When I first arrived at one of my parishes, St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, I found in the center drawer of the desk in the rector’s office a bunch of 3 x 5 index cards, scrawled with handwritten notes. “Visited Mildred X,” read one note, detailing the date and time of visit, location, and how she was feeling. “Took Holy Communion to Cedar Lane,” went another, summarizing the scripture lessons and number of persons present at that afternoon service of worship. The interim priest, a clergyperson evidently gifted with pastoral care, had nourished a rather extensive pastoral care network, and he had developed a fine system of reporting, back and forth, such that he was in the loop but wasn’t the sole caregiver. It was an old-fashioned approach, and the filing system left somethings to be desired (they were just cards shoved in a desk drawer, after all), but it was a beautiful testament to a lovely way of doing church together.
I had the opportunity to help plan a very small funeral for my grand-aunt in Florida this month and concluded it would have been so helpful if there was a template or process that we could easily reference. I am hopeful this exists in many congregations especially with the frequency of funerals. For congregations without permanent clergy, the leadership surely needs guidelines on how to proceed.
Whether the funeral is in a chapel for a few family and friends or larger with full church and clergy engagement we seem to be starting from scratch for each planning. I had one helpful source, which were the many funeral bulletins my mother had at her home of family, friends and church brothers and sisters that have passed, not sure why she kept them all. Given this source and additional conversations, suggestions for a process are as follows:
I’ve found a way to make Christmas last all year. Or at least a bit of the spirit of the season.
When I store the decorations for another year, I’m always faced with a dilemma: What should I do with the Christmas cards? It’s the one time of year that folks send a snail mail card, and even if most have a simple signature, they are still a tangible connection to a longtime friend, a faraway relative, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. I hate to throw them away but I also don’t want to become a Christmas card hoarder.
A few years ago, a friend (and Episcopal priest) sent me a handwritten note in the middle of the year and explained that she kept her Christmas cards for a special purpose. Each week, she would draw a card from the pile, add the person to her prayer list, and then write and mail a note.
Wanting to better prepare in the wake of November’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX, I recently attended a meeting of faith leaders with the Sherriff of St. Mary’s County, Maryland. As you might imagine, it was a well-attended meeting.
As sobering as the afternoon’s conversation was, the Sherriff drove home our need to be prepared and to regularly reinforce safety plans. Given the specific purpose of our gathering, he shared insight about active shooter situations. But, even then, the Sherriff reminded us, preparing for something as harrowing as that should be grounded in the same kind of thinking that guides our total commitment to safety and survival, no matter what. Knowing primary entrances and secondary exits, having situational awareness, and knowing how import our leadership is in public gatherings were some critical take-aways. At one point, the Sherriff mentioned that the cumulative experience of his many decades of law enforcement, a career which has brought him face-to-face with all manner of life-threatening situations, has made him understand how powerful it is to believe, truly believe that no matter what might happen he is going to do everything in his power to ensure that every person in his care will ultimately survive.
I’m back home preparing for my father’s funeral at the end of this week, and I’ve learned quite a bit being on the receiving end of pastoral care from a local church.
My dad, Dale Bentrup, is a lifelong Lutheran and a stalwart at the two churches he’s attended in my lifetime. His pastor, a dear friend of mine, has been a source of great comfort for my mom and family. And the outpouring of love and support from parishioners has taught me more about the role of the church than three years in seminary ever could.
Of all the word pictures and metaphors used to describe the church, one has always stuck with me: family. But as I’ve thought about it some this past week, I’ve decided that “family” isn’t a very good metaphor for the church.
It has been proven numerous times that contact with a compassionate and caring person in many cases can be the antidote to this despair. As church members and leaders, caring for others, especially those in our church community, should be our number one priority and the space where we excel above all institutions because we have the example and teachings of Jesus as our guideline.
A week ago Sunday, churches around the country participated in Social Media Sunday (#SMS16). This day provided an opportunity for people to “use digital devices intentionally to share their life of faith with the world.” If your Facebook feed was anything like mine, you saw plenty of selfies, check-ins, and short videos of worship, formation, and fun.
My background is in journalism, marketing, and public relations. I love that churches around the country are trying to reach out and share the Good News in new ways. From stained glass to the printing press to instrumental music, the Church has a long history of using new technologies and mediums to proclaim the Gospel. Our interactions with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter should be no different.
