A Service to Break Down Walls on Ash Wednesday

Sometimes cooking begins just by opening the pantry and realizing that that something delicious with peanut butter (because you mysteriously have a surplus of peanut butter) sounds really good. That’s kinda how this service came together.

It all started with an email from the Salt Project which brought me to their blog to read this familiar poem. Or at least, it should be familiar. It should be one that I know well but I realized as I read these words that I don’t think I’ve ever read the whole poem. And then, there’s the fact that there is a larger news story that activates this poem. It gives it new energy when the United States has gone through a shut down, a national emergency, charges of sexual abuse of young children and ongoing separation of families all because of an imagined wall along the Southern border of our nation.

Lent begins with a similar tension. There is awareness that something is amiss. The world is not as it should be but no one quite seems to know how to fix all that is wrong. It is a season in the Christian calendar when we recommit ourselves to seeking God’s help. We confess that we’ve made other gods. We’ve separated ourselves in countless ways and we need help. We want to break down those walls that we’ve built with our very own hands.

To imagine such a thing, I’ve called upon poets. There are three poems in this service. I’ve linked to the poems in other places. You’ll hear lines of those poems repeated in the liturgy as we move through the ritual actions of this day.

It is a service that invites dramatic play with the news headlines in that the congregation is invited to literally break down a wall that has been set up on the communion table. Each brave soul gets to carry one of those rocks home with them, holding onto it through the 40 days of the season. I didn’t dare interpret what it might mean to carry that rock but trusted that God will lead in making it known what it means to carry that weight.

I’m really looking forward to being in the pews and experiencing this myself.

A Service for Breaking Down Walls 

Gathering Music

– WE GATHER IN FAITH

Welcome

Opening Words of Meditation

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

Song of Invocation

Beginning the Journey

One: We begin this journey together
on the other side of the wall,
feeling separate, distant and alone.
All: We have built this wall.
We have placed each stone
for our own protection,
to feel safe and secure.
One: We begin here, again,
wondering what we have walled out.
All: Each boulder was set in place
to guard our hearts and souls.
One: We meant well but this construction has blockaded us
from so much more than we ever intended.
All: Holy One, help us to move these stones.
In the forty days ahead, help us to break down
the barriers we have erected from your love.
Blast through our arrogance
and push us toward your grace.
One: We know now that we’ve separated ourselves from
neighbors, friends, strangers, and our truest selves,
but Holy One, we’ve distanced ourselves the most from you.
All: Holy One, give us strength for the journey.

WE LISTEN FOR GOD’S WORD

Song of Illumination

Seeking the Word in Scripture

Psalm 51:1-17 

These words of scripture are to be read with an introduction that fits the norm of that congregation by a liturgist or pastor. 

Song of Illumination

The people are invited to sing the song once more.

Meditation on Scripture

Lent 1991 by Maren Tirabassi

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

Anthem

–– WE CONFESS OUR BROKENNESS ––

Call to Repentance                               

One: We begin this sacred journey by remembering together, the very things
that challenge us from experiencing and knowing God’s love. These are the very things that have caused us to build walls.
All: We are called in this holy season of Lent to struggle against
anything that leads us away from the love of God and neighbor. We
recognize that so much is broken in this world and even in ourselves and together we commit to partner with you, Holy One, in mending what has been so very broken.
One: You are invited to come forward and find a rock along the constructed wall
along the communion table. Take that rock, the one that calls to you as a
reminder of all that has separated you, all that has distanced you from love, all that has caused you to seek protection instead of grace. Take that rock from the wall and place in your pocket to keep with you on the journey through these next forty days to remember that you are called to mend what has already been broken. You are called into love.

You may come forward, as you feel so moved, to remove a rock from the constructed “wall” on the communion table and place it in our pocket for the journey through the next 40 days. 

Kyrie

Affirmation of Faith           

One: Having stepped into the unknown together, daring to seek another way,
we are upheld by God’s grace as we remember:
All: All things, even our troubles, become dust. We give over to Holy Mystery that which we cannot solve or heal alone. We dare to trust the promise that the Spirit of Christ takes these first steps with us. We begin this journey courageously together into the unknown love that awaits us.

