The Landscape of Liturgy: The Work of the People During Death and Dying

This article was published by Duke Faith and Leadership on February 6th, 2018. I've added additional photographs for this blog post. 

Beset by grief at the imminent death of a beloved former pastor, a minister and her congregation let liturgy lead them amid death and dying.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2018

“Can you call me? I have some difficult news to share.”

It was a voicemail last March from my friend and former colleague Jeff Krehbiel. For 16 years, we had worked together at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, D.C. Only a few weeks earlier, he had left for a beautiful new job in Chicago.

When I called Jeff back, his words punched me in the gut:

“I’ve been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. It’s spread to my liver.”

My head felt hot.

We talked for a few minutes about his tender spirit and how that would help him in the days to come. I adamantly assured Jeff that Pilgrims, though far away, would be with him as he faced his life-threatening illness.

But the truth was, once I hung up, I had no idea what to say or do. How exactly would Pilgrims be with Jeff in his dying? How would I lead? More urgently, what would I possibly say to the people who had known and loved him for so many years?

For 16 years, Jeff and I created liturgy together with the feisty folks at Pilgrims. In our liturgical work, we learned to tell biblical stories by heart. We created beautiful,boundary-pushing liturgies, rooted in biblical texts and our Reformed tradition.

Over the coming weeks, as all of us at Pilgrims wrestled with our grief, I let liturgy lead me and ultimately the congregation through truth telling amid death and dying.

Let me share with you how this worked and what we created liturgically in D.C. as Jeff was dying 700 miles away in Chicago.

MARCH 26, 2017, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT, FIRST SUNDAY AFTER JEFF’S DIAGNOSIS

The lectionary gave us the story from the Gospel of John about the man who had been born blind.(link is external) I preached that Jesus affirmed the man’s belovedness with mud, water and a holy welcome. The crowd and the man’s parents, on the other hand, kept their distance.

Jeff, in a sacred act of hospitality, had welcomed us into his dying, I told the congregation. We would let Jeff’s transition to death mark us so we could birth God’s holy love at a time of dying.

That Sunday, we used our Lenten prayer stations as a way to respond to people living in their own uncertain and tender places -- refugees, those working to care for the planet and others.

As part of our communion prayers, we blessed a fleece blanket for Jeff, stretching it out and holding it within our prayer circles as people tearfully prayed for him. Ten-year-old Jamie Ernesto prayed for Jeff’s happiness, and when our prayers shifted to the suffering in the world, he prayed for the people suffering in Syria.

Blessing of Jeff's blanket. 

Blessing of Jeff's blanket. 

 

APRIL 9, 2017, PALM SUNDAY

As we have done for several years, Pilgrims started off our Palm Sunday liturgy with a New Orleans-style jazz funeral procession around our block, with members carrying eco-palms, decorated umbrellas, drums and cardboard signs proclaiming justice.

We had already sent Jeff’s purple blanket to Chicago, where he received it gratefully. Now we had three more blankets: one for Cheryl, Jeff’s spouse, and for each of his two daughters, Andrea and Kelsey. They, too, needed to be wrapped in Pilgrims’ love.

The three blankets became our cloaks as we carried them with us in our procession. During our communion liturgy, we placed the blankets at the foot of our 8-foot wooden cross, its base now covered with palms.

Pilgrim Diana Bruce carries one of our "cloaks" during our Palm Sunday procession. 

Pilgrim Diana Bruce carries one of our "cloaks" during our Palm Sunday procession. 

 

WEEK OF APRIL 17-21, CHICAGO

The week after Easter, I flew to Chicago to spend time with Jeff and his family.

On my third and final day with Jeff, the two of us went up to the 40th floor of his apartment building overlooking Lake Michigan and planned our final liturgy together -- his memorial service.

I took notes on my phone as we talked: “Let’s sing ‘Marching in the Light of God.’ Yes, let’s have communion and the story of the feeding of the 5,000.”

Later that morning, as we sat in the living room with Cheryl and Jeff’s sister, Sue, I realized that the time to say goodbye was fast approaching. Again, I fell back on liturgy.

First, we washed each other’s hands and shared communion. Then, I asked Jeff to tell the footwashing story. Despite his weakened condition, he sat up straight in his chair and told it by heart. In that moment, I recognized Jeff’s embodied gift to Pilgrims: storytelling.

We shared the bread, a baguette from lunch, and the cup, a Naked-brand berry drink that Jeff was having to boost his energy.

I took my Chicago story back to Pilgrims, and the following Sunday, April 23, I shared what I had experienced and witnessed.

APRIL 26, 2017, HEALING SERVICE

A few days later, on Wednesday, we had a healing service at Pilgrims.

We told the footwashing story and washed each other’s hands. We shared communion. We set up prayer stations throughout the sanctuary where people could sing, process and be together.

The next day, April 27, Jeff died.

MAY 6, 2017, CELEBRATION OF LIFE AND RESURRECTION

Nine days later, Jeff’s family and friends gathered for a service of life and resurrection. Because Pilgrims could not accommodate the anticipated crowd of more than 500, the service was held two miles away in the much larger sanctuary of D.C.’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. There, we sang “Marching in the Light of God,” shared communion and listened to Kelsey recount the feeding of the 5,000, carrying on her dad’s gift of storytelling.

MAY 7, 11 A.M. WORSHIP

The next day at Pilgrims, we honored Jeff’s life by weaving his spirit through our Sunday worship. We had flowers in the sanctuary from More Light Presbyterians, an organization working for the full participation of LGBTQ people within the PCUSA. We chanted Psalm 23,(link is external) heard Acts 2:42-47(link is external) and its description of the radical acts of sharing in the early church and sang “Here Comes the Sun” with a new appreciation.

