Twinkly Lights in Blue Pandemic Days

Several years ago, I created a devotional for the grieving and brokenhearted. I called it Twinkly Lights in Blue Days. It’s sat there in my kitchen for anyone that might have wanted it or needed in the years that followed.

Grief is close to my heart. My mother died of breast cancer before anyone really understood the disease that affects so many women. I was seven years old then.

The shadows of that loss have cast eerie shadows over the blue days of this pandemic. Something has felt familiar and terrifying. Something that I have known deep in my soul since I was a small child but was told over and over again never to discuss. Grief was always taboo.

Grief still is taboo. It remains one of these mysterious paths after tragedy that is accomplished by steps and stages. It is what resilient people overcome. I believe that we will get there but that discomfort we are feeling is grief. It is not going away quickly. It’s sticking around and insisting that we come to understand it differently than we did in all of those losses before. It is different. The losses keep coming. The death toll increases. The changes and adjustments we have been forced to make to better care for our neighbors and community keep adding up.

There is sorrow and heartache that needs to be shared.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Small Group Discussion Guide for the Grieving and Brokenhearted seeks to encourage that conversation. It is an adaptation of those words that I wrote for the devotional, but this version seeks to bring a group of people from church, book club or a unique group to this Advent season together weekly to share in honest reflection about what grieves them.

Words from sacred scripture, a meditative reflection and questions to ponder are provided in these pages to explore before the group meets. A simple discussion format is provided that includes written prayers and more discussion questions for the group to use as they wander together through these blue pandemic days. Though I assume most of these groups will meet via Zoom or Google Meet, I opted to not provide instructions on how to share space in a group in these unique formats. (I presume most people have figured that out by now.) I did, however, provide some hints on how best to share in vulnerable honesty so that all are honored and valued. I also included some books, essays and podcasts for the group to continue the conversation as the Spirit moves.

Like the devotional version, this discussion guide leaves room for wonder. It concludes before the baby is born.There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

I pray it is blessing for those that are brave enough to wander into these blue pandemic days and share the brokenness that feels so vast. Or if a group discussion is too overwhelming for the particular season of grief you find yourself in, you can find an updated version of the devotional here.

I pray so many many blessings into this Advent season of grief, lament and hope. May there be hope and love. We need both.

Pandemic Liturgy for All Saints Sunday

This is one of my very favorite celebrations of the church. I have long lamented that there are not enough spaces in the church calendar to share our grief. This is one of the few.

This year, when the death toll of COVID-19 continues to rise over 200,000, it feels especially important to give space for all that we are grieving right now. In my first newsletter, I shared this old liturgy with lots of space for silence. I confessed that I didn’t think it would work for online worship but I wanted to write something else to honor this holy day. If All Saints is new to you, as it was to me not too long ago, I offer this very brief history from an old worship bulletin from one of the churches I’ve served.

As early as the fourth century, days were set aside to commemorate all the saints at once. Today we continue this tradition using the varied practices of All Saints Day, All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead all of which are celebrated on November 1 or 2. Though in the Catholic tradition where this celebration honored unknown saints and to remedy deficiencies in people’s observance of a particular saint’s day, we do not canonize or pray to saints, but we look to these towering figures of our heritage for inspiration and encouragement in our own Christian pilgrimage. All Saints Day should challenge us by presenting us with a variety of figures from different times and places whose often contradictory styles of faithfulness enlarge our notion of what it means to be a disciple and a saint.

Unlike the other prayers that I share on a weekly basis, I wanted to offer a complete liturgy for this day. I not only hope this gives our pastors some space to worship themselves, but it also allows me to play a bit more. Play is good for all our souls. I need to play even if in relishing in the joy of playing I managed to pick the epistle for Proper 27 instead of the selected readings from Proper 26. I knew I was going to ignore the lections for actual All Saints Day though there is a nod to the gospel in one of the songs I’ve selected. I decided not to change it and let the text speak to the lamentation of this time.

Gathering for Worship

Remember When by The Many is available to be freely streamed from YouTube in worship or can be purchased on a sliding scale based on congregational size here. It is covered by the CCLI license.
Invitation to Worship

Let us begin 
our lament here, O God, 
in an act of memory
of all that has happened
in all that we could not 
believe was possible
as good white people
as people who had
never known how far and wide
a virus could actually reach
as people who 
who thought we 
had enough faith. 

