Remove the sandals from your feet
for the place on which you are standing
is holy ground. Exodus 3:5
I discovered that being among an early group of theologically trained women in ministry made me see ritual opportunities that generations of male-only clergy before me had not noticed. I was called to a large city hospital one night to baptize a newborn who had died. It was a late Sunday night after a long festive day in church. I was tired, but they could get no one else to go. It was only after the baptism, and in conversation with a nurse about why no one else would come, that I understood what I had done. Others could have come to be with her, she said, but they refused. They said their churches don't baptize dead babies.
My heart sank and I felt like fleeing. What had I done?!? We don't baptize dead babies either! But not come to be with her? I knew, when I thought about it, why my heart had responded before I could think. I had had two miscarriages before my first child was born. It was a terribly isolating time for me. Almost no one would talk with me about it. Events like these can shatter our lives. Sometimes they mark us for the rest of our days. How shall we acknowledge them?
In weeks of searching prayer books, hymnals, a seminary library, I found just one parenthetical prayer, literally a prayer, put in parentheses, in case it should ever be needed -- if the child be born dead, use this prayer. Of course we don't baptize dead babies, but in the absence of some other way of handing our children back to God what else shall we do?
The LORD spoke to Moses: remove your shoes.
Moses is given a symbolic action to signify his understanding of the holiness of standing in the presence of God.
When Marguerite Sexton planned a blessing of a hospital parking lot where an employee was killed in a domestic dispute, she had pulled together three disparate communities who did not know each other and had never been together before: employees of the hospital who might or might not have known the woman who was killed, but who used the parking lot each day where the killing happened; members of the woman's family; and members of the Catholic parish where the woman's father worshipped. It was very soon after the murder. She couldn't assume there would be any kind of intimacy in the gathering, that people would be willing or able to speak, or would want to hold hands. She opted instead, at a certain point, to have participants all raise their hands at the same time over the place where the murder happened while the priest prayed a blessing, thus encouraging a coming together of these disparate communities into one, reclaiming that area again for life.
In the late 1990's, when the Germantown Mennonite Church voted to accept gay men and lesbian women into their fellowship, delegates from fifty-two Mennonite churches in the Philadelphia region voted overwhelmingly to take away the credentials of their pastor. The Moderator of the regional Mennonite Conference brought the news to the congregation.
Without forethought or planning, upon hearing the announcement, a member of the church who was gay asked the Moderator to escort him to the door and to cast him out. At first she refused, saying she had nothing against him personally. But other members insisted. They wanted the Conference Moderator to be able to see the consequences of the Conference vote. Finally the Moderator agreed. She accompanied the man to the door and cast him out, saying that she did so on behalf of the 81% who voted to expel.
How differently a symbolic action conveys a message than the words standing alone! The actions enact the words:
This space is reclaimed again, for life! (We will not be afraid to walk here, neither will we avoid this spot. God is also here.)
Here the line is drawn! Some are inside, some out! (The vote has been cast and here is its effect.)
When you have imagined possible symbolic actions for the community ritual you are planning, pause to consider how that symbol and its action move through the rite.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a theologian and writer, had an agonizing experience with a symbol and it's use at his son's funeral. When his son died in a mountain climbing accident, the funeral helped Wolterstorff feel both the reality of death and that death was not the only reality. He had dreaded the thought of the funeral, but it's actual experience, he said, "gave rest to [his] soul."
There were other symbols in the funeral service, but as it concluded, he was
carrying the resurrection candle, his wife beside him, followed by the family and
The candle was still burning firmly and brightly as people began pressing around.
The undertakers stirred to take the coffin away. What am I to do now, blow out
this symbol of the resurrection of my son? Why had no one foreseen the
impossible pain of this final act?
"But it's only a candle."
"No, it's more than a candle."
[Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing Co.,
1987, pages 38, 40, 41.]
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Much of what I have witnessed over the years, offered as new worship materials, hasn't worked very well: the language falls flat; or the piece as a whole lacks emotional resonance, unable to meet the depth of the need it seeks to address. My book, Speaking to Silence: New Rites for Christian Worship and Healing models various examples of new rituals that can be used or adapted, in a variety of forms and in multiple settings; offers a process for creating materials yourself or with others; and shows how to adapt others' rituals for use in new circumstances.
J. Frank Henderson's Liturgies of Lament is another book, like mine, that provides rites designed for public, community use. Many ritual books include material primarily for use in the home or church setting. Henderson's examples can assist you to model your own public prayers of lament following tragedy, disaster or trauma. Both books are still currently available online.
May the work you do creating ritual responses to disaster and trauma in the places where you find yourself provide hope and solace, indeed, a word from God for the ones you meet.
Follow this blog series
Part I - Using Ritual for Healing After Trauma and Disaster >
Part II - Finding Resource to Use in Rituals after Trauma or Disaster >
* Learn more about congregational care practices on the ICTG Training page. Here, you will find dozens of resources, including the ICTG Congregational Assessment Guide, seminars on becoming trauma-informed, modules, forums, and more!
Janet S. Peterman is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor who spent the first 26 years of her ministry in urban ministry in Baltimore and then in Philadelphia, where she continues to live with her husband and son. Since 2006, she has worked as an intentional interim pastor helping congregations in her region through pastoral transitions.