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.

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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. 

Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

Everything is New

Last week, I had an interview with a church seeking an interim pastor. I knew what would happen even before that meeting. I knew it because it’s what always happens. As I sat there talking to these faith-filled, hopeful people, I came to love them. It wasn’t even a slow progression. It basically walloped me from the moment I said “hello” on the church’s steps.

Love is where ministry starts. It has to start with love because there is no way that we can say and do hard things without love. So I’m glad it’s there and I’m grateful for the people who have shown me this love both as a pastor and a fellow disciple. So it happened again. They told me their story and I loved them even more. My smile broadened. My cheeks hurt as I got in my car to drive home. But, it was then that I was able to admit something to myself that I hadn’t allowed myself to believe yet.

I couldn’t believe it because I could only hear that question that I didn’t know how to answer: So, what are you doing with yourself now? It’s a question that has been asked all summer by friends and family. Ever since people found out that my husband and I were moving to Kansas, they’ve wanted to know what church I’ll be serving and where. And then, when I told them that it wasn’t likely that I would get to serve a church in the very short time that we’d be here, they’ve furrowed their brows and asked: So what are you going to do then?

I haven’t felt like I had an answer to this question. I have really, really wanted an answer to this question but I haven’t had one. I wasn’t sure.

And then, I met with this church to talk about their past and present. I dared to imagine how I could be their interim pastor and realize that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. They are lovely people and I really wanted to help them. I knew I could help them but sitting in my car on the drive home was the first time I asked myself what I wanted from these four months. What was it that I wanted? What was it that I needed?

The first thought was honestly that this summer sucked. It was a good time with my dear friend Corey and I’m so glad to have strengthen our bond these many years after college, but it was also the first three months of my married life. And I was in Pennsylvania while he was in Kansas. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It sucked. We’ve done long distance and the military will probably require us to do it again but we chose it this time. I chose it because I wanted to have something on my resume for a year. That sounds callous, but it’s true. Just as callous and true as it felt to withdraw my name from this lovely congregation’s search for an interim pastor, but that is what I did yesterday. And it is right. It is good.

Over a year ago, I blogged about starting over again. I’ve started and restarted and tried to understand what God is calling me to now when everything is so new. I’ve been at this a year and still everything feels so new.

The apostle imagines this is a blessing to the church in Corinth, saying unto them, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, CEB). I am a bit uncertain about the blessing bit but new things have arrived. That much is true. New things continue to surprise me. I am not choosing a pulpit but I am choosing my marriage.

I don’t know if I’ll get this time again but if we can swing it, I want to be around on weekends. I don’t want to be away from him in his downtime. I want to be here. I’m choosing  that, but I’m choosing much more than that as anyone that has ever asked me “So what are you doing now?” knows well. I am trying to be a new creation in this new season of life. I  am choosing my marriage but not just my marriage.

img_1648I’m choosing writing. I’m trying to carve out time for the writing process even daring to wade into the National Novel Writing Month tomorrow. I won’t be writing a novel. I’ll be continuing to write this memoir of my own grief and loss that keeps changing every time I sit down to write it. There are other things I’m writing too and much more that I would like to write.

I’m choosing a new path in spiritual direction. I am honored to have been accepted just last month to the San Francisco Theological Seminary to delve into their certificate program in spiritual direction. I start in January. The check is in the mail.  I’m nervous and excited but that is how it is with new things. And right now, everything feels new.

I’m choosing new things — wonderful things — but everything is so very new.

 

Solitude on the Road

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone. “  — Paul Tillich

While my husband is in his classes, learning the next echelon of leadership within the military, I am been alone. I am reading and writing and trying not to feel the pain of this loneliness, but Tillich’s wisdom rings all to true. I find myself in this new and place where nothing is familiar. The landscape is different. The climate is strange and I find myself in this new community in which I feel like a stranger. Or as Stanley Hauerwas might say, I am a resident alien.

I am not on the move. I am here in this place.

