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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.

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

Campfire Church

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

S’mores

Q: What do you do when life gives you lemons?
A: You make s’mores.

For about a month, we smelled natural gas outside the sanctuary doors. But as it often happens with a group, everyone thought someone else would call. I finally took it upon myself to call Atlanta Gas one Thursday morning. Atlanta Gas responded within 30 minutes and determined that we had a significant leak in one of our pipes buried under ground. To be safe, they shut off our gas.

This was the beginning of February. Our new property chair immediately called the necessary repair companies. By Friday morning, he had discovered:

  1. There was a hole the size of a silver dollar in our pipe. We were blessed to be there.
  2. The leak was buried too deep for most companies to fix.
  3. The only company willing to do the repairs couldn’t get to it until after the weekend.

I got the phone call at 11:00 a.m. on Friday morning that we would not have heat in the church for worship. Temperatures were expected to be near freezing all weekend, so the property chair suggested we cancel worship.

“Give me an hour. I think we can have fun with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was going to do; but as soon as I hung up the phone, I began to brainstorm. One hour later, I came up with a plan that I loved. Read more

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

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more

handprints in paint on a white wall

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Running Down the Aisles Edition

handprints in paint on a white wallDear Askie,

Recently, our church has seen an increase in young children attending worship. Now, I love children very much, and I know that young families are a wonderful addition to our congregation. However, the noise and commotion can be very disruptive, and really detracts from my (and others’) worship experience. Our congregation offers childcare, but I guess some parents aren’t comfortable with that.

Another problem is that as these children get older, they feel right at home in the church building, and can often be seen running around with little or no supervision. This can be dangerous for the children and for the unlucky folks in their path. How can our church address these problems without chasing the families away?

Sincerely,
Concerned about Children

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One Body

lego tower draftA deafening rumble filled the sanctuary. Bricks cascaded against one another and ricocheted off the walls. Towers smashed to the ground and rose from the rubble as playful fingers reveled in order and chaos. It was marvelous mayhem, but very slowly and very loudly, a glorious dwelling began to emerge.

Our text for worship was the story of Solomon building the temple, so I encouraged the children to work together to build a house for God out of Legos. It was a great idea! Who knew that tiny plastic bricks could be so LOUD?

I raised my voice until I was practically yelling into the microphone, my gut twisting as I watched the faces of my congregation. Most strained to hear and stay focused. A few gave up listening to the sermon, but seemed perfectly happy watching the kids build. And of course, some sat arms crossed, eyes rolling, lips pursed, huffing with annoyance at each new crash. (Why is the perfect piece always at the bottom of the bin?)

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12: 27

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: PK’s in the Pews Edition

children in churchDear Askie,

My husband and I are both clergy, and parents of three kids, ages 3, 5, and 6. Although we’re a clergy couple, we never actually both had Sunday morning churches until recently. (I stayed home with the kids when the first two were babies, and then I pastored a church and he worked as a chaplain; now, we’re each pastoring a congregation.) When only one of us was working as a pastor, the other one would get the kids ready and bring them to church. Now that we’re both working Sunday mornings, we’re struggling. From deciding who gets them ready and which church they’re going to, to supervising them during the long stretch of pre- and post-worship activities not to mention dealing with congregants’ expectations that our children be perfect angels all the time, and handling actual misbehavior we are totally overwhelmed. We know that other clergy couples do this, though. How do they do it, Askie? How?

-Frazzled Pastor Mom

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holy Week Pro Tips Edition

Cross with Birds

Cross with Birds

Dear Askie,

It’s Holy Week in my first call! I’m a solo pastor at a small UCC church, and I’m trying to gear up, but I’m not really sure what to expect or what I need to do. The liturgies are prepared, the sermons are written (well, mostly written), the bulletins are proofread, and I have plenty of bread and juice for communion. What else do I need to do? I’m sure there’s something I’m not thinking of. Besides that, I’ve heard a lot of advice to “practice good self­care” during Holy Week, but I’m not really sure how specifically to do that. Any tips? Please save me from potential disasters!

Thanks,
Holy Week Rookie

Dear Rookie,

Blessings and prayers for your first Holy Week in this new role! Holy Week is an odd experience, a strange mixture of hectic and contemplative, a walk through a familiar story that still feels new almost every time. It’s different at every church and in every denomination, too. You’re UCC, so I’m guessing that you might not have as many worship services as our high­church sisters, but it can be grueling nonetheless. It’s already Thursday, so you’re about to head into the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here are a few “pro tips” for your first Holy Week from Askie and her team of advisors:

