Sometimes cooking begins just by opening the pantry and realizing that that something delicious with peanut butter (because you mysteriously have a surplus of peanut butter) sounds really good. That’s kinda how this service came… More
In just four days, it’ll be thirty-two years since she died.
It will be thirty-two years since my mother died. I have to pull out a calculator every year to subtract from the current year. Surely, it hasn’t been that long. It hasn’t been this many years without her. It seems impossible to believe amid so much joy.
My sassy little girl started walking this weekend. She’d taken a few hesitant steps about a week ago but we went to a birthday party on Saturday full of four year olds and she wasn’t going to be left in the dust. She toddled across the room. She sat at the big kid’s table. She had chicken nuggets for the very first time and her smile was just so big.
Though she has no interest in my growing belly, I’ve started talking to her about her baby sister. She won’t be the baby anymore. She’ll have a baby sister. Of course, this doesn’t register at all but she will retrieve her baby doll from across the room and shove a bottle in its mouth with great force. Every time, she looks up with this great big smile.
I don’t remember how it was last year.
I don’t remember if grief consumed my entire January in a blizzard of tears, as it once did. I don’t remember if the change in climate made the days before Groundhog Day feel less heavy. Or if I was too tired from a newborn baby waking up to the world in new ways to notice that it was even that time of year again.
There has only been one Groundhog Day since I became a mother. Only that one, and I don’t remember how it was.
I only remember how my husband and I ordered Chinese for dinner because, as a New Yorker, this is my preferred comfort food. I remember the excitement of finding any restaurant that would deliver to our rural address only to be horrified by what was in that delivery bag. Jalapenos should not ever be in Chinese food. It was only this unsettled feeling that this is not how this day should be that remains.
There is that sense about this day for me. Somehow, the day my mother died should be set apart. It should be different. I want it to be different so that heaven might mingle with my ordinary world. It’s something I’ve felt in the days before. As the new year dawns, a sadness emerges. A sense of loss comes close. I’m more aware of what is missing than what might be just beginning and so I’ve allowed myself this one day to feel all of that grief but that’s harder to do with a giggling ball of energy always at my side.
She’s not old enough yet to understand what happened thirty-two years ago. It’ll be a few years yet before she has any real understanding of death, but she’s started to look more like me. When she smiles now, it’s my grin. She tilts her head like I do. She makes the same silly faces that my mom probably made with me. I don’t know how I’ll ever tell her that she looks like her grandmother. I guess that’ll be how grief feels for this season.
It’ll be caught up in this wonder and delight that I don’t get to share with my mom. It is that absence that I grieve every year. She’s not here to play on the floor with her granddaughter. She won’t be here when her second grandchild will be born. There will be a lot of love around these two little girls. They have three full sets of grandparents. They have a great grandmother and a military community that will always be there. There will be churches that will love them and watch them grow. There will be lots and lots of love, but it’ll be my job to tell both my girls about the grandmother they never met. It’ll be hard because I don’t remember her that well.
It’s something I’m struggling with every afternoon as my daughter naps. I sit down again and try to write about where my grief started. There are things I remember, snapshots mostly of doctor appointments and strange things that grownups said to me. There are a few memories where cancer didn’t overshadow, but I mostly remember her as being sick. I remember her dying.
I don’t remember what she loved and what made her giggle. Those are the things I want to share with my girls, but what I do remember is what we did after she was gone. I remember what it felt like to do fun things after my mom died. I still have that guilt. It’s what hangs on tight thirty-two years later. It’s why I’d rather hide and quitely mourn by myself, but I can’t. This year, my sweet girl and I will be in my favorite city before my sister tries on wedding dresses for the first time. There will be a lot of joy surrounding us as I try to figure out how to grieve in the midst of it all.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 vote to uphold the ban on transgender service members fulfilling their call to service in the United States military. It was said by one woman just four years short of retirement in the Navy that this decision “speaks volumes about where we are as a country.”
This brave woman is right to point out that the biases of a few are having a huge impact on an entire community, but I am not sure that it speaks volumes.
I don’t want to that fear to trump everything, because I believe there is a voice we cannot quite hear yet.
