Poetics, Liturgy and Lent

At the invitation of the pastors at my church, I provided the opening call and prayer for our worship services from Ash Wednesday to Easter this year. It became a kind of Lenten discipline of meditation and composition. Over the years I have been drawn to liturgical composition, that is, the words spoken together in worship, as a kind of poetic exploration.  In this I am reacting to several complaints. The first is how literally “prosaic” much of these liturgical components are. If not written by a committee, they at least seem abstract, lifeless, and theologically didactic. Second, this attention to sending a message and being theologically correct makes them difficult to speak as a congregation. They lack appropriate meter, cadence (especially cadence), and imagery. In short, they lack emotional resonance and corporate speakability. They are not components of action but merely of thinking.

For this kind of poetic quality many people point to the rich Elizabethan English that still informs the Anglican, or Episcopal, Book of Common Prayer, and rightly so. I, too, have bathed in its waters. But I am also unable to affirm from my heart much of the theological underpinnings of traditional Christian (at least Western) formulations. In particular, I have worked for some decades to find alternative political imagery to the Medieval hangover of patriarchy and monarchy—imagery now fueling the rabid alliance of so-called Evangelical Christianity and a reactionary American nationalism. So I have sought to lift up, in discrete doses to be sure, imagery rooted in the deep covenantal and conciliar patterns of ancient Israel and minority strands of the Western church. My search has been two-fold—for poetic as well as politically relevant language for Christian worship.

In pursuing this light I am also seeking a poetic expression generally excluded from standard poetry in our culture. I am no longer drawn to the poetry which arises solely from the struggles of individuals in their isolation. I am especially uninterested in the riddles, puzzles, and wordy locutions that wander through the thickets of our lonely imaginations. A couple of issues of The New Yorker will help you understand what I mean here. I am not fed by the sheer exercise of poetic skill in the entertainment of the ordinary, even the reflections on the beauty of the natural world, besieged on every side. I am interested in the poetic word as it is shared vocally by a people gathered in common journey into the wider mystery of our common life, our common world, our common story, varied as it may be. As a Christian I am drawn to words that shape us into better pilgrims toward a destination faintly figured in words we speak together as well as songs we sing, imagery we behold, food we taste, hands we touch.

There are others out there who are struggling with the same challenge, whether in music, liturgy, or worship itself, and I am grateful when I come across their contributions. If you who might read this passage know of others, I would appreciate hearing about them. For openers, you might check out what my conversation partner Ken Sehested shares with us through his website Politicks and Prayer. Meanwhile, I look forward to your suggestions.

For openers, I am attaching the pieces I composed for this year’s Lenten Sundays.

Opening Liturgies

Lent 2023

Ash Wednesday, 2023

Call into God’s House

Come to me, you weary pilgrim.

            Hungry, tired, we seek your outstretched hand.

Come from your battlefields and angry mobs.

            Wary, wounded, we behold your open door.

Come from your glitter, from your vain celebrity.

            In the beauty of our birth anew we come to claim your grace.

Let go the fear that holds the world in thrall.

            Out of our ashes come the roots that feed the tree of life.

Prayer for God’s Presence

O God our Source and Savior,

Lead us to the burning bush of your mysterious power. In the ashes of our vain creations may we grow the garden of your peace. In the cross of desolation may we find the mercy of your outstretched arms. In our empty hearts and hands may we feel your gift of grace. In repentance may we find forgiveness, in your communion life renewed. Amen. Amen. Amen.


 February 26, 2023

Call to Worship

Come with heavy laden feet to the table of God’s blessing.

            We are coming in the footsteps of the company of saints.

Come to rooms prepared for you in mercy and in peace.

            We lay our burdens down beside the table of God’s grace.

Come in sorrow for the sacrifice that brings a life renewed.

            May our tears become the rivers of a land redeemed by love.

Come in joy to celebrate God’s promises confirmed.

            We come to join our voices in an everlasting song of praise.

Prayer of Invocation

O God of Ancient Hope and Promise,

Breathe into our lungs the life of your love.

Be bread for our bodies, blood for our hearts.

Pass over our sin, renew us in joy.

Preside at your table of welcome and peace.

Give voice to our hopes, a song for our praise.

Amen. Amen. Amen.


March 5, 2023

Call to Worship

Awake from your sleep, your Savior calls.

Out from the darkness we come to God’s light.

In the night of despair, let your cry be a prayer.

In the midst of our fear we reach for God’s arms.

The creation is groaning, seeking rebirth.

In the midst of our death God gives us new life.

Come into the garden, respond to God’s call.

We come to the garden, God’s garden of peace.

Prayer of Invocation

O God of Suffering, Source of Healing,

In the footsteps of our Jesus help us feel the wounds that heal. Through his outstretched body on the cross, may we embrace your everlasting arms. In the lonely desolation of a hate-filled world, may our souls reveal your love. In the bitter cup of violence may we find the new wine of your mercy.