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.”
Justin Martyr, First Apology
She’s been going through a particularly difficult time – “rough,” I’m sure any of us would say. A significant death in her family, struggles with her job and making ends meet, and add to that internal strife within the remaining members of her family have left her nearly broken. “I’m not nearly as bad as where I was some time ago,” she said, referring to an even darker period, “but I’m not well, either.”
Sometimes four generations of family sit together in my church. Even after nearly five years, I’m still learning who is related. New priests for this congregation should get a family-tree chart as part of their welcome package!
Honoring those who came before us is an important tradition for this congregation. And soon, we will have another way to incorporate this value.
Our church building was built in 1910, and there is no churchyard cemetery. Given its location in the heart of town, there’s no practical way to start one. But we will soon install a columbarium in the chapel, providing a way for the ashes of loved ones to be placed in holy space.
The first (and second and third and ongoing) step was education. While some people appreciated the concept of a columbarium, others were completely wigged out about it. The idea of sitting next to cremated remains on Sunday morning didn’t seem all that appealing. But it’s not such a strange idea. After all, we believe that when we come together for worship and gather around the altar, we’re all there together, the church past, present, and future. And it’s not like the ashes are sitting out, waiting for a brisk wind to dust folks’ Sunday best. The ashes are placed in individual niches, which are then locked.
After some time spent in educating the congregation, a committee chosen by the vestry and rector moved forward with research. Would it be inside or outside? How many would we need? Would people buy into it?
I had asked my 14-year-old if she wanted to stay home (or go out with friends) on Saturday night, while her dad and I entertained the bishop and his wife. On the next day, she would be among a fantastic group of fifteen teens to be confirmed into The Episcopal Church. I had (wrongfully) assumed she would rather hang out with friends, binge-watch Grey’s Anatomy, or Snapchat.
But she made dinner with the bishop and his wife a priority because over the past decade, they had told her time and again, through word and example, that she mattered. True, I worked with this bishop on diocesan staff, and my husband was a priest in the diocese for many years. But the bishop and his wife were intentional about valuing our whole family—children too. When they traveled to Russia on a mission trip, they bought small dolls to give to the children for Christmas. When they made their way to the Dominican Republic, they found a perfect keepsake for the children of diocesan staff members.
When they saw Madeline and our son, Griffin, they talked with them, asked them questions, and remembered things about their lives. How is your horse? What are you painting? Do you still like ice skating?
They treated our children as important members of the Body of Christ, and so when it came to dinner with these longtime friends, the children wanted to be there too.
I like the practice of coming up with New Years’ resolutions. Setting goals and evaluating where I am and what I can do better is a helpful exercise. These resolutions also give me the illusion of control, that I can take my life into my own hands and remake myself. It's just a matter of willpower.
Or is it? I recently came across this quote by Wendell Berry: “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.” Jesus, likewise, reminds us no to “worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”
These are not simply exhortations, “not to worry.” They are also reminders of how little control I have over the future. Illness, economy, weather, community—all these things move us in one direction or another and are beyond our control.
“How are you, young man?” he said to me as we were both headed into the gym locker room. We’d said hello from time to time before, and it sure is nice to be called ‘young’ these days. Technically, I am younger than he is; he’s probably in his early 80s, I guessed.
It was the middle of the day, after I had a long stretch of morning get together’s and before two evening meetings. I was taking a mental health break, so to speak; the very best kind. He was in there as he normally is at that hour, or at least he’s there whenever I’m there mid-day.
“I’m fine,” I responded, pleasantry to pleasantry. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’ll be much better an hour from now!” he said, grinning.
It is kind of funny, I thought. He’s certainly retired, certainly done with needing to keep up appearances, certainly able to sit back and coast for a long, long time. He can do whatever he wants to do, can’t he? In fact, he doesn’t need to do anything, let alone push his body and get his heart rate up for nearly sixty minutes.
But he does. He may not like it – “…I’ll be better an hour from now,” he said – but he’s doing it, still, and keeping it up. Good for him. Honestly, I’d like to be like him when I find a few more gray hairs on my already salty salt-and-pepper head, although I fear that I’ll still find plenty of excuses not to go to the gym, not to push myself, not to keep it up.
