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Commemorating 1619: On Naming Slavery in Worship

The act of worshipping together as a community—of being not just in physical proximity, but spiritual proximity—sometimes feels like a miracle. As a pastor responsible for planning and leading worship, I have a deep appreciation for the perils and pitfalls that come with asking a group of people to pray together, sing together, worship together. If I write a prayer for worship, it can’t just be my prayer; it has to be a prayer for the whole community.

The logo for 400 Years of Inequality, a coalition committed to education and observance and urging communities to organize against racism for justice.

These challenges become especially acute when worship leaders ask their communities to engage with a topic that is painful or divisive. But we can’t shy away from hard subjects. We can’t restrict our worshipping life to shallow platitudes and feel-good theology lest we water down the gospel to the point of being meaningless. Faith communities need to dig deep into the places where our faith, our scripture, and our God intersect with the hard stuff: injustice, suffering, cruelty, sin. The sacredness of worship provides a powerful connection-point to the very subjects that are hardest to confront.

These reflections took concrete form for me recently as I pondered how my congregation should mark the quadricentennial of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia (though enslaved people were brought to the Americas prior to 1619)[1]. Four hundred years later, organizations both secular and religious are using 2019 to reflect on our history and to see how it connects to our present.

I’m a white woman, and I pastor a predominantly white congregation. Bringing up race or racism  among white people tends to evoke anxiety, guilt, and defensiveness—in short, our white fragility is quick to rear its head. We would rather leave slavery in the distant past. We would rather ignore the continuing racial injustice in our society. We would rather not consider our own complicity in this injustice. So I was faced with a complex challenge: how to mark this 400th anniversary in worship in a way that is truthful and authentic, without prompting so much defensiveness among my white congregants that they would be unable to engage.

Of course, what is truthful and authentic in my context won’t fit in every context. Particularly in communities made up of descendants of enslaved Africans, marking the quad-centennial will look very different. For those, like me, in mostly-white congregations, I hope these resources will be helpful.

I developed some liturgical resources with a lot of help from my colleague and fellow young clergywoman, the Rev. Jessica Harren. Part of developing these resources was paying another colleague, Jessica Davis, M.A. who is African-American, to do a sensitivity reading. If you are white and writing something about race, it is wise to seek input from a person of color; but don’t take advantage of their expertise and emotional labor! The liturgical resources we wrote can be found here: https://www.socalsynod.org/2019/08/16/resources-for-commemorating-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-arrival-of-the-first-enslaved-africans-to-north-america/

Another young clergywoman colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, wrote liturgical resources of her own, which can be found here: https://www.disruptworshipproject.com/litanies-confessions-prayers-for-justice/confession-and-repentance-on-the-400th-anniversary-of-slavery-in-the-united-states

Bringing up slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and racial injustice in worship may seem daunting. For those of us who are white, it is certainly easier to say nothing, to let this anniversary slip by. We have the privilege of ignoring slavery’s legacy. Our siblings of African descent don’t have that privilege. If you are hesitant to rock the boat by asking your congregation to name racism as sin, I encourage and challenge you to be bold. Our Savior didn’t come to placate the privileged and neither should we.

Worshipping together in community seems like a miracle sometimes. It is a miracle that we can come together—- all with different stories, different hopes, different wounds—- and find a sacred unity. It might seem miraculous that a mostly-white, suburban, politically mixed congregation could join their voices in condemning slavery; could publicly repent for denying the divine image in all people; could pray together for descendants of enslaved Africans. And they didn’t even lash out at their pastor afterwards!

Although marking the quadricentennial in worship felt like a risk, the truth is that it was a small first step. The things we do in worship—the stories we tell, the prayers we raise up, the history we remember—form us as individual Christians and as Christian community. The true miracle is that the Holy Spirit works in and among us, uniting us as the body of Christ. The work of worship leaders and planners is important, but it is the miraculous work of the Spirit that transforms us, bringing us ever closer to God’s sacred intention.

