Pandemic Prayers for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

I’m thinking about my own prayer life a lot right now. I’m wondering about how I’m caring for the tender part of my soul that needs to grieve and sing and wonder — and it’s hard. It’s hard to find that space in this long season for parents whether we have children learning online or toddlers who can’t understand why we can’t go to the playground.

I have been so worried about so many things that prayer has continued to fall to the bottom of the list. Seriously, I work out first. That’s how bad this is. It is that bad. I work out first, friends. I’m thinking about that as I offer these prayer for communal meditation for your weekly worship. There are the prayers that we mutter when the siren blares and the governor makes a really stupid decision for the good of the entire state, but there are the things that we need to hear from God in the stillness. There are things that we can only find in the quiet when we allow ourselves to listen for what God might be saying to us.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Tears have been 
shed this week
and just yesterday
in frustration and anger.
O God, we are impatient
and restless and so very tired.

We have cried for 
people and places
and things that 
don't even make sense. 
We have cried to you, 
O God, in the trouble 
of this year and you 
have saved us 
from our distress.

We come to worship
and praise the mystery 
of your love that is 
with us always. It is 
with us now and so 
we sing with joy 
for all you are doing
right now. O God, 
we come to worship
your goodness.  

In the online worship formats I’ve been attending in coronatide, I haven’t seen silence been used a lot. It has been brief if it has happened at all. I suspect that there are reasons for this. We are spending so much more time with the silence of our own souls that to spend those few blessed moments when we get to escape that inner quiet only increases the chaos when we try to be silent together, but it has been a year. It has been a whole year now and silence in worship is important for our collective listening. I think it can be done without it feeling like there is nothing happening.

I have wondered if it could be as simple as lighting candles for the lives that have been lost. In the United States, we jumped from 400,000 lives to 500,000 lives in way too little time. Maybe grief is what needs to be felt in this moment or maybe it is frustration of hitting this last pandemic wall. Can I say it’s the last? Will that ruin everything?

Opening for Silence
Inspired by Numbers 21:4-9

We have spoken against God
and each other. We have let words get 
in the way of our hope 
for we have feared that 
this will never end. 

More death will come
and we don't know 
how to make it stop
other than to close our mouths
and open our ears. 

Together, we will listen 
for a word from God 
that will remind us 
of what it means to live. 

In the silence we will share,
ask God for a word 
of hope and renewal.
Ask God for a word 
of corsage and strength.
Ask God for a word 
in the silence we now share.

I would conclude this silence that should be no less than 120 seconds with some music. I would choose this hymn because it’s what popped into my head as I was writing this invitation and then I might follow up on social media by asking people for their words. There are hundreds of creative ways to share such words that you’ve probably done already in this pandemic but in this moment it might not be so much about the creativity as the attentiveness to listen to each other’s prayers.

I have wondered how to mark that it has been one year since worship shifted online. It has been more than a year since so many have died. It has felt like an eternity since we adjusted to this new season of living. I want there to be something to mark the moment and remind us that we are in this together which reminded me of something my spiritual director taught me. She led me though this sensory grounding practice in one of our recent sessions. A grounding practice like this seems like a good way to mark the moment that we are in now and so I offer such a possibility for such a practice as the calendar reminds us that it has been a whole year of coronatide adapted from the gifts my spiritual director gave me. It functions like a guided meditation that could work anywhere in worship.

Pandemic Call to the Senses

Beloved, find yourself here with two feet planted on the ground. Take off your slippers or socks or whatever is covering your feet. This is holy ground right here in this place where two or three are gathered in worship and wonder. 

Take a deep breath full of the dust of the ancestors and the lives lost this year. Feel the the presence of the whole cloud of witnesses here with us now. Breathe in and breathe out.

Look around this space where you have spent so many hours in this past year. Life has happened here. So much life had happened here. Notice five things that you can see from where you are sitting that remind you of what this life has felt like this year. (Long pause.) Breathe in and breathe out. 

Reach from where you are sitting to touch four things that connect you to someone you have loved. (Long pause.) Breathe in and breathe out. 

Notice in this space where you have lived abundantly three things you can hear. Listen for the hum of life that is in this place. (Long pause.) Breathe in and breathe out. 

Call to your awareness two scents, aromas or smells that remind you that there is goodness here in this moment. (Long pause.) Breathe in and breathe out. 

Notice what stirs on your tastebuds and excites you about the future and for now acknowledge one thing that you can taste. (Long pause.) Breathe in and breathe out. 

