As many congregations return to gathering in new or partial ways after a period of virtual worship, there are both logistical challenges and shepherding challenges. Essentially, widespread change has occurred in a condensed and contentious time. Some shared rituals in worship function as rites of passage, like funerals; the loss of sharing these rituals as a community has at times been devastating. For many, the past 12 months have been marked by uncertainty, frustration, fear, loss, anxiety, stress, and relief; but not only are we, in the midst of life, in death; we are also, in death, in the midst of life. Babies have been welcomed, weddings performed, new vocations discovered. In liminal times of emotional complexity, humans crave communal markers to express the cry of the heart and to clarify seasons and meaning. Symbols can carry layers of meaning when life experiences are so tangled that mere literal words struggle to hold the weight. In Christian worship, these symbols aren’t only functions of community expression; they are received as means of grace that reveal the very heart of God. Not every Christian symbol is a sacrament, but many moments in embodied Christian worship have the capacity to serve as means of grace.
As believers begin gathering in person again, what are some practical ways a community can bear witness to the loss and hope woven throughout the past year? Surveying the sheer scope of change – good or bad – that individuals and communities have endured, how is room made for lament, celebration, and the exhaustion in between? Finding ways to mark change sits peacefully with the reality that everyone – individuals, communities, regions, countries – will re-enter familiar patterns at different paces, due to varying needs and conditions.
What are some recurring cries of the heart expressed by Christians and non-Christians, leaders and laypeople alike? Many are echoed in Psalms of lament. Gathering again stirs a variety of responses among people. There may be:
- Relief, celebration, joy
- Grief at the empty spaces of those who have died
- Grief at the loss of daily rituals and companionship
- Fear that accommodations for the disabled or home-bound will be forgotten
- Distrust of others fueled by differing perspectives
- Impatience for places and practices to look like they used to
- Fatigue of tragedy and bad news
- Relief at return to familiar space and practices
- Guilt from surviving or experiencing the pandemic relatively unscathed
- Anxiety from uncertainty in social interaction
- Gratitude for the ability to begin gathering again, even with adaptations
Thankfully, there are some helpful liturgical resources from The Episcopal Church, the Church of England, and the Methodist Church in Britain that provide some markers to guide worshipers through the fog. From the inability to write in a coffee shop to the death of a loved one, from losing a business to losing facial expressions to educational upheaval, there is space to mark changes big and small, yet not-so-small. Jesus wept over the dead and heard the cry of the falling sparrow alike; and people who live alone, and people who live in families with children, all have something they’ve lost and found in the past year. There is room in the heart of God, and there is space in the worshiping community, for all of it – tragic fatality and kids’ disappointed plans alike.
The Liturgy of Gathering Again: Lament, Remembrance, Thanksgiving
The loss of usual funeral rituals has stolen the opportunity for loved ones to receive the healing honor of community witness. Not only have families of the deceased been affected, but communities themselves have endured the loss of sharing in these rituals. Some communities have lost many – so many it’s difficult to keep track. Health care workers sometimes lost the in-person support and services of hospital or hospice chaplains, finding themselves end-of-life witnesses. At the same time, many people have been limited in ways they can express thanks and gratitude for the many health care workers who labored often behind the scenes in very difficult circumstances.
The Church of England has shared valuable resources and reflections on opportunities to hold general services of lament, specific services of remembrance or memorial, and services of thanksgiving. For instance, on remembering and memorials, the counsel in one guide prompts that,
“The two main elements that memorial services and remembering events need to offer are opportunities to mourn and to give thanks:
• Acknowledgement of suffering, loss and death
• Gratitude for all who have helped in so many ways
• Thanks for survival, health and wellbeing
• Thanks for the life of the individual(s) who has died”
There are also insights on the value of services of restoration – a time of worship designed to bridge worshipers from crisis and loss toward renewed trust for the future. “Naming the unexpected gifts of this crisis as well as its challenges, celebrating the rediscovery of the importance of the local, and the resurgence of neighbourliness will enable the journey of renewal and restoration. Consideration may be given to bring an act of worship to focus in some sort of symbolic act of restoration, entrusting ourselves to the God who leads us into his future.”
The Timing of Gathering Again: Scattered & Together
Depending on the region or specific community needs, some congregations have not yet begun to re-gather, or haven’t started gathering again fully. One resource from the Methodist Church in Britain provides a service guide called “Beyond Exile: A service to celebrate a return to public worship.” Adaptable for local circumstances, it includes liturgy, planning notes, preaching notes, and new hymns for “a returning congregation” for situations that include congregational singing. From this service, one excerpt from the “litany of lament” questions,
“We thought we knew how the world was meant to be. We would see colleagues, friends and loved ones again, and we would embrace, laugh and share stories as we always have. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
And now, we know something new. We know that the world is not ours to control, and that our plans are confounded by the smallest microbe. God is teaching us a new song, for a new land.“
For places with many restrictions still in place, when believers may still be scattered or unable to provide in-person support, the Methodist Church in Britain also has adapted prayers for “the dying, the bereaved, and those who cannot attend a funeral.”
The Visual Cues of Gathering Again: Re-Entering the Public
This global moment invites people of all walks of life to re-engage with the practice of public mourning: not as a maudlin display of self-importance, but as a healthy tool of communication. But it’s been decades since people regularly wore the formerly common black armbands, like the character George Bailey when his father died in the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A black piece of fabric around the upper arm is a visual cue to strangers and acquaintances alike: be kind, tread gently, this person is grieving, give some extra grace for a while. A more modern version is a simple black silicone band marked with words like, “I’m grieving” – just enough to remind the wearer and others that all is not well.
Sometimes, biblical phrasing like, “sackcloth and ashes” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used figuratively – few Americans would grieve now wearing scratchy cloth or ashes. But grief and lament are not antithetical to faith. They are emblems of love, that “greatest of these.” They do not betray a lack of hope or trust; they hope and trust in God’s character, willing to express without repression. Demonstrating grief is Christlike: Christ, who groaned at Lazarus’ death, who wept over Jerusalem. (Tish Harrison Warren’s uncannily timed Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep is a gift for the grieving and those who love them.)
For those who re-enter worship or public gathering with other infirmity, like ongoing health risk, there are other visual cues available to communicate simply with others. Wrist bands like Social Bands quickly cue an individual’s risk and desire for physical engagement. Ongoing consideration for others may well be one of the strongest notes of public witness that Christians can sound right now – consideration regardless of one’s own assessment or perception of risk.
At a basic level, hospitality is in part anticipating the needs of another and proactively preparing for them. Welcoming the jubilant alongside the dazed and shell-shocked means providing space and opportunity for both to bear witness to the changes in the lives of the other. In gathering, all are invited to bring the cries of their hearts to God in worship, receiving the same shared grace that offers hope, comfort, and celebration to each vulnerable heart.
Featured image courtesy Luke Carliff via Unsplash.