Category Archives: Christianity

Prayer of Confession for Mental Health

This is a prayer of confession that we used during our three-part series called “Breaking the Silence.” It covered three weeks with three different topics of which the Church has not, historically, been helpful. Mental Illness: Silent No More; Suicide: Nothing Separates; Domestic Violence: Call Police, not Pastor.

 

All: Holy and gracious God, we confess to you our role in harming those who are already suffering. Stigma is an ugly word, and it is one that we have created with our cold shoulders, lingering stares, and unhelpful whispers. Forgive us for creating a world where those who suffer fear the very help they so desperately need. Enlighten us with new understanding, empathy, and compassion. By the power of your healing Spirit, help us to stand with the most vulnerable among us. Lead us to shalom.

(Pause for silent confession)

One: Hear the Good News: Christ came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

All: By the grace of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Amen.

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Suicide: Nothing Separates

This is my sermon from January 24, 2016, preached at Two Rivers United Methodist Church in Rock Island, Illinois. It is about the importance of compassion and care for those that are both contemplating suicide, and for families who have endured it. Any conversation about suicide must begin with the truth that “nothing [not even suicide] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255.

Breaking the Silence Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

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Mental Illness: Silent No More

This is my sermon from January 17, 2016 at Two Rivers United Methodist Church in Rock Island, Illinois. The Church needs to do more to help fight stigma attached to mental illness. I want to thank Sarah Griffith Lund for helping me come to a deeper understanding of this issue.

Breaking the Silence Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

Listen to our conversation with Sarah Griffith Lund, the author of Blessed are the Crazy, in this Pulpit Fiction episode.

STIGMA IS UGLY

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The Gospel According to Pixar: Toy Story

I doubt it was an intentional allusion, but did you notice what shape these two form? Look familiar?

I doubt it was an intentional allusion, but did you notice what shape these two form? Look familiar?

Where do you find meaning? This is a big question. It may be THE big question. What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of living? You may not realize it, but this is the question of the Toy Story saga. Over three incredible movies, the characters of Toy Story are searching for meaning.

The toys, especially the two main characters, Woody and Buzz, at different times face existential crises searching for meaning as they come to grips with their own mortality. Their mortality is wrapped up in the life of their owner, Andy. In the first movie Buzz faces the reality of being a toy and not a Space Ranger. In the second movie Woody has to choose between “immortality” in a museum, or life with a kid who will eventually grow up. In the third movie all of the toys face their impending loss of purpose as Andy goes to college.

When Woody meets Buzz, Woody is a sure and determined leader of the toys. He knows his purpose. He has a laser focus as Andy’s favorite toy. When Buzz shows up his status is threatened. To make matters worse, Buzz has delusions of grandeur. Woody mocks Buzz because Buzz believes that he is a space ranger. He comes to Andy’s room convinced that he is on an alien planet, and must find and defeat the evil Zurg.

Buzz faces a crisis when he realizes that the storyline of his life isn’t real. It is just a storyline for a TV show designed to sell toys. He is one of thousands of Buzz Lightyears” that line supermarket aisles. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that his purpose is far grander than defeating Zurg.

“I can’t help anyone… I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little insignificant toy,” says Buzz.

“Whoah, hey, wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger,” Woody exclaims.

“Yeah right.”

“No, it is. Over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”

Woody redefines Buzz and gives him purpose. No longer does his purpose revolve around catching the evil Zurg. Instead, it is to be with a boy. Toy Story ends with Woody and Buzz realizing something about their purpose. Woody is not defined by his status, and Buzz is not defined by his ‘job.’ They are both defined by their relationship to Andy, and to each other.

In Toy Story 2 it is Woody who has the crisis when he discovers that he is not just a toy, but that he is a collectible. His value is altered, and he is faced with a decision. He can define himself through Andy, where his value will inevitably deteriorate as Andy grows up and plays less with his toys; or he can define himself as a collectible and be a part of a museum forever.

