Earlier this year, I wrote about the Season of Creation, a recently established ecumenical initiative now celebrated worldwide, especially in Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. To quote the official website, “The Season of Creation is the annual Christian celebration of prayer and action for our common home. Together, the ecumenical family around the world unites to pray, protect, and advocate for God’s creation.”
The season runs from September 1, the first day of the Orthodox church year, to Oct. 4, the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis, as you might guess, is a strong advocate for observing the Season of Creation. Participating in the Season of Creation is one great way for churches, inspired by their faith convictions, to join the urgent work of addressing the climate crisis.
How to begin? Of course, a great place to begin is with the worship service itself. Here, I think my own church, Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, might be able to help. We are observing the Season of Creation for the first time this year, and as is our custom, we’ve put together our own liturgy. I’d like to report on how it’s been going. (See below for notes, links, and resources.)
First, full disclosure: my husband, Ron, and I were both involved in developing the liturgy. Ron is a liturgical scholar and has decades of experience planning and leading worship. That’s why he was fully qualified to … cut and paste. Well, it was somewhat more complicated than that. Ron has been collecting creation-focused liturgies for a few years, and he lined up some good ones in a huge spreadsheet, and then took the best pieces and assembled them into a new liturgy. I did an edit, and then it went to worship team for comments. We edited again in response to the comments and… voila! Now we’re trying it out in the congregation.
Even though I had a part in putting the liturgical words together, that process kind of fades into the background when you’re actually worshiping. The words now belong to the whole congregation, and the worship experience depends on so much else: the sanctuary architecture, the music, the preaching, the sacraments. A worship service is truly an offering of gifts from many people, including every worshiper.
Here are few excerpts from the liturgy itself, along with explanatory notes and a sense of how it feels (at least to me) to experience this liturgy.
A bouquet graces the communion table, but no florist provided it. It’s goldenrod gathered from nearby, a native wildflower that pollinators love. Meanwhile, one of our artists created a beautiful sculpture depicting a “murmuration” of birds. Dozens of ceramic birds seem to float in a sweeping formation. Interestingly, each bird is incomplete, broken. This reminds us of how deeply creation has been damaged.
Call to worship:
“We have been appointed by God to join our voices with the constant praise of every creature under heaven.”
Notice that humans are joining the rest of creation’s praise. Very deliberately, the words “steward” and “rule” appear nowhere in the liturgy. Humans have done more than our share of ruling over creation, and stewardship has become a cliché term with its own problems. Instead we need to emphasize that we take our place as one kind of creature among many who are always praising God.
Prayer in response to God’s greeting:
“God of creation, we give thanks for the beauty and goodness of the earth that you called into being and continually nurture and sustain. … By your Spirit, weave us anew into your purposes for abundant life, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray.”
We often imagine God creating the world way back when and then sitting back to watch it spin. But that’s not orthodox theology. We believe that the Spirit of God continues to sustain creation, holding it in existence by divine will. That’s one reason that “steward” is a problematic metaphor: a steward works for an absent owner. God is never absent. Also, that phrase “weave anew into your purposes” was added in response to a reviewer’s comment, and I really like it.
We’re using “All Creatures of our God and King” each week, sung on our behalf. Our liturgical dancers keep us focused with their interpretive choreography, which involves lots of whooshing fabric swaths to represent sun, moon, wind, water, earth–it’s pretty cool. We join them with hand motions on the alleluias.
Lament: “Broken and Wasted”
We deliberately created a place for lament in the service before the confession. Ron found a striking poem by John Polhill, a member of the Iona Community, and commissioned composer Greg Scheer to set it to music. To me, this is the best part of the whole service. The song prays that God will “Bless the tear we shed / for the gifts of earth we’ve squandered,” “Bless the sigh we breath…,” “Bless the hands we wring…” and so on. I love that the poem places lament in the form a plea for blessing, asking God to bless our gestures of lament.
Greg has interwoven these words with repeated musical sighs of “kyrie eleison.” The musical setting features close, minor-key harmonies that occasionally flash through major chords, creating an effect both heartbreaking and consoling.
