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Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday Extra: A Place to Share

From the New York Times, a front lawn in Newtown.
Over the weekend, here at the blog and at our Facebook group, we shared with one another our shock and grief over the terrible news from Newtown, CT. We talked about how to talk about it with children and in worship; we shared resources for both. In the comments here today, we invite you to share your stories about Sunday.

Did you change your plans for the service, or rewrite your sermon? Was it Music Sunday or Christmas Pageant, setting limits on what you could do?

Are you a parent of a young child? How did that impact your approach, and how are you feeling about sending that child to school today?

There are many pieces of this story, some political and some theological and some psychological. A piece will go viral, and then be debunked. Did you read anything helpful? Or something you need to talk about? Share a link. Let us know how you're doing.

We're here for each other, still.


47 comments:

  1. I feel funny going first, since I didn't preach.

    Our choir usually presents a cantata on the third Sunday in Advent, and it became clear in the planning process that a sermon would be too much. And I do believe that good music can be the proclamation of the Word (and this was a good cantata).

    So I did a couple of things. First, I introduced the service (at the end of announcements) by noting that this is typically the Sunday of Joy, and it feels hard to embrace joy in light of the terrible tragedy we are all still reeling from. But (and here I quoted someone who quoted C. S, Lewis-- Gord?) joy isn't happiness; it is the confidence that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, in God's time. I encouraged the congregation to listen for the sorrow and heartbreak in the readings and music, surrounded as they are with words of joy, and to open their hearts to the fullness of the Good News.

    I also created a choral reading of Isaiah 61:1-11, which is a fantastic reading. It actually spoke perfectly to the situation: about binding up the brokenhearted, giving those who mourn a garland instead of ashes, etc. It was done by five people. I think it was powerful.

    And I wrote a prayer based on Isaiah 61 that included a lot of the kinds of things I would have said if I had had a sermon. And I introduced it as I always introduce our prayer time: "Remember that God hears our prayers as a parent hears the requests of beloved children." And then I lost it. Cried. Tried to pull myself together. Was more or less successful. Was able to get through.

    People were very appreciative. My crying, in particular, moved people, uncomfortable as it made me.

    So... a lot of info from one who didn't even preach. Hoping to hear from you all. Listening with love and awe.

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    1. Beautiful, Pat! A testimony that preaching is most definitely not the only message-carrier in a worship service.

      You also reminded me that, during the prayers of the people, I read the names of the children and their ages and lifted each one up by name in prayer: "For ___ year old _____" following each one with "Lord, in your mercy ... hear our prayer."

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    2. I nearly broke down twice in my sermon, Pat. And I noticed that people waited in absolute silence for me to pull myself together, and when I looked up, a couple of people were wiping their own eyes. I don't think they minded at all.

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    3. I think people needed space for tears yesterday. There were lots of bowed heads at different points along the way. Bless you for sharing your emotions with them.

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  2. Thanks for posting this, Martha.

    A huge encouragement to me made possible by this ring: The early preachers' reports of their congregations' positive and grateful responses to their sermons, imperfect though they seemed.

    The thing that impacted my preaching approach was preaching in post-Katrina New Orleans. It felt different somehow to lift up and mourn this tragedy when they had all been through their own catastrophic tragedy, coincidentally about the same time as these young victims were born. New Orleans is still very much dealing with that. I wasn't living here then myself, so I almost didn't think of that in terms of preaching context. I am glad I did.

    And, just generally speaking, there was someone visiting the congregation who "fit the profile" and wasn't quiet about it.

    Then I was exhausted!

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    1. Sharon, I thought your sermon was wonderful in the admission that they had an experience you had not shared with them. I too am grateful to the Saturday preachers.

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  3. I didn't change my sermon but realised as I was preaching how relevant it was turning out to be! At the beginning of the service, however, I spoke about the tragedy -- most of my congregation at least knew about it (here in South Africa and especially in my rather circumscribed community things tend to be remote!) and I think were glad that I spoke. I lit the Paschal candle as a sign of mourning but followed that with the prayers and lighting of the Advent candle of joy. I hope I got the message across that God is with us in our suffering and for that we can rejoice, even if we are feeling anything but joyful.

