New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

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Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

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.

Thank God for Ritual

This prayer arrived too late. I saw it in my email when I pulled into the church parking lot. I smirked at the title of the post. Oh, Martha, I thought. (She penned that prayer and happens to be an old friend from Maine so that I can say things like “Oh Martha” when looking at the email on my phone.) But, I didn’t read it. I didn’t allow myself to indulge in all of those paralyzing thoughts that agonize a preacher on Sunday morning.

I had read through my sermon that morning. I had edited it some. It wasn’t great. I knew it wasn’t great but it was better than I remembered. It was better than I thought it was when I first allowed it to rest. And then, I got up to preach that sermon.

roll-725577_1280The words caught in the back of my throat. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t smooth. It felt as though I was arguing with myself — and maybe I really was. Maybe that’s the sermon that I needed to hear. Maybe what I really needed was to hear myself not make sense so that I could hear a good word from God. But, then, I felt badly for these people. That’s what I was thinking about as the words stuck like cotton in my mouth. with this terrible drivel from the preacher that morning. These poor, poor people, I thought when I saw the table set before us. At the center of this worship space — in the middle of the circle in which we sat — was a table set with bread and juice. Set with the gifts of God for the people of God.

So that when I got up to offer the invitation to the table, these words are something like them stumbled off my tongue:

Ours is a tradition that most values the proclamation of the Word — the reading and preaching of scripture — above all else. It is the central point of our worship. It is what we wait for. It’s what we come to hear. This is bad news for the preacher on the day when God doesn’t quite give her a sermon of such caliber. When the words don’t come together in the preaching, when the words are so garbled that we can not taste and see the good news revealed in the words of Scripture, it is hard to uplift that value of the  proclamation of the Word. On those days, it might be best to embrace the other side of our tradition that doesn’t focus as much on proclamation as on ritual. For here we are to share in this ritual of the table. All that we have heard in Scripture today is revealed in this feast. This is the bread of life. It is the food that endures that is before us at this table. It is all that we need and all that we want.

Somehow these words led into the Words of Institution which was again not as I had planned. In my last church, when I had found myself tongue-tied or sometimes just because I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only one at that table, I called upon a moment of profound meaning for me in seminary when my preaching professor invited the whole congregation to share in repeating the Words of Institution. Not by rote. Not as preachers might do it. But, to tell it slowly with small prompts that coach the congregation along so that they might tell the whole story.

In this church, where I find myself as Guest Minister, they are not used to talking in church. They will greet each other at the appropriate time but when I invited them to speak these words, they were so quiet. I could barely hear them. They whispered the words as if they were unsure that they could dare to tell this story themselves. But, these are the gifts for the people of God: this bread, this cup, this table, this food that endures for eternal life. There was a quiet holiness that day. It was the kind of holiness for which I can only be thankful for ritual.

Thank God for ritual.