–– WE SHARE OUR GIFTS AND HOLY COMMUNION ––

An Invitation to Mend the Brokenness

One: Here, now, we enter into Lent.
We draw the holy comma
between what was and what could be.
We stumble over our humanity. We admit we’re stubborn
and confess that sometimes we think we know better even than God.
We begin here, at the table, where all are fed.
We begin here where grace abounds.
We begin here to mend what has been broken
in the ourselves and in the world
with the crazy contradiction that we don’t have the answers.
We don’t know what is best
but we dare to believe that resurrection matters.
Change can come and so we place ashes on our foreheads.
The dust of a thousand stones reminds us that we have
come from earth and one day will return to earth.
We remember here that life is fragile and delicate
but so deserving of blessing, as are we.
We come to remember that blessing
with bread and cup, oil and earth,
that will mend all that has been broken.
All: Holy One, give us strength for the journey.

Holy Communion and Stations of Devotion

All are welcome at Christ’s table – members, guests, first-timers, long-timers, baptized or not – all who desire to know and share the love of God are invited. When and if you are so moved, you may visit any or all of the following prayer stations during our time of communion: 

    • Imposition of Ashes: All are invited to come forward to receive ashes to remind us of the hard truth of limited lives. The sign of the cross in ashes will be given to all who desire saying, “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
    • Anointing: You may also receive this ancient blessing of the church to remind us of the never-failing power of God’s limitless love. Holy oil will be placed on the top of the head or hand saying, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
    • Holy Communion: By the side aisles, you may receive communion by intinction, coming forward to take a bit of bread and dipping it in the cup.
    • Offering: Finally you may place your tithes and offerings for the work of the Church in the plate.

Table Song

The Prayer of Our Savior

using these or whichever words are closest to your heart:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

–– WE GO FORTH TO SERVE ––

Closing Words of Meditation

In My Soul by Rabia

These words of poetry are to be read without introduction by a liturgist or pastor. 

We Are Sent Forth

One: We go forth, O Holy One, on a quest to find you.
All: We go forth with our senses heightened
to recognize the needs of the world around us.
One: We go refreshed with our hearts lifted up to you,
All: With our minds open to your leading,
One: With our gifts to share with others,
All: And always with your word of peace on our lips.

Sending Music

If you use these prayers as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear about any adaptations you make for your context and hear how it goes.

70,000 Words

Earlier this month, I took a Memoirs 101 online class with the Writer’s League of Texas. The instructor emphasized structure and form, both of which feel like high ideals for the random assortment of memories that are currently cobbled together in a massive Word document that takes forever to open on my laptop.

I should be writing right now. My baby girl is napping and this is my chance to add to that document. Or maybe to polish it. Instead, I’ve procrastinated by cleaning both of the bathrooms in my house. It needed to be done, but still.

I sat down to write but I’m still thinking about one of the instructor’s closing thoughts. She shared, at the end of her presentation, that memoirs can take different formats. They can be anything from a short essay of 2,000 words to a full book of approximately 70,000 words.

That massive Word document on my laptop currently has 71,917 words and it does not yet feel complete. Instead of inspiring me to edit and economize, this little fact has debilitated me. It has left me paralyzed.

I am not usually one that speaks or writes at great length. My sermons are always short. I can barely manage to preach for 15 minutes and am completely and totally flummoxed that anyone could orate for 45 minutes or more. I know churches that have asked for it. They expect it more than the churches I’ve served where worship better be under an hour, or else.

Neither of the theses that I wrote in college or in seminary were this long, but here I am staring at a blinking cursor wondering if there could really be more to say. I believe there is. There are moments from my childhood grief that I haven’t fully explored. There are things that I still don’t fully understand and that’s why I’m writing this anyway. It’s why in the sixth or seventh draft of this book, I’m no longer reflecting back as an adult who has grieved for thirty years but choosing to find my voice in that little girl who first bumped into the terrible things that are so often said when someone is dying.

I want these words to matter. I want these words to speak beyond the grief of my inner child to articulate something that others have felt. It won’t speak to everyone. There will still be some that don’t understand. There will always be someone who says they’re sorry I haven’t gotten over this sadness already, but I really hope that all of these thousands of words I’ve written have some meaning beyond the fact that I wrote them.

So maybe I should just write. Each day has enough trouble, Jesus said. Tomorrow will worry about itself and there is only so much I can do toiling and spinning in my worry over word count.

