Rites and rituals, the holy in the everyday

Today, on What We’re Reading Now, we hear from a guest reader, Amelia Richardson Dress.  Amelia is a writer, a mom, a passionate advocate for children and families, and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who’s always excited to re-discover the holiness of her mundane life. She blogs at Barefoot Family, barefootfamily.me.  From time to time, you will hear different voices on this page.  And Amelia’s is one we all need to hear, so I hope that you will read on about the book she has chosen to share with us.


One Sunday while I was in high school I invited a friend to attend church with me. I felt the need to warn her about two things:

  1. There weren’t a lot of kids our age.
  2. We did this weird thing every Sunday called “Passing the Peace.”

This second one was a great source of embarrassment to me. I couldn’t fathom why we would stand up, walk around and say hello to people. Having no idea that this was an ancient Christian practice, I genuinely believed it was a new-fangled invention dreamt up by a miguided committee late one night.

What my teenage self needed was Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary, which beautifully relates our sometimes-bizarre Sunday morning practices to the rhythms of daily life. To be sure, the point of the book is probably the exact opposite. She is, I think, illustrating the way in which daily life mirrors worship in order to point out that all of our life is Holy. She is brilliantly showcasing that there is no separation between the “sacred life” and the “secular life.” Through this lens, we’re reminded that life itself becomes it’s own worship-filled rhythm.

But by highlighting this, Warren also illustrates the reverse: the ancient liturgy is deeply personal and relevant.

As she says, “In church on Sunday we participate in a liturgy–a ritualized way of worship–that we repeat each week and by which we are transformed. Our Sunday liturgies look different from tradition to tradition. Quakers, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians worship differently but within each tradition there are patterns of worship, and through each gathered liturgy congregants are formed in a way of being-in-the-world. Even those traditions that claim to be free-form or non-liturgical include practices and patterns in worship. Therefore, the question is not whether we have a liturgy. The question is, “What kind of people is our liturgy forming us to be?”

Thanks to this, I’ve been pondering a recent habit I’ve developed of reaching for my phone to check news and email first thing in the morning. I’ve been prompted to ask, “How is this act shaping who I am?” What is the rhythm of the day I’m creating and does it reflect what I believe about God?

Likewise, as I’ve been in worship, striving to keep pace as we say together the Call to Worship, I’ve reflected not just on “how long will this take and when can we go have coffee and snacks” but on how I’d like each day to start with a call to worship–a reminder that this is the day the LORD has made and I should strive to live into it accordingly.

With theological rigor and poetic examination of life, Warren has woven together 11 spiritual practices, many of them part of the Sunday morning liturgy, with daily life. What does checking email have to do with the end-of-church blessing? Or how does losing the car keys resemble the practice of confession? The aspects Warren draws from are both surprising and inspirational. I was left with the sense that my day-to-day life had been transformed as well as my Sunday morning worship.

While Warren writes from a liturgical tradition (Episcopalian) and her book will be much loved by those who are already familiar with the rites and rituals of church life, I think it would also be treasured by those who are new to traditional liturgical practice as well as those, like me, who have at times wondered what misguided committee dreamt up these crazy practices.



Where to put my focus?

Lent begins tomorrow, with the remembrance known as Ash Wednesday.  Right now, I’m sitting here anticipating a pancake dinner.  This morning I had a King Cake donut.  Shrove Tuesday is clearly covered, but what comes after?  I don’t know about you, but I am still considering my options for a devotional series for the season (and the sugar rush is not helping, I am sure).  I’ve decided on a theme for this year, but I will write about that elsewhere.  Now I just have to pick a book to be my companion over these next weeks, so, while I have the list narrowed down to just a few, I thought I would share my list with you and see what you think.

