Joy

For more years than I can count, a small group of trusts colleagues and dear friends have shared monthly writings around a particular theme. Most of these short essays remain within this trusted circle. No one else sees these words, but there was something about this month’s prompt that made me want to expand the readership — and then I saw that Stacey felt the same pull. She published her essay here.

So here is what I hunted and pecked while breastfeeding my sweet girl the other night to express my thoughts on joy.

 

During Lent, I planted a garden.

It started with a vegetable garden, just two small raised beds. Within a week, two kale plants died. As did the green pepper. And something else, I can’t recall what it was. Rest in peace, dear nameless plant.

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That right there is an actual tomato on the vine. Joy.

I started a compost heap too which the dog decided was a buffet just for her. There’s been a lot of vomit. It has been really gross. Texas soil also has more wildlife in it than even the Pacific Northwest. Here there are both snails and snakes and I’m a tiny bit terrified anytime I plunge my shovel into the dirt.

I’ve gardened before, but this is my first vegetable garden. There are actual tomatoes on the vine. The green peas and snap peas have already started climbing and I’m ever curious if those little buds will ever turn into lettuce. Every day, it amazes me.

There is always something new, just as there is for my sweet baby girl. Every day, she does something that she nor I knew that she could do before. And there’s no one else around so we just stare at each other in total amazement. Both marveling. Both with smiles plastered to our faces.

There’s no one else in the garden either. No one to hear me squeal that the tomato got bigger. It hasn’t died yet, though I’m sure it will. Tomatoes don’t tend to make it here.

I’m not really sure what does make it here between the heat and all the freaking deer, but I’ve started planting flowers, slowly turning over pots and flower beds to unearth new wonders. It’s not going quite as well. The potted plants look dead, or near dead. The beds in the front yard do not seem to want to germinate any of the seeds I’ve planted and there is one bed that was completely grown over that is a constant meditation on the Good Sower. (Am I the bad soil? Can this be good soil? Or are there too many rocks and thorns that the seeds will never sprout?)

But today, one of my lavender plants bloomed with purple flowers. I saw it out the window before I’d even made coffee.

And all I could think was Alleluia.

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Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday

It was months ago when I agreed to preach on the second Sunday in May. I said yes ever so willingly. I was just so thrilled to be preaching again after this new reality seeking (im)possible things.

I didn’t realize then what is all too real now.

The second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day. It is the Sunday where churches offer corsages and carnations to mothers. It is this Sunday where prayers to “Mother God” are lifted in congregations that would otherwise struggle with inclusive language. It is the Sunday where the grieving and the childless stay home along with those that struggle with infertility and those that don’t ever want anyone to know that she had an abortion. There are those that we abandoned by their mothers and those that never knew gentle touch of their mother. They don’t come to church because they know that they will not be celebrated. They will not be honored.

IMG_4444They will not hear so much about the resurrection as they will about mothers. And they know this, so they stay home. Each congregation has their own traditions and there isn’t one of these bodies of Christ that seems to realize that Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday.

The liturgical year moves from Advent to Easter. From birth to death, we are led into the Season of Easter which continues for much more than one day. Because we are still in it. It is the season that we find ourselves us in now. This second Sunday of May is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. It’s nothing flashy really. Just another chance to talk about this amazing thing that happened. It’s a chance to talk about the awesome possibility of resurrection and what it means right now. You know, no big deal. Or perhaps it really is no big deal because it seems that most congregations replace this talk of resurrection with something called the Festival of the Christian Home. (This is also what it is called in my denomination but I can find nothing on the United Church of Christ website about it.) And it seems that churches expect it. Something must happen on Mother’s Day in our worship. Something must be said. Something must be done because that’s what we always do. But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday.

Christmas is a liturgical holiday. Easter is a liturgical holiday. Even St. Patrick and St. Valentine have feast days. But, this isn’t one of them. There is no feast day for mothers. It’s simply not part of the liturgical calendar. You’ll find it on other calendars — those printed for dry cleaners and banks. On the second Sunday of May, it is Mother’s Day. So let there be brunch and flowers and perhaps even some chocolates. Make mom breakfast in bed. Or, at least, give her to break. But, when it’s time to live into the resurrection in the pulpit or pews, let’s remember that that’s not everyone’s story. Not everyone has a mother who was as kind and gentle. Handing every woman a carnation will only remind some of those women how they don’t fit in. Because those women came to church this morning needing to hear some good news. She needs what we all need: to hear the good news of resurrection.

Preach that good news.

Because every man, woman and child needs to hear that good news.

Make that good news the focus of your celebration on this second Sunday of May. Make it known in stories that reveal that what Jesus commands is that we love one another. Make that love known in the caring ministries you offer each other. Make it known in the works of justice and peace. Try not to make every single story about mothers. Please.

And if you need a call to action, read the Mother’s Day Proclamation. Because this is how it really began. There were brokenhearted women who saw a hurting world ripped apart by war. They would not allow one more child to lay down their life. Arise, all women who have hearts, they called out. They called out for new life from death. They called for new stories and new words. They called for hope where it couldn’t be found. Do we have that same heart? Might we rise with those women?

Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday but it is a good time to ask who we are as people of the resurrection.

6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.

Liturgical Lights for Sunday April 12, 2015

J A S M I N EThe Narrative Lectionary on April 12, 2015 is Matthew 28:16-20. It feels so odd not to share in the story of Thomas. I want to stick my fingers in that story. I want to wonder about my doubt. But, that’s not what happens in this cycle of readings. Instead, we are pushed to wonder how we might “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

This week, as bulletins may well already be printed, I don’t have a full liturgy to offer. Instead, I offer an affirmation of faith. I come from a tradition that has testimonies, not tests of faith. Ours is a statement of faith. Not a creed. Not a catechism. We have testimonies that come from every time and every place. It can make faith confusing and overwhelming. It can seem totally chaotic so that people might say we are Unitarians Considering Christ. (Don’t say that. I hate that.)

But, especially after Easter, I love the experience of standing together as the gathered body of Christ (that’s right, Christ) and trying to put some words to what we believe. Sometimes I use the more traditional versions in my own liturgies. Sometimes I use some that are not so well known. There is something amazing about standing together and saying these words as part of our experience of the resurrection. This particular affirmation has stolen a few lines from one of my favorite Easter hymns, Christ the Lord is Risen Today.

Here is an affirmation of faith for this day — and maybe the 50 days of Easter:

Affirmation of Faith

Now we gather together
in fear and great joy
to raise our triumphs high
because everything has changed.
Christ has died and Christ has risen.

Now we rise early on the first day of the week
because we have heard what the angels told us.
We have been changed by this news
and we believe in the power of resurrection.
We believe that this message will change our world.

Made like him, like him we rise.
We rise to be made into better disciples.
We rise to allow ourselves to soar where Christ has led.
Because love’s redeeming work is not yet done.
There are still children of God crucified
for their passionate love of the world.

Now we wait for Christ to come again.
We rise to be students of this message.
We rise to be taught by this way.
We rise in the certain faith
that Christ will come again.

If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday April 12, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at revelsaanderspeters.com.