[1]

To learn more about the complexity of the translatlantic slave trade beyond 1619, visit https://bit.ly/2kLqc5M

 

Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship

My boys love going to church. On Sunday mornings, as I’m rushing to get out the door, they are moving quickly right with me, excited to get there. It is amazing and gratifying and humbling to witness, and I do not expect it to last forever. I will cherish it while it does. 

The truth is that Sundays in many homes where people are trying to get out the door to church are not always peaceful and pleasant. But often, as soon as they enter the doors, there is a transformation. Arguments pause, smiles return, and all is well once again. Through unspoken agreement, we participate together in the rhythms and rituals of worship. It’s holy space, but susceptible to the overcrowding of the mundane or the lull of familiar patterns.

Inspired by some musings shared by members of Young Clergy Women International, I present to you “Let’s Be Honest: A Guide to Worship.”1

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person sitting in darkened room by window clasping hands and looking outside at dark, rainy sky

Lament in a Purple Church

person sitting in darkened room by window clasping hands and looking outside at dark, rainy sky

If lament is largely about naming loss, how am I to lead when there isn’t agreement over what is lost?

Increasingly, I look around at the state of the world and my response is to lament. My heart breaks at all the violence and injustice. In my ministry, I oversee and plan corporate worship every week and, correspondent with my personal desire to lament, I have grown in my desire to create space in worship for public lament.

I serve, however, in a majority-white congregation that is decidedly mixed in its political and socio-economic identities. It has been a challenge at times for me to serve in the purple context of Maumee, Ohio. If lament is largely about naming loss, how am I to lead when there isn’t agreement over what is lost?

In August 2017, James Fields, Jr., most recently a resident of Maumee, Ohio, drove his car into a gathering of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed Heather Heyer. In response, I explicitly named white supremacy as sin and condemned it, full stop, from the pulpit. Some people thanked me sincerely afterward, but others were less receptive. One church leader threatened to leave the church because I was “taking cues from the media and not from God’s Word.”

The next week, I was speaking with a church member, and she said to me, “I just don’t understand. There is so much hatred in the world right now.” I nodded vigorously; I was thinking of the KKK. But then she continued, “Why those people want to tear down historical monuments make no sense to me. It’s history!” My nodding stopped. I realized in that moment just how much disagreement there is in a purple church about what hatred looks like. Read more

Blessing our Caregivers

Third Sundays in our congregation are healing Sundays. During communion, two healing ministers position themselves behind the altar rail, anointing oil in hand, to offer healing prayers and blessings to anyone who approaches them.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for themselves – prayers for upcoming surgeries and for broken relationships and for grieving spirits.

Some people come forward to ask prayers for loved ones – prayers for family members in medical crisis or friends in economic distress.

Some people come forward asking for nothing in particular. They just want to hear again the good news that God binds up the broken-hearted and promises healing for us and for all creation.

Healing ministers lay hands on their shoulders, pray, trace the sign of the cross in oil on their foreheads, and remind them, “You are a blessed and beloved child of God, and you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” There is nothing in death or in life that can separate these beloved children from the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

It is a privilege to pray for healing. But as a church we recognize the great privilege it is for so many of our members to be called into the work of healing as their vocation, both inside the church and out in the community.

We have many caregivers in our congregation: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, hospice workers, guidance counselors, and the list goes on. At least once a year, we take the opportunity as a congregation to craft a Sunday morning worship service around themes of healing and caregiving, and to offer a special blessing for all the caregivers in our midst.

We believe that Jesus walks with all who are in need. We believe that Jesus carries us through our times of trouble. In the same way, Jesus empowers those who care for the needs of others and Jesus strengthens us to carry one another through times of trouble. Our experience of healing most often comes through the blessing of human hands and hearts that have been set apart for the work of tending to body and spirit. Caregivers of all kinds do this holy work. Their vocations take them to places of immense joy and profound grief. Their work is vital.

