Pandemic Prayers for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

We began the new year with Jeremiah. It was the same chapter even though it was a few verses earlier. There was still the invitation to remember and hold onto what might be coming. We are still in that space so many weeks later as Lent begins to turn into Holy Week.

Likewise, we heard the words from this psalm when Lent first began. We need to be reminded of God’s steadfast love again. We can’t hear it enough especially after the calendar turned to mark one year of this pandemic. Photos have been shared from those last moments before it became real. Some have wondered what we would have told our past selves while so many of you, dear pastors, created gorgeous meaningful worship to mark this time physically apart.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming.
This is the good news
that we need to hear
right now. It is 
why we come
to find wonder
and possibility 
in the days ahead. 

The days are surely coming
is what we need to hear
after this long year
of isolation, worry
and fear. We come
to remember that 
this is not all 
there will ever be.
This is not the end 
but a beginning of 
the days ahead  
where we will be
a new people. 
We come, O God, 
to wonder who
we might become 
in your love.

I would be tempted to include some meditative time for writing to happen in this service so that there can be greater intention as Holy Week approaches and to speak to what God is writing on our hearts right now. I might offer these words as an invitation to that quiet contemplation. It could also be used as a confession, I think, with some adaptation.

Invitation to the Heart
Inspired by Jeremiah 31:31-34

We have guarded our hearts
so carefully in this past year 
of disease and distress. We have
just been trying to survive
that we are not sure 
how to open ourselves
to what might come next.

As much as we have 
hoped and dreamed that 
this pandemic would end, 
such possibility seems beyond
our grasp. It still feels too big
to pinpoint and so we haven't 
allowed our hearts to soar into 
the wonders that await us.
We believe there are wonders
even if we are cautious. 
We know there are wonders
that awaited our Christ after the horrors
of betrayal, suffering and even death.
We believe that new life awaits us 
too and so we share in this time
through quiet wonder
with pens and paper
to write down the promise
that we dare to believe await us 
in the days that are surely coming. 

We write these on paper
with our own hand
hoping that you, O God,
will write this hope 
on our hearts as
surely as you have 
written your law of love. 

Dear pastor, I hope you are getting the rest you need in this busy season. I hope you are caring for your soul with good friends and time away from any and all responsibility. I hope you’re planning for vacation even if it’s staycation or an escape to a quiet cabin in the woods far away from even your children and spouse. I hope that this Easter Pageant for a Pandemic Year might give you that escape for one Sunday where this resource can be given to talented leaders who can do all the work to assign parts and gather videos. By God’s good grace, I hope that there is enough talent in your congregation by now to actually have someone else do the video editing so you don’t have to — but I know that’s a long shot and I hate that for you. Still, I hope it’s enough to give you a break if you’re not already prepared to use resources from your denomination or others for the Sunday after Easter. And if you are still trying to figure out the days before the resurrection, there are some ideas here.

That’s all I have for you, dear pastors. I am praying for you. I am praying for you, as always.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Pandemic Days

Several years ago, I created a devotional for the grieving and brokenhearted. I called it Twinkly Lights in Blue Days. It’s sat there in my kitchen for anyone that might have wanted it or needed in the years that followed.

Grief is close to my heart. My mother died of breast cancer before anyone really understood the disease that affects so many women. I was seven years old then.

The shadows of that loss have cast eerie shadows over the blue days of this pandemic. Something has felt familiar and terrifying. Something that I have known deep in my soul since I was a small child but was told over and over again never to discuss. Grief was always taboo.

Grief still is taboo. It remains one of these mysterious paths after tragedy that is accomplished by steps and stages. It is what resilient people overcome. I believe that we will get there but that discomfort we are feeling is grief. It is not going away quickly. It’s sticking around and insisting that we come to understand it differently than we did in all of those losses before. It is different. The losses keep coming. The death toll increases. The changes and adjustments we have been forced to make to better care for our neighbors and community keep adding up.

There is sorrow and heartache that needs to be shared.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Small Group Discussion Guide for the Grieving and Brokenhearted seeks to encourage that conversation. It is an adaptation of those words that I wrote for the devotional, but this version seeks to bring a group of people from church, book club or a unique group to this Advent season together weekly to share in honest reflection about what grieves them.