I believe that there is a louder voice in the next generation, those that are not yet old enough to serve as justices on the Supreme Court. Maybe they’re not that loud yet because they aren’t even old enough to vote, but I have faith that these children will lead us. These are the kids who grew up only knowing a black president. These are the kids that don’t remember anything before legal marriage for all people. Maybe they remember the Supreme Court decision. Maybe. Or maybe it has just been a fact of their lives.
The Pew Research Center reported last week that these kids make up “the most racially and ethnically diverse generation” we have ever seen in this country. They haven’t had to learn gender-neutral pronouns. They haven’t stumbled over their words like I have because they’ve grown up with this vocabulary. It is said that this young generation, called Generation Z, is more liberal and more inclusive than their elders have ever been.
My daughter is too young to be a part of this young generation. She is only 15 months old and so she fits with some evolving generation that doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what new things will be normal for her, but the statistics seem to hint that my little girl will only be more liberal. Generation Z is already 10% more confident with gender pronouns than Millennials. They are 3% more determined than Millennials in their certainty that our society is not accepting enough and their 6% more determined that the government needs to do more to solve problems for individuals and businesses.
I don’t know who my little girl will grow up to be. I don’t know if her fascination with shoes and beaded necklaces is just a phase that will lead to something else, some new identity where gender is much more fluid. I know I will struggle because I am part of my generation, but I’m excited about what she will teach me.
I’m eager to see how she challenges her old liberal mother. I hope she makes me squirm. I hope she pushes all my political buttons. I hope she teaches me more about love than I know now, not just because she’s my kid and my heart has grown in loving her. But, I hope that she thinks it’s silly that her Mommy ever had to fight for marriage equality. I wonder what she’ll think of the story I’ll one day tell her about officiating my first transgender wedding as much as I wonder if she’ll feel called to serve in the military like her Daddy.
Watching her play on the floor yesterday with her wooden pots and pans, mixing up air with her play spatula, she’s already cooking up trouble. I couldn’t help but smile and think “it’s gonna be OK.” There is a temptation to despair. There’s a tendency among us old(er) liberals to think that the prejudices of a very small few will ruin everything, but I’m not going to fall into that fear.
As it says in those words that we once carried through the streets in the name of marriage equality, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:.18, NRSV). I’m gonna strive for that perfection, that perfection that my daughter will one day teach me with a gigantic roll of her eyes. Fear doesn’t motivate or inspire, but love always does.
I won’t be paralyzed by the feeling that there’s nothing I can do to reverse a Supreme Court decision. I’m not going to nervously analyze statistics across the generations, but I’m gonna figure out how I can raise my daughter and my family in the love that we believe should exist in our nation and especially in our military.
I hope that that love is the loudest.
I attend a church with a super talented and dynamic staff, but as it happens when a lead pastor leaves for a new call, they’re carrying more than they usually do. There’s more work for each and every one of them. I could see it on their faces. It wasn’t obvious but I knew that look in my own eyes when it was me that was feeling overwhelmed in parish ministry. So I asked if I could help and somehow I ended up writing liturgy.
I wrote liturgy for all of Advent and then asked if it would help if I could create bulletins while they search for a new administrator. My heart breaks for them. No administrator? Now? Good grief. So, I kept writing prayers and now I’m formatting bulletins and having a ton of fun doing it.
The following are the prayers I cooked up for the next two Sundays. The first prayer will be Call to Worship and the congregation will be invited to come forward and touch the water. I suggested even having small cups so that people could take a drink, but I don’t know if that will actually happen. There is a sung response between it and the Prayer for the Many Waters.
Prayers for Baptism of Christ Sunday
Gathering Around the Baptismal Font
Adapted from the Call to Celebration for a Baptistry Dedication at Grand Avenue Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ).
One: We are a people of the water!
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like a rain shower, awakens the sleeping seed
within the soul and lures it to blossom.
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like a wading pool, inspires the delight of children, jumping,
splashing, spraying each other, shivering with wet joy.
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like a hot shower after a long day’s work,
cleanses us, reawakens us.
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like little drops, drips from fingertips to forehead;
like a great depth, in which to sink in and immerse our entire body.
Many: Through the waters of baptism, the family of faith always,
lovingly, makes room for one more.