Knowing that Andy will eventually “put him away,” he decides to go with immortality at the museum. Fearing that he has been kidnapped, Buzz and the other toys go on a perilous adventure to find him. Risking everything for the sake of their friend, they finally find Woody, and the following scene ensues:

We witness Woody’s change of heart when he is reminded of who he is. He is reminded of the mark that was placed on him by the one who loved him more than all. He is reminded of the love of his friends, and the fact that they were willing to risk everything for him.

Jesus, when speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John tells them this, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13, CEB). Jesus had a firm grasp on the transforming power of love. He said these things to the disciples when he knew that his time on earth was coming to a close. He says these things to them even while he knew that his path led to the cross. He told them they were his friends. He told them to love each as I have loved you. He told them there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. Then he went out and did it.

That’s the kind of love that can transform hearts. That is the kind of love that can make people stop on their tracks and reconsider their path. Another way of putting it: It’s the kind of love that can cause you to repent, and believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Woody’s heart was transformed by the love of his friends. In all my time as a writer, pastor, and Christian, I don’t think I’ve ever convinced anyone to Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever persuaded anyone to repent. If I’ve done anything, I’ve loved them to Christ. If I have done anything, I have loved people to a deeper understanding of God’s love. I’ve written, preached, talked, teached, but nothing counts as much as the times that I have been a friend. I’m not sure I’ve ever laid my life down for a friend, but I have laid down my time. I have laid down my own vulnerability. I have laid down my compassion and kindness.

More importantly, when I have had moments of doubt. When I have questioned everything. When I have wondered aloud about my own purpose, it has never been a well-constructed argument that brought me back. It has been the time, care, kindness, and love of friends that has reminded me. There have been times when competing ideas of the purpose of my life have waged a war in my mind. Like anyone, I have had late nights wondering about where the value of my life may lie. There are times when I’ve been lost, but every time there was someone there to remind me to look down at the bottom of my foot, recall who and whose I am, and come back to my purpose: to love.

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The Gospel According to Pixar: Finding Nemo

Dear Daughters,

On your first day of Kindergarten I wore sunglasses. It was a sunny day, but that is not why I wore the shades. I wore them because I didn’t want you to see. I didn’t want you to see the redness in my eyes or the tears flowing down my cheeks. Your mother and I walked behind as you and your sister walked together, hand in hand, toward the school. It looked so big, and you looked so tiny. Your head seemed to barely peak over the top of your backpack, which was wider than your body even though it carried only the lunch I had just made for you.

You walked to the big lot where all the other kids were waiting. Other parents. Other sunglasses. I wasn’t embarrassed of my tears. Everyone who knows me knows that I a crier. You even know it, but not today. I didn’t want you to be thinking about my tears. You had enough to deal with. You found your line. We gave you hugs and waited for your teachers to come. And she did. The line of kindergarteners started to move. Some of the parents walked with their little ones. It was a first-day exception to the rule that I was not aware of. I didn’t know that we could walk in with you. So Mommy asked. She bent low and said to you, “Do you want us to come with you or do you want to go alone?”

“I want to go alone,” you said. And into the deep blue you swam.

Into the deep, fraught with dangers on all sides, you ventured. There, kids could be mean to you. There, teachers could crush your spirit. There, cafeteria chaos loomed. There, I would not be able to scoop you up if you called out, “Daddy uppy!” There, into the deep you swam. There you ventured out, wanting to go alone. Needing to go alone. It is possible to be both overjoyed and terrified at the same time. For in that moment I was joyful that you were ready. I was so proud of my brave, independent, smart little girl; and I was terrified for my precious, vulnerable, sensitive little girl. So I waved, and I watched you as long as I could. Then you were in the building, and somehow I went about my day until it was 3 p.m., and I found that you had survived.

