Keeping Time/Life Passages
ISM and YDS students attended the sessions of the Congregations Project Summer Seminar in June. Some were designated student reporters, and have contributed their reflections on their experience with particular congregations, and aspects of the theme.
Part I: The Liturgical Year
Locating a Center: The Liturgical Calendar and Sustainable Living at First Congregational Church, Memphis
by Kathryn Pocalyko
First Congregational Church of Memphis, Tennessee, lives in the midst of many cycles. Throughout the week, various groups cycle in and out of the United Church of Christ congregation’s sanctuary. What served as Sunday’s worship space becomes a classroom, a dance studio, a food pantry, a fencing court, an art gallery, or a movie theater. While introducing her church to the ISM Summer Seminar participants, Pastor Cheryl Cornish described how at best, all the activities make First Congregational a vibrant community center. At worst, it becomes chaotic.
First Congregational came to the seminar hoping to locate a single, unified center. They came seeking to build a sense of cooperation between community partners and the church’s worship, and to link justice initiatives to spirituality and theology.
Cheryl Cornish, Pastor at FCC Memphis. Photo credit: Amanda Weber
Their intended project revolves around climate change, which deeply concerns congregants at First Congregational. Younger worshippers especially wonder what kind of natural world they will inhabit in the future, if any at all. “We need to respond to the despair felt among young people about the environmental crisis,” Pastor Cheryl explained, and they need a theological ground in which to plant that response. How might their church use worship to cultivate sustainable living practices? What can make these practices part of the church’s spirituality and not just another activity on a long list? “Our folks get mission,” Pastor Cheryl said, “Our issue is finding a unifying context.”
First Congregational suggested that their project’s starting components—sustainable living practices and a unifying, theological context—may meet in the liturgical year. Could the liturgical calendar provide this center, the way to link their environmental projects to a Christian identity?
The morning prayer service that First Congregational led during their week at Yale hinted at an answer to that question. Their worship showed creative ways to embody concern for the environment in liturgy. During a visual lament over the rivers of the world, images of the Mississippi, Shenandoah, and Ganges rivers flashed across a screen while Pastor Cheryl read statistics on water pollution, wildlife degradation, and health hazards. Then she led a prayer of confession: “We, your human creatures, have sinned against the soil that gave us birth; we have filled your rivers with rubbish and your waters with waste.” The lament concluded by praying for God to “free us from our bondage to lifestyles that poison your planet” and to “awaken us from the sleep of indifference and open our eyes to the anguish of our toxic world.” First Congregational seamlessly and beautifully wove together creation care and Christian worship.
The redesigned baptismal at FCC font echoes the waters at creation, bringing forth life, greenery and trees.
Photo credit: FCC Memphis
Their project’s plenary session asked how they might employ the liturgical calendar as an overarching, unifying element. Two conference faculty members facilitated the project’s brainstorming session. Rita Ferrone’s introduction imagined the liturgical calendar as a royal garment shut up in a closet. “What if we took it out and wore it?” she asked. Teresa Berger noted how the liturgical calendar embodies the Christ event, mapping Christ’s life on to human lives in daily, weekly, and annual rhythms. Her explanation on how the Christian liturgical calendar was configured with the solar calendar piqued the First Congregational team’s interest. Easter’s date, she reminded everyone, is governed by a natural rhythm: it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox.
The natural basis of the liturgical year captivated the team and illuminated their project’s vision. “The liturgical seasons make more sense to us in light of sustainable living and the natural world, not the other way around,” Pastor Cheryl explained.
Professor Berger also passed out a circular version of the liturgical calendar with personal dates—birthdays, vacations, anniversaries—marked on it. She asked, “How might First Congregational map their church’s calendar on to the liturgical calendar?”
FCC has a vibrant arts ministry, using its worship space to creatively represent the liturgical year.
