Exquisite Darkness: A Winter Solstice Liturgy

The Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the calendar year. This liturgy invites participants into a time of rest and reflection that counters the frenetic pace of the secular Christmas season.  It encourages us to experience the creative, natural cycle of light and darkness put forth to us as Christians in the Genesis creation stories.

The service begins outside in the dark, around a fire; moves inside via a path lit with luminaries; employs compost soil to demonstrate nature at rest; a small bell to indicate beginning and ends of silent reflection times; small votive candles to light; paper and pencils on which to write our own promises of rest and renewal—and marshmallows, just for fun—the Holy in the everyday!

Gathering Time Outside
To experience light, the transformative nature of exquisite darkness and to invoke images of the fire of the Easter Vigil, begin outside your sanctuary doors with a fire pit and roasting of marshmallows. The roasting of marshmallows allows participants to see a transformation happen in front of their eyes—the fire taking the marshmallow from one state to another.

Darken any lights of the path you will take. Have luminaries lit outside the church and on the path you will take into the sanctuary.

Offer these words as you gather around the fire:

Leader: For millennia, people have held festivities at this time of year to celebrate the end of the dark time and a return to the light. This reliable movement of the sun gave ancient peoples comfort as they went into the harsh winter, all the while anticipating and trusting that spring and the increase of light would emerge on schedule.

Call to Worship        
During Advent, we are called to settle into the exquisite darkness, to hibernate, rest and restore. This cycle was given to us at the time of Creation. We are invited to face the darkness in our own lives and in the world around us. The prophets assure us that the darkness with not overcome us. They call us to watch for the light, notice the Light, and be warmed by its rays. We are called to wait, to hope, to trust in promises made. As we make this Advent journey, we claim we come alive in both the light and the darkness.

Procession into the Sanctuary
With just a steady, powerful drumbeat, silently make your way into the sanctuary.
Inside the sanctuary, gather in a circle and begin singing “Prepare the Way of the Lord”. A leader takes a wheelbarrow full of compost and dumps it in the middle of the circle. Place unlit candles around the compost pile.

Scripture Genesis 1:14
At the end of the reading, people are invited to call out where they have experienced light and darkness during this season. When the sharing has finished, ring a meditation bell and sit in silence for 1-2 minutes.

Song Christ, You are Light (Taizé)
When the song comes to an end, ring a meditation bell and create a minute of silence.

Scripture Matthew 11:28-29

Invite people to enter into the Scripture passage: Imagine yourself being “yoked” to Jesus. What does that yoke look and feel like? Ring meditation bell to offer a time of reflection and silence.            
Song You are Mine

Invite people to sit with this question:
As we enter into this season of exquisite darkness, a time of hibernation for so many plants, trees, animals, what needs to settle and rest within you?

Ring the meditation bell to invite 2-3 minutes of quiet reflection.            

Invite People to consider this:
In the middle of us is a compost pile,
mound of soil that is teeming with little bugs and bacteria.
When you look at the soil, it looks static as if nothing is happening.
But those little bugs and bacteria are hard at work,
almost invisible to the human eye,
creating soil that will nourish and sustain new life
when spring comes and more light is around us.

Write down on paper on your pew what needs some tender rest in your life. What needs to hibernate, what needs to be surrounded by exquisite darkness in order to be released, ride out the winter and maybe, in the spring with more light around us, come back to you in a new way.

Place your paper in the compost soil, symbolizing that what needs rest is still yoked to Jesus, still connected to his ways during this time of rest and hibernation. You can also light a candle around the compost to signify the light that is to come.

Ring meditation bell as a sign of transition to the song.

Song God of the Sparrow

Offer a time for people to name their own prayers, and then offer this litany.

From the rising of the midwinter moon,
may darkness and light dance together, O Shining One.

In this season, make us short on grumpy thoughts,
long on sharing of words of gentleness. 

Make us short on being rushed,
long on attentiveness. 

Make us short on seeing what’s right before us,
long on peering into the horizon. 

Make us short on out-of-control to-do lists,
long on savoring kindness.

Make us short on overlooking the dark sky,
long on gazing at the twinkling stars. 

Make us short on tradition as a habit,
long on re-owning and re-creating.

Make us short on ignoring the hungry,
long on making a delicious meal. 

Make us short on rushing,
long on wondering and pondering.

Make us short on walking past those sleeping in the cold,
long on sharing blankets and hot tea. 

Make us short on longing for what’s next,
and long on savoring the darkness.

The Lord’s Prayer
If your congregation has a chant or other musical setting for the Lord’s Prayer, this would be a wonderful time to use it. Here are two possible settings which are in the public domain: http://www.hymnary.org/text/our_father_who_art_in_heaven_lords_prayer http://www.hymnary.org/text/our_father_which_art_in_heaven_chant 

Song Hymn of Promise

May the sun, moon and stars glow on you like a great fire.
May you rest and hibernate in the exquisite darkness.
May you and the whole of the planet be yoked to new life through God’s holy light and holy darkness.  

Postlude  Instrumental Reprise of Hymn of Promise 

Invite participants to stay and share in harvest-winter-based snacks and hot apple cider. 
Exquisite Darkness: Winter Solstice Service was created by Ashley Goff (UCC), Minister for Spiritual Formation, and Rob Passow, Director of Music, at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, D.C. They created this liturgy for Church of the Pilgrims’ first winter solstice service in 2012.

Copyright 2013 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.

On Faith: New Wineskins for New Wine

“I can taste the freshness.”

These five words were uttered by one of our homeless neighbors at Open Table, a Church of the Pilgrims lunch for hungry folks held each Sunday after our worship.

What prompted these words?

A plate of eggplant parmesan.

What made it so fresh? The eggplant was grown 20 feet from where Open Table is served and shared.

For the past three summers, Church of the Pilgrims has grown food in its backyard to supplement the produce needed to create healthy and hospitable meals for our homeless neighbors.

Our garden started from the initiative of several of our members and a $500 grant from the National Capital Presbytery. Using the gardening principles of simplicity and scale, we started off small with one raised bed. In three years we have expanded into four raised beds, an herb garden, a squash and bean garden, two standard compost bins, two vermiculture bins, and three beehives. We have transformed into what was our backyard into a subversive, revolutionary plot.

Hospitality and justice are at the core of Pilgrims’ expression of faith and what it means to be the body of Christ. In the 1960s Pilgrims marched on Washington. Today we participate in vigils at the Sudanese embassy to protest genocide and mass starvation. We are members of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), our local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which, as a broad-based community organizing network, advocates for affordable housing and safe, urban neighborhoods. Above our sanctuary hangs a rainbow flag with the words “All Are Welcome.” We welcome thousands of young people a year to stay at our Pilgrimage program which creates experiential learning experiences fusing Christian faith with the injustices of urban poverty.

So where does a little garden and urban farming fit in?

Today 900 million earthly, human creatures on the planet are hungry. World food prices are rising. The planetary population is increasing. In 2007 we moved from a primarily rural planet to an urban one, according to the United Nations. To keep up with the population growth, more food will have to be produced over the next 50 years than in the past 10,000 year combined. We will need to grow more food with less oil, less water, fewer farmlands, less genetic diversity and less climate stability.

We need new wineskins to feed the planet, particularly a hungry, starving planet. Jesus said no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into new wineskins (Luke 5:36-39)

Pilgrims’ urban garden is a new wineskin. It is a new way of practicing hospitality, of connecting ourselves to our local ecosystem and is part of a web of endeavors, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, INfants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that are low-barrier means for hungry people to receive food. And, since food is linked to systems of domination, we have the potential to radically alter the balance of power starting in our own backyard. Food is an experience of power.

Our garden is an act of creation and it is one powerful, subversive plot. As we amend the soil and water the land, sometimes alongside our Open Table brothers and sisters, we proclaim that those our society would rather do without, those our culture thinks deserve to be hungry, are receiving a meal that is full of prophetic, earth-honoring freshness.

Rev. Ashley Goff is ordained in the United Church of Christ and Minister for Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C.

