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.

 

The Holy Chaos of Holy Week at Pilgrims

Ready to process, listening to Jeff tell the Palm Sunday story.
Ready to process, listening to Jeff tell the Palm Sunday story.

The structure of Church of the Pilgrims Holy Week services have stayed the same for many years.

In the past couple of years, we nuanced things a bit to add more elements of participation. Some highlights of what we did this year:

Palm/Passion Sunday: We did a repeat of last years public procession around the block. We gathered at 9:30am, armed with umbrellas and stuff from Oriental Trading, to decorate umbrellas. We also created signs with recycled cardboard that read, "Feed Your Neighbors," "Grow a Garden" and "Black Lives Matter." This is the ethic of our faith with words that are short, sweet, and to the point. Like Jesus and his followers, we walked with anti-Imperial words of the Jesus movement.

We gathered on our front steps and heard Jeff tell the procession into Jerusalem story. Sang a song and off we went with the beat of a drum. We had one person up front (me) to make sure we stayed together. Jeff was in the back of the procession to try to keep chaos organized.

We stopped at the steps inside the church to get organized with our processional song and into the sanctuary we processed. That's when utter chaos happened. We usually loop around the sanctuary a couple of times. For some reason, that didn't happen. People were everywhere with their signs and umbrellas.

Jeff remarked later that chaos must have erupted at some point in Jesus' procession. After all, Jesus and his crew didn't take 2 months to plan his procession. It just happened.

We ended our service with the arc towards the Passion narrative---so Palms---> Passion.

Maundy Thursday: We had an agape meal in our Fellowship Hall and Pilgrim storytellers told the Passion story by-heart. At the end of each part of the story, the storyteller blew out candles on the tables. As we got closer to the end of the story, storytellers also blew out candles on our Lenten cross we used throughout Lent.

Palm Sunday table. We recycled these elements for our Maundy Thursday tables.
Palm Sunday table. We recycled these elements for our Maundy Thursday tables.

Emily, our intern, created table-scapes with clear cylinder containers filled with water and one palm. Emily recycled this idea from her Palm Sunday communion table-scape. For Maundy Thursday, she added to each table a glass candle holder with white candle, a wooden, bark candle holder with a tea light, communion cups, a dried up palm from Palm Sunday,  and small glass juice pitchers  from Pilgrims circa 1950.

One of my favorite moments of Maundy Thursday is observing the meal come together in our kitchen. Lots of food that needs organized into baskets and trays. People jump in and make it happen. Connects a bit with the chaos from Palm Sunday. (see picture in the gallery below).

Thursday afternoon, Emily, Rachel, and I worked with Andy Wassenich, Pilgrim and actor/director and our voice building coach, on our stories. Funny. When we prepare your voice your storytelling is stronger. Noted.

Good Friday: This year we carried our large wooden cross in like a coffin into our candle lit, dark, Taize infused sanctuary. We placed it down on the ground in the middle of our space. Near the end of the service, people came forward during the prayers to hit a nail into the cross three times. Emily, trusty intern, orchestrated this and CHOPS to Emily for pulling something off she had never seen/experienced.

I'm pretty sure Emily had some internal chaos going on with this new-to-her leadership role. Emily had never been through a Holy Week before and we tossed this part of the service for her to lead. SHE PULLED IT OFF WITH GRACE AND LOVE. People then placed tea lights around the cross as we sang, Will You Remember Me When We Come Into Your Kingdom.

Easter: More chaos.....one of our members is in event planning and gave us 60 tulips for folks to place on the cross during our opening  hymns. Pilgrims bring additional flowers to supplement. Some ideas work. Some don't.

Around 10:15 we realized we  were about 40 flowers short of what we needed. Justin blazed off to Trader Joe's and pretty much saved the opening ritual action. Justin did this WITH GRACE AND LOVE. Usually people come down the center aisle to place their flowers on the cross while singing opening hymns. This time people came from all directions. Floral mash-up! More chaos!

Then.....skipping ahead in the service....Emily told the Emmaus story as part of the invitation to the table. THEN....Rachel and Carol sang our invitation to the table. They did this WITH GRACE AND LOVE.

