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Like most preachers, I’m always looking for good stories for my sermons. My last few sermons have been a bit story-less. I’ve also been looking for a place to file the stories I find, and then to be able to retrieve them later.

Evernote is my new sermon illustration database. I installed a “web clipper” so when I find a story or article or photograph I want to save, I click the button, I assign it to a notebook (for now they’re going into my “sermons” notebook), I add a few tags, and hit “save.” Later I’ll be able to search Evernote to find the one I’m looking for.

After a while, I might get a little more sophisticated. I might separate the illustrations into different notebooks, or get a better tagging system. But for now, this is exactly what I was looking for.


I’ve realized that I share more worship ideas on Facebook than I do on this blog because it’s so much easier to post on Facebook. So I’ve created a Facebook page called Fresh Worship. Not only will it have more posts, but it will be easier for you to add comments, ideas, or ask for help. If you’re on Facebook, join us!

Creative Worship Ideas: Epiphany

I have a tradition in my church to have a Christmas story in place of the sermon on the Sunday after Christmas. This year I’m doing things a little different. On the Sunday after Christmas, we’re going to sing Christmas carols and hear the stories behind them. The Christmas story was going to be the following Sunday, on January 2. I even had a story picked out. And then I read commentary on the story of the wise men in Matthew 2.

One particular idea struck me: that the magi, wise men from another country, were coming to worship Jesus. The commentary said that Jewish tradition expected a pilgrimage of the nations to the God of Israel as part of the end times, and the gospel writer Matthew saw that already happening in the response of the magi. Last week the carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was the focus of my sermon. I talked about “peace on earth” being at the heart of Christmas. I decided we would celebrate Epiphany on January 2, and the theme would be peace on earth throughout all the nations.

Various pieces of the service started to fall together, including some elements I’ve been wanting to use.

Several years back I used the story of “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke as my sermon. That will be my story-sermon this year.

I’ll have the children study the wise men in Sunday school.

Last year in the journal Reformed Worship, I had read about a church that gives “Star Gifts” on Epiphany. A star-gift is a star-shaped piece of brightly colored paper with a word, like “love” or “faith” or “time” printed on it. Everyone receives a star-gift in worship that Sunday and is encouraged to think about that word throughout the year. I’ll have the kids hand out star-gifts during the children’s sermon.

On, I found a slideshow of children from different countries, all living in New York City. Photographer Danny Goldberg talks about how he came up with the idea for the project, called NY Children.

In 2003, while driving across the United States, I stopped at a gas station in Mesa, Arizona and met Rana, a Sikh whose brother was lost to a hate crime in front of their family-owned gas station in 2001. In 2002, Rana’s second brother was working his taxicab in San Francisco when a thief took his life.

Rana’s response to these violent acts against his brothers was a refusal to hole up and live in fear. Rana said, “It is important for me to get out of my house and meet my neighbors.” By reaching out to those who might not otherwise know him, he hoped to reduce the danger to himself, his family and his community.

Driving later that night, inspired by Rana’s simple prescription to make the world safer, I was struck by the idea to photograph a child from every country on earth and find them all living in New York City. This is how I would bring neighbors together. I returned home to New York and sought the help of community builders, clergy members, educators, business people, politicians, journalists, artists, students and families. These photographs exist because of their stories, efforts and good will.

Someday I hope Rana can come to New York City and meet the children and families from NYChildren.

I’m going to show the photographs of the children during our Prayers of the People. We’ll pray for the children, the nations, our neighbors, and peace on earth.

I hope through these various worship elements we can worship the baby who came to bring peace to all the nations of the world.

Why I Need the Resurrection

On the website Patheos, nine bloggers shared why they need the resurrection, in 100 words or less.

Kara Root, pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota wrote:

I need the Resurrection
because my sister is sick
and can’t afford insurance,
because I’ve told a weeping Haitian mom,
“No, I can’t take your son home with me.”
because I’ve been rushed off a Jerusalem street
so a robot could blow up a bag that could’ve blown up us.
because I’ve exploded
in rage
and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.
because evil is pervasive
and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
Death loses.
Hope triumphs.
And Life and Love

After my sermon this Easter Sunday, my lay leader and I are going to alternate reading some of these brief statements of faith. I’ll end wish the question, “Why do you need the Resurrection? What would you say, in 100 words or less?”

