Pandemic Longest Night and Christmas Eve Worship

If you’ve been clicking around From My Kitchen or found my newsletter earlier this week in your email, this is old news to you. You are busy, dear pastor. You have already seen this. You can go do the many other things on your list.

If you were not so lucky to find these things yet (and I do hope these are things that make you feel lucky and joyous), I’m thrilled to finally share with you the services I’ve been working on for Longest Night and Christmas Eve. These were surprisingly hard to write. I am not exactly sure why that is.

Advent began with decorations on our tree and lights filling the house. It wasn’t the same as hanging the greens at church. I am feeling that loss as I know so many are in this strange new season — further compounded by the fact that I couldn’t get worship to stream from our tiny Texas church. It is one of those pandemic frustrations of having technology fail when it is our life line and it still annoyed the crap out of me, but I’ve been working on these liturgies long before the tree went up. As the year ends, I’m finding it hard to both find words for the grief of this moment and to find the joy that should overflow when we’ve finally found our way to Bethlehem.

After all, Advent feels as though it started in March when the first stay-at-home orders swept across the country because of the rampant spread of the coronavirus. We have been apart from each other for much of this year which has made 2020 feel like an especially long year.

I dove into the ancient psalms of lamentation after trying really hard to make the creation story work in how we talk about the night at this moment. I found comfort in psalms that didn’t express my lament but reminded me of the hope that we find in God. Those are the words we love and need to hear again and again, right? I hoped to make space for how hard it is to name the immensity of our grief right now because it’s not just that we have lost someone dear. It is not just one death but millions of deaths worldwide due to a virus that is not yet contained or really understood. It is the devastation we have seen to our planet while glued to our screens. It is the anxiety of constantly refreshing our browsers for hope and maybe some good news and it’s the backward summersault that too many of us have done into anti-racism work this year. We have lost more lives than we can imagine and maybe we have wondered if we even lost a tiny bit of ourselves.

There has been so much loss. There is still so much that is unknown even as a new church year has dawned. When the Night Has Already Been So Long, we are looking for some way to speak to that immense grief. That’s what I hope this online worship experience will offer to the gathered community huddled around candles in their own homes. I hope it’s a chance to be together and hold vigil for a new day to dawn. 

I actually wrote the Christmas Eve service first. It felt really strange to me to write Advent liturgies before writing Christmas Eve this year because I have always worked backwards. I have always needed to know what Christmas is going to look like and feel like until I can really figure out how Advent might feel and I’m not sure these services are at all related. Shadows and Light is really a service that makes room for more grief than the typical Christmas celebration. I hope there is joy. I hope it gets there in the music and poetry I’ve selected but Christmas always has a quietness to it.

It’s that quietness that has always puzzled me. When the birth of Christ is most vivid, we turn out all the lights to sit in the dark and sing a lullaby. It’s beautiful. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just not really joyous. (I know. I know. Don’t mess with tradition.) But I did.

I did mess with tradition when I was in my last settled call. It came out of a worship planning conversation where we talked about more light and so I created an Advent wreath (except that it wasn’t a wreath) where more candles were added each week and we named the light we saw coming into the world aloud. Then, on Christmas Eve, I didn’t do Silent Night. It wasn’t there. I got lots of complaints because church people love tradition without questioning why we do what we do.

If you are reading this and you were one of the wonderful people at that church who allowed me to experiment and play so much, I want you to know I am grateful for the space you gave me. I’m even more grateful that I got to be your pastor.

If ever there was a year where we could do something a teeny tiny bit different, I thought this year might be it. I thought maybe we could try it again and see what we might learn. You know your people best, dear pastor. You know if this is what is needed this year or if tradition is really what people need right now. You know.

Inspired by the Tenebrae tradition that is so familiar to Holy Week celebrations, Shadows and Light flows like a service of Lessons and Carols with song and story weaving together the good news of this birth.

More and more candles are lit to welcome the Light of the World before Joy to the World is sung with full gusto and glory.

As usual, I use quite a bit of poetry and you’ll find I’ve updated Poetry for Lessons and Carols to reflect some of the choices I’ve made for this service. (Ok, I also added a bunch more that I just loved and didn’t include in this service.)

Both liturgies are available for $10 each using the above links by immediate download. Or if you are interested in both worship services, you can find this Shadow and Night Bundle for $15 here.

Music suggestions are provided in both liturgies and was quick to add a few more when I discovered these FREE Christmas Carol videos especially for online worship. I know that pastors are not the only ones that are tired right now.