Reign of Christ: An “At Table” Service Thanksgiving Weekend

Psalm 46, Luke 23:33-43

An “At Table” liturgy invites us to put the meal back into our ritual of Holy Communion. “At Table” connects us to our ancient church which gathered in this way to worship and remember the acts and deeds of Jesus. Jesus’ early followers gathered at table with drink, food, and prayers. They shared stories about Jesus and how to live out their faith amidst Roman Empire.

Reign of Christ Sunday is both a beginning and an end in our liturgical calendar. This “At Table” liturgy honors that liturgical transition between Ordinary Time and Advent, and images Christ not as one dominating on a throne or high altar but rather resting and hosting us at a table. 

This liturgy invites us to do the same—engaging in deep conversation as Jesus did with the poor and broken; breaking the bread and pouring the cup as Jesus did with his closest companions, figuring out how to live a life of faith in a world of dominating powers as he invited his followers to do, and giving thanks, singing, and praying as Jesus did throughout his earthly life.

Fill liturgical space with tables and chairs. Maybe you can do this in your sanctuary. Or your fellowship hall. Or outside or where you host fellowship after worship. Fill a space with table, chairs, maybe blankets for families to sit on. The meal doesn’t have to be elaborate—cheese, fruit, nuts, breads or soup and salad could be the meal. Ask someone to bake the bread. Each person should have a tea light for the candlelighting in the service.  Have nametags available for people to use so everyone can call each other by name.

Preparation and Setting of Tables

Preparing for “At Table” is the work of the community, not just one or two people. Gather at the appropriate time before worship starts to prepare the simple meal and set the tables. This invitation to work together should be offered to all since work build community and holy connections. Don’t worry if you are working while people are arriving for worship. Consider it an invitation and opportunity to invite people (visitors and old-timers alike!) into the work of preparation.

Opening Song: "Give Thanks, Worship and Praise"

Holy God,
One who forms the rhythm of our lives
the One who is present in the beginning and ending
of each day,
each season
the One who is alive at table in bread and in cup.
May we recognize your presence
in the bread we are about to break,
the meal we are about the share,
the cup we are about to pour.
For being here at table with you and all who gather,
we give thanks.

Brothers and Sisters,
we gather this Thanksgiving Sunday, on the threshold of Advent,
to share a meal, to tell our story, and to work together.
While at table, we shall sing, pray, share in conversation,
and break bread and drink from the cup.
These are the ways of the ancient, early Church,
and these are our ways.
All are welcome to eat and drink, there are no exceptions.

Candle Lighting
As we prepare our tables for what is to come,
we each light the candle in front of us,
and our songleader will sing “The Lord is My Light”
Watch. Listen. Notice as the light increases.
The light of Christ will grow within us, and around us.

"The Lord is My Light"

Silence: Sound a chime or bell to invite people into a time of silence, inviting them to gaze up on the light during the stillness.

Break the silence with the following song:

Song: Come, O Thankful People Come, TNCH 422

Words of Institution for the Bread

Song: "Christ At Table There with Friends", TNCH 227

Verse 1: Have presider or a songleader sing verse 1 of Christ at Table There with Friends, then have the congregation sing this same verse. 

Break the bread and share it around the tables with people calling each other by name and saying “The Bread of Life” while sharing the bread.

Sharing of the Meal: Conversation and Eating Around the Tables

Song of Preparation: "In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful"

Scripture: Luke 23:33-43

In the spirit of the ancient church, rather than reading the scripture off a page, have the reader memorize or know the story by heart and share the story from the oral tradition.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thanks be to God.


This is a compact sermon. The sermon can be five to six minutes and have the preacher stand and share where he/she is sitting at table.

Response to the Sermon:

As an extension of the sermon, offer a specific question related to the sermon. Give the congregation a few minutes to ponder out-loud with those around their tables.  

Song: "In the Midst of New Dimensions", TNCH  391

From our lives, we choose to offer our gifts.
Knowing that what we regard as excess,
others may need, and all that we need,
others may regard as excess.
May we recognize that when all share,
all are enriched.

In thanksgiving for what has been shared, we sing as one body:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Christ all creatures here below;
Praise Holy Spirit evermore;
Praise Triune God, whom we adore.
(Old Hundredth)

Prayer of the People:
We offer our prayers for the whole planet,
friends and strangers, and for ourselves.

For peace in the whole world,
for peace in (name location of your congregation)
and for what other places should we pray?
(people call out places in need of prayer).
For peace within and around the planet, let us pray to our God:
Holy One, have mercy. 

For the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, for those without a table to eat.
Knowing God embraces the most broken,
who or what do we need to pray for?
(people call out their prayers)
For peace within and around the planet, let us pray to our God:
Holy One, have mercy. 

For peace for the dead and comfort for the mourners.
Knowing God brings life from death, who or what do we need to pray for?
(people call out their prayers).
For peace within and around the planet, let us pray to our God:
Holy One, have mercy.

For forgiveness, compassion, sharing, and love among creation everywhere
and the coming of a New Agelet us continue to share our prayers
(people call out their final prayers).
For peace within and around the planet, let us pray to our God:
Holy One, have mercy.

The Lord’s Prayer

Words of Institution with the Cup

Song:  "Christ At Table There with Friends", TNCH 227

Verse 4: Following the same pattern as the bread, have the presider or a songleader sing verse 4 of Christ at Table There with Friends, then have the congregation sing the same verse.

Pour the cup and share around the tables with people calling each other by name and saying the words, “The Cup of the Covenant.”

Clean-up: All gathered take part in a few minutes of cleaning-up the tables and space.

Final Song: "God Be the Love"

For food and drink
We give thanks!
For the bread and the cup!
We give thanks!
For being together in the ways of Jesus.
We give thanks!
For living in the ways of peace and community.
We give thanks!

Honoring the peace we have experienced,
let us share the peace with all around us.
May the Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
And also with you.
Share that peace with those around you.



An “At Table” Service for Reign of Christ Sunday, was written by the Rev. Ashley Goff, an ordained UCC minister serving at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), Washington, DC.  “At Table” service customs are developing at Union Theological Seminary in NYC.

Copyright 2013 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.

“Yes, Let’s!”: A New Heaven and a New Earth Intergenerational Communion for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost

As One Body, we share profound responsibilities, like helping children encounter the Holy through participation in worship.

In this liturgy, which includes communion and anointing with oil, young people have primary leadership roles throughout, especially at the table.

The method used in this liturgy to help the biblical stories come alive is an adaptation of the theater  practice of  “improv”. Using the liturgy as the structure, non-scripted opportunities are incorporated into this liturgy to create moments for spontaneous response; these moments may help worshippers experience new patterns, practices, symbols, and relationships. As congregants grow more adept at this, a new culture of freedom and spontaneity in worship may grow.

This liturgy creates space to experience the Holy as One Body and with our bodies as a New Heaven and a New Earth is given space to emerge.


Time of Gathering


Create a teaching moment by teaching a simple song to the congregation in order to sing without looking at a hymnal or insert. Amp it up by singing in the round.

Come Together (led by a child or young person)

As the day dawns anew,
so do our lives.
As our community gathers,
so does our spirits.
As we are awaken by newness,
we are a holy people of a new heaven and earth.
And so it is!

Give Thanks (continued by the same young person)

Invite the congregation to call out their thanksgivings for healing, joy, and living in the ways of God.

Share the Peace

Song: As-salaamu Lakum, Sing! Prayer and Praise #20 (Peace be with You)

Before sharing the peace, have the congregation sing this or another peace chant a couple of times then keep singing while sharing in the peace. As the congregation gathers itself, invite them to sing the verse one more time through.

Prepare for the Word

Activate Imagination:

Leader: As we prepare to experience God’s Word,
call out a word or phrase that comes to mind
when you hear the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth.”

People: Respond with images, phrases, memories, hopes        

Activate Listening (led by a young person):

Leader: God is always speaking, but sometimes we forget how to listen.
When the chime rings, we enter the silence.
In the silence, we listen for God not only with our ears,
but with our whole bodies and with our hearts.  

Silence lasts one minute, framed by chime at either end.

Pray for Illumination

Holy One of All the Ages,
may we have the courage
to experience and hold truths
found within Your ancient words.
Saturate us with that unending truth
that our whole selves may be open
to what is new.