One: And so, God makes room for us by inviting us again and again to remember the gift of water. Come and touch the water to remember God’s love for you.
Prayer for the Many Waters
Awesome God, we thank you for the water in our bath tubs and sinks.
We thank you for the water that rains from the sky and the water inside our bodies. We thank you for rivers and lakes and Barton Springs.
We thank you for oceans and ponds full of fish, turtles and frogs.
We give thanks for the gift of water. May water always remind us
of your love. Amen.
Prayers for Epiphany 2C
Call to Worship
One: Your steadfast love, O God, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds that rain
down the blessing of water upon our heads.
Many: How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
One: There is wonder and mystery for all the people
that you invite to drink from the river of your delights.
Many: You are the fountain of our lives.
One: You pour out your blessings.You bring us to overflowing.
Many: We worship you in wonder and love.
Prayer to Open Our Hearts
Today, O Holy One, we might not feel like there are miracles all around.
We might not feel like there are things to celebrate or wonders to behold.
We might feel like there is nothing we can do with our gifts, our services or even
our activities for the common good. Still, Holy One, gather all our doubts and wonders into this hour and fill us like jars of water. May we be changed
in our wondering about you and your love, we pray. Amen.
If you use these prayers as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear about any adaptations you make for your context and hear how it goes.
My husband is an atheist.
That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.
He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.
My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.
It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.
Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.
For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.
I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.
My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.
He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.
So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.
We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.
Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.
I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.
Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.
There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.
So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.
That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.
Most people see Cooking with Elsa and assume it’s a cooking blog. I love to cook but on this blog you’ll find Ingredients for Worship and Recipes for Ministry and not so many actual recipes that you could cook up in your kitchen. It is, after all, a play on my married name.
I’ve posted menus. I even thought about that being a regular feature but then I didn’t pull my act together. Or I wasn’t inspired enough. It never happened, but I’d like to connect with my readers more. I’d like to host an occasional potluck to share good things like recipes and articles and things that are making me laugh and cry and think and pray.
I’m calling it News From My Kitchen. You’ll see a fancy new tab at the top of the page. Click on that and it’ll invite you to provide your email so that you and I can cook up some good holy trouble together.
It’s a potluck, after all. I’ll be sure to bring some things to share from my blog and the things that I’m writing and reading. I’ll be eager to share the recipes I’ve tried that actually worked but I hope that you’ll share in the potluck too. I hope you’ll hit reply and share your thoughts and ideas. Or maybe even a recipe that you just tried on a Monday night that knocked your whole family’s socks off… and it only took 20 minutes to make. We can dream of such wonders, right?
I hope you’ll sign up and join me on this fun new adventure. I hope to send out the first potluck before Christmas.
It’s around this time of year that Christmas carols start playing in my house. It may be too early for some, but bah humbug to them.
There is enough crap to bemoan in the world right now. There is more than enough that we can beat ourselves up over so let’s just not do that anymore. Not this year, especially not this year. There are too many ways in which I feel like I’ve failed: prayers left unsaid, expectations not met and so many ways that I’m fairly certain I’ve already failed at parenting. I don’t want anyone to tell me that it’s OK, nor am I interested in hearing about ways that I might improve. Or even that it will get better.
This is the time of year where everyone seems to have this rosy idea about the way things should be. There’ll be no arguments about politics around the Thanksgiving table. No swell of sorrow for who is missing this year. No lamentation for the way things haven’t worked out this year in so many ways. It’s why I think Denial is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is exactly what we should be reading as Christmas comes. It makes me feel a little bit better that I procrastinated so dang long on writing this post to celebrate this wonderful book.
Aside from the silly cover that I can’t imagine was either of the authors’ first choice, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is the work of good preaching. It’s written by two wise women I’m glad to know. Both of whom are pastors and preachers and this fact flows through each and every essay. They are words of reflection and so very personal. I was awestruck by how intimately and honestly these two women shared in this small collection of essays.
It is, in fact, something I remember asking Martha years ago when we were both pastoring in Maine. Martha has a talent for weaving the everyday ordinariness of her life into her preaching, but I was taught never to talk about myself. I was told to point to God. Martha laughed quietly, in her way, when I said that. She reminded me that every bit of that ordinary stuff points to God.