Planning Ahead for Lent, Palm Sunday, and Easter

What are some ideas you have for creative Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter services?

Last year, we celebrated Palm/Passion Sunday by reading the entire passion story from Mark 14 and 15 in place of the sermon. So many times people skip from the triumphal entry to Easter Sunday. I wanted them to hear the whole story.

I was the narrator, and I assigned the other speaking parts to people in the congregation. They spoke their lines from their seats. I used Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of the Bible. I wanted people to hear the familiar words in a new way. (That doesn’t always work. I did the same thing with our Christmas Lessons and Carols. At least one person didn’t like it. At times, the familiar words are more important than hearing it in a new way.)

Any other creative ideas for the upcoming season of Lent and Easter?

Creative Worship Ideas: Ash Wednesday

Now that Christmas and Epiphany are over, let’s start thinking about Lent, Palm Sunday and Easter. In fact, let’s throw Ash Wednesday in there.

Ash Wednesday Service
Ash Wednesday is February 17 this year. Does your church usually have an Ash Wednesday service or not? Do you impose ashes? I don’t know how many Ash Wednesday services my home church had growing up, but it feels like it was always a part of my tradition. I love evening services with candlelight and ritual. I love Ash Wednesday services.

I found my favorite Ash Wednesday service online in 2000. It’s from Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Somerville, Massachusetts, by way of Sue Hamly. Thanks to both of you!

At the beginning of the service are a few words of welcome and introduction. Then there is 20 minutes of meditation time, with keyboard music or Taize songs. People could choose to simply sit in their seats, listen to the music, and pray or reflect. Or they could visit one or more “reflection table” that was set up with a few chairs around each one.

There were four tables. At each table was clay, water, oil, or ashes. There were cards with a scripture passage, a reflection, and an action for each element.

After the 20 minute meditation period, we had a traditional Ash Wednesday service, with imposition of the ashes, taken from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

Here is what I put on the cards for each station:

Jeremiah 18:1-6
1The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
5Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Reflection: One of the ways in which sin is described in the Bible is as a “hardness of heart.” Do you ever feel that your heart is hard, that it is inflexible or judgmental? Do you keep your guard up in your relationships with others and/or with God? Reflect on the way in which this is true.

Action: Take a piece of clay. Warm it in your hands and knead it until it becomes pliable. Give it a new shape – perhaps a small bowl which could symbolize receptivity to God and to God’s forgiving love.

Psalm 51:10-12
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Reflection: One of the ways in which we can understand Lent is to see it as “Spring Cleaning.” Just as we will clean our houses in preparation for a visit from a special guest, so we take time to examine our lives in preparation for our encounter with the risen Christ at Easter. Are there closets where you store past resentments? Clean them out! Is there a sink full of dishes with the residue of negative behaviors? Start scrubbing!

Action: Dip your hands into the water in the bowl on the table before you, and wipe your hands dry on the cloth provided. As you do so, reflect on what your life could be like, thoroughly rinsed with God’s love. Take a marble as a reminder of God’s cleansing love.

Lamentations 3:19-23
19The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
21But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Reflection: The author of Lamentations spends most of his time complaining, both about the world’s afflictions and his own. One thought gives him or her peace: the steadfast love of God. The knowledge of God’s unshakable love, even in the midst of trouble, is finally the grease which makes the squeaky wheel of lamentation fall silent.

Action: Dip your finger in the oil in the bowl on the table before you and smooth it onto the back of your hand. As you do, reflect on the parts of your life which are stiff and squeaky – places where you are stuck, places which give you cause for continual complaint. Consider how the love of God might lubricate these parts of your life, renewing them, making them usable in a way they have not been before.

Genesis 3:19c
19 “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Reflection: Ash Wednesday used to begin a season of 40 days of deadly serious penance. It included a type of fasting far stricter than most diets today, embracing the absence of all life’s pleasures and enjoyments. There is evidence that marking the face or body with ashes began in Gaul in the 6th century and was at first confined to public penitents doing penance for grace and notorious sin, whom the clergy tried to comfort and encourage by submitting themselves to the same public humiliation. For our spiritual ancestors, the people of Jewish and other Near Eastern cultures, wearing ashes was a sign of mourning and lamenting. Ashes were usually associated with sackcloth, which was the clothing worn to mourn the death of a beloved or to lament a personal or communal disaster. Humans are the only species we know of who are capable of contemplating their own death. Yet few of us do. Ash Wednesday challenges us to reflect on our own death so that we can truly embrace life. The mark of ashes reminds us that only by a Christ-like death can we experience the promise of Easter’s life.