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    1. It's amazing how much power the simple lighting of candles can have. Thanks for sharing with us.

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  4. We only had one child in the service, a girl who is quite limited from a mental acuity standpoint. Before the service I talked to the family member who brings her, telling her that I could revise some parts of the sermon if necessary, as the last thing I wanted to do was bring distress to a child. She told me to go ahead; that the young lady would not understand any of it. More importantly, she told me about some events in their family of the previous day that served as a reminder that our families face their own violence and heartbreak.

    You would have thought from the adult Sunday school and chatter before church that Newtown had never happened. I, too, was much bolstered by the reports of Saturday evening preachers as I took a deep breath before going forward with my new sermon. Would anyone care? I wondered. Would they be angry that I was destroying their anticipated Sunday reprieve from bad stuff?

    Afterward, more people than usual told me that it was "exactly what we needed to hear."

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  5. And just one more thing: A couple of months ago, as I relayed my frustration with my lovely but insular community, my spiritual director told me that his last church as a diocesan priest had been in a declining inner city parish of mostly elderly people. When he left to join the Jesuits, one of his staff members said to him, "Thank you for bringing the world to this parish."

    I think of that often, and I did all week-end. I don't know that anyone will ever thank me, but I do think that that's part of my call: to bring more of the world, in a gentle and non-condescending way, to a people who have chosen to live in a less connected way than I would and do not necessarily think of themselves as participants in the whole. (Major generalization here, of course.)

    An odd call for someone whose primarily interest is the interior life.

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    1. Thanks, Robin, for sharing this. I haven't been able to articulate this, but I have found it be one piece of may calling, too, in most of my congregations. And to help folks place it in a Christian context.

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  6. Our service went long in part because of the emotions being expressed. My daughter commented that I spoke much more slowly than usual in the sermon, and a Deacon added that perhaps I spoke at the pace people needed in order to take in the words. I know I had to say them slowly in order to contain myself, though my emotion was apparent.
    Each piece of the service had more weight than usual, including the parts where children were present even though we did not mention the shooting or even the particular gravity of the day until after they left for Sunday School.
    I had a chance to tell the choir, before worship, how we were handling things (keeping the printed liturgy all about joy, but addressing the meaning of Christian joy in the sermon), but of course I could not have that conversation with everyone in the congregation. The Call to Worship, which had different sides of the congregation in a call and response, was sad and flat, understandably, and during the first hymn (There's a Song in the Air), the sadness in the room was palpable. But by the time we closed with Joy to the World, I could feel our collective decision to praise God who is with us even in the darkest times. It all felt right; hard, but right.

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    1. How amazing and grace-filled that the movement of the worship service was also the message. Martha, this must be especially emotional for you as you end your ministry there.

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  7. I am using the narrative lectionary, so the texts were Isaiah 61 and Mary's song. I approached it from a "listening to the promises and affirmations" point of view, in that neither Isaiah nor Mary were sharing God's promises in wonderful context, but rather in difficult, heartbreaking circumstances.

    I have the good fortune to be part of a group that shares about church and other stuff, made up of lay folk and clergy. One women in our group shared how she was going to use "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (written during the Civil War) as part of the Children's Time. I used it as the close to the sermon, but was close to tears, too. The last couple of verses are particularly poignant:

    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;

    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song

    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,

    With peace on earth, good-will to men."

    BTW I usually post as revtsb.

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    1. We don't have a choir, but had a soloist sing "Breath of Heaven."

      Breath of Heaven, hold me together
      Be forever near me, breath of Heaven
      Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
      Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
      Breath of Heaven


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    2. Longfellow is perfect. Well chosen. Thanks for telling us your story. Some of the best advice I heard over the weekend was "talk to your people," meaning folks in the church. I did a little of that and was guided both by their words and their lives (lots of teachers in my church, both active and retired).

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  8. I didn't have a supply preaching job yesterday. At first, I was quite relieved. I read along at the preacher parties and prayed with each of you who was struggling with what to say and do. I attended worship at my husband's church (also a cantata Sunday), and felt comforted and assured. I read through many RevGal sermons yesterday afternoon, and I am so thankful for the work of the Spirit among you.

