Poetic Liturgy for Epiphany

Here are a few of the prayers I’ve written or arranged for our Epiphany service on Sunday. Next week I’ll share an image or two from the group show we’ve put together for the season.

Prayer of Confession:

Please join me in a responsive prayer of confession. I will read the light print and we will read the bold print together.

God, like the magi, we are unlikely traveling companions in the faith.

Some of us are wanderers, some of us are pilgrims,

But we are all strangers in strange lands.

We all speak different dialects.

We struggle to communicate with one another,

Much less with the locals.

God of Holy Mystery, our language fails

when we try to describe even your signs,

much less your Self.

And yet we blabber on in lingo

that has lost its meaning for us

and complain when the world doesn’t understand.

God, forgive us.

Instead of babblers, make us heralds, revealing You as creator of all.

Holy Spirit, we confess that even the most seasoned travelers among us

Make poor decisions when it comes to preparing

For the journey of faith you’re leading us on.

We draw our own maps that have no bearing on reality,

We carry the wrong equipment and refuse to abandon it,

Or we pack along amusements that distract us from all there is to see,

So it’s as if we never left our couches.

Spirit of All Truth, you give us all we require

for the journey, equipping, empowering,

teaching, and guiding us.

And yet we burden ourselves and others

with extra baggage unsuitable for pilgrims

that weighs us down and wearies us.

Spirit, forgive us.

Instead of tourists, make us emissaries, revealing You as wise, true, and faithful.

Jesus, we remember the gospel stories,

All the ways people approached you and left changed

And we see ourselves in them.

Some of us come like the shepherds with nothing but wonder and a capacity for joy.

Some of us come like the wise men with little frame of reference for who you really are

Or with gifts that seem inappropriate at the time.

Some of us have been waiting for you all our lives,

Some of us are just hoping vaguely for a miracle to heal us,

Some of us have left your presence sad because we can’t leave something else behind,

Some of us have committed violence in your name

because we’re still not sure what you’re about, even though we’ve walked with you for years.

Lord Jesus, you come to us

as God and as a fellow human being

inviting us into new life made whole.

And yet we pursue whomever, whatever we want

calling it by your name,

making sacrifices you don’t require,

holding tightly what binds us when you’ve told us to let go,

offering anything but the hearts you came to win.

Beloved Child of God, forgive us.

Instead of wayward children, make us disciples, revealing you as Savior of all.


Declaration of Pardon for 3 readers: 

text:“Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” by Jane Kenyon,

liturgical arrangement by Jenn Cavanaugh

3: I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years….

1: I am the maker…

2: the lover,

3: and the keeper….

2: When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me….

1: I am food on the prisoner’s plate….

3: I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills….

1: I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden….

2: I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge….

3: I am the heart contracted by joy…

the longest hair, white

before the rest….

2: I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow….

1: I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit….

All: I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name….


Offering Prayer

It is the season of revelation… that which was waiting is now revealed… that which was hidden is now out in the open… that which was obscured is now clear… that which was masked in complexity is now plain to see… that which was reserved is now accessible to all… that which was bound in criteria is now free… that which was hope is now reality… Into the darkness has come light… the light has been revealed and it is love! We see now that every good and perfect gift comes from you and that you give us these gifts to be a blessing to others. Accept our gifts, Lord and make use of them to make your love of the world visible to all.


Closing Prayer & Benediction: based on Psalm 74:9, 12

The world says: “There are so many stars, how can you follow just one?”

The enemy says: “’We are given no signs from God;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.’”

“But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.”

 God of all creation, you give us signs from which to get our bearings. Help us
recognize them. Spirit, give us wisdom to know the direction you’re leading and the strength to follow. Lead us to Christ and through us manifest Christ to world. Amen.

Follow the star, go in peace, serve the Lord.



Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking

“Creativity is paradoxical. To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.”

Christmas/ Incarnation

from “Feast Days: Thanksgiving – Christmas”
by Annie Dillard

Let me mention
one or two things about Christmas.
Of course you’ve all heard
that the animals talk
at midnight:
a particular elk, for instance,
kneeling at night to drink,
leaning tall to pull leaves
with his soft lips,
says, alleluia.

That the soil and fresh-water lakes
also rejoice,
as do products
such as sweaters
(nor are plastics excluded
from grace),
is less well known.
the reason for some silly-looking fishes,
for the bizarre mating
of certain adult insects,
or the sprouting, say,
in a snow tire
of a Rocky Mountain grass,
is that the universal
loves the particular,
that freedom loves to live
and live fleshed full,
and in detail.

God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking
wherever there is motion.


Art from Sophie Hacker’s Icons of the Incarnation

Sacred Space on a Budget: Advent

At our small, city church, our idea-to-budget ratio runs extremely high. I have long applied this quote to my own life, but it has also become a prevailing theme and philosophy in our arts and worship planning:

“Economy is the art of making the most of life.

The love of economy is the root of all virtue.”

