Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

An Earthy Liturgy

April 30, 2008


I was honored once again to be surrounded by my family as we planted a tree in memory of our William at a nearby monastery. What was even better was that we were able to plant two other trees: one to replace an expired tree that memorialized one of the Sisters who served there, and another to remember Tom Croghan, who died on Monday. It was good to remember someone who was a stranger to us, and to be with a friend in the rawness of his loss, and to reflect on the ubiquity of grief. And in all of it, it was healing to be joined by many hands to break through the hard ground and to lovingly place three trees that were painstakingly selected by our friend Sam.

In this, I was reminded of Lauren Winner’s great book Mudhouse Sabbath, where she paints such a compelling picture of Jewish religious communities, which come alongside their bereaved in very tangible ways, for predetermined periods of time. Basically, provisions are made for what the bereaved will wear, where they will sit in worship, and what they are expected to contribute (not a lot, at least for the first year). I was thinking about how my community has made so much space for us to grieve, and to move a little further down the path, and they’ve shared in this process of remembering with us at many, many turns. They’ve helped me realize that I shouldn’t expect to ever be ‘better’—I think that such loss is honored and redeemed not by forgetting, but precisely by remembering and integrating the loss into our life as we move forward— and yet it feels good to be able to reflect on my loss and to try to give something back. I was honored to contribute some parts of this homegrown collaborative liturgy:

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It is good to be here, to remember and to grieve.
Today, we have a rare privilege to remember three different people.

– We remember one who was very young, and those who lived a longer life.
– We grieve those who are beloved, and we grieve someone who is a stranger to us.
– We feel a loss that is raw and recent, and we recall losses that are farther off.

And yet, though there are many differences, grief is universal. As we remember these three, we cannot help but think of losses that are even more personal to us. All of us remember our departed with love and sorrow; with laughter and tears; with joy and with brokenness. As we do so, we are reminded that death is a universal human experience. Every funeral is a reverberation of every other one. Every loss of a loved one reminds us that we will someday say ‘goodbye’ to all of those we love most. And all of it is a harbinger of our own death.

So we stand in this place today, with Jesus, who we are told is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He said goodbye to many friends, and then suffered death himself. He knew that death is a part of life when he said, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. So we will do that today. (Would you say that with me, and we will say it together over the next few minutes, too?)

Let us say together, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Another part of our experience today is that we are dirty. We’d like to think of ourselves as antiseptic, but we’re not. We stand here today, all of us, with dirt on our hands, and dirt on our feet. We are tired, and we might feel sore from our efforts. These limitations might embarrass us, and we are probably looking forward to washing off all of this dirt and bacteria, very soon. We’d like to flush away that which reminds us that we are human. But our humanity is good, just as the dirt is good.

Would you pick some dirt up? We are made of this stuff, and are heading back to it. We are ‘dust-creatures’. We take our food from it, and it purifies our water. So let’s feel it, and let it fall between your fingers as we remember our finitude.

And let us say together, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Sometimes, when we remember those who we have died, our sorrow twists into anger. Bitter anger, as we rage against that which we cannot control. At times, death seems ever-present, patiently waiting, scheming to steal our hope. And so we feel trapped, and we feel angry. But we’d rather be broken than bitter, so we ask God to help us to find our way. To loosen our grip, and to grieve, and to love our departed, even after they are gone. To find courage to move forward.

Let’s take some of these flowers, and visit each of the holes we’ve dug, and sprinkle some petals and prayers into them as we let go of our expectations of this life, and of our God.

And let us say together, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Finally, today we will plant trees. Symbols of life, and of hope and of a future. Trees that will endure harsh winters, and strong winds, and which will bloom anew in the spring. Arboreal miracles that will remind us that, though all that we see and touch is dying, there is so much beauty in the world that it boggles the mind. These trees remind us that though things look dead, life continues, and resurrection is inevitable. May these trees bring comfort, and shade, and beauty to this place, and to the people who gather here, and to God who created them.

Now let’s use our muscles and groans and grunts to move them into the holes, and so to offer our bodies living sacrifices, as we honor those who are departed, and as we honor the life that we have been given.

And let us say together, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

…Now, let’s take some time for prayers, and words of remembrance.

And now, let us embrace one another in the comfort of God, and cover each tree with earth for safekeeping, and then return to the life that God has given us. Let’s do it all together, remembering that God has given us one another. Amen.

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3 Responses to “An Earthy Liturgy”

  1. Greta says:

    That’s really beautiful, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Moff says:

    What a beautiful beautiful liturgy… I am was upset when I realized that I missed this, but I am so glad to be able to read the liturgy and “participate” in this way.

  3. kate says:

    Where’s the part about how “some of it isn’t exactly dirt”? I will never forget the look on my dear husband’s face at that point. CLASSIC.

    Not to make light at all of what was a beautiful moment. Thanks, Mike, for letting us come alongside you at times like these.

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