  • Rethink your pre­clergy Holy Week practices: Before you were an ordained clergywoman, you were probably a very devoted lay person — most of us clergy were. Perhaps you used to fast on Good Friday, or take Saturday as a silent retreat day, or read the whole Gospel of Mark from beginning to end. Whatever time­intensive spiritual practice you used to do, I would recommend that you not do that anymore. Especially not the fasting ­ no one wants a cranky, light­headed pastor passing out in the pulpit. Re­evaluate your practices and think about what would be meaningful for you in your life as a pastor.
  • Set aside time for sleep and exercise over the next few days: Put them in your calendar. At this point, there is no logistical or liturgical task so important that you should do it instead of sleeping. Your people need a pastor who is centered and present much more than they need an exquisitely edited sermon. In the words of the New Zealand Prayer Book, “What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be.”
  • Prepare meals in advance: You think you’re going to come home after Maundy Thursday and whip up a stir fry? Oh,
    sweet heart, I’ve been there and it didn’t happen — I ordered another pizza. This afternoon, figure out what you’re going to eat for dinner the next few days that’s easy and nutritious. Turkey burgers and baby carrots? Quick chili you can put in the slow cooker before running out the door? Maybe scrambled eggs? Figure out what you can pack for lunches and snacks, too. Buy the groceries. Chop the vegetables. Actually, it being Thursday,, see if you can buy them pre­chopped.
  • Allow yourself time to respond to the story: We became clergy because the story of Jesus speaks to us. We became clergy because we wanted to follow him by serving his church. We’re going to be telling the story of his betrayal, suffering, death, and burial, and eventually his resurrection. No matter how many times you’ve heard and told the story, Good Friday can really punch you in the gut. Maybe that’s a good thing, but be gentle with yourself. The Passion brings up strong emotions: grief, guilt, anger, and more. Don’t be surprised; give yourself some time to process the story once again.
  • Schedule your time off now: You need an extra day off next week. Maybe two. Block them off now, if you haven’t already.
  • Find out “how we always do things”: It’s your first Holy Week at this church, so get on the phone with a few of your church’s matriarchs and patriarchs. Ask them to tell you about how they do Holy Week services. Almost every church has some idiosyncratic traditions around these days. At Askie’s church, we have special silver that is only used for Easter Communion, and we turn to face the rear during the last hymn (there’s a beautiful stained glass window there). No one might think to tell you this church’s Holy Week quirks until you’ve failed to observe them… but make your phone calls now, and at least you can say you tried!
  • Think all the way through your liturgies: Are you washing feet and then serving Communion? Do you have hand sanitizer near the Communion table? Are the congregants leaving the sanctuary in darkness? How will they be able to see to walk out? Go through every order of worship piece by piece, looking for the things that are liable to go wrong, and think about how to help them go smoothly.
  • Figure out your shoes: You’re going to be standing a lot, so figure out which ones will be professional enough without killing your feet. Make sure they’re polished, too.
  • On the other side: Take Easter Monday off. Once you’re back, though, think about what went well and what didn’t. Think about whether you want to add anything (only add one thing at a time), and whether you want to let go of anything. Think about what you’re going to do differently, and what you’re going to do the same.

    Best of luck, and so many prayers for you and your congregation, Rookie. You’ll be fine, and Christ will rise no matter what.

    Blessings,
    Askie

Healing Sanctuary

Dec 2014 Blue CandleIn the church parking lot, I was breathing deeply.  I knew that going inside was something I needed to do, but I also knew that it would be hard. I had no idea just how comforting attending my first Blue Christmas service would be.

I was nervous about going.  I mean, who really wants to have to deal with grief in front of them like that?  So much of our culture tells us to stop crying, to be happy, that we should be over it by now,  and not to show too much emotion.  What if I broke down?  What if I sobbed in front of others?  What if my grief was so deep it was unnameable?

My father passed away in 2004, the day after Thanksgiving.  Two weeks later my grandmother passed away, and a month later I married my husband and moved to the Middle East.  It was a time of great turmoil in my life.  I was afraid that the holidays would be hard forever because of the deaths.

But the year that I went to the Blue Christmas service, in December of 2006, I found peace and hope in the holidays once again.

After enough deep breaths, I went inside and entered a sanctuary that was beautifully decorated.  The lights had all been covered with blue tissue paper, and silver stars hung from the rafters.  This gave the whole place an otherworldly glow that pulled me in and made me feel protected.  The ethereal decorations made me feel connected to God and made the room feel safe from the rest of the world. I was calm and allowed myself to stop forcing deep breaths. This would be a safe place to miss my Dad and to acknowledge that sometimes life is hard.

We do not grieve well as a society.  We tell people to be happy, to stop crying.  We tell people to stuff their feelings and not to let them show. People thought I should be happy because my Dad was living with God.  I always wanted to scream back, “But I want him here with me!” Luckily, because of my training as a counselor and a seminary student in CPE, I knew that I needed to let myself grieve.

And this service, this magical, beautiful Blue Christmas Service…it allowed me to do that in a way I had not been able to do before.  I was with others who were also grieving.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was sad that I had to face Thanksgiving and Christmas without my Dad once again.

I do not clearly remember all the details of the service.  But here is what I do remember:  There was a time when I got to share a story about my Dad.  There was a time during the service when I felt connected to my Dad.  My Dad is the one who taught me about church, and we worshiped together nearly every Sunday when I was at home.  There was a time during the service for being still and quiet, for crying, for acknowledging the hurt and anger.  And it was safe to feel all those things — even around others — because we were wrapped in the blue light.

