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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Twenty Years of Roundtable Worship

Last Sunday was the twentieth anniversary of the Roundtable Worship Gathering at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina. Whether by dogged perseverance, habit, or the winds of the Spirit, a small group has circled regularly in a worship gathering around a table with bread and drink, prayer and song, conversation and words of re-commitment that feed our souls.

Our first gathering in roundtable format took place on February 16, 2003, just when the US was beating the war drums to invade Iraq to destroy its “weapons of mass destruction.” Sylvia and I had been cultivating this kind of worship for over a decade in other settings in Atlanta and Boston. By the end of the 1990s this emerging worship form was clearly embedded in the circle conversations of the restorative justice movement, especially with the JustPeace Center of the United Methodist Church. Its primary focus was and continues to be the work of reconciliation.

In early 2003 we met with our friend Mel Harbin, a retired pastor and administrator, who enthusiastically supported the formation of this kind of worship. Ken Johnson, another retired pastor, soon joined us and Roundtable Worship began to gather, at first twice monthly before settling into its monthly schedule, with a break in June and July. At this date there have been around 225 gatherings. In the early years the liturgy evolved rapidly before settling into its present form, though that form and its particular elements slowly change through annual retreats or consensus-building around particular changes.

Occasionally, we have exported this form to nearby Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, one time for their Vespers Service, other times for Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conferences. It has also been introduced to the youth group at our church. In 2009 I worked with the group to put together “A Reflective Guide” to Roundtable Worship, which you can find on this website. Churches as far away as Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in the US have been in communication with us about Roundtable Worship, adapting it to their local situations.

Over the years the focus of conversations has roamed widely, from the warfare at its beginning to issues of sex and gender discrimination, immigration, racism, gun violence, eco-justice, cultural despair, faithful hope, visions of the beloved community, and basic theological and ethical questions. Sometimes we have placed inspiring and provocative art works at the center of our conversation. These conversations gave rise to an ongoing Reconciling Conversations Group at First UMC to foster conversation and action around difficult issues such as those of sexuality, gun violence, and racism.

No one church initiative can produce miraculous changes in the society around us. What has been at work here is a gradual reshaping of the congregational culture in which decisions arise out of the conversation of the people rather than directives from “on high.” It is these leavening circles of reconciling conversation that can, I think, produce enduring changes while also manifesting in their very process the just community for which we long.

Many people have participated in our gatherings over the years. Some have moved on to other locations. Others we remember as they have passed on to God’s wider love. In particular we remember Mel Harbin and Ken Johnson, who were there at the beginning. We also remember with deep affection Jane Young, Wannie Hardin, and Janie Dowdy, whose spirit still informs our worship together. May all these saints rejoice as we yearn for the realization of God’s beloved community. Let me know what seeds of circle conversation might be doing in your own situation.



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A Prayer from Ukraine

In response to my previous posting, my long-time friend Gerd Decke, a retired pastor in Berlin, sent me a prayer he had received through a German church-relief agency from the office of the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia, in the western part of Ukraine. This is a historically Hungarian speaking branch of the Calvinist (Reformed) movement of the 16th century that has survived repeated changes in empire and government over the centuries. It has about 135,000 members in 103 congregations, with a bishop in Berehove, Ukraine. In the midst of their extremely difficult circumstances, this is a prayer offered by one of their pastors. The prayer was originally in Hungarian, then translated into German and now into English.

(by Rev. Zoltán Laskoti)

Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, and enlighten us with your grace!

Our candles are burned and burned out, our batteries are dead, we have no reception and no internet – we pray until darkness envelops us.
We remember the times when water reliably flowed from the tap, light lit the rooms and the heating worked and we did not wake up in constant worry.

Our lives are full of discomfort and tension, Lord. Many of us are stressed. You can see it on their faces. Some seek comfort in alcohol. Many men are in despair. Their wives live in fear. Stay with us in the long nights, Lord, find the lost and forsaken and lead them back.

Our children sit in damp, dark basements during the air raids. In our churches we light candles and warm our hands by their flames. When we sing, many have moist eyes. Our eyes and souls are tired from the strain. We often listen gullibly to the gloomy news. We are afraid of winter and the cold. Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, for winter is coming!

We wait for you, Lord, as watchmen wait for the morning, as those who sit in darkness wait for the first rays of light. We wait for you to speak, to act, to guide us.

We hope in your promises and that they lose none of their power. We trust in you.

We thank you for the families that are brought together, Lord, grant that this need will bring people closer together and not apart!

Thank you that our time is in your hands and nothing – neither mighty nor powerful – can separate us from you. In you we trust, for you give us grace and salvation.

Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, and the night will end, it will certainly end. Amen



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Christmas in Ukraine

There are times in our individual lives, in the lives of communities and nations, and now even on this planet, when a catalytic flash seems to weld together our fitful and ambiguous struggles for justice with the divine intention for all of creation. For many of us, that moment, indeed that apocalypse, that revelation, is taking place in Ukraine. So that is where and how I hear the perennial Christmas story today. Here is how it comes to me as we make our way through the familiar rituals and events of this season.


In the darkened road we come upon a crater by a gutted building

where a baby wails among the dead.

Shrieking sirens drown the songs of Christmas

in the scream of missiles bearing down upon the town.

But we can still feel Herod’s fear and greed,

hear the little ones, defenseless, who will topple kings.

In the ruins of a shattered lie

the Word is crying out.

Beneath the golden onion domes lies a body made of wheat and sky

bleeding for us all.

In the burning tanks lie soldiers writhing in the ashes of a fallen empire

pointing speechless at the weeping mother praising God.



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