– George Bernard Shaw

As much of a fan as I am of putting your money where your values are, I have also seen how making much of little stimulates creativity. Limits are good for art, and improvising with found materials has become part of our aesthetic and ethos. We’ve ingrained this practice to such a degree we didn’t manage to spend the relatively roomy budget we allowed ourselves for dolling up the sanctuary this season. The more dramatic bits were practically free, made from paper, foil, scrap wood, and an upcycled string of bulbs.

Star by Trish, Fabric Hanging by Deb & Cristie

Star by Trish, Fabric Hanging by Deb & Cristie

The Advent “wreath” is a 6′ length of wire with rusted tin stars coiled around a basic candleholder.

We strung a big X of fishing line across the sanctuary above the pews and hung silver origami stars of various styles at varying lengths. The silver caught the light and the layout created the illusion of depth, distance, and filling space on multiple planes with only 13 stars and 2 lines.

I really must take some pictures with an actual camera again someday, but you get the idea.

I really must take some pictures with an actual camera again someday, but you get the idea.

We’re planning to save these for another year and add a similar number of stars on two lines run straight across to achieve more of a knock-out effect. Here are the stars up close along with links to the online tutorials I followed to make them.

The septima stars were quite simple to fold. The component pieces could be easily mass-produced by a chatty group with idle hands, and the pattern is forgiving enough you can use slightly imperfect aluminum foil squares.

septima star

The kusudama pieces are a little more complicated, and I did cheat and use one piece of tape at each join so they could survive the handling necessary to hang them. Better suited for origami paper and crafty types willing to pay more attention to detail. If you do too many yourself, be prepared to dream about crane folds.

kusudama Click here for more beautiful patterns. Most are more involved, and many are more flower-like than star-like. Hmm… Easter, anyone?

Advent Reflection – Day 23

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman—
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen—

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be
A rugged Billion Miles—

– Emily Dickinson

Eight elegant lines of Theological Anthropology and Christology dancing on the tongue and lingering in the mouth. Christ is at once one of us, subject to the rigors of travel and the nip in the air; yet very God, leveling the impossible expanse between us by walking it in humble and generous condescension.

Advent Reflection – Day 22

from “The Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina”


Again.     Closer.


This time only one hand startles,
Losing her place in the book of hours.
The other goes on worrying the light
Habit of modesty worn to protect the angels.


Will it be the image bound to emerge from this blur of words
Shuddering through her? A full moon of the language of rising up
And coming down, building up and tearing down, swelling until
Everything she sees echoes with its own formation and demise….


– Jenn Cavanaugh

Advent Reflection – Day 21

Part of one of my favorite poems, period. Now with connections to yesterday’s words from Barth. Read along to the music….

from “Messiah (Christmas Portions)”  by Mark Doty

Who’d have thought

they’d be so good? Every valley,

proclaims the solo tenor,

   (a sleek blonde


   I’ve seen somewhere before

—the liquor store?) shall be exalted,

and in his handsome mouth the word

   is lifted and opened


   into more syllables

than we could count, central ah

dilated in a baroque melisma,

   liquefied; the pour


   of voice seems

to make the unplaned landscape

the text predicts the Lord

   will heighten and tame.


   This music

demonstrates what it claims:

glory shall be revealed. If art’s

   acceptable evidence,


   mustn’t what lies

behind the world be at least

as beautiful as the human voice?

   The tenors lack confidence,


   and the soloists,

half of them anyway, don’t

have the strength to found

   the mighty kingdoms


   these passages propose

—but the chorus, all together,

equals my burning clouds,

   and seems itself to burn,


   commingled powers

deeded to a larger, centering claim.

These aren’t anyone we know;

   choiring dissolves


   familiarity in an up-

pouring rush which will not

rest, will not, for a moment,

   be still.


   Aren’t we enlarged

by the scale of what we’re able

to desire? Everything,

   the choir insists,


   might flame;

inside these wrappings

burns another, brighter life,

   quickened, now,


   by song: hear how

it cascades, in overlapping,

lapidary waves of praise? Still time.

   Still time to change.

Advent Reflection – Day 20

I fully intended to provide some commentary on this amazing excerpt from Karl Barth’s commentary on Luke 1:5-23, but he says it all and brings together the seemingly disparate themes I’ve been dwelling on this season: the sacred and the secular, our disconnection and longings for more, and our role as heralds and followers. All I could do was hang on and try to redact it faithfully (emphases mine).

“Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds – you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine. This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead. But with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other.

And then we experience the fact that we are mute. Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us, what actually lives in us; never the words that would really lead us out of our loneliness into community. Our talk is always such an imperfect, wooden, dead talk. Fire will not break out in it, but can only smolder in our words….

Zechariah was mute because he did not believe the angel. We all are just like Zechariah in the sanctuary. Every one of us has a hidden side of our being that is, as it were, in touch with God. We are secretly in a close connection with the eternal truth and love, even if we ourselves are not aware of it…. Yes, this inward word of God, which God speaks to us by means of his angels, contains precisely that which so moves and unsettles us. It is this word that so delights and grieves us, and which we would so gladly tell one another.

