A lit Christ candle sat on the altar. On the left. It was white, slightly raised, and its light fragmented a bit through the crystal cross that sat at its base. On the right of the altar table was a single unlit green candle; in the center of the altar was a quilt. A small quilt, suited in size and color for a baby. A single blue candle, nestled in a clear votive, sat in the shaking hands of a couple that had recently learned that they would not be able to have biological children. A small, trusted community from their church began by reading the opening words of Psalm 13 aloud:
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
The blue candle, held by the young couple, represented so many dreams that had been nurtured over so many years of what their family would and should look like, and how it would be created. They blew it out. Then, the two dared to name, out loud, some of the fears that accompanied their loss. They gave voice to their grief over their diagnosis. They expressed their anger over the situation. They named their worries about moving forward with an altered dream. Finally, the two placed the sheet of paper, which held the written words of their fears and anger, onto the quilt.
Then the community continued with Psalm 13: “But I trusted in your steadfast love.” “But” was a key word. The fears and grief remained, but the community made a bold declaration that they would still trust in the steadfast, covenantal love of the Lord. And so they sang the words:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Such a statement was bold enough, but the community did not stop there. The final words of Psalm 13 quickly followed: “my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
One by one, the members of the community stood to read a prayer prepared on behalf of the couple. Not prayers of lament, but bold prayers of hope and celebration for a future reality. And as each prayer was read, it was placed on top of the list of fears, on top of the quilt. The quilt also had strings along its edge, so each individual tied a knot into a string to represent the prayer that had been uttered by a friend and heard by God. When each prayer had been unleashed and each knot tied, the quilt was placed around the shoulders of the couple while both the prayers and the list of fears were all placed in their hands. The fears had not magically vanished or softened, but a community of support and hope covered them. After the community laid hands on the couple for one last moment of prayer and a song of celebration, the couple rose to light the single green candle of hope and life from the enduring and ever-present flame of the Christ candle.
Many of the most profound moments in my life have been marked with a ritual. My baptism, my graduation, my wedding, my ordination, the dedication of my child, funerals of my loved ones . . . these rituals have helped me make sense of the good and/ or bad that I was experiencing. They helped bring comfort, strength, and affirmation. And they brought my fellow brothers and sisters into sharp focus as a source of life. Yet so much of my life has happened outside of established rituals.
There have been so many more losses and joys and discoveries that have no symbol attached to them, or no defined role of the community as help and support. Yet rituals are deeply and intimately powerful. They reach far past our intellect and stir up the inner matter of our hearts and leave it unsettled for months to come. Rituals bind wounds and multiply joy and banish the lie of isolation. Rituals testify to a mysterious God who speaks beyond sermons.
It was such a gift to be a part of the ritual ceremony of lament and hope for a couple struggling with infertility. As a member of the community, I was challenged by my role in this couple’s journey as a source of encouragement and strength when their fears would inevitably work their way up to the top of the pile of prayers. As a woman who has dealt with my own infertility story, it had me longing for a similar ritual during the dark moments of overwhelming grief. And as a minister, it has me wondering just where rituals need to be introduced and practiced in the life of my church so that God may be given a sacred space to commune with God’s children.
*If you would like more information about this service, including the order of service or contact with the brilliant pastor (I cannot take credit) who orchestrated it, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shelley Hasty Woodruff is completing a Doctor of Theology degree in Homiletics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Josh, and their daughter, Lottie.