Photo credit: FCC Memphis
During the final planning session, Mary Lin Hudson, First Congregational’s lay representative and Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics at Memphis Theological Seminary, pulled out a piece of paper. She drew two concentric circles like Professor Berger’s handout. The outer loop marked the liturgical year, and the inner loop designated events in their congregational life. Four quadrants behind the circles indicated the seasons. Immediately, ideas flew. A focus on creation could take place for four weeks in autumn, leading up to Saint Francis’ feast day, an established celebration in the congregation. Advent and Christmas could highlight solar energy and light, with water issues featured during Epiphany. Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday liturgy, should spotlight earth and soil, complete with a composting project. Easter would obviously center on renewal and themes of reuse and recycling. Ordinary Time might focus on the planting and harvest process, on food gleaned for distribution, culminating in a Thanksgiving celebration.
“We are intentionally linking what we do liturgically with what we do missionally,” Mary Lin said. The team will develop a liturgical resource that every Sunday connects worship with the sustainability project: a prayer, a litany, a spoken affirmation used continually to reinforce the project’s engagement and theology.
Mary Button, First Congregational’s Minister of Visual Arts, brainstormed many artistic ideas for the project and worship. She envisioned large blue and white sun prints for the season of creation. She imagined how she might use soil creatively in the liturgical arts during Lent. Could they bring wheelbarrows full of soil into the sanctuary? Display worm composing bins? The team prioritized their project’s artistic angle: it would inspire congregants to get involved in making the sanctuary’s art.
At First Congregational, finding their way is their way. They provide the place and space for diverse partnerships and inspiring initiatives. Their question is how to pull it all together and how to frame it in a theological context; in other words, how to find a centering point. The liturgical calendar has been part of the Christian church’s way for centuries. It provides the centering point of Christ throughout the year. The ISM Congregations Project seminar showed the confluence of these cycles of life—new sustainable living practices and the age-old liturgical calendar—will come to share a center at First Congregational.
Kairos, Kronos, and the Liturgical Arts at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlotte
by Amanda Weber
This year's Congregations Project pulled together an all-star faculty team – some of the best and most sophisticated theologians, musicians, and artists. Nevertheless, it took no more than five minutes for Jane Arant, minister of music at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to captivate the inner child of every one of them. Jane, along with Julia Van Huss and Margaret Rowe, have been leading a liturgical arts day camp at Trinity for the past seventeen years, and were invited by the ISM to explore ways this program could grow and be shared. “I planned to talk about our project for only five minutes,” Jane explained after their opening session, “but the looks on everyone´s faces were so seductive that I had to keep going!” Jane had seduced the crowd, all right; the first person to speak up after her presentation said, “I want to go to your camp!” and one of the clergy present had quietly started folding origami birds.
Margaret Rowe (congregant), Music Director Jane Arant, and Julia Van Huss (congregant)
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
During the first half of our week together, Jane, Julia, and Margaret shared details about their camp. We learned and were touched by the small size and intentionality of the camp; Jane prefers to work with no more than twelve students in one group in order to give the attention each child deserves. The week is run with four practical goals: involving the children in hands-on activities relating to worship and the arts; placing this into a larger context of church history and Western culture; introducing children to artists who engage in sacred art; and fostering fellowship, recreation, and team-building. Trinity´s project proposal sums this up most beautifully: “A nurturing ministry, the camp is intended to draw children into a life-long embrace of the arts as an expression of their own faith, so that their Christian identities are more firmly grounded for living in a hurried and secular world.” These goals are carried out in the most creative ways, teaching the children through visual art, music, food, architecture, biblical archaeology, sacred geometry, theater, and countless other activities. Poet and theologian (and ISM faculty) Tom Troeger exclaimed to the Trinity team, “You´re doing theological education using multiple intelligences!” By the later part of the week, all Congregations Project participants were encouraging Jane to step out of her humility and introversion and share this incredible gift. Excitement arose as we thought of ways to start liturgical arts camps in other places.
