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… More
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.
It was only a few months ago that I found myself returning again and again to sort through the children’s books at Half Price Books. (Don’t get me started on the lack of independent booksellers in Texas. It’s beyond upsetting to me and so I can only daydream about such wonders as Longfellow Books and Orca Books in the places I’ve called home. Sigh.) I had read somewhere in those days about the importance of creating a library for your child that was not full of white kids, but reflected instead the wonder and diversity of God’s creation.
I didn’t have any idea about how I was going to raise a child with a greater capacity for anti-racism than I’ve known, but I was determined to try. I knew I could do this. I could do this one small thing to surround her with images of children from different cultures and races. I could do this. What I wasn’t prepared for — an why I kept going back to Half Price Books again and again — was how hard this would be.
There are just so many white kids in children’s books. If it’s not a duck or a panda that features as the main character in the story, it’s a white kid. Some of these books were books I loved as a child. Some were completely new to me just as parenting is totally new to me. I confess that I feel totally clueless but I’m determined to get it right and to do that I need the wisdom of others. I need support I can’t seem to find in my new home in Texas which is why I was so overjoyed to read Jennifer Harvey’s wisdom in Raising White Kids: Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.
I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Harvey’s work since her earlier book had caught my attention when I was still serving as a full-time pastor. I knew she had something important to say to the church, but I admit that I didn’t do anything more than save Dear White Christians to my To-Read list on Goodreads. It wasn’t enough and I want to do better. I need to do better for not just for my child, but for all of our children. For our nation. For our world.
Staring at those shelves at Half Price Books, when my baby girl was still growing inside me, I thought that I had to have all of the answers. All of the other parenting books I had read thus far were emphatic on this point. I needed to have a plan. I needed to be prepared with the right gear and the right attitude. It was all up to me as the parent.
Harvey quickly challenges this assumption and invites parents to partner with their kids. She puts it simply with the claim that challenging the forces of white supremacy can be as simple as “listen[ing] carefully and follow[ing] our children’s lead.” She encourages exploration and asking questions together rather than taking on some charge to be the expert who knows everything.
Maybe that works for other parents, but it never worked for me. It’s not how I ever approached teaching whether it was with young children or mature adults in the churches I’ve served. I always engaged the topic — no matter what it was — with questions. My first church dubbed this line of questioning as Elsa Questions. They would sigh when I asked them in the same way that I imagine my daughter will one day.
Raising White Kids invites me to affirm this curiosity in both my parenting and in my justice-seeking. It is a balm to my soul and gets me even more excited about this work. It emboldens me. It makes me feel like this is possible. I can do this.
I confess that it’s my favorite part of this book. It’s emphasized in different ways and repeated in a multitude of perspectives, but it is this courage to be vulnerable with our kids that really struck home for me. I don’t have to have all of the answers. I don’t have to have it figured out. I don’t even have to have the perfect library. (Harvey has more to say about this library that I found helpful.) But I do need to be open to asking questions. I need to be committed to my own learning. I need to be brave enough to challenge other white adults as we try to build another world together.
Harvey encourages questions. She poses examples. She invites a conversation and I so can see that this would be an amazing discussion piece for a moms group, a parenting potluck or a study for Sunday School teachers. The one thing that I didn’t like about this book — and this may be because it’s written to start a conversation and not to conclude it — is that Harvey is clear that engaging children in questions appropriate to their development is important, and yet she never outlines what children understand about race at what developmental age. I know very well that children understand things at a different rate from my own work with children and grief, but I confess that I have no idea what children understand about race at what age. This is hinted at in this excellent book but I wish it were unpacked more.
What I loved most about this book is that Harvey is clear that children possess a knowledge and wisdom of their own. If we are brave enough to engage them in thoughtful questions, they will teach us. Teaching children has taught me this. Any adult that has listened in on a children’s sermon in church should know this. It’s not just cute answers, but that our kids repeatedly astound us with what they observe. It is our task to be brave enough to listen to what they have to say and to dare to be curious with them.
If you’re curious about children and believe that another world is possible, you should read this book. You should encourage your friends to read it. Give it as a baby shower gift. Read it with your book club and really discuss it. Don’t just drink wine but really have the discussion. This conversation is important and it takes practice for all of us to ask these kinds of questions of our children and ourselves. We must learn to practice this kind of curiosity.
I am beyond thrilled to partner with RevGalsBlogPals and Abingdon Press to offer my enthusiasm for this new publication. I received an advance reader copy of Raising White Kids: Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America in exchange for an honest review and the opportunity to give away a copy on my blog.
