Stay-at-Home Clergy Mom

On Christmas Eve, my daughter raced back and forth from table to pew, pew to table and back again, to ask for more Jesus. That’s what she called it with both fistfuls full of leavened grace as her little hands signed “more” over and over again. I was so grateful to our pastor, a mother of three, for her patience and her clear understanding that there are always second and third helpings at this table.

I had presided at that table same table while pregnant with her little sister but my daughter wasn’t there to see that. She was in the nursery “doing church.”  It wasn’t until three months into the pandemic that my little girl saw me in a collar presiding over a tortilla and a chalice of water before my computer screen. It was the first time she heard me say, to her or anyone, “This is the bread of life broken for you.”  

I wonder if either of my girls will ever hear me say those words regularly in congregational worship.  

Sometimes I fear they won’t.  

I left my last settled call before they were born, before my husband and I were even married and grew into a family of four. We have packed up our home and gone where the Army sent us. He has been promoted and received awards while I have stayed home raising my sweet girls. After he retires, it will be my turn. That was always the deal.

I will search for a new call and return to ministry. I will return but I will not be the same minister that I was when I was single.

Over ten years ago, as a newly ordained woman, I heard myself tell a church member that I didn’t feel called to motherhood. Her mouth fell open in complete shock. It might not be the thing that you want to hear from the Associate Pastor responsible for all the children and youth programs. That wasn’t what she said though. She didn’t comment on my vocation but only sputtered, “But you’re so good with children.”

“Thank you,” I said. It was an inadequate response. I don’t know if I ever got the chance to explain that I didn’t feel called to the only parent. As much as I loved children, I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. If I was going to have children, I wanted a partner. I needed someone with whom to share that journey and he had not yet materialized.

Nor did I explain in coffee hour that day that only a few months before I had been grilled in a church basement by a clergy man on the Church and Ministry Committee in the United Church of Christ about how I could have possibly been a wife, a mother and a minister in a answering a call to only one of those vocations at that time.

I didn’t know then that I would one day have to choose between those options. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with a man that would have a career that would not follow mine.

My ordination vows feel dusty and buried in one of the boxes tucked into the garage that we haven’t unpacked in the past three moves. We moved in the beginning of the pandemic. We expect another move in two years and it takes nearly that long to complete a search process. So I wait and wonder when I will embody both of these identities, both mother and pastor.

I wonder how the churches that might consider me to be the next pastor will view the five or seven or eight year gap on my resume. I don’t know if they will find any value in the gifts and strengths from this precious time where I’ve focused on my family anymore than I know how different the church might look after we emerge from the other side of this pandemic.

I wonder if they will think that there is no earthly way that I could understand the challenges that face the church when I haven’t been in full time ministry all these years, however many it may end up being.

I wonder about all of the ways that I fall short of my vocational dreams while I do my damndest to be the best mom I can be to these two tiny wonders God gave me.

This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September from Bookshop.org, Amazon, or Cokesbury

To find other stories of clergy mothers, including sixteen different women from seven faith traditions, please explore the author’s blog. You can find the internet home of Lee Ann M. Pomrenke’s writings here. The particular links to this blog tour can be found in this post.

Thirty Three Years Later

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.

An Expert In My Own Grief

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.artworks-000481291728-wv34tk-t500x500

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.

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.

Tell the Children

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.

It’s why Matt de la Pena wrote Love and it is why I’m spending hours during nap time trying to write down my story. He says it so well in a recent essay in Time:

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.

To Be Regular in Worship (Or Not)

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.

Silent Prayers for All Saints Day

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

Hymn In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful

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.

Hymn A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing

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.

Hymn We Sing for All the UnSung Saints

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

Benediction (Unison)

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.

Prayers for Palm and Passion Sunday

Years ago, when I was still pastoring in Maine and also writing liturgy for the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways, I wanted to find some way to honor both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. The church was accustomed to only doing Palm Sunday because there would be other services both for children and adults later in the week. The year before we did both and it felt so strange, even to me. I wanted to find another way to do it — some way that honored the complexity of these days.

It’s not an easy story to tell and for so much that happens there is no adequate explanation. There is no way to make sense of it. It is why I have titled this complete liturgy No Answer and why I’ve decided to repost it here — not only because it answers the call that I hear my clergy colleagues making as they plan for Holy Week but because rereading this liturgy again spoke something new and fresh to me in these days.

Unlike other Ingredients for Worship, where I offer a few prayers for worship, this is an entire liturgy for Palm and Passion Sunday. It combines silence and story from Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:1-15:47. Using passages adapted from the NRSV, this liturgy provides the opportunity for lay leaders to share the story from the Gospel of Mark. Each reading concludes with a statement “Come…” to respond to the story in silence or song. Following the story of the Last Supper, there is a brief, optional, service of Holy Communion.