There are so many ways of approaching this season.  I am not a fan of the give something up school of practice, although it certainly is a part of the tradition of our faith.  And I am intrigued by the things I am seeing about the Lenten Triad practice.  The Lenten Triad, as a concept, refers more accurately to the three-fold seasonal practice in the Orthodox church, rather than the use of candles as a kind of reverse Advent wreath that is becoming current. I do like what is happening, though, with the creation of a physical Triad for home practice, coming as it does out of the creative Reformed Worship community.  I like it because it mirrors the practice from the Service of Tenebrae and the Easter Vigil.  At Tenebrae, we begin with 7 lighted candles and extinguish one for the reading of each of the Seven Last Words.   At Easter Vigil, we light again the Christ candle.  The Triad candles include both practices, spread throughout the season of Lent, week by week, candle by candle.

For those of us who like something more interactive and global, this year, brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) have worked with my seminary to create a hybrid learning experience called The 5 Marks of Love.  You can participate as much or as little as you like.  When you sign up, you will receive a daily email with a video sermonette.  You can listen to the video and share your reflection with the worldwide audience that participates in this communal act of learning, or you can download the workbook and write your thoughts in private, or both.  And, if you fall into the visual learner category (words, pesky words, always in the way), I recommend to you the discipline that comes from our Methodist colleagues at Rethink Church.  Using Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you create a picture for each of the 2017 Lenten Words on their list.  It is great fun to share your pictures with a wider community and I found it a serious point of reflection to choose a picture that was meaningful to me for each word throughout the season.

This year, though, I think I’ll stick with a book.  Here are the candidates on my short list, grouped by, well, type.  I’ve got three categories:  biblical, musical, and practical.

Let’s begin with the beginning — biblical devotions.  If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this is the year we read mainly from the Gospel of Matthew.  Biblical scholar N T Wright offers us another in the series Lent for Everyone.  This devotional divides the Gospel text into readings for each day except Sunday.  For Sundays, we read and reflect on the Psalm appointed for the week.  The arrangement invites the reader into the text – for each day, we have text and a small reflection by the author, followed by a short prayer.  This is a devotional in its near pure form, suited to either private or communal study, and well laid out for practices live lectio divina.

If you are more drawn to the Psalms than to the Gospel this year, then I recommend that you take a look at Patrick Woodhouse’s Life in the Psalms:  Contemporary Meaning in Ancient Texts.  This devotional was designed for use during Lent, but it does work any time that you would like to, alone or in a group, take a deep dive into the Psalms.  There are five psalms with reflections for each weekday of each week in Lent, each week with a theme, and  one Psalm a day for Holy Week through Good Friday.  Woodhouse recommends that we read the three introduction chapters between Ash Wednesday and the first Monday of Lent.   The weekly themes touch important topics for reflection during the season:  pilgrimage and journeying, prayer, wonder, the way of faith, and hope.  The theme for Holy Week is, appropriately, loss and suffering.  If you are interested in using this work with a group, Woodhouse includes a lot of good, practical suggestions about the best ways to divide up the text.

Maybe you feel drawn to a study of the Old Testament during this season.  The Old Testament, you say?  What does that have to do with Lent?  Well, Paul Stroble, in his devotional Walking with Jesus Through the Old Testament shares my viewpoint, namely, that it is impossible to understand Jesus and the miracle of is life without first understanding what came before.  This, for me, is a storyteller’s devotional.  The book grew out of Stroble’s fascination with the the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, and in particular, his fixation on the passage in Luke 24:25-27, particularly:  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”.  What stories did the unrecognized Jesus tell?  They had to be from the Torah and the Prophets, or from his own life, because the Gospels and the Letters did not exist.  Stroble calculates that it would take about 3 hours to walk the 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and so, using his own relationship with story and text, chooses passages for reflection.   Each devotional has a passage from the Old Testament as its focus, sometimes paired a passage from a Gospel or from Paul.   Each section has a reflection question and a prayer.  This is a very personal book and not linked to any external source like a denominational lectionary system, but it is seems an interesting path to walk through the season.