To win a free copy of Raising White Kids, please comment below and follow my writing on Facebook! I will randomly select a winner by 10 am CT on Thursday March 1, 2018. If you are the winner, you will be notified on my blog and given instructions to contact me so I can send you your free copy.
My sister died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
It’s a fact that has haunted these first few months of my own daughter’s life.
She died before I was born but the memory is alive. I wake to hear my little girl breathing. I check. I triple check. I am careful to keep every blanket or pillow as far away from her mouth as possible so that history will not repeat itself. She’s almost made it. My little girl is nearly four months old, which is how old my sister was when she stopped breathing. She was only four months old.
As with so many of those stories, I don’t know the specifics. I know now that there are many things that could have contributed to her death. My father was a smoker. She was probably lying on her tummy. There were definitely bumpers lining the crib in the hope of protecting this blessed child, but even with these facts, I don’t know much about that story. It reads from my family’s history as something that happened, but not something that wanders into conversation.
There’s not much to be said. She died. It was terrible. Of course it was terrible, but what else can be said about such things?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it today as the Gospel Lesson was read before ashes were placed upon my forehead. My daughter wiggled in my lap. Her little toes kicking, dancing to some distant beat. Alive. Unrepentantly so. Alive and kicking.
Here I was sitting with this squirming little reminder of life to hear it proclaimed again that we are dust, both she and I. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Life will end, even when it is so new. It will end. We do not know the day or hour, but life will end. It always does. Sometimes it happens far too soon.
It is always that way. It was that way in Florida today. While I sat in my pew, seventeen children were killed in a high school in Parkland. Seventeen children were killed. It bears repeating because it’s too terrible and the specifics are even more overwhelming.
It is the eighteenth school shooting this year. It seems impossible.
It doesn’t have to be this way. This doesn’t have to happen, but somehow we have failed. We have missed something. We have allowed this to happen and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with what happened in that tiny chapel this afternoon.
When it came time to receive the ashes and remember that we are dust, I stood in the aisle waiting with the other worshippers bouncing my baby girl in my arms. I heard the familiar refrain repeated again and again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return until I stood before the deacon and he pressed his thumb into the ashes. He took a breath, looked into my eyes and said again, Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. And then, I turned so that he could offer this same mystery to my daughter peeking over my shoulder.
I heard him say the words, just as I heard her coo, but when we sat back down in the pew there were no ashes upon her forehead. Somehow we won’t allow ourselves to believe that children die.
I didn’t march yesterday. Our government shut down and I stayed home in my pajamas merely contemplating the state of the world rather than taking to the streets.
There wasn’t actually a march in my area this year. There may have been one last year but I lived elsewhere then. I wasn’t even in that place last year. I was in California studying at San Francisco Theological Seminary toward my certificate in spiritual direction. I was near a march but I decided not to go mostly because I would have been going alone. I didn’t know others that were going. Though I knew strangers would have become friends in the midst of the protest, the logistics of it overwhelmed me and instead I went to the beach and prayed.
Instead, I put another load of cloth diapers in the washer, breastfed my tiny human even after she’d stopped feeding 30 minutes ago (it seems she’s in a growth spurt) and contemplated whether or not yesterday would be a day I would shower. Or not. (It was not such a day as it turns out.)
There was once a time where I saw myself as an activist. There is still part of me that wishes that I could be a better activist. I’ve wished that I could have been the kind of pastor that was incremental in transformative change by showing up in picket lines, singing from loud speakers and locking myself in congresswomen’s offices but I found that I didn’t do these things often. Not because opportunity didn’t present itself. It did, but I found myself making other choices. I found that the heart of my ministry wasn’t on the front lines of justice but it was in the messiness of loving people. I chose the bedside over the march almost every time so maybe it’s not surprising that I’m not marching today. Maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal and yet I have to wonder what I will tell my daughter.
When she learns about the inauguration of the 45th president, will she ask me if I joined in the marches in every city? Will she scan my tweets from ten or fifteen or twenty years ago looking for whether or not I added my voice to #metoo or #blacklivesmatter? Will she then challenge me to why I didn’t do more?
That’s what gives me pause because I could do more. I should do more. I want do to more even in this season where I choose a different kind of bedside. This is what I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain to my daughter in ten or fifteen or twenty years because I’m not quite sure I can explain it to myself.
It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to march alone last year, but that I was ambivalent about the founding of this particular protest. I was then and remain today concerned that we don’t know how to talk about the value of one person without talking about the value of all people. We can’t just talk about women and their created worth without confessing the sins that women can and do commit against each other. I’ve made my own excuses about this, and I’m trying hard to do better. So I didn’t feel totally comfortable aligning myself with a group of white women when I knew there were lives that were going to be more horrifically impacted by this particular administration.