Without this word we would not suffer so deeply from the need that presses in upon us, and from the injustice that we must stand by and watch. We would not be able to resist so powerfully and become so indignant against the lies and violence that we see dominating life apart from this word. We would not have the urge to exercise love and to become loving if it were not for the fact that within us is God’s voice, placed into our heart. In this way God spoke to Zechariah of something quite grand – a coming great decision and turning of all things, of the approaching better age at hand, of the Savior meant to become a helper for the people, and of his herald, whose father he himself would become….

Believing is not something as special and difficult or even unnatural as we often suppose. Believing means that what we listen to, we listen to as God’s speech. What moves us is not just our own concern, but precisely God’s concern….

We must once and for all give up trying to be self-made individuals. Let us cease preaching by ourselves, being right by ourselves, doing good by ourselves, being sensible by ourselves, improving the world by ourselves. God wants to do everything, certainly through us and with us and never without us; but our participation in what he does must naturally originate and grow out of his power, not ours. O, how we could then speak with one another. For whatever does not grow out of God produces smoke, not fire….

So now here we stand, simultaneously deaf and mute like Zechariah…. In spite of his unbelief, he was still a herald of Advent, one who waited for God…. When everything came to pass which he could not believe and could not express, then he was suddenly able to believe and speak. For God does not stand still when we come to a standstill, but precedes us with his deeds and only waits so that we can follow. And so we will accept – even with all that we cannot say, and with all that we have not yet heard – that we are also heralds of Advent. We will finally believe, and then we will also hear.”

–          Karl Barth, “Lukas 1:5-23,” from Predigten 1917 , translated by Robert J. Sherman in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington, Penn.: The Plough Publishing House), 133-140.


Advent Reflection – Day 19

Advent by Rae Armantrout

In front of the craft shop,

a small nativity,

mother, baby, sheep

made of white

and blue balloons.









Pick out the one

that doesn’t belong.


Some thing


close to nothing


from which,



everything has come.

Advent Reflection – Day 18

Getting back to notions of the secular and sacred…

I’m being haunted by a mythical creature. It’s Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Unicorn. It’s stalking me. I’m not sure what it wants. I suspect it doesn’t have a real agenda or even one coherent message for me, but over and over again this season I’ve heard one couplet or another trotting up behind me, pretending to mind its own business, but being all sly and apropos and quite obviously following me for the rest of the day.

This weekend involved spending too much time in my own head exploring the spectrum of mental health and illness on which most of us fall in between, and how we all set ourselves and each other up for crazy, and here came the lines

Oh I’m a criminal pathology
With a history of medical care
I’m frantic shopper and a brave pill popper
And they say my kind are rare

I’ve been devoting much energy toward keeping Christmas simple this year, but yesterday was a full day of shopping and preparations and hoofbeats that sounded like

Oh I’m hysterically American

I’ve a credit card on my wrist….

 I dip into a few of the posts littered around my virtual life written by people doing what they’re supposed to be doing – digging for reality, making meaning, sharing insights, confronting others’ otherness – and instead of inspiring me, it compounds my cynicism even as I sit down to do the same thing.

We are legions wide and we chose no sides

We are masters of mystique

 This time of year I find myself saying “‘Tis the season” to just about everything, good and ill, because it is. Does any other time of year catalyze so much reconciliation and relational dysfunction? It’s the season of connection and disconnection that brings out the best and the worst in us. Our overconsumption in this time represents the antithesis of the historic call to fast and yet it becomes a form of stress that performs at least one of the functions of fasting: it reveals our failings and discontents. We have to face how disconnected and dissatisfied we really are because the season stirs in us longings to be connected and satisfied.

The Christmas Unicorn’s main theme is our search for the sacred in the secular. We have to admit that we are working with a mishmash of observances of our own creation at Christmas, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to observe.

Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin

Oh I’m a pagan heresy
I’m a tragic-al Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy with a lazy eye
And a penchant for sublime….

For I make no full apology
For the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest
I’m a construct of your mind….

The Christmas Unicorn freely and unapologetically admits he’s a mongrel beast, as are all our human holy-days, as are we all. Our traditions are artificial constructs that alternately gain and lose significance over time, which is why we require new ones, even if they are artificial constructs. We long for the sublime, but it’s a little too subliminal for us. We need to attach it to something concrete or to establish something concrete from which to jump into it. Nostalgia manifests our desire to be part of a tradition, which in turn outs our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. Those desires can and will be misdirected, sure. We can put our hope in the nostalgia itself, but there’s nothing wrong with the impulse, and the occasional misdirection is a symptom of reality. We were created to be part of something larger that is not yet complete.

You may dress in the human uniform, child
But I know you’re just like me
I’m a Christmas Unicorn! (Find the Christmas Unicorn!)
You’re a Christmas Unicorn too!

And then the beast slays me with a borrowed refrain as nostalgic to my generation as White Christmas, at once a confession and assurance of pardon:

Love, love will tear us apart again
It’s all right. I love you.