Prayers from the Pantry

Sometimes writing liturgy is like staring in the pantry and wondering what the heck you can make without going to the store. I resisted the temptation to go find some really great prayers written by others. (That would be the store in this metaphor.) I am trying to keep with this practice of writing prayers myself — but I’m not thrilled with the outcome this week. Not so much.

Now, I know, that there are plenty of people that think that worship should be perfect. It should be amazing and transformative. I would not say that they are wrong but that’s not always possible in a part-time ministry. Sometimes other things have to take a priority and you have to rummage around the pantry for inspiration. I’m not sure I found it but I hope that you can add some spice to these words and make them sing with all of the hope that we imagine in our praise of God.

Here are the ingredients that I pulled from my kitchen.

*Call to Worship (Responsive)

Inspired by Hebrews 12:18-29

One: We have not come to something that can be touched — a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest,

All: We cannot hear the sound of a trumpet, and a voice that makes us beg that not another word be spoken.

One: But we have come here, together, to worship and praise God on this sabbath.

All: We come to practice being angels and holy inhabitants of the world yet to come.

One:We come to touch the kingdom of God today.

All: Let the trumpets blast!

Prayer for Confession (Unison)

O God, we hope that you will guide us continually. We hope that you will never give up on us, but we confess we have given up on each other. We have refused the one who is speaking. We have ignored the cries of the sick and the hungry. Forgive us for the excuses we make to ourselves and to you. Forgive us for every time that we do not hear their cry as your cry. Forgive us for not caring enough. O God, on this sabbath, set us free from our selfishness and pride. Free us to see our kingdom.

Affirmation of God’s Grace (Responsive)

One: Among all of the other voices we might hear, let us focus on the one who gives us life. Let us hear the Lord of Life calling us to give and receive grace. Let us hear God say:

All: In Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.

Check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below! I’m particularly curious this week what you do when you’re not inspired. What is in your worship planning pantry?

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More Ingredients for Worship

Look at that! Two weeks in a row! This is a new feature on my blog — called Ingredients for Worship — that I am hoping to become somewhat regular but I’m still not convinced that will happen. But… wonders never cease! Muses do come! I wrote liturgy again this week. God be praised! It happened again.

I feel the need to confess that these are not my favorite prayers. I admit that I went looking for other prayers that someone else wrote. Something beautiful and lovely — and really traditional — that might work for the tiny rural church I’m serving as an interim pastor. I didn’t find anything I liked. I wasted a whole bunch of time looking until I finally gave in and wrote these prayers.

I hesitate to share them but I’m trying to remember that some of my least favorite sermons have been transformational and amazing to others. We don’t know how God will speak or how she will move. Sometimes we just have to throw something together from whatever we have in the pantry and call it dinner. Ick. That makes it sound worse. Oh well. Here’s what I found in my pantry. Might it inspire.

*Call to Worship (Responsive)

Inspired by Psalm 33

One: Our souls wait for the LORD;

All: God is our help and shield.

One: Our hearts are glad in this place,

All: because we trust that God is here.

One:Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,

All: make this time together an unexpected hour of all that you hope to be, O LORD.

Prayer for Confession (Unison)

Shield us, O LORD, from the certainty of our own faith. Forgive us for the ways that we have made you into our own image for we have not heeded your call to sell all of our possessions to share with the poor. We have not kept the lamps lit and are not yet ready to celebrate for we only trust what our own eyes can see and what we see we do not like. But, faith is the reality of what your hopes, O LORD, it is the proof of what we don’t see. Help us, O LORD, to see what our ancestors saw. Make our hearts glad in the assurance of that faith.

Affirmation of God’s Grace (Responsive)

One: God is steadfast. Therefore, God isn’t ashamed to be called our God. Even when we are not ready, God puts these words on our lips:

All: In Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.

Invitation to Holy Communion (Responsive)

One:Don’t be afraid. Do not even fear for your lack of faith.

All: May our hearts be glad because God delights in giving us the kingdom.