Finding Nemo is about a Dad, Marlin, trying to find his son, Nemo. Along the way Marlin bumps into Dory, a wonderfully optimistic fish with an extremely short attention-span. She reminds Marlin that when things look difficult, the best thing to do sometimes is “just keep swimming.”  Most of the story of the movie is of their adventure. They engage much danger along the way, encounter strange creatures, and develop a lasting friendship. Meanwhile Nemo is made a pet, trapped in a tank in a seaside Dentist’s office. Here, Nemo makes some unlikely friends, draws on his own courage and teamwork. Eventually, Marlin and Nemo are reunited, and through the power of teamwork and positive thinking, they are freed from a fisherman’s net.

It is a wonderful adventure, but it is easy to forget how it all started.

I get Marlin. Here, on Nemo’s first day of school, he is rightly worried. Maybe he goes overboard, but I understand his desire to protect his son, and I cringe at Nemo’s open defiance. Marlin knows that the deep blue is a dangerous place. He knows that something as simple as touching a boat can get you killed. I struggle with the same emotions as Marlin. I think every parent does, and I don’t expect it to get any easier. The dangers just seem to get bigger as life goes on. In the end, all I can do is trust.

I trust that the things your Mom and I have taught you can hold true even in the midst of hardship. I trust that you feel my love and my presence even if I’m not there at your side. I trust that there will be others that care about you that will guide you on your way. I trust that there will be friends who will love you for who you are. I trust that your own strength and resourcefulness will surprise you when you need it. Above all, I trust that the same shepherd who guides and protects me through the darkest valley is the same shepherd who will watch you too. If I am to claim faith in the Scriptures, and find solace in words like the 23rd Psalm for struggles in my own life, it means I have to find solace in them for you as well. Even though you will walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil. For the same rod and staff that protects me, protects you as well. Surely goodness and mercy pursues you as relentlessly as it pursues me, too.

Holding onto this is the only way that I can let go of you, and letting you go is precisely my job as your father. The only way for you to become the amazing women that God has created you to be is if I allow you to venture. I have to allow you to get lost, to play in the rain, to have your heart broken, to scrape your knee. You both have so many gifts. You have incredible kindness and curiosity. You are ferocious and gentle. You are passionate and loyal, and sometimes agonizingly stubborn. So go out into the deep blue.

Explore. Fall. Imagine. Sing. Bless. Feed. Dance. Play. Read. Love. Fail. Forgive. There will be hard days, and sometimes the best thing to do is just keep swimming.

Through it all know that no matter what, I will pursue you with as much goodness and faithful love as I can.

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Where faith begins

forked pathA long time ago I heard a pastor say, “The Christian faith begins when you realize that you are sinner in need of salvation.” I feel like that is a very sad place from which to start.

I grew up as a kid with an innate knowledge of my own sin. I had no problem seeing where I fell short. I had a clear understanding of my mistakes and shortcomings. I wasn’t a particularly bad kid, but I was a regular source of frustration for my parents, teachers, and my self. For a long stretch of my life I spent every night in bed worried about what I had forgotten during the previous day, and fearful of what trouble was awaiting in the morning.

I had no problem realizing that I was a sinner in need of salvation, but that is not where my faith began. My faith began the moment I realized I was loved by God, no matter what. My faith began when I came to understand that the love of Christ was not just offered to those who achieved. The grace of God was not offered to those that had good grades, were good at sports, remembered to do all their chores, or had in some other way earned it. When I learned that the grace of God was offered especially to those who did not deserve it, my heart was strangely warmed. My moment of conversion was no particular moment. It was the growing understanding that I was loved, and that no matter where I went nor how far I wandered, when I came home my supper would be waiting for me. And it would still be hot.

Once I learned that I was loved, I realized too that I was gifted. There were things that I could do that could be of use. My gifts might not have been the same degree or kind as others, but they were gifts nonetheless. No Pastor, my faith did not start when I realized I was a sinner in need of salvation. I begin from a very different place.

I begin from God creating all things, and calling them good. I begin from Jesus rising from the baptismal waters to hear God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” I begin from Jesus telling the lawyers that greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself.” I begin from Jesus reminding people that “when you did it to the least of these, my children, you did it to me.” I begin from “God is love.”