    I came to realize that I had missed preaching yesterday, missed the opportunity to think through events through a theological lens on my own. I am quite certain I would have cried through the whole thing. Apparently, I'm not alone in that!

    Thanking God this day for you and for the powerful words of Scripture and song and for hope and joy in the midst of sorrow.

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    1. esperanza, when we're in the habit of doing that kind of reflection, it's hard not to have a place to put it. I'm glad you received some comfort.

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  9. On another note, I sent an email to the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in that area, which as it turns out is only 3 miles from Newtown/Sandy Hood Elementary, expressing our support and prayers for their communities. She responded with thanks; I was not expecting a response. Here is her email:

    Dear Tracy,

    Thank you ever so much. We are about three miles from the school and have members in Newtown, teachers in Newtown, students in Newtown, though thankfully none this year at Sandy Hook. We deeply appreciate your prayers as we grieve and mourn and grapple with this tragedy.

    Grace and peace,

    Adele

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  10. We had our music Sunday, too. However, we used the prayer time to pray for Sandy Hook--we did what Sharon did, which was to read the names of those who died, responsively and slowly. We also had a forum after worship for people to be able to come and share their feelings...which was good.

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  11. I gave a disclaimer for any parents who were not wanting their preschool kids to hear about CT so they could take them out of worship if they wanted before the sermon. Think they all kept them in.

    We actually invited the kids up to the prayer center to a new station with Christmas icons and old magazines. So there was a rustle and bustle of good kid noise during the worship service. I know a few people were probably having their usual "why can't kids be silent" moment, so I interpreted that at the beginning of the sermon saying, "Isn't it nice, after the weekend we have had, to be able to hear kids making art while we worship?". It was a healing noise, i think.

    Then I went to visit Julia's friend whose baby had died at 34 weeks. He was a beautiful little baby. Really enjoyed meeting and visiting with his parents. Was glad to bless and baptize him.

    As I left the hospital yesterday, got news that an elderly member of the church had died. He had been under hospice care, so this is the "good" kind of death, but still.

    Standing in the breach yesterday was sacred, and good, and full of gift. And knocked me flat. Will not skip breakfast again! (poor planning!)

    Today, I'm about to consider getting dressed so I can ponder going out for a run. Don't want to make a rash decision. Thankful for Monday off.

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    1. "How nice it is . . .!" Indeed. That is a reminder for any time we think of children as too loud or too demanding.

      You've had quite the week, Marci! (((HUGS)))

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  12. Just two slight references in my sermon, but certainly held Newtown folks in our prayers.
    It was during communion, as I was blessing a little one -probably 1st grader with long dark brown hair and dark brown eyes that looked up at me while my hand rested over her head and I blessed her with my blessing - that I got so choked up with tears welling in my eyes. How many of the children had been blessed regularly, weekly and now this? How many never did received any blessing but were still loved and held in God's grace? And how many times have I blessed little one, nevering realizing it may be the last blessing they ever recieve? How very precious is each one - little and grown up.

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    1. I just welled up reading your story of what happened. Precious children.

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  13. We're on the other side of the atlantic, but still felt we had to say/do something. It was our big Christmas celebration day (service, then lunch, then a children's show). The service (scripted by me) was lead by the children's team, with involvment from the children (all rehearsed in advance) - making it hard to change things. So our pastor opened the day by inviting us all to a brief time of silence to pray for all of those who find Christmas difficult, for all those who were grieving, and in particular for the people of Newtown.) I think he got the tone and content just about spot on. It was followed by the lighting of our advent candles, with the pastor commenting that its because things like this happen that we need the light of Christ in our lives, and then we moved into the service as planned.

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  14. We had 29 candles which were lit by many as we came forward during Communion time (we move around a lot to prayer stations during Communion). There were 26 candles for those teachers and students who died. 1 for the wounded teacher. 1 for the mother. 1 for the son. There were many silent prayers and tears. And God is still good. (Posted the picture on Facebook - and on my blog as the featured image (top of the page) here...

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    1. Deb, could you explain how you use prayer stations during communion? Or perhaps link to a post in which you've described it?