For these things that you have tased, smelled, heard, touched and seen, we give thanks. We give thanks for the rich blessing of this life and for the ways that we seek to live into the days ahead. We give thanks for the life we have shared across internet connections and telephone wires. We give thanks and praise to God. Amen. 

I would invite the worshipping community to share in coffee hour (if your church is doing that kind of thing) what they found through their senses. I might even suggest some simple discussion questions to suggest what felt most like life in this pandemic or what felt like it was missing.

That’s all I have for you, dear pastors. I am praying for you. I am praying for you, as always.

Grief in the Midst of Joy

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

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

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

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

I don’t remember how it was last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters to Heaven

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Every year, as January comes to a close and the calendar turns to February, I start to wonder about what I’ll say to her this year. I wonder about what I would want her to know about this year and who I am right now. Way up there in heaven, I wonder what I’ll tell my mother about my life.

Every year, I’ve written to her in the pages of my journal as if she is sitting beside me. Of course, she isn’t. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died twenty-nine years ago today. Twenty nine years ago, on this very day, I carefully prepared a package of stale marshmallows and the almond cookies we made in school that day to bring to her in the hospital. But, before I could leap off the bus, I could see my dad and I knew something was wrong. So much has happened since then. So much that she hasn’t been around to share with me. And this year, I will get married. I’ll marry a man that she never got to meet and begin to think about becoming a mom myself.

Maybe it’s because of those things that she feels so very far away today. Today it feels like I’ve spent the past twenty-nine years grieving something that never existed. I have photographs and other people’s stories that contradict this fact. They tell me what she was like and how wonderful she was, but I don’t have many of my own memories. When most people grieve, those normal people, they can tell you something about the person that they miss so very much. They can tell you about his laugh or her generosity. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. I love these stories so that I make it my business to seek them out. A glimmer will come into her eyes when I ask about their dearly departed before she tells me the most ridiculous story. A smile will creep across her face and she’ll sigh because that’s what she misses. She misses those little moments.

I don’t have too many of those stories. The only clear memory I have from when she was healthy was from one cold winter morning when we went ice skating on a nearby pond. My brother took off skating with lightning speed. The running joke in my family was that he was born with skates on his little feet. This day, that seemed to be true. I had never been skating on a pond so I wobbled down the wooden plank, fighting against the layers of warmth that encased me, until I hit the ice. I pushed off and made a clear, graceful arc straight into a snowbank. That’s when my mother started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing even as she tried to pull me back to my feet. I really, really hope that this doesn’t reveal my mother’s character. It doesn’t fit with what I’ve been told but it’s the only memory I have stashed away. If my mom was alive, I’m sure we’d laugh about this. Or I really want to believe that we’d laugh about this ridiculous moment from my childhood. But, I don’t know what would make my mom laugh uncontrollably. I don’t know what would bring tears to her eyes out of sheer delight anymore than I know what would really break her heart. And that’s what makes anniversaries so hard.

My dear friend Teri, who lost her mother ten years ago, is much more frank about it. As she said by text message today, “anniversaries are shitty.” I can’t argue. Anniversaries are the cruel reminder that so many years have passed. Every year, I hope I will feel differently but it always feels the same. It is one of those days where everything feels thin. Just as the ancient Celts imagined it, it feels like the walls between heaven and earth collapse and it feels as if something should happen. Every year, I’m confronted with this terrible indecisiveness about how to spend the day. Sometimes that means spending the days with others whether that’s taking a ferry to a quiet island in the middle of Casco Bay to quietly walk with a friend or building a fairy house in the woods on another island with another friend. I’ve thrown ice cream parties where we heaped mounds of chocolate ice cream into bowls as I told the story of the last time I saw my mom but most years, I don’t know what to do. I feel that I should do something but I struggle with what do with the strange cosmic energy that comes each and every year.

And then, with frustrated tears running down my cheeks, I feel guilty. It happens every single year. I am overwhelmed and overcome by this terrible guilt. This is something I will never understand. I don’t know why I feel guilty but it’s something that Teri tells me happens. She calls it survivor guilt. It’s a real thing, she argues because she knows that I am going to disagree. I don’t want to see myself as survivor. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or the collapse of the twin towers. My mom died from a disease that I have yet to contract. Though I live in that fear, it remains only a possibility. That doesn’t change the fact that I always feel guilty on the anniversary of her death.

