Tracing God’s Footsteps

A New Year’s Service Using the Ignatian Examen

On June 20, 2021, Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church in Seattle gathered for its first in-person worship service after sixteen months worshiping on Zoom during the pandemic. As we came back together, it was important to intentionally look back over the year for the traces of God’s footprints in our lives—to celebrate God’s covenant faithfulness over the course of the pandemic as well as to grieve. For many, this time held cause for both lament and gratitude, so the service intentionally held space for both and invited participants to bring the full range of their emotions to the Lord as we worshiped, reflected, and prayed.

The turning of the year is another natural time to pause, reflect, and intentionally look for God’s footprints throughout the past year, so we offer this service, in a slightly adapted form, for use with the new year.

For an explanation of the Examen, refer to the worship service and the related sidebars.

For a video of the New Year’s Examen, see youtu.be/_PDUsgggyVc.

You may want to share the video link for individuals, families, and small groups to use on their own if you choose not to do the service or if they are not able to attend in person. Then invite them to bring in their “sticky notes” for the community timeline or share them some other way. Maybe you would like to create a shareable document with a timeline for congregations to add their own notes.

Where has your community seen God’s footprints?

Supplies Needed

  • Pens or Sharpies (enough for one per person)
  • White paper (enough for one sheet per person)
  • Sticky notes (enough for a small stack per person)
  • Long roll of butcher paper
  • Tape (to affix butcher paper to wall)

Gathering Song
“Surely Goodness and Mercy” Page

Call to Worship
Psalm 105:1–7

Welcome and Explanation
Welcome to worship! Throughout Scripture, God’s people are depicted as a people who remember, always retelling the story of God’s relationship with them. We’re invited and encouraged throughout Scripture to be always remembering and retelling the story of God’s action and faithful provision in history and in our own stories. Psalm 105 tells the story of God’s action throughout history on behalf of God’s people. This remembering is important, because as we remember who God is, we are reminded who we most truly are: the people of God.

As this year comes to a close and a new one begins, we pause to remember—to intentionally look back over the year for the purpose of noticing God’s footprints in our lives and celebrating God’s covenant faithfulness throughout the year. For most of us, this process of remembering will hold cause for both gratitude and lament. We come prepared to hold both and to bring the full range of our human emotion to the Lord as we worship, reflect, and pray.

Hold on to the supplies you received when you entered; we will tell you what to do with those a little later.

Prayer
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father,
you have brought us in safety to this new day:
Preserve us with your mighty power,
that we may not fall into sin,
nor be overcome by adversity;
And in all we do,
direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer (US 1979).

Songs
“Beautiful Things” Gungor or “How Firm a Foundation” Isaiah 43, LUYH 427, GtG 463, SSS 291
“Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing)” Robinson, Tomlin
“Be Thou My Vision” Irish, LUYH 859, GtG 450, SSS 640

Scripture Reading
Joshua 4:1–9

Reflection and Introduction to Examen Prayer
In Joshua 4, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. This is a defining moment in their history, and they mark it by participating in a service of remembrance.

Today, as we celebrate the turning of another year, we want to follow the example of God’s people in Scripture by intentionally pausing to remember, by intentionally looking for God’s footprints in our lives over the past year, and by celebrating God’s covenant faithfulness to us, God’s people, over this season.

St. Ignatius, a Spanish priest in the 1500s, developed a powerful prayer known as the Examen that helps believers to pay careful attention to the movement of the Spirit in each moment of daily life. In the Examen we are encouraged to take a magnifying glass to the seemingly ordinary, to notice the traces of God’s footprints throughout our lives, and then to respond to all we notice by bringing our thanks, laments, and confessions to the Lord in prayer.

Our time today will be shaped around this Ignatian pattern of prayer as we reflect on this past year with hearts and minds tuned to the movement and leading of God in the ordinary and the profound, the joys and the sorrows.

Examen in Daily Life

The Examen is a flexible prayer. It can be prayed in private or with a group and can be broad or very focused. Here are a few resources to help you get started with it on your own or in a group:

Instructions for Creating a Milestone Timeline

Before beginning the prayer of Examen, invite worshipers to use the paper and pen they receive to create a timeline of the past year. Consider dividing the paper into four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall.

During the prayer, invite participants to fill out this personal timeline with significant events, emotions, praises, and laments from the past year. These could be recorded using words, symbols, or small drawings. You may need to help younger children by providing some verbal prompts to help them remember.

Your congregation could also create a community milestone timeline. Before the service simply tape a long piece of butcher paper divided into the four seasons onto a wall. As worshipers fill out their personal timelines, invite them to use sticky notes to record milestones they would like to add to the community timeline. After the service, these can be placed on the community timeline to create a powerful visual reminder of the ways God has been at work throughout the life of the entire community in the last year.

Note: This idea came from Karen DeBoer’s article “5 Intergenerational Ideas for Marking a Return to Worship after the Pandemic,” posted on The Network (network.crcna.org) on May 11, 2021.

Give Instructions for Creating a Milestone Timeline
See “Notes for Leading Prayer of Examen”

Prayer of Examen
See sidebar on page 32

As we begin, get comfortable in your seat. Consider placing both feet on the floor with your hands relaxed in your lap. Close your eyes, if that is comfortable, to help you focus.

Now bring your mind into the room. Set the worries of life in Jesus’ capable hands for this time and bring your thoughts to this moment. It can be helpful to focus on your breathing. Notice its gentle rhythm as you breathe in and out.