Show us 
what we do 
not want to remember
and what we cannot 
bear to remember
after so much has been lost
in only a few short months.
O God, let us begin here
in all full lament.

Lighting of the Christ Candle

On the central screen that guides your worship (which would usually be the primary speaker in Zoom), place a large white pillar candle upon a candle holder or even a recognizable parament from your church’s treasure of beautiful things.

Go slow. Start by laying out the parament or candle holder onto the table on screen and then slowly place the candle in the center. Using a candle lighter or just a match (but please not one of these awful things), light the wick. Do this all in silence. Create a slide to follow these words or simply pray aloud:

O Light of Christ,
bring your steadfast love
here to illuminate 
all that will be gathered here. 
Redeem us from trouble
in the fire of your love. Amen.

Readings for All the Saints

A Reading of Poetry The Truly Great by Stephen Spender

A Reading from Scripture 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10, 4:13-18

Lighting the Memory of the Saints

With the Christ candle at the center of the screen, push a basket of tealights so that it is just barely visible on screen. Use these movements as liturgical actions where you are setting the space and preparing yourself and those watching for prayer. (You’ll need room so don’t push it too close.) Begin by offering these words:

We will not be uninformed about those who have died. We grieve so many. We feel such loss even as we cling to hope. We encourage each other by remembering their names.

You may choose to have gathered a list of names from within your congregation as is your tradition each year. You may search the necrology of your church as you do every year for those that have died in the past year in your community. Or you could choose to use this list of saints that will, sadly, probably need additions before the first of November.

Paul of Tarsus
Priscilla 
Francis of Assisi
Julian of Norwich
Teresa of Avila
Martin Luther
Harriet Tubman
Sojourner Truth
Mahatma Ghandi
Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Mother Theresa
James Lipton
Ahmaud Arbery
Kenny Rogers
Rev. Joseph E. Lowery
Breonna Taylor
Vanessa Guillen
Bill Withers
John Prine
George Floyd
Cornelius Fredericks
Little Richard
Betty Wright
Priscilla Slater
Larry Kramer
Hugh Downs
John Lewis
C.T. Vivian
Regis Philbin
Herman Cain
Chadwick Boseman
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Eddie Van Halen

After each name is spoken, softly and gently, reach for a tealight. Light the tealight from the Christ candle and place it underneath the light of Christ so that the light of Christ radiates with the light of the saints you have named. Continue until the last name is read. Pause. After pausing, then close in prayer with these words.

O Light of Christ,
we have witnessed
lives well lived and lives cut too short.
We are left below this great 
cloud of witnesses
to continue the struggle
for justice and love
in this world. Still, we lament
that we've lost these partners. 
May their memories be a blessing
and a light to our labor. Amen.

Though I would be more inclined to recruit the talents within the congregation to sing We Grieve the Many Thousands by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) or We Grieve 200,000 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded), I provide the above video as another option. It is covered by the CCLI license as shown here.

Sharing the Feast of God with All the Saints

As much as possible, and assuming that the presider has also spoken the earlier liturgy, keep the Christ candle and tealights in view as communion is shared with the great cloud of witnesses. Bring the loaf and cup alongside. As you share the story of that Last Supper, do not hesitate to make elaborate gestures of the bread breaking and the wine being poured. These things tell the story beyond words.

Invitation to the Feast

More than even the flickering lights,
we feel the waves of grief rise
as we gather around this table
to do what we have always done:
remember, share and bless.

To remember the goodness of God
as we shake the crumbs off 
familiar paraments faithfully mended
over the generations. We remember
who was once here with us.
We feel their absence.

To share in the mystery 
of sacred story that reaches
across lifetimes and generations
to be broken and poured out
with new meaning again.

To bless the grief
that tastes as salty as the bread
and bitter as the wine 
puckering our lips. 
We gather here 
with all the saints
to remember
to share and 
to bless.
Prayer of Blessing

Ancient Spirit, rise
from sacred story
to everyday truth
so that we can find you
again in these ordinary
elements on our shared table.
Even when we are not in one place,
may we find in this bread your wholeness.
May we find in this cup your joy.
Fill our humble bellies with your wonder
as you bless this bread and cup.
Bless our hearts with fullness. Amen.
Prayer after Communion

Holy Three in One, thank you for this feast.
We have remembered who’s we are and who we love.
We have blessed our grief and tasted goodness
so let us go now to be light and salt for this world. Amen.