As the gluten-free bread and cup were being shared, little Kate, age 3, walked into the middle of the space to check things out. I asked her if she wanted to help serve. She said yes. I paired her up with Karen. Karen welcomed Kate into the experience of serving. Both served WITH GRACE AND LOVE. Our last song had our kids jamming with Jeff as he played his guitar and they played random instruments. <chaos>

Holy Week theme: CHAOS WITH GRACE AND LOVE. I know I could be more organized in some areas for Holy Week. There are some things for Holy Week we could talk through more with key leaders.

And....there will still be chaos. Just as there was with Jesus and his followers with this incredible, restless, less-than-relaxing story. I can't even imagine the chaos going on with Jesus' followers during the last week of his life. Can you?

Talking through details with folks would be helpful not to eliminate chaos but to help folks be more present in the chaos. Trying to minimize chaos feels, on some level, like I'd be trying to sterilize the story. Trying to think through some additional details with folks for the sake of being more mindful, aware-we-are-in-the-midst-of-a-chaotic-story, cognizant that as we feel the chaos of Holy Week, we are, in essence, feeling the nature of Jesus and his followers during those final days.

 

Holy Week Outside the Walls

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. --Pope Francis Church of the Pilgrims did two new things during Holy Week that took us outside the wall of the building: 1) had a Palm Sunday procession around the block; and 2) told the Passion story on Maundy Thursday in our urban garden. Both of these experiences were dreamed up after a conversation with Sara Miles and life at St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Both experiences also connect to the lovely, powerful quote from Pope Francis.

Palm Sunday Procession:  The driving image was Pilgrims carrying eco-palms, signs, umbrellas and streamers as we walked around the block. The driving Biblical image was Jesus going into Jerusalem in a public procession, raising the anxiety and tension with Empire, inviting all to join in the procession, and proclaiming the values of the Jesus' movement in processional form.

What we did: I gathered five artistic types in the congregation to brainstorm ideas for banners, signs, and such. We came up with a list of supplies--cardboard for signs, crepe paper, PVC poles, umbrellas and glue-able stuff from Oriental Trading. We told the entire congregation to show up at 10:45am on the steps to process around the block.

We gathered at 9:30am on Palm Sunday to assemble. We had two people working on signs, several people working on poles with streamers and the same for umbrellas. Best quote from my colleague, Jeff was "if it isn't moving, glue it!" Indeed.

At 10:45 we gathered. Jeff told the first part of the Palm Sunday story, sang a song we'd been singing during Lent, and processed off the steps. Rachel Pacheco, one of our members, drummed us up and around the block. We stopped at a certain point, re-grouped, and started singing a "Hosanna." We walked back into Pilgrims singing this song and looped around the sanctuary a few times.

Maundy Thursday: After our usual handwashing, meal and communion sharing, we processed back to our urban garden were 14 Pilgrims told the Passion story by heart.

 

Analysis:

The role of the revolutionary is to create theatre which creates a revolutionary frame of reference. The power to define is the power to control....The goal of theatre is to get as many people as possible to overcome fear by taking action. We create reality wherever we go by living our fantasies.  ~Jerry Rubin, an American social activist in the 60's and 70's

We assembled in the street and garden during Holy Week. When we create liturgy in the streets we give witness to life's endless possibilities, we flirt with improvisation. Who knows what's going to happen. We didn't know we were going to stop traffic crossing streets. And we did.

The power of our liturgy went beyond our walls. Power was witnessed and visible, it was released  from the "secret" place of the Church and displayed for all to see and share.  Our storytelling and procession was a social critique of Imperial Ways---we processed with the values of the movement and told a story of an execution.

The impending ways of Empire and the violence of a lynching were acted out in a non-violent way. Biblical narratives were performed, lived out and in our Holy Week we lived out, performed, our response to those stories.

Ethical actions were embodied. We created both moments to critique the status quo in the name of Jesus. We symbolized our real yearning to produce real change. The Spirit offered up a disruptive space.

Also present in both were witnesses. People took pictures and video. People watched. Cars stopped. In that moment those strangers were no long spectators, they were part of our experience, breaking down boundaries of participant and on-looker. We were louder than traffic! Our rituals were an interruption in every day life, in that moment, in D.C.

In our procession, we used a public thoroughfare--paying attention to the public nature of the street. We repossessed, for a short time, the street as a space of productive use and a product of the State. We re-defined it as performative space.

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. --Pope Francis AND JESUS.