Prayers for Epiphany 5C and 6C

I am blessed and honored to continue to cook up liturgical elements for worship at the United Christian Church in Austin. Admittedly, it feels like I haven’t been in the kitchen in a very long time. I’m editing more. I’m pulling more books off the shelf.

I don’t have the familiar recipe of these liturgical words memorized anymore. It’s not a part of my breathing as it once was when I led worship every Sunday. I am shocked that Epiphany has been so short in years past and I don’t have anything in my folders from past worship services, but it’s forcing me to be creative.

Our church is in the midst of transition. The Senior Pastor left for another call just before Advent and so the first set of prayers reveals a bit of that angst and struggle. (Honestly, I don’t think that this church is struggling at all.) Having done work with churches in transition most recently, it felt right with the Gospel.

The second set of prayers for the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany pick up with the Beatitudes. As we are a congregation in transition, I pushed myself to write something that wasn’t a unison prayer following the Call to Worship. And so, the second ingredient for that Sunday is something to spice up our prayer time. This will be shared after the congregation shares their spoken prayers and just before the Prayer of our Savior.

Prayers for Epiphany 5C

Call to Worship

Adapted from a poem by the Persian poet Rumi

One: Come, come, whoever you are.
Many: Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving — it doesn’t matter,
One: Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Many: Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
One: Come, come again, come.

Prayer for the Weary in Transition (unison)

We come tired, weary and worn.
We have already done so much work, so much heavy lifting.
We long to hear assurances or maybe even “a job well done,”
but instead we are invited again to roll up our sleeves.
We must haul out the boats and put in another hour, maybe two.
There is more to be done. There is always more to be done.
We wade together into the deep water, dragging the boat out of the sand,
wondering what could change. What will one more hour do?
We let down our nets, just as we are told.
We wait for what will catch us. O Holy One, catch our tired bodies today.  

Prayers for Epiphany 6C

Call to Worship

One: We have come to this level place.
Many: We have come to look each other in the eye.
One: No one will stand above or below,
Many: but we will turn to each other
and call each other blessed.
One: We have sorrows and woes, God knows,
but we have come to rejoice.
Many: And so, we will leap into blessing.
Holy One, be with us in this praise.

Praying Our Blessing and Woes

One: There in that level place,
Christ looked upon his disciples and said,
Woe to you who are rich.
Many: Remove from us the lust for power.
Let greed not enter our hearts, O Christ.
One: Woe to you who are full now.
Many: Remind us that our full pantries offer no guarantees.
Make us aware of how very vulnerable we are, O Christ.
One: Woe to you who are laughing now.
Many: Forgive us for every sarcastic comment.
Empty us of snark, O Christ.
One: Woe to you all speak well of you,
Many: O Christ, heal us of our arrogance.
Call to us with your words of blessing.  
One: Here in this level place, Christ heals us, saying,
Blessed are you who are hungry now.
Many: Blessed are we who believe justice has not yet come,
for we will be filled.
One: Blessed are you who weep now,
Many: Blessed are we when life just feels much too hard, for we will laugh.
One: Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you,
revile you, and defame you.
Many: Blessed are we who feel we haven’t done enough and know we
could do more. Blessed are we no matter what other names we’ve
been called, for in this level place there is healing.
One: There is reason to leap for joy. We’ve been cured of our evil spirits. We’ve been touched with grace and love. We are children raised in blessing, who dare to pray:

The Prayer of Our Savior

If you use these prayers as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear about any adaptations you make for your context and hear how it goes.

Grief in the Midst of Joy

In just four days, it’ll be thirty-two years since she died.

It will be thirty-two years since my mother died. I have to pull out a calculator every year to subtract from the current year. Surely, it hasn’t been that long. It hasn’t been this many years without her. It seems impossible to believe amid so much joy.

My sassy little girl started walking this weekend. She’d taken a few hesitant steps about a week ago but we went to a birthday party on Saturday full of four year olds and she wasn’t going to be left in the dust. She toddled across the room. She sat at the big kid’s table. She had chicken nuggets for the very first time and her smile was just so big.

Though she has no interest in my growing belly, I’ve started talking to her about her baby sister. She won’t be the baby anymore. She’ll have a baby sister. Of course, this doesn’t register at all but she will retrieve her baby doll from across the room and shove a bottle in its mouth with great force. Every time, she looks up with this great big smile.