Blessing

I would let music be the blessing for this time of lament. Allow the candles to keep burning as the Light of Christ and all the saints go with us into the days ahead. I offer two options. I prefer the above song. You can find CCLI license information here. You could instead choose God Will See Us Through which has options for a video download or sheet music for the talent in your congregation.

As always in these pandemic prayers, you are welcome to use part of this liturgy or all of it. I am not asking you to bend over backwards to offer me credit. I am instead offering this as a gift because you are doing so much and I’m praying for you and the ministry you are doing with such love.

Pandemic Prayers for Proper 19

Though I didn’t do anything with the text last week, I’m still thinking about the question Kathryn Matthews posed in her weekly musings in the United Church of Christ’s Sermon Seeds about the grieving parents in the Passover story. How is this OK? How is any of this OK? How can God come along and strike down the first male child in every Egyptian household? How can we hold that grief now when 189,000 have died in our own country to COVID-19?

It’s a question she repeats in her reflection this week when she asks about the Egyptians swallowed up by the sea. It’s the same question that is stuck in my throat. It’s the grief that feel constant in these pandemic days. So, these prayers might not part any waters but those walls of tears that we are all so carefully holding at bay.

Gathering Together for Worship

A dear friend of mine texted a few weeks ago looking for words of comfort after a death in her family. It sent me looking for some of my favorite poems and reminded me that the early days of the pandemic added to my files with some lovely words that might be just what is needed to part the waters in your worship experience, including If the Trees Can Keep Dancing, So Can I. I also rather like If you had been here, Lord by Mark Goad and Kaddish by Marge Piercy. The last of which really fits well with the Exodus reading.

Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 114 and Romans 14:1-12

Tremble, O earth,
for everything that feels strange
and new. It has already shaken you.
It has already caused you to wonder.
It has shaken your faith
because every day feels the same
and it is harder and harder
to believe that tomorrow will be a better day.

Tremble, O earth,
feel that shiver down your spine
and that stirring in your heart
that knows, deeply,
we do not live to ourselves,
and we do not die to ourselves.
We live in hope.
We exist in love.

Tremble, O earth,
we gather in the presence of God,
the God of Jacob, Leah and Rachel,
Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
We gather to praise God who
never stops bringing wonder
and new life to the living and the dead.

Tremble, O people,
let us worship all we wonder.

Gathering Our Grief

I don’t think that there are enough prayers to articulate the tremendous loss that we are experiencing in the global community. There have been several beautifully stunning essays that have appeared upon my screen recently that I could imagine using in worship as sermon fodder or even to read excerpts mingled with scripture as a sort of lessons and carols, including one on collective and personal grief and this one that will just break your heart open again. You’ve made this worship thing happen remotely on the fly for over six month now, dear pastor. You can take a break from preaching. You deserve it. Here is a prayer to speak to the grief we all feel.

O God, there have been six million cases.
Over six million people have gasped for breath
and lost their sense of smell. 
Some have recovered by a number
that is too hard to account. 
Others have been on ventilators
in Intensive Care Units.
They died in sterile
hospital beds under the careful 
attention of nurses and doctors
hidden behind masks. They said 
goodbye to their families at 
the hospital doors without comprehending
that this would be the last time. 
O God, nearly two hundred thousand lives 
have been lost. Eight hundred ninety-eight thousand
lives around this earth have been lost.
It causes us to tremble. 
It shakes us to the core
and so we need you God.
We need you to stretch out your hand
to offer comfort hope. Bring your full 
presence into this pandemic moment 
so that we might feel your grace again. 
We pray in your wonder. Amen.

Praying Through Rage

Though I knew that the reality of this pandemic was impacting minority and immigrant communities ten times harder than others, I had not imagined how hard until I read about the ministry of this Mexican pastor in New York City. This prayer speaks to the tears I shed reading this story.

I’m not assuming your whole congregation read this story and so you might need to adapt it for your context or headlines that are more familiar to your people. If this doesn’t sound like grief to you, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross thought that the second stage of grief in death is anger. It comes after refusing to believe this thing is real. It’s where I find my current pandemic reality.