When we bless our caregivers in worship, we recognize and honor their gifts and their work. We involve the entire assembly into the blessing process, whether by using a spoken dialogue, inviting members to raise up a hand in blessing, or inviting the assembly to participate in a laying on of hands. We ask God to bless our caregivers and to give them strength and peace in their vocations. Should you want to include a blessing for caregivers as a part of your community’s worship life, here is a template to help you get started: Read more

Christmastide

When candles lifted
for Silent Night
wax-dripped and wick-burned
lie haphazard,
dropped in baskets
forgotten;

When cotton ball sheep masks
tinsel halos
spray-paint gilded gifts of the wise
shepherd staff and wooden trough
find storage corners
to mark time til next December;

When liturgies recited
carols sung
luminaries extinguished
bulletins recycled
sanctuaries draped in cloak of poinsettia red
have held the promise, past tense.

Then the tide of Christmas—
good tidings of great joy
heaven and nature sing,
the ebb of frenzy
the flow of good news
begins.

It is among my favorite words:
Christmastide.

This time that carries us to another shore;
these days that celebrate the one in the manger
who will soon admonish us to go across to the other side.

These moments to reflect and wonder,
to ride the waves of laughter
and the waves of grief that swamp our frail vessels
all the way to the One whose voice the wind and sea obey.

Sometimes I Really Hate This Time of Year

pregnancy test – negative

We are in the thick of Advent. Inside the church, we are quick to turn our focus to Elizabeth, to Mary, to drawing parallels between the waiting time of pregnancy and the waiting time of Advent. Outside the church, Christmas cards show up in our mailboxes each day with pictures of smiling families dressed to the nines for Christmas portraits, or religious cards with silhouettes of pregnant Mary riding on the donkey, led by Joseph, down the road toward Bethlehem. Singers on the radio remind us that it is “the most wonderful time of year.”

Except when it isn’t.

“Sometimes I hate this time of year,” one colleague admits.

Because for those who long for children that they cannot conceive, for those who know the loss of a pregnancy or the loss of a child, for those who are childless beyond their choice or power, this intensely child-focused time of year is anything but wonderful. Hear the voices of young clergy women colleagues as they reflect on the tension of this season: Read more

Commended to God: A Service for Embryos

A few years ago, a couple came to me, because they had to make the difficult decision of what do with the leftover embryos that were created as part of the process of conceiving their twin children. They were so grateful for these embryos—and the beautiful children that had come from the two used embryos. They wanted a liturgy to honor those embryos and the potential life with in them. Together, we adapted the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer’s funeral service for a child and created the following liturgy.

Embryo

A Service of Thanksgiving for Embryos

Gather in the Name of God

All stand while the following is said

Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it
is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.
(Matthew 19:14)

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he
will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away
every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:17)

The Lord be with you

People And also with you

MinisterLet us pray.

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of children. We thank you for name(s)—their joy, curiosity, kindness, boldness and infinite appetite for life. We thank you for the embryos and science that gave us the gift of name(s). Your beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them. We entrust these embryos to you and pray you will care for and bless them. Amen.

The Lessons

Romans 8:31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Prayers of the People

In the peace of God, let us pray, responding, “Oh, God, have mercy.”

Loving God, we thank you for your faithfulness to parent’s name and parent’s name as they journeyed through the wilderness of infertility. You remained faithful to them along their entire journey, and strengthened their faith and love in You and in each other.

Oh God, have mercy.

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of science and technology. We thank you that it can be used to help create life. Lord, this presents us with many difficult decisions to make. Your Holy Word does not speak of these choices. We pray your grace and mercy upon all choices parent’s name and parent’s name have made and make today.

Oh God, have mercy.

Gracious God, we thank you for the longed-for gift of name(s). We pray that they will always feel loved and cherished—by you and by those around them. We pray that in their relationship with their parents they could experience a taste of the kind of love you have for them.

Oh God, have mercy.

Embracing God, we pray for these embryos. However you acknowledge them to be—as a life or as the hope of a life—they were created through love and prayer. Welcome them into your kingdom, Lord.

Oh God, have mercy.