Psalm 98, The New Century Hymnal p.686

Congregation is invited to chant this Psalm with a cantor leading.
The cantor will introduce the refrain and invite the congregation to sing along.
Then the cantor chants verses of the Psalm,
and prompts the congregation to sing the refrain, repeating the pattern until the end. 

Isaiah 65:17-25



Share our Gifts
In the stillness and beauty of heaven,
we give thanks for wonder and awe.
In the justice and exquisiteness of the earth,
we dream of healing and hope.
With this Spirit, let us share what we have with the Church. 

Dedicate our Gifts to God
In our sharing, may we be ever mindful
of the present-ness of God connecting us,
and to see the new possibilities of the now. 

Sacrament of Communion

Prepare for Communion:  A Walking Meditation Our whole selves are essential for a new heaven and earth to be born. As we prepare for communion, to help us be more present, we will walk, mindfully, around the sanctuary. Listen for the questions to ponder as you walk. Listen to God speaking to you in the silence, in the words and in your body.

Walking Meditation questions:

1) Image a new heaven and a new earth. Picture it. (pause for 30 seconds or so)

2) As the wolf and lamb came together, what opposites have come together in the new heaven, new earth? (pause)

3) Imagine the “delight” of the new heaven and earth. What does delight look like?

Come to the Table

invite people into stillness as walking comes to a close, share the invitation to the table

Leader: Behold!  A new heaven and new earth is on the horizon,
so close we can touch it.
Let us draw near to the table that proclaims a new day!
This is an open table, no exceptions.
All are welcome.
Come, draw close to the communion table,
find your place around the table,
allowing children to be the closest to the table,
while singing Come Bring your Burdens to God

From where people are standing, they come to gather around the table while singing. Use a drum beat only to accompany the congregation in this singing. Three people are officiating at the table—two children and one adult. Have the young people on either side of the adult with all three taking turns leading the following prayer. When the congregation finishes gathering around the table, continue with this improvisational communion liturgy that creates space for the congregation to build the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving and Words of Institution together.

The leaders’ lines may be set to a simple chant if desired.

Leader (adult chanting or speaking the lead lines):
Let us tell the story of God
In the planet God made, we give thanks for…..

Congregation calls out thanksgivings for the planet. After thanksgivings are shared, the leader continues with the chant three times of “remember.”

Leader chanting or speaking:  Remember, Remember, Remember

Leader: Let us give thanks to God
for the prophets that God sent in ancient times and in our time….

Congregation calls out prophets of long ago and now

Remember, Remember, Remember

Leader: And let us give thanks for the radical one, Jesus, who…
congregation calls out deeds and acts of Jesus

Remember, Remember, Remember 

Leader: And let us give thanks for the power of the Holy Spirit
congregation calls out gifts of the Holy Spirit

Remember, Remember, Remember

Leader (child, chanting or speaking the lead line):
And on that night before Jesus died he…

Have the congregation finish the story and the words of institution for the bread with the child doing the actions including breaking the bread

Remember, Remember, Remember

Leader (second child, chanting or speaking the lead line):
And in the same way after supper, Jesus took a cup…

Have the congregation finish the words for the cup with the child doing the actions including pouring the cup

Remember, Remember, Remember

Adult leader finishes by leading the congregation in a Hosanna with a drum the only accompanying instrument:

Holy, Holy, Holy

God of power and might
Heav’n and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest. 

Blessed is the one who comes
In the name of our God
Hosanna in the highest. 

The Lord’s Prayer

Sharing of the Bread and the Cup

Communion is done by intinction, with four sets of servers (one adult and one child paired up as servers) working their way through the crowd. Another pair of servers (one child, one adult) follows each pair of communion servers with anointing oil.

After each one receives the bread and the cup, their palms are marked gently with oil. The child anoints the hand and says, “[Name]: The new heaven and earth is within you.” The adult is there to provide guidance if needed.


This benediction is a play on an improv game called “Yes, Let’s!”

Still gathered around the table, invite people to reflect on a word that names how they want to “be” this week that reflects a new heaven and a new earth.

Such as: Courageous!  …Brave!  …Gentle!

After each word is called out, the entire congregation responds each time with “Yes, Let’s!”

The leader offers the last words with

May we witness a new heaven and a new earth!

Yes, Let’s!

Opportunity to reflect on worship experience:

Reflecting as a community on worship is crucial to the ongoing creativity of a community’s liturgical life. Reflection teaches us how to worship as a community and strengthens a congregation’s critical analysis of its liturgical experiences. Since this liturgy had ample space for “non-scripted” moments, it would be a valuable experience for the leaders to gather for 15 minutes after worship to reflect on the experience.

Gather the leaders, especially the children, and have one person be the scribe. Another person asks two questions: what did you notice in the liturgy? Now that it’s over, what do you wonder about? The scribe takes down the responses. This isn’t a problem solving time, just getting down what the leaders noticed and wonder about the liturgical experience. 

“Yes, Let’s”!: An Intergenerational Service of Communion for Pentecost 26, was written by the Rev. Ashley Goff, an ordained UCC minister serving at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), Washington, DC.

Copyright 2013 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.

Life that is Really Life: Service Prayers for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15     Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16     1 Timothy 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31

The lectionary texts for Pentecost 19 focus on “life that is really life.” The texts remind us that we can chase a life that has no value. 1 Timothy writes that we can fall into temptations and be trapped by senseless and harmful desires that can ruin us. Money is one of those temptations. Rather, we are to be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share. This is the life that God calls us to embrace. This is life that is really life. This liturgy, which includes communion, creates space for a congregation to name those trappings that are harmful to a life of faith, and the well-being of the planet, and claim the need for transformation.


Call to Worship (based on Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19)

All: Life that is really life!
Leader: Comes from the One we trust.
Life that is really life!
Comes from the Presence we call to.
Life that is really life!
Comes from the Foundation of goodness and sharing.
Life that is really life!
Comes to us now in this moment.
Let us take hold of Life that is really Life!


Leader: As we are gathering ourselves into worship, let us share our thanksgivings,
giving thanks to the wonder and awe of living in God’s Way Together.
Call out and share a thanksgiving with us.

Congregation: Offers thanksgivings from their lives

Passing of the Peace

Leader: In this Spirit of Thanksgiving, let us pass the peace to our neighbors.

Hearing the Word of God
We get ready to experience God’s Word through song, silence, and prayerful words.
Let us be still, and know how God moves through song, silence, and words.

Meditative Song (such as: "Be Still and Know that I am God")


Prayer of Illumination (1 Timothy)
Holy One, we have brought nothing into the world,
so that we can take nothing out of it.
May we live with this humility and rootedness
especially when we feel trapped
grounded in fear
eager to run away
longing for more riches and power.
In the silence, may we be still
and center on Your light
Where generosity and sharing
ebb and flow.
This is Life that is really Life.

Silence (offering a candle for those to gaze upon)

Meditative Song (such as: "Be Still and Know that I am God")

Scripture Readings

After the readings, invite people to share a word or phrase from the readings that stand out to them.


At the end, the preacher offers this invitation: “we complete the sermon together. If an experience or story of your own life has come into your mind, share with us now while we experience God’s presence in the words and silence in between.

Call for the Offering
In thanksgiving for our shared life together,
let us share our offerings for the work of the church.

Dedication of the Offering
God of life, we have shared what we have with Your church.
With thanksgiving we sing with one voice:

Praise God the Source of Life and Birth
Praise God the Word who came to earth
Praise God the Spirit, Holy Flame
All Honor, Glory to God’s Name…


Invitation to the Table
You are invited to gather around this table,
the table of Jesus and his earliest companions
to experience how God’s story comes alive for us.

This is a sacramental meal because Jesus is here.
As the Host of this feast of bread and wine, gifts of the planet,
he invites us to name what traps us and keeps us from a life that is really life.
Call out, and name, what keeps you trapped in ways that are not “really life”
and what keeps the planet from living with its own fullness.
(Congregation calls out things which keep them, and the planet, trapped in things that are not “really life”).

We name these traps as we draw near to the table
so they might be transformed into something relational,
so life can be really life.

Now call out again: name what you want your traps to be transformed into.
The writer of Timothy gave us righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. What is the transformation you seek?
What transformation is needed for the planet to thrive?
(Congregation calls out transformations)

At this table, Jesus invites us to bring all that traps us,
and all our hopes for transformations
so we can live, as one body and one planet, life that is really life.