Hear Our Rage
Inspired by Exodus 14:19-31

Angel of God, move behind us
so that we might find ourselves
in a protected place
away from the corruption of empire
and greed, away from the powers that
make their own gods.

Light up the night
for there are things that we need to say
that only you can bear, O God.
Drive back the seas of polite prayers
and get ready for the pillar of grief
that has been wedged into our lives
since we first heard of COVID-19.
Stretch your mighty hand over
this fury and rage, O God.

Just as it was not fair to drown
the entire Egyptian Army that day, it is no more fair
to condemn your beloved kin to this virus.
On our best days, we believe its not your fault.
We know better. We are mature in our faith
but it is not OK that a man lies in terror

next to his dead brother in a studio apartment in New York City
because he fears deportation and lacks the funds
for a proper burial for his brother's decomposing body.
O God, this is the pillar of our grief.
Hear our rage.

"Why did you bring him here?"
should not be the first words 
shouted in English to an immigrant
who has just rushed his brother 
to the emergency room.
We are all scared of getting sick
but a language barrier should not deny anyone care.
O God, this is the pillar of our grief.
Hear our rage.

Our pastors phones constantly rings
their email dings every second
and their social media is haunted by the doomscrolling
of every tender heart in their care.
They need a break.
They are tired but this virus
refuses to retreat.
O God, this is the pillar of our grief.
Hear our rage.

There is no dry ground to stand on.
This pandemic rages on our right
and on our left. It towers over us.
O God, this is the pillar of our grief.
Hear our rage.

We are spinning our wheels
only to churn up mud and despair.
We are spinning our wheels
only to churn up mud and despair.
There is no escape
and we fear we might drown
in our lack of care for each other.
O God, this is the pillar of our grief.
Hear our rage.

We need your grace to lead.
On our left and on our right,
we need a waters of love and hope
to gently ease us into 
whatever comes next.
Move behind us and before us, O God.
Hold us in our fury
and help us to discover what good
this anger can become. For we know, O God,
even when we doubt,
that we do not live to ourselves
and you will bring new life
even out of death. We pray it will be so.

Another Thought

Years ago, I first heard the story of Nachshon who stepped into the water after Moses raised his staff over the water and nothing happened. He waded into the water until it was up to his nostrils and it was only then that the waters split. It didn’t feel like a story for this moment until I read this reflection that concludes:

When Nachshon and his people get to the other side of the sea, what is there to greet them? Not a Promised Land, but a wide, wild desert that will take years to navigate. Just because the sea splits doesn’t mean we know exactly where we are going or how we’re going to get there. But we do know this: The first steps are the hardest ones, and the most necessary. With those steps, with Nachshon, the story really begins.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald

I do not know exactly how this would tie into worship but it feels like there is something there because we are not yet on the other side of this pandemic, as much as we might dream about it. As with grief, we do not know where we are going or how we will get there but there is something about the steps we are taking now. There is something to the lament, the protest and even the dreaming. Something is beginning. I have to believe that.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. I’ve also shared some ingredients (though maybe not a whole recipe) for stewardship and backpack blessings. This particular Sunday makes me wonder how we will honor the saints on All Saints Day and has me thinking about what Christmas Eve will look like for my family and yours when worship is not in-person. Maybe I’ll start some liturgies for those sooner rather than later. God knows, you are already thinking about those things.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always. 

How Shall We Pray?

For the past several weeks, I’ve offered prayers as a gift to my colleagues in ministry who are serving faithfully during this pandemic. I’ve written liturgies following the Revised Common Lectionary that I have hoped were copied and pasted into Facebook Lives and Zooms and every other platform that congregations find themselves gathered in this moment.

I opened my email on Monday to find that two of my favorite cooking blogs are not offering new content. Yes, that’s how white I am. I faithfully read cooking blogs still these two particular cooking blogs are hitting the pause button. They are intentionally stepping back to wrestle with their own racism and the various ways that they unintentionally play into white supremacy. It’s something I know many of us are doing.

Before reading their words, I already knew I wasn’t going to offer prayers this week. I wasn’t going to attempt to assert my privilege into the grief and pain after the unforgivable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed and Tony McDade because of the racism burning in our blood.