I kept thinking about that conversation in her living room while the snow was falling outside all those years ago as I read these pages. Many of the essays speak of things that were happening then. I remember. I remember how it took trusted friends to hear these truths. These were not sermon topics, but the tender broken things you hold out to those that love you most to help you make sense of what does not make any sense at all.
I admit that I cried reading more than half of this book because I remember how tender those days were. And yet, these were words that would not have been said then. No, the words in these pages are the work of grace. I wish there were more sermons preached with the grace of these two women. I wish faith was presented less as something complete and perfect and more like it is proclaimed in this small tome: confusing, challenging and sometimes just messy. It’s what we need to remember most at this time of year. Life is not perfect. We are not perfect. We fail but there is grace. Somehow, there is grace however much we might deny it.
I’m grateful these two women got together and created this thing. It’s a gift and one that I think would be worth putting under the tree for your loved one who needs to remember that there is grace out there.
I am honored to have been part of the Denial is My Spiritual Practice Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from the publisher for my honest review.
Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.
All of these years later, that has stayed with me.
It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.
It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.
They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.
Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.
You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)
After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.
I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.
Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No baby is born. There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.
If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable here. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.
I sat there with my daughter in my lap turning the pages. Matt de la Pena’s book Love was sent to me by my cousin. She said it reminded her of me. So my heart was already in my throat reading this beautiful poem to my daughter.
And then, I turned the page and saw the family gathered around the television. Some were sitting on the couch. Others had their mouths gaping open. They couldn’t sit. They could only stare.
I sobbed. I couldn’t help it.
I couldn’t hold it back.
I remember when it was the bombing in Oklahoma City on that TV screen. I remember looking into the eyes of my parents as we watched rescue workers try to save the little children. I remember watching bombs explode in bright colors when war began in Afghanistan and I argued with another college student about the costs of war. He thought it was just. It was right. They deserved it. I wondered who was caught in the wake of such arrogance. And, of course, I remember this day.
I remember seventeen years ago when it was my boss and family friend that called me in the middle of the afternoon to tell me to turn on the TV. He couldn’t say anything more. He just told me to turn on the TV.
Alone, in his London home where I was that summer dog-sitting for these family friends, I watched the towers fall. I watched dark angels leap from buildings in the city that will always be my home.
There was no one to embrace. No one else to offer words. No small human that I had to then explain what we were seeing upon that screen. Then, I only needed to make sense of it in my own mind and even that is impossible.
It still feels impossible but I remember. I remember going back to New York City only one week later. I remember taking the train into the city and going downtown to infuse Lower Manhattan with love even if all we were doing was going to dinner. I remember the dust that still hung in the air and the heaps of flowers and candles on the sidewalk outside every single fire station. I remember the smiling faces posted on subway walls and chain link faces with the words MISSING hanging above their heads.
And I remember when those deaths were slowly confirmed. They were my friend’s parents. They were not strangers, they were friends.
It has been said enough that this day changed the world. I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to be that what we say to each other about this day, but I want us to talk about it.
This morning, I was with a group of moms who are mostly much younger than I am. I had just graduated from college. They were in elementary school and so we remember this day very differently. I was newly ordained and leading one of my first Confirmation classes when I first realized that there are young people that don’t remember this day. They can’t say where they were. They can’t say much about it at all because their parents thought they were too young.
It was better to protect them.
It was better not to say anything about this thing that changed everything.
That was what I was told when September 11 fell on a Sunday. I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I was to say anything else but I wasn’t to breathe a word to our children about what happened this day. It was explained to me that they might not know. Their parents might not have told them.
It was a silence that I knew. I have known. It’s one that I’ve been struggling to write about as I try to remember what was said to me after my mother died. They thought it was better not to talk about this terrible thing that had changed everything. It was better not to talk about the thing that was on all our minds, they thought, but it’s not true.
It’s not better. It’s just easier.
It’s easier not to talk about the hard things that make us hide under pianos. That’s the illustration on the following page. I knew that kid. I would have been him if I could have it under our piano. I hid in other places. I cried where grownups couldn’t see. I kept my heartbreak all to myself because Mommy would want me to smile. That’s what they said. That’s what they told me. She’d want me to be happy.