When we listen to the musicians and pray along with this song, I feel this deep sense of relief. Here we are speaking truth at last, truth that we rarely speak in church.
“… We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve your purpose of shalom for the whole community of creation.”
The first section from the confession is taken from an Episcopal prayer. The phrase “evil done on our behalf” speaks to our entanglement in vast global systems that we know benefit us and harm others and the earth—but how to escape them? So we repent of what we don’t even know or notice.
The phrase “community of creation” is taken from Cherokee pastor Randy Woodley’s book Shalom and the Community of Creation. Woodley proposes this phrase as an alternative way to talk about the kingdom of God.
“Friends, hear the good news: Jesus Christ says, “See, I am making everything new! In Christ we are forgiven…”
Maybe it’s because I’ve been immersed in climate crisis news and ecotheology for the past few years, but this assurance hits me full-on every time. I always feel a drop or two of grace in the confession sequence, but this one: this one feels like a plunge into living water.
Scripture and preaching
Thanks to our pastors for excellent preaching on Job 38, Romans 8, Joel 1, and more. You can hear the sermons here if you like.
Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
“… You filled the earth, teeming with life, revealing your glory, and made human beings in your image to help care for this world, our beautiful and precious home.”
We do communion every week, and we change up the exact words of the communion sequence to fit the liturgical season. Here, the word “help” is intentional and important. We are not the only ones who care for this world. We only help. The earth has its own resilience and self-healing properties apart from us; and of course, God sustains it all.
“… Christ is the Word that brings order to chaos, revealing all things, birthing life by the Spirit. Christ is the Bread of Life, feeding the poor and hungry, giving wisdom and strength for each day. Christ is the True Vine, binding us together in unity of the Spirit, empowering us to bear fruit for the world.”
The second section of the Great Prayer focuses on Christ, and we edited this bit from a set of prayers by Rev. Sam Wells. I love how it emphasizes Word, Bread, and Vine, thus reaching back to the preaching and forward to the table. Bread and vine also remind us that salvation is not merely an ethereal, spiritual affair: it comes through an incarnate redeemer to earthly creatures in tangible form.
“… Heal your stricken world today, that the groaning of the soil, the skies, and the seas may be transformed to rejoicing as you remember your covenant and reveal your glory.”
This conclusion to the epiclesis points toward the ultimate purpose of God’s grace: not a disembodied heavenly afterlife, but the flourishing of all creation.
“Go and join the song of creation, go and attend to the groaning of creation, go and work for the healing and wholeness of all the earth.”
I like the combination here of rejoicing, attending, and working. All three are part of our commission. That middle verb, attend, does not usually come up in our sending words. But attention is crucial: if we do not attend to the groaning, how will we ever respond and become healers?
I’ve left out quite a bit, of course, and if you want to see the whole service, you can view our service booklets here. I also realize that my church’s worship is unusually wordy, and a wordy style is not suited to every congregation. Also, I doubt there are many churches that could pull off a musical offering (as we did on the first week of the season) featuring an accordion quartet playing the slow movement from Mozart’s clarinet concerto. (It was really great!)
Still, words are important. They help form us in our ideas, our affections, our beliefs about God, the church, ourselves, and the earth. I’m deeply grateful to be part of a church that is so committed to “creation care” and so willing to try things out. We’ll see how everyone responds to this new seasonal observance once the six weeks are over. Meanwhile, I hope by offering these notes, our experiments can be helpful to others.
Sources and resources:
For the full COS Season of Creation liturgy, go here. The main sources were two previous liturgies developed by COS members, including one written and compiled by Len Vander Zee. These liturgies were in turn based on other ecumenical sources. For the Season of Creation liturgy, we also used prayers written by Rev. Sam Wells and published here.
For the source of the confession text, go here.
For the original text of “Broken and Wasted” by John Polhill, go here.
To inquire about the song “Broken and Wasted,” contact Greg Scheer here.
For more Season of Creation resources, go to the main website here.
You can find more resources here.
The group Porter’s Gate is in the process of recording an album of climate crisis-related songs, in partnership with Evangelical Environmental Network. You can learn more and contribute to the project here.