Draw near to this table.
Jesus welcomes all to his table,
so we offer communion to everyone and to everyone by name.
No exceptions.

Prayer of Great Thanksgiving
Leader: The Creator be with you and all of creation
     All: And also with you.
Open your hearts.
     We open them to our Creator.
Let us give thanks to our Creator.
     It is right to join creation in thanking God.
Loving Creator, we praise you.
     For Your rise out of the murmuring deep
     and order coming from chaos.

When we were slaves in Egypt, you freed us
     Instructing Your servant, Moses, to agitate Pharaoh.
You led us through the waters of the sea.
     You fed us with heavenly food in the wilderness,
     and satisfied our thirst from desert springs.

You established order in our community
     to create life that is really life.
When we became bound and complacent to sin and injustice,
     you sent prophets who shouted out
     for repentance and rebirth of community.            

In time, Jesus came, your Beloved, to embody your life,
     to live, die, and rise from the dead.
To restore creation and heal our humanity
     to direct our lives towards the poor
     and those living with sores.

To teach us how to unmask traps in the world
     and create invitations for transformation.
Jesus, a Jew, born to Mary, a woman in poverty, shares our life.
     When people were sick, he healed them.
When people were fearful, he told them stories of power and hope.
     When people were lonely, he held them in community.
When people broke the law, were considered unclean, worthless,
     Jesus ate a meal with them.
Though death came on a cross,
     we believe that he lives again
     to give us hope that life and its fullness
     is possible for all of creation.

Joining our voices
with the great cloud of witnesses
who have gathered at table in centuries and seasons past,
we sing to the glory of your name, O Holy One,

Holy, holy, holy God of power and might!
Heav’n and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Our God
Hosanna in the highest.

In this communion meal, wine poured out and bread broken
     we give witness to the death and resurrection of our Lord.
Receive our testimony of thanks,
     share your Holy Spirit with us
     that this meal may renew us
     to embrace life over death.

Encourage us with hope,
     inspire us to listen,
     awaken us to liberate
     so that we may serve with
     your whole company of creation.

As we pray together in the spirit of Jesus the Lord’s Prayer.

Words of Institution
At the very end of Jesus’ life,
when he was trapped by the Roman powers of death,
he sat at table with his closest companions.
As they sat at table, he took a loaf of bread, blessed it, and broke it.
“This is my body broken for you.
This is the bread of new life and transformation.
This is how life is really life.
When you eat of it, do it in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, while still at table, Jesus took the cup.
He blessed it and poured it saying,
“Salvation and healing flow from this cup.
Transformation is promised.
This is how life is really a holy life.
Divide this cup among all of you.
As you drink of this cup, do it in remembrance of me.” 

Recommended Song while sharing the bread and the cup: 
Eat This Bread” (Taize)
Eat this bread, drink this cup.
Come to me, and never be hungry.
Eat this bread, drink this cup.
Trust in me, and you will not thirst.

Prayer after Communion
Blessed be the Source of life that is life!
Blessed be the Source of the Beloved!
Blessed be the Source of the Spirit!

This is our prayer. So let it be!


Now go!
Surrounded by the power of the Holy One,
May we experience life that is really life!
Let the people of God say, Amen!

Life that is Really Life, A Service of Holy Communion for Pentecost 19, was written by the Rev. Ashley Goff, an ordained UCC minister serving at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), Washington, DC.

Copyright 2013 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.

Ashley Goff: The Gift of Honey and the Promise of God

Duke Divinity Leadership Blog

In a backyard garden at D.C.’s Church of the Pilgrims, God’s promise, the Holy One’s movement of liberation, is alive and buzzing in the form of 40,000 fat, furry honeybees, says the church’s associate pastor.

Before I check email.

Before I dig into my to-do list.

Before I do anything else after arriving at work each morning at Church of the Pilgrims, I walk out to the church’s urban garden and watch, with awe, wonder and envy, the thousands of honeybees darting in and out of our beehives.

Standing as close as possible, I witness these creatures, backs laden with pollen, zoom in and out of the hives in their utilitarian quest to create the gorgeous, natural, golden substance known as honey. Then I go inside to work.

In the summer of 2009, Pilgrims, a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation in Washington, D.C., created an urban garden to grow fresh produce for our weekly Sunday lunch for people who are homeless or hungry. Initially funded with a $500 grant from the National Capital Presbytery, the garden began with one raised bed.

In 2011, a church member suggested adding honeybee hives to increase the garden’s yield of produce. We were sold on the idea and, with the help of a local nonprofit called DC Honeybees, started with one beehive.

By summer 2012, our garden was flourishing, with four raised beds, an herb garden, four large compost bins, several bird feeders and three beehives filled with 40,000 fat, furry, buzzing and powerful little honeybees.

Our urban garden has connected Pilgrims with our local ecosystem in a way we never imagined. It gives witness that we trust in an Earth-honoring faith: our human healing and the healing of the planet are tied together.

And honeybees, it turns out, need healing.

Indeed, during the winter of 2006-07, many beekeepers in the U.S. reported losing from 30 to 90 percent of their honeybees, far beyond what might normally be expected. The deaths in these hives were sudden and occurred primarily among the worker bees — those that travel in and out of the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen.

This phenomenon, called “colony collapse disorder,” and its potential impact are frightening. Honeybees pollinate more than 90 fruit and vegetable crops, in addition to trees and plants. We are so dependent on honeybees that Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “If honeybees become extinct, human society will follow in four years.”

Five years ago, scientists were predicting that honeybees would be extinct in the United States by 2035 if the disorder continues to spread at its current rate. Fortunately, they have since backed off that scenario, saying that honeybees will not disappear entirely — but even so, the ongoing losses of hives will precipitate an agricultural crisis if not addressed.

But honeybees and their current plight are not the stuff of science alone. Theology speaks deeply to this subject, finding connection and meaning as well.

One of the primary narratives of the Hebrew Bible, of course, comes from Israel’s journey to the land of milk and honey. The journey is filled with danger and foreboding as God’s people are liberated from Pharaoh and seek freedom in the land of Canaan.

This image of “the land of milk and honey” is a vibrant symbol for the people of ancient Israel, one that holds together promise, challenge and new life. But for those making the journey, the image must have been hard to swallow. God was asking them to leave the fertile delta of Egypt and go into the mountainous, arid and almost-impossible-to-cultivate land of Canaan.

Likewise in the New Testament, we find a connection in the narrative of John the Baptist. The cousin, the one whose life was intricately intertwined with Jesus’, John is the one who walked the earth gently, purposefully, while eating locusts and wild honey.

With these images as our foundation, we installed our first beehive at Pilgrims on Palm Sunday 2011. Wrapping the installation in a homegrown liturgy, we invoked the ancient presence of honey, raised our consciousness around Pilgrims’ local ecosystem and invited everyone in attendance to take a yummy “shot” of milk and honey.

By that fall, we had expanded to our current three hives and wanted to integrate our garden more intentionally into the life of worship at Pilgrims. One of our first ideas came easily. In the ancient church, the first meal the newly baptized received was milk and honey. It was to remind them of the sweetness of life in Christ and the “promised land” they were now entering because of their baptism.

Drawing on this ancient tradition and the biblical stories, we began sharing milk and honey with our newly baptized, along with these words, added to our liturgy: With the living waters, may the justice and mercy of God flow from you like the sweetness of milk and honey.

Last spring we harvested 25 pounds of honey from one of our hives — a little more than two gallons, enough to fill almost 70 four-ounce jars. As a result of one member’s creative suggestion, we now bottle the honey in small jars, which we give to visitors worshipping with us for the first time.

With the use of honey, this miraculous gift from our bees, we have expanded and enriched our liturgy at Pilgrims. Honey is now one of the “tools” in our liturgical toolkit, helping to create worship that is deeply linked to the ancient church.

When we gather honey during a beehive blessing, share it at a baptism or give it away as a symbol of God’s welcome, we are consuming and sharing the values of liberation and promise, lived in the stories of faith.

When we share honey with new folks, we are inviting them to come along on this journey of ancient stories and new beginnings. When we eat the honey, our cells, blood, bones, skin, tissue, neurons are nourished by the values of new life. We take in the incarnation, and we are called to live out these values on the planet that God so loves.