We laid hands on Jeff’s siblings and his mom after they announced that they would be giving a handmade communion set to Pilgrims in his memory.

We shared communion together, all of us clumped around the table. At one point, a basket of bread got separated from the cup that was supposed to be accompanying it.

As Cheryl stood in the circle with a piece of bread and no cup in which to dip it, she looked right at me and smiled.

“Maybe we should get some of that Naked berry drink,” she said.

After communion, with drumming and our Pilgrims kids leading the way, we processed out to Pilgrims’ urban garden. Gathered together, we heard words from Cheryl, sang “What Does the Lord Require of Us” and watched Andrea “water” our garden with her dad’s ashes.

Coffee hour that day was in the garden. In honor of Jeff, we also offered wine and scotch, including the “peaty single malt” he favored so much it was mentioned in his obituary.(link is external)

Long before Jeff died, Pilgrims had become rooted in the “work of the people,” thanks in large part to his efforts. As we had learned over the years after other deaths -- and again after Jeff's -- liturgy had prepared us to trust that nothing in life and death can separate us from the buoyancy of God’s love.

 

Inviting Kids Into Biblical Storytelling

Last spring, we killed of Sunday school at Church of the Pilgrims. That means we are being more intentional about how to form our kids around the faith within already existing structures at Pilgrims.

Pilgrims already has stations set-up throughout our sanctuary for kids. These stations are based on our liturgical principles that in worship we tell stories, we see things in new ways, and we make connections. At each station are age appropriate books and quiet toys (even though kids can make anything loud) for kids to engage with during liturgy.

The idea is that when kids need to move, because that what kids do....they move around, they can go to a station, and engage in what's happening in liturgy on their level.

Some might think the kids aren't paying attention. But they are.

And they are engaged in play which is a research driven vehicle for promoting self-regulation, language, social competence, and  cognitive learning. Meaning--play is essential for kids to learn about religious language, how to be in community, and how to learn and be formed around the faith.

Pilgrims used to have a children's sermon--when we'd ask the kids to come forward and listen to one of us deconstruct the sermon. It worked. It was fine. Adults giggled when the kids were being themselves.  Eventually the children's sermon faded out of our liturgy.

Now that we don't have Sunday school, parents are having conversations about how to be intentional about experiences for our kids. One comment was "how can we have more structure?" Structure is important for kids and what does intentional structure look like without Sunday school?

Maybe we should pull the children's sermon back into the liturgy?

After reading some stuff on children's sermon (like this) I had one of those A-ha moments--- there is no data that says children's sermons are an essential way to engage kids, teach them the faith, etc. Children's sermon definitely hit the nostalgia button and since bunches of churches do children's sermons that means they must be effective. Right?

Casey Wait Fitzgerald is a master biblical storyteller plus a beloved friend.  Casey and I were chatting about storytelling one day, pondering the role of a sermon in light of biblical storytelling and Casey said something like, "I think telling the story by heart is enough."

Pilgrims does Biblical storytelling. So.....

What if our kids were invited forward for the telling of the Biblical story? What if they had this moment in the liturgy where they were together as a small community? What if they were invited up because a story is about to be told that is so important we want to make sure they are part of that telling?

For the past few Sundays, the kids have been invited up practically sit at the feet of the storyteller.

Story is told. Kids eyeballs are locked in on the storyteller. They listen. Some squirm. One little 2 year old eye spies the candles on the table and starts to chat about the idea of  blowing out the candles. The storyteller keeps telling the story.

At the end of the story they head back to the pews with their parents or go back to a station.

After we did this the first time, a child-free, kid-loving adult commented, "why haven't we thought of that before?" Jeff said, "I wonder what other parts of the service the kids can own....coming up and listening to the choir during the anthem?"

Here is what the kids experience with Biblical storytelling:

  • Scripture in the ancient church was an oral tradition. As the kids participate in this storytelling moment, they are re-connecting to that oral tradition. As they sit at the feet of the storyteller, they are part of the tradition and how stories were passed down through the generations.
  • Storytelling builds relationships. As the story is told, those listening are connected to the storyteller. The storyteller is connected to those listening. Storytelling inherently involves intimacy, vulnerability, and connection. These are essential elements of faith formation and liturgy. The kids are part of these elements in the telling of the story.
  • Ownership. The kids have a moment to own in worship. This is one reason why we have stations---so the kids consistently experience ownership of the liturgical space. This space is for them just as much as the adults.
  • Creating storytellers.We can use the kids proximity and experience with the storyteller as a starting point to teach the kids how to tell stories.
  • Biblical storytelling is anti-gimmicky-crap. Lord have mercy there is so much awful shit out there that is supposed to make our kids become perfect Christians. The tradition, in it's imperfect ways, has given us a the gift of something like Biblical storytelling. When we engage kids in these ancient invitations of faith formation , we invite them into a sacred, communal experience that is thousands of years old. It is in the depth of the tradition, in the ancientness of the practices, that kids will be drawn into the radical nature of the Holy One and Her followers.

Storytelling with Faith and Wonder

My good buddy, Casey Fitzgerald, is a master Biblical storyteller and has started a blog called Faith and Wonder to explore more deeply personal storytelling in relationship to Biblical storytelling. Casey's tag line is "living and telling stories with Spirit." Being a Biblical storyteller means Casey learns the Biblical stories by heart and shares those stories with congregations and audiences of every interested sort. Casey's pretty bad-ass.

Casey started a podcast not only for Biblical storytelling but to have others tell their personal story alongside a Biblical one.

Casey asked me to jump on her podcast to share my own personal Emmaus Road experience. Here is our 25 minute podcast where I share my story of worshiping at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia and realizing I had a choice to make: Will I be a minister for Christ or a Minister for the Machine?

Check out the podcast HERE.

Check out Casey in storytelling mode here.