And from there, I move outward. I still see my sin. I acknowledge the many ways that I choose to be selfish over selfless. I choose to ignore the plight of the poor, and I shrink from standing up to injustice. I understand how I participate in sin every day by reaping benefits of a system that keeps me in comfort and others in poverty. I feel the ache of disappointment when I spend my time frivolously, and spend my money unwisely. I feel the sting of pain when I turn away from my daughters, or turn toward them too harshly. I have a firm grasp on my own sin, and maybe that’s why as a pastor I don’t pay particular attention to yours.

When I started from my own sin, I was starting from fear. I was shackled by shame. I was paralyzed by my own shortcomings.

When I start from God’s love, I am opened to my own gifts. I see more clearly where God’s love is not the lived reality, and I mourn. And I act. I am motivated by love, not shackled by fear. I still fall short. I see my mistakes, but I no longer go to bed fearing them. Instead I lay my head down knowing I am loved by God, and tomorrow I will have the precious gift of loving others. Instead of fearing how I will fall short, I have hope for the love I can live into.

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The Gathering

I’m gathered in a group of people. I’m not sure why I’m in this group. There were a lot of us together, and someone came in and put the guy standing right next to me in the other group. Clearly something important is happening here. I must have been chosen for something, but what? I’m not sure what I did to deserve to be here. As people are sorted into the two groups I start to understand, a little. I can see why she is here. I understand why he is over there. But me? It doesn’t make any sense.

overlapping-circles-26633-400x250Now the answer comes. The one doing the sorting stands above us all and says, “You are in your group because of how you treated me.” This makes even less sense. I’ve never seen that man before in my life. I take that back. I’ve seen him – from a distance. I’ve heard of him. I’ve heard people talk about him. . I’ve read about him. I know he’s important, but I’ve never met the man. Rest assured, I would have known it if I had met him. He’s not the kind of guy you can forget. And if I had been with him, I’m sure I would have treated him with the respect he deserves. I’m in my group because of the way I treated him? I still don’t understand what’s going on.

“When you were with the least of my children, you were with me. What you did to them, you did to me,” he says.

And suddenly it becomes clear. All this time I had been in a fog I didn’t see. It was like I was standing in front of a mirror in a bathroom after a long shower. Now, with those words, the mirror has been wiped clean. I can see.

The guy I worked with that drove me crazy. The one who never pulled his weight; who was never dependable. I’m pretty sure he cheated me once…

The man on the street I passed every day. The one with the cardboard sign and an empty bottle in a bag. I don’t know which he needs more, a handout or a kind word…

The women on my computer, the ones that would pop up in mystery emails and advertisements whether I wanted them to or not, whether I clicked on them or not…

The waitress who took forever, who got my order wrong, and didn’t seem to care…

The child who would never sit still. The one who knew every one of my buttons, and delighted in pushing them…

That guy who bussed my table at lunch, but who never learned to speak English…

That guy who was walking toward me on the street. The one with sagging pants and the oversized hoodie. He could have been hiding anything in there…

The child on the brochure, the one suffering from malaria who desperately needed a bed net or some medicine…

The teenager who was hurting, who didn’t know where to turn, who was confused by her feelings and had been told over and over again that she wasn’t worthy of love…

She was Christ. He was Christ. They all were Christ. And now those times that I interacted with them, the times I saw them and the way I responded came rushing back to me. They played before my eyes like scenes from a movie. And suddenly it is so clear. I know exactly why I am in this group.

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Unlocking Prayer: Supplication

Date: June 21, 2015

Title: Unlocking Prayer: Supplication

Place: Two Rivers United Methodist Church

Text: Psalm 86

Description: Prayer connects us to God and others through God’s unending love. All around us people are joined in hatred, fear, and anger, but the only thing that can truly unite us is hesed – the steadfast love of God. When you open yourself to God’s love, the guilt, the shame, the fear, and the hatred can be conquered. When you open yourself to God’s love, you may find that inside there is a spark of God’s power. When you open yourself to God’s love, you might just find that baby, you’re a firework.

