Finding sacred spaces that heal

pewsBy Joe LaGuardia

I hear the cliche all of the time: “We are a welcoming church.”

No church thinks that they are not welcoming and, no matter the denomination, each one boasts,”All are invited,” on the marquee.

But I know of a test that truly determines whether this is true: The “Pew Test.”

It is very simple: If a guest comes to your church and sits in any pew, is he or she asked to move because “you’re in my seat”?

I’ve heard horror stories about the “Pew Test” over the years.  We at Trinity have had our share of people who have visited other churches and were told to move from a certain seat.

Yet, I have also learned something very important over the past decade about pews and the people who claim them.   You see, when people have “my seat” in the pew, it is not because they don’t want to welcome others.  It is because our Christian faith is highly experiential and tactile.

It is in church that we experience conversions and born-again transformations.  It is in church that we witness baptisms, baby dedications, and funerals.  There, we are moved with compassion and participate in missions, inspired by God’s Word, and sing hymns that bring encouragement.

We have a variety of spiritual encounters at church, and the seats in which we sit and the rituals that we practice remind us of the variety of ways that God has worked–and works–in our life.

People don’t mean to be rude when they ask you to sit somewhere else; its just that that’s where they’ve sat when they have met with God so many times in their life.  They want to make room for you, but not at the expense of robbing you of the chance to hear their stories, to see why the church is so meaningful to them.

For all of the negative criticism related to rituals, sacred spaces, and monotonous “traditional” worship I’ve heard over the years, I’ve also heard beautiful pleas for why these elements of church-going and worship are significant to those who participate in congregational life.

There is something about sacred spaces–the very pews that we fight over–that gives us opportunities to meet God again and again, week in and week out.  These spaces–both physical and spiritual–are safe places that nurture stability in a world often in disarray and disorientation.

I experienced this in my life in a very personal way.  When my father passed away, his funeral was held in a church that has an auditorium rather than a sanctuary.  There is a stage with a few musical instruments, a simple podium, and a black-curtain backdrop.

It is devoid of icons, crosses, and artwork.  There are no paraments or altar-clothes.  There isn’t an colored antependium that implicitly communicates what season of the Christian year it is.  There are no acolyte candles for children to light or communion chalices to admire, no big open Bible or ambo on a common table that remind us of the centrality of the Holy Word.

The funeral was nice, but I missed my church.  In that moment of sorrow, all I wanted was to sit in my seat in the front row of my church, to be surrounded by my church family, and to find encouragement in that heavy pulpit from which God’s Word had been preached for nearly three decades.

I missed looking at the aged banners that adorn the church walls, the baptistry where my daughter was baptized, the baby-grand piano and the choir loft that’s home to so many familiar hymns and anthems that act as a healing balm to the heart.

I missed seeing one of our children light the acolyte candles to remind me that the Holy Spirit is present with us and that all of us–regardless of age and gender–can participate in our worship to God.  I missed the green antependium, green for “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, a sign that life still goes on despite tragic loss.

When I did return to my church several weeks later, I found profound comfort in that sacred space.  The songs, the sights, the sounds, and the smells reminded me of a simple message of hope penned long ago by Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally felt the silent love of the “church ladies” sitting in the row directly behind me.  I was warmly embraced by my deacon.  Our pianist preached on my first day back, and his message sent our hearts aright with hope, our tears set aflame with love, and our spirits souring upon lofty places.

Only in a sacred space can you experience that kind of divine interaction.  Thanks be to God.

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A New Normal — by Daphne Reiley

Normal

I’ve been using that phrase frequently of late to respond to friends’ questions of how I’m doing, how my kids are doing.  Our family has settled into a new normal.  A clear definition of that term may not be possible, yet folks do seem to understand what I mean.

A new normal – a new schedule, new boundaries for activities, new outlooks, new choices, all needing practice and consistency, all becoming a new normal.

Whether you are a caregiver or are the one receiving care, when you or I or a family or a community come to a time of crisis, often a new normal results.  We are pushed as a result of that crisis to look at our habits, at our comfort (or laziness), at our needs that are not being met and formulate a new way of going about our lives.  A good thing.  Admittedly, this is also sometimes a painful and/or fearful process.

