Tiara Sunday!

May 24th is National Tiara Day. Andy Thomas, Pilgrims PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer at the time, came into my office late in the day on May 24th, a bit peeved that he just found out it was National Tiara Day.

Andy quickly put this day in his 2017 calendar. He sent me a Snapchat to me later on in the evening showing he had properly celebrated National Tiara Day.

I mentioned this to Pilgrim Leisha Reynolds who immediately started strategizing---on Andy's last Sunday at Pilgrims we will wear tiaras in his honor, keeping the tiaras a secret from Andy.

And so we did.

Leisha fired-up Amazon Prime and ordered 50 or so tiaras.

July 31st became "Tiara Sunday" at Pilgrims. During our final hymn we were still gathered around the communion table for our prayers of the people and two of our Pilgrim kids handed out the tiaras.

While one Pilgrim kid was handing out the tiaras, he turned to another Pilgrim and said, "don't ask any questions, I don't know what's happening, just put on the tiara." Then Pilgrim kid looked at Andy and said, "you had something to do with this, didn't you."


By the time the hymn ended, we were all wearing tiaras. We gathered around Andy, and Rachel Ford, our summer intern, who was also having her last Sunday, laid hands on them and prayed them off into the world.

Rachel, a now last year student at Vanderbilt Divinity, wrote several "case studies" during her internship. Rachel's last case study focused on "Tiara Sunday" at Pilgrims.

Here is what Rachel wrote:

Looking around the sanctuary, it was impossible to miss all the men in tiaras. Women were wearing tiaras but it was the men in pink and purple tiaras that prompted this reflection. What a bold subversion of traditional understandings of masculinity!

Men wearing tiaras and being vulnerable in a community, all while crowded around a young, sobbing, openly gay religious leader. There were older men in the congregation who had been members for 30+ years who weren’t afraid to show solidarity with Andy, even if it meant donning a tiara for a prayer. There was no hesitation; they didn’t even think twice.

It has caused me to pause and reflect on how those men got to this point. Where did they learn about masculinity, and how did they come to move beyond societal expectations? Who were the role models that paved the way for them? I was also touched by the Pilgrim kids statements (just put on the tiara!) and the presence of all the children in the service.

The older members of the congregation are creating a safe space for those kids to learn and grow. They are the role models, and those kids will grow up better for knowing them. Although not always the easier path, those kids will grow up more open and socially conscious than many of their peers because of their involvement at Pilgrims. The passing down of love and awareness from one generation to the next gives me hope for the world.    

May liturgy be an experience of the passing down of love and awareness from one generation to the next.

Young Pilgrim celebrates Tiara Sunday by placing a tiara around his favorite "lovie".
Young Pilgrim celebrates Tiara Sunday by placing a tiara around his favorite "lovie".

#Blacklivesmatter Liturgy

On July 5th, Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police while selling CD's outside a convenience store. That same week, Philando Castile was killed by Minneapolis police after being pulled over for a broken taillight. Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her young daughter, were in the car at the same time.

On July 10th at Church of the Pilgrims, our liturgy proclaimed #blacklivesmatter.

Our liturgy at Pilgrims has as solid structure--prelude, call to worship, sharing of thanksgivings, sharing the peace....

Yet we are a nimble bunch. When something horrific happens during the week, we are able to tell the horrific story by making last minute changes to the liturgy. While the structure might stay the same, the content or actions or songs might shift to reflect what's happened to the planet.

This is what we did on July 10th.

We scrambled around that morning, placing 12 candles on the table, filling the font with floating candles, making two #blacklivesmatter banners. One banner went around our communion table. The second one hung from our choir loft.

We had 12 candles on the table to name 11 African-Americans who were killed by police. While the list of African-Americans killed by police is longer than 11, I picked 11 names that were listed in a Washington Post article in early July. We added a 12th candle to represent the many others who have been killed.

Sam and Emma light candles for #blm during our prayer for illumination.
Sam and Emma light candles for #blm during our prayer for illumination.

During our prayer for illumination, two of our youth, Sam and Emma, helped to light the candles while I read the names. We read a few names, sang a song, read a few more names, sang the same song again, read a few more names, closed with the song. This moment was slow and contemplative.