When only ten days ago, there was a different kind of solitude that marked my days. For just four days, between Pennsylvania and Kansas, I found myself in solitude on the road — and it was glorious. Just me and my little Prius on the road. My parents (among others) had expressed concern about this plan. They were not sure it was wise for a young woman to travel alone. They feared I might be lonely.

I assured them that I would be stopping to spend nights with dear friends. I would extend my trip to make time for these visits with these dear friends. I would not be totally alone. I wasn’t. I got to eat and walk and talk with these dear friends after hours on the road all by myself. Theses a good thing. It was reassuring for my parents to hear because loneliness is a bad thing. This fact even made the news last week. 72% of people in the United States of America feel isolated. The facts and figures of this study are suspiciously absent from the reports that I’ve found, but the word isolation is not. It is repeated in every article. we are isolated from ourselves and each other. This is what defines our loneliness.

It is not news, however. It is a conclusion that was drawn way back when in 2012 when this article appeared in The Atlantic concluding:

Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.

Isolation  or even disconnection is not what I feel on the road. Behind the wheel, careening down the highway, belting out Dixie Chicks lyrics, I don’t feel disconnected from my community or my neighbor, but quite the opposite. I feel connected. I feel like the world is so big and beautiful and there is so much possibility. With every song that comes on the radio, I am flooded with memories of people and places that I have loved. I can’t help but giggle at the wonder of it all.

When my throat has gone hoarse and there is nothing but static on the radio, I roll down the windows and open my heart to pray. Jesus makes a big to do about going to find a quiet place to pray. Or at least, that’s how we think about it. We are the ones that are struggle with the silence and perhaps even the isolation, not Jesus. There is no struggle in him. No fanfare as he withdraws to a deserted place to pray (Luke 5:16, NRSV). He is not isolated, though he may be alone. He does this several more times before he tells anyone how they ought to pray. That’s when he tells them not to forget about themselves. This isn’t a chance to zone out but a chance to see yourself as a part of God’s transformative power.

Like me, I imagine that Jesus needs a little space for this. This is no small potatoes, after all. He needs that time away to sort though all of the thoughts in his head, to be grateful and even to wonder about what might be ahead if he can ever be part of God’s transformation. Even if he doesn’t need that space, I do. Jesus might know his place but I have some questions. So I’ll take the empty road snaking through at the mountains or the deserted road that cuts through a town with empty store fronts to reconnect with God.

There is glory in this. Tillich is right. In this world, where there always seems to be someone grabbing for our attention — something that is apparently being called an attention economy — there is a certain graciousness to allowing ourselves  be alone with our own thoughts and questions. It can be overwhelming, as it feels now that I am settled in one place with too much time to think and ponder by myself. It can surely be painful but there is a certain glory in it — a glory I struggle to name but one I have seen on the road.

The No Plan Plan

I don’t get to my home church very much. In fact, I’vbe-the-churche only been for worship twice in the past year. Once was my first official visit. The next Sunday I joined as a member. Since then, I’ve been busy on Sunday mornings preaching in another congregation.

Still, I love my home church. I’m proud to be a member of this tribe that is seeking to be the church in so many bold ways.

I want to help. I want to be connected even if I can’t get to worship on Sunday. So, when it was requested that members sign up to write for the newsletter while our pastor in on a much-needed vacation, I said yes.

Yes, I will write about how I’m learning about faith right now. Yes, I’ll say something about this crazy move in which I find myself. Yes, I’ll write about The No Plan Plan. It goes like this:

I am surrounded by boxes. Two months ago, everything I own was packed up by strangers, loaded upon a truck and transported to our next home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Just three months ago, my beloved and I celebrated our marriage. It was wonderful. It was everything you could ever hope that such a blessing could be but after that epic celebration, we have been surrounded by boxes and bags.

Read the whole reflection on Old First Reformed UCC’s website.

How We Write Clergy

I am a character in a book.

I learned of this news from a Facebook message. A member of the community had written a book and he wanted to know if it was alright to name the church in the book. That wasn’t my call anymore. I was no longer the pastor there, except that I was in the book.