I feel as if I should feel something or do something but I can never figure out what that is. I have tried time and time again for twenty-nine years. Still, the guilt hangs out mixed up with this sense of wonder that everything feels thin. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There is a feeling like something might happen. Something could happen. Or maybe I just really want something to happen so that the only constant from year to year is that I sit down  with my journal to write letters to heaven. On the anniversary of the day she died, I take a pen in my hand to try to collapse the walls between heaven and earth.

This year, it doesn’t feel thin. That feeling is still there. I still feel like anything could happen. I really want something to happen but it’s not a thin feeling. It’s a thick feeling that hangs in the air today. Today, I’m aware of the distance between heaven and earth.

I feel the distance in the years that I have lived without her. I feel the distance in the huge events that are about to take place this year that she won’t get to share. I feel the distance that comes from not knowing what would make her laugh or cry. And yet, no matter how far the distance might be, I still want to collapse those walls that separate us. I want to believe she’s right here beside me.

That’s how small I want the distance to be. I want to believe that she is standing beside me. I try to convince myself that she always has been. She’s right here on earth and hasn’t really left my side, except that on this anniversary, on the day that she died, the calendar turns and I can only feel her absence.

It doesn’t feel like she is here. She is anything but here so she must be out there somewhere because she hasn’t been here for so very long. She died twenty-nine years ago and I still can’t quite believe it. She has to be up there in some other realm that I cannot reach, no matter how hard I try. It’s only on this dreadful day that I let myself believe that I have any power to cross the divide and reach toward that place where she dwells. On other days, I don’t believe such things. I remain unconvinced that heaven is somewhere else. I refuse to believe it most of the time. Except that on her anniversary, especially on this anniversary, my faith isn’t quite so resolute because the distance seems so vast and I want nothing more than to bring her close and tell her everything about my life that she needs to know. (She’s still my mom. No matter how much I want this sweet communion, there are still things she doesn’t need to know.)

Part of me believes that she knows it all already. I don’t need to tell her because she’s already seen it. She’s been busy watching me all year long from her cloud just over my head. There’s no need for me to reach through the veil between heaven and earth with my pen and paper because she already knows. She knows it all. She hasn’t missed on anything. She’s done all that she could to be there even if I never knew that she was standing beside me but I can’t quite convince myself of that today. So today, just as I have so many anniversaries before, I’m writing my mom a letter. I’m sending it out to the far reaches of the heavens.

Mom,

There are so many things that I want to ask you. There are so many things that I don’t know about you and so very many things that I want to know. Years ago, I used to ask those that knew you and loved you.

Maybe they were trying to convince themselves that you lived as much as I am trying to do now, because they wanted me to know how human you were. They told me that you were so damn stubborn and that you had a mean streak of anger. They wanted me to know that you were not perfect even when I wanted so much to believe that you were. I never got to be a teenager with you. I never got to rebel and slam doors in your face or whatever it is that teenagers do. Instead, my rebellion took me to church. I plopped down in a pew and wanted the answers to everything that didn’t make sense. Because I didn’t understand — I still don’t understand — why you had to die.

I feel like a child writing that to you, but I”m your child. So I can still be a kid, right? I can tell you that this still doesn’t make sense to me no matter how much I want to make sense of it.

I’ll never understand it just as I’ll never get to know you. It’ll always be someone else’s story or someone else’s anecdote. I won’t get to have those stories with you because you died before we ever got the chance. Just as I won’t have the chance to see you beam with pride and delight on my wedding day in just a few months. You weren’t there to watch me try on my wedding dress and I won’t get to have some frustratingly special moment on that special day where you try to give me advice and I shirk it off, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want those things. I want you to be a part of that special day just as much as I want you to know my beloved and my future children. Oh, it hurts to even imagine that. How can I be a wife and a mom without you? How will I learn my own rhythms without your support?

But I will. I’ll somehow manage this just as I’ve managed every other event without you by my side. You can’t be there. I know, I know. We will never have that but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it. I will always want you to be a part of my life. I will always want to know what you think. I will always want to hear your advice. I will always wonder what you would say to any of the bizarre and wonderful things that this life has already offered me.

Mom, there are so few things that I remember about you. I can’t remember your laugh or the sound of your voice. I don’t have many stories about you. In most of my memories, you were sick. You were as pale as the sheets on your bed. You didn’t say much but you were there and I guess I want you to be here now. I guess I’ll never give up on that hope that I’ll get to know you better… I love you.

Yours, Elsa