Rachel Ford, our summer intern, was set to preach on excerpts from the Book of Job. Rachel kept the Job texts, pulling in more of her own story of naming, claiming, and resisting the social construction of whiteness.

During prayers of the people, we read the names again. Eleven people in the congregation took turns calling out a name and this time we added the object that was connected to their death.

Alton Sterling, CD

Philando Castile, broken taillight

Eric Garner, cigarettes

The list continued....

We also read the names of the five police officers killed in Dallas during a peaceful #blacklivesmatter march.

I asked two of our elementary aged kids to read two names of African-Americans killed by police during prayers of the people.

This is what happened with one of our kids.

I asked Pilgrim kid to read a name during prayers of the people. Pilgrim kid said yes. Pilgrim kid then went to the bathroom and

turned his shirt inside out. His shirt had a Super Dino cartoon on it and Super Dino was holding a gun.

Pilgrim kid thought it would be inappropriate for him to read a name while wearing the t-shirt. He turned the shirt inside out.

When we include kids in liturgy, when we ask kids to participate in meaningful ways in liturgy they have something to react/respond to. Inviting creates a structured moment, giving kids the experience of making a choice and a decision about how they will respond to the invitation to participate.

In Pilgrims nimble state, we were able to organize our religious life around the killings of Sterling and Castile.

In inviting people to read names, especially two of our Pilgrim kids, folks were able to interpret their individual lives and Pilgrims around #blacklivesmatter.

We're baptized in these waters (baptized in these waters) And in each other's blood (and in each other's blood)

-from American Skin (41 Shots), Bruce Springsteen.

Our Pilgrim kid was given the experience to interpret his clothing and actions in relationship to #blacklivesmatter. This is how our liturgy constructs identity and worldview, and how liturgy can give us the choice to enact those identities and worldviews in order to create a world made new.

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.

Liturgical Analysis with a Seven Year Old

Pilgrims kids are in worship all the time. We have three stations set-up throughout the sanctuary that invite our kids to engage in our liturgical experience at their own developmental level. On any given Sunday you can see our kids sitting in the pews with their parents or moving around to one of stations when their body has had enough of sitting.

When I observe our kids in these stations and I see them drawing, felt-boarding, working with the sand tray, I can wonder, "are they paying attention?"

Thankfully the Spirit intervenes on my wondering with an experience like this one.

On Transfiguration Sunday, we used tableau's to explore the transfiguration story together. See this video.

After we were done with the tableau’s, I went back to the storytelling station to check-in with Skanda, one of our seven year olds.

After the “Hey, how are you Skanda?” we quickly moved into this conversation:

Skanda: Pastor Ashley, what were you doing over there?
Me: We were creating sculptures with our bodies. That’s how we told the story today.
Skanda: Why did people get up there and do that?
Me: They wanted to show others how the story made them feel.
Skanda: Why didn’t my dad get up there?
Me: I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. Some people like to observe and watch things.
Skanda: How did you let people know you were going to do this? Did you call them up this week?
Me: No, Andy taught us how to do these last week. I just explained it again.
Skanda: Oh, how much longer until worship is over?

Love this kid.

Skanda had been back reading in the storytelling station the whole time. One, including myself, might think, “there is no way Skanda’s paying attention. That kid is totally checked out.”

Oh, but he’s totally checked-in. Not only listening and watching but also wondering about how I/we made it happen. “Did you call people up and let them know?”

Pilgrims are used to doing stuff like this in worship so phone calls and emails aren’t needed. And I adore Skanda’s thinking—what needs to happen prior to worship to get people on board? How do you create ownership with liturgy? Does Skanda need his own heads-up in times of transition?

He noticed we did something a bit out of the ordinary. Skanda paid attention to his dad’s participation. He wondered about what needed to happen prior to doing something like human sculptures. Skanda thought critically, at his age level, about liturgy and its parts–especially the parts that happen before the Sunday performance even happened.

Paying attention

Next time we have worship planning, I’m calling up Skanda.