Action: Dip your finger in the charcoal and make a cross on the back of your hand. Press firmly. (It may work best in the same spot where you have already rubbed in the oil.) Reflect on the gift of life over death symbolized by the cross. Offer this prayer: O God, may I often remember the symbol of the cross upon my hand and say, “I am dust that will return to dust, yet in You I trust.”

The first time I led this service, a family came with four children. The kids loved it! As did the adults.

Songs for Communion

My friend Darin asked for suggestions for songs to use during communion.

But before we get into specific songs, let’s talk about music during communion.

Live vs. Recorded Music
I was taught that live music is always best. Perhaps that used to be true, but I want to make the case that recorded music can be as good, or sometimes better.

I did pulpit supply for a small church that had a dear older woman playing the organ. She’d been playing it for years, but she didn’t have much rhythm. The first time I preached I thought I had chosen a hymn the congregation didn’t know because it didn’t go very well. I learned the next time it wasn’t the hymns I’d chosen. The church had started singing contemporary praise songs to CDs at the beginning of the service. It was a better choice for them than the organ, especially for newer songs with more syncopation.

Technology needs to be invisible. Technology shouldn’t distract us from worshipping God. Whether we have live or recorded music, it needs to flow. If a CD doesn’t start right away or the wrong song comes up, that gets in the way of worshipping. But technology has gotten better over the years so it’s easier to use recorded music in worship. And it sounds better.

Instrumental vs. Words
I grew up with the organist playing instrumental music during communion. The first time I remember singing during communion was at seminary. We sang simple songs like Let Us Break Bread Together. I’ve come to appreciate singing during communion. When the songs are simple and the words are printed in the bulletin, people can drop in and out as they receive the elements.

If the organist plays, he or she could play a song that the congregation will sing later in the service, or one that the congregation knows. When I hear an instrumental version of a song I know, the words are in my mind without having to sing them out loud.

Another option is to have the choir sing during communion. Some songs have a refrain where the congregation can join in.

You could play recorded music of instruments you don’t usually have in worship, like the harp or violin. I have a CD of hymns played with an acoustic guitar. Or you could have special music where an instrument or group of instruments is played during communion.

Another option is to receive the elements in silence. Our world is so loud we need silence. Even if we don’t realize it, I think we crave silence. If I were using silence during communion, I would introduce it and warn people that it might be uncomfortable at first.

Now, on to the music suggestions.

I use short songs with the words printed in the bulletin. I used to lead a Taize service where we would sing short, contemplative songs over and over. I would always sing to provide a guiding voice. One day, the fourth time through one of the songs, I dropped out and listened to everyone else singing. Listening to others sing was just as nourishing as singing myself.

Here’s a list of songs I would suggest. I’ve provided links so you can hear the song, but I encourage you to find a recorded version you like, or use written music.

Let Us Break Bread Together
One Bread, One Body
I Am the Bread of Life

Taize songs (many of which are in Sing the Faith):
Eat This Bread
In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful
Stay With Me
Holy Spirit, Come to Us
Nothing Can Trouble
Come and Fill Our Hearts

Some contemporary songs I’ve used include:
Draw Me Close
I Love You Lord

Church of the Apostles, an emerging church in Seattle, Washington, has a song, You Are the Bread of Life, on their Ordo CD. They don’t have a sample of it online, but you can buy the album here or listen to their morning and evening prayers here.

David Haas, an author and composer of contemporary Catholic liturgical music, has two CDs of communion songs that might be worth checking out:
Table Songs: Music for Communion
Table Songs 2: Music for Communion

As I was checking out resources online, someone said his favorite communion song was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” I know it as an advent carol. I love the song. It’s from a 4th century communion prayer. I’d love to have someone singing it a cappella during communion. Or perhaps like this.

If you do choose to play a recorded song, make sure you let your organist know. I forgot to once, and he was a bit upset with me, but he forgave me because he liked the song, God Has Chosen Me.

What are your favorite communion songs?