I also decided to make Christmas Eve Under Pandemic Skies available for just $2 for those are looking for a safe way to worship outside in a pandemic. It was part of the outdoor prayer station experience I helped to design for my sweet Texas church. And yes, I know this won’t work on some church properties and especially in many climates. If anything, you can tell your worship committee (or other angry church member) that such a thing exists and you would be overjoyed if they would take a lead in planning it.

I know how busy this time of year is for you, dear pastors. I am holding you close and lighting candles for your courage, your strength and your abundant faith.

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 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. 

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. 

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days

Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.

All of these years later, that has stayed with me.

It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.

It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.

IMG_3830
Order your copy 

They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.

You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)

After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.

I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No 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.

If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable herePlease note that you’ll find the updated version by following this link that follows the calendar from December 1st to December 24th. It also includes a new resource to continue your grief journey. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.

Tell the Children

I sat there with my daughter in my lap turning the pages. Matt de la Pena’s book Love was sent to me by my cousin. She said it reminded her of me. So my heart was already in my throat reading this beautiful poem to my daughter.

And then, I turned the page and saw the family gathered around the television. Some were sitting on the couch. Others had their mouths gaping open. They couldn’t sit. They could only stare.

I sobbed. I couldn’t help it.

I couldn’t hold it back.

I remember when it was the bombing in Oklahoma City on that TV screen. I remember looking into the eyes of my parents as we watched rescue workers try to save the little children. I remember watching bombs explode in bright colors when war began in Afghanistan and I argued with another college student about the costs of war. He thought it was just. It was right. They deserved it. I wondered who was caught in the wake of such arrogance. And, of course, I remember this day.

I remember seventeen years ago when it was my boss and family friend that called me in the middle of the afternoon to tell me to turn on the TV. He couldn’t say anything more. He just told me to turn on the TV.

Alone, in his London home where I was that summer dog-sitting for these family friends, I watched the towers fall. I watched dark angels leap from buildings in the city that will always be my home.

There was no one to embrace. No one else to offer words. No small human that I had to then explain what we were seeing upon that screen. Then, I only needed to make sense of it in my own mind and even that is impossible.

It still feels impossible but I remember. I remember going back to New York City only one week later. I remember taking the train into the city and going downtown to infuse Lower Manhattan with love even if all we were doing was going to dinner. I remember the dust that still hung in the air and the heaps of flowers and candles on the sidewalk outside every single fire station. I remember the smiling faces posted on subway walls and chain link faces with the words MISSING hanging above their heads.

And I remember when those deaths were slowly confirmed. They were my friend’s parents. They were not strangers, they were friends.

It has been said enough that this day changed the world. I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to be that what we say to each other about this day, but I want us to talk about it.

This morning, I was with a group of moms who are mostly much younger than I am. I had just graduated from college. They were in elementary school and so we remember this day very differently. I was newly ordained and leading one of my first Confirmation classes when I first realized that there are young people that don’t remember this day. They can’t say where they were. They can’t say much about it at all because their parents thought they were too young.

It was better to protect them.

It was better not to say anything about this thing that changed everything.

That was what I was told when September 11 fell on a Sunday. I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I was to say anything else but I wasn’t to breathe a word to our children about what happened this day. It was explained to me that they might not know. Their parents might not have told them.

It was a silence that I knew. I have known. It’s one that I’ve been struggling to write about as I try to remember what was said to me after my mother died. They thought it was better not to talk about this terrible thing that had changed everything. It was better not to talk about the thing that was on all our minds, they thought, but it’s not true.

It’s not better. It’s just easier.

It’s easier not to talk about the hard things that make us hide under pianos. That’s the illustration on the following page. I knew that kid. I would have been him if I could have it under our piano. I hid in other places. I cried where grownups couldn’t see. I kept my heartbreak all to myself because Mommy would want me to smile. That’s what they said. That’s what they told me. She’d want me to be happy.

It would be easier for the publisher to cut that page because it’s too much. It’s too much for everyone but that child that is actually hiding under the piano because the grownups can’t see his pain. Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they can’t, but that doesn’t make it any easier for that kid.

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

There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.

There is a power to being seen in words and pictures. There is a power to those stories being told because they changed us. Because everything changed in that moment and it needs to be said out loud. It needs to be said loud enough for our children to hear.

A Simple Graveside Ritual

Graveside services are often very, very short. Some simple prayers are repeated by the presiding minister. Tears are shed, but there isn’t much else for the grieving family to do. There is nothing asked of them. There’s no action for them to take.

What if that’s what the family needs most? They need something to do, something that will express their grief beyond the words that are said. They need some action. A ritual could change that. It could allow for the grieving family to move beyond the words and allow their grief to have movement.

