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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

 

Blessing of the Backpacks

Amelia, age 4, after her first day of preschool in 2018

I have always loved back to school season. As a child I looked forward to picking out my new folder and composition book, eagerly watching as my mother painstakingly wrote our names on every item that would accompany us on our first day of school. When I finally graduated for the last time, I would find myself in the back-to-school section of Target, looking wistfully at the bins of 24 count crayons and Bic highlighters. Sometimes I grabbed a box or two—$0.25 is a great price for crayons, after all.

This year is different, though. This year I have two excited five-year-olds who don’t quite understand the concept of a supply list. They want new lunch boxes even though their preschool ones are fine; they want the folders with kittens and unicorns instead of the plain red and yellow requested by the teacher. They want the MEGA pack of crayons. In another week or so I will sit on my bed with their supplies scattered around, just as my mother did, and carefully write their names on everything, including each pencil.

In a few weeks I will send my little ones on the bus for the very first time, and my heart will do little flips. Now more than ever I need a blessing on these children and the grownups I am entrusting with their care.

A Blessing of the Backpacks is a wonderful way to begin the school year, surrounding the students, teachers, and educational support staff of your congregation with prayer and blessings. I’ve developed the following liturgy over the last few years, and usually use it during the children’s sermon. It could easily be adapted into a litany so that many voices are represented and heard. The school supplies are in bold as a visual cue to hold up the item and let the children call out its name if you wish:

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Opening Worship

The last words of Rev. Rebecca Immich Sullivan’s sermon from opening worship at the Young Clergy Women’s Annual Conference on Monday, July 29.

Opening Worship
7-29-19

There were arches

and a peak

made of wood

and polished,

carved with a

clover symbol

for the Holy

Trinity.

 

And feathers were laid

on the altar,

beyond the rail

where the minister presides,

which was draped

with green and white

for ordinary time.

 

And the organ pipes

spread their arms

in welcome

and pursed their lips,

poised to sing,

but yielded

to the lighter notes

of the piano’s

joyous song.

 

And infants nursed,

And toddlers gave

their voices to

the large spaces

between our prayers.

 

And the pews

creaked amicably

beneath us

adding their amens

to the gospel

according to Mary

and to “Martha, Martha,”

too,

 

and “our presence was

gift enough.”

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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Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Bind Us Together

Group of people holding hands around an A-frame wooden church sanctuary

Singing “Bind Us Together Lord” as the benediction

I’ve almost finished my first year as senior pastor at a church that is unlike any other I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. Our vision statement is “To be a house of prayer for all nations,” and while we may not have all nations yet, together we worship in Burmese, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. It is beautiful and energizing. When I first arrived church members told me, “In heaven, people are going to be from all over the world and praising God in different languages. We might as well start practicing now.”

I don’t want to romanticize my church, of course: please remember that it is a church, which means it is made up of people, which means that life lived out together in faith can be messy. There are still disagreements and misunderstandings, and now we can have misunderstandings across languages and cultures as well. We are not a church of one single political or theological viewpoint.

We are made up of refugees and immigrants as well as people who’ve lived their whole lives in Kentucky. We live into the tension of having people hug and greet one another on Sunday and post articles about “building the wall” on Monday. And for those church members, they experience no contradiction in that. They see their political beliefs around immigration as separate from the love they show to the people right in front of them. Read more

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The Freedom To Dance & Worship

a picture of the author, Joy Williams, sitting, laughing, in front of a small body of water surrounded by grass and trees

The author

I feel it. Slowly at first. Suddenly, my spirit bursts and I must stand. Within seconds, I am on my feet. I’m swaying, one arm on my heart and the other raised in the air, palms open. Something in me notices that I am the only one standing while I am in church.

“Am I supposed to stand? Is it against some rule that I should not?” I begin to think to myself. I’m not sure who is looking at me, if anyone, and I try to concentrate on what drew me to stand, which is the Great Spirit. God beckons all of me–not just my presence, my voice, my ears, my eyes, or my attention, but my body. God wants all of me to worship. When there are any scrutiny or judgments I feel, I remind myself of examples of dancers in the Bible.