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Are we there yet?

The prophet George Carlin once said, “Have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?” This, I believe is why everyone, to some extant, is a backseat driver.

We’ve all been riding with someone who is either a maniac or an idiot. It can be hard to suppress those feelings when you are quite sure you  will either be dreadfully late or die ina fiery wreck.

Have you ever driven with a backseat driver? I’m not naming any names, but I may have experienced it from time to time. It can be infuriating to listen to the unwanted advice. “Are you going to turn?” “You’re in the wrong lane.” I think in our heart of hearts, we’re all backseat drivers. Some of us are just more expressive about it than others. As a driver though, have you ever had enough and just said, “Do you want to drive? Do you want me to pull over so we can switch and you can take over?” Have you ever actually done it?

You know who were the worst set of backseat drivers? The disciples. Over and over the disciples have a different idea than Jesus as to where they should be going. Over and over again they think they’re going to restore the Kingdom of David, or they think they’re going to save their friend, or they think they are going to nice people’s homes with nice food and nice customs. And over and over again Jesus shakes his head, closes his eyes, pinches his upper nose (at least that’s how I picture it), and says, “will you please let me drive?” Until finally he does it. He does what every brow-beaten driver has dreamed of doing. He pulls over, gets out, and says, “Okay, you drive.”

This is the story that is known by many Christians as The Ascension. It is the end of the Easter season, but not yet Pentecost. It is the hinge upon which the writer of Luke and Acts connects those two works. The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus being taken up to heaven and the disciples worshiping, and then going to Jerusalem. Acts, which is the sequel, picks up with a quick intro, a “Previously on…” and then tells the story of Jesus’ ascension with a little more detail. Jesus, in his last act on the earth, tells the disciples that they will soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit. They ask, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Read: “Are we there yet?” They figure this must be it. They’ve been with this guy for so long, surely this is finally the time. Instead, Jesus tells them, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Then he leaves. This body, which had already defied the laws of physics by appearing in locked rooms and disappearing at dinner tables, is ‘lifted up.’ Jesus is gone.

He actually does it. He gets out of the car and says, “You drive.” So we took over, and just think of all the places we’ve gone.

We’ve taken it through building empires, inquisitions and crusades.

We’ve taken it through the suppression of science, the trial of Galileo.

We’ve taken it to grand cathedrals built on the backs of the poor to prop up the powerful.

We’ve taken it to explain plagues and keep people in the dust and shame in the shadow of an angry god.

We’ve taken it to the subjugation of women and used it to justify untold abuses and violence.

We’ve taken it to manifest destiny, claiming God as the motivation of the genocide of a people.

We’ve taken it to enslave a people based on their race.

We’ve taken it to Holocausts and concentration camps.

We’ve taken it to marginalize the LGBT population.

Jesus left and left us in charge and we used the power to subjugate those who look wrong, act wrong, pray wrong, love wrong, and were born wrong. We keep getting off course. How many times have we lost our way?

The thing is, Jesus gave us directions. He told us the way. The problem is, the directions seemed a little vague. Go to Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth.  Now, I can’t help but think that Jesus really screwed up with this one. I mean, I’ve threatened to get out before, but I’ve never done it. I’ve never once let my kids actually take the wheel because I know that things wouldn’t go well. And if I did get out of the car and let the kids drive, would anyone blame them for driving off the road and crashing into a tree? No. I would be blamed.

And what kind of directions are those? Is there any wonder we’ve veered off course from time to time? So we stop and lament and cry out to God. We shake our fist at the sky and say, “Why?” and we wonder why we aren’t there yet.

Then the angel of the Lord appears and asks, “Why are you looking at the sky?” The answer is not in looking to the sky. As much as I’d like it to be, the answer is not above in the clouds. The answer is not going to come down. The answer is not in the right orthodoxy or the right prayers or the right creeds. As much as I wish Jesus had stuck around for a little while longer, maybe it is time to stop waiting for Jesus to come, and start acting as if Jesus is already in our midst.