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  15. At the main Sunday service we had Lessons and Carols already planned. There was no sermon at that service, so at the announcement time I said something to the effect of "The reason we have a Lessons and Carols service is to remind us that God has been with us forever and will be with us no matter what. we read the lessons of our ancestors and recall that God has never deserted us, is still with us, and will be with us again soon." I also said the Alleluia at the Fraction - bc it seemed like a defiantly joyful thing to do.
    Thank you all for the feedback about hearing from those of us who preached on Saturday. It almost seemed silly to post a reassurance, but it was what I would've wanted to see.

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    1. You said something more, Amy+. You told us that joy is part of our lives even when we don't feel it and the Joy is Jesus. Not in those words but words that I needed to hear. Thanks.

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  16. We put 29 candles on the altar and lit them after we lit the pink Advent candle. I rewrote the entire sermon and used many resouces found here; the prayer on the body of the woman at Auschwitz, quote from Mr Rogers. I talked about the fruits of the spirit found in the compassion and greatness of heart. I played John Bell's There is A Place and used some photos with lyrics. After communion I had our small Sunday school - 7 kids- join me behind the altar. I had my arms around them as we said the final prayers and blessing together.

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  17. so many pastors seemed to have changed their sermons--not just added a snippet, but changed the sermon entirely!

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    1. Margaret, It is a good thing to change the sermon. Your congregation is hurting or fearful. If you don't address their grief, it will come back upon the community big time. Sometimes you have to change the whole sermon to address the needs of the people.

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  18. I was a sermon re-writer too (and I completely changed the 2nd service-- I did the lectoring myself and preached from the floor instead of the usual "queen of england" pulpit). It wound up being a holy time together with my congregation and we all wept together. I was able to help them name some of the other griefs they've been carrying, and I think that was the most necessary thing of all. Here's where it went: http://stillgoingtograceland.blogspot.com/2012/12/tidings-of-comfort-and-joy.html
    I'm having an unplanned day off today and just sort of sitting with the holy and sacred, and am grateful for the space to do that.

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  19. I threw out half of my sermon since it seemed so trite after the events of Friday. I was off lectionary talking about Joseph (Matthew 1). I kept the scripture and switched the focus to the names of Jesus and Emmanuel and talked about even in the midst of everything that occured, we have a gift of Emmanuel. It was amazing that I was able to refrain from crying during the service (mom of a first grader and 4 year old, sister of an elementary school teacher). The third Sunday of Advent also happens to be the annual gingerbread making extravaganza and we were blessed with tons of children. There were lots of visitors at church, especially ones with elementary aged children. I tried to address the situation without giving details in case parents had not shared that info with their children. We had twenty eight tea lights on the altar for those who passed away. We also had the Christ Candle which generally only makes an appearance on Easter show up on our altar. Now time to buckle down and write three sermons for the next week.

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  20. I have one more thing to say.

    I've just read the umpteenth sermon of the week-end on the subject of "God is with us." I have thought often of the question someone raised, I think on the Friday FB discussion: So what? What difference does it make? That has been my question for four years, two of them in seminary, one seeking a call, and one pastoring. Not that I have felt an over-abundance of God-with-us during these years, so maybe I'm not the one to ask the so-what question. Or maybe I am.

    Then someone else offered the answer: Because this -- death, Sandy Hook, all the other horrible things of this world -- is not the last word.

    That's the one I try to remember. What we see and live is not all there is.

    I did get it in there Sunday.

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  21. I too changed the sermon entirely. I found it hard to make it through the sermon, even at the third service. But I have come to consider such tears a gift, an unspoken permission to the congregations that our gathering is a safe place to feel what we feel and express what is in us. What I found interesting was the number of men who spoke to me afterward (usually I find the women are much more likely to respond) and shared their thoughts and feelings.
    One of the things I mentioned in the sermon was that all around the communities in our area, most of the churches were having their Christmas programs that morning or afternoon. The children would be dressing up as angels and shepherds to do what the original angels and shepherds did - go tell the news of Christ's birth. The gift has not been stopped, nor the message.
    I attended the program my daughter was in that afternoon, and I don't think I have ever sung "Away in a Manger" with the same awareness or prayerful-ness before.