This light helped me feel secure, wrapped in a cocoon of God’s love. Inside this safe space, I could feel what I needed to feel without being judged.  I could set aside the hard memories of my grief: crying in the supermarket in front of the Christmas cards from daughters to dads, being told that letting my grief show was unprofessional, and being told that because of heaven, I should just be happy.

And that made all the difference.  It made the difference that inside this cocoon of blue light, I could feel how I needed to feel.  I could receive the message from the church that my grief was ok.  Even if my Dad is living with God, the church said it was still ok to miss him living on earth with me.  Hearing this message, I felt God was with me in my pain and cradled me as I experienced it.  .

I left that service feeling tired, but also relaxed.  I was exhausted, but had a deeper sense of peace.  It was like emerging from the sanctuary to a new world where I knew that God was with me in my pain, not to shut it up or out, but to hold me in it until things got better.  This was an important part of my grief and healing process.

This other world of the Blue Christmas service helped me connect all my feelings about the holidays, God, my grandmother, and my Dad in a whole and comforting way.  Even all these years later, the memories of this this service still help me make those connections.

As I think about that service now, I feel calm.  I feel the love of my Dad as if he is with me and as though he’ll be with me this Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I somehow am reminded by the memory that God is part of all of this, too.  There is a place I go to in my memory, when I think about that service, where I find acknowledgement.  And that gives me what I need to let go of the pain (at least most of it) and to keep the joy, hope, and comfort.

Whatever your losses in life, whatever feelings the holidays bring up in you, I would encourage you to seek out a Blue Christmas service, at least once.  Maybe it will help you, too, remember that God promises to eventually return us to new life . . . and that in the meantime, in the present pain and grief, God is with us.  Even if you are not able to find a service, I encourage you to make your own space to securely acknowledge your grief during this time.  And as you seek out your own healing this season, I offer you this Christmas blessing:

May God be big enough for all your losses,

May Jesus hold your hand when you need to cry, and

May the Holy Spirit lead you to places of deep hope and joy from on high.  Amen.

 

To Be Separate or Not: That Is the Question

NailpolishGod and the world.  Sometimes, I think we think of them as two different things.  Sometimes we can think of faith, and the presence of God, as something that happens inside a brick building for an hour (or maybe two) on a Sunday morning.  I know this because even people who long for God in their lives but don’t know how to find Her often say to me, “Say hi to God for me.”  Even people who are lifelong members of church will sometimes say this to me if they have to miss a service.

But God is not separate from the world.  While holy and sacred time is important, the sacred is not reserved for inside a church building.  I long for a church that integrates faith with all of my life – in the ways that I think and behave and talk.  I long for a community that empowers me not to spend more time inside a church building, but to seek and know the real presence of the living God everywhere.

Recently, at the Young Clergy Women’s Conference, I had a powerful experience of the sacred.  I knew and experienced Holy Time.  I was overwhelmed.  I cried and felt goosebumps.  I stilled and was able to experience what Celtic spirituality calls a “thin place.” A place and time where God and world are not as separate as we think they are at other times.

Where was this, you might be wondering?  It was in a nail salon.  I know, I was surprised, too.  It happened quite by accident.  The conference organizers, in an attempt to save printing costs, had e-mailed the bulletins for the worship services.  So, when about twenty-two of us got stuck during soul-tending time at the nail salon, we worshipped at the same time as the YCWs who were able to meet in the chapel.  Most of us had our smart phones and tablets and were able to easily access the bulletins and read the full liturgy for the service.

We worshipped while getting manicures and pedicures.  We sang our Taizé songs, and we prayed our prayers.  And I wept for knowing in a new and powerful way that God and the world are not separate.  God moments – holy moments – can happen at any time and in any place: by accident, by a decision to save money, and by feeling that our bodies and souls and community are all connected during this sacred time and place.

I can’t speak to the experience of the other women who were there.  I can only speak to the thin place I found.  I found a place where community cared for one another.  I found a place where I could worship God while someone else was caring for my body.  I found a place where everything felt totally integrated for our worship service.

As with many holy moments, I did not know until later why this event had impacted me the way that it did.  I had finally found a place where God and the world were not separate, and care for my body was not separate from care for my soul.  God created me a whole-being; during that blissful worship service, I knew that was true.

In relating this story later to my Mom, she replied, “That’s the kind of church I need.”  My sister replied the same way.  I don’t think that we want people to have to pay for manicures and pedicures to come to worship, and I don’t think we want to commercialize and materialize worship that way on a regular basis.  I do think that there is a deep need in our world for our experience of God to be outside the walls of the church building and to take seriously our creation as whole-beings.  God and the world are, after all, not separate.  That is the answer to the question.  So I am left wondering: how do we, as Christians, help the world know that answer?  I came to know it in a very powerful way in a specific situation that happened by the grace of the Spirit, and would love to share that with others.