There’s something to be said for my friend at the gym, the kind of character like that tortoise in that well-known fable: he keeps going, no matter what. He may not like it all the time, he may wish he were doing other things, and no one is forcing him to be physically healthy and well. And, yet, he keeps going, keeps working, keeps doing it.
"A funeral can be a profound expression of what we believe and what we hope. It can form or reinforce that hope where it may have grown thin. Not only does the Sunday morning context strengthen the experience of the funeral, then, but the funeral can strengthen the experience of Sunday morning as well."
Last Sunday morning, the congregation of The Advocate gathered to say goodbye to one of our own. We commended him to God’s loving hands, and committed his ashes to the ground in the churchyard. It was our primary liturgy of the day.
While baptisms take place in the context of principal liturgies more often than not, and weddings occasionally do, Sunday morning funerals are rare. There are good reasons. A funeral is usually a gathering of those who knew the deceased, who want to express condolences to the family, or to show their respect for the one who died. If the funeral is on a Sunday morning, not everyone gathered will have that intent; the liturgy may feel unwelcoming. Newcomers and visitors could feel left out of the congregation’s corporate grief. Parents might be challenged to know what to say to their children. In short, hospitality can be compromised.
A Sunday funeral could establish an unwanted precedent. Others may want their own funeral, or that of their beloved, on a Sunday morning as well. That could get out of hand fast. There could soon be more Sundays with funerals than Sundays without. We might then have to designate funeral Sundays, the way we designate certain Sundays as more appropriate for baptism. With cremation gaining traction in the society around us, it could certainly be possible. But it would be weird.
The main reason, perhaps, to avoid Sunday morning funerals, is that funerals can be a downer. For the most part, people don’t go to church on Sunday morning to see a box containing the remains of someone we knew or did not know perched before the altar. It is one thing to be reminded of Jesus’ death, quite another to have to think about our own.
All of these are reasonable objections to a Sunday morning funeral. But there are times when it is just the right thing to do.
This past week I was in a bad mood for what seemed like a long time. Maybe it was stress. Maybe there was a relationship I needed to fix. Maybe my life was a bit overbooked and I needed to slow down. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, so I just tried to go about my days.
Pretending like nothing was wrong didn’t help (and my wife saw right through that). It didn’t go away until I paid attention to my bad mood and explored it a bit and realized I just needed a little time alone (I’m very introverted and get grouchy when I’m around people for too long without a break) and a little more sleep. It was a minor lesson, for sure, and looking back on it, pretty obvious, but I could not learn it until I paid attention to my bad mood.
Recently I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. It’s a lovely book, exploring metaphorical and literal darkness. It rejects the “full solar spirituality” that doesn’t allow for shadow, and instead embraces a lunar faith, that waxes and wanes, that doesn’t pretend everything is always sunny.
This is the week that Christ dies for us, which can obscure the reality that Jesus lives for us. This life is made holy by Jesus' presence. Through Christ, God has sung songs, danced at weddings, wept at a friend's grave, been put on trial, and prayed for deliverance. Through Christ, God knows the cool wetness of rivers like the Jordan and the warmth of his mother's loving embrace.
This Holy Week, through Christ, God knows what it is to be betrayed, abandoned, arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and what it is to suffer and be murdered. Christ is there with us, sharing our joys and sorrows along with us and nothing is too great for Christ's shoulders to bear, because these shoulders have already borne the Sin of the world. Christ is with us in our highs, lows, and every place in between.
I don't know where the bottom is for you. Maybe early in your life, when your father died unexpectedly. Maybe yet to come, losing a battle to cancer. Maybe a terrible divorce, a failure of nerve, or betrayal of a friend. Maybe a life of extended hardships and brokenness, never being able to make things better. I don't know where the bottom is for you, but I know this: Christ is there. In pain, in sorrow, in loss, in betrayal, and even in death: Christ is there. Even at the bottom, Christ is there redeeming the seemingly irredeemable and reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable.
In these posts, I usually tell stories about Southside Abbey. Today I share someone else's story. Time, geography, and Dean Trotter's great-niece have given me permission to share it.