We have heard enough from white women.

White women should be asking, like all white people, how shall we pray?

We shall not pray for peace because we do not know the grief and pain of this moment. We do not wish that there was a better way because too much has been broken. We have dared to assume we could build on a broken system and only now can we see that wrong, but then, how shall we pray?

How do you pray when your country is on fire? How do you pray when there is greater concern for property than people? How do you pray when the grief and despair is too big to name?

EZYHcAoVAAA3BAKI am listening for what I do not understand. I’m opening my heart and mind to the grace of God as I wrestle again with the demon of my own racism.

I cannot pray with my own words.

I won’t. I can’t.

I want to confess the sins of my own racism starting with my White Privilege as captured in a poem by Judith Lockhart Radtke found in The Anti-Racism Prayer Book created by Trinity Church in Boston. There are several other powerful prayers collected in this digital booklet.

Those that are still feeling the winds and fire of Pentecost might opt to use this Prayer by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat written way back when in 2014 in honor of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. It might need only a slight adaptation to feel that wind that moved over the waters of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a.

As social media blacks out to focus on the wisdom of black and brown bodies, in churches in my own United Church of Christ and other white dominated congregations, this litany of confession for Lent might be adapted to evoke the power of Creator, Christ and Spirit. This prayer remembering the last words of Eric Garner from Praying with James Baldwin might also be fitting or one of these two prayers addressing white supremacy found on enfleshed. Martha Spong offered a beautiful Trinity Prayer meditating on Psalm 8:4 in her weekly email that she admits is a prayer for majority white communities of faith. 

The United Church of Canada somehow always has words for the prayers closest to my heart as they do in this prayer To Root Out Quiet Racism.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has a Black Lives Matter Worship Collection which includes a reflection about singing Lift Every Voice and Sing by the Rev. Aisha Ansano that I found powerful especially because I remain unconvinced that it should be sung in white congregations.

When I can’t find the words for my own prayers, I turn to poetry. This poem by Ross Gay popped up in my timeline again this week. As the fires blaze in riots across our country, I find myself returning to Christopher Gilbert’s Fires Gotten Brighter. Donte Collins’ what the dead know by heart sends chills down my spine and leaves me staring at my own palm. I’m not sure how you’d use these in worship just as I’m not sure how a white congregation might meaningfully use Get Home Safely which the SALT Project is offering for free download.

For better or worse, I know that my prayers as a white woman aren’t the same as my black and brown sisters and brothers. I know that as much as my throat catches watching that video, it’s not the terror I feel every day for myself or my children. I can cry listening to the Rev. Otis Moss III preach powerfully but I also learned something that I’m sure black and brown folks have known for a long time. I am new to this fight no matter how many anti-racism workshops I’ve attended.

My prayers are different because I’m not in the streets right now. I’ve got time and space to contemplate how I might pray when others are struggling to stay alive or even assert that their lives have worth.

I believe we should pray just as I believe in the power of God to do things that I cannot fathom in this moment. I’m going to hold onto that hope as I confess the sins of my own racism. That’s what it feels like these prayers are.

These are prayers to confess that we bought into the idea that this system actually worked even as we balked at 45’s great campaign slogan. We thought we knew. We thought we had done the work until this moment when a pandemic should keep us inside our homes but the grief is just too damn big.

I confess that I want to hear something like Maya Angelou’s Alone on Sunday because it might not be just about some idealized kum-ba-yah moment like in 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 but it could actually say something about our collaboration with the Trinity. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what I might want or how big I might like God to be. It’s not a question of my comfort.

I’ve been too comfortable. That’s the problem and the challenge of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.

Worship has already changed. It already feels so different ten or eleven weeks into this new normal so perhaps how we pray and when we pray and how long we allow God to speak needs to change too.

We shall pray that black. brown and indigenous lives matter because God already knows they do. We shall pray so that we might be changed.

Pandemic Prayers for Easter 5A

I join the circle of preachers who have expressed their familiarity with this text at the graveside. It’s the Gospel Lesson I always choose when the family doesn’t steer me in another direction, not because of the many mansions or rooms but for what it says about grief. I love the repetition that Jesus holds before us. I am in you. You are in me. 