Words from sacred scripture, a meditative reflection and questions to ponder are provided in these pages to explore before the group meets. A simple discussion format is provided that includes written prayers and more discussion questions for the group to use as they wander together through these blue pandemic days. Though I assume most of these groups will meet via Zoom or Google Meet, I opted to not provide instructions on how to share space in a group in these unique formats. (I presume most people have figured that out by now.) I did, however, provide some hints on how best to share in vulnerable honesty so that all are honored and valued. I also included some books, essays and podcasts for the group to continue the conversation as the Spirit moves.

Like the devotional version, this discussion guide leaves room for wonder. It concludes before the baby is born.There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

I pray it is blessing for those that are brave enough to wander into these blue pandemic days and share the brokenness that feels so vast. Or if a group discussion is too overwhelming for the particular season of grief you find yourself in, you can find an updated version of the devotional here.

I pray so many many blessings into this Advent season of grief, lament and hope. May there be hope and love. We need both.

An Expert In My Own Grief

Expert was the word that made me laugh in her email.

I do not feel like an expert in anything. I’ve rather owned that pastors are the last generalists. We dabble in this and that. We have a lot of theological thoughts (hopefully) and some leadership skills. We know a little of this and a little of that. Even when members of our congregation or community assumes we have wisdom in all things, we are more often than not stumbling over the answers like everyone else.

Expert was the word that she used. It was experts that she sought out for her congregation to share in conversation about important topics, like grief. I replied to her email assuring her that I really was not an expert.

She assured me that I was. I am an expert of my own grief. It is an experience that I have had that no one else has had. No one has walked the particular shadow of death I have known. There may be similarities. We may have tripped over the same paths and wandered through the same heartbreak, but no one else can tell me exactly what it was like. It is my experience alone. I am an expert.artworks-000481291728-wv34tk-t500x500

What was even more laughable about her email was the invitation was to appear as a guest on a parenting podcast. Parenting is something I do all day every day, but it is new to me. My peers have teenagers whereas I have a toddler and an infant. I’m looking for experts. I don’t imagine myself as one.

Still, Amelia Richardson Dress was adamant. Amelia is one of the pastors of United Church of Christ Longmont in Colorado and host of this wonderful digital ministry. She’d read something on my blog that led her to believe my wisdom was needed on her congregation’s podcast In Other Words. It is described on the church website in this manner:

Parenting is full of important, funny and sometimes downright awkward conversations. Each week, Amelia Richardson Dress talks with experts about the things that matter when it comes to raising kids. If you’ve ever had a question about sex, race, death or peer pressure sprung on you before your morning coffee, this podcast is for you.

I am most honored to be a part of a ministry that is just so dang innovative. I love the idea of a podcast for adult education whether the topic is parenting or something else. I think this is just brilliant and I hope that sharing a bit of my story helped to spark some important conversations for how we talk about death with children. You can find the episode entitled Grief, Parenting and the Failure of Quick Fixes below.

I’d love to know what you think and how you are attempting to become an expert in your own story. It seems to me that is no easy task.

70,000 Words

Earlier this month, I took a Memoirs 101 online class with the Writer’s League of Texas. The instructor emphasized structure and form, both of which feel like high ideals for the random assortment of memories that are currently cobbled together in a massive Word document that takes forever to open on my laptop.

I should be writing right now. My baby girl is napping and this is my chance to add to that document. Or maybe to polish it. Instead, I’ve procrastinated by cleaning both of the bathrooms in my house. It needed to be done, but still.

I sat down to write but I’m still thinking about one of the instructor’s closing thoughts. She shared, at the end of her presentation, that memoirs can take different formats. They can be anything from a short essay of 2,000 words to a full book of approximately 70,000 words.

That massive Word document on my laptop currently has 71,917 words and it does not yet feel complete. Instead of inspiring me to edit and economize, this little fact has debilitated me. It has left me paralyzed.

I am not usually one that speaks or writes at great length. My sermons are always short. I can barely manage to preach for 15 minutes and am completely and totally flummoxed that anyone could orate for 45 minutes or more. I know churches that have asked for it. They expect it more than the churches I’ve served where worship better be under an hour, or else.

Neither of the theses that I wrote in college or in seminary were this long, but here I am staring at a blinking cursor wondering if there could really be more to say. I believe there is. There are moments from my childhood grief that I haven’t fully explored. There are things that I still don’t fully understand and that’s why I’m writing this anyway. It’s why in the sixth or seventh draft of this book, I’m no longer reflecting back as an adult who has grieved for thirty years but choosing to find my voice in that little girl who first bumped into the terrible things that are so often said when someone is dying.