Bless parent’s name and parent’s name, Lord, as they complete this journey. Help them know your love and peace.

Oh God, have mercy.

The minister concludes the prayers with this Collect:

Compassionate God, your ways are beyond our understanding and your love for those whom you create is greater by far than ours; comfort all who grieve. Give them the faith to endure the mystery of life and the mystery of faith and bring them in the fullness of time to share the light and joy of your eternal presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The Commendation

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of all mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

We commend these embryos to the mercy of God, our maker; redeemer, and comforter.

We entrust you to God. Go forth from this world in the love of God who created you, in the mercy of Jesus who died for you, in the power of the Holy Spirit who receives and protects you. May you rest in peace Amen.

The Holy Communion

The blessing and dismissal follow.

A Liturgy for Leaving

Like many 21st-century churches, the church I serve is a “nested” congregation: it has no building of its own, and rents space from another congregation. Some churches arrive at this kind of arrangement after selling their existing buildings. Others are new church starts, building a congregation from scratch.

Worshiping communities sharing space can be a wonderful thing. It can also be complicated. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t work. My congregation recently ended its relationship with its host congregation, and transitioned to a different space. The transition was challenging, marked with conflict, grief, and resentment. Although “the church is not the building… the church is the people,” as the old Sunday school song goes, it is difficult for the people to say goodbye to the place where their children were baptized, where they were married, where they grew in faith and discipleship.

This liturgy concluded our final worship service in our old space. It would be appropriate for congregations in a similar situation, and also can be adapted for other situations, such as moving out of a house or decommissioning a ministry.

One: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
All: May we go with the God who calls us to new adventures!
One: When Rachel departed from her home and family to make her home with Jacob, she took with her the teraphim, the household gods of her childhood.
All: May we carry with us what has been good, holy, and true from our time in this place.
One: God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
All: May we go with the God of liberation!
One: The Israelites were taken from their homes into exile.
All: May we go with the God who consoles the displaced.
One: Jesus sent the disciples out to preach the Good News to all creation.
All: May we be inspired and imbued with purpose and joy.
One: Jesus told the disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you, shake off the dust from your feet.
All: May we leave behind us all bitterness and disillusionment.
One: Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
All: May we thank God every time we remember this place.
One: Go forth to be God’s church in this time and place, as the Holy Spirit may direct.
All: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; one God, Mother of us all. Amen.

Finding Words

ministry lab nov 2016I have finally found my voice. I found my voice after seven years of often squelching, silencing parish ministry. For some reason beyond me, this new sense of purpose and meaning has come in the form of what used to intimidate me: writing liturgy. After my last call came to an abrupt close, I felt the overwhelming push to start writing liturgy — something I had always been much too scared to do before. Truth be told, I was actually still scared to do it but somehow knew that I had to. I started by writing Holy Week liturgies and have progressed through the year from there.

I start with the four scriptures appointed for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary. Since they change each week, every liturgy brings new challenges. I always try to include at least three, if not all four, of the readings. The more liturgies I write, the more I find the scripture speaking for itself. I find myself just picking out the central or pertinent parts of scripture and quoting those with added context. I have been surprised just how many times scripture has simply handed me the prayer of confession, and often it’s been way harsher than I would have attempted writing. I also have found that scripture speaks effectively to our current historical moment, sometimes in ways that feel pointed. Scriptural themes of the consolidation of land and wealth resonate strongly, and I often find myself drawing connections between scripture and the U.S. election. Justice (the non-punitive kind) is still needed, and righteousness (which I define as “right-relationship”) is a struggle both in scripture and in our contemporary context. It has been fascinating seeing these arcs and connections. I write the Opening Prayer last, typically using the themes that I would base a sermon on if I were preaching that day. My liturgies are definitely mini-sermons to me.

The stark reality of my ministry is that right now, writing liturgy for others to use is my ministry. Read more

Dribble and Dunk: A Practical Guide to Baptismal Logistics

font

There’s no way around it: ministry is a career and calling that involves a strange assortment of skills, not the least of which is the logistics of baptism.