I feel the tremendous wonder of these words in the eighth week of sheltering in place. I feel the weight of it as the news ticked across my screen last week announcing the death toll was now higher in the United States than the lives lost in the Vietnam War. As I sit here with my laptop in my lap watching my children enjoy their third snack of the day after our morning walk, that death toll is reported to be 67,465. The Washington Post reports that number will double by June 1 with the number of states relaxing restrictions. Lord Jesus. I am in you. You are in me. 

I have watched as clergy post masked selfies at their first graveside service in the wake of this pandemic. I’ve listened as they’ve carefully considered how to keep the grieving socially distanced. I’ve heard their sorrow and regret and felt their tears. This is a new season for grief. It is different and still the same. Mourning hasn’t yet turned into dancing. We need space. We need time. We need to remember that no matter how death came, there is this promise in life after death. There is the mysterious power of love that continues. It lives on.  I am in you. You are in me. 

These prayers lean into that grief and the strange awareness that we are even more connected than ever.

Opening Worship

I know that we are not able to sing together and won’t be able to do so for some time but I want to believe that there is still a way to do so. I want to believe that video worship will somehow allow us to sing from the comfort and safety of our own living rooms while still hearing each other sing so I keep checking Singing from the Lectionary for something that might work. This week, I found John Bell’s Don’t Be Afraid which might work for a recorded response after the stanza of a poem like Amber Tamblyn’s To A New Dawning or this community sourced poem If the Trees Can Keep Dancing, So Can I. This could be a lovely way to begin worship.

This Gospel Lesson also reminds me of one of my favorite John Bell songs that would be a lovely gathering into worship. You can find it on YouTube here.

I also found When Human Voices Cannot Sing which is set to LAMENT but could also be sung in the more familiar (at least to me) ST COLUMBA. The lyrics spoke to my heart so much that I adapted it below to gather the beloved community into worship with the words of Psalm 31. The second option leans into the confusion of what will emerge from this. I know there are pastors leaning into this strange interim season. This might be something that works for that intention. There’s another beautiful option for this intention over on Spacious Faith.

Gathering in Grief and Hope

Words adapted from Shirley Erena Murray’s When Human Voices Cannot Sing

When human voices cannot sing
and human hearts are breaking,
we bring our grief to you, O God,
who knows our inner aching.
Incline your ear to us, O God.
Be our rock and refuge.

Set free our spirits from all fear —
the cloud of dark unknowing,
and let the light, the Christ-light show
the pathway of our going.
Incline your ear to us, O God.
We commit our spirits to you.

Make real for us your holding love,
the love which is your meaning,
the power to move the stone of death,
to find the hope of Easter morning.
Lead us and guide us, O God.
Our time is in your hands.
Our worship and praise is in your name.

Gathering into the Way

Thomas shares our doubt.
He doesn’t know what will come next.
We do not know where we are going.
How can we know the way?

Christ calls us to remember.
We do not know what God is doing
but we know who Christ is, so we know God is too.
We have known God and have seen God.

Philip pushes against the new normal.
He leans into what he thought he knew
before everything changed.
We have done the same.
Show us what God can do.

Christ soothes our troubled hearts
and invites us to believe.
I am in you and you are in me. 

Let us find a way into this truth.
Let us worship God together.

Shared Ritual Action

Instead of a confession, I was inspired by this prayer I saw on Facebook from Rabbi Valerie Cohen. (I jotted this down on scrap paper when I saw it but now I can’t find the actual post. If you can find it, please link to it below. I hate that I can’t find it.) Way back when on Good Friday, I virtually wandered through a Stations of the Cross where each reader donned a mask. This was before I owned one. It was before they were recommended in Texas though my husband reports to me how many people he sees actually abiding by this practice. On that Good Friday, before each reader read the station they were assigned, we watched them pull off their mask and then replace it after they had spoken. It was powerful.

Then, there was this horrific news in Michigan. I need a prayer to remember that this simple action is a prayer. I thought it might fit well into this worship experience. It appears below as a graphic that you’re welcome to share.

Sweaters Up for Grabs!

I might also include a blessing for the face masks. I know this is highly charged territory among some of my Christian sisters and brothers. (If you aren’t familiar with this struggle, read this.) This isn’t for everyone but I think we need a blessing. We need to remember that the choices we make are a prayer for the world and for ourselves.