I don’t remember how it was last year.

I don’t remember if grief consumed my entire January in a blizzard of tears, as it once did. I don’t remember if the change in climate made the days before Groundhog Day feel less heavy. Or if I was too tired from a newborn baby waking up to the world in new ways to notice that it was even that time of year again.

There has only been one Groundhog Day since I became a mother. Only that one, and I don’t remember how it was.

I only remember how my husband and I ordered Chinese for dinner because, as a New Yorker, this is my preferred comfort food. I remember the excitement of finding any restaurant that would deliver to our rural address only to be horrified by what was in that delivery bag. Jalapenos should not ever be in Chinese food. It was only this unsettled feeling that this is not how this day should be that remains.

There is that sense about this day for me. Somehow, the day my mother died should be set apart. It should be different. I want it to be different so that heaven might mingle with my ordinary world. It’s something I’ve felt in the days before. As the new year dawns, a sadness emerges. A sense of loss comes close. I’m more aware of what is missing than what might be just beginning and so I’ve allowed myself this one day to feel all of that grief but that’s harder to do with a giggling ball of energy always at my side.

She’s not old enough yet to understand what happened thirty-two years ago. It’ll be a few years yet before she has any real understanding of death, but she’s started to look more like me. When she smiles now, it’s my grin. She tilts her head like I do. She makes the same silly faces that my mom probably made with me. I don’t know how I’ll ever tell her that she looks like her grandmother. I guess that’ll be how grief feels for this season.

It’ll be caught up in this wonder and delight that I don’t get to share with my mom. It is that absence that I grieve every year. She’s not here to play on the floor with her granddaughter. She won’t be here when her second grandchild will be born. There will be a lot of love around these two little girls. They have three full sets of grandparents. They have a great grandmother and a military community that will always be there. There will be churches that will love them and watch them grow. There will be lots and lots of love, but it’ll be my job to tell both my girls about the grandmother they never met. It’ll be hard because I don’t remember her that well.

It’s something I’m struggling with every afternoon as my daughter naps. I sit down again and try to write about where my grief started. There are things I remember, snapshots mostly of doctor appointments and strange things that grownups said to me. There are a few memories where cancer didn’t overshadow, but I mostly remember her as being sick. I remember her dying.

I don’t remember what she loved and what made her giggle. Those are the things I want to share with my girls, but what I do remember is what we did after she was gone. I remember what it felt like to do fun things after my mom died. I still have that guilt. It’s what hangs on tight thirty-two years later. It’s why I’d rather hide and quitely mourn by myself, but I can’t. This year, my sweet girl and I will be in my favorite city before my sister tries on wedding dresses for the first time. There will be a lot of joy surrounding us as I try to figure out how to grieve in the midst of it all.

Fear, Love and Another Supreme Court Decision

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 vote to uphold the ban on transgender service members fulfilling their call to service in the United States military. It was said by one woman just four years short of retirement in the Navy that this decision “speaks volumes about where we are as a country.”

This brave woman is right to point out that the biases of a few are having a huge impact on an entire community, but I am not sure that it speaks volumes.

I don’t want to that fear to trump everything, because I believe there is a voice we cannot quite hear yet.

I believe that there is a louder voice in the next generation, those that are not yet old enough to serve as justices on the Supreme Court. Maybe they’re not that loud yet because they aren’t even old enough to vote, but I have faith that these children will lead us. These are the kids who grew up only knowing a black president. These are the kids that don’t remember anything before legal marriage for all people. Maybe they remember the Supreme Court decision. Maybe. Or maybe it has just been a fact of their lives.

The Pew Research Center reported last week that these kids make up “the most racially and ethnically diverse generation” we have ever seen in this country. They haven’t had to learn gender-neutral pronouns. They haven’t stumbled over their words like I have because they’ve grown up with this vocabulary. It is said that this young generation, called Generation Z, is more liberal and more inclusive than their elders have ever been.

My daughter is too young to be a part of this young generation. She is only 15 months old and so she fits with some evolving generation that doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what new things will be normal for her, but the statistics seem to hint that my little girl will only be more liberal. Generation Z is already 10% more confident with gender pronouns than Millennials. They are 3% more determined than Millennials in their certainty that our society is not accepting enough and their 6% more determined that the government needs to do more to solve problems for individuals and businesses.