¿Cómo ser parte de la realización del sueño de volver a las escuelas, institutos o universidades de nuestras comunidades de adultos latinos inmigrantes de ambos sexos para por fin completar o iniciar las carreras que dejaron de lado, así como adquirir conocimientos que siempre desearon explorar? ¿Cómo ayudar a encaminarles para que esta nueva aventura de aprender sea una experiencia pausada, transformadora y llena de momentos felices?
La historia de cómo María Eugenia Carranza logró graduarse de la universidad con una especialización en educación primaria es un ejemplo que nuestras comunidades con deseos de volver a las aulas de universidades comunitarias o de universidades deberían tener en cuenta.
A la edad de 55 años, María Eugenia, como muchas otras personas de su generación, llegan a los salones de clase con experiencias de aprendizaje que van del horror de todavía sentir la vara que les lastimaba las manos o las piernas o de sentir los nudillos huesudos del/la maestro(a) en el cráneo, hasta pasar un día entero llevando en la cabeza orejas de burro y expuestos/as a las burlas de compañeros/as o, todavía peor, pasar horas en soledad repitiendo por escrito cien y más veces la palabra o la frase mal escritas y finalmente decirse “soy un fracaso, mi cabeza no sirve para el estudio”. Por no mencionar el ataque a la identidad y el dolor causado a niños y a niñas a quienes se les prohibía hablar o escribir en su lengua materna. María Eugenia cuenta que todavía siente el dolor de la vara en las piernas y que al tratar de expresarse en español, su lengua materna, temía ser castigada y que, aunque parezca extraño, por alguna razón, según ella, estaba convencida de que no sabía expresarse bien en inglés, su segundo idioma.
Mi entrada a esos cuartos siempre va acompañada de las miradas de los/las pacientes y a menudo de las de sus familiares o amigos/as. Miradas a veces tristes, a veces alegres, a veces esperanzadas, o las más preocupantes, las miradas de haber ya como abdicado a la lucha por la vida. En cualquier situación en la que se encuentren estos/as pacientes, es evidente que el poder comunicar en su lengua materna los/las lleva casi de inmediato a un espacio personal, muy suyo propio, donde sus espíritus siempre agradecidos(as) pueden compartir sin esfuerzo su fe en Dios y en el poder sanador divino que ha guiado las manos de doctores(as) y enfermeras(os) para devolverles a la vida.
Pastoral care is a basic expectation of clergy and probably high on the list of any given parishioner’s understanding of what they get in return for their participation. I know that church isn’t a give-and-take but our current base of support is pretty steeped in this understanding. So what happens, then, when we try to organize under a different model? Does becoming a missional church mean that we won’t have time to act as the quaint, local vicar, the one who’s at everyone’s beck and call?
If we were in a seminary classroom or, for instance, reading a blog we’d of course say that ‘missional’ and ‘pastoral’ are not exclusive concepts. This is true … in theory. In practice, they can very quickly become competing goods. Be honest: where’s the time to dream and envision when you’re running around the parish responding to crises and acting like the 21st century country parson?
The latest theory about the chronic (and nearly universal) decline in Average Sunday Attendance is that not only are we not attracting very many new people to our churches, the people we’ve already got are coming less often. I don’t study church attendance, but the
theory matches my experience as a parish priest.
Many of my colleagues have responded with impassioned, well-reasoned and theologically sound defenses of the importance of weekly (or at least very regular) church attendance. “Church needs you!” we are told. And it does.
But I wonder if we’re missing the diagnosis. I’m not sure that people don’t get the importance of being in church. I’m not sure that they don’t see the benefits of worship and fellowship. I suspect we are suffering from a massive, collective case of sabbath insecurity.
I had a grieving parishioner who started coming to church regularly during a terrible year of tragedy and loss. This person would arrive, sit down in the pew, and promptly fall asleep, waking only to take communion, and then only if jostled.
Scolded by an embarrassed family member, my parishioner sighed -- guilty as charged -- and said, “I can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep in the daytime. My mind is full of terrible things. But when I sit down in church, I fall into the most peaceful sleep. Sometimes it is the best hour of the whole week.”
Sunday is our sabbath. But do we rest when we come to church? Do we experience that peace which passes all understanding, and let our weary souls lean back on the everlasting arms? Is coming to church a time of replenishment, or just one more place where we are called to be engaged and at the ready?