Call to Worship (inspired by Isaiah 50:4-9a)

Come. Come seeking words.
Come to let your tongue give praise.
Come. Come to find your voice.
Come to hear the response.
Come. Come to open your ears.
Come to listen.
Come. Come to be healed by the silence.
Come to stand together.
Come. Come to approach what words cannot describe.
Come to find God.

Prayer of Invocation

Come. Come O Holy One.
Come through the streets.
Come into the house.
Come to find a space beside us at the table.
Come to challenge our answers about
Why tragedy comes
Why poverty increases
Why we are afraid.
Come O Holy One.
Speak to us in the silence
With wisdom greater than ours
With love deeper than ours
With change wider than ours.

Shared Silence

Come O Holy One.
Fill in these stories
with your wisdom
with your love
with your change
so that we might rely on your answers.
Here and now. Amen.

Hymn My Song is Love Unknown

Prayer of Confession (inspired by Psalm 31:9-16)

O Holy One, we are too distressed to notice that you join us in the parade.
We are too deeply grieved to be aware that you sit beside us at the table.
We are too busy sighing. We are too busy talking.
We have insisted upon our own answers.
We proclaimed our own knowledge about why bad things happen,
about why the rich get richer, about why the world feels so broken.
We have assured ourselves that this is the way that things must be,
but this life is in your hands.
Our lives are in your hands.

O Holy One, speak to us.
Fill our silences.
Comfort us with your love
so that we may find your understanding.
Trust us to find your answers
when we finally tire from our own.
Save us, O Holy One, with your steadfast love. Amen.

Words of Assurance

God opens your ears.
God speaks when you are silent.
God approaches you
in the parade and at table
in your denial and your praise
to be your help.
Now and always. Amen.

Hymn All Glory, Laud and Honor

The Palm Parade (Mark 11:1-11)

They were looking for answers. So, they went to Jerusalem. They gathered in the streets to make a way for peace. On the other side of the city, there was another procession. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, rode into Jerusalem with an army of horses, armored soldiers and waving banners.

On the other side of the city, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus had sent two of his disciples to go into the village and find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. He instructed them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They replied with the answer Jesus had given. “The Lord needs it,” they said.

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and Jesus sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who needed answers, those who had come looking for peace, began shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Come. Join in the parade, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn Mantos y Ramos 

The Anointing (Mark 14:1-9)

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

They were looking for their own answers. They thought they knew how the world worked. While they worried, Jesus sat at the table in the house of Simon the leper. A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. She did not reply. She continued with her task. She did what she could; she anointed his body beforehand for its burial. Jesus spoke, where she did not. “Truly I tell you,” he said. “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Come. Kneel beside her. Do not speak but remember what your hands have done to proclaim the good news.

Silence

The Last Supper (Mark 14:10-25)

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

They didn’t understand his way. They didn’t understand all that he taught but when it came time to share in the Passover feast, they turned to Jesus. On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples asked, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” The disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, those looking for answers, those who came looking for peace, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Come. Find your place at this table, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Hymn of Preparation It Was a Sad and Solemn Night (optional)

Service of Holy Communion (optional)

Invitation to Christ’s Table

Come. Come and find your place at this table.
Come without answers.
Come without knowing peace.
Come without preparation.
Come. Come to find a place here.
This is the table Christ prepares for us.
This is the feast God imagines –
where peace can be found in a simple meal.

Communion Prayer

God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks for the peace of God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

In the streets,
In our homes,
Here beside this table,
We give you thanks,
O Holy One.

We give you thanks for giving us a story.
Even when we do not understand its meaning,
Even when we doubt it happened this way,
Even when we want to rush ahead to the end,
We know that you have given us this story
in which to live and move and have our being.

We remember that your story did not begin with this parade,
but began when you came to move over the waters of creation.
We remember the tragedies that came to your people.
And we know that you were not silent.
You gave your people a story.
You gave your people a rainbow.
You gave your people a song.
You gave your people peace.

Gather here with us now, O Holy One,
Speak to us through this bread and this cup.
Remind us of all the stories we’ve ever heard about you.
Imbue these symbols with your peace
So that we might find your peace within ourselves.

Words of Institution

Sharing of the Bread and Cup

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Prayer of our Savior

O Holy One, there are no words to describe the mystery of this bread and cup. There are no sighs to deep to reveal what we feel in sharing in this feast. Thank you for gathering us together to remember that you are always present among us. We lift our hearts in prayer, toward your spirit and pray the Prayer that Jesus taught us…

The Story Continues

The Garden (Mark 14:32-40)

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, Jesus threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. They had no answers.

Come. Rest in the garden, you who are weary, you who don’t have any answers.

Hymn I Must Tell Jesus 

The Betrayal (Mark 14:43-50)

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. He was confident in his own answer. He thought he knew how this must end. So, he had told the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, “Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” When he came, he went up to Jesus at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. They had come looking for answers. They had come looking for peace. This wasn’t the way. They didn’t understand. And so, they deserted him and fled.

Come. Run into your fears, you who need answers, you who came looking for peace.