While I was still in ministry in that place, I had had coffee with Ned Hayes many times. He was someone who came to worship on occasion. It was always clear to me that he was seeking something. He was incredibly well read. He’d read all kinds of theology and had even gone to seminary but there was still something he was looking for. I did not know in the middle of writing another book and that I would end up being a character. Of course, I said yes. By all means, print it. Publish it! I can’t wait to read how those cups of coffee and mornings in church translate into a character like Pastor Ilsa.

See what he did there? He changed the name by one letter. No doubt he was trying to avoid the connection to Disney’s Frozen that I cannot quite escape. Smart move. I borrowed a copy from my goddaughter and started to read at the pool.

14045951_1068662506550170_8991399356609680619_n.jpgEagle Tree is the story of a boy growing up in Olympia. He is a boy that is somewhere on the spectrum of autism and it is his voice that leads the reader through the journey of saving this tree in the LBA Woods. When I lived in Olympia, there were signs all over town to save this particular park. This is the fictional story of how that park is saved from the hands of developers by this boy named March who sometimes goes to church at the United Churches of Olympia. Church is a confusing place for March. It is a place where the pastor tells strange stories that are true, but not factually true.

This is how Pastor Ilsa is introduced. His mother drags him to church and March offers this narration:

Ilsa says she likes to talk about God because she cannot entirely understand God, but that is not how I feel at all. I need to understand things all the way down to the root.

Though Ned denies it, this could have been a note he jotted down while we were having coffee. This is totally something I would say. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did say something exactly like this. There are, however, other things that don’t line up about me. It is fiction, after all. Pastor Ilsa is married to a professor at the local college by the name of Pierre. His name sounds equally exotic to my husband’s name but their careers are totally different. Ilsa was also a botanist before she came into ministry. There was some kind of accident that shifted her focus. Again, this is not me but makes for a good character. Most surprising to me: Ilsa is old. He husband has grey in his beard. This is not a young pastor. For this, I am admittedly sad. Clergy are so often imagined to be sage and wise because of their many years. It somehow makes them approachable.

I’m not complaining. Not exactly. I’m just interested in how we write clergy. I’m interested in how clergy are portrayed in the media. Consider AMC’s Preacher for example. This is nothing like the pastor that Ned Hayes writes.

Ned portrays someone far less of a bad ass, though she is a police chaplain which I thought was pretty cool. Maybe because Ned isn’t worried about ratings or sensationalism that television seems to require or maybe because he sees that there is something that good that does happen in church. And he thinks that clergy are a part of that. The pastor he writes is approachable and caring. She has an incredible bond with March. She is able to get on his level and welcome him as a full child of God. I can only pray that I do this every day in my ministry, then and now. It is really what I hope not just for clergy but for all Christians.

Ultimately, this is not a book about Christians or even clergy. It’s a book about connections. It’s a book about how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us. No matter what separates and divides, we can come together to do good. We can change the world around us. We can make a difference. I am not in the least bit surprised that this is Ned’s heart or that he still sometimes worships with this brave group of people in Olympia that shares the same hope.

The Only Hope for America

Most everything I know about democracy I’ve learned in church. It is in my particular tradition of being church that I’ve had the chance to practice all of the values and ideals that democracy claims.

Mine is the tradition that birthed democracy. They were not perfect people but they came seeking freedom. They came looking for something different than what they had known and so they imagined this new way of governance that would Abraham Lincoln would later declare to be for the people and by the people. Mine is the United Church of Christ, a denomination made up of four different traditions that dared to come together in the certain belief that they could be better together. Imagine that in our current political landscape because I surely cannot. Still, I cannot help but view every bit of coverage of the political process through my experience in church. Take yesterday’s headline in the Washington Post: GOP reaches ‘new level of panic’ over Trump’s candidacy.

It was only two weeks ago that the Republican National Convention wrapped up in Cleveland, Ohio with Donald Trump became the official nominee for the party. Granted, this particular presidential candidate has said some really egregious things since he received that nomination but I can’t help but view this from the perspective of what would happen in church.