However, using a time of crisis to educate ourselves in the options that exist for moving forward is a healthy practice.  Such an experience can open our eyes and our heart to the incredible beauty that exists within us, within our relationships, within our communities.  Beauty that is the Love of God.

We are all created good.  We are all created beautiful in the sight of God – inside and out.  Our inside beauty consists of our truth, our voice, our compassion, our empathy – parts of us that can and often do grow and expand during a crisis.new normal

Our inside beauty is what opens our eyes to the hope, to the Light at the end of the tunnel illuminating the end or resolution of the crisis.  Hope is a wondrous thing.  Hope is actually what undergirds a new normal.  If we didn’t have hope, would we even attempt to create a new normal?  What would be the point?

God calls us ever forward: through the crisis, through an examination of what needs to change, through the recognition that there is hope in our hearts, to that deep beauty, that steadfast and faithful Love of God.

In any crisis, we are not alone.  We have options that are deeply beautiful if we are willing to see the hope that exists.

Facing Father’s Day without a Father

dadI’ve written extensively for my county’s newspaper, The Rockdale Citizen, about the hardship and grief associated with motherloss during the holidays and Mother’s Day (read about it here and here).  What about the loss of fathers during Father’s Day?

Grief hits us most profoundly when special occasions occur, especially firsts.  This weekend, grief will confront me in a unique way because its my family’s first Father’s Day without Dad.

This thought hit me when I was shopping for Hallmark cards earlier this week.  I had to get three instead of four: two for my brothers-in-law and one for my godfather.

I spotted a card that was from a child to “Pop Pop.” That was my children’s nickname for my father.

I looked at the card for a few minutes, wondering whether I should buy it just to have it and put it in my journal.  I moved on, picked up another card with peanuts on it for one of my in-laws instead: “Happy Father’s Day from a couple of nuts.”

The trip to the card aisle reminded me just how helpless we all feel after the loss of a loved one.

For my family, personally, it is helplessness in the wake of the tragedy we experienced nearly ten months ago when a irate shooter killed three people, Dad included, in a town hall meeting in Ross, Pennsylvania.

As a result of a powerful firearm, we were rendered powerless and were torn asunder, not only from a great father, but a best friend to many.

Since that time, I have faced many firsts, and I have tried to follow the advice that I give parishioners who are in my situation.

We’ve started new traditions that honor my father, and we have grieved the loss of other traditions.

We acknowledge the loss, and we feel our way through our emotions as they come about.  (Daphne Reiley accurately describes grief as a series of waves and undercurrents that ebb and flow each day in A Tapestry of Love.)

We draw encouragement from the Bible.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is especially helpful: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…God will bring with him those who have died” (4:13, 14b).

I know we will be reunited in heaven, but the separation from our loved one feels like hell right now.

Prayer is also helpful, but sometimes falls short.  Silence in the presence of God is golden.

Poetry has been the most helpful avenue of healing for me.  I’ve picked up Book of Hours by poet, Kevin Young, a professor at Emory University here in Atlanta.

The book balances poetry about his own father’s death (in an accidental shooting while hunting) with the birth of Young’s first child.  His poetry is a bluesy, meandering stream of consciousness that expresses the on-again, off-again nature of loss:

“Strange how you keep on dying–not once then over and done with…each morning a sabbath of sundering, then hours still arrive I realize nothing can beg you back.”

It’s helplessness in those lines, but also hope.  “I do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul writes, its a timeless lesson echoing in my heart.

But uninformed I am.  As Father’s Day creeps up on us, we will stand in darkness yet again.  It feels like an old record skipping and repeating the same dirge over and over.

My only solace is that the day falls on a Sunday.  My church family will comfort me, as I’m sure church families everywhere will comfort all who those who miss fathers on that special day.

We will celebrate too, because there are plenty of fathers in our midst that make up the difference.

And then there is our Father in heaven.  Even when darkness falls, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1), because God is good (…all of the time; and all of the time…).