I don’t know who my little girl will grow up to be. I don’t know if her fascination with shoes and beaded necklaces is just a phase that will lead to something else, some new identity where gender is much more fluid. I know I will struggle because I am part of my generation, but I’m excited about what she will teach me.

I’m eager to see how she challenges her old liberal mother. I hope she makes me squirm. I hope she pushes all my political buttons. I hope she teaches me more about love than I know now, not just because she’s my kid and my heart has grown in loving her. But, I hope that she thinks it’s silly that her Mommy ever had to fight for marriage equality. I wonder what she’ll think of the story I’ll one day tell her about officiating my first transgender wedding as much as I wonder if she’ll feel called to serve in the military like her Daddy.

Watching her play on the floor yesterday with her wooden pots and pans, mixing up air with her play spatula, she’s already cooking up trouble. I couldn’t help but smile and think “it’s gonna be OK.” There is a temptation to despair. There’s a tendency among us old(er) liberals to think that the prejudices of a very small few will ruin everything, but I’m not going to fall into that fear.

As it says in those words that we once carried through the streets in the name of marriage equality, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:.18, NRSV). I’m gonna strive for that perfection, that perfection that my daughter will one day teach me with a gigantic roll of her eyes. Fear doesn’t motivate or inspire, but love always does.

I won’t be paralyzed by the feeling that there’s nothing I can do to reverse a Supreme Court decision. I’m not going to nervously analyze statistics across the generations, but I’m gonna figure out how I can raise my daughter and my family in the love that we believe should exist in our nation and especially in our military.

I hope that that love is the loudest.

Prayers for Baptism of Christ Sunday and Epiphany 2C

I attend a church with a super talented and dynamic staff, but as it happens when a lead pastor leaves for a new call, they’re carrying more than they usually do. There’s more work for each and every one of them. I could see it on their faces. It wasn’t obvious but I knew that look in my own eyes when it was me that was feeling overwhelmed in parish ministry. So I asked if I could help and somehow I ended up writing liturgy.

I wrote liturgy for all of Advent and then asked if it would help if I could create bulletins while they search for a new administrator. My heart breaks for them. No administrator? Now? Good grief. So, I kept writing prayers and now I’m formatting bulletins and having a ton of fun doing it.

The following are the prayers I cooked up for the next two Sundays. The first prayer will be Call to Worship and the congregation will be invited to come forward and touch the water. I suggested even having small cups so that people could take a drink, but I don’t know if that will actually happen. There is a sung response between it and the Prayer for the Many Waters.

Prayers for Baptism of Christ Sunday

Gathering Around the Baptismal Font

Adapted from the Call to Celebration for a Baptistry Dedication at Grand Avenue Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ).

One: We are a people of the water!
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like a rain shower, awakens the sleeping seed
within the soul and lures it to blossom.
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like a wading pool, inspires the delight of children, jumping,
splashing, spraying each other, shivering with wet joy.
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like a hot shower after a long day’s work,
cleanses us, reawakens us.
Many: We worship a God whose love flows through water.
One: Love, like little drops, drips from fingertips to forehead;
like a great depth, in which to sink in and immerse our entire body.
Many: Through the waters of baptism, the family of faith always,
lovingly, makes room for one more.
One: And so, God makes room for us by inviting us again and again to remember the gift of water. Come and touch the water to remember God’s love for you.

Prayer for the Many Waters

Awesome God, we thank you for the water in our bath tubs and sinks.
We thank you for the water that rains from the sky and the water inside our bodies. We thank you for rivers and lakes and Barton Springs.
We thank you for oceans and ponds full of fish, turtles and frogs.
We give thanks for the gift of water. May water always remind us
of your love. Amen.

Prayers for Epiphany 2C

Call to Worship

One: Your steadfast love, O God, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds that rain
down the blessing of water upon our heads.
Many: How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
One: There is wonder and mystery for all the people
that you invite to drink from the river of your delights.
Many: You are the fountain of our lives.
One: You pour out your blessings.You bring us to overflowing.
Many: We worship you in wonder and love.

Prayer to Open Our Hearts

Today, O Holy One, we might not feel like there are miracles all around.
We might not feel like there are things to celebrate or wonders to behold.
We might feel like there is nothing we can do with our gifts, our services or even
our activities for the common good. Still, Holy One, gather all our doubts and wonders into this hour and fill us like jars of water. May we be changed
in our wondering about you and your love, we pray. Amen.