Our beehives have rooted and connected us to the biblical story and ancient church, far beyond our sanctuary walls. Our urban garden has become a liturgical space, with our beehives symbolizing that God’s promise, the Holy One’s movement of liberation, is alive in Pilgrims’ backyard.

Alternative Economy: A Honeybee Ministry

With the sun’s afternoon light streaming over Georgia O’Keefe’s red rocks, I gathered with a handful of others in one of Ghost Ranch’s community gathering rooms to listen to Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Larry Rasmussen, Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Union, talk about an Earthhonoring theology and economics.

The theme was clear—a common refrain from Jones and Rasmussen, along with the participants, was the deep disconnectedness in our domestic economy. With food insecurity mounting, climate change roaring, and a “go get the money, do it yourself ” philosophy, we lamented the profound divides our U.S. economy creates.

At Church of the Pilgrims PC(USA) we have discovered a symbol that we feel subverts this dominant paradigm of an economy: the honeybee.

At Pilgrims we have a honeybee ministry—our urban veggie garden includes three honeybee hives filled with close to 40,000 honeybees. Our bees pollinate our garden, creating fresh produce for our Sunday afternoon lunch for hungry neighbors.

In one sense our honeybees are a practical response to Colony Collapse Disorder, a dramatic rise in honeybee colonies collapsing, since late 2006 due to a handful of human constructs like increase use of pesticides and climate change.

The bees also symbolize something theologically and economically profound: a new interpersonal, interconnected economy. This became apparent in a concrete way after I spoke publically about these ideas at the Ghost Ranch gathering.

A participant came up to me after my  sharing and told me the story of how his dad had eight honeybee hives and that he and his brother as kids would work alongside their dad learning beekeeping 101. It was a short story, less than a minute. And it was a tender story—full of enough emotion and memory to bring tears to the storyteller’s eyes. The tenderness came in this image of a parent’s connection with his young children learning a family craft, a long-standing eco-practice. It was a memory that brought a son back to the love of his dad who has since died.

In that moment it came to me that it’s this type of story where a new economy is born: in a tender story and memory of honeybees. In Pilgrims life with honeybees, we’ve discovered the tenderness (minus the stings!) our little, fat furry creatures invite into our congregation. We created a bee blessing for the first installation of our hive, invoking the memory of John the Baptist clothed in milk and honey and the Israelites seeking the land of milk and honey. I watch early in the morning as the bees make their way out of their hives and gently land on flowers in the garden. We mimic the ancient  church and offer a taste of milk and honey at the closing of a baptism, with our entire congregation encircling the font, sharing our hope that with the living waters the justice and mercy of God flow from the newly baptized like the sweetness of milk and honey.

It’s a tenderness. A gentleness. We are a more deeply connected community that seeks equality and justice thanks to our honeybees. These are alternative Holy ways that counter an economy that seeks to divide and conquer.

Our honeybees aren’t going to solve the brokenness of our domestic economy, but they connect us closer to the ways of God, the liturgy of the Early Church, and the radical practices of Jesus, the revolutionary Jew from Nazareth.

Even with the stings that ping, we live with gratitude for the tenderness of the honeybee.


The honeybee hive at Church of the Pilgrims is a practical response to physical needs in the world but also addresses the spiritual ones.

Learning From David Woodyard, Learning From the Open Door

From Hospitality, Vol. 31, No. 7

On a Sunday in August 1994, I opened the front door to 910 Ponce de Leon Avenue for the first time. I crossed the threshold and was greeted by an effigy of a homeless man. I fixated on the figure, then glanced at myself in the large mirror on the wall behind him.

I walked up the steps and my eyes focused on a door covered with bumper stickers: “Poverty Is Violence,” “Feminism Spoken Here,” “No Justice, No Peace.” I turned the corner, walked into the worship space and was taken by the palpable, subversive energy of the room.

My first worship at the Open Door Community was a liminal moment in my life, a moment that has brought me to consider David Woodyard’s new book, “The Church in the Time of Empire,” in the light of my experience. Dr. Woodyard was my theology professor at Denison University in Ohio, and he continues to be a pastoral, prophetic and sacred presence in my life.

In his latest book, Dr. Woodyard proclaims that both empire and church define reality. The empire, he explains, has one way of defining reality and the church another. Public and hidden transcripts tell contesting stories about reality.

Empire is the public transcript. It aspires to remake the world after its image of social, political and economic reality; it seeks, as Woodyard writes, to “control the dominant order.” Reality is based on the privileges and powers of the dominant order.

Church is the hidden transcript, or the subversive one, the reality to embrace various forms of resistance. Hidden transcripts, Woodyard maintains, “aspire to live God’s reality,” and the hidden transcript reveals that “the authentic church exists in an environment saturated by the interests of the poor.”

These public and hidden transcripts give voice to my own story and ministry of loyalty, extraction and resistance to empire.

My growing up in the church mirrored the privileges of my community in Upper Arlington, Ohio: white, bourgeois and suburban. Its ecclesiastical, homogenous nature sustained a Christian theology that endorsed the prevailing powers and all that was easy to present in polite and polished company. There was no talk of the poor or homeless. It was, in short, a reflection of the reality that Woodyard refers to as empire.

Woodyard and his colleagues in the Denison Department of Religion had a different take. They preached and taught liberation theology and its various contextual expressions through Black, feminist, Asian and earth-honoring experiences. There, in my first Christian Ethics class, I discovered feminist methodology deconstructing oppression and constructing the Commonwealth of God.

In essence, I was learning that, as Woodyard puts it in the book, “theology is contextual language, defined by the human situation that gave birth to it,” and that liberation ethics and theology are relentlessly situational. As I situated God in the reality of oppression, I began to unlock my own story of privilege and preservation and began to envision myself in a new way, as a moral agent living with what Woodyard calls “newness and endless possibilities.”

As I look back, that Christian Ethics class was my first moment of extraction from empire. It was teaching me how to question what I had always known to be true.

‘Ruined for Life’

I found this new way of thinking and moral agency life-giving and invigorating. But extraction from empire was not without consequences for me. At Denison I began a very painful process of disengaging from a life I had always known. I began re-evaluating family relationships and loyalty to my home and church community.

I realized that my early sense of belonging was essentially based on my loyalty to the dominant order. The public transcript of empire, Woodyard explains, acts as a means of dominant control. I’ve also come to trust in the feminist mantra that the personal is political and that the impact of dominant, empire control impacts the personal.

My consciousness raised, I began to see how my self had been molded to empire. My interests, concerns, vision for the future, relationships, clothes, hair and body type had been shaped around the expectations and sustainability of empire. The extraction from empire was painful not only in the changing of my world view, but in how the change in the lens of life impacted how I saw myself.

As I began to pull away from my community, I lacked a sense of belonging and identity. My parents thought I was being brainwashed by Woodyard. I didn’t know how to explain myself to my hometown friends who were becoming accountants, lawyers and doctors. For me, allegiance to empire had become a mind-numbing way to live. But liberation God-talk was creating a very scared, anxious young woman.

After Denison, through the suggestion of a good childhood friend, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. This was my way of seeing if I could live out liberation theology, if I could do the praxis. The corps placed me in Atlanta, where I lived  with six others in the southwestern part of the city, working with the Task Force for the Homeless and worshipping at the Open Door.

The corps’ motto is “ruined for life,” and that’s exactly what happened to me that year. I continued to unravel myself from empire-living by immersing myself in the reality of the poor, homeless and economically broken of Atlanta.

After Atlanta, I took my ruined self to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There I continued the process of immersing myself in the hidden transcript of the church. I fell in love with the subversive, creative liturgy practiced in James Chapel.

I visited women at Rikers Island, in the borough holding cells and at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. I found companions who were extracting, questioning and resisting empire for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the planet that God so loves. And after seminary, I found the Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, D.C.

A Church That Resists Empire

In his book, Woodyard calls the church “the continuation of the incarnation,” and he says it is called to immerse itself in “the world’s pain and resistance to those who inflict it.” It has choices to make in how it lives out the questions he poses as: “How does the church become a hidden transcript? How does the church point to the cracks in empire’s grasp? How does the church name the new ordering of life?”

