Worship planning is an art. It’s a discipline. It must be done over and over and over again in order to get worship “under our skin.” How we plan worship reflects what we believe worship should be — a transformative, communal experience of observing, trusting, trying, reflecting, and taking chances for the sake of experiencing the Holy One. At Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, DC where I am Minister for Spiritual Formation, we have created a process that has cultivated our skills for planning worship.
Several years ago my colleague, Jeff Krehbiel, went on a three-month sabbatical. While Jeff was gone, Pilgrims wanted to have their own enriching three month experience. We created a sabbatical planning team to plan not just congregational endeavors but worship. Together, we explored the lectionary texts, the meaning of sabbatical, and came up with the theme of “connections and clarity” for the sabbatical season. All of these elements came alive in worship during the sabbatical. While still maintaining our loyalty to the Reformed Order of Worship, our planning process opened up our imagination, courage, and curiosity to what is possible. We sang new songs, congregants told stories on connections and clarity, we created more spontaneous moments of sharing, and we explored new ways of engaging with each other during worship.
Our planning process paid off and we were hooked.
Watching people receive communion is one of the privileges of ministry – but never before had people commented to me that they were watching as I received, and then shared, the elements with my daughter. I suppose that wearing a baby on your back will draw some attention.
I’m familiar with the “fishbowl” effect of ministry, and have experienced it here and there, but this was an unusually public experience of that reality. Let me back up and explain a bit. Perhaps this is slightly odd, given our profession, but I don’t really spend much time planning worship. My ministry setting is a half-time position that focused on children and youth ministry, which allows me to exercise gifts and passions while staying home with my toddler some of the time. While this arrangement is a blessing for our family and my vocational life, I sometimes miss planning liturgy. So, when I was asked to co-chair our diocesan convention worship with a good friend, I said yes, even though it meant using up free time that we all know is hard to find.
In 2008, the congregation I was then serving, Egypt Lutheran, began the journey of Advent carrying much pain, grief and unanswered questions over the loss of two matriarchs to cancer as well as the murder of a father and adult-son of Egypt and the attempted murder of the same family’s mother. In this quaint, southern town, where the movie Steel Magnolias isn’t far off about how deeply runs the love for Christmas and tinsel, Advent’s newness was no match for the shock and awe we felt. We were black and blue all over before Advent’s first candle was lit. I realized a Blue Chrimas service could bring out the best Advent invites and encourage us at Egypt to name and release our pain and grief. There was one small hitch to this plan. I had never experienced such a service myself.
Like so many other clergy, now is when I feel the stretch of balancing the long to-do list of the Advent and Christmas seasons and the hopes and expectations of family. And while every year brings a unique loneliness, I've grown somewhat used to that feeling of being separated from the ones you love at Christmas.
It sucks, no two ways about it. But I always schedule a trip to see Mom and Dad as soon after Christmas Eve as possible—sometimes on Christmas Day itself—and after four years, I have carved out a bit of ritual around the whole thing. This is the airport hotel where I always stay the night before I leave. I always get a window seat so I can see the Seattle skyline as we land. I prefer to wait and buy gifts on-site (no shipping) and take advantage of the after-Christmas sales. We celebrate a special stand-in Christmas dinner for me on New Year's Day. I have managed to lull myself into thinking that this is the new normal, the new tradition, the new way things are done, and that it will last for many years.
That lull changed when my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September of this year. Early. But aggressive. Growing. Active. Treatable, but dangerous.
It seems like Advent came early this year. In the texts that we shared in worship approaching the end of Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary, I heard the restlessness that is so familiar to our radical hope in the coming of Christ. I heard it in texts where it might not even be there – but I’m aware of that yearning deep within myself. And so, I knew. It was coming. Whether I was ready or not. The holiday season was coming.
It's the time of year when families gather together across long distances to gorge themselves with lovingly prepared food. It’s the time of year when loved ones yearn to be together. It’s the holidayseason that begins with the harvest at Thanksgiving and continues until the tree is finally hauled out to the curb on Epiphany, but I don't have a family. There's only one stocking hung by my chimney with care. And so, I wonder every year, how do I celebrate this season? Where will I choose to spend my time? How will I allow my hands and feet to live out the possibility of new hope, new peace, new love and new joy? What experience will allow me to experience the miracle of Christmas again?
The Herdman children (those beloved bullies from Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever), don’t know the Christmas story. They’ve never heard of Mary and Joseph. They aren’t sure what to make of the shepherds and the angels seem like something out of a comic book. They’re angry at the innkeeper for making Mary give birth in a barn, they can’t get enough of Herod – clearly the villain of the story – and they’re mystified by the wisemen from the east.
They’ve never heard this story, so it falls to the bewildered pageant director and the rest of the congregation – who have heard it year in and year out – to teach it to them.
It seems to me that the task of the church to be the keeper of stories. Not just the Christmas story, but all our stories: the story of scripture, the story of the church tradition, the stories of the community and individual stories – in all, the story of how God works in the world. It’s a story that gets told and retold, each year, as Advent turns to Christmas, Christmas to Epiphany, Lent to Easter, Easter to Pentecost. Each season’s story leads to the next, each story reflected in all the other stories – new life always born again, through angels announcing the good news, or the surprise of the empty tomb, or the tongues of breath and fire, or the stories of living and loving and serving and dying that fill out the long stretches of ordinary time.
I always contemplate how I could make a living creating playlists. Other than being a DJ, I’m not sure this talent is highly desired or sought after in the world. But in my little microcosm of life my friends and I wait for Advent with added excitement. We are waiting for the annual exchange of Advent playlists. We each create a playlist, exchange it and hope that it points the other toward some Advent theme.
This year, when pondering my iTunes library, I was drawn toward the theme of light in the darkness. In other years the playlist has been a combination of our themes of hope, peace, joy and love. Sometimes it has centered more on peace. I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn toward light this year, but I bet if I pay attention, I’ll find out. Not all of these are Christian songs, or even religious, but they all speak to the contrast of light in darkness.
1. Head Full of Doubt- The Avett Brothers. The darkness and light makes you think about the place where doubt and faith just might meet.
2. Waiting for my Child- Patty Griffin. We are all waiting for a child to come these days…
3. I Will Follow you into the Dark- Cadillac Sky. I wonder what it might mean if we all followed each other into the dark?
4. There Will be a Light- Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama. We all have incarnation moments in our lives.
5. Wait- Get Set Go. “Wait for the dawn my dear.”
When I was a little girl, Advent was my absolute favorite time of year. It is true that part of the excitement had to do with the promise of gifts under the tree - but my love for the season went far beyond a desire for presents. Looking back, it is clear that Advent's top-ranking status in my personal pantheon of holidays had everything to do with a sense of wonder.
For me, decorating the Christmas tree was the best part - twinkling white lights peering out between crisp branches, delicate ornaments nestled in each bough, shimmering icicles glistening from every bristly tip... I loved our tree so much that my mother often discovered me curled underneath it, reading a book illuminated by those little white lights.
Beyond the tree, there were also those other wondrous Advent rituals: lighting candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday, singing the hymns that taught me my faith more than any Sunday school class, decorating the church during the hanging of the greens. Each moment, each activity added a new degree of anticipation as we moved towards Christmas Day. Finally, that swelling expectation reached a crescendo on Christmas Eve night as we sang Silent Night and raised our candles in the darkness of the sanctuary - Jesus would soon be born and I knew we were lighting the way.