It would be easier for the publisher to cut that page because it’s too much. It’s too much for everyone but that child that is actually hiding under the piano because the grownups can’t see his pain. Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they can’t, but that doesn’t make it any easier for that kid.
There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.
There is a power to being seen in words and pictures. There is a power to those stories being told because they changed us. Because everything changed in that moment and it needs to be said out loud. It needs to be said loud enough for our children to hear.
Graveside services are often very, very short. Some simple prayers are repeated by the presiding minister. Tears are shed, but there isn’t much else for the grieving family to do. There is nothing asked of them. There’s no action for them to take.
What if that’s what the family needs most? They need something to do, something that will express their grief beyond the words that are said. They need some action. A ritual could change that. It could allow for the grieving family to move beyond the words and allow their grief to have movement.
It was movement that I was looking for when I sat down to imagine the graveside and memorial service for my husband’s grandmother a fewweeks ago. The words didn’t say enough. They didn’t say it all. Where the words failed, I wanted there to be something else to allow the family to move with their grief.
I wasn’t looking for more words. I’ve done that before. I’ve added a scripture or an opportunity for the family to share stories through laughter and tears at the graveside, but I wanted something more than words. I wanted an action. For whatever reason, I got to thinking about stones. I remembered that there is a tradition that people will often leave stones on the tombstone of their beloved when they visited the grave but I couldn’t find what I really wanted. I couldn’t find some ritual around this tradition, so I wrote my own.
It is simple. It invites the grieving family to lay down stones upon the gravestone. To lay down their regrets, their grievances and most importantly to lay down their love.
The stones we used had appropriate “bling” for Joy. She loved to wear anything that sparkled. So the stones we used required a trip to the craft store in order to bedazzle them appropriately to fit the radiant soul she was in life. Any stones can be used for this. Plain stones pulled from your garden would work fine, but it might be meaningful to personalize it. I can imagine painted stones by grandchildren for the man that loved children, American flag painted stones for veterans, stones wrapped in fat quarters for the avid quilter or wrapped in yarn for a knitter. There could be so many other possibilities.
This ritual follows a beautiful responsive reading from Kathy Galloway’s The Pattern of Our Days in which the gathered repeat “we lay you down.” I offer it here in the hope that others might find it meaningful for their
Laying Down Stones
Minister: Looking around a cemetery anywhere in the world, you might notice stones resting upon the headstones. There may be lots of stones from several visits. Or from when a whole family went to the grave together. Or there may be one single stone perched upon their loved one’s final resting place.
It’s an act of love to place that stone, cementing the relationship that continues even after death. Love never ends. It goes on and on.
Today, like every other day you come to visit your mother, your grandmother, your sister and your dear friend, I invite you to leave a stone. To mark the visit with a symbol of your love. Place this hardened earth upon her grave to remember that love never ends.
Though there may be ordinary stones in the future, red stones from Utah or polished creek stones from Kansas or even a pebble found on your way to work, today you’re invited to leave stones with bling. It’s how Joy would want it.
Minister invites gathered congregation to come forward, take a stone and place it on the gravestone. Silence may be appropriate.
I offer this ritual as part of Ingredients for Worship. If you use this ritual, and I hope you do, don’t forget to change the places and names so that it is meaningful for the family to whom you’re ministering. (I know, you would never forget.) Please do share what you’ve cooked up for graveside services in the comments below! I’d love to hear other ideas.
It is more than ten years ago now.
It doesn’t seem like it could be that long ago but it was over ten years ago that I found myself searching for my first call. Fresh out of seminary, I was ready to serve the church. So very ready. These were in the days before marriage equality when my colleagues and friends still got their mail from the UCC Coalition and other gay materials in plain, unmarked envelopes. It was safer that way. Maybe it still is.
Queer was the word that I was taught to use. In the halls of my seminary, where our discussions hinged on the wisdom we found in Robert Goss’ Queering Christ and Gary Comstock’s Gay Theology without Apology, we sought to understand queer theology where someone was always quick to point out that there weren’t enough women in the conversation among these foundational texts. There were other voices missing too, but in all of our discussions, it was queer we used. Not because LGBTQQAI was awkward or cumbersome, but because queer was affirming. It was powerful.
