My congregation is in the midst of rebirth. Well, death and rebirth would be more accurate. This Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter), we’re taking bold steps spiritually and physically: we’re fasting from our Sunday morning worship practice, and we’re remodeling the sanctuary and gathering space. Fasting from our usual Sunday morning worship means that we’re not having worship until Easter, and everyone has been encouraged to worship in other places (and other ways) as a way of stepping out of our familiar comfort zone in pursuit of new life for our congregation. Since we’re not meeting on Sunday mornings, we’re having biweekly communion services on Wednesday evenings.
Last night, 20 members of my congregation gathered for the first Lenten communion service. Two weeks into our Lenten fast, I asked folks to share their experience so far. There was much joy named (including appreciation for our Sunday worship experience renewed by experiencing a different one, companionship in being visitors together, worship in other forms: a walk in the woods, a drive through the country, dinner with friends, and in a much-needed restful sabbath morning in bed). I was certainly grateful to hear joy expressed, as I expected that this first two weeks of our six-week fast would be the most challenging. I was inspired at the faithful exploration my congregation members have chosen while in the wilderness of Lent. I felt joy at the fact that we, as a congregation, are taking vulnerable steps into the wilderness and actively opening ourselves to God. I am excited that new life is emerging––in our space, in our congregation, and in each of us.
Alongside the joy, there was significant grief named (and unnamed) in the space, too. I was relieved to hear it emerge in the honest sharing of one of our eldest members:
Last Sunday, I went to visit [a traditional church service like ours]. I enjoyed the service; it felt like home with the the pews, the organ, the traditional liturgy. The preacher even preached about my favorite scripture! But then, as I left, I felt sad, like I was leaving a funeral calling for a friend.
She was naming a deep truth of her (and the rest of our) experience: there is a death happening in our congregation. A few weeks ago, we celebrated communion for the last time in the arrangement that has been familiar for 60 years in our congregation. We could begin to feel the death happening. Then a beloved congregation member died, and the following Sunday, even though we didn’t have our usual morning worship in the sanctuary, that afternoon’s funeral became the last worship service in the sanctuary before the renovation. The death felt a little more real as I stood in the pulpit for the last time. Then, as work began, the carpet was removed from the platform up front, and the lectern and pulpit were removed. The death was becoming more real by the day. This week, the pews were carried away, and the sanctuary is bare. The death feels more final than ever before.
Our wise elder reminded us that underneath the joy of our scurrying, remodeling, and exploring, there is also the loss of the old passing away in our congregation. And alongside the joy of new things emerging, the sadness and fear of loss are just as real. We often consider them mutually exclusive, but joy and grief coexist. Sadness isn’t a sign of a problem, it’s a sign of loss. Faithfulness is acknowledging grief, accepting it, and being patiently open to healing.
We all are living with grief at some level, because loss is inevitable. Grief is the flip side of love: if I love something, I feel sadness when I lose it. The more I loved, the more painful the loss. The deeper the connection––to a person, to a community, to a space, to a habit, to a pattern of life––the bigger the hole in my soul, and the more painful the loss. In my experience, our cultural norms usually ask us to deny grief, either by ignoring it altogether (messages like: chin up, don’t let it get you down, push through it; swallowing tears…) or rushing through it (assuming that after something we call ‘closure’ happens, grief is over). We learn to be embarrassed by crying, to apologize for feeling deeply enough that it spills out in tears.
I dream of our community living by different expectations about grief (and other painful emotions!): honesty and acceptance. We practiced a little of it last night, and it was beautiful. Loss was acknowledged and accepted, love was offered in response, and the Divine Presence was incarnate in the hands held and hugs shared.