How will I explain this to my daughter? Will I tell her that each time I fed her at my breast, I scrolled through the headlines on my phone to see one more deportation? How will I explain to her how it felt to see that another black child shot? Will I even remember their names when she asks me why I didn’t march?
How will I explain my resistance when it feels like every bit of radical feminism I once had has been overcome by piles of laundry and petty arguments with my husband about who will do the dishes in the sink? I hope that I don’t remember this absurdity in ten or fifteen or twenty years.
I hope I remember instead that I did use my words. I didn’t have a pulpit when she was very small. I wasn’t leading the chants as I once did. No one handed me a loud speaker, but I chose this particular bedside by her crib. I read her stories. I sang with her. I gave her the tools that she would need to persist. It’s what I did as a pastor too. It’s what my ministry turned out to be I wasn’t always on the front lines, but I did everything I could to help others be there. I’d read those names in worship. We’d confess our sins. We’d recommit to doing better.
I may not be on the front lines of this fight but I still believe we can do better. I know we can. I’m raising a little girl in the certainty of this faith. It’s not the path that I thought I’d take. I’m not the activist I once believed I could be, but I will raise her in the resistance. I will raise her to fight the good fight.
The holy season of Lent begins in just a few short weeks on Valentines Day, if you can believe it. Even if you can’t quite fathom this holy and profane confusion, get ready. Easter will fall on April Fools Day six weeks later.
Maybe it’s appropriate for this year in American Christianity where we are not quite sure how to define the sacred from the patriotic. Maybe it is a challenge to us to move past the rhetoric from the White House to define what needs to be restored, renewed or even resurrected not just for ourselves but for our world.
Several years ago, with the good people in the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine, I wrote a curriculum that reflected this desire. They wanted to experience this thing. They wanted the resurrection to come alive not just in their lives but in the world. They were looking for hope when the world was still frozen and nothing would ever grow.
We created this guide which we called Toward Transformation through the Psalms to imagine such a possibility, but we were careful not to get too stuck on the thing that happens to Jesus. We didn’t want to get lost in the particulars that may or may not have made it a bodily resurrection. We are, after all, a diverse people in the United Church of Christ and this is always a question. Instead, we wanted to take it into our own bodies and look for change.
We all agreed we hated change, even if we knew it was good for us. It was hard and it was unlikely any one of us was going to choose it even if we knew full well that the very good news we proclaimed pivots on the hope that people can and will change. So we set aside Lent to understand this about ourselves so that we might see it in the world. It wasn’t a hope to make Christianity or even ourselves great again. We weren’t looking to capture something from the past but to repent or turn around to be changed.
Years have passed but as the calendar changes to approach Lent, I always return to this guide. There was something amazing that happened within those six weeks. We broke through the noise and got real about our hopes. We were changed by the way that we shared our struggles and our slow movements toward change and Easter was different. We were different and it’s why I want to offer it to other groups seeking such a possibility. I want you to have this experience. You’ll find the whole resource with leader notes and a weekly group discussion reflecting upon the Psalms here.
Take a step Toward Transformation this Lent and download this guide today. If you have any questions or want to know if your group really needs to follow this guide exactly as written, please contact me. I’d love to share this wonderful experience with you.
I aspire to write other resources for group exploration when I’m not so busy cooking up this baby but in the meantime, you might be interested to find what else is currently in my kitchen. However you might choose to explore this holy season of Lent, may it be blessed.
In the middle of Advent, I joined a church.
It was important to me. I wanted to do it. I’m already a member of another church where I never get to attend worship, but I read their newsletter and pray for their ministry. We’ve moved too faraway for regular worship to be possible and I’ve wanted to find someplace to be known. I’ve wanted some place close by to belong. And so, I met with the pastor of my local United Church of Christ and expressed my desire to join this small tribe and waited until this day when it could finally happen. Even so, it felt strange.
It felt odd to stand in front of this lovely group of people and makes these promises I’ve so often asked others to make. Repeating baptismal vows should be so shaky. Not just for those who stand before the congregation to say they will, but for those seated and listening, it’s another chance as the church calendar changes and the birth of Christ comes to wonder if we’ve really done these things or if we need to promise to start anew.
To say again that I’m ready “to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best I am able.” It comes as a question. Or a series of questions to which I can’t help but stand a little taller each time I say “I will, with the help of God.”