If theology was to be anything, it was to give power to those that didn’t have it. It was how we read the Bible. And so, it was how we adapted our speech. Now, I’m as straight as straight as straight but some of my very best friends are gay. (This is no better than saying that I have Black friends, by the way.) So, I knew nothing. This is definitely still true more than ten years later, but I try to listen. I try to listen as I work for justice and seek the love that God has already proclaimed for all people.
And so, ten years ago, I sat there in one of these interviews with a Midwest congregation that was already Open and Affirming which is United Church of Christ speak for gay friendly. They had gay members on the search committee. They wanted to do this work as much as I did, but when I dared to name my hope of for this ministry, I used the word queer. I could see it on their faces in that instant. They thought this was a bad word and it was the reason I didn’t get that call. Because of that bad word.
I don’t know if I’ve told these story since it happened, but it’s one that I kept thinking about as I read Mihee Kim-Kort’s Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith. Kim-Kort believes in the power of church as much as I do, even if like me, she’s doing more parenting these days than she’s pastoring. Kim-Kort doesn’t just call us to shift our language, as I did in seminary. She points out the boundaries that we’ve created in our churches and asks us to queer those lines.
It’s personal. This isn’t just an idea, but something that Kim-Kort is working out in her own faith and even her own identity. She’s realized that the lines aren’t so clear for her. Things that she once thought were firmly set in place are fluctuating and so she’s playing with these boundaries that she’s created in the certain faith that God is somewhere in the middle, between here and there.
What I love most about this book is that it is all about transformation. This is a hot button word in churches, especially those that hear it as a fancy word for change. Transformation involves risk. It’s scary and yet it’s what our faith requires. Faith isn’t supposed to be a rigid set of ideas, but encourages each of us to cross boundaries. To play and experiment with things that may have been once beyond our wildest imaginations. To practice by “listening, respecting, confronting, standing with, confessing” and even “showing up even when [we] don’t get it or understand it.” To Kim-Kort, this playing and practicing defines queerness. It is what is required.
It is required even when it feels awkward and strange. There are parts of this book that feel that way. There are sections that feel disjointed and clunky because it should. Too often we think of transformation as something that has already happened. It’s all over. It’s done but the truth both for the church and most of the people that collapse into its pews seeking hope is that transformation is ongoing. We find ourselves in between here and there, in the midst of transformation. Kim-Kort writes this heartfelt prayer full of scripture, news headlines and her own story to describe how she sees the boundary-crossing God already at work in the world, and especially in the church.
It’s the kind of book that begs to be discussed in church parlors decorated by old ladies where the word change is whispered like a swear. More than ten years have passed, but queer is still a bad word in most of our churches. Yes, even in the United Church of Christ. It’s a pastoral book in that it is tender and respectful, even as it pushes on the edges of gender, sex and even christology. I really wish I was lucky enough to read and discuss this book with church people who really want to get it but aren’t sure how to practice this kind of faith. I think Kim-Kort has something to offer that hasn’t been said before.
And yet, if I’m honest, I really wish I had had this book on my shelf for the number of young people that plopped in my office at the church because they didn’t feel like they fit. They didn’t feel like God loved them for who they were, even if their parents and even their church said and did all of the right things. They needed something else, something from someone who was willing to step outside the lines with them and offer nothing less than a blessing.
I can’t go back in time and I probably won’t get to be a part of that discussion in the church parlor, but I can recommend Mihee Kim-Kort’s Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith for your summer reading. Whether queer defines you or queer still seems like a bad word, read this book for the affirmation and the power that this word does hold. Read it to allow some of those boundaries you didn’t even realize were there to lessen. Read it to take a tiny step toward transformation for the church and for yourself.
This book releases on July 1, 2018 and you still have time to pre-order so it can be on your doorstep on that very day. I am honored to have been part of the Outside of the Lines Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from Fortress Press for my honest review. It should also be said that I served on the board of The Young Clergy Women Project (now Young Clergy Women International) with Mihee, and well, I think she’s pretty amazing.