It was movement that I was looking for when I sat down to imagine the graveside and memorial service for my husband’s grandmother a fewweeks ago. The words didn’t say enough. They didn’t say it all. Where the words failed, I wanted there to be something else to allow the family to move with their grief.

I wasn’t looking for more words. I’ve done that before. I’ve added a scripture or an opportunity for the family to share stories through laughter and tears at the graveside, but I wanted something more than words. I wanted an action. For whatever reason, I got to thinking about stones. I remembered that there is a tradition that people will often leave stones on the tombstone of their beloved when they visited the grave but I couldn’t find what I really wanted. I couldn’t find some ritual around this tradition, so I wrote my own.

The stones laid down for Joy

It is simple. It invites the grieving family to lay down stones upon the gravestone. To lay down their regrets, their grievances and most importantly to lay down their love.

The stones we used had appropriate “bling” for Joy. She loved to wear anything that sparkled. So the stones we used required a trip to the craft store in order to bedazzle them appropriately to fit the radiant soul she was in life. Any stones can be used for this. Plain stones pulled from your garden would work fine, but it might be meaningful to personalize it. I can imagine painted stones by grandchildren for the man that loved children, American flag painted stones for veterans, stones wrapped in fat quarters for the avid quilter or wrapped in yarn for a knitter. There could be so many other possibilities.

This ritual follows a beautiful responsive reading from Kathy Galloway’s The Pattern of Our Days in which the gathered repeat “we lay you down.” I offer it here in the hope that others might find it meaningful for their

Laying Down Stones

Minister: Looking around a cemetery anywhere in the world, you might notice stones resting upon the headstones. There may be lots of stones from several visits. Or from when a whole family went to the grave together. Or there may be one single stone perched upon their loved one’s final resting place.

It’s an act of love to place that stone, cementing the relationship that continues even after death. Love never ends. It goes on and on.

Today, like every other day you come to visit your mother, your grandmother, your sister and your dear friend, I invite you to leave a stone. To mark the visit with a symbol of your love. Place this hardened earth upon her grave to remember that love never ends.

Though there may be ordinary stones in the future, red stones from Utah or polished creek stones from Kansas or even a pebble found on your way to work, today you’re invited to leave stones with bling. It’s how Joy would want it.

 

Minister invites gathered congregation to come forward, take a stone and place it on the gravestone. Silence may be appropriate.

I offer this ritual as part of Ingredients for Worship. If you use this ritual, and I hope you do, don’t forget to change the places and names so that it is meaningful for the family to whom you’re ministering. (I know, you would never forget.) Please do share what you’ve cooked up for graveside services in the comments below! I’d love to hear other ideas.

How to Pray Before Giving Birth

This afternoon, after church was over, I finished Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It might seem like an odd book to pick off the shelf for a woman who is expecting to deliver a healthy baby girl any day now. I should perhaps be exuding more of the joy we heard in the epistle we heard this morning. Again, along with Paul, I should rejoice.

Maybe, but I’ll leave the rejoicing for you to do. Rejoice for me that there is new life when the world feels so broken. Rejoice for me that our bodies can do amazing things because at this very moment, I have some doubts. I have lots of doubts.

In fact, this book found its way into my hands because I found a journal of my mother’s from when she was hospitalized at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. A friend brought it to her, though I don’t know which one. It was these words she read when her body was failing and as I’ve been trying to commit my heart and mind to this project of writing about my own experience of grief and loss, I wondered what she found in these words. So I cracked the spine to be close to her.

It was meant to inspire my writing, but it has again touched upon my grief.

As I get closer and closer to the arrival of my baby girl, there are so many things I want to ask my mom. So many things that only she would know.

Just a few nights ago, my husband and I met with our doula for the last time before labor begins. Anticipating the pain ahead, she asked what comforts me. Would massage help? Do I prefer the lights dim? Do I light candles and ease into a warm bath? I couldn’t answer her questions.

I still don’t have real answers to her questions. It’s not that I don’t know what I usually do to relax and unwind, but that the kind of comfort I’m really wanting and needing is prayer. And I’m not sure how to pray right now.

Rabbi Kushner reminds me,

“Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.”

It is not a matter of praying for outcomes even if I have a lot of those petitions heavy upon my heart, but prayer is a movement toward others so that we can be “in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams and pains we do.” I’m trying to wrap my head around how many people that is.

I’m trying to let go of that very human impulse to ask God for particular comforts and assurances that made Rabbi Kushner write this book after the death of his young son, but it’s not that easy. Even if the good rabbi assures me that God doesn’t need to be all-powerful to be all-loving, it’d really be nice. I would find comfort in that, lots and lots of comfort. But, there is no such promise that God can alter the laws of nature. What prayer does, instead, is bring God’s people into closer together so that no one feels alone or abandoned.