Yes, I want to grow in this faith. Please help me grow. It’s why I’m doing this thing. It’s why I’m joining another church because I want to grow. Ore than that, I want my little girl to grow into this faith. It’s why I’m repeating these words. I want to be changed by this group of people in this place where we try together to celebrate Christ’s presence.
I want this. I’m ready for this. It’s why I pushed the pastor for a day to join but it feels a bit different the moment I stand there before all those people with my baby strapped to my stomach snoring soundly. It’s different and I’m not sure why.
I still get excited. I feel my chest soar and my back arch as I repeat these questions I’ve asked so many times of others. I remember all of them in that moment — every fourteen year old kid who sat in my office weeks before their Confirmation while we tried to figure out what these questions meant not just in the liturgy but for them at this moment, every one of the kids that couldn’t get onboard with these questions and refused to be confirmed much to dismay of their parents, every soul that came looking to serve and every broken heart that needed community. I knew every one of their stories when they answered those questions. I knew what had brought them to make these promises and why it was a big deal.
I also knew what scared them. I knew how many of them hadn’t been around church for awhile. They’d been hurt by the church somehow and they wanted to be sure that this congregation wasn’t going to repeat those wrongs. Maybe it was that that felt odd for me. Maybe I felt in that moment the weight of all of those worries add concerns. Maybe. But it seems it hit me most when that last question was posed. The one that asks if we will be regular in worship which I cannot quote correctly because I can’t even find my Book of Worship anywhere, yet I heard this question and I gulped. I wondered if I could answer it or if I should just sit back down in the back row.
It’s this question that has tripped up nearly everyone of whom I’ve helped to make these promises. It’s this question that I’ve interpreted again and again in each and every new member class. To every group of people at every church I’ve been careful with these words because I know that attendance in worship is changing. Though I would be there every Sunday as their pastor, I might only see these faithful people once or twice a week and that would still be considered regular. I never bemoaned them this, it’s just that I never imagined that I’d become one of them.
It hit me then. It has been more than a year since I’ve been anyone’s pastor. I’ve missed Sundays. I’ve slept in. I went to brunch before I’d had this baby in my arms. Now it was the question of whether or not I’d slept that night that decided my Sunday plans if I could even remember what day of the week it was. I wasn’t going to be a weekly worshipper. I was going to choose family time over church sometimes. Or I might simply choose not to drive the 40 minutes and go someplace closer. All of that interpreting I’d done for others on recognizing their own rhythms and staying attune to what their family needed to know the love of God was about me and my family.
It felt strange. Maybe it should always feel a little odd to make these promises, but it’d never felt this strange. All of the many times I’ve answered these questions before it felt radical. It felt like something was changing. Something g was shifting and that somehow, together, we were going to change things and it would be good. I’ve felt that each time I’ve stood beside others as they’ve made these promises with the waters of baptism glistening on their foreheads.
I’ve even felt it as I’ve flung water from evergreen sprigs into the pews full of bewildered people. The questions always seemed important. It felt like it was important to weigh each word and understand each enormous promise we were making. But, on that Sunday In Advent with my baby cuddled close to my heart, it didn’t feel like the questions mattered as much as my answers. All I know now is that it will be different. It will be different than it ever was before.
As #metoo trends on social media, and stories that have been kept as secrets are spoken aloud, I’m keenly feeling the hurt and trauma that has made so many quiet for so many years. The resounding chorus that seems to lash out in response to say “you’re doing it wrong” or even worse “I don’t believe you” makes these conversations unsafe, even terrifying.
Terror brings more silence. It breaks relationship and isolates those that tried to tell their truth.
A response is necessary. It’s important, but at moments like these, I find myself wondering how we listen more than what we say. Perhaps, when fires have charred the earth in the Pacific Northwest and California and hurricanes have wreaked havoc upon the people of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and God only knows where else, we would do better not to explain or rationalize but simply to listen. To listen for what God might say about these things.
And so, I’ve been thinking about this liturgy I wrote last year — one with song and silence that I created to solve the problem of what to do without a church musician. I’ve adapted that liturgy here for All Saints Day because it feels that as we remember the saints — and even find the courage to believe that we ourselves are saints — we need a bit more silence to grasp the holy mystery that God invites us to enter every day.
It doesn’t name explicitly the context I’ve just offered. I struggled to write words for a prayer of intercession, but I’m not sure there are words that speak to what I’d hope this worship experience might offer. Depending upon the congregation, I might adapt this with an invitation to worship or I might add a prayer that speaks more concretely to the hurt and confusion that so many are feeling right now.