As we begin, greet the Lord. Acknowledge God’s presence with us.

Now ask God to guide your thoughts, feelings, and reactions as you reflect on this past year so you might see how God has been present in your life.

Now begin to recall the year. Think back to the beginning of the year, January through March. How were national and international events affecting you? What significant milestones occurred in your life last winter? These might include a birth, death, sickness, a job change, a change in a significant relationship—any physical, emotional, or spiritual milestone. You might also reflect on any blessings or losses during that period. What did COVID take from you? What did it unexpectedly give you? Take a few moments to add these things to your timeline for last winter. Remember to use sticky notes to record things you want to add to our community timeline later.

[Give folks time to reflect and fill out their papers.]

Now let’s move our thoughts from winter to spring—April to June. As life perhaps began to return to normal as pandemic restrictions began to ease, where were you? Whom were you with? What significant milestones occurred in your life last spring? Any significant losses or blessings? Take some time to reflect on the state of your heart, soul, mind, and body last spring and to add the significant things to spring on your timeline.

[Give folks time to reflect and fill out their papers.]

Now let your memory drift over last summer—July and August. Perhaps summer felt almost normal for you—or maybe it didn’t. What was significant about your summer? Where were you? Whom were you with? What losses or blessings did you experience? What was the state of your soul? Take some time to add these events, emotions, gifts, and losses to your timeline.

[Give folks time to reflect and fill out their papers.]

Now shift your thoughts to last fall—from September until now. What was your fall like? Whom were you with? Where did you spend your time? What losses did you experience? What blessings? Add all of this to the last section of your personal timeline, and remember to use sticky notes to record any milestones you want to share on the community milestone timeline as well.

[Give folks time to reflect and fill out their papers.]

Now let’s step back to look at the year as a whole. As you recall your year, notice how you were feeling at different times. Try to name for yourself the different feelings that were present to you. Consider marking these emotions with an emoji or a single word on your timeline.

[Give folks time to note their emotions.]

In particular, where do you notice times of life? Or light? Or energy? What gifts did you receive this year? Take a moment to mark these on your timeline with a star or a sun, and perhaps jot a note to remind you what they signify. Take a moment to relish these and to give thanks for them.

[Give folks time to silently offer their prayers of thanksgiving.]

If there have been difficult times, notice these too, taking them to God so God can send his light and warmth into them. Consider marking these on your timeline with a teardrop or mad face.

[Give folks time to silently offer their prayers of lament.]

On the whole, has it been a good year? Or one in which you struggled?

Take a couple of minutes now to say anything you need to say to God about this past year. Be honest. God loves you deeply and wants to be with you now in whatever this time of prayer has brought.

[Give folks time to silently offer their prayers.]

As we wrap up this time of remembering and prepare to move forward into the next season, is there anything you want to ask of God for the coming days? Take a moment to do this before bringing this prayer to a close.

[Give folks time to silently offer their prayers.]

Notes for Leading Prayer of Examen

  • During this guided meditation, consider having quiet instrumental music playing or using this video (youtu.be/CkyA_mt00I4) (18:45) to guide the time for you.
  • Be sure to leave ample space for reflection between each prompt. This time of prayer can be up to 20 minutes long.
  • If you are not using the video, consider projecting slides listing in chronological order key national events and/or events from the life of your community to help stir peoples’ memories.

Song
“Bless the Lord, My Soul” Taizé, LUYH 836, GtG 544, SSS 546
(For a version with descant, see tinyurl.com/b7873e8a.)

Doxology

Tithes and Offerings

Song
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” Chisholm, LUYH 348, GtG 39, SSS 48

Prayer

Lord’s Supper

Song
“All Glory Be to Christ” Kensrue
(YouTube: tinyurl.com/se8w4h57)

Closing Blessing: The Map You Make Yourself (see p. 35)

Benediction
You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go, God is sending you there.
Wherever you are, God has put you there.
He has a purpose in your being there.
Christ, who indwells in you, has something He wants to do through you,
wherever you are.
Believe this, and go in His grace, and love, and power. Amen!
—Benediction of Rev. Dr. Richard C. Haverson, U.S. Senate Chaplain from 1981 to 1994.

Reminder
Before you go, don’t forget to add your sticky notes to the community timeline!

Personal Witness to Life and Struggle

As a way to break up the time of prayerful reflection and add a personal touch, consider having a congregation member share a brief testimony about a gift they received this year from the Lord or a story of life, light, or energy. This same person could also share a story of loss or lament and how God has been present to them through it.

The Map You Make Yourself

You have looked
at so many doors
with longing,
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.

For today,
choose the door
that opens
to the inside.

Travel the most ancient way
of all:
the path that leads you
to the center
of your life.

No map
but the one
you make yourself.

No provision
but what you already carry
and the grace that comes
to those who walk
the pilgrim’s way.

Speak the blessing
as you set out
and watch how
your rhythm slows,
the cadence of the road
drawing you into the pace
that is your own.

Eat when hungry.
Rest when tired.
Listen to your dreaming.
Welcome detours
as doors deeper in.

Pray for protection.
Ask for guidance.
Offer gladness
for the gifts that come,
and then
let them go.

Do not expect
to return
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way,
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you

but by the star
that blazes inside you,
telling you
where you are
is holy
and you are welcome
here.
—© Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. janrichardson.com

Rev. Summer Mohrlang is the executive director of SoulFormation, an organization dedicated to fostering the emotional and spiritual health of Christian leaders. Formerly she served as pastor of Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church in Seattle, Washington.