Silence

The Arrest (Mark 14:53-65)

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. There did not have one answer. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

The chief priests, the elders and the scribes knew their answer. They thought they knew the ways of God. They thought they knew all that God could do. There was nothing that could convince them otherwise. They spit on him and blindfolded him. They beat him for the words he said.

Come. Listen to what God might be saying. Listen to what God might be doing that doesn’t fit with everything that you have been taught about this world. Listen for God to speak.

Silence

The Denial (Mark 14:66-72)

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by.When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” He answered, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.”

Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it.

Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Come. Join those who wander through courtyards, court rooms, streets and gardens.
Join the crowds who have come looking for answers, looking for peace.

Hymn I Want Jesus to Go with Me 

Invitation to the Offering

When you have no words,
When you cannot find your voice,
God approaches.
Let us reach out to our God.
Let us give our gifts.

Dedication of the Offering

O Holy One,
Bless these gifts
So that the world may know your love
Even when we are silent. Amen.

Hymn Journey to Gethsemane 

Benediction

Go into the world to find your voice
Listening to what God will do.
Go into the world to find each other
Reaching out when we need support.
Go into the world be amazed
Knowing that God is always with us.

If you use this liturgy in your worship, please give credit to Elsa Anders Cook and mention that it was originally written for the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways. I would love to hear how you use this service — especially if you choose alternate hymns or make other tweaks for your congregation.

Self-Care is Not Just for Clergy

yoga-post-300x200In the wake of the presidential inauguration, with the tsunami of executive orders that immediately followed, I have watched as my friends on social media have retreated. One by one, they’ve announced they are taking a break. They need to rest. Their souls must retreat. 

Of course, as these posts appeared on Facebook, that pesky comment box beckons for a response. Some comments are blessings for renewal. Some offer courage and solidarity. Others admit that they’re feeling the same pull and then… then there’s that person who insists upon engagement. Full of finger wagging shame, this person curses the rest that even God requires.

Read more on New Sacred.

Good News for Today

It has been a long time since I was in the pulpit. 

My friend Elizabeth Hagan reminded me of this fact in her recent inquiry into why preachers should be political. It’s something I’ve wondered often. If I were to preach right now, what would I say? 

What would I want to say? What needs to be said? I’ve scrapped several thousand drafts in an essay format, but it feels different to type out the words and never preach them. My style might not be all that different. It might look the same but it’s different to proclaim the words. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation when those words are voiced.

Still, I’m not sure what I would say. It’s been months since I stepped into a pulpit, any pulpit. The last time I did, it was a place to which I’d never been and it’s far away that I’m unlikely to return. The next time I preach is likely to be rather similar. I don’t get to preach every Sunday. I’m not serving a church and so I don’t get to build that trust between Sundays that allows me to speak prophetically in the light of God’s love. 

And yet, as Elizabeth wisely says, “One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context.” This got me thinking about whether or not the good news changes. The context has changed. It has changed drastically but is the good news any different than it was three years ago?

This is what brought me to delve into my files to find my sermon on the very text that preachers will attempt to glean some good news from on Sunday. Three years ago, preaching on Matthew 5:21-37, I proclaimed:

Jesus wants us to be “people of integrity” so much so that when we say yes we really mean yes, and when we say no we really mean no. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. And it can cause a whole lot of anger — but we can try our very best to say what we mean and mean what we say. 

This is no easy task when you live in a world like we do — in a world of “seemingly unlimited choice” so that we crave “novelty, variety and multiplicity.” We think that this is the way that it should be – and so we are always looking for more. We think that by obtaining more, by doing more, by working harder, we will be able to prove our worth even though we have just heard Jesus’ assurance that we are the salt of the earth. That we are the light of the world. So, why is it so hard to say yes to this promise? 

It should be easy. It should be so simple. And, then, we could just pick up and go on with our lives. But, there are so many choices available to us that we hesitate because we really want to be sure. We want to make sure there isn’t a better deal. So that when we say yes we really mean yes. But, there’s a give and take here too, isn’t there? 
You have to give a little before we can take. You have to make the promise. You have to choose the relationship before you get to feel its blessings, but making that promise won’t change how God sees you. You may put yourself through fiery hell trying to get our yes to mean yes, but Jesus has already told you: you are the light of the world. That won’t change. No matter how many times you test it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent the whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight …. Your worth has already been established, even when you’re are not working.”

Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Maybe that still means that you’ll need to count to 10 or take a little break or scream into a pillow. Maybe the hurt and pain will still be there. Maybe it will never go away. There is great injustice in the world and there is so much that needs to change. It can make us so very angry that terrible things happen. But, all of that anger and frustration does not change the fact that God has promised to love you. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you break your promises, God is going to love you. 

Believe it. Say yes to that love. Count to 10 first, if you need to. Listen to a favorite piece of music if you want. Take all the time you need. But, let your yes to God’s love mean yes. Give into it. Take it. Because this love – God’s love – is so very good. 

It still feels relevant.