Musical devotions intrigue me, but they present some technical difficulties.  Even though I myself am a musician, I find the presentation of these really good works a little difficult to access.  For me, they might be more suited to group rather than individual devotion and I would need to prepare each lesson before I sat down in prayer and reflection.  Perhaps that is just me.  There are, however, some really fine opportunities to mix music and reflection during this season.  Plenty Good Room:  A Lenten Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals, by Marilyn E. Thornton and Lewis V. Baldwin, presents exciting possibilities.  The book includes one lesson per week, based on a Scripture reading and a spiritual, including a reflection, a prayer, and several discussion or reflection points.  I think it is really well designed for a group, the music is well known in most church settings, and it offers something that many of us have been hungry for:  an understanding of the relationship between the biblical text and the spirituals and a theological viewpoint born of a life experience that many of us long to glimpse more clearly.

Another interesting music-based devotional is Paul Wesley Chilcote’s The Song Forever New:  Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley.   Each day provides a devotion based on a hymn by Charles Wesley, with four action sections:  read, sing, reflect, and pray.  Chilcote, a scholar of Wesley’s hymns, introduces us to many texts not found in the average hymnal.  And to complete the singing action requires more knowledge of hymn tunes and meter than I have, despite my many years as a church musician.  Frankly, while the idea of singing each day is compelling, you could just read the text as poetry.  It is a great opportunity to read some of Wesley’s amazing theology in its original lyrical form.

My last offering for your  consideration is a book that I would call a practical kind of devotional, or, maybe more accurately, an incarnated devotional.  That would be Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul:  Lenten Practices to Renew Your SpiritHuston grabs onto the idea of Lent as a time of re-calibration, like that we seek when we make a retreat or even just when we take a walk in nature.  Lent is not a time to escape reality; it is time to become even more grounded in it.  The book is structured as an individual retreat; there are daily readings and prayer, but each day is also devoted to a specific action — as simple as cleaning out a junk drawer or giving away something you are not using.  The teachings of the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers are woven through each practice, drawing us back to the simplicity of life in the desert.  This is not a devotional practice of just the mind; you must give your whole self to it.  It is not for the faint of heart, however, if I had the courage to follow it, I am positive that this might be the most meaningful Lenten season ever.  Many of the daily practices require the seeker to do things that are uncomfortable for those of us with privilege, but that are every day life for many of our fellow humans, like going a day without a shower or wearing your oldest clothes.  This is not about giving up chocolate until Easter.

If none of these devotional possibilities draw you, there are always those books that have been compiled from the body of work of some theologian or faith leader.  Lenten devotionals have been created from the writings of Walter Brueggemann, Evelyn Underhill, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C. S. Lewis, Augustine, and more.  How is a person supposed to choose?

Well, I begin by writing this summary.  I have reviewed the introductions to each of these books and taken a devotional for a “test drive,” so to speak.  And now, in summarizing them for you, I have a better idea which one will fill my days as I go forward from Ash Wednesday, just where to put my focus.  I’ll let you know what I choose and how it goes, but right now, I’d like to hear from you.  Where will your Lenten journey take you and who will be your companion?  Share the road with us…share your thoughts and your experiences.

Praying our Goodbyes

Even as we enter the season of Advent, for many of us, there are still so many reasons to seek help with our ever present grief.  Truthfully, the season brings that grief forward for many of us — the loved ones lost, the opportunities missed, the dreams unrealized. The sparkling lights and merriment all around, these things meant to illuminate and dazzle, often, instead, shine a less than welcome spotlight on the emptiness and pain that lies just below the surface of our daily living.

I myself continue to be in one of those dark places where, when the light of the season sneaks in, the first response is pain, not joy or hopeful expectancy.  And so I seek out books to be my companion as I walk through this time in my life.  One such new friend is Joyce Rupp’s Praying our Goodbyes:  A Spiritual Companion Through Life’s Losses and Sorrows (2009).  I picked it up as I looked for help to guide me as I struggled to get back to a prayer practice after a recent loss.  The book has some lovely suggestions about how to create rituals, services for times in life when we need an almost liturgical acknowledgement and for which our society (and often our churches) offer none.  These are powerful offerings on these pages, but not the most precious gift the writer had to give me.  She offered me not just ritual, but understanding.