Blessings always remind me of this amazing collaboration from years and years ago. I commend it to you as you figure out how to best outstretch hands in blessing upon face masks. Perhaps words likes these might be shared in your worship on Sunday.

Blessing for Face Masks

O God, bless these face masks.
May the fabric that protects each nose and mouth
be as strong as the fabric that knits together the human family.
May the strings not bind our ears
as we struggle to listen to the fears
of your people. May we feel every bit of sweaty discomfort
as a reminder of our shared humanity
and may that connection give us more courage
to wear these masks upon our faces.
O God, bless these masks
as surely as you bless your people. Amen.

Prayers of the People

As I wondered last week, I’m still not sure what this particular moment of worship should look like. I offer you a prayer below that has been adapted from one in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship.

Be with us through all the unknown days lying before us:
days when where the flowers bloom and trees bud
but every day feels like the day before,
days when the headlines seem to emerge from the worst dystopian reality
but we remind ourselves again that this is the new normal,
days when we are consumed with worry
for the vulnerable, the poor and the sick
but we do not know what to do with our troubled hearts.

Be with us in this unknown, O God.
Do not put us to shame.
Be our refuge and strength.
so that we grow in union with all our sisters and brothers,
so that we may see more deeply into ourselves.

Be with us in this unknown, O God.
Show your full self to us
and allow us to see ourselves in you.
Resist the temptation to show great works
but remind us where you dwell.
Show us your heartbeat.
Let us feel your breath
as close as our own.

Help us to find the faith to believe:
I am in you and you are in me.

Help us understand that for those who are faithful to you
life is not ended but only changed.
Help us join together with all you have created to say:
Great and powerful is our God.
God fills heaven and earth with love and beauty.
It is a beauty we see in doctors, nurses,
chaplains, grocery workers and delivery workers.
It is love that we see smiling in the eyes
above each face mask.
Even in the unknown, O God,
we believe in you.
Help us to believe in each other
and even in ourselves.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Dear pastors, liturgists and musicians, I’m praying for you, as always.

Naming the Dead

On Friday, I attended a conversation hosted by the BTS Center called It’s Okay to Grieve. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the new Executive Director of this organization, is also a friend, He and his wife and sweet girls arrived in Maine while I was pastoring there to plant a new church within an old downtown congregation. I’ve said it before. My colleagues are doing the most amazing ministry with such care, compassion and creativity. I am in awe and I was excited to listen in on a conversation particularly for clergy.

Later that day, I watched the press conference that Andrew Cuomo hosted earlier that day. It’s the same one where he bashes the president. I might have watched it for that reason. Maybe.

I was struck by the slide with the death tally. The total deaths reached as high as 15,683 but it wasn’t the total that appeared on this slide. Instead, it was dates and numbers.

April 13: 778

April 14: 752

April 15: 606

The number of lives lost on these days and the three days that followed. I found a still here. Though the dates were, the death tally wasn’t cumulative. I found this confusing. Or maybe I was just tired because I was watching it way past my bedtime, but I expected the number to go up to reach that overwhelming statistic that has probably increased not only in New York state but in many other places around the world. 

It hit me then that those people had names. It should be obvious just as each and every one of those nursing home and hospitals have a name. They have boards making hard choices about how to manage care. They have doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff that are all essential workers. Every single one of them has a name that was given to them on the day of their birth. A name that originated from their father’s lineage or sprouted from the wonder-filled bliss of two new parents. We shall call this child beloved.

Names are important especially for people of faith. We recall with wonder and confusion that Adam and Eve were given the daunting task of naming God’s creations. It was one of the many ways that they partnered with God to care for these new precious beings.

I felt the rush of sorrow for each and every one of those beloved children.

All 15,683 in New York.

All 23,660 in Italy.

All 4,632 in China.

All 339 in King County surrounding Seattle.

All 743 in Westchester County where my parents still live.

All 477 in Texas.

I remembered in seminary when we had committed to praying over the names of those that died in the war in Afghanistan. I remember when that number reached so high it seemed impossible that we had lost so many young lives as much as I remember the knot in my stomach that the only names we had were for the American soldiers who had died. There had been other lives lost — women, children, innocent bystanders, and even enemy soldiers — but we didn’t know their names. We didn’t pray for them.