As Jane gave witness to the many stories of children discovering the treasure chest of the liturgical arts, it was no surprise the grown-ups in the room were equally taken. Together, we discussed this year´s theme, “Keeping Time,” as it relates to the liturgical year. Writer and theologian Rita Ferrone reminded the group that liturgy is often either a closed book to people, or something people take for granted. So much of the preparation for worship happens behind the scenes, and yet, the structure of liturgical changes over the course of a year is what draws us together as a community living in God´s time. This eschatological sense of time, kairos, is made separate from familiar clock time, kronos. Theologian Don Saliers helped the group to see that the arts play a large role in helping to take us out of kronos time and into holy time.
Music Director Jane Arant discusses Trinity Presbyterian's Liturgical Arts day camp
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
As the week progressed, we reflected on every kind of time imaginable. Theologian and musician Maggi Dawn guided us in thinking about generations going by – a larger sense of time – and I couldn´t help thinking of the younger generations of the church. My generation, twenty-somethings, are almost entirely absent from most churches, and there is a cross-denominational fear that the generations that follow will not show up to church either. It was in this context that I suddenly began to feel a sense of urgency about the work Jane, Julia, and Margaret are doing at Trinity. Their work is not simply a summer day camp filled with activities to keep kids occupied while their parents are at work. Instead, these wonderful women are helping to provide the youth of the Church with a theological education. They are carrying through on the promise they made as a congregation at each child´s baptism to nurture them in Christian faith and practice. And as a result, the children return home from camp each day excited to educate their parents in the meanings behind the liturgical arts.
One of the activities at Trinity Presbyterian's Liturgical Arts day camp involves crafting origami birds.
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
There is wealth in this project that remains to be tapped. Perhaps the greatest gift of this camp is to bridge generations of leadership in the Church. Jane hopes that one day, one of the children will ask to be on the worship and arts committee. Why not? The youth not only understand the meaning behind the many aspects of the liturgy and have learned to do practical things like change the paraments, but they also find joy in helping with worship. God´s presence becomes more real for them when they are involved, and we who are older are called to experience God through the eyes of a child. What potential for an intergenerational community that seeks to be a part of God´s time!
“We want people to recognize this camp as something more than three older ladies doing something nice for the children,” Jane said in her closing remarks. All gathered nodded in understanding, and I smiled, remembering the very first welcome to the week, when Dorothy Bass introduced the theme of Time. “This theme is going to explode on us,” Dorothy warned. “We must remain open to seeing our expectations overturned by God.” And so it is my prayer that Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte might be stirred up by the children of the congregation, that the Spirit of God might move through the arts in worship, and that we might all stay connected to the child in us that engages the world with delight and awe.
Part II: Sabbath-Keeping
Sabbath in the City that Never Sleeps: Second Presbyterian Church, NYC
by Kyle Brooks
As the biblical passage goes, one day is as a thousand years to the Creator. One cannot say the same for time on earth. These modern times have produced all manner of timesaving technological advances, but our lives only seem busier, and free time is scarce. Rest and relaxation have been reduced to little more than a pregnant pause before resuming activity at a breakneck speed. A day hardly feels as long as it should.
Imagine, then, setting aside time for restoration amid the hustle of city life. Such is the challenge that faces Second Presbyterian Church in New York City. This Upper West Side congregation has committed itself to creating a time and space to embrace the Sabbath, not only as a day of worship, but also as a concept of rest and freedom. It is a daunting, but necessary task, one that the energetic staff has taken up wholeheartedly.
Second Presbyterian NYC has a vibrant and diverse community, whose children can be seen here celebrating an intercultural, interreligious holiday service. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)
Founded in 1756, Second Presbyterian Church stands out in part by not standing out at all. Many people walk past it without realizing it is a church. It is nestled in an apartment building adjacent to Central Park West. Leslie Merlin, the pastor, says you practically have to stand across the street and stare at the façade to recognize that it’s a church. It seems fitting that it blends into the surroundings. It is a powerful visual metaphor for the seamless integration of a journey of faith with the daily pursuits of work and play. Indeed, the lives of the parish staff reflect just this sort of blending. Rev. Merlin serves not only as pastor, but also as headmaster for the Alexander Robinson School, the oldest coeducational elementary school in New York City, which was founded by the church in 1789. Paul Sanner, the church’s musical director, is a music teacher there, and Elaine Song, a deacon at the church, is also an editor for a legal publication.