At Church of the Pilgrims, we use language intentionally as we contest the public and hidden transcripts. We use the word “empire” when critiquing the oppressive forces in the world that defile and disfigure God’s creation. We repeatedly proclaim the postures and positions of empire and its focus on the elite, on privilege and dominating power over against the Body of Christ with a biblical agenda of justice, dignity and solidarity.

Those are the words we use. Important words. In order to be part of the movement of God to create a world where,  as Woodyard writes, “social sin has been unmasked and the space for freedom has been enlarged,” we need to resist empire in practical ways.

We do so also in worship, where, as Woodyard exhorts us, we “contest the reality of empire, where the gospel heritage discerns the penetration of imperialism in our national life, and in the very fabric of the church itself.” Worship at Pilgrims “intervenes” in the reality of empire and reveals what is at stake in our worship life together.

We focus on keeping actions in worship that are meaningful to us right now, breaking through unquestioned habits done in the name of nostalgia rather than relevancy. We resist the temptation for worship to confirm implicitly or explicitly the prevailing order. Do the Advent candles have to be purple? Can we build a wailing wall for the sanctuary? Can we worship without the lights? Can we have Communion with no words spoken? Can we have fire in worship? Our worship is an embodied, sensory, powerful, relational, sacramental experience that responds to the question, “Whom do I belong to?”

Taking Liturgy to the Streets

How we worship impacts our view of worship and how we live in the world. It takes a great deal of work for this type of worship to happen, and just as much energy to take our liturgical experiences to the streets. Our God is not a “captured God,” one confined to our premises. Pilgrims started an urban garden and compost bin, we protest with other Presbyterian churches at the Sudanese Embassy, and we march with the best of D.C. drag queens in the Washington LGBTQ Pride parade. We serve lunch to hungry neighbors every Sunday after church. We participate in the Washington Interfaith Network, where we engage the “world as it is” with the prophetic drive to build the “world as it should be.”

On Monday evenings, we have a Bible study at the restaurant and bar across the street. Together, we witness how stories of ancient Israel and the early church were, as Woodyard calls them, “agents of intrusion in the world that empire created and sustained.”

We are intentional about being a “hidden transcript,” living out the counter-memory that puts us in loyal opposition to empire. We do this as a multi-generational community, expecting that from the moment of birth to the end of life, we all have received the grace to subvert empire.

Woodyard has dedicated “The Church in the Time of Empire” to Ed Loring and Murphy Davis, declaring that they “live the lives empire fears.” This is my hope at Church of the Pilgrims — that we create space and freedom for our God of the exodus and resurrection to agitate, heal and liberate us so that we, too, can live lives  that empire fears.

May it be so.

Church of the Pilgrims’ Food & Faith Season Starts with Compost, Soil and Communion

Presbyterian Church, U.S.A Food and Faith Blog
September 20th, 2013

Written by Ashley Goff and Rebecca Barnes
During this liturgical season that the Church of the Pilgrims calls “Homecoming,” the Sundays between September and the end of November, we are focusing on the theme of Food and Faith. Within the theme of Food and Faith, we are taking on this arc for a focus: humus, exile, and harvest. To fully experience this theme we are having communion each week in worship.

The inspirations for this theme of Food and Faith is Sacred Greens, Pilgrims’ urban garden which produces food to supplement meals for Open Table (our Sunday lunch for hungry neighbors). The book “Food and Faith” by Norman Wirzba has also been influential.

The first few weeks we are naming the element that formed our existence: soil. From a theological perspective, we are lifting up the Biblical interpretation that we are formed out of the humus, or topsoil, and it is from that place where the earth creature took it’s shape.

It was important to us to have visual symbols of the role of compost in our lives–that the life and death cycle of nature is indeed part of our earthly existence. We filled a wheelbarrow with compost and scraps of veggies and fruits to symbolize the initial stage of compost. This rested right outside our interior sanctuary doors.

This wheelbarrow sits outside the sanctuary doors full of compost and veggie scraps. The compost bin is there for people to dump their compost. We are inviting folks into a “Food and Faith” practice each week and the first few weeks have been composting—save your compost and bring it to church to dump in bin.

This wheelbarrow sits outside the sanctuary doors full of compost and veggie scraps. The compost bin is there for people to dump their compost. We are inviting folks into a “Food and Faith” practice each week and the first few weeks have been composting—save your compost and bring it to church to dump in bin.

From wheelbarrow to table, we laid out the transformation process of soil, showing that our own essence is one of life and death, transformation and change. Right inside the sanctuary, our baptismal font was filled with compost and food that was in the process of decomposition–showing off the mold and fermenting stage.

This is the font---right when you walk through the doors of the sanctuary, passing by the wheelbarrow and compost bin. The visual trajectory is to start at the wheelbarrow with initial food scraps, walk past the font with the decomposing food, and then see the compost with the fully composted materials.

This is the font---right when you walk through the doors of the sanctuary, passing by the wheelbarrow and compost bin. The visual trajectory is to start at the wheelbarrow with initial food scraps, walk past the font with the decomposing food, and then see the compost with the fully composted materials.

Then your eyes go to the communion table. To create a sacramental experience of soil, we’ve taken our garden compost to create our communion table. We’ve given our regular communion table a break by creating a table out of hollow acrylic legs and a rustic table top. The legs were filled with compost. As Pilgrims moved themselves to gather around the table, our music director droned on the cello, creating a sound of the murmuring deep, the belief put forth by Aviviah Zornberg that creation came not from a void but from chaotic matter murmuring in the deep. From that murmur, order was created. Pilgrims sprinkled compost around the table, releasing their sacred essence back onto the floor.

Our second and third Sunday for our humus focus, we skipped using a typical table all together and created a large pile of compost in the middle of the sanctuary. With pitcher, cup, and bread resting on top of the pile, we mindfully made our way to the table, again with the cello droning. Instead of standing, and giving the impression of humans looming over the soil, we sat on the floor during the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving and in the sharing of the cup and bread.

compost table

In the upcoming Sundays for exile, we plan on focusing on our exiled state from our earthly existence and the profound disconnect we have as humans from the creation, and from the production, sharing, and ingestion of food. We plan on the table focusing on sackcloth and ashes to symbolically show the lament we have for a deeply broken planet.

In our harvest season, the table will be full of harvested produce to symbolize the hope and action we can take to restore the planet and ourselves to the process of creating and consuming food.

In addition to all of the above, we are also inviting people into weekly practices of baking bread, composting, and mindfully eating. Also, following the sermon each week, we are hearing a story of “alternative practices” about an individual or a community engaged in Earth-honoring ways around food. So far we’ve heard about EarthBrew, the Maryland compost company we use for our garden, and DC Honeybees, the Washington, D.C. non-profit focused on creating urban apiaries. Pilgrims is one of those apiaries.

Click here to read our sermons on this Food and Faith theme (those sermons start on September 8th) and follow us on Facebook as we post pictures and other insights from this compost-exiled-harvest filled season

The Art of Worship Planning

Worship planning is an art. It’s a discipline. It must be done over and over and over again in order to get worship “under our skin.” How we plan worship reflects what we believe worship should be — a transformative, communal experience of observing, trusting, trying, reflecting, and taking chances for the sake of experiencing the Holy One. At Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, DC where I am Minister for Spiritual Formation, we have created a process that has cultivated our skills for planning worship.

Several years ago my colleague, Jeff Krehbiel, went on a three-month sabbatical. While Jeff was gone, Pilgrims wanted to have their own enriching three month experience. We created a sabbatical planning team to plan not just congregational endeavors but worship. Together, we explored the lectionary texts, the meaning of sabbatical, and came up with the theme of “connections and clarity” for the sabbatical season. All of these elements came alive in worship during the sabbatical. While still maintaining our loyalty to the Reformed Order of Worship, our planning process opened up our imagination, courage, and curiosity to what is possible. We sang new songs, congregants told stories on connections and clarity, we created more spontaneous moments of sharing, and we explored new ways of engaging with each other during worship.

Our planning process paid off and we were hooked.