There is power in who we choose to name in our prayers just as there continues to matter that we remember Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland. It matters that we say their names as much as it matters that we remember their stories. In the midst of this pandemic, when families aren’t able to gather and memorialize the dead, there are too many dying alone. It feels all the more important that we remember their names and their stories.

I had seen this video on Twitter of someone flipping through the pages of the obituary section in the Italian paper before any of this really felt real. I feel the enormity of that loss. There are so many but each of those names has a story. Each of those names deserves to be honored and cherished. A colleague of mine exclaimed earlier this week that worship shouldn’t feel like a funeral right now. We are already feeling that weight. Worship needs to offer something else, she insisted, perhaps because it was Easter just the week before. I’m not so sure. I wonder if our worship shouldn’t reflect our collective loss right now.

I wonder if there shouldn’t be a time when we pause to name the dead.

There are lists that record the celebrities who have died of COVID-19. In fact, I found several lists of famous people. There’s a list of healthcare workers that have died. It is a HIPAA violation to share those names. I know. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals in my ministry but I still wonder how we name the dead.

And I wonder if it can really wait with all the grief we are already carrying.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Insistent Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.

I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.

It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.

But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.

Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?

I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.

I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.

Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.

In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.

It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.

Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.

I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.

Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.

 

Grief and Parenting, Part 5678

I didn’t take my daughters to my mother’s grave. 

I meant to. It was something that I intended to do while we were in the area for my sister’s wedding. My brother had even asked if we could go together. That was something we hadn’t done since he and I were small children, but it didn’t happen. We didn’t go. 

We had the opportunity but we didn’t go. My girls don’t know the difference, of course. At three months and nearly two years, it wouldn’t occur to them that Mommy had missed this opportunity. They barely know that Mommy had a Mommy, not just in the usual way that children can’t fathom relationships beyond themselves but in the fact that Mommy had a Mommy that died. Mommy had a Mommy that they will never know. 

Last time I was so close to my mother’s grave, I took my daughter. It was just the two of us and it felt important. It felt like something I had to do to introduce my then ten-month old daughter to her grandmother. So why didn’t I feel that way again with my second daughter? Or why didn’t it feel just as important to bring my eldest daughter back? Surely she doesn’t remember the last time. Repetition is kinda important at this age but I didn’t do it. 

We didn’t go and it’s only now that I’m wondering why. On Thursday, I’ll have the opportunity to be interviewed for In Other Words which is a ministry of United Church of Christ Longmont. That’s right. This lovely church in Colorado hosts a podcast that focuses on the unique issues parents face. I am amazed by the brilliance of this idea and so honored to be among its guests. The host and pastor found me through my blog. She actually found me through this post and suggested that I was an expert on parenting with grief. I laughed when I read this in my email. I’ve only been a parent for two years whereas my grief has consumed thirty-two years of my life. 

I was back East away from the Texas heat for a big family event and it was wonderful. It was wonderful to be together because there is something truly magical about placing your child in the arms of a cousin or aunt or grandparent, but then it was my sister’s wedding, my sister who is the only child of my step-mother. I don’t see much value in pointing out that Mary is my half sister  or even that Jana is my step-mother. They are family and I love them fiercely, but I do wonder how to best explain this to my girls. How do I tell them about Mommy’s Other Mommy without it tarnishing their love of the grandmother they know? How do I share my sadness with them? Or maybe the better question is when? 

I’ll wait because they’re not quite old enough but if I’m honest, it feels dishonest to wait. It feels just like it did when I was eight years old and laughed at something silly when I should have been sad because my mother had died. Gosh, I wish that feeling would go away. It has been long enough but it persists. It hasn’t yet gone away. I still don’t know how to overcome it. Until I do, there will be a picture of my mother cradling me in my girls’ room. It doesn’t feel like enough but its all I know to do right now.

I don’t yet have words to explain how it feels to have my mother in the background. Since I became a parent, she’s more present than she was. There are memories I didn’t know I had and instincts that have startled me. My mom is here as much as she’s not here. 

Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel like I needed to go to her grave this time. Grief has taught me in this new season that there’s nowhere I need to go to find her. She’s always with me.