The simple question, “What does the life and message of Jesus tell us about the goodbyes in our lives,” was one that I had never asked.  I should have, however.  It is a very useful question.  You see, Jesus, like we, his incarnated brothers and sisters, walked what Rupp calls “the hello-goodbye-hello pattern of the human journey (32),” just as we each do.  At the time of his baptism, Jesus walked away from what we believe was 30 years of security in his family home.  He walked into the desert, saying goodbye in order that he might say hello.  As Rupp describes it:  “Life became one continual journey of deep investment and letting go, of rooting and uprooting, of settling down and moving on (32).”  That hello-goodbye-hello pattern was his life on Earth as he took his message through Galilee and all the way to the Cross.  He was torn between his desire and call to be one with his father,  and the love of his friends.  But  Jesus, you see, knew that the ultimate hello awaited him, if he could just move through the goodbyes.41ftubm7h7l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Most of us will never have the faith and strength of Jesus in the face of the goodbyes of our life.  And the irony for many of us is that at the moment when we most need our relationship with our faith and our God, we are often unable to access that relationship.  At the darkest moment, we are often angry and we doubt the presence of God in our lives.  The so often asked but unanswerable questions are all we have:  “Why did God let this happen?  What did I do to deserve this?  Why would God take someone so young? Why didn’t we have more time?”  Rupp suggests that this is just the moment that we must begin to pray our goodbye.

Praying our goodbye can help us move away from hurt and towards healing.  Rupp offers four elements as essential to such a goodbye:  recognition, reflection, ritualization and reorientation. We must begin, she says, by naming the loss we have experienced.  Naming the hurt can increase our momentary pain, but without the act of naming we cannot take the second step in our goodbye. That second step is an act of making time to reflect, to sit with the pain and not look away.  This step may be the most difficult for most of us in Western cultures, but there can be no healing without putting our full attention to the loss that we have named and without taking the time to sit with that pain.  This is not time to be nice about things, particularly not with God.  The people of Scripture let God hear their anger and confusion, their frustration and their disorientation.  To fully pray our goodbye, we must be willing to do the same, to pour out our feelings to the only One who can truly hear.  And as we rage and cry, we must also listen:  “At first we may only hear our own hollowness and emptiness and dryness.  Maybe we will feel swallowed up in our painful feelings and have to move away from prayer and forget the process for awhile because it is just too much.  But we need to keep coming back.  Gradually we will learn to hear God’s quiet, gentle, persistent, hopeful voice. …Slowly we will catch glimmers of hope, of peace, of understanding, of acceptance (67).”

As we reflect, we can perhaps begin a ritual that will help us move through it.  For Rupp, this ritual includes two elements — the use of images or symbols and some kind of movement in our prayer.  For me, the ritual of goodbye to my beloved Gracie came after we received her ashes.  One day, with her dog walker and a few others, we took the wagon that had carried her in her last days, and with that wagon and her ashes and her favorite cushion, we went to the park where she loved to walk.  Placing the ashes in the wagon with her toys and her cushion and her picture, we walked her favorite path and told stories about her life and cried many tears.  Then we returned home and had a human version of her favorite dinner — pan-seared duck with cherry sauce followed by ice cream.  Finally, we took the box of ashes and placed it next to a candle, and laid a stick on top of the box (because she loved to carry sticks home from the park).  The box still sits in its place of honor, where we can see it and touch it and remember her blessing on our lives.  That ritual was the beginning of my reorientation to a life without her.

Reorientation, you see, is the last element of Rupp’s process of praying a goodbye. It is the part of the process that takes the longest time to embrace, and the part that continues, most likely, for all our remaining days without the person, or the pet, or the job, or the friend, or the whatever-we-have-lost.  Somewhere I read that a loss like this is actually an amputation.  We are forced by that loss to re-balance our lives, to re-consider our identity, to adjust and to change our course, just as a sailor tacks against the wind in a sailboat.  Reorientation offers the possibility that hope will come again.