David danced.

Miriam danced.

Sigh. The service is over. A few individuals come up to me and comment on how nice it was to see someone standing during worship. I have received comments, “Wow, you really know how to worship.” It makes me wonder what about the experience of others makes such a distinction between what they see of me, and what they feel inside. Why are the experiences described differently if they too are worshiping? Did they want to stand? If they did not stand what stopped them?

We are used to singing in church. We are used to using our voice to speak in church. We are used to sensing the “spirit” in our spiritual spaces, but, rarely, are we used to seeing our bodies as a necessary, and integral part of worship. Why?

We use our bodies to enter a worship space, but we tend to disconnect the body once inside, and only focus on the spirit. We go into a mode of sensing, feeling, and concentrating on all things internal. Focusing on all things internal is a good thing. Churches and other worship spaces are one of the only designated places that our social sphere focuses on the spirit, where the spirit can have a voice, have a body, have a presence and be intentionally tended to.

However, sometimes we focus so much on the spirit that we disregard the temple in which that spirit lives, the body. We may kneel, we may clasp our hands together in a prayer pose, we may stand to take of sacred elements, or we may raise our hand. All of these embodied practices are indications of what is happening on the inside.

We move our bodies because we have to fulfill a goal of the spirit, and we can only fulfill that goal if we move our bodies. For example, if I am sitting in the pew and the offering plate is at the front, I have to move my body or get someone to move theirs for my spirit to offer finances to the offering plate. Likewise, when I take of the sacred communion or Eucharist, I move my hand, my mouth, and any other body part to fulfill the goal of the spirit to remember the Last Supper that Christ instructed us to follow. Read more

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

Album Review: “Work Songs”

The music on this album affirms the dignity of work and breaks down any perceived dichotomy between work and worship.

I read recently about an academic who conducted an analysis of television shows that depict clergy, and he drew the conclusion that a person might assume that they are more likely to meet a pastor-detective than a pastor-theologian.  So much of our work is hidden and mysterious.  It’s no surprise that a layperson may have an easier time imagining a clergyperson looking for clues to solve a murder instead of looking for clues of the divine presence in ordinary life.  But I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, our work has more to do with being a practical theologian than being a gumshoe.

For this reason, I am grateful for the 60 musicians, pastors, songwriters, and scholars who gathered in New York City last June for a conference on the theology of worship and vocation. While together, they made a live recording of new hymns and released them in October of 2017: “Work Songs” by The Porter’s Gate Worship Collective. It has been on heavy rotation in my home and I commend it to you. 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

Newness of Life: How I Gave Up the Waders and Learned to Love the Water

Easter morning. The sanctuary is full. The trumpet fanfare happens right on cue and the lilies – in addition to making my nose itch – are beautiful. Streamers hang from the ceiling and flowers have taken the place of the black sash on the cross. The congregation is preparing for communion as the newly baptized slip back into their seats, self-consciously aware of their wet hair.

I am standing in the hallway behind the sanctuary, fully clothed and completely wet. The waders have failed me again.

I should explain, especially for you sprinklers and baptizers of infants. In my tradition, we practice believer’s baptism by full immersion, which means, in lay terms, that we dunk older kids and adults all the way under the water. Often, this happens in the middle of Sunday worship when the presiding minister needs to conduct the baptism and then continue the rest of the service.

So, somewhere along the way, we started wearing waders. Picture giant rubber fishing boots, with suspenders, and a drawstring at the chest. They look every bit as ridiculous as they sound. But once you put the white robe over top and step into the baptistery, the congregation can’t tell what you’re wearing. In theory, they enable one to quickly move from leading worship, to the baptistery, and back again, without the hassle of getting wet and changing clothes.

Not so for me.

The waders at my church, which have been hanging in the back closet since, oh, 1962, are several sizes too big for me, built for a much taller and bigger person – a man, no doubt.  My stocking feet slide around in the rubber boots as I trudge up the steps to the baptistery. An older male pastor tells me he usually just steps into his, leaving his shoes on and everything; these waders were definitely not made for women’s heels. Read more