One: God gathers us together at this table to show love and justice. God breaks our hearts and open our minds to see the kingdom in the breaking of the bread. God pours out steadfast love in a cup that overflows.

All: May this be an unexpected hour of God’s grace. May we see the kingdom in this feast.

Check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!

Speaking to the Soul

I have not yet sat down to write my sermon on this Gospel Lesson but when I sat down to write this liturgy I was still thinking about that prayer that Jesus taught last week. I’m still thinking about the words that we choose and how they impact our relationships and our hopes. Because words matter. Words always matter.

Words like those in Ecclesiastes. I basically just wanted to read this as a confession because it feels so dang honest. Things aren’t going as they should. New people are coming along and mucking up everything that I started. They don’t understand. They are doing it wrong. That sounds like church to me. It sounds like the generational conflict that is playing out even outside the church as we continue to blame millennials for… well, everything. It even has a hint of this tension I keep seeing appear between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might have done in the Civil Rights Movement to what is happening now in the Black Lives Matter Movement. All is vanity! Wiser words were never said which is why I want to focus a bit more not the words of the Psalm because verse 3 seems to say it all.

I want those words to speak to my soul. I don’t yet know if this will become the focus of my sermon but I’m fascinated about how the rich man in this parable speaks to his soul. I’m not sure what I’d say to my soul. I’m not sure if I’d have anything to say but I would like some time to think about that — and that’s what worship can be. Time to reflect upon God and self. (It can be a lot more than that but that’s not a bad place to start.) Here are a few ingredients for such soul pondering.

*Call to Worship (Responsive)

One: Our mouths shall speak wisdom; the

meditation of our hearts will be understanding.

All: We are listening for wise words.

One: Let our worship be more than pithy

statements but let every word and every note

speak to our souls.

All: Speak to our souls this day.

Prayer for Confession (Unison)

All is vanity. Wiser words were never said. We do so much to skimp and save. We try so hard to be good stewards at home, at work and at church but our hard work is never done. We have to entrust that work to others and so we can only wonder: will they be wise or will they be foolish? Teacher, speak to our souls We confess that we only trust ourselves. We do not trust those with who we share our work and sometimes, Teacher, we don’t even trust you. Forgive us and teach us to trust.

Affirmation of God’s Grace (Responsive)

One: Having confessed our sins, may our hearts now meditate on the grace that we do not deserve or understand. It speaks right to our souls to remember once again:

All: In Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.

This is a new feature on my blog that I hope to become somewhat regular. I’m not making any promises. I’m going to try to make Tuesday the day. We shall see what happens. But, please do check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!

Spicing Up the Lord’s Prayer

Ask… Search… Knock. Jesus offers these three bits of wisdom in the gospel lesson for this Sunday. Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you (Luke 11:9, NRSV). That sounds great until it hits that you don’t know what to ask. You have no words. You have no idea what to say.

It’s just as frustrating as not knowing what to cook for dinner. You’re hungry, really hungry but you don’t know what you want. Nothing in the fridge that looks good. Nothing grabs you but still you stand there with the door open, starting inside, waiting for inspiration to strike.

Worship is not like a recipe. Other parts of ministry can be written as a recipe but worship is an improvisation of ingredients. It is how those ingredients come together in the people that allows for God to be praised. That’s when things really get cooking! That is when we are transformed by God. I never want worship to feel like we’re standing in front of the fridge just looking to put food on the table. I want it to satisfy and that’s particularly challenging with something like the Lord’s Prayer. It’s like broccoli, right? You know it. You say the words. You don’t really think about it. How do you spice it up?

I am serving a tiny, rural church that doesn’t mix things up very much but I decided that this would be the week to change things just a little. We won’t be praying the same version of the Lord’s Prayer that we always use but will instead be using these beautiful words from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. Check out this link for a few other great translations of this beloved prayer (several of which I hadn’t heard before).

The other prayers of the day hope to spice up those familiar words. Here are the ingredients that we will be cooking with on Sunday.