Sunday is the beginning of the second week of Advent, traditionally for many the Sunday of Hope.  We will hear the hope of that comes from the birth of one of the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-10), and the hope of the Psalmist who talks of the God who does wondrous things (Psalm 72), and we will hear the great benediction of the hope of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:4-13).  We will hear the story of hope and all we will feel is like the chaff in the Gospel reading, burned with an unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:1-12).  Grief does not have to extinguish hope, but it may delay it for a while. As Rev. Amelia Dress wisely suggests, “…if your heart is heavy this season, whatever the reason, then let it be heavy. Don’t try to force hope to take up residence too soon–false hope is flighty and will leave when you need it most. Instead, use this time to reach deep into the heaviness.”  Take this time, pray your goodbye.  And hope, my friends, will come again.   Amen.

Turn my mourning into dancing…

“You have turned my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11),” such beautiful, comforting words.  I am, right now, in the middle of one of those difficult times in life, a time when mourning and grief fill my heart and my days, and sit alongside the joy of remembrance and the continuing if somehow diminished presence of a deep and abiding gift of love in my life.  The current state of my life is the topic for another forum, but, this present experience has caused me to seek comfort in reading, as usual.

It is often a long path to the right words. My search began with questions that arose during my ecumenical experience at Kenyon College’s Beyond Walls program a few weeks ago.  The time we spent together in prayer, experiencing morning prayer in many traditions, led me to further research into healing services and traditions in the practice of Judaism. And that research led me to learn that, in much Jewish prayer practice, it is the custom to begin each day by reading the text of Psalm 30 I quoted above:  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:11-12).”

That might have been enough for some, but, sometimes, friends, I just can’t let an idea go.  This was one of those times.  My focus on Psalm 30:11-12 210937led me to — surprise — a book:  Turn my Mourning into Dancing:  Finding Hope in Hard Times, a collection of Henri Nouwen’s sermons and writings, compiled and edited by Timothy Jones in 2001.

Jones constructed the volume around the theme of “Five Movements through Hard Times,” and in it, we read Nouwen’s thoughts about the dance between suffering and grace, the pain we cause ourselves by holding too tight, the pain we inflict when we make idols of illusory things, the destructive role of fatalism in modern life, our manipulative human spirit, our need for acceptance, and finally, the last and most difficult chapter, “From a Fearful Death to a Joyous Life,” a chapter that I will need to read and read again and read again.

I think that if I were to choose one quotation to sum up the writings gathered here, it would be this:  “Life is a school in which we are trained to depart (p. 95).”  We may fight that lesson along the way, but we will all eventually complete the course. Nouwen’s words just give us some suggestions for homework along the way that might just make the class a little easier on us.

These years since Nouwen’s death have seen the creation of many of these composite volumes of his writings, drawn from his lectures, sermons, and private notebooks.  Most of these compilations, like this one,hold to the promised theme only lightly.  It is in the first section, “From Our Little Selves to a Larger World,” that Nouwen embraces most closely, and most comfortingly, the images of Psalm 30:

Mourning makes us poor; it powerfully reminds us of our smallness. …And as we dance, we realize that we don’t have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it.  We stop centering our lives on ourselves.  We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. …As we dance and walk forward, grace provides the ground on which our steps fall.  Prayer puts us in touch with the God of the Dance (12, 14).

I cannot read these words, and the words of the Psalmist, without thinking about the words of Sydney Carter, the American hymn writer who gave us the words to “Lord of the Dance (1963),” words I have sung so often set to the American Shaker tune Simple Gifts:

Dance then, wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

As Nouwen puts it, “If mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace, we can be grateful for every moment we have lived (17).”  My job, along the way, is to remember those last words of the Psalmist: “…you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:12).”  Homework, indeed.

I know, that with the gift of hindsight, I will find the beauty in these days of pain and letting go, but Nouwen’s words do help me find a little perspective in the present moment.  Maybe, just maybe, the music of the dance is not so far away.