Perhaps that is the comfort I need in my grief, but it reaches beyond me to include every parent that grieves the loss of their unborn child. Those women who have felt a fluttering in their gut and felt their body change, but then all of the signs of life disappeared as quickly as they had come. Before this pregnancy, I was one of those women. I may be again. There is no way to know how this chaos befalls us and the good rabbi knows better than to provide an answer for tragedy.

Instead, Rabbi Kushner claims that what religion can do is call it a tragedy. It’s something only the voices of the faithful can do. Without offering any justification or defense, the faithful come close. They dare to say that no one is alone.

So, then, how do I pray in these hours or days before giving birth? Do I pray for the best possible birth experience? Do I pray for the doctors and the nurses that will care for me? Do I pray for my husband and doula that they can withstand whatever curve ball I might throw at them in the middle of a contraction? Do I pray that my little girl be healthy and strong or do I reject all of those possible outcomes knowing that God cannot alter the laws of nature? Do I instead, then, put my faith and trust in the hope that I am not alone? Could it be as simple as that?

It’s what I can’t wrap my head around because there are so many people that know my grief. We are quiet about it. We don’t talk about it much but there are a lot of us. We don’t want to burden you with our pain, because we know that you don’t really understand. You haven’t felt this thing that we’ve felt whether it was a child or a parent or some other dear departed soul that we lost. We’re still trying to figure out how we will live after tragedy struck, and there are times that we aren’t sure that we will make it.

This isn’t one of those times for me. It may have been for my mom. She died within a year of reading this book and so I’m not sure what it may have meant to her to receive the invitation to consider what would she do next. It implies that there was something after the cancer and maybe there was. Maybe it made her feel less alone. Maybe it encouraged her to pray to be redeemed from the isolation of her diagnosis. Maybe.

I know she grieved that she would miss out on so much. She wouldn’t be there to see her children marry or to watch us become parents. She wouldn’t even get us walk across the stage moving that silly tassel from one side to the other to mark the occasion that we had just become high school graduates. She’d miss everything. She cried about it to my grandmother, I was told. And now, I miss her in everything. I missed her in the days leading up to my wedding and the early days of my pregnancy as much as I miss her now when I’m about to become a mother. There is nothing that stops me wanting her to be by my side telling me to breathe and reminding me what I was like when I was a little baby.

I can only pray that somehow that comfort will come. Somehow, she’ll be there when I need her most.

Waves of Grief after Waves of Nausea

Grief is my constant companion. It is there every day and every moment even when there is a smile plastered to my face. Sometimes I choose not to acknowledge it. I don’t want it to dominate and there are still other times when it rides along in the sidecar of my whole existence.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, it stayed there. It didn’t hop into the driver seat but stayed somewhere in the background. I noticed it only enough to order a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, but then the swell of nausea would hit and I would speed down the hall praying that I’d make it to the toilet this time. Waves of nausea is too gentle for what I had been feeling those first few weeks of my pregnancy. I felt sick. I felt so sick that I can’t even consider an apt metaphor.

I could barely pull myself off the couch. I binged on television and hid behind my hands every time food appeared on the screen. The odor of that food would waft through the television screen and my stomach would turn. Back down the hall to the bathroom I would race muttering prayers of disgust.

When I finally started to feel better, it was Mother’s Day and the New York Times published this popular essay on The Birth of a Mother. It was posted and retweeted though all of my friends and family at the same time that I got a sweet text message from my sister wishing me a happy mother’s day for the very first time. It is no secret that I have complicated feelings about this observance. I’ve blogged about it in the past. So it may come to you as no surprise that I couldn’t bring myself to read this poignant essay. It remained an open tab on my browser for weeks, but I never read a word.

I never read a word until today.

I read only the first paragraph before the swells of grief rose in my chest. Tears began to roll down my cheeks not because of the overflow of hormones in my body, but for the fact that I am still a motherless daughter and so as careful as Alexandra Sacks is to include the wide variety of emotions that pregnant women experience, she still left me out. My family dynamics changed long ago when my mother died. Ever since, I have been creating my own style. I’ve borrowed from lots of amazing women — including my beloved stepmother — in parenting myself so that I still quite imagine what will emerge when I first hold my daughter in my arms.

Ambivalence is not the right word for me. Ambivalence doesn’t even describe the years before I met my husband when I knew that I couldn’t be a single parent. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. I didn’t want to raise a child with all of my grief leading the way, but I hoped that there would be someone else to ride that wave with me. I didn’t want to be a parent if it wasn’t a partnership.