The full liturgy follows below. It requires only a tiny bit of preparation including gathering all of the candles you can find in the church and arranging them around the communion table. Provide a couple tapers or some other source of lighting candles for the middle of the service. You’ll also need a bell. A youth might be recruited to do this, but be careful that it is not a joyful ringing but a more somber affair.
Opening Words from Revelation 7:9-12
Offered by Worship Leader, read from preferred Biblical translation
Shared Silence for the Great Multitude
Offered by Worship Leader or printed in the bulletin
No one could count the number of people from every nation and tribe, these people came robed in white, speaking different languages to sing their praises to God. Find yourself, seated right where you are, in that great multitude and wonder what might make you feel like singing of the glory, wisdom, blessing or power of God at this moment.
Prayer of Invocation
Offered by Worship Leader
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!
Holy One, from your throne or just seated here beside us, we invite you to come close to hear the hopes and prayers on our hearts. Come to hear what we have dared to speak aloud and what is so heavy upon our hearts that we’ve retreated into silence, refusing to utter one world. Come to listen. Come to pray with us on this day, with all of your saints at the table you have prepared for us, so that we might hear more than our own thoughts and ideas, more than our own good intentions and pearls of wisdom, more than our own confessions and truths, but to hear from you in the quiet.
In the silence, Holy One, let us spend more time listen more than we speak. Let us strain our voices to sing of your glory, wisdom and power and let the silence settle again so that we might listen for your response. Let us listen for your grace.
Ring bell three times.
Prayer for Presence (Unison)
Holy One, what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this: you are here. You are listening.
Let us become fully present to your glory, your wisdom,
your power and your blessing.
Ring bell once.
Shared Silence for Presence
Reading from 1 John 3:1-3
Prayer of Confession (Unison)
O God, we struggle to keep silent. We crave a quiet place away from the busyness of the world, but even as we grant ourselves that space, it is hard to slow down, to see what your love has given us, to believe that we could be your saints. Saints are patient, brave and true. They toiled and fought and lived and died for the love they found in you, but we’re not so sure that same glory will be revealed in our own lives. We do not feel like your children, never mind your saints. Our mouths are too big. Our words are too pointed. Forgive us, O God. Come into this silence so that we might hear from you. Turn us away, this day, from our doubts and our criticisms. Let us hear you speak to us words of love and life. Help us to choose that blessing from you rather than the curses we place upon ourselves.
Shared Silence for Confession
Words of Assurance (Responsive)
Through every silence, may we hear this blessing:
In Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.
Reading from Matthew 5:1-12
Ringing of the Bells
Offered by Worship Leader
Ring bell once.
Jesus saw the crowds, the great multitude robed in white, wanting to sing their praises and offer blessings yet unspoken. From high up on the mountaintop, Jesus gave them words for their praise, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Ring bell once.
Blessed are those who mourn…
Ring bell once.
Blessed are the meek…
Ring bell once.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Ring bell once.
Blessed are the merciful…
Ring bell once.
Blessed are the pure in heart…
Ring bell once.
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Ring bell three times.
Where Jesus speaks, we are silent, ever uncertain how to name aloud the blessed saints that have graced our lives and changed this world. They are the peacemakers, the merciful and the meek in whose company we hope to be. We invite their memory and even their presence into this place by lighting candles not only to remember the blessing they have been but to remember the blessing we hope to be revealed in us.
Invite the great multitude to come forward and light candles for the saints in silence. After all have returned to their seats, ring the bell three times.
Shared Silence for Holy Communion
begin with a bare table
put table-cloth on the communion table
bring up Bible
take, hold up and show congregation, place on table
bring up candles
place on table and light
bring up cross
take, hold up and show congregation, place on table
bring up loaf
take, hold up and show congregation
hold hand over loaf as sign of blessing
hold loaf up high and tear it in two
bring up wine and chalice
take, hold up and show congregation, place on table
pour wine from chalice into cup
hold hand over chalice as sign of blessing
hold up bread and wine
quietly say: “As our Savior taught us, together we pray:”
Prayer of our Savior
Sharing of the Bread and Cup
Shared Silence for Thanksgiving
Hymn For All the Saints
Closing Words from Revelation 7:13-17
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor and power
and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!
If you use this liturgy in your worship or even a single prayer as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear how you use this service — especially if you choose alternate hymns or make other tweaks for your congregation.
We were told that there would be booms. It was one of the first things that we were told about our new home. We’ll hear the booms, they said. Booms that shouldn’t frighten us or cause alarm, but are simply the noises of the military base thirty miles away.
It was just something they had said until I sat outside one morning with my book and my coffee and heard the booms. I felt the vibration each time.