If Presbyterians and other mainliners can get that crucial aspect of ministry right, they can begin to steady the ship and find a way into a constructive future.
I’ll use two of my own experiences to explain what I mean.
I was married in 1968. The ceremony took place in a church and was given the blessing of family, friends, and the church. When, against my wishes, that marriage ended almost 27 years later, it ended in a courtroom.
It was painfully asymmetrical to start in a church and end in a courtroom. Where was my church with a litany of blessing, a ceremony of healing, a ritual to help bind up my wounds? Nowhere.
Oh, individuals in the church were wonderfully supportive. And my associate pastor even went to court with me that day. But my family of faith didn’t gather in any formal way to offer me encouragement or challenge.
The church was unprepared, and by being unprepared it gave the impression it didn’t care enough to prepare. No one had done the liturgical work to create a ceremony for the end of my marriage. There was only a ceremony for the beginning.
If the church really cared that I was going through a divorce, it would have been ready to offer me some healing ritual — if I were willing to accept it. And let’s acknowledge that not everyone will be willing, at least at first, because it’s not a traditional way of proceeding.
If that was my divorce experience, imagine how it must be for people who have been downsized at work or whose teenagers have been arrested for drug use or who have discovered that insidious cancer has invaded their bodies.
A second example: My nephew was on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Karleton and I were very close and his death rocked me, and all of my family, in ways we’re still sorting through.
When news of this catastrophe spread to my church family, many members offered words of comfort and condolence. As did our pastoral staff. One of our pastors, in fact, took special pains to come to our house and be with us as we mourned.
And though there were community prayer services immediately after 9/11, what was lacking was any formal, official way for the church to acknowledge my family’s loss and to bless me as I struggled to cope with it. There was no liturgy especially for such times of crisis and horrendous calamity.
As a result, I have at times been unprepared for the ways in which this experience has affected the dynamics in our extended family — the hurt, the anger, the required healing.
If Presbyterian and other Mainline churches are to have effective ministries, they must find ways to offer a word of hope at the very points of people’s brokenness even as they continue to celebrate with people in their joys.
It’s not enough just to tell people that Christ comes into our brokenness to remind us of our wholeness or that Christ brings to our sickness the medicine of grace or that into our fear Christ brings evidence of God’s unfailing love.
No, people experiencing brokenness must feel ministered to personally. They must know that the church cares so much about them and what they’re going through that it was prepared with the right words, the right actions, the right programs, the right presence — and, as you know, sometimes what people in crisis need most is simply our silent presence.
So why can’t we form an ecumenical liturgical team to help fill this need?
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http:// billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].