If you use these prayers as one of your Ingredients for Worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook. I would love to hear about any adaptations you make for your context and hear how it goes.

New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

IMG_3002
Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

News From My Kitchen

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Most people see Cooking with Elsa and assume it’s a cooking blog. I love to cook but on this blog you’ll find Ingredients for Worship and Recipes for Ministry and not so many actual recipes that you could cook up in your kitchen. It is, after all, a play on my married name.

I’ve posted menus. I even thought about that being a regular feature but then I didn’t pull my act together. Or I wasn’t inspired enough. It never happened, but I’d like to connect with my readers more. I’d like to host an occasional potluck to share good things like recipes and articles and things that are making me laugh and cry and think and pray.

I’m calling it News From My Kitchen. You’ll see a fancy new tab at the top of the page. Click on that and it’ll invite you to provide your email so that you and I can cook up some good holy trouble together.

It’s a potluck, after all. I’ll be sure to bring some things to share from my blog and the things that I’m writing and reading. I’ll be eager to share the recipes I’ve tried that actually worked but I hope that you’ll share in the potluck too. I hope you’ll hit reply and share your thoughts and ideas. Or maybe even a recipe that you just tried on a Monday night that knocked your whole family’s socks off… and it only took 20 minutes to make. We can dream of such wonders, right?

I hope you’ll sign up and join me on this fun new adventure. I hope to send out the first potluck before Christmas.

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Denial Is My Spiritual Practice

It’s around this time of year that Christmas carols start playing in my house. It may be too early for some, but bah humbug to them.

There is enough crap to bemoan in the world right now. There is more than enough that we can beat ourselves up over so let’s just not do that anymore. Not this year, especially not this year. There are too many ways in which I feel like I’ve failed: prayers left unsaid, expectations not met and so many ways that I’m fairly certain I’ve already failed at parenting. I don’t want anyone to tell me that it’s OK, nor am I interested in hearing about ways that I might improve. Or even that it will get better.

This is the time of year where everyone seems to have this rosy idea about the way things should be. There’ll be no arguments about politics around the Thanksgiving table. No swell of sorrow for who is missing this year. No lamentation for the way things haven’t worked out this year in so many ways. It’s why I think Denial is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is exactly what we should be reading as Christmas comes. It makes me feel a little bit better that I procrastinated so dang long on writing this post to celebrate this wonderful book.

Aside from the silly cover that I can’t imagine was either of the authors’ first choice, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith) is the work of good preaching. It’s written by two wise women I’m glad to know. Both of whom are pastors and preachers and this fact flows through each and every essay. They are words of reflection and so very personal. I was awestruck by how intimately and honestly these two women shared in this small collection of essays.

It is, in fact, something I remember asking Martha years ago when we were both pastoring in Maine. Martha has a talent for weaving the everyday ordinariness of her life into her preaching, but I was taught never to talk about myself. I was told to point to God. Martha laughed quietly, in her way, when I said that. She reminded me that every bit of that ordinary stuff points to God.

I kept thinking about that conversation in her living room while the snow was falling outside all those years ago as I read these pages. Many of the essays speak of things that were happening then. I remember. I remember how it took trusted friends to hear these truths. These were not sermon topics, but the tender broken things you hold out to those that love you most to help you make sense of what does not make any sense at all.

I admit that I cried reading more than half of this book because I remember how tender those days were. And yet, these were words that would not have been said then. No, the words in these pages are the work of grace. I wish there were more sermons preached with the grace of these two women. I wish faith was presented less as something complete and perfect and more like it is proclaimed in this small tome: confusing, challenging and sometimes just messy. It’s what we need to remember most at this time of year. Life is not perfect. We are not perfect. We fail but there is grace. Somehow, there is grace however much we might deny it.

I’m grateful these two women got together and created this thing. It’s a gift and one that I think would be worth putting under the tree for your loved one who needs to remember that there is grace out there.

I am honored to have been part of the Denial is My Spiritual Practice Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from the publisher for my honest review. 

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days

Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.

All of these years later, that has stayed with me.

It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.

It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.

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They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.

You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)

After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.

I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No baby is born. There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable here. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.