By Meta Herrick Carlson
One of the first gifts I received as a seminarian was a small green book filled with prayers and brief services. I tucked the ribboned bookmarks into its crisp pages and reached for it every time my hospital pager buzzed during clinical internship.
That little book gave me confidence to enter the unknown, a symbol of the work to which I was called. I gripped it tightly whenever I felt nervous or uncomfortable. But when I would open the book in search of the right thing to say, I rarely found what I was looking for. The words were too formal. The people needed more tender care than doctrine. So I would close the book and ask the Spirit for language that would honor the unique relationships and moment set before me.
Remember a time you closed the book and said something plain instead. Consider the factors that informed your good care: The nature of the invitation? The physical space? The sense of time or urgency? The power dynamics? The cultural contexts of those gathered? A different spiritual need revealed?
Doctrine and Pastoral Care
I am grateful for the dynamic between doctrine and pastoral care. There is a healthy tension between what we believe and how we show up, what we have learned and what we speak plainly for the sake of others. While many congregations continue to gather for worship online and at home, how can liturgy speak it plain? Here are a few ways that come to my mind:
Model Confession. There is great power in what we leave unnamed, unaddressed, or buried in big church words during worship. What do your people need to hear you acknowledge or confess on behalf of your congregation or the wider church these days? What could you give language to so they can find their own words?
Why? Your public honesty and vulnerability matter. When we speak it plain, the people know it matters to the church and (more importantly) it matters to God.
Teach the Sacraments. Your people are missing or experiencing the sacraments in new ways during Covid. It’s a good time to let the liturgy teach, in plain speak, what is essential and what is optional about our traditions concerning communion and baptism.
Why? This is a good opportunity to find out what your folks think is happening (and what “counts”) at the table and the font.
Adapt Milestones. We can keep the rituals but change them enough to honor what’s unique about this moment. If Covid is affecting events like gifting study Bibles to your students, adapt to include everyone right where they are. Collect photos of your students with their new Bibles to display during worship. Teach about the intersectional power of literacy during the Reformation. Collect a special offering for a partner organization that supports access to education.
Why? Adapting something familiar together as a community makes the loss more bearable and can reveal something new.
Bless Your Neighbors. We bless a few vocations most often in worship: teachers, caregivers, and service members come to mind. Who else needs to hear the church values their work these days? Send your folks into their daily relationships to source joys and concerns from workers from a wide variety of industries. Design a prayer route for your neighborhood, and offer prayers for local landmarks like fire stations, grocery stores, food shelves, and bus stops. Help folks see their local communities through a lens of prayer this winter.
Why? Blessing daily work and praying for financial struggles in worship can help folks trust you with news of their own employment and economic challenges.
Speak it Plain
Prayers abound for you and your community while you recreate and adapt often, meeting each opportunity for care with an accessible and generous word from Jesus. Give thanks for the dance between what you believe and how you show up. And may the Spirit of God be with you whenever it is time to close the book and speak it plain—in this season of Covid and always.
About the Author
Meta Herrick Carlson is a pastor in the Twin Cities and author of the book Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life. Her second book Speak It Plain: Words for Worship and Life Together is available December 1, 2020. She hopes you will buy the books and close them often.
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