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  22. We are only 15 minutes from Newtown, and 1-3 degrees of separation in terms of relationships, and there were lots of tears during church. I wrote my sermon based on "Rachel is weeping for her children" and it seemed to be well received. I rewrote our prayers of the people to suit the situation, and used a Eucharistic prayer written for times of tragedy, a resource our diocesan staff sent out. And I concluded the prayers with a prayer by Walter Brueggeman in "Prayers for Privileged People" written after another shooting.

    Saturday afternoon I sent out a list of resources about talking about tragic events, violence and deaths, which seemed to be appreciated. Yesterday I think people were just grateful to have a place where it was safe to cry, and to be with others.

    My organist is playing at FIVE funerals for victims this week...keep her in your prayers, as well as all the others who will take part in burying 27 people in the week before Christmas. God have mercy.

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    1. RDM, I had to read that twice. Five of the funerals. Prayers being offered for her and for the others feeling the varying degrees.

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    2. RDM is that Eucharistic prayer on the diocesan website? If not, could you e-mail it to me at sahcdsp@yahoo.com? Thanks.

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  23. Suzy Garrison MeyerDecember 17, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    We read Daniel Berrigan's "Advent Credo" interspersed with a Taize chant, "Wait for the Lord," and I preached on Advent 61 (we're in the Narrative Lectionary) and how we are called not just to the "right words" ("Merry Christmas") but to transformative action. I especially appreciated this from Bruce Reyes-Chow:

    "While the world would like us to be further driven by fear, to circle our wagons of like-mindedness and to retreat into enclaves of perceived safety . . . it is in times like this that we must be able to express our belief in God's radical intentions for humanity: that we be a people who are driven by hope, that we extend our hearts and minds to the stranger and that we do not live to protect our own lives, but we serve out of gratitude for our very breath given by God."

    We are a church that observes Advent, and although most years we have let carols creep in by the third Sunday, this year we had not and I was awed at how profound we found the Advent hymns in our time of mourning. This week, "not yet" was very powerful.

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  24. The activity of RevGals since Friday just reminded me how blessed I am to have all you guys with whom to share ministry. Although in Scotland, I feel an affinity with so many of you, some of whom I've been privileged to meet, some not that is much stronger than the bonds I have with colleagues here.
    My sermon wasn't written but I wondered about changing the texts - they seemed too joyful but the convo here reminded me that we practice joy that costs.
    Our children weren't in worship because they were practising for their Nativity presentation next week, so I had the opportunity to create space for the adults to share with each other. I gave everyone a star and asked them to write the lyrics of a love song that was special to them. We brought those forward and gave thanks that those are all words God speaks to us. As they left the service, they all took away a different star to hang on their tree to ponder the words and the love of God for them. I shared the story that's been doing the rounds about the teacher who told all her charges she loved them - just in case those were the last words they heard. I choked up sharing that but many folk said they appreciated the opportunity to sit with their grief. Some also shared that they were transported back 20 years to the tragedy in Dunblane and needed a safe space to acknowledge that grief. I'm wondering how I might have handled it if I wasn't connected to all of you? But I'm just thankful that I am!

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  25. I changed my sermon and preached on the Newtown shootings and John's exhortation. I spoke of the need to grieve and not jump to answers or fixing. I tried to reframe what we perceive as John's shaming the congregation to an exhortation from him - inspiring and evoking the crowd to do something - "What then should we do?" And I asked the congregation to consider their response but consider it with the children in the church and the community who need to be noticed. This particular community needs to notice children in my opinion. And as I attempted to be a JTB figure an amazing thing occurred - a little child ministered to the women in the congregation. Here is a link to the reflection on this experience - http://revbeth.org/wordpress/awildprofusionofwords/
    Seeing and hearing children filled my heart with hope. Hope that Jesus in this coming will baptize us with a fire for loving all of God's children.

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  26. Seminary student here. I was working on my final project/paper for my Ethics and the Problem of Evil class on Friday. I scrapped the Blue Christmas Liturgy I had been writing and wrote a litany for Sandy Hook to go with my paper instead (to turn in Sat. at noon). I wrote about that experience here Horror and Love Then I wrote thank you notes to each of my kid's 7 teachers and sent her to school with them on Monday. I've practically attacked and smothered every teacher I see with hugs this week.

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