*Call to Worship (Responsive)

One:Together, we come to this certain place to pray

All: for things we understand and those things only God can understand.

One: We come certain that we need to learn new ways of prayer.

All: We come to hear new words from the Word.

Prayer for Confession (Unison)

When we pray, O Lord, we want your love and peace. We are certain that only blessing will come from our time at prayer. Our lives will be holy and blessed but it is you, O Lord, that is revealed in our prayers, not us. We confess that we have convinced ourselves that we can set your world right. Forgive us for believing that we are in charge and do what you do best. Distract us from our own conceit with your way of justice. Teach us to hallow your name.

Affirmation of God’s Grace (Responsive)

One: When we pray, O Lord, words do not come easily but your Word is still speaking. Speak not now, O Lord, and assure us your grace. Put those holy and blessed words on our lips.

All: In Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.

This is the first post in what I intend to become a feature on this blog. Check back for more Ingredients for Worship in the future and be sure to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!

 

Talking in Church

After my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she dragged us to church. It felt like she was pulling us by our ears with one hand and spitting in the palm of the other to smooth out my brother’s hair. That’s not how it happened, of course. It is simply what remains from those first few years of sitting uncomfortably in a pew.

We didn’t do much sitting in those pews. In the mere 15 minutes we were in the worship service, before we departed for Sunday School, we would writhe and squirm. I would draw all over whatever was in the pew racks with the little pencils that seemed to be just my size. But, I was not allowed to sit on the floor and use the pew as a desk. My mother’s index finger chastised me for it. I was to sit still and be quiet.

There was no talking in church.

In many congregations, this is still true. There may be no sign on the sanctuary wall to dictate this rule but it is a value deeply held by those who were also chastised by their mother’s stern index finger. And so, the structure of the worship service does not engage the worshipper in a conversation but invites them to sit in a quiet place and listen. We don’t touch each other. We don’t know anything about each other’s lives. We listen to the preacher.

I get to be that person. I get to speak because I am entrusted to preach.

All other sounds are silenced unless someone’s phone happens to ring and then there is the sudden jolt of a reminder that there is such a thing as relationship.

But, otherwise, you are alone in that pew. You do not engage. You listen.

The architecture in most sanctuaries are designed for this. There is no soft reminder in that pew that to love your neighbor is to love yourself. There is only the assertion that you should face front and pay attention. If you do try to talk to the person next to you, it strains the neck. The wooden board arrests your back in one position so that you can only yield to its rigidity and face forward. You must not speak but listen.

Fingers are wagged at you if you dare to interrupt the silence. And it’s not your mother, this time. The sad part of this is: you came looking for community. It’s the primary reason that people come to church and it’s the reason that most people stay. The tenets of the faith are not as important as the connection that we find because most of us are lonely. We live alone. We live faraway from family and sometimes even friends. No one hugs us. No one listens to what happened in our day. We come to church looking for a place where we can be loved. We come to share our lives out loud and all the church does is call for quiet.

My mom shushed because that’s how she was raised. She was mimicking her parents and probably didn’t want to appear to have raised wretched children. There’s some pride there but my mom also came back to church because she was looking for something. She was looking for an answer to why terrible things happen. She wanted to know why she was going to die and she wanted to know that her kids were going to be OK. (My insistence that the pew was a really good desk did not ease that.) The minister talked to her a lot. He was at our house often but I don’t remember a single person talking to her in the pews.

I wonder what would have happened if someone had. I wonder if she would have felt less lonely about this impending doom. I wonder what would have happened if the worship was structured in such a way where she got the chance to speak. She might not choose to say anything. That’s fine. But, what if she risked it? What if she voiced her question aloud in the prayers? Or what if the person in the pew beside her asked a similar question when they were talking about the Bible passage for that day? What would have changed? What would have been different?

