about all of those people who stockpiled yeast all those months ago. Certainly there are at least a few in your congregation. Could they be recruited to bake bread to be delivered to your members? It would be a big effort for a large congregation but perhaps it would be possible in smaller parishes where there are skilled saints who miss coordinating church dinners.

Or maybe you use the talents of one of those dear bakers and have themselves film the process of weighing, mixing and kneading the simple ingredients of making bread? Maybe some harvest songs play in the background or maybe you broaden this experience to include videos of harvesting wheat and grapes? Or could you use images of Christians around the world sharing the bounty of that harvest? You could use this if you are really, really desperate.

It could instead be a time when elements are gathered for the local food pantry to share food and drink with neighbors in need. If your local food pantry doesn’t have a list of things that are in short supply right now, you might encourage members to donate items that are familiar to the communion table around the world including bread, flour, tortillas, potatoes, rice and gallons of water.

I am not including the wide variety of prayers in languages other than English because I imagine you’ll use the gifts of your congregation.

Sharing Music

Our hymnals are full of wonderful songs about community and gathering at the table. I was tickled to see that Global Ministries gathered together all of the global hymns into an online resource for those that lost the index in the back of their hymnals. I am curious what will happen with worship streaming using Facebook Live with the recent changes to the platform and so I’m focusing on original music in what I suggest here.

My friend and colleague released his first album in 2013 that included Taste and See which would be fantastic to gather with at the table. Through his website, you can buy the digital track, the album and the sheet music. The first track on that same album entitled All God’s People would also work lovely in the beginning of worship unless you don’t want to tap your feet.

If the tone is meant to be more meditative, you might consider All Belong Here by The Many. It’s available through the Convergence Music Project as an audio file, a lead sheet, a lyric sheet, or a piano arrangement. Though there is no sample on the website, I’d also recommend Christopher Grundy’s Come to the Feast on the same site but it’s another one of those upbeat songs.

I am uncertain of the copyrights surrounding this but this might be how I would choose to end worship. It made me weep.

If you have talented musicians in your congregation ready to film themselves singing, you might offer them the free sheet music for Jorge Lockward’s Cuando El Pueblo. If you uncertain about copyright uses, his email is on the sheet music.

Sharing Words

There are so many beautiful words written for this day already that I can’t help but share a few favorites. At the top of the list would be my much loved copy of Gifts of Many Cultures edited by Maren Tirabassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy. Another book that I’m eager to get my hands on just came out from my seminary friend Claudio Carvalhaes entitled Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the Ends of the World.

I have used Katherine Hawker’s lovely prayers many times but have a special place in my heart for her Presentation of the Breads. This would only work if the presider at the table is willing to have a ton of bread in their home that may actually go to waste. I also love the Alternative Table Prayer she recommends. I used this Call to Worship as an Invitation to the Table last year when I was still writing liturgy for my sweet Texas church. I just discovered and adore this simple prayer from the United Church of Canada. Whereas this blessing entitled And the Table Will Be Wide by Jan Richardson has been in my files for a long time, though it feels like it has new meaning now. For preachers that might want a break from preaching, you could build a service around these reflections on Why I Take Communion from 2010.

If you have followed these pandemic prayers, you’ve noticed that I have a penchant for poetry in worship and so I also have a few poems to offer including this one entitled Wheat. While it might not be right for every church, I adore Red Wine Spills by L. Ash Willams. Judy Chicago’s A Prayer for Our Nation might be a better fit. This is a horribly short list and I’m disappointed in myself so please go check out the books mentioned above.

Most of the years that I have marked this year with the congregations I’ve served, I’ve hunted for worship resources from other countries to use words that don’t sound quite as familiar. There are weekly prayers shared by Global Ministries from all our global partners (and I’m sure that your denomination has something similar) and a slew of ideas just for World Communion Sunday. Despite my resistance, here are some prayers that you can copy and paste because you are tired and don’t want to go searching for these things. That’s the whole point of this. For better or worse, I stuck with the texts for Proper 22A.

Call to Worship

Listen to the wild grapes.
Listen for the prophets
and builders of the future.
Can you hear something 
amazing? Might you 
even hear what God is doing?

Listen carefully
as you dig among the stones
in that fertile ground
full of expectation.
Listen for the crushing
violence of those first fruits.
Listen for another parable
of a bread broken and shared.
Can you hear the grace 
poured from that cup 
shared throughout all the earth?

Listen to all of the wild grapes
gathered to build
a future around this table.

The next prayer is a little different from what I usually might offer. While silence could follow for personal prayer and confession, I thought it might be worth considering a little bit to remember our baptisms. To do so, you could use something really long and elaborate. I’d suggest that this prayer be followed by a hymn (instrumental would be more meditative) and then begin this more traditional liturgy. Or you could opt for what I suggest below.

Prayer of Confession

With open ears, we come as a global people
to admit that the world is not as it should be.
We carefully cleared out all the stones
and planted only the best vines.
We thought we did everything right.
Or so we have told ourselves
again and again.

Listen, O God,
for these roots run deep.
There are things that we
have chosen to believe
because we didn't want
to see the violence
or corruption.
We wanted to believe
there was enough
and that all people were
working for good until
the harvest of this year.
It has crushed our hope.
It has broken our faith
and we need your grace
to rain down.
Wash us in your love
so that we can dare
to dream of the world
we could build
from so much waste.
Listen, O God,
to the cries of your people
around the world.

Silence is kept.

Remembering the Gift of Water
A large bowl of water is set in front of the speaker on camera.

We remember the gift of water
that nourishes the fertile ground
and allows wild grapes to thrive.
We whisper small wonder
over the miracle of running water
gushing from the spout
to wash our hands
clean with soap.
We notice the rain puddles and drops of dew 
that remind us again that 
the heavens brim with your love
raining down upon our heads with mercy.
Water reminds us again and again
that we might dive into new possibility
and be renewed. We remember with this water

Splash hands in water.

that we were once called beloved
and that the whole world
and all of its wild grapes
are equally beloved.

I would not be above sprinkling my computer or tablet or phone or whatever device is filming me to do a little blessing, saying simply, Remember the gift of water and be thankful. Amen. I am not interested in excluding anyone that has not been baptized from this moment and want to leave lots of room for the wild grapes within us and among us. These words are in my head.

If you opted for bread distribution among your people, you might even include a special blessing like a prayer card. I cannot find a sample I like. I might have to make one.

Or if you don’t want to do this whole baptism water business, you might opt for silent meditation that includes a homemade rain stick in the background if you don’t already have one in your minister’s closet. Have someone in the congregation make it for you, dear pastor, because they love crafts and you have enough to do. That person will be so excited to drop it off on your porch before Sunday.

Prayers of the People

Though this aspect of worship might usually happen later in the service, I might follow it after the act of Remembering the Gift of Water. Under that bowl of water, I’d have a map of the world. Off to the side, I’d have a basket of tea lights and a fire starter ready for this moment of prayer. The chat feature in Zoom could be used to uplift prayers for the global community or prayers could be gathered from the congregation through the congregation’s Facebook group during the week. Knowing that these forums are imperfect in gathering the prayers we wish to bring to God, I would prepare a list of petitions from the headlines that week.

After each petition, I’d light a tea light and place it upon the map over the correct country. After all of these prayers are voiced, I might close this prayer time in an adaptation of this Intercessory Prayer with some more expansive imagery around the divine or this prayer with zero changes.

That’s all I’ve got for this particular Sunday. I’d be thrilled to know what you use and what might help you plan for the future. Until then, please know that I am praying for you.

I am always praying for you, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians.