At the end of the last week, I sat on a picnic blanket in my backyard with my two babies reading the Ascension from their new Sparkhouse Story Bible. (I discovered that Sparkhouse is offering… More
When I was in my very first call and was still saying I wasn’t sure I was called to be a parent, I led a conversation for the monthly potluck shared by parents and children about faith at home. It felt like a new idea all those ten years ago.
Children were supposed to learn about matters of faith at church. They were supposed to ask their pastors and Sunday School teachers. Parents weren’t trained. They weren’t equipped. That was what we thought then when there was never a question about gathering in our places of worship. That was before this pandemic changed things forever. Or maybe just for a little while.
It has taken this new normal for me to actually do the things I taught parents to do with their children. It started really because I was gifted a daily observance for little kids to mark the days of Holy Week from my dear friend Teri. My sweet toddler would remind me every day that it was time for “Baby Jesus” and we would share in whatever the story and activity was for that day. It made me realize I need to do this more.
Just like I find activities for my children to play with bubble foam, finger paint and embark on neighborhood scavenger hunts, I need to find time to cultivate their faith. I want them to learn more about these stories that are so important to me but it also builds up my faith. It reminds me every time we take the time to do so that this is matters to me. Here are some things I’m doing with my very young children to carry us through the Easter season.
My toddler is two and a half and very verbal. My baby girl is nearly 10 months old and is ready to start walking. Or so it appears. She might not get as much out of these activities but she is in awe of her sister and will follow her anywhere. I can’t say these activities will work without an older child to lead.
I confess that I have been tired at bedtime and so the long list of people we usually pray for has been truncated. I feel badly badly about it and so when I downloaded Traci Smith’s wonderful at home resource for Faithful Families, I felt nudged by one of her ideas to create a book of people we pray for. I’m adapting a tiny photo book to use in our prayer time every night and every other time my toddler pulls it off the shelf and clasps her hands together.
Jesus Song Time
The churches I’ve served have all had Sunday School during worship. In every church I’ve served, the kids start in the sanctuary until the children’s sermon and then are excused to their classes. This means they usually only hear one or two hymns and one of those hymns may have been difficult to sing. I know this. Zoom Worship has provided the extra blessing for our family that my kids hear the whole service and my baby girl sways and dances every time music begins.
I want to cultivate that love of music and want them to learn the songs of faith. So we have started to have Jesus Song Time. I created a Spotify station by the same name that we turn on the Roku and jam out in our living room. I sing loudly and out of tune and encourage my kids to play with bean bags and their music instruments including the egg shakers that were in their Easter baskets.
Psalms and Shepherds
In the spirit of familiarity, I am attempting to teach Psalm 23 to my children this week. It’s going really great in that they are not getting it at all. We are going to make sheep from egg cartons this afternoon and tomorrow we will play with those tubes using this prompt from Carolyn Brown on Worshiping with Children:
Using a small cardboard sheepfold, a shepherd figure (maybe from a crèche), and some toy sheep. Demonstrate how the shepherd would gather the sheep into the fold, counting as they came in and checking each one for injuries, then sleep across the gate so no animal or human thief could get to the sheep at night. Show next how in the morning the shepherd would call the sheep to the gate and lead them out into pasture. After showing this, reread John 10:2-5 and comment that just as the good shepherd takes care of the sheep, Jesus takes care of us.
I will also build a pen from the surplus cardboard in our lives. A shepherd will be found from among other toys. I’m not sure which yet. I also really like the idea from Worshiping with Children to spend some time with this first picture of Jesus from the Roman catacombs. The questions would be over the head of my toddler but it might be a fun way to continue to explore Psalm 23.
Jesus Story Time
One of the things that I learned during Holy Week with Teri’s wonderful resource was that I didn’t like any of our children’s bibles. I have a lot of them and I’m still not quite satisfied. With her encouragement, I ordered the Spark Story Bible. We take our special picnic blanket outside of the backyard for what my toddler calls Baby Jesus Story Time. I’m really trying to teach her that Jesus grows up. I’m choosing some of my favorite stories about Jesus’ life and reading them.
Though I’m not sure we will get there by Ascension Sunday, I’m keeping this idea from Worshiping with Children in the back of my mind.
Display pictures of Jesus’ birth, healing, teaching, Palm Sunday, Crucifixion, Empty Tomb, and Ascension. With the children review Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Then tell the story of the Ascension in your own words. Stress that during his life on earth, his disciples knew Jesus as a very special person, after Easter Jesus was different. He appeared and disappeared sometimes in locked but still ate fish and bread. Thomas could touch him. Since the Ascension, people have seen Jesus only in visions and dreams. Jesus is still alive and is not just with God, but part of God.
My toddler is just at the age where she can tell a story from a picture if we read it often enough. So this might be something we try.
I’m already starting to think about what I’ll do for Pentecost because I haven’t used my Pentecost kites in the longest time. I’m also pretty sure I’ll go searching for other ideas between now and then because I get bored but this is where we are now. If you are doing something similar with your littles, please share your amazing ideas in the comments.
After I posted the prayers last week, I felt awkward. I wondered if these prayers could speak to such a broad audience. I wondered if it was even possible to capture the vastness of this pandemic into a few words.
I felt that strange tinge again on Sunday when I gathered again with my sweet Texas church for another Zoom gathering of God’s people. I noticed immediately that the words to welcome us into this time of prayer and praise didn’t emphasize the isolation or even the virus. The prayers were instead like any other Sunday in the Season of Easter. Is that what we need?
I wonder that especially as we center ourselves into the familiar and comforting words of Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10. I don’t know. Quite frankly, I haven’t had much time to think about what my own faith needs. I’ve focused — as I did before quarantine — on what is best for my children and my family. I’ve spent time cultivating experiences for the family and allowed the grace of these experiences to be my prayer. I do not know how working parents are doing this but I’m glad to see that there is a conversation starting here and here. The fact is that I only really know my own experience of this new reality and this gives me even greater pause in wondering what our prayers should say. Or is there something to be said in leaning into what I can only pray is emerging in Acts 2:42-47. These prayers will do a little bit of everything.
Though I’m uncertain about this style right now, these responsive prayers are what I’ve written to begin worship forever and ever. It’s a hard habit and so here are some prayers to begin your worship.
Let Us Gather Here
Let us devote this time to breaking bread and sharing prayers.
Let awe come over us.
Let wonders and signs
flicker across our screens
in the faces of this beloved community
and the familiar words of faith.
Let us share what we have.
Let us find ourselves with glad
and generous hearts.
Call to the Possible
Words from Rebecca Solnit’s The Impossible Has Already Happened
We have reached a crossroads,
we have emerged from what we assumed was normality,
things have suddenly overturned.
Shepherding God, open your gate to us.
Lead us into whatever comes next.
We know, O God, that for now —
especially for those of us who are not sick,
not frontline workers,
and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties –-
it is to our task to understand this moment,
what it might require of us,
and what it might make possible.
Prepare us, Shepherding God,
to think big thoughts around your table.
Assure us that goodness and mercy are already here.
Confessing Our Sins
It can be so hard to write prayers around such familiar texts. I liked this confession that I found after I wrote my own. A friend shared this article on effective crisis leadership and it compelled me to write an alternate confession as it seems that our real task right now is not so much worrying about what will come next but how we love each other in the here and now.
Prayer of Confession (Unison)
O God, we have doubted.
We have doubted you.
We have doubted those you love.
We have questioned what will be left
after this is all over. We’ve wondered
if it will be better than it was
and we must confess we’ve feared it will be worse.
Forgive us. Open the gates of our shuttered hearts
to your abundant grace. Amen.
Alternate Prayer of Confession (Unison)
O God, we have devoted ourselves to so much.
We have wanted. We have resisted your leading.
We have ignored green spaces and still waters
pooling around the dirty dishes piled in the sink.
We haven’t felt goodness and mercy
and what is worse: we haven’t offered it.
We haven’t cared for your people
behind our locked doors. Forgive us.
Forgive us for not holding all that you love
with the same grace you hold us.
Assurance of Grace
Very truly, I tell you, God knows your fears and doubts.
You are forgiven. God opens the gate and calls your name again
to lead you to the goodness and mercy
that will follow you all the days of your life.
God will be with you, now and always. Amen.
Prayers of the People
I have been tickled to watch one of my pastors juggle the prayers in the chat in Zoom, those that were posted on Facebook earlier in the week, those in the church bulletin and it appears a few last minute prayers she just got by text. She has lots of devices and paper around her but every prayer is spoken. Every prayer is heard. It is a powerful thing and it warms my heart each time.
For churches like ours where prayers are usually shared from the floor, I imagine pre-recorded worship feels most distant and strange when it comes to this moment in worship. I confess I don’t know how to overcome that but I was awestruck by the cell phone children’s choir from my little Texas church that sang Halle Halle this past Sunday. There was something about hearing a child’s voice on Zoom that had such power so I wonder about offering a prayer like this from the good people of SALT Project.
Now is a time when I want to hear familiar words like these words from St. Francis. I noticed as well how many people asked for a copy of the gorgeous prayer that my pastor preached on Sunday. So I thought I’d create something pretty. Here is a Pastoral Prayer for Easter 4A adapted from one I wrote years ago. It is my intention for you to share it. Please do so as it helps your precious people.
Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.
Our whole lives have been interrupted. We are attempting now to live as people of the resurrection when death tolls continue to rise. Some states are lifting their orders for shelter in place. Businesses will reopen slowly. Some are even bold enough to say that life will go back to normal while the people of China are living this horror story all over again. Restrictions return. Life does not go on.
We don’t know how long these interruptions will continue but somehow we are called to be “witnesses” to the resurrection. We weren’t there but neither were those that heard Peter preach this sermon in Acts. Neither were they to blame for his death. They weren’t the ones in that crowd. I love how this interruption is explained here. Maybe life feels so interrupted and turned on its head that the Road to Emmaus seems longer this year. I confess that I was inclined to skip over this passage and opt for the emerging church in Acts, but then I read this wisdom from Richard Swanson fixated on the words “we had hoped” (Luke 24:21).
It is my hope that these prayers feel interactive and do what the Spirit needs to bring your people into greater connection and community. I recognize that some are sharing live worship experiences online and others are sharing edited videos through YouTube, Facebook Premiere and a bunch of other platforms that I didn’t even know existed. Still others are publishing liturgies for their members to lead worship together in their homes. For this reason, I’m giving some options.
I’m not convinced that the more traditional responsive Call to Worship is the best way to begin worship. I attended worship at the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City this past Sunday. I did my field education there in seminary and the faithfulness that my colleague the Rev. Kaji Douša has brought to this congregation. Worship began on Sunday with some praise songs and a video meditation shot with Kaji’s phone of something outside her kitchen window. If I understood correctly, it served as an invitation to a faith-filled conversation later in the week so it wasn’t directly connected to the liturgy but I really liked how it called me into greater awareness of the things that God-filled moments in the everyday of this pandemic. It’s made me pause more than once since then.
I am not sure that I would be so tech saavy though so I might opt for this lovely prayer of illumination. Or I might begin worship with words of poetry to center us from the whirlwind of the pandemic. Maren Tirabassi always has beautiful words to offer and this old poem might be something to interject into your worship perhaps in particular awareness of the devastation of COVID-19 among the First Nation peoples. Another poem that shattered my heart when I discovered among the collected poems to Shelter in Poems from the Academy of American Poets was this one by Denise Levertov. This poem, especially, could read as a prayer.
Here are two more traditional responsive readings to begin worship.
We had hoped that resurrection would be proclaimed
as we’ve always remembered it
inside the comfort of our sanctuaries.
We had hoped to hold one another’s hands
and say again, “Peace be with you.”
We had hoped that graduations and weddings
would be celebrated. We would have danced all night.
We had hoped so much.
Set our faith and hope in you, O God.
We had hoped that the church would grow.
We had hoped that we might raise enough money
to send the youth on the mission trip
and maybe even fix the roof. We had such high hopes, O God.
Set our faith and hope in you, O God.
We had hoped that 170,000 people would not die
and that there would be enough
to keep our doctors and nurses safe.
We had hoped that this wouldn’t happen.
We have thought about it so much
in these past six weeks and
we still cannot understand how any of this has happened.
Set our faith and hope in you, O God.
Call to Worship (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19)
Death’s ropes have bound me;
the distress of the grave has found me again and again—
I come here today face-to-face with trouble and grief.
I love God;
and I’ll call out to God as long as I live
but especially today, I pray:
O Lord, save us.
I’m wondering today
what I can do after 170,000 lives have been taken
around the world by virus that has consumed all of my prayers
because I fear for my own life.
O Lord, save us.
I fear for the lives of my children
for the lives of those secluded to nursing homes
without visitors to bring a breath of fresh air
and for the essential workers
who deliver my mail
and stock the grocery shelves.
I can’t help but notice
each deep breath
each drop of moisture on my face mask
each time my lungs do what my God made them to do.
O Lord, save us.
O God, save us from our fears.
Gather us in hope.
Bring us together across wifi connections
and firewalls to call upon your salvation.
Confessing Our Sins
Both the account in Acts and the gospel story (especially in Richard Swanson’s translation) point fingers at you. It resonated with me enough to make it into these prayers. I was also drawn to the Message translation of 1 Peter 1:17-23 where it is said that “your new life is not like your old life” followed by “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”
Call to Confession
This is an invitation that is most often led by the pastor or liturgist. Words do not need to appear on the screen or in the bulletin.
You who had hoped for so much.
You who had dreamed that life would be different
and has quietly scoffed at every mention of the “new normal.”
You who have asked God for things
that had never once crossed your mind before,
stop here and feel the heavy weight upon your shoulders.
Let us pray.
Prayer of Confession (Unison)
O God, we aren’t quite sure who we are called to be in this moment. Our lives have changed. Everything has changed so that our new lives will never be like our old lives. Nothing will ever be exactly as it was. Everything will change and this is terrifying. Forgive us for doubt and fear. Forgive us for not putting our whole faith in your love and grace.
Assurance of Grace
Beloved in Christ, your sins are forgiven. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Know that you have a future in God and do so knowing that you are to love one another as if your lives depended on it. Your new life will indeed not be like your old life. Love will change us. Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
Prayers of the People
I do not know how to write anything better than this prayer right now. If you are unfamiliar with The Work of the People, who produced this video, I commend them to you.
If you are a United Church of Christ pastor and eager to connect your church with the wider church, you might want to offer yourself the blessing of this Conference Wide Worship from the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences. I understand there may be other conferences doing something similar. I’ll update as I find them.
Until then, dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you.
On Friday, I attended a conversation hosted by the BTS Center called It’s Okay to Grieve. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the new Executive Director of this organization, is also a friend, He and his wife and sweet girls arrived in Maine while I was pastoring there to plant a new church within an old downtown congregation. I’ve said it before. My colleagues are doing the most amazing ministry with such care, compassion and creativity. I am in awe and I was excited to listen in on a conversation particularly for clergy.
Later that day, I watched the press conference that Andrew Cuomo hosted earlier that day. It’s the same one where he bashes the president. I might have watched it for that reason. Maybe.
I was struck by the slide with the death tally. The total deaths reached as high as 15,683 but it wasn’t the total that appeared on this slide. Instead, it was dates and numbers.
April 13: 778
April 14: 752
April 15: 606
The number of lives lost on these days and the three days that followed. I found a still here. Though the dates were, the death tally wasn’t cumulative. I found this confusing. Or maybe I was just tired because I was watching it way past my bedtime, but I expected the number to go up to reach that overwhelming statistic that has probably increased not only in New York state but in many other places around the world.
It hit me then that those people had names. It should be obvious just as each and every one of those nursing home and hospitals have a name. They have boards making hard choices about how to manage care. They have doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff that are all essential workers. Every single one of them has a name that was given to them on the day of their birth. A name that originated from their father’s lineage or sprouted from the wonder-filled bliss of two new parents. We shall call this child beloved.
Names are important especially for people of faith. We recall with wonder and confusion that Adam and Eve were given the daunting task of naming God’s creations. It was one of the many ways that they partnered with God to care for these new precious beings.
I felt the rush of sorrow for each and every one of those beloved children.
All 15,683 in New York.
All 23,660 in Italy.
All 4,632 in China.
All 339 in King County surrounding Seattle.
All 743 in Westchester County where my parents still live.
All 477 in Texas.
I remembered in seminary when we had committed to praying over the names of those that died in the war in Afghanistan. I remember when that number reached so high it seemed impossible that we had lost so many young lives as much as I remember the knot in my stomach that the only names we had were for the American soldiers who had died. There had been other lives lost — women, children, innocent bystanders, and even enemy soldiers — but we didn’t know their names. We didn’t pray for them.
There is power in who we choose to name in our prayers just as there continues to matter that we remember Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland. It matters that we say their names as much as it matters that we remember their stories. In the midst of this pandemic, when families aren’t able to gather and memorialize the dead, there are too many dying alone. It feels all the more important that we remember their names and their stories.
I had seen this video on Twitter of someone flipping through the pages of the obituary section in the Italian paper before any of this really felt real. I feel the enormity of that loss. There are so many but each of those names has a story. Each of those names deserves to be honored and cherished. A colleague of mine exclaimed earlier this week that worship shouldn’t feel like a funeral right now. We are already feeling that weight. Worship needs to offer something else, she insisted, perhaps because it was Easter just the week before. I’m not so sure. I wonder if our worship shouldn’t reflect our collective loss right now.
I wonder if there shouldn’t be a time when we pause to name the dead.
There are lists that record the celebrities who have died of COVID-19. In fact, I found several lists of famous people. There’s a list of healthcare workers that have died. It is a HIPAA violation to share those names. I know. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals in my ministry but I still wonder how we name the dead.
And I wonder if it can really wait with all the grief we are already carrying.
Way back when I left my last full time call, nearly five years ago, I established this little home on the internet. I had read a bunch of books about blogging then. The trouble was that my internet home wasn’t what those books had imagined.
There isn’t a whole lot of click bait in worship resources and ministry ideas. I wasn’t going to trend even if I had been consistent with the features I imagined way back when. And I wasn’t. I wanted to write. I imagined a book. I spent hours upon hours writing that book and it was too much to maintain both my writing practice and this internet home.
Most of that book is now written. There is one last chapter to write and a whole bunch more editing to do. I’d spent the very end of last year writing a book proposal. Friends gave me feedback on that proposal and then a worldwide pandemic walloped all of us. The world is not the same as it was. No matter how ready I had been just a week before to send in my proposal, the urgency disappeared. It no longer felt like it mattered.
I’ve occupied my time in isolation potty training my toddler. I have spent most of the past month staring at my bathroom tile, reading books about poop and dancing around like a maniac when my sweet darling actually peed. Poop is a whole other story. At the same time, my baby girl learned to crawl. She has decided she has places to be.
I haven’t read much nor taken on any projects. I have not written a word outside of a text message but it was in a text chain that I felt a nudge to revive one of the old features. Some of my favorite clergy women were lamenting the fatigue and exhaustion that felt all the more palpable after Easter was over. Somewhere in the middle of Lent, they got locked within their own rooms. Few of them were upper rooms. It happened fast without much preparation. They innovated the crap out of those last few Sundays in one of the most holy seasons in the Christian calendar. They became producers and televangelists. They brought meaning and purpose. They built community in a format that most of their church members have bemoaned before the pandemic hit. And then, they made Easter happen with butterflies and choral anthems. It was amazing to watch. I am truly in awe. Then, Easter was over and all of the hope that this might only last through that Sunday vanished. They are tired. They are grieving.
They have no idea how much longer this will go on. They are, as we are all, hunkered down which another dear friend described really well earlier this week. They don’t know how to temper the expectations of those in their congregations any better than they know how to filter their own feelings. It is so much. It is just so much.
Before Easter, and especially during Holy Week, these amazing women told me that there was a wealth of resources. Artists and musicians were gifting free material to use in worship during those High Holy Days. There was so much good stuff that could be copied and pasted so that they could spend the time figuring out how to do a funeral for the saint that died in isolation at the nursing home or the young man who fell victim to this virus that has upended all of our lives. This broke my heart.
So I’m reviving this old feature so that my colleagues and friends can copy and paste into Zoom and Facebook Live when they are doing so much.
Ingredients for Worship will once again feature prayers following the Revised Common Lectionary. New liturgies will appear each week on Tuesday for the upcoming Sunday starting this coming Tuesday. All of the prayers will focus on this strange new interim season in which we now find ourselves. Themes in these prayers will emphasize change, uncertainty, discernment and discovering who we are and who God is now.
It’s a small thing that I can do and I hope it helps.
I’m praying with you and for you, dear clergy.
There are specific things with instructions that parenting requires. Potty training, I am learning, is one of them. There are steps that your child must understand for success. First, she’s got to pull down her pants and then sit on the potty before she pees. There is an order to this process.
It’s important not to skip steps or accidents will happen. Such has been my past two weeks. There have been lots of accidents even as my toddler learns. She’s making progress but she’s still learning the steps.
Mystery does not have steps. There is no process. No order but instead it is something to behold and even embrace. It was the first thing that caught my eye about Amelia Richardson Dress’ new book and it was right there in the title. This is the Mystery of Easter is an adaptation of a pastor’s careful reflection on how to share the power of death and resurrection with the children. It reads like a children’s sermon with clear reference to scripture and a tenderness toward the hardest part of the story.
The crucifixion isn’t skipped or ignored. Nor is it glorified and lauded. It’s instead shared carefully just as a parent might share the difficult news of a pet’s death or the news of the coronavirus. It’s something hard that has happened. It is something sad that causes the people to be sad. It breaks their hearts.
There are several pages devoted to this mystery with beautiful illustrations that hint toward the feelings that children might be feeling in hearing such news. Death isn’t explained. There are no steps outlined as to how Jesus got onto that cross but that it happened and it was sad because it was the opposite of love.
Children know what love does. They know how it feels when they are loved and when they are not. They know what it feels like to be loved even when their parent is having a really rough time after being stuck inside for the millionth day in a row. That’s what I love about this book. It doesn’t attempt to explain things that are hard for even adults to understand. It picks up on something we all know even if we don’t feel like we have felt it enough. It shares a mystery that is already known.
It puts that wisdom int this man called Jesus who “loved big enough to change the whole world” and encourages children how they too could “love God, love yourself [and] love everyone else.”
Maybe there is some kind of step-by-step instruction for how to do this. Maybe there is some magical parental formula that explains death and resurrection to children but I haven’t yet found it. Nor am I quite sure that it exists because we have a hard enough time explaining it to ourselves as adults. We opt for metaphors. We ponder questions like those that the author indicates were important to how she told this story:
- Why do we have a cross hanging in our church if the cross was a bad thing?
- Why did Jesus die?
- Who killed Jesus?
- Did God want Jesus to die?
- How do we act after someone dies?
We pray that the hard thing is not the last thing but it is a matter of faith. To choose the resurrection. To claim that love will change the world. To live into the mystery isn’t easy. There are no simple steps. Nor is there ever really a moment when it is fully mastered whereas I hope potty training has that end point. Dear God, please. Let it be so.
As much as my toddler lights up when she goes pee in the potty, I want her to experience that with God. I want her to be proud of what she knows and what she can do. I want her to feel like she has something she can do to help but I also want her to experience awe and wonder. I want both my girls to play within the mystery without ever feeling like they need to explain it. I want them to feel it even when they don’t have words for it.
There is no greater mystery than the one that begins and ends this children’s book. It is that good news that we are in God and God is in us. God’s love can change the world. It can change us. I’m so glad to find a children’s book that invites my children into this mystery. I hope it grows right along with them.
I am thrilled to share This is the Mystery of Easter after I learned about it from the author and was asked for an honest review. You too can download a free digital copy after subscribing to Amelia’s weekly newsletter or you can order a copy for your children’s Easter baskets.
Last night, my baby girl couldn’t sleep.
It has been many months since she was up every two hours but last night she returned to this familiar routine. She wasn’t always hungry.
It seemed that she just wanted to know I was there. It had only been a dream. It was only some trick of the mind, something that happens when we close our eyes. Fears jolt us awake. Terror takes hold but it was only a bump in the night.
It was only a dream. It wasn’t real.
Once she was cradled in my arms again, her little body would release those fears. She would grow heavy in that comfort that can only come from Mom.
It is, of course, not true. That was what I was telling myself every time I picked her up. Every time I gently patted her back and bounced her in my arms, I tried to convince myself that this isn’t something that only comes from a mother. It can come from a father. Or grandparent. It comes with love.
It comes with presence. It comes when that child knows that this is the person who is there. This is the person who will always be there. This is her scent. That is her voice.
I don’t remember these things about my mother. She was there when I was little. She was always there but when I was nearly six years older than my sweet baby girl, she died. I have no memory of her scent. I swore I’d remember the sound of her voice. I told myself I couldn’t but I did. It happened faster than I would have ever thought possible, but of course, I was only seven when she died so I didn’t really know what was possible. I thought I knew. I knew more than the adults thought I did but after thirty-three years of feeling this grief, I didn’t know. I couldn’t.
It is the anniversary of her death today. It has been thirty-three years since that day. It seems impossible but it also seems impossible that that same little girl who didn’t sleep last night and didn’t nap much today was determined to crawl across the floor this afternoon. It seems just as impossible that my toddler cleaned up all her toys tonight with only one tiny bit of encouragement. It’s impossible that they will never know their grandmother and I will never quite know how to explain it to them.
When they’re finally old enough to understand that Mommy can have a Mommy, I’ll try. I’ll try to tell them about the love that I know shushed and patted and cradled me. I’ll do my best but until then I’m going to be amazed by this thing that happens over and over again with my kids. There is so much love around them but it is my embrace they want.
I’d awake with the same fear. I was older but it would shake me from slumber just the same. It was the same except that she was never there. She had died. She was dead. She was never coming back. It wasn’t just a dream. It was real.
It is still real, so real that I don’t know how to respond when my darling girls seek my comfort. I wonder if I should assure them of how much love surrounds them. It’s not just me that loves them. There are so many others but then it doesn’t feel right to push them away. I still crave that comfort, that comfort that only my mother can provide.
That has never gone away.
I don’t know if it ever will.
Expert was the word that made me laugh in her email.
I do not feel like an expert in anything. I’ve rather owned that pastors are the last generalists. We dabble in this and that. We have a lot of theological thoughts (hopefully) and some leadership skills. We know a little of this and a little of that. Even when members of our congregation or community assumes we have wisdom in all things, we are more often than not stumbling over the answers like everyone else.
Expert was the word that she used. It was experts that she sought out for her congregation to share in conversation about important topics, like grief. I replied to her email assuring her that I really was not an expert.
She assured me that I was. I am an expert of my own grief. It is an experience that I have had that no one else has had. No one has walked the particular shadow of death I have known. There may be similarities. We may have tripped over the same paths and wandered through the same heartbreak, but no one else can tell me exactly what it was like. It is my experience alone. I am an expert.
What was even more laughable about her email was the invitation was to appear as a guest on a parenting podcast. Parenting is something I do all day every day, but it is new to me. My peers have teenagers whereas I have a toddler and an infant. I’m looking for experts. I don’t imagine myself as one.