Those are my questions. That’s what I wonder every week as worship is about to begin. I know that every person in that sanctuary came to church with something on their heart. It could be a joy. It could be a sorrow or an impossible question. I may never know what those things are but they came to church because they needed someone to hear it. God will but they didn’t need to come to church for that thing to be heard. They came to church because they wanted to be less alone. I won’t be the one to shush them. I may not even be the with an answers but I’ll give them a space to speak.

I’ll always encourage talking in church.

 

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?

The Time Has Come

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I have been filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 17:1-24. You can find the audio — and even a video to watch — of the sermon I preached entitled The Time Has Come on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Accompanied

This was my very last time in this beautiful worship space but be sure to check out upcoming opportunities for worship and service on the church website.

Remain in Love

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 15:1-8. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled Remain in Love on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Secured

If you happen to be in Short Hills, or even nearby, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am.  Here are some directions to find the church. Tomorrow is my last time in this beautiful worship space and I’d love to see you there.

Thank God for Ritual

This prayer arrived too late. I saw it in my email when I pulled into the church parking lot. I smirked at the title of the post. Oh, Martha, I thought. (She penned that prayer and happens to be an old friend from Maine so that I can say things like “Oh Martha” when looking at the email on my phone.) But, I didn’t read it. I didn’t allow myself to indulge in all of those paralyzing thoughts that agonize a preacher on Sunday morning.

I had read through my sermon that morning. I had edited it some. It wasn’t great. I knew it wasn’t great but it was better than I remembered. It was better than I thought it was when I first allowed it to rest. And then, I got up to preach that sermon.

roll-725577_1280The words caught in the back of my throat. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t smooth. It felt as though I was arguing with myself — and maybe I really was. Maybe that’s the sermon that I needed to hear. Maybe what I really needed was to hear myself not make sense so that I could hear a good word from God. But, then, I felt badly for these people. That’s what I was thinking about as the words stuck like cotton in my mouth. with this terrible drivel from the preacher that morning. These poor, poor people, I thought when I saw the table set before us. At the center of this worship space — in the middle of the circle in which we sat — was a table set with bread and juice. Set with the gifts of God for the people of God.

So that when I got up to offer the invitation to the table, these words are something like them stumbled off my tongue:

Ours is a tradition that most values the proclamation of the Word — the reading and preaching of scripture — above all else. It is the central point of our worship. It is what we wait for. It’s what we come to hear. This is bad news for the preacher on the day when God doesn’t quite give her a sermon of such caliber. When the words don’t come together in the preaching, when the words are so garbled that we can not taste and see the good news revealed in the words of Scripture, it is hard to uplift that value of the  proclamation of the Word. On those days, it might be best to embrace the other side of our tradition that doesn’t focus as much on proclamation as on ritual. For here we are to share in this ritual of the table. All that we have heard in Scripture today is revealed in this feast. This is the bread of life. It is the food that endures that is before us at this table. It is all that we need and all that we want.

Somehow these words led into the Words of Institution which was again not as I had planned. In my last church, when I had found myself tongue-tied or sometimes just because I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only one at that table, I called upon a moment of profound meaning for me in seminary when my preaching professor invited the whole congregation to share in repeating the Words of Institution. Not by rote. Not as preachers might do it. But, to tell it slowly with small prompts that coach the congregation along so that they might tell the whole story.

In this church, where I find myself as Guest Minister, they are not used to talking in church. They will greet each other at the appropriate time but when I invited them to speak these words, they were so quiet. I could barely hear them. They whispered the words as if they were unsure that they could dare to tell this story themselves. But, these are the gifts for the people of God: this bread, this cup, this table, this food that endures for eternal life. There was a quiet holiness that day. It was the kind of holiness for which I can only be thankful for ritual.

Thank God for ritual.

No Spoiler Alerts

201412547f33f67b137As you may already know, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 6:24-35. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled No Spoiler Alerts on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… BlessedThis is perhaps the truest thing that I know to be true about the gospel. We are not alone but ever interdependent. I can only hope my words preached this truth.

If you happen to be in Short Hills, or even nearby, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am. I’ll be there for the next three Sundays and hope you’ll join us. Here are some directions to find the church.