Amen. Amen. Amen.


March 12, 2023

Call to Worship

When we are caught in the clamor of angry crowds,

Christ calls us to trust in his holy word.

When we are brought before councils of doubt and scorn,

God grants us a spirit of wisdom and love.

When the clothing of privilege is torn from our limbs,

The Spirit adorns us in raiments of glory.

When silenced before the powers of this world,

We lift up our voices to sing of God’s justice and peace.

Prayer of Invocation

O God Creator, God Redeemer of our world,

Lift up our weary limbs to walk the way of your beloved Son. Give us the eyes that see beyond our anxious suffering world. Give us the hands that heal every wounded heart. Give us the ears that hear us called God’s own beloved friends. Give us the voice to join your own unending song of joy and liberation. Amen. Amen. Amen.


March 19, 2023

Call to Worship

In the shadowed morning of our darkest fears,

Christ walks through walls of hate to bring the light of love.

In the terror of an outraged mob

God’s own anointed brings an everlasting peace.

Though bound by chains of human domination,

His healing hands extend to us a holy cup of mercy.

Accused, tormented, mocked, his silence is a hymn of God’s compassion.

No more a crowd, we rise to be a congregation of God’s praise.

Prayer of Invocation

O Suffering Savior God,

Unbind the shackles of our prisoning fears that we might dance in joy around the table of your peace.

Amidst the deafening warfare of our world renew within our minds the wisdom of your love.

Lead us back from wayward paths to the highway of your saving mercy.

Preside among us in the power of your Spirit, that our hearts might sing your praise.

Amen. Amen. Amen.


 March 26, 2023

Call to Worship

Come, pilgrims through the storms of scorn and mockery.

Our hearts are set on Christ’s compassionate Way.

Come from the shadows of your silence and your fears.

Our eyes look up to see the suffering God of Calvary.

Throw off your purpled garments of pretension.

We come as seekers in the denim of humility.

Come through the thorns that pierce your spirits and your flesh.

Through the body of God’s grief we find our only victory.

Prayer for God’s Presence

O God of Suffering, God of Glory,

Be the word that fills our words.

Be the song that lifts our hearts to sing your praise.

Be the life that turns our every death into your new beginning.

Be the beauty that redeems the broken fragments of our lives.

For by dying in your death we find the doorway to your everlasting life.

Amen. Amen. Amen.


April 2, 2023

Call to Worship

Come into the house of God’s salvation.

We walk in the footsteps of the suffering servant of our God.

Come to the city of God’s justice and God’s peace.

In fear and hope our voices rise in songs of expectation.

Come offer up hosannas to the mystery of God’s overwhelming victory.

With trembling knees we follow Christ to Calvary.

Come through the darkness to God’s everlasting light.

We set our sights through death to life eternal in God’s love.

Prayer of Invocation

Come Holy Savior of the World,

 Enter into hearts that beat with hope and expectation, that we might know your saving power. Ride through the streets of our iniquity, that we might follow you in peace. Walk amidst our world of scorn and mockery to let your light shine forth in every soul. In life and death may we become a people knit together in your love. Let our Hosannas be the song of your abundant new creation. Amen. Amen. Amen.


Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023

Call to Worship

Out of the tomb of our despair

God’s love bursts forth, enfolding us in joy.

Out of the bloody corpse of our destruction

God leads us to a new creation.

Out of our bewilderment and fear

God creates a song to save the world.

Out of the night of desolation

God has brought our life’s Bright Morning Star.

Prayer of Invocation

O God of Resurrected Life,

In the shadow of our death reveal your life abundant. In the glimmers of your dawn roll away the stone of our despair. In the bloody violence of our world lead us with your promises of resurrection. In the radiance of our risen Savior give us eyes to see the beauty of your peace. Amen. Alleluia. Amen.

“Bright Morning Star,” by Sylvia Johnson Everett, 2016

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4 Responses to Poetics, Liturgy and Lent

  1. Mary Beth Turner says:

    Thank you, Bill for sharing “Poetics, Liturgy and Lent.” Your attention to seeking alternative political imagery in the study of the Bible is even more relevant today. Through many moves I have winnowed down my library, but I still have your book “God’s Federal Republic….” ( And, your seminary course of the same title at Candler was elemental as I taught Bible studies and resourced adult courses in the local church.)

  2. Kenneth Carder says:

    Profound, beautiful, moving! Thank you!

  3. Thanks, Brad. I forgot to say that people are free to use any of these liturgical elements. Just cite the source in small type at the end of the printed program.

  4. Brad Hirst says:

    Thanks for sharing these, Bill!
    I would love to use the Easter Sunday piece, and hope I might have your permission.
    Hope all is well with you. Still pastoring/pestering here in Kittery, Maine.
    Best to Sylvia!

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