Still, Amelia Richardson Dress was adamant. Amelia is one of the pastors of United Church of Christ Longmont in Colorado and host of this wonderful digital ministry. She’d read something on my blog that led her to believe my wisdom was needed on her congregation’s podcast In Other Words. It is described on the church website in this manner:
Parenting is full of important, funny and sometimes downright awkward conversations. Each week, Amelia Richardson Dress talks with experts about the things that matter when it comes to raising kids. If you’ve ever had a question about sex, race, death or peer pressure sprung on you before your morning coffee, this podcast is for you.
I am most honored to be a part of a ministry that is just so dang innovative. I love the idea of a podcast for adult education whether the topic is parenting or something else. I think this is just brilliant and I hope that sharing a bit of my story helped to spark some important conversations for how we talk about death with children. You can find the episode entitled Grief, Parenting and the Failure of Quick Fixes below.
I’d love to know what you think and how you are attempting to become an expert in your own story. It seems to me that is no easy task.
Christmas comes in the ordinary.
It comes into a guest room where strangers are welcomed as friends. A place is made for another night of rest. Two expectant parents wonder if this will be the night.
No matter what may have been foretold, it could be any night. The baby will come when its ready. No amount of walking or spicy food from a food cart in Bethlehem will change that.
I wonder how ordinary it seemed to Mary: this long trip to the hometown of her betrothed, the lingering impact of a celestial visitor, the frustration that no part of this wonder could have been easy for her. I wondered all of this as I unloaded the dishwasher and rinsed off the breakfast dishes and piled them into the machine that makes my life easier. I pondered this as I bent down to haul clean wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. It was my second load of laundry this morning. I had promised myself yesterday that my Christmas gift to myself would be to not have to do a load of cloth diapers on Christmas. I didn’t succeed in avoiding other laundry.
Kathleen Norris finds laundry to be one of the ordinary tasks that most inspires prayer. I don’t usually feel that way, but I found myself musing over her wisdom. Wondering, again, if these ordinary chores on Christmas Eve might have value just as Norris suggests because they’re “never completed, but only set aside to the next day.”
I wondered what Mary did to clean up that borrowed space where she would give birth. After such a long journey, did she feel the need to scrub her clothes clean? Did she lament that Joseph always manages to clump so much dirt to the souls of his feet? Did she slosh a bucket of warm soapy water his way and insist that he chip in by at least cleaning his feet off, for the love of their unborn child?
These are the kinds of questions I wonder every year on Christmas. It’s a question I ponder on other days when something fantastic is supposed to happen. Miracles abound but I’m otherwise preoccupied with laundry or the dishes. I’m supposed to feel something different about this day. Something is supposed to shift but I’m too worried about the things that keep me busy every other day.
Still, I wonder. I wonder how much Mary worried about bringing a child into this world. I wonder too about those other children she had. They came later, we are told. This would be her first child. She would learn to be a parent for the very first time when her child’s life was threatened. She would become a refugee for his safety but as I sat breastfeeding my baby girl I wondered if there were other children she was protecting. Did she sit there in that borrowed room feeding her baby for the first time while she watched her toddler playing with blocks by the manger? Did she know in that instant that she would do anything for these kids? Did she berate herself for not feeling as certain in this conviction until she had children of her own?
There is nothing ordinary about these questions, but perhaps that is why this story matters again every year. We might repeat the same prayers and sing the same old carols. We might prepare the same feast without ever experiencing the magic of Christmas, but Christmas comes.
Christmas comes into the monotony. It comes into the back-breaking frustration that the work is not done, that justice hasn’t yet come. It comes into the constant struggle to do more because the world needs more. Our children need more. Our hope needs more. Christmas comes when nothing seems to be any different. Christmas comes when we have so exhausted ourselves that we can’t believe in miracles. Christmas comes anyway. It comes into ordinary flesh. It comes in the tiny cry of a small child. Christmas comes again.
It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.
I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.
It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.
But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.
Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:
How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?
What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?
What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?
What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?
I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.
I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.
Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.
In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.
It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.
Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.
I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.
Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.