Is that my own version of guilt and shame? I don’t know. I do know that when I met my husband and first watched him interact with the little girl who would become my godchild, something inside me shifted. It changed. I could see something that I hadn’t let myself see before. Parenting no longer seemed impossible, at least not with this man by my side.

This is something we talk a lot about these days. It might be the sappy talk that every couple has in the midst of a pregnancy but every time it comes up, it feels revelatory. He chose me to be his partner because he saw that I’d be a great mom. There were other reasons, I’m sure, though those aren’t highlighted quite as often as this particular fact. And even though I tell him the exact same thing, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I will be.

My mother did not work. She put all of those moms that worry about being good enough on edge. In my memory, if not in real life, it was what she wanted most. She wanted to be a mom. She relished in every bit of it. I don’t know if I will be like her though I’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what she would do. Let’s be honest, I’m already doing that because that it is how it is with grief.

Grief raises questions. It makes me wonder about things that I can never know no matter how many times I ask those that knew her. What is left is just a hole where there was once a person. She is gone and all of that wisdom that I might have once gleaned from her is now gone. It is lost. It will never be retrieved and so many of my questions will go unanswered. I’ll never really know if what I’m remembering is a fantasy or some complicated illusion I created to survive her loss. Those that knew her will tell me, but it will always be what they saw or what they wanted to believe. I’ll never really know how she would have chosen to define herself as a mother or as a woman.

It’s these questions that rise from the depths — once again — as I wonder about the kind of mother I will become. I can only hope that my children know how much I love them, for this is what I’ll never forget about my own mother.

 

How Grief Works

Since the news early Wednesday morning, a collective cry has arisen from my fellow Americans. Many have said that it feels like someone they have loved has died. In these first few days after the news hit, they feel numb. They are in shock. They can’t believe that this has happened. It feels just like when their dad died.

When that news hit that Donald Trump would be our next president, they couldn’t believe it. They had been in shock. They were numb and they wondered what the world would look like without him.

It has been a few years since that happened though. The grief they remember has changed. It has become something else. It’s not as overwhelming as it once was. They still miss their dad. Of course, they still miss him but those years without him have made grief different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Whether or not we are able to connect it to that loss before, it is grief that is on everyone’s lips. It was the first thing that arrived in my email on Wednesday. With only a few hours of fitful rest after that acceptance speech at 2 a.m., there was an email telling me to grieve quickly.

Others have joined that chorus echoing that refrain from the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” They do not speak of joy, of course, but of the work that must be done. Still, there is urgency to grieve quickly.

This is not how grief works. It does not come in a flash only to disappear. It does more than linger when it feels like the world has been ripped apart. This is how it feels when your father dies. This is how it feels right now to a whole lot of Americans. I’m told that it has felt that way to others before this election and that this has been ignored by people like you and me. Michael Lerner wrote in the New York Times yesterday,

“Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.

The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear.”

That last line arrests me. For it is not just their inner pain and fear that has gone ignored, it is our own.

This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.

This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.

Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.

I do not intend to wag my finger at you or your pain. In fact, that’s the last thing that I would want to do because I know that it will not work. Grief is what I know best. To borrow a line from Hope Edelman, it is “the most determining, most profound, the most influential event of my life.” My mother died when I was just a little girl and it has forever shaped how I see the world. And so, I know that you cannot shame another into feeling what they do not feel nor can you cannot compel anyone into grief. That’s not how it works. Grief, instead, is paying attention to that inner pain and fear. It’s a practice of noticing what hurts and how it hurts.

It is not so simple as charting through five stages until it is over and done. Grief will seize each of us at different times. Some are feeling it now. It is already real for them while others will need more time. Some will not feel the weight of this news until January when the inauguration when this president-elect will take the oath of office. Some might not even feel it then. Let’s not worry too much about what that might mean but instead let’s try to practice paying attention. Don’t grieve quickly. That’s really bad advice that comes from a culture that believes that the only way to survive is to get over your pain and your fear.

Grief is not something to overcome or achieve, but something to go through. It’s not wise to try to hurdle over it. It’s best to take the risk and allow yourself to mourn. Mourn it all. Mourn every hope and dream that feels dashed. Mourn the idea of America that feels like its dissolved and disappeared. Mourn the safety of your neighbor and yourself. Mourn every bit of it. Pay attention to it. Notice what you are feeling and when you feel it because that will be what teaches you. That will be what leads you to be the change that your kids and your friends need. That will be what allows you to take all of this pain and fear and make it into something beautiful that this country needs. But for now, dear ones, allow the grief to linger. Joy will come soon enough.