I want these words to matter. I want these words to speak beyond the grief of my inner child to articulate something that others have felt. It won’t speak to everyone. There will still be some that don’t understand. There will always be someone who says they’re sorry I haven’t gotten over this sadness already, but I really hope that all of these thousands of words I’ve written have some meaning beyond the fact that I wrote them.

So maybe I should just write. Each day has enough trouble, Jesus said. Tomorrow will worry about itself and there is only so much I can do toiling and spinning in my worry over word count.

News From My Kitchen

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Most people see Cooking with Elsa and assume it’s a cooking blog. I love to cook but on this blog you’ll find Ingredients for Worship and Recipes for Ministry and not so many actual recipes that you could cook up in your kitchen. It is, after all, a play on my married name.

I’ve posted menus. I even thought about that being a regular feature but then I didn’t pull my act together. Or I wasn’t inspired enough. It never happened, but I’d like to connect with my readers more. I’d like to host an occasional potluck to share good things like recipes and articles and things that are making me laugh and cry and think and pray.

I’m calling it News From My Kitchen. You’ll see a fancy new tab at the top of the page. Click on that and it’ll invite you to provide your email so that you and I can cook up some good holy trouble together.

It’s a potluck, after all. I’ll be sure to bring some things to share from my blog and the things that I’m writing and reading. I’ll be eager to share the recipes I’ve tried that actually worked but I hope that you’ll share in the potluck too. I hope you’ll hit reply and share your thoughts and ideas. Or maybe even a recipe that you just tried on a Monday night that knocked your whole family’s socks off… and it only took 20 minutes to make. We can dream of such wonders, right?

I hope you’ll sign up and join me on this fun new adventure. I hope to send out the first potluck before Christmas.

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Twinkly Lights in Blue Days

Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.

All of these years later, that has stayed with me.

It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.

It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.

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They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.

You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)

After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.

I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No baby is born. There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable herePlease note that you’ll find the updated version by following this link that follows the calendar from December 1st to December 24th. It also includes a new resource to continue your grief journey. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.

Ready, Willing and Able for Peace

featured101217-300x199We were told that there would be booms. It was one of the first things that we were told about our new home. We’ll hear the booms, they said. Booms that shouldn’t frighten us or cause alarm, but are simply the noises of the military base thirty miles away.

It was just something they had said until I sat outside one morning with my book and my coffee and heard the booms. I felt the vibration each time.

Read more at New Sacred.

Character: Essays by readers

Some time ago, the Christian Century invited readers to submit first-person narratives (under 1,000 words) reflecting on the word character.

They are requesting essays from readers on other words in the future, but it was to this one that I wanted to respond. It was for this word that I knew which story I would tell and so I wrote my short essay and hit submit.

The issue arrived in my mailbox yesterday and I keep looking at it in shock that my name is there. My name is there — and it says that I live in Texas. All of these things are bit too much for me. I’m thrilled to be included among these essays and even more excited as I hint toward the writing project I’ve been working on for so many months.

I do hope you’ll click over to read all of the essays featured in this issue.

 

Spirituality for the Resistance

I have not felt like an activist in years.

In truth, I’m not sure that I ever really felt like an activist even though ministry called for it. I couldn’t faithfully preach the gospel on Sunday without taking to the streets on Wednesday to advocate for that hope that had been in my words. While war continued to wage in the Middle East, as it does now, there was a season when I would spend an hour of every Wednesday afternoon in the public square witnessing to my hope for peace. I got to be an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality.

That was years ago. Since then, I’ve convinced myself that there wasn’t enough time or that my time could be better spent doing other things. I’ve even told myself that what I was doing wasn’t making any difference at all.

I’ve did such a good job convincing myself of this that I didn’t do much of anything. I argued that it was someone else’s fight. I couldn’t lead the change which is what ministry had taught me to do. I still am not sure how to be an ally. It’s lame and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but since I’ve struggled to rise up.

Others who would have never imagined themselves to be activists have arisen. They have organized in ways they’ve never imagined. They’ve started to run for office. As the LA Times reports, they’ve fueled the resistance. Maybe you’ve found that same courage. Maybe you’ve risen from the last election with new hope and new determination. Maybe you’ve started to engage in your local ways that you never did before and maybe you’re wondering how not to get overwhelmed with the onslaught of action that days like these requires.

Or maybe you’re bit more like me and you’re wading back into an old practice. Maybe it feels different now but there is still something tugging at your heart to rise up.

Rise Up!