Instead of looking up, waiting for Jesus to give us the simple answer, we need to be reminded of the directions he actually gave us, and start looking out. Jesus gave us the power, and Jesus gave us directions. “Go and testify to me to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world.” Start in this city, then out into the countryside, then into enemy territory, then to all the world.

Testify to the love of Jesus Christ. Testify to the way that Jesus lived. Testify to the hearts that were changed, the hungry that were fed, the unwelcome that were invited. Testify to the love that was willing to go even to the cross. Testify to the faith that sent two women to look for him at the tomb, and only to be asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Testify to the love that conquered the grave. Testify to the love that stands among you, scarred from the nails but still willing to reach out and embrace those who had abandoned and denied him. Testify to the love that knows not manipulation or coercion. Testify to the love that is not of armies and force and restoring kings and sitting upon thrones. Testify to the love that is the Kingdom of God, the love that says that all are welcome, all are free, all are filled, and all are loved.

Go to the ends of the earth to testify to Christ’s love, but start with your own heart. Start in your own cities, in your circles. Testify to Christ’s love to strangers and even enemies. Go to the ends of the earth, and stop looking up. Stop looking for the living among the dead. Instead look out. Look out to your neighbor.  Look out to the one who is despised. Look out to the sick and the poor and the hungry. Look out and find Jesus not in the clouds, but among the least of these, his brothers and sisters.

We won’t find the answers as long as we keep looking up. Look out and be inspired by those that are following. Look around you and see the others that have figured out the way, who know the truth that we won’t find Jesus in cemeteries or the sky. We’ll find him on the journey. We’ll find him when we follow his directions.

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Mothers’ Day Litany

One:      All who gather here are sons or daughters.

All:         We praise God for the women who gave us life.

One:      For mothers brave, strong, compassionate, full of wisdom and grace,

All:         We give God thanks and praise.

One:      For mothers vulnerable, worried, frustrated, and hurried,

All:        We pray for peace.

One:      For relationships that are strained and no longer a source of joy,

All:         We pray for healing.

One:      For mothers who have died, that live no longer with us, but whose light shines on in our hearts and memories,

All:         We pray for those that mourn, and give God thanks for life eternal.

One:      For mothers who grieve, who have lost children born or unborn,

All:         We weep with those with broken hearts.

One:      For those who are struggling to raise children, who are tired and weary,

All:         We pray that we may be their village, offering real help in hard times.

One:      For those who are preparing emptier nests,

All:         We both celebrate and mourn with you, and hope their wings are as strong as their roots are deep.

One:      For stepmothers, navigating the pitfalls and joys of creating a new family,

All:         We pray for wisdom and patience.

One:      For Grandmothers who are doing the hard work of raising children again,

All:         We pray the caregivers have those who care for them.

One:      For those who are waiting and sometimes struggling with the biological process to bring new life, and for those who are waiting for adoptive process to be fulfilled.

All:         We wait eagerly with you, and offer you our hand to hold in the trial.

One:      For women who do not have children, but instead teach, lead, care for, and guide the children of others,

All:         We give God thanks and praise.

One:      For the mothers, sisters, daughters in our midst and around the world. For the women who, created in the image of God, give not just life, but abundant life. For women fighting, struggling, and sweating for the sake of others. For women caring, compassionate, and crying with the heart of Christ. For the caregivers, prophets, preachers, teachers, leaders, shepherds, healers. For Moms, in their wide variety and many forms,

All:         We give God thanks and praise.

Permission to use this litany for public worship is granted. If it will be reprinted in worship bulletin, please attribute with link to http://fatpastor.me. Also, leave me a comment and let me know you’re using it, you don’t have to wait for me to reply. It just makes me happy to hear when other congregations use liturgy I write.

A refection on the social justice origins of Mother’s Day

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