Now our planning process looks something like this: Four to six weeks prior to the upcoming liturgical season, Jeff and I invite six to eight Pilgrims to plan worship. The planning group always includes me, Jeff, our Music Director, Rob Passow, and our Elder for Worship, Jean Stewart. We intentionally include long time members, new members, and those who aren’t members but have been worshipping with us for some time. We send an email that includes a link to the lectionary texts to the upcoming season and any other relevant links or an article. We are clear in the email we are asking them for a one time commitment of planning on the specific evening. (This planning process has replaced the typical standing worship committee. The ever-changing worship planning group is our “worship committee.”)

We ask invitees to read the lectionary texts prior to the evening and choose one that stands out to them for any reason. That’s all the prep work we’ve realized is needed. Less is more.

At the planning evening, we first ask folks to share memorable moments in worship for them in the past few months. We move on to exploring music with Rob who teaches us a few songs which we sing together. We move on to unpacking the lectionary texts. Each person shares which text they picked and what stood out to them— an image, a phrase, a word, the social context.

We scribble down all the thoughts on newsprint, taking time to identify patterns, connections and contradictions. After exploring the text, we share what’s going on in the life of Pilgrims, in Washington, DC, in our culture and world-at-large. How do these texts speak to our life right now? We scribble down more thoughts on newsprint. We stand back, take a look, and see what we’ve come up with. Then we ask, “how do we make these experiences come alive in worship?” followed by “what have we experienced lately in worship that we want to keep, what do we want to stop doing for now?”

Both are crucial questions to the process. The questions focus on keeping actions in worship that are meaningful to us right now, breaking through unquestioned habits done in the name of nostalgia rather than relevancy. Our worship planning has evolved in participant’s confidence and questioning. Both confidence and questioning involve risk-taking. Do the Advent candles have to be purple? Can we build a wailing wall for the sanctuary? Can we worship without the lights? Can we have communion with no words spoken? Can we have fire in worship?

These questions arise because we’ve created a permission-giving environment to plan worship. This doesn’t mean we are void of discomfort, tension, or anxiety in our planning process. But we learn to live with these feelings as we come face-to-face to express our trust in the stories of faith.

For me, the ultimate comment came at the end of our recent Advent planning. Our Elder for Worship, Jean, started off her idea sharing with “this is a wild idea but…..” I don’t remember how Jean finished her idea. I was struck by her use of the word “wild.”

Wild worship. Wild worship means we create worship where people can experience their own individual and collective power and grace, where worship is ever-changing for the sake of the ever-present need for justice and liberation for the planet which God so loves.

Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Janet Walton, remarked in a worship class if worship is the same week-after-week, if worship never changes, it reflects our view on the world. We don’t want the world to change. If we seek transformation, connection, fluidity, and social change for the world then our worship must be of that same nature.

When we get “wild” we can experience of what change feels like, looks like, smells like, and tastes like so we learn to take risks for the sake of justice. That means pushing through age-old, conventional, status quo driven boundaries of worship. Pushing through boundaries means we sing new songs, we engage the Biblical stories in multi-sensory ways, and the sacraments are authentic, ancient expressions of grace within. Wild worship breaks through social and ecclesiastical norms so we can embrace the hope and possibilities of the Commonwealth of God, so we can learn what it looks and feels like to take a stand.

Several months ago, with the guidance of Janet Walton, I created a worship reflection circle of alums from Union Seminary with the purpose of helping clergy re-charge and re-energize around liturgical work. It’s a group of seven women, across the denominational spectrums, who have graduated from Union throughout the past 15 years. We gather together once a month for a one hour conference call, facilitated by Janet, with a focused theme to shape our conversation. The theme arises out of our own needs and experiences of creating wild worship in our own congregations. The first call we shared best and worst practices for worship. The next call we focused on Advent. During our last call we shared experiences of creating change and pushing through ecclesiastical boundaries in worship. Together we engage in the action-reflection praxis of liberation theology, affirming our passions for liturgy and its connection to social change.

Our next call– worship planning.

For me, these phone calls not only help me build relationships with some incredibly creative and powerful clergy women, but we inspire and affirm taking risks in worship for the sake of the Gospel. Together we go deeper, enlarge our own definitions of liturgy and ritual, and gain dynamic perspectives on worship. How has a relational, community inspired process impacted worship at Pilgrims?

It means we introduce new songs, especially congregational led songs that allow us to sing in harmony together. We can put down our hymnal and let our song soar. It means bringing fire into the sanctuary, burning paper that symbolizes our need to refine our values and beliefs.

It means our children and youth read scripture, lay hands on those being ordained, and serve communion. It means our baptism liturgy takes 30 minutes of worship, squishing all of us around the font, sharing out loud our hopes and dreams for the soon-to-be baptized, renouncing what we believe to be evil, and bellowing out a statement of faith.

It means we baptize in the name of “God the Creator, Mother and Father of us all, in the name of the Son, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, in the name of the Spirit, everywhere the giver and sustainer of life.

It means at the communion table there are three of us sharing the words of institution: me, Jeff and a church member. One Sunday Lydia Grund, age ten, shared in the sacred movements and words. It means after communion we have stations where people can join in a prayer group, write a prayer for our wailing wall, create a banner of hope for Haiti, a Mandala or create shapes with magnets on a table.

It means having themes for liturgical seasons like “Waiting for a World Made New,” “Welcoming the Stranger,” and “Witnessing the Bread of Life.”

It means critiquing Empire, the powers-that-be, and the social structures that oppress, defile, and disfigure who we are as created in the image of God. It means offering a liberating way of being together, practicing in-the-moment ways of being equal, compassionate, vulnerable, and powerful. When we started this type of worship planning at Pilgrims, we had no idea what kind of liturgical journey we were embarking on. We are inherently experimenting with our life stories and the story of the movement of God. With this type of planning, you can’t expect what will come at the end, you can’t predict. But as in the process of creating social change, we engage in a process of creativity and critique with an outcome yet-to-be seen or experienced. It’s wild worship full of integrity, intentionality, and experiences of change. It’s also a hell of a lot of work. And I love it.

Ashley Goff is Minister of Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, DC. Ashley can be reached at ashley@churchofthepilgrims.org.

Photograph of Church of Pilgrim’s Advent Wreath by Ashley Goff used under a Creative Commons License.

Environmental Protection Agency Public Listening Sessions

Testimony on November 7th, 2013
EPA Washington, D.C.
Creation Justice Ministries


My name is Ashley Goff and I’m a pastor at Church of the Pilgrims, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

50,000 honeybees call the backyard of Church of the Pilgrims home. Three honeybee hives are part of our urban garden called Sacred Greens. Our honeybees pollinate the vegetables and fruits of our garden along with the forest oasis right next to us, Rock Creek Park.

The eggplants, green peppers, basil, beans, butternut squash, and carrots we grow for Sacred Greens, our urban garden, goes to create meals for Open Table, our lunch every Sunday afternoon for 40 hungry neighbors.

On Sundays our garden is poignantly alive—honeybees buzzing around pollen and hungry neighbors noshing on casseroles of fresh eggplant, tomato sauce, and basil. In that moment, our backyard is host and home to living beings our society thinks are disposable: honeybees and hungry, homeless folks. Honeybees are threatened by colony collapse disorder—an ecological crisis created by humans via pesticides, harmful bugs, and climate change. Hungry people are the most socially vulnerable of humanity, starving off the lack of access to affordable and healthy food.

We designed our backyard because of our trust in the Holy one and in a Christian Ethic with a moral vision: our garden symbolizes how we are to live as people of God’s Way and shows what we live for. Psalm 104 states we are to renew the face of the planet. And right now the planet is poor from climate pollution impacting humans and an insect like the honeybee.

Oikos is the Greek work for house or household. Oikos is also root for the words ecology and economics. For Christians of the ancient Church, Oikos was not limited to the private home but was referring to the planet itself as the World House, God’s home. Oikos sets Church of the Pilgirms intention in how to be a sacred neighbor; that we are a shared household where all who are born belong and all who live co-habitat, where humans and all of life live into each other’s life and die into each other’s death. There is no way around our inter-connnectedness. It’s the Way of God and Life.

The role of the EPA is to regulate the commons. At Church of the Pilgrims, we are doing just that—tending to our eco-location with intentionality to reflect our place in society and God’s home. Having no national carbon limits for power plants suffocates God’s planetary design. Church of the Pilgrims charges the EPA to care for the household, the World House, by regulating carbon pollution standards for fossil fuel power plants. May it be so.