Maybe like me you’re in between church communities or maybe you’ve never had a church community and are wondering what in the world people of faith have to say about activism. If any of these possibilities rings just a tiny bit true for you, then I can’t recommend this new devotional to you. I was thrilled to add this devotional collaboration to my kitchen to remember what it means for me to engage in the struggle for hope, love, justice and peace.

It is what we need right now. We need to remember that we are called to such a time as this. We are called to Rise Up. We are called to shape this spirituality for resistance together. Luckily, the work has already begun.

A very talented group of people — led by my editor at New Sacred — imagined this 52-week devotional for those of us that hope to rise up from the election, rise up from racism, rise up from the division and hate and do the real work that creates change. In their creative scheming, I got to remember why activism matters to me and why it has always been a part of my ministry and my faith. I contributed three devotions including Hope is a Verb, Come By Here and because my justice seeking has a teeny tiny bit of rage What Am I to Do with my Anger?

I have yet to get my copy of this amazing devotional and the t-shirt but as I’m still without an address for a few more weeks, I have to wait. You shouldn’t wait though. You should go ahead and order your own personal copy for $11.95 or better yet get a pack of five devotionals for $35.00.

I wrote thinking that these words would be used in one’s personal devotion before venturing out to a protest for Black Lives Matter or for any other act of resistance. I imagined myself needing to read such words after leaving a meeting that made me question why I bother since the meeting did more to frustrate than inspire, but the more that I think about it I think it would be better to read this with other people.

Rise Up recognizes that this is exhausting work and it is work that cannot be done alone. It requires something that will ignite us and spur us on and maybe that is best heard in each others voices. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Share one devotion each week at the beginning of that weekly conference call of justice seekers that you’re already participating in
  • Open and close your monthly mission committee meeting at church with these devotions (which would cover your prayers for the next two years)
  • Feature Rise Up in your church newsletter and offer to stock the church office or church library with copies so that groups of advocates can gather and share these words
  • Gather a group of friends that want to be part of the resistance but are not sure where to start for food, your favorite beverage, study of a devotion and conversation on a weekly action to share

The possibilities are endless. Whatever you do to ignite your hope and faith to keep the resistance alive, I hope and pray that these words bless your good work for much more than one year.

Rise up, dear ones. Rise up.

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Back to Writing

When my beloved and I decided that we were going to do this thing, we were going to move across country and make a life together, I knew that I wouldn’t be in full time ministry anymore.

I would leave the church I was serving to an unknown future. I hoped that there would be opportunities for ministry and there has. I’ve been so very lucky. Thus far, we’ve moved twice and ministry opportunities have appeared. I was blessed to serve as an interim pastor in a lovely little church in Pennsylvania and then when we moved to Kansas I got lucky again. I was thrilled to continue my work as an interim with a twist. I got to partner with a wonderful church on the brink of a huge transition as their consultant. I loved every single moment of both of these opportunities so much so that I kinda sorta stopped writing.

When my beloved and I started this adventure two years ago, he encouraged me to think of this time as a sabbatical. I didn’t need to work, he said. I could write the book that I’ve dreamed of writing for years and years.

I loved him for saying it and put my butt in the chair each and every day to write. Or at least, I would attempt to write. I would also get frustrated and confused and wonder if I had anything worthwhile to say. I’d distract myself with building a platform and then by taking another gander at the proposal I might send to a publisher that maybe might publish this labor of love. I’d write an essay here and there. I even published a few of them. I published more than a few actually. And then, I somehow stopped working on the book.

I got excited about other things. I just plain old stopped writing. I made a whole bunch of excuses to myself and never breathed a word about it to anyone else. I didn’t dare. I was too embarrassed.

Well, that’s all over. I declare my shame. I confess my vulnerability and share the news that I started writing again. It was just one day last week that I sat down to write but I wrote nearly two thousand words and I want to keep going. So, today, I’m in an airport trying to write even more words and pausing for only a moment to ask for your help.

Here’s the thing about writing that anyone who attempts to pen sermons, liturgies, poems, essays or books will say: it’s hard work. What’s more: it’s really lonely. It’s easy to get stuck in your head and think that none of it matters but the thing about using words is that there is always something important to say. That’s why writers feel called to write. It’s why I want to write. I feel like I have something worth saying and I’ll admit that I’m a bit shy about sharing that whole idea right now but even so, I could really use a cheerleader or two.

This is where I need your help. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even if you simply add a comment here on my blog, I would love to hear words of encouragement. I’d love your support as I try to put these words on a page and step back into writing in the hope that I might get to publish this labor of love.

It would mean the world to me.