Whether your tradition baptizes infants, young children, teens, or adults; whether you sprinkle, pour, or immerse; the practical implications are mind boggling. Even if you had a seminary worship professor who insisted on a full “wet-run” in class, there’s something helpful in this wealth of advice gathered from a group of young clergywomen.

You’ll need water. More than one pastor has whipped the lid off a small font mid-worship to discover that no one bothered to fill it. And it may be easier to tell if a large baptistry is filled, but don’t take anything for granted. Make it a pre-worship habit to check your font. If you pour water into a font from a pitcher as part of the liturgy, practice beforehand, so that you know how much water your font can take. Experiment with water temperature: warm water will be less of a shock to a baby, but how warm the water should be when you put it in the font or pitcher will depend on how long the water will be sitting in the font.

Babies can smell fear. Be confident. You may find a fussy baby trick that works for you: one woman’s mentor taught her to cradle the baby and slip his close arm between your arm and your torso. She swears this makes the baby curious about where his arm went and distracts from any fussiness. Another woman baptizes babies belly down, so the baby can see the water and her reflection. She also recommends bouncing the baby to the rhythm of “Buffalo Soldier.” Don’t be ashamed if a really fussy baby needs to stay with a parent, godparent, or sponsor while you baptize. (Just remember to stand alongside whomever is holding the baby, rather than across the font: cross-font baptism frequently result in a baby craning his neck to look at the pastor, which can result in the poor thing getting a flood of water back into his nose.) And affirm for parents that infant baptism is always a bit chaotic, appropriately so, since the theology of those who practice it reminds us that some of us come to God not so much by our own choice, but perhaps kicking and screaming.

Be ready for the unexpected. Even if you’re an experienced baby-snuggler, fancy baptismal gowns can be voluminous and slippery. And, just as babies can smell fear, they can also smell breast milk. If you happen to be lactating, don’t be taken aback if a baby shows some interest. Whatever happens, as one woman was told, “if someone gets wet and no one gets dropped” the baptism has been a success.

Take younger children into account as well. Older siblings of a baby to be baptized can be given a task (helping with a children’s message; pouring water into the font; reading part of the liturgy); this is also a great opportunity to talk to them about baptism, and doing so before the day of the baptism can make the difference between nervous and confident children.The same goes for older children who are being baptized. Find language that will work for them.

Think through how you’ll hold or memorize or have your liturgy held: Your hands will be full.

Immersion baptisms have a whole different set of logistics. The pastor, too, will be wet. Beyond a robe and even waders, one woman give this gender-specific advice “Wear your hair completely up that day to make sure nothing dips into the water. Even if your chest will not reach the water, depending on depth I wear a padded white bra, a sports bra, a tank top, a T-shirt and the robe over that. No matter how warm the water may plan to be, the VERY LAST thing I want a newly baptized person to see upon rising out of the water is my overly zealous chest.”

If you’ve not had practice immersing, the collective wisdom is to try it. One seminary professor of larger stature insisted that his students immerse him, so that they would always be confident baptizing someone much taller than themselves. Pastors in traditions that practice infant baptism may be most accustomed to springing water on infants and small children, but often have the liturgical option, for adult baptisms, of immersion. If you’re about to do an immersion baptism for the first time, find a colleague with more practice to teach you how.

Women who are experienced at immersion baptisms remind us to get our feet set in a good stance, or use a “side-lunge”, and to use the water’s buoyancy to help bring the person back up.

One woman once witnessed a baptism where someone hit their head on the edge of the baptistry and advises carefully considering the size of your baptistry. Considering asking a taller person to kneel and have their head dunked forward rather than back.

There’s also a trick several women discussed: using a white cloth (plain white handkerchiefs work well) to hold over someone’s mouth and nose as they go under and come back up. This can eliminate the need for nose-plugging.

You are, of course, going to have baptism mishaps. We all have stories. But no matter what happens, baptizing is one of the great joys, privileges, and mysteries of your calling.