Alban Institute: Congregations Magazine

2012 Issue 2, Number 2

Wrecking Ball  
Bruce Springsteen
Columbia Records, 2012  

“Why is there a hole in my bucket?”

That’s Bruce Springsteen, paraphrasing the title of a song from Hank Williams, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” at the South by Southwest music festival this past March 2012. In his keynote speech at that festival, Springsteen traced his musical lineage pointing out his reliance on country music in songwriting, particularly, Hank Williams’ song.

But there is a limit to country music, says Springsteen. It is rarely politically angry and politically critical. Its fatalism, says Springsteen, has a toxic element. Country does not answer the question “why does my bucket have a hole in it?’ Country music doesn’t respond to why lives are broken, and how lives are torn and intricately connected to political and economic systems.

But Springsteen and the E Street Band have, over the decades, taken on the “why” with guitars, drums, horns, and strings in full throttle.

This leads us to Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th studio album. Our country has a hole in it and it’s from a wrecking ball. On the album, Springsteen addresses the hole in our country, the hole caused by the wrecking ball known as the financial crisis, the hole that swallowed up so many of us.

On the album, Springsteen dances between hope and despair, anger and gratitude as he leads the listener through the economic journey, the story, of the current American reality. Wrecking Ball takes on the question of “why,” and it passionately, through image and narrative, names those who wrecked this economy and those who now suffer from the reckless, irresponsible corporate behavior. Not only does Springsteen take on the “why,” he uses image and narrative to bring the “why” alive.

Through the thirteen songs, Springsteen distinctively sings of the peaks and valleys of life, metaphorically lifting up the widening gap between the haves and have nots in American society. The weaving together of image and narrative, narrative and image is distinctly Springsteen and it is nearly impossible for this listener to hear a song on Wrecking Ball and not be taken in by the spectrum of emotions Springsteen elicits.

“We Take Care of Our Own” questions our culture’s conscience—do we really take care of our own? “Death to My Hometown” is a wrenching, angry, burning- from-the-gut Celtic-punk declaration that a hometown can be destroyed in ways beyond war-induced bloodshed and bombs dropping. “Rocky Ground” is a Gospel infused promise that a new day is coming.

Through the unnamed characters and multi-dimensional images throughout Wrecking Ball, the listener becomes part of the story. The listener’s story and the characters and images who speak to a national narrative become connected, woven together, responsible to each so we are now, together, part of the answering of the question “why?’ Why does our bucket have so many damn holes in it? Why is life so broken and torn?

Why are so many in economic distress when, as Springsteen sings in “Shackled and Drawn”: “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills/It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill/Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong/Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.”

The power of weaving together image and narrative is this: as Springsteen brings the modern situation to life, his songs carry us to that place of aliveness, it animates us, and it reminds us what it means to live. It calls us to action, to create change, to jump on board the train bound for a land of hopes and dreams.

The asking of “why” in Springsteen’s methodology and creative songwriting is relevant to church life, particularly in the creation of liturgy. At Church of the Pilgrims, where I am Minister for Spiritual Formation, we pattern ourselves in the same songwriting methodology when we plan and create liturgy.

We take a biblical image, we take the biblical story, and we take the story of our lives and the story of the planet. We weave all of it together in the vast hope we come alive together on Sunday mornings as one body.

Liturgy, the work of the people, isn’t created out of an empty vortex but, like Springsteen’s songs, takes into account the tradition, influential ancestors of the craft, Biblical narratives which expose the human condition, and a theology that emanates, as does Wrecking Ball, out of our sweat, tears, the corner store, and local bar. It’s the intersection of the personal and the political, the stories about exclusion-inclusion politics. This is how people live, according to Springsteen. Lives cross over; people get tangled up, and the answer to “why does my bucket have holes in it” gets lost in the mess. To Springsteen, our lives are all connected, and that connection is hard to make in a modern, post-industrialized world.

Liturgy and Wrecking Ball demand human connections. This is the purpose of both. This is how liturgy speaks truth to power, deconstructs the “why” and imagines a world-made-new. Liturgy, like Wrecking Ball, is a map; guiding people through the complicated lives we are living especially when our backs are smashed up against the wall. Springsteen’s music is liturgy. It’s liturgy for the masses. As an album, Wrecking Ball seeks to heal a wound the size of our national culture. After all, a wrecking ball creates holes, it doesn’t fully demolish, it creates rubble where life can begin again. If a liturgy would be created for the size of our national wound, look no further than this album. Wrecking Ball is liturgy for society’s brokenness and declaration to the powers-that-be that we are alive.

Ashley Goff, Church of the Pilgrims, Washington, D.C. 

Church Health Reader, Spring 2012 Ministry for the Bees (and us)

By June of 2011, forty-thousand honeybees called Church of the Pilgrims’ (PCUSA) urban garden home, pollinating our urban garden and the 1,700 acres of our neighboring forest oasis Rock Creek Park. It was in February of 2011 that one of our members, Erin Littlestar, a sustainable agriculture advocate, suggested honeybee hives at Pilgrims to enhance and deepen our commitment to a Christian faith which honors the Earth.

Why bees? Won’t they sting, swarm, and create general havoc in Pilgrims’ backyard? Just the opposite. Our buzzing, fat, furry companions keep to themselves as they are busy gathering nectar and building up their hives by creating beeswax, honey, and honeycomb. Pilgrims Elder for Outreach, Matt Webster, shares that “bees are a way Pilgrims invests in the local ecosystem of D.C. Pollinating our garden, Rock Creek, and the urban gardens of Dupont Circle and Georgetown is another way Pilgrims can give back.”

To create our apiary, Pilgrims partnered with DC Honeybees, a local non-profit which is dedicated to the propagation and health of local urban honeybee colonies. DC Honeybees believes that with the density and floral diversity in an urban area like D.C., natural, urban beekeeping can re-populate honeybees lost to colony collapse disorder, and pollinate urban greenery and gardens.

Situated in our urban garden on the church grounds, the honeybees in our three hives let our garden flourish, providing a healthy yield of tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers for Open Table, our Sunday community lunch for the homeless and hungry. When we blessed our honeybee hives on Palm Sunday, we proclaimed that John the Baptist, the one who baptized followers of The Way and Jesus, the one covered with honey, the food his ancestors ate to symbolize God’s liberation and presence, reminds us that in our baptism we are to make way for the One who will come. In our baptism, we are responsible for the creation of space for those our culture would rather do without. With our hive, our garden, with Open Table, we create a Way for healing and justice to be present with more to come.

Not everyone at Pilgrims was on board with the idea of honeybees. Elder Michael Oswalt remembers “not everyone thought that colonizing the church’s back garden with stinging insects made theological or even practical sense. But everyone saw that a portion of the congregation sees it as a new and exciting way to feel God’s presence and message. The hives show how Pilgrims is stretching itself to make sure that members experience Christian community outside of their usual comfort zones. And that’s what’s important.”

By this fall, our honeybees felt like part of the community. So much so, we wanted them to be part of the sacrament of baptism in September. The lectionary texts of Ordinary Time walked us through stories of Genesis and Exodus, providing us with a theological context for the use of honey. In the ancient church, the first meal the newly baptized received was a taste of milk and honey. We incorporated both elements into our baptism liturgy as we dabbed the mouth of 9-month-old Isla McCarthy Ryan with milk and DC Honeybee honey and blessed her with these words: with the living waters, Isla, may the justice and mercy of God flow from you like the sweetness of milk and honey.

Like baptism, our beehives are a strong statement of community; building our church community, through shared work in the garden where we work alongside the bees, and the broader planetary community. Our hives are a powerful and tangible way that we at Pilgrims are connected to the earth, to nature and to the place we live and the living beings we live among. As Erin remarked once about our hives, “a honeybee hive is an incredible metaphor for the Church. We both create something so luminous, so sweet, so nourishing that the outside world can hardly deny its appeal. Our bees create honey. Our job as Church is to create love.”

Rev. Ashley Goff is the Minister for Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C.

Photos courtesy of Marti Mefford. See more of her work at click here.