Second Presbyterian NYC is home to the first coeducational elementary school in New York City, the Alexander Robertson School, founded in 1789. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)
This group of three came to the Congregations Project with the goal of bringing their congregation and community into a Sabbath time of togetherness and joy. In their presentation, Paul mentioned the struggle to “stay alive in the present” and be engaged with what is before them, rather than solely focused on what happens next. As Leslie puts it, their lives (and those of the parishioners) are very scheduled. In all of their coming and going, it is a challenge to find a moment of stillness. Their plan is straightforward: sharing of food, song, and fellowship. Parishioners would rotate duties for each gathering, spreading the load of work and allowing for weeks when people can just come and enjoy themselves with no responsibilities.
Leslie shared how her own family life comes together around the dinner table. When she, her husband, and their children are gathered for an evening meal, something delightful happens. It is as though something about Sabbath, in the intentionality of being with each other, changes everyone involved. This sort of family dynamic is what the staff of Second Presbyterian hopes to bring about in their congregation.
Second Presbyterian Church's Pastor Leslie Merlin converses with ISM Friend Don Saliers during a coffee break.
(Photo by Amanda Weber)
Making this a reality for a parish of around six hundred members is a much different task, though, from making dinner for a single family. Although it is a church-sponsored event, they do not want it to be doctrinal or proselytizing in its intent. It is meant to be a space in which ego can be set aside and community can be embraced. Furthermore, there is the concern for how to bring this vital time to those who are unable to be physically present, whether because of schedules or other obstacles.
Fittingly, it was during our lunchtime gathering that Elaine and I were able to sit and discuss this project in greater depth. At the heart of the Sabbath project helping people reconfigure calendars around what allows them to reflect and feel whole. Elaine echoed the concerns of her two colleagues; this should not be a worship service, but it should still have spiritual importance. We pondered together how this goal might come to fruition, asking a crucial question: what’s our starting point? We found our answer in the words of the Creator spoken to the prophet Jeremiah: by lovingkindness have I drawn thee. What Second Presbyterian is offering is an invitation, an open-ended welcome. And when people are welcomed, there is no need to “control” the experience. Rather, there is an opportunity for the church and its members to be themselves. It is an opportunity to realize that when people feel cared for, they respond.
Lay member of the Second Presbyterian NYC team, Elaine Song
(Photo by Amanda Weber)
Perhaps, then, the way forward is to bring together the basic elements, to offer the call and await the response. The best-laid plans often do not go just as we expect, but is that always such a bad thing? It could be that the soul-stirring need for a transformative Sabbath experience is lying dormant in people’s hearts and merely waiting for a place to break forth. Second Presbyterian Church is laying the groundwork for a constructive way of putting time in service of its parish, instead of the other way around. It has the potential to produce a deeper, expansive joy through communal connection. In a city of small apartments, cramped schedules, and high stress, a creative approach to Sabbath might be just the way to slow down the day and realize a peace and quietness that lasts longer than a New York minute.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Denton, TX: Living the Sabbath
By Katharine Arnold
I have to admit, I didn’t know quite what to expect during the Congregations Project summer seminar, but I knew from the start that it was going to be an exciting week. I had made my way through a torrential downpour and accompanying dazzling lightning display to the Congregations Project opening session–tested by water and fire, just like the Israelites!. What else lay ahead?! Even now, I keep coming back to the sense of electric energy that filled every individual in the room that week, keeping our eyes rapt with attention, and our words and songs earnest with excitement.