Because it does happen in church. It happens in all kinds of churches, not just those in my tradition. So, I’m curious how this panic would play out in a local congregation where a pastor has just been called. (Let’s also keep in mind that pastors and presidents are not at all the same thing. Nor should they be. Good heavens.) I’m trying to imagine what would happen if that pastor was to make the same kind of remarks that Donald Trump has made, if that pastor was to disregard the tradition and teachings of the church and how the people in that church might respond.

Would it only create a stink if the members of that church didn’t agree with what the pastor was doing and saying? Would they question his integrity? Would they wonder if they had made a mistake? What would happen if the powers that be within the denomination would override their decision to call that person to be their pastor and teacher? Would it create a panic within the members of that church? Or would it only raise the temperature of those in the judicatory?

That’s what I wonder most about this particular headline. Is this a question of who knows best? Because this is a question I carry into my ministry every single day. There is a fair amount of distrust among the congregations I have served. They are ever suspicious of the role of the judicatory. In the United Church of Christ, the association, the conference, general synod and the national setting but in your tradition it might include presbyteries, synods and districts. They don’t see the other expressions of the church (that’s what we call these things in the United Church of Christ) as partners in their ministry. And they should be partners. That’s the whole idea. They don’t trust the other expressions and are far more comfortable seeing themselves in that one little congregation all on their own. That may very well be all fine and good until there is a problem with their pastor, which seems to be the issue that the GOP is having with Donald Trump.

They see Trump as a problem. They see the harm that he may cause and they want to try to help. But, how do you do that? In our understanding of governance for the people and by the people, both inside and outside of the church, how do you decide that the people are wrong? After all, the people voted for him. All of those delegates in Cleveland got behind him. All that I can see is broken trust. The GOP doesn’t even need to act. It has already doubted the people. Trust is already broken. So, then, what can be done to rebuild that trust?

I don’t think this is just a question for the GOP, but it’s a question for all of us who dare to believe that we share some common ground. How do we hold that ground together even when we disagree? What happens when someone – maybe even someone well-intentioned  – takes those values and skews them? How do we go back to the core of who we are?

How do we move forward together?

We must move forward together. We must.

I confess to you that I am not a Republican but I love a whole lot of them. They are in the churches I serve. I am their pastor and I always will be. I don’t support Trump but there are those in my church that I do. We don’t agree. And that’s OK. Church has taught me the value of building consensus. It’s taught me the wisdom of taking time to learn and grow together and Jesus reminds me every week in the gospels we share in worship that we really are better together. It is not a question of who know best. I don’t think it can be. It has to be about the kind of trust that we can build with each other so that we can move forward. Together, we must move forward. It is our only hope.

Officially Mrs. Cook

There are still so many thank you cards to write and I still have no idea how to sign my new name but one month ago, I got married. It really happened.

It doesn’t feel like it now because my husband and I are living in different places. He is at his next post settling into our new home and I’ve moved into a friend’s guest room so that I can conclude this chapter of interim ministry with the church I’m serving and can help out a friend who has just welcomed the newest member of her family in the world.

We had an awesome wedding exactly 30 days ago. It was perfect in every way. The venue was beautiful. The food was amazing. There wasn’t too much family drama even with the amount of delicious wine that was being poured. And the band got us dancing. I have no regrets about any of the decisions that we made even if it was a little too hot and there were a few people I really wanted to be there that couldn’t make it because I decided to have a stupid destination wedding. Still, I wouldn’t change a thing.

People keep asking me for pictures. I don’t have them. Not yet. Our photographers are still perfecting everything and though we hope to see those pictures soon,  we haven’t seen them yet. But, I do some pretty great photos snapped by family and friends. You’ve already seen the one of me and my dad way up there at the top of this post but here are a few more from our perfect day.

Yesterday, I spent 20 minutes waiting in the local Social Security Administration office and changed my name. Really, it just took 20 minutes! And so, it’s actually official. I am legally now Elsa Anders Cook which you may have known was going to happen because you noticed that I relaunched my blog a few months ago with this new name. I really thought I’d written an actual blog post announcing the relaunch but I can’t seem to find one. Still, you can find some proof of that here.

And now, it’s more than a page on my blog. It’s my legal name and we are married.

I am officially Mrs. Cook.