During the Congregations Project summer seminar, I got to spend some time with members of Trinity Presbyterian Church, from Denton, TX. For those wondering, Denton is in a small town of about 10,000 in North Central Texas. Founded in 1960, Trinity Presbyterian describes itself as an educated congregation that has worked toward social justice throughout its history. This concern for justice also informs their current work for interreligious dialogue in their community. Trinity has a wide range of age groups in its congregation, and an incredible variety of demographic perspectives that informs its ministry. Trinity Presbyterian has an equally diverse arts ministry, with youth and adult choirs, specially commissioned cantata compositions, and a visual arts program that supports local artists and displays their work in the church. In their evening prayer service, Trinity used a hymn commissioned for their church, entitled Drawn by the Myst’ry of Faith. One line in particular seemed to encompass the scope of their mission: “Nurtured in hope and in love, we then are bold to say: ‘Seeking yet found, broken yet blessed, called to action,’ we confess that we are the body of Christ, the dwelling place of God.”
The Sanctuary of Trinity Presbyterian Church incorporates a variety of visual art into its liturgical programming. (Photo courtesy of Trinity Presbyterian, Denton)
Trinity Presbyterian’s project aims at appropriating the idea of “Keeping Time” as exploring the principles of Sabbath-keeping. Trinity’s pastor, Craig Hunter, spoke of developing a Sabbath practice that involved play, and restoration. Noting people’s increasingly busy lives, he sought ways that his congregation could define Sabbath as something more than simply “taking time” to rest, but rather as a principal avenue of prayer, discernment and growth. Similarly, Lenora McCroskey, organist and music director, saw Sabbath observance as beginning with one’s individual, daily practices, but also voiced concern about the older, retired members in her congregation who still needed activity and stimulation in their lives. Kerol Harrod, Trinity’s lay participant, had an eye toward the younger, adult members of the congregation, many of whom work one or more full-time jobs and who are accustomed to a schedule that is just too busy. Kerol articulated a desire to think about ways for congregants to prioritize their time, and not fall victim to a deeply rooted addiction to stress. The question of “What are you doing with your time?” seemed, for Kerol, a mentality that valued productivity as the highest goal, at the expense of all else. He also voiced a discomfort with the thought of Sabbath-keeping as reinforcing our obsession with scheduling every moment of our lives, and even controlling our times of “rest.”
Pastor Craig Hunter ciscusses the need for his congregation to take on Sabbath-keeping principles as a way of being, rather than a task to fulfill. (Photo by Amanda Weber)
This cultural obsession with efficiency, success, and progress can often thwart our best attempts at understanding how to take time for rest and nourishment. But the intensity of the Sabbath discussion throughout the week emphasized that for many, if not most congregations, the need for Sabbath is great. The question around our breakfast table on Monday centered around possible connections between Sabbath and ritual—little ways that the principles of Sabbath can be lived out in our daily lives that could become habituated, unconscious ways of restoring our relationship with time, and ultimately reflect God’s time on earth: a time of peace, justice, and mercy.
The 2012 CP summer seminar participants were bound together in worship througout the week, symbolized by this colorful woven banner. (Photo by Amanda Weber)
In describing these observations about Sabbath-keeping, Trinity Presbyterian also laid out the practices it hopes to adopt as a congregation, along the themes of worship, rest and play, art, community involvement, and social justice. As these themes developed throughout the week, it became clear that such an understanding of Sabbath would be nuanced, complex, and yet could become an all-encompassing principle that could nourish and invigorate their entire community.
Certain issues however, still remained: how does one teach and implement Sabbath principles without adding yet another “thing” on the to-do list? How do we move in the spirit of having “enough” and cease our striving for “more and more?” How can we remove and prevent burdens of cumulative stress from our shoulders, a stress that threatens our very health and well-being? Developing a Sabbath practice must involve reprogramming these addictive stress pathways, changing our source of nourishment, away from adrenaline and toward the energy of excitement and hope in God, and seeing the Body of Christ as an indispensable avenue toward a restorative time with the Lord.
Lay member, Kerol Herrod, articulated the challenges facing his notions of Sabbath, as a full-time working parent with many conflicting responsibilities. (Photo by Amanda Weber)
Dorothy Bass, Trinity’s assigned faculty member, addressed these Sabbath principles in her plenary session, speaking of the mystery of living our transient, impermanent lives “in time”—through rhythms and patterns that embrace our life passages with grace. She also brought our attention to the ways in which our overwork (or lack of work) can dominate our relationship with time, in often complicated and frustrating ways. In addition, technology threatens to infringe on our time in ever increasing ways, consuming it, distorting our perception of it, and disconnecting us (at times) from the rhythms of time we find in nature.
ISM Friend Dorothy Bass led the afternoon plenary session on Sabbath-Keeping.
(Photo by Amanda Weber)
Bass laid out different ways of constructing meaning in abstract time as a way to re-inhabit time itself: through music, discernment, and language. These three examples proved to be an effective way of grouping the ever-emerging ideas Trinity Presbyterian put forth for congregational Sabbath-keeping: a) strengthening a sense of Sabbath through aesthetics, music, and artistic production; b) incorporating Sabbath principles as objects and rituals for daily life; and c) utilizing language (and silence) in worship—prayer and Scripture reading—as a means of cultivating an aesthetic of simplicity, focus and rest.
Practically speaking, Trinity’s team members emerged from their plenary session equipped with new ways to widen their ritual repertoire, both inside and outside the sanctuary. To re-inhabit time through music and art, plans were made to emphasize spiritual reflection through music (through Taize services, for example); experiment with sermons interspersed with music, to conceive of the Word in nonverbal ways; and even create handheld icons or tactile objects to encourage everyday Sabbath-keeping principles.
Trinity Presbyterian's music director, Lenora McCroskey, composes contemporary cantatas for the congregation, drawing upon themes of social justice found in Scripture. (Photo courtesy of Trinity Presbyterian, Denton)
Re-inhabiting time through discernment proved to be an exciting challenge, and Trinity offered plans to focus on ecological justice and community engagement through creation care—re-thinking our modes of being in order to care for the earth—as one way of incorporating social justice into Sabbath-keeping. Discerning how to incorporate aspects of Jubilee* such as debt forgiveness, resting farmed land, and freedom for the oppressed, seemed to map very well onto Denton’s community situation, which faces issues of racism, immigration, militarism, and Muslim-Christian interaction. Celebrating God’s gift of creation through shared community meals offered a simple, yet radical way of incorporating Sabbath-keeping into the fabric of Trinity life.
Times of worship offered ways to re-inhabit language, through the use of spoken word as well as silence, or rest from the cacophony of noise that permeates much of our everyday lives. Intentional speech and prayer, juxtaposed with times of silence, helps congregants get accustomed to periods of rest, meditation and reflection. Within moments of speech, articulated in varying moments throughout the Church year—prayer, sermon, creed, communion—congregants could inhabit God’s time in a way that offered peace, rest, imagination and fullness, without separating themselves from “ordinary” time. Don Saliers named the Church year as the way that we “keep time” with Jesus, day by day, week by week, in our rhythms of meeting, feeding, praying and singing. Imagining every moment as now for God allows us to think about our lives as God does, as ever-present and entirely full, a perfect mode of keeping Sabbath.
*This concept, found in Leviticus 25, articulates a Israel’s orientation to the land in multiples of seven years, with each 50th year celebrated as a year of Jubilee. During this year, the land was to lie fallow, debts were forgiven, land was returned to its original tribe, and slaves were returned to their families “This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families. "
Part III: Liturgy for the Dying
Life Passages: "If we live, we live to the Lord"
By Anna Rohde Schwehn
If we live, we live to the Lord.
If we die, we die to the Lord;
So then whether we live
Or whether we die,
We are the Lord’s.
(Romans 14:8; Set to music by Rolf Vegdahl)
Amidst the gray mountains and clear waters of the Lake Chelan Valley, beside parks and single-family homes is Lake Chelan Lutheran Church. Chelan, Washington is a small town of 3,800, but the population swells each summer as its lakeshore crowds with tourists and its vineyards fill with migrant workers. Lake Chelan Lutheran is a worshipping home to dancing children, farmers and orchardists, hecklers and talkers, grandparents raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren, contemplatives, intellectuals, people speaking languages other than English, medical marijuana users, and people struggling with mental illnesses. The church supports many ministries, including a local food bank; “Welcome Home,” a ministry for veterans; a teen tutoring center; Bible studies in the style of Lexio Divina; a weekly peace vigil since 1991; an art studio for weaving, painting, and batik; and a weekly visitation choir to a convalescent home.
The pastor of Lake Chelan Lutheran, Paul Palumbo, maintains a strong commitment to the catechumenate process. This ancient practice has been reclaimed in the 20th century as a process—not a program—by which lay leaders and clergy accompany people who have little or no experience with the Christian faith, using spiritual direction and faith formation. Paul guides catechumens along a spiritual journey, including each person’s faith story and discussion about baptismal living and theology of the cross. One catechumen suffering from cancer said, “It’s always life and death,” as her way of describing Christ’s presence in suffering and new life. The cross becomes the lens through which we see life. We are baptized into this promise. This woman’s struggle was one in a series of deaths that the congregation experienced. These experiences led them to begin weekly visitations to people nearing death.
Through these visitations, the faithful people of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church sensed a call to this ministry. They have identified a need for resources to help themselves—and others—pray with those near death. Their church seeks to recognize and ritualize the rhythms of dying and rising in their community. Pastor Paul Palumbo, musician Rolf Vegdahl, and artist Wendy Schramm are creating a liturgy for the dying grounded in Word, Eucharist, and Baptism. In baptism, their congregation enters into the life and death of Jesus Christ. Living out the promises of baptism, they are sustained by the presence of the family of God and by the knowledge that Christ is present in suffering. Grounded in these promises, Lake Chelan Lutheran will continue accompanying people through the dying process.
The liturgy will contain accessible, flexible songs, to be sung by two or three gathered at a bedside or by a 50-person choir. Some of the songs will be original music written by Rolf, while others will be simple hymns or chants. Text will fill many pages, including prayers, litanies, healing rituals, and Bible passages. Beauty and artistry will illuminate the texts and permeate each page, including images of the trees, hills, waters, and people of Chelan, Washington. The artwork will be done in a variety of mediums—calligraphy, gold leaf, watercolor paint, oil paint, fabric arts—and will incorporate images used at baptisms, funerals, and weekly worship services. Ideally, the book will be printed locally, using quality paper that maintains the integrity of the artwork.
On a practical level, this liturgy will give people something to say, sing, and do during the dying process. It will serve as a tool for we who are hesitant or fearful of practicing a ministry of presence to both caretakers and the dying. It will provide us with words when we have no words, songs when we cannot sing, images when beauty seems lost. This book will guide the Lake Chelan Lutheran community into suffering and death, where Christ is present and alive. The words, songs, and images will symbolize support, presence, life, and something to hold onto in times of grief and death. The book will be a tactile treasure, the physical beauty and texture of art representing and honoring the treasure that is a suffering body.
Complex dimensions of this project are revealed by the many questions generated during the Congregations Project: Who is dying? Who is the liturgy for? Could it be a tool for those experiencing the grief that comes with divorce, the pain of the terminally ill, the joy of recovery, the struggle of mental illness, the terror of suicide, the dying of a church, or the daily dying and living of a people bound to Christ? In the words of ISM professor Tom Troeger: “How do you provide order to the unordered, messiness of dying: from slow dying to unexpected death to death fervently prayed for and to death self-inflicted?” These questions about the meaning and the audience of the book meet other practical concerns: Should the book be copyrighted or sold, even though commercialism may rob the book of some of its local character? How will the printing of the book be funded? Will the funds be sufficient to print it locally? Can the artwork be printed economically without sacrificing beauty? Many of these questions will be explored in the coming months as compiling and constructing begin.
The liturgy for the dying proclaims that what we taste, hear, smell, touch, see, and sing in life matters also in death. The words, images, and songs of the liturgy will acknowledge death as a symbol of the temporality of human time and as a part of the transitions of everyday life. These words, images, and songs will “clothe our experience of time with meaning” (Dorothy Bass). Gathered in